ERA FOUR: Environmental Justice – Rights for All

The Environmental Justice Era is rooted in three main issues, each of which continues to have ramifications today. First, the burgeoning environmental movement that arose from the original Earth Day in 1970 witnessed a multitude of successes through local, state, and, in particular, federal legislation. In many instances, people even believed that “the problem,” at least to a large extent, had been solved. The Environmental Justice Era is a continued reaction to such thinking. Specifically, many people still believe that the answers to environmental calamities lie solely in national legislation or international mandates. Undoubtedly, the protection of the natural world has benefited from stronger laws and treaties; however, a fundamental premise of environmental justice is that the answer to the problem lies not in government, bureaucracies, or even international organizations, but in people themselves. In fact, because we all share the same environment, the empowerment of all people is a key facet of environmental justice.

Secondly, and in association with this rising concern, our society observed an onslaught of environmental catastrophes in this era that helped to solidify the direction of the movement in terms of emphasizing the human side of the environmental equation. Environmental disasters such as Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Minimata, Three Mile Island, and Love Canal all occurred during this period of environmental history. These global news events were covered not for days, but weeks and sometimes years. Additionally, each event was specifically created, in one way or another, by the seemingly intractable actions of other people, and each event had dire consequences for sometimes millions of people. In one specific case, 20,000 people died overnight in the Bhopal disaster. While these events were environmental catastrophes, the important change to note in this era of history is the direct, calamitous effect on ordinary people, a fact widely communicated in the media. The best example of this emerging perspective is the Love Canal tragedy.

Picture Love Canal: an idyllic small American neighborhood with tree-covered streets in upstate New York in the mid-1970s – the relatable ideal of many families of the time. Residents of this community enjoyed the typical conveniences and fundamentals of modern American life. What made Love Canal different from most American towns was that much of the neighborhood, including the school, was built on 21,000 tons of toxic materials willingly dumped by the previous landowner. Suddenly, children could not go to school because they were getting sick – so sick, in fact, that the incidence of cancer in Love Canal children was among the highest in the nation. Local citizens began to react in outrage to the toxic treatment of their land and community, and typical suburban housewives, namely Lois Gibbs, suddenly became the faces of a movement simply because they could not even send their children to school. Now, anyone could be an environmentalist.

Although the town was eventually moved and subsequent federal legislation was created to clean up areas of gross environmental neglect, the problem as a whole still exists. This is why environmental justice is so important: fundamentally, some people bear a larger burden of the widespread abuse of the environment. While this general trend may vary from one community or country to the next, in an era of increasing globalization, environmental injustice persists and becomes all the more pertinent. Pollution in one part of the world directly and/or indirectly affects the environmental health in other areas of the globe. As a result, environmental justice is deeply rooted in the growing awareness that we live in an interconnected world.

Finally, it is important to understand that this era of environmental history is really the first time that the movement reflected on itself. Although millions of people participated in the first Earth Day and were genuinely concerned about the environment, the actual movement itself was (and still is) largely comprised of a very slim portion of the population: middle-to-upper class, college educated, white urbanites from several of the most developed nations on the planet, generally more concerned with the legislative process than the empowerment of people. This generalization appears all the more glaring when faced with the reality that many of the people not represented in the environmental movement are those most impacted by environmental injustices. However, the rise of a globalized society during this period presented an incredible opportunity to fundamentally address the problem. In 1983, a United Nations sponsored endeavor, the Brundtland Commission, sought to focus the direction of the rising global movement. This commission also crafted the definition of Sustainable Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Henceforth, the ability to create an all-inclusive movement for an increasingly connected planet is the primary concern of our last, and current, era of environmental history: the Sustainability Era.