Environmental Justice


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Environmental justice is a concept that applies to social movements that attempt to address and remedy the adverse impact of environmental pollution on human communities, especially where those impacts are believed to be the result of a process of racial, ethnic or class bias, as well as to the body of scholarly literature in which environmental justice movements or race, class and ethnic predictors of adverse, unequally distributed environmental outcomes are studied.

In both the environmental justice and the scholarly literature more generally, the term environmental justice is a descriptor of processes of ecological or environmental harm impacting humans that is believed to be or which can be demonstrated to be the result of bias or discrimination. Generally, the discriminatory issues under examination are those related to class, race or ethnicity, though other issues such as gender may also be explored as a contributing factor that affects environmental justice.

The study of environmental justice as an academic issue can be traced to the work of Robert Bullard, who is referred to as the father of environmental justice. A 2008 article in Newsweek identified Bullard as one of the 13 most influential environmental leaders of the century. Academically, the study that founded environmental justice research was Bullard’s 1983 article examining the placement of a solid waste management facility in a Houston neighbor that was 83% black. Shortly thereafter he published the edited collection, Confronting Environmental Racism. Bullard completed a broader study of the issue of environmental justice in his 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. At about the same tie, Bullard became a member of a group of researchers who were also interested in the policy issues surrounding the study of environmental justice. The group engaged in writing letters to the US EPA, and head of the EPA, William Reilly, eventually agreed to form the EPA Work Group on Environmental Justice. Four years later, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 which established the National Environmental Justice Research Council.

At about the same time that Bullard was building the basis for the academic body of environmental justice literature, and important conflict over the placement of a hazardous waste site emerged in Warren County, North Carolina in a largely African American community, Afton. It is not necessary here to review the facts of the Warren County Landfill case (see, Geiser and Waneck, 1983; Bullard, 1993; Labalme, 1987; for a history of the environmental justice movement see, McGurty, 1997). The residents of Afton objected to the location of the Warren County Landfill, which was contaminated with PCB wastes following efforts to clean up the illegal dumping of PCBS alongside Warren County roadways. Their protests made national news headlines ( news link ). Subsequent public protests drew not only national media attention, but government scrutiny of the case. Lawsuits followed, and the process dragged out until the end of the 1990s.

Today, there are a larger number of environmental justice organizations throughout the US ( EJ Organization list), and a large literature on environmental social movements, including case studies ( EJ case studies ). There is also a significant academic literature on these topics ( EJ Bibliography). Green criminologists have also performed several studies relevant to the study of environmental justice (Lynch and Stretesky, 1998; Lynch, Stretesky and Burns, 2004a, 2004b; Stretesky and Lynch, 1999a, 1999b, 2002, 2011; Stretesky et al., 2011).

Further Reading


Bullard, Robert D. 1993. “Race and environmental justice in the United States.” Yale Journal of International Law. 18: 319-336.

Bullard, Robert D. 1983. “Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community*.” Sociological Inquiry 53, 2‐3: 273-288.

Bullard, Robert D. (ed) (1983). Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press.

Geiser, Ken, and Gerry Waneck. 1983. “PCBs and Warren County.” Science for the People 15, 4: 13-17.

Labalme, Jenny. 1987. A road to walk: A struggle for environmental justice. Durham, NC: The Regulator Press.

Lynch, Michael J. and Paul B. Stretesky. 1998. “Uniting Class and Race with Criticism Through the Study of Environmental Justice.” The Critical Criminologist. Fall: 1, 4-7.

Lynch, Michael J., Paul B. Stretesky and Ronald G. Burns. 2004a. “Determinants of Environmental Law Violation Fines Against Oil Refineries: Race, Ethnicity, Income and Aggregation Effects.” Society and Natural Resources. 17, 4:333-347.

Lynch, Michael J., Paul B. Stretesky, and Ronald G. Burns. 2004b. “Slippery Business: Race, Class and Legal Determinants of Penalties Against Petroleum Refineries.” Journal of Black Studies. 34,3: 421-440.

McGurty, Eileen Maura. 1997. “From NIMBY to civil rights: The origins of the environmental justice movement.” Environmental History 2, 3: 301-323.

Stretesky, Paul B., Shelia Huss, Michael J. Lynch, Sammy Zahran and Bob Childs. 2011. “The Founding of Environmental Justice Organizations Across US Counties During the 1990s and 2000s: Civil Rights and Environmental Movement Cross Effects.” Social Problems 58,3: 330-360.

Stretesky, Paul B., and Michael J. Lynch. 2011. “Coal Strip Mining, Mountain Top Removal and the Distribution of Environmental Violations Across the United States, 2002-2008.” Landscape Research 36,2: 209-230.

Stretesky, Paul B., and Michael J. Lynch. 2002. “Environmental Hazards and School Segregation in Hillsborough, 1987-1999.” The Sociological Quarterly. 43,4: 553-573.

Stretesky, Paul and Michael J. Lynch. 1999a. “Corporate Environmental Violence and Racism.” Crime, Law and Social Change. 30,2: 163-184.

Stretesky, Paul B., and Michael J . Lynch. 1999b. “Environmental Justice and the Prediction of Distance to Accidental Chemical Releases in Hillsborough County, Florida.” Social Science Quarterly. 80,4:830-846.

Comments are closed

Copyright ©2012. All Rights Reserved. Site Version 1.04.