Global environmental justice or Le droit au monde?

In May 1999, Friends of the Earth in the UK published research proving for the first time in Britain that low-income areas suffer most from industrial pollution. They called this phenomenon pollution injustice. Their rationale in naming it as such was that environmental justice was a term used in the U.S. for the particular racialized form of injustice found there, and that it would be inappropriate to use the term in Britain when their research found no evidence of racialization, but rather broader socio-economic causes. In fact, they were not looking for a racial signifier but that there was a feeling in Britain, and around the world, that ‘environmental justice’ referred, in an almost proprietary sense, to the well documented toxic overburdening of low income and minority communities in the U.S. More specifically still, it referred to the civil rights- inspired, well organized, networked and unique social movement, the U.S. environmental justice movement that coalesced from countless community actions from Alaska to Alabama and from California to Connecticut, driven by the grassroots activism of African-American, Latino, Asian and Pacific American, Native American and poor white communities.

I want to use the example of Friends of the Earth UK’s rationale in choosing Pollution Injustice as their campaign name, and two other significant happenings in Massachusetts, U.S.A. and Ghana to highlight changes that are occurring in our understanding and imagining of what environmental justice is and what it is becoming. I highlight this case to show how changes are occurring at the level of policy discourse and how the spatial distribution of environmental injustices is changing as a result of the deepening of globalization. I want to show how these are related and how a global brand of environmental justice is emerging.

First, in 2000, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Republican Governor Paul Celluci began developing an Environmental Justice Policy, complete with additional resources and measureable targets, to be overseen by a senior officer, the Director of Environmental Justice and Brownfields. The policy became official in 2002 and environmental justice was clearly defined as being: “based on the principle that all people have a right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment. Environmental Justice is the equal protection and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies and the equitable distribution of environmental benefits. (Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2002:2)

The Commonwealth went further, specifying that Environmental Justice Populations are:

those segments of the population that EOEA has determined to be most at risk of being unaware of or unable to participate in environmental decision-making or to gain access to state environmental resources. They are defined as neighborhoods (U.S. Census Bureau census block groups) that meet one or more of the following criteria:

▪               The median annual household income is at or below 65 percent of the statewide median income for Massachusetts; or

▪               25 percent of the residents are minority; or

▪               25 percent of the residents are foreign born, or

▪               25 percent of the residents are lacking English language proficiency“.

(Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2002:5)

While there are imperfections in any criteria these were a base around which to implement and evaluate the policy. MASSGIS, the Commonwealth’s GIS service mapped all Environmental Justice Populations in the Commonwealth, based on 2000 U.S. Census data. The policy acknowledged that Environmental Justice Populations make up 5% of the Commonwealth’s land area, and encompass about 29% of its population. Unsurprisingly: ‘many of these Environmental Justice Populations are located in densely populated urban neighborhoods, in and around the state’s oldest industrial sites, while some are located in suburban and rural communities’ (Commonwealth of Massachusetts 2002:5).

However, over the past decade, the Director of Environmental Justice and Brownfields position has been downgraded to that of Environmental Justice Coordinator, with the last person in post in 2008. The policy has suffered a similar downgrading not least because there’s no designated person with oversight of its funding, implementation, evaluation nor review. This decline continued unabated when, in 2006, Massachusetts elected its first African American Governor, Democrat Deval Patrick.

Second, despite the 1989 Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and the European Union’s (EU) 2002 Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives, shipments of e-waste to Ghana and other developing countries, continue unabated and are having significant environmental and health impacts. After arriving in Ghana, e-waste is manually dismantled by workers or scavengers, many of whom are children and teenagers. The workers have no protective gear and inadequate tools to break the products apart in order to salvage scrap metals. The remaining waste, including plastic and cables, is either burned or dumped into unprotected sites. Samples of soil, ash, and sediments from these waste sites reveal the presence of a wide variety of hazardous substances such as lead, cadmium, phthalates, and chlorinated dioxins. Consequently, those who have direct contact with the materials are exposed to hazardous substances, as are residents of surrounding communities because toxins are disbursed into the air and leach into groundwater. The case of e-waste is just one instance of spatial injustice, where poor communities and individuals trying to earn a subsistence wage are faced with significant environmental and health impacts as a consequence of consumption and “business as usual” in other parts of the world.

In their 2008 report ‘Poisoning the poor: Electronic waste in Ghana’, Greenpeace noted that: “Many electronic products such as laptops and mobile phones contain hazardous chemicals and materials, and recycling or disposing of them can pose serious threats to human health and the environment. E-waste often ends up dumped in countries with little or no regulation of its recycling or disposal. Historically this has taken place in Asia, but recently the trade has spread to other regions, particularly West Africa. Sending old electronic equipment to developing countries is often hailed as ‘bridging the digital divide.’ But, all too often this simply means dumping useless equipment on the poor. One estimate suggests that 25-75% of ‘second hand goods’ imported to Africa cannot be reused”.

What are we to make of these related changes in the naming, discourse and distribution of environmental in/justice? Anecdotally, it seems to me that certainly at the state level in the U.S., environmental justice as a governmental policy discourse is on the decline. In Massachusetts, the erosion of the position and policy began under a Republican Governor, but continued to diminish under a Democrat. It is being replaced by discourses around ‘the green economy’ and ‘green collar jobs’ in the same way that brownfields discussions are now framed in governmental and policy circles as an economic, not environmental justice issue. While these discourses frequently focus on low-income communities, for example Massachusetts’ Pathways Out of Poverty program grants are intended to support pathways towards economic self-sufficiency in the clean energy industry for low and moderate-income individuals, they are by no means a substitute for robust spatially informed and targeted environmental justice policies of the sort that Massachusetts arguably had. In short, the new discourse focuses on economic justice within the context of clean energy and climate protection. Again, this is good, but it does not stop unwanted land uses in low income and minority neighborhoods, nor does it increase the number of parks, play and green spaces.

In terms of naming, something has clearly happened over the past decade that has freed up the use of the term ‘environmental justice’ by groups outside the U.S. despite Friends of the Earth UK’s trepidation and consequent use of the name pollution injustice. In the early 2000s, Friends of the Earth Scotland became Friends of the Earth Scotland: The Campaign for Environmental Justice. It is almost as if the U.S. environmental justice movement, once proprietary, has now supported franchises in other parts of the world, such that environmental justice is now a transnational, a global brand for all the reasons articulated in the Introduction to this Special Edition, and more. In doing this, there has been an acceptance among senior figures in the U.S. environmental justice movement that while race is a major factor in U.S. struggles, in other parts of the world a broader set of socio-economic issues are at least as influential. A friend told me of a Ford Foundation funded conference on environmental justice in India where an African American speaker asked the (Indian) delegates ‘so, what are the race issues in environmental justice here in India’? They looked at her confused. ‘It’s not about race, it’s about class’ one delegate ventured.

At the same time as we have seen the decline in U.S. state-level policy discourse surrounding environmental justice (but not, I emphasize, social movement activism which is alive and well), and its replacement by an ecological modernization discourse of green capitalism, we have seen a huge increase in published studies on environmental justice in specific regions, countries and globally. In our book Environmental inequalities beyond borders: Local perspectives on global injustices, my co-editor and I note that: “The act of disposing of e-waste, whether for altruistic reasons or not, highlights a critical aspect of a global environmental inequality that has emerged over the years—namely, the presence of a spatial disconnect between public consumption and the desire for profitability by multinational corporations in one part of the world, and the environmental and human rights burdens these drivers of action can and do impose on others. In some instances, global supply chains are a source of inequities as corporations respond to remote demand by seeking to extract resources or site facilities in ways that pose threats to human and ecological health. In other instances, governments, consumers, and consumptive patterns are driving the movement of waste, toxics, and other hazardous materials to distant locations and, in the process, are having negative impacts on natural resources, environmental quality, public health, and local social and cultural dynamics“. (Agyeman and Carmin 2011:2)

Our point is that there is a growing spatial disconnect, a global spatial injustice which is increasingly separating wealthy consumers from the effects of their consumption. Perhaps it is in part the successes of the U.S. environmental justice movement from the 1980s onwards that have helped propel the spatial disconnect? I cannot conceive how, in this second decade of the 21st century, the dumping of e-waste such as is happening in Ghana, could happen in a low income/minority community anywhere in the United States. What would once be fought locally, as happened in classic environmental justice actions in Warren County, North Carolina; Kettleman City, California; Altgeld Gardens, Chicago or Dudley Street, Boston, would be networked, Twittered, Blogged and scaled-up nationally to the mother of all environmental justice cases. It simply would not be worth the while of any potential perpetrator.

The global brand of environmental justice is growing by the day. It is a brand that is not limited to what were once called environmental justice organizations but is now being incorporated into the ideological and tactical repertoires of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club among others only twenty years after US environmental justice leaders rightly criticized such organizations. It is increasingly wrapped in the globalizing cloak of human- rather than the Americanizing one of civil rights. It is almost as if the Lefebvrean cry of Le Droit à la ville (The Right to the City) is becoming a more all-encompassing Le droit au monde (The Right to the World) and it is arguably in the new franchises around the world, with their links to food and climate justice concerns that the shift toward a reified global environmental justice will occur.


Agyeman, J and Carmin, J (2011) ‘Introduction: Environmental Injustice Beyond Borders’. In Carmin, JoAnn and Julian Agyeman (eds) (2011) Environmental Inequalities Beyond Borders: Local Perspectives on Global Injustices (MIT Press)

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