A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

In 1983, the United States General Accounting Office found that three out of every four off-site commercial waste hazards in the southern US were located in predominantly African American communities—even though African Americans only made up 20 percent of the region’s population. And this was no anomaly. Today, three out of five African Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. People of color make up more than half of the population who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities. And African American children are more than five times more likely to suffer lead poisoning than white children. In his book, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots, the “Father of Economic Justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard, wrote that “whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets,’ or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.”

For this reason, the environmental justice movement was born at the intersection of the civil rights and environmentalist movements. It was started primarily by people of color who aimed to address the many inequities in exposure to environmental hazards and health burdens. Many people were frustrated with mainstream environmentalism, which since the early twentieth century focused largely on protecting and preserving nature and wildlife, without recognition of the indigenous peoples who for centuries lived without causing the destruction or destabilization of the environment. Critics of mainstream environmentalism also argued that preservation and cleanup efforts have led to job loss in low-income, minority communities, and that NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) has pushed unwanted developments—ranging anywhere from highways, landfills, oil pipelines, and factories to homeless shelters and prisons—closer to these communities as well. Environmental justice advocates believe that it’s important to consider impacts not only on the environment, but on local communities and particularly underrepresented populations.

The People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference

The term “environmental justice” emerged in the early 1980s and began to gain momentum. In October 1991, a group of 300 people of color from all 50 states met in Washington, D.C. for what was perhaps the most important event in the history of the movement—the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference. By the end of the three-day conference, they had established 17 Principles of Economic Justice, to be used as a guide for all peoples and nations “to eradicate environmental racism and bring into being true social justice and self-determination.”

The conference was attended by over 1,000 Black, Latino, Native, and Asian American delegates from across the country and as far as Alaska, Hawaii, Chile and Nigeria. The audience heard testimonies from representatives of many communities about their experiences of environmental racism—like that of residents of the Carver Terrace subdivision in Texarkana, Texas, which was built on top of abandoned chemical dump sites. Communities like Carver Terrace face economic constraints that make moving away difficult and demands for relocation assistance from the government had been ignored. Participants and observers heard accounts of widespread poisoning and devastation of water, air, and land, leading to health effects including cancers, birth defects, and miscarriages, as well as the oppression and displacement of many communities.

The conference aimed not just to respond to the environmental movement, but to reaffirm the longstanding connection between people of color and the natural world, to discuss the issues affecting their communities, and propose solutions for the future. They held that the environment is just one part of a broader understanding of social, racial, and economic justice. Through this framework, they posit that we can critically examine issues of militarism, religious freedom, capitalism, energy and sustainable development, transportation, housing, land and sovereignty rights, self-determination, and employment.

Conference participants organized strategy and policy groups to develop action plans and policy recommendations. There was also an international group, considering the global scale of the environmental crisis and the need for intercultural collaboration. Some of the policy recommendations included statements on the ecological impact of war, nuclear testing, waste, and US foreign aid and trade policies. These policy recommendations were later presented at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 in Brazil.

But perhaps the most significant result of the People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference was the 17 principles of economic justice, which the group agreed upon by consensus. Since then, these principles have become a defining document for the environmental justice movement. You can find them here, but here are just 3 of the 17:

  • “Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.”

  • “Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.”

  • “Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provided fair access for all to the full range of resources.”

Dr. Bullard is optimistic about the progress that’s been made since the conference. He believes that these principles “have strengthened cross-racial and cross-sectors alliances, coalitions, and partnerships, have provided guidance for the larger EJ Movement and played an important role in moving EJ into all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” Although this progress is significant, the EPA still does not recognize race as a unique indicator in environmental justice assessments. No doubt there is still much to do to ensure that all people live in equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities.


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