EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Social and Environmental Justice


Learning Objectives Self-Check

Read through the following statements/questions. You should be able to answer all of these after reading through the content on this page. I suggest writing or typing out your answers, but if nothing else, say them out loud to yourself.

What do the following terms mean, and how do they relate to social justice?: political rights/opportunities, social rights/opportunities, economic rights/opportunities.

Social justice is considered by many to be a controversial topic. Go ahead and Google "social justice" and you'll probably see as many negative than positive stories and videos. However, the concept itself is actually not very controversial - it is the application (or at least proposed application) that is. There is no single definition for social justice, but take a moment to think about the definition of social justice from the National Association of Social Workers, who provide a good, concise definition:

Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

Ultimately then, social justice is about equal rights and opportunities, which is a near-universal ideal of democratic and moral societies. Not so bad, right? But let's unpack that definition a little before we move on.

First, it is important to point out that they use the word everyone. This seemingly innocuous word actually lies at the core of social justice! I'm sure you can think of many historical and contemporary examples of unequal rights being granted to groups of people. Examples abound of discrimination against people of certain ethnicities, races, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, income levels, genders, and more. Social justice requires such characteristics and qualities have no bearing on rights and opportunities.

Political Rights and Opportunities

Alright, so let's start with the easiest of the three components: political rights and opportunities. The most obvious aspect of this is having the right to vote. In the U.S., almost every citizen has the right to vote. There are exceptions to this, such as some states not allowing convicted felons to vote. However, keep in mind that black American men were only granted the right in 1869 (though things such as poll taxes prevented them from fully participating for decades), and women were not afforded this right until 1920 (seriously!).

But just because you have the right to vote does not mean you have an equal opportunity to vote. This is an important distinction to make. A prominent example is that black Americans were not fully given the legal opportunity to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1964. And even now there is a lot of controversy surrounding what many think are efforts to suppress votes in the U.S., particularly in low-income and minority communities, and particularly since the 2020 election season. Even the fact that the U.S. presidential election is held on a Tuesday (early voting notwithstanding) is pointed to as unfair to people who don't have the job flexibility to miss work. In short, if people are not given reasonably good opportunities to vote, then social injustice may be occurring.

Picture showing Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
Figure 2.11: Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Dr. Martin Luther King can be seen standing directly behind President Johnson. Note the irony that nearly everyone else in the picture is a white male. This is an indicator of political inequality.

But this is only voting! What about political power and influence in general? Perhaps the most obvious example is that the U.S. has never had a woman president and the first black (or any person of color) president was elected in 2008. Obviously, this has not occurred due to complete absence of qualified female or non-white candidates. Again, they had the right to be president but it would be hard to argue that they had an equalopportunity to do so as a white male. The influence of money in politics is an important social justice issue because generally speaking those with more money are generally granted more political power. The money spent on political lobbying alone has been more than 2 billion (yes folks, that's billion with a "b"!) dollars every year since 2003. And that does not include the money spent on advertisements and other political activity. Nowadays it costs on the order of 1 billion dollars to get elected president of the U.S., and thousands or hundreds of thousands for even local offices. All of this results in political power being at least partially tied to how much money one has. Again, this is socially unjust.

Please keep in mind that lack of political rights and opportunities is an important international issue as well. Some extreme examples include the fact that 99.7% of all eligible voters voted for the North Korean Communist Party in 2015, that the 2013 elections in Zimbabwe were considered a total sham, and the 2017 election in Venezuela was essentially rigged. Voter intimidation can be a major problem in many parts of the world, and minorities and women are barred from voting in some areas of the world.

Economic and Social Rights and Opportunities

So what is meant by having equal economic rights and opportunities? This is a little more difficult to define, but essentially it means that everyone has reasonable access to rights and opportunities that can result in economic security and stability. This does NOT mean that everyone should have equal income! But what it does mean is that who and where you are should have no bearing on your ability to achieve at least a reasonable level of economic security. It is difficult to disentangle this from social rights and opportunities because they heavily influence each other. Social rights include things like education, safe neighborhoods, health care, legal protection, access to transportation, access to healthy food, freedom to practice religion, and more.

Economic and social rights often overlap. Without adequate education, it can be difficult to obtain a good job. But if your parents don't have a good job, then it may be difficult to access good education. In the U.S. health care is obviously a big issue, as nearly 26million Americans lacked insurance in 2022 (down from 46 million in 2010, but still unacceptably high), and one of the major concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic (well, in the U.S., anyway, since we are one of the few industrialized countries that ties health insurance to employment) is that tens of millions of people will lose their health insurance because of unemployment. Being unhealthy or sick can make it difficult to find and/or maintain a job, and not having a good job can reduce access to good health care (in the U.S. anyway). Job opportunities are usually more difficult to come by in low-income areas, as is access to healthy food.

Disparities in policing tactics have become an important topic recently in the U.S., and studies like this one from the Center for Policing Equity indicate that statistically speaking minorities are often treated differently than others. The authors note that this supports previous research. A study in 2013 found that sentences of black men were around 20% longer than those given to white men for the same crimes, and another study was done in 2017 that found it was still 20%. The U.S. (and many other countries) have very fair laws on the books, yet access to high-priced lawyers often impacts outcomes.

Please note that this is in no way an indictment of individual law enforcement or legal officials, or on their professions in general. But it does indicate that social rights and opportunities are not equal across racial and socioeconomic divisions.

This chart shows the poverty rate of different races/ethnicities in the U.S. From highest to lowest: native american, black, latino, people of color, mixed/other, all, asian, white
Figure 2.12: Poverty rate by race/ethnicity in the U.S. The causes of poverty are complex, but the poverty rates of different ethnicities/races in the U.S. indicates that minority populations are disproportionately affected by poverty. Click on the image for a larger, clickable image.
Click here for a text description
Poverty in the United States over time
Group Percentage 1980 Percentage 2015
All 12.2 15.6
White 8.7 10.8
Black 29.4 27.1
Latino 23.2 24.5
Asian or Pacific Islander 12.6 12.7
Native American 27.4 28.4
Mixed/Other 18.6 19.5
People of Color 26.0 23.4
United States totals to 100%

Of course, this is a problem in many parts of the world, some examples more blatant than others. The Economist Magazine points out that women in Saudi Arabia were only allowed to become lawyers in 2012, and only in December of 2015 were they allowed to run for local office. Despite these recent rights being granted, it is still frowned upon for women to drive. They point out that banks have separate entrances for men and women, and that women are barred from certain public locations. In Russia, peaceful protesters are often intimidated and/or arrested. The Chinese government is known to discriminate against ethnic minorities, imprison political dissidents, and detain and harass other activists. And minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty throughout the world.

This is of course not meant to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully, it provides a "feel" for what social justice and injustice entail.

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is very closely related to social justice. It can be thought of as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies" (source: U.S. Department of Energy). Things like clean air, a safe water supply, and natural areas to enjoy are not available to all. In short, environmental benefits ("goods") and burdens ("bads") are unevenly distributed. And like almost all inequality-related issues, it is the least powerful among us that are disproportionately burdened. In the U.S. the most often happens to communities of color and low income members of society in general. The short video below does a great job of illustrating this phenomenon.

To Watch Now

Environmental Justice (4:32 minutes)

Environmental Justice
Click Here for Transcript of Environmental Justice Video

Where we live in society plays a huge role in the environmental benefits and risks that we're exposed to. And, I'm gonna actually draw in different parts of society by using this line which represents a spectrum of society. On the right hand side I'm gonna draw part of society that experiences higher poverty and also incorporates the often disadvantaged racial and minority groups. On the left hand side I'm gonna draw a much wealthier part of society. One of the things that we know is that living areas that experience high poverty and have a lot of racial minorities often have few environmental benefits compared to the wealthier part of society. What do I mean by environmental benefits? I mean green spaces, parks, recreational areas. What does that look like? Well let me draw it for you, using this triangle. This is supposed to represent environmental benefits. And one of the things we can see is that the wealthier part of society has much higher benefits than the high poverty and racial minority part of society. And as I mentioned, those benefits include things like parks, bike paths, and other green spaces. So one part of society seems to be getting a lot of benefit while another part of society seems to not be getting as much benefit. But what the high poverty and racial minority part of society does get, it does get something, and what it does get, it gets a lot of environmental burden.

So what does that look like? This line is actually supposed to represent increasing burden. So compared to the high income part of society the high poverty and racial minorities get increasing burden. And this includes things like waste facilities, manufacturing and factories, energy production, and transportation facilities such as airports. And one of the things we have to consider is that these are disadvantaged populations, they are really at risk because they're disadvantaged in many ways. They often have few alternatives in terms of where they work and where they live. They may have little awareness of the risks they may face being exposed to various environmental risks or pollutants or chemicals. They may also have other pressing issues, meaning that environmental issues are low on their agenda and let us contrast that to the wealthier population. The wealthier population may very well be more politically powerful, they can also be economically powerful, literally being able to demand that the environmental beneficial facilities are placed close to them, and the burdensome facilities are placed far away. And being able to control things like laws and regulations to benefit them more so than the other communities. And they can also be better represented in environmental groups or lobbying groups. Now this is all of significance when we consider that the high poverty groups and racial minorities may have health problems such as asthma or obesity, because we know conditions like asthma have got strong correlations to environmental issues such as pollutants, particles and ozones, and these are part of the environmental burdens that these populations face. And also when we consider obesity, obesity can be thought of as a lack of access to safe recreational facilities where people can exercise. So a lack of access to environmental benefits, and lack of access to affordable grocery and shopping facilities. The big concept here, that I want to write down is the concept of environmental justice. And what this concept really looks at is that there is a fair distribution of the benefits and burdens, of the environmental benefits and burdens within society, across all groups. And as we can see here, that is clearly not happening at the moment, and much action still needs to be taken.

You may have caught the narrator's definition of environmental justice:

A fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens across all groups.

This sums it up quite well, though it does leave the door open for some wiggle room in what it specifically means. Take another look at the definition. Do you see anything that might be open to interpretation? How about the word "fair"? This is most definitely open to interpretation, but perhaps that is done on purpose. Similar to the economic aspect of social justice, it is not reasonable to think that everyone will have the equal access to all environmental goods and equal exposure to all environmental bads. But what we can strive for is to try to provide equal opportunities to access for everyone. The goal should be to make sure that everyone has an equal share of the environmental benefits and burdens in society. Many in the Environmental Justice movement believe that we should try to eliminate all environmental burdens, but at least they should not be dispropotionately forced upon disempowered communities 

To Watch Now

The video below, China - World's dumping ground for electronic waste (4:02 minutes) illustrates one concept related to environmental justice.

China - World's dumping ground for Eletronic Waste
Click Here for Transcript of Electronic Waste Video

KRISTIE LU STOUT: In 2010 China became the largest exporter in the world, but with the increased popularity of smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets, China also become a major importer of electronic waste. Much of the world's old electronics end up and family run workshops in China, but as the country's wealth grows it's not just foreigners adding to the stockpile of e-waste.

IVAN WATSON: Did you ever wonder what happens to your old computer or TV when you throw it away? Chances are some of your electronic junk ends up here in China, the world's biggest dumping ground for electronic waste. Electronic waste or e-waste arrives by the truckload to a southeastern Chinese town called Guiyu where locals are experts at ripping apart electronic trash. There are e-waste disposal businesses here on nearly every street and in mom-and-pop operations like this workers rip apart the appliances and pull out the most valuable elements and components for resale to future manufacturers. They worked fast identifying and sorting plastic with the help of a flame. The women here tell us all the trash is foreign even though Chinese law bans the import of electronic waste. The most valuable electronic guts like circuit boards are separated and the rest treated like some giant plastic harvest. Workers take piles of plastic chips and mix them into what looks like a synthetic stew. The men here say this plastic will be resold to the company Foxconn which makes parts for Apple's iPhone. Guiyu be one of the world's largest informal recycling operations through e-waste, but it is dirty, dangerous work.

MA TIANJIE (CAMPAIGN MANAGER OF GREENPEACE): When recycling is done in primitive ways like what we have seen here in China with the electronic waste it, it, is hugely devastating for the local environment.

IVAN WATSON: Greenpeace says the water and air in Guiyu is terribly polluted. I am walking on flat screams these come from laptops or from computer monitors or, or video TV screens and they can contain a highly toxic chemical, Mercury, and you can see how those chemicals could then seep into the environment and even into the food supply of nearby livestock. Locals insist it's cleaner here than it used to be.

GUIYU LOCAL: When my family moved here six years ago this place was flooded with trash, but now it's much better. The authorities crack down pretty hard and ban people from burning plastic.

IVAN WATSON: But talk to someone who doesn't rely on e-waste to make a living and you get a very different story. Do you guys drink the water here? These migrant farmers say they don't dare drink the water and one of them has a shocking admission.

MIGRANT FARMER: It may not sound nice, but we refuse to eat this rice that we plant because of all the pollution. We don't know who ends up eating this rice.

IVAN WATSON: Workers here complain their business has been hurt by a crackdown on e-garbage smuggled in from the US, Europe, and other Asian countries, but as Chinese consumers become more wealthy the country is increasingly generating its own electronic waste. That puts new pressure on China as well as the rest of the world to figure out a cleaner, safer way to dispose of all this electronic junk.

As indicated in the video, electronic waste (e-waste) contains toxic chemicals such as mercury, but can also contain dangerous chemicals such as lead and chromium, as well as fire retardants and other carcinogens. So what makes e-waste an environmental justice issue? It is not made explicit in the video, but as pointed out by the National Institutes for Health in a 2015 study: "Communities with primitive, informal recycling operations tend to be populated by poor people with scarce job possibilities who are desperate to feed themselves and their families, and this primary concern overrides that for personal health and safety" (emphasis added). And this is not just a problem for China! The same authors indicate that this is also a major problem in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Ghana, and Nigeria. Think of it this way: Can you imagine a wealthy suburb allowing toxic chemicals to be released in open fields, and next to food growing operations?

Final Note

Social and environmental justice issues are present all over the world, including in the U.S. It appears that some progress has been made, but that there is still some work to be done. Circling back to the beginning of this section, can you think of any reasons why social justice is a controversial issue? Recall that I indicated that the application of social justice is the main problem. Take a minute to review the injustices described, and think about how they could be remedied. It is important to point out that by their very nature, fixing social justice issues requires altering the power structure of a given area or society. When women and black Americans were given the right and opportunity to vote, it reduced the power of white males. If lobbying activity is restricted, the companies they work for would have less influence. If women are granted equal rights in Saudi Arabia, men have less influence. Additionally, most solutions require new government regulations. All of the solutions in the examples above require(d) new laws/regulations to be passed. The most likely solution to e-waste, for example, is a ban on the export of e-waste or the required (by law) responsible recycling of e-waste. And the list goes on.

There are other reasons that social and environmental justice solutions can be controversial, but these two lie at the core of the opposition.

  • First and foremost, it is difficult to alter power structures. Those with power tend to try to hold onto it, and because they are already powerful, it can be difficult to stop them.
  • To a lesser degree, there is often a strong ideological resistance to new regulations.

Further complicating matters is that the root cause of many of these problems cannot easily be fixed, even with the best-intended policies. For example, urban and rural poverty - both in the U.S. and abroad - is a complex, deep-seated problem that does not have an easy solution. There is no "magic bullet" to fix them. It's difficult to blame businesses for wanting to locate in wealthier areas where people have more money to spend. And it's hard to blame people desperate for income for engaging in dangerous work like e-waste recycling. And what would happen if the e-waste was banned? What would the people who rely on those jobs do?

Finally, it is very important to note that providing equal opportunity sometimes requires what some would consider "unequal" treatment. For example, many social and environmental justice organizations provide more resources to low-income individuals than those with higher incomes. This can seem unfair to those not eligible for benefits. ("Why won't the government subsidize my housing and childcare?" "Why do I pay more taxes, just because I've made more money through my hard work?") This is a complicated issue, and I don't claim to have THE answer. I can understand why people feel that way, in particular, becaue of the (oversimplified and generally incorrect) political and social narratives they may be fed (e.g. people are poor because they don't work hard enough). But, the goal of those concerned with social/environmental justice is to provide equal opportunity for all people, and there is wide recognition that many people are born at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. In general, social justice advocates err on the side of providing extra assistance and/or helping empower all who might need help, regardless of how they got into their circumstances. We live in a VERY unequal world, and those concerned with social justice want to change that.

Image showing three people of different heights trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. A box must be taken from the tallest person and given to the shortest in order to enable the shortest to see the game over the fence.
Figure 2.13: This cartoon should look familiar, but it is worth reposting. Social justice and equity often require redistributing resources to disadvantaged people in order to provide equal opportunity. This can be seen as controversial, but equity and social justice are primary sustainability considerations.

Charles L. Robbins said in his TEDx talk that "social justice is a place where everybody's free to achieve everything that they are capable of doing...where there's an even playing field for everybody." I think it's difficult to argue against this concept, even if the application is fraught with difficulty. There are a lot of difficult questions to answer when social and environmental justice solutions are posed. But striving to achieve this justice is an important aspect of sustainability. And please keep in mind that we have barely scratched the surface regarding these issues. I recommend exploring them further, as they are prominent topics in sustainability.

Check Your Understanding

Which of the 3 E's does social and environmental justice most strongly address and why?

Optional (But Strongly Suggested)

Now that you have completed the content, I suggest going through the Learning Objectives Self-Check list at the top of the page.