Social justice as the path to sustainable development


What would a more just and equitable United States look like in 2042? I would like to think it would look like sustainable development operating at the neighborhood level across the country, and that this would necessarily be occurring in a world that is finally moving closer to sustainability on a global scale. Globally and nationally, the poor are not major polluters—they consume less, drive less, waste less. Yet, at the global scale, wealthy, high consumption, nations account for the majority of pollutants. This has been paralleled within the U.S., with the continued location of polluting industries in areas of little political resistance or displacement of poor communities in favor of the interests of those with more economic power.

The most quoted definition of sustainability, from the World Commission on Environment and Development report, “Our Common Future” ( displays a concern for justice and equity in the concept of sustainable development by calling for an improved quality of life for everyone on one hand and meeting all the needs of those living in the present and those yet to be born.

While theoretical reflections about sustainability fill the literature and ad hoc efforts to measure sustainability abound, the fight for a just environment has operated in the real world in the social action and political organizing of communities. In the U.S. these have typically been poor citizens of color, and poor people in general, resisting the locating of toxic waste or polluting industries in their communities.

The fight reflects the resistance to what scholars have called the political economy of electoral strategy that promotes economic growth through land use patterns. The fight against the status quo has facilitated coalition building between sustainability advocates and social justice advocates, and there has been progress in terms of official policy responses to address environmental injustice at the federal level starting in the 1990s.

Conceptually, environment, economy and equity live in an uneasy balance though all three are needed in the sustainability equation, for social tensions caused by economic inequity undermine environmental stewardship. In the U.S, decision-making around where to site hazardous facilities, locally undesirable land uses (LULUs), and where to promote new urban development has historically excluded the groups most affected, while privileging business concerns and turning the profit motive into government priorities. This pattern has left a legacy of hazardous and undesirable facilities located in vulnerable communities already suffering from intensive capital underinvestment.

However, as Robert Bullard and others have documented, the concerns of environmental justice proponents soon moved beyond merely documenting the correlation of waste facility locations and their adverse impacts on the public health and well-being of neighborhoods of color to fighting the mechanisms that produce these disparities. These mechanisms included the legacy of legal racial segregation, discriminatory land uses, uneven law enforcement, exclusionary forms of decision making and economic deprivation, among other factors.

In fact, there is a distinct observable parallel between the social construction of space in the South African apartheid context, for example, which paralleled the American landscape with its history of de jure and de facto apartheid in residential segregation, Jim Crow laws and the institutional drivers of suburbanization. Those concerned with racial injustice in the United States made the connection between racism and the production of space through the environmental justice movement. Justice from this perspective is not only about reducing distributional inequity in space, but eliminating the conditions that produce injustice (such as overconsumption and the lack of participatory governance) in the first place.

The environmental justice movement and scholarship in the U.S. has been successfully able to link environment, class, race and gender into a coherent argument about the uneven exposure to environmental risks faced by individuals and communities. It is this civil rights framework that has allowed the movement to go beyond race to include anyone who is deprived of their environmental rights, so to speak, including the poor, immigrants, women, and children, which has been especially important in spreading the movement beyond America.

Scholars and advocates like Julian Agyeman and Robert Bullard have pointed out how the environmental justice framework has allowed for the recognition of the connection between environmental and social exclusion and exploitation. The concern of environmental justice advocates with a just environment and better quality of life and the processes that produce social inequality, have the best chance for pushing the sustainability agenda forward, as the concept of a just environment and better quality of life has the ability to mobilize a broad coalition of people.

For a socially just society to emerge in 2042, the systemic causes of environmental injustice must be addressed. As Graham Haughton and other environmental sustainability scholars have noted, sustainable development means redressing the cost transference within the current economic and political order that allows negative environmental impacts to be displaced, out of sight to poor (and, increasingly, immigrant) communities of color within the United States and around the world. Haughton identifies four types of environmental equity—intra-generational, intergenerational, geographical, and procedural—that we could use to evaluate our vision of a just society.

The realization of sustainable development will begin to be manifest on local and global scales, when all people are assured a minimal quality of life through the meeting of their basic needs, increased exposure to environmental “goods” and decreased exposure to “bads”, access to economic opportunity, and transformation away from political economic decisionmaking processes increase pollution and allow its costs to be transferred to socially and geographically distant spaces.

Much of the progress of environmental justice has been its success in locally mobilizing communities and advancing scholarship that untangles the links between social institutions and unjust outcomes. In practice, however, the movement in the U.S. has seen the unpredictable nature of legal decisions due to narrow interpretations of discriminatory intent and some reluctance on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce Title VI elimination of discrimination in its contracting due to pressure from the various states. The hope for 2042 lies in broad coalition building.

The most promising development along these lines that could lead to a just society in 2042 might be the broad right to the city movement ( , and its concerns with spatial justice. Ultimately, redressing past racial injustice and its manifestation as present spatial injustice means formalizing the rights of people who are poor, disenfranchised (through the lack of immigration documentation or interaction with the criminal justice system), and ethnically diverse, to claim space (–an act necessarily predicated on the state’s recognition of the universal right to a place in society, and a quality of life that includes a clean environment, access to health care, quality education, and shared investment dollars. The question of just what a society would look like is pertinent for anyone concerned with social equity. To achieve a just society, we should have a vision of it. For me, it would look like sustainable development realized.

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Race Talk blog of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity on May 27, 2012]