Let’s Talk About Environmental Justice

According to the EPA, environmental justice is “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.” A goal which will be achieved “when everyone enjoys (1) the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and (2) equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”  

The Energy Justice Network points out that government agencies like the EPA “have been coopting the movement by redefining environmental justice” in this way and failing to accomplish their own limited version of environmental justice. This is particularly troublesome in an era where the EPA is itself increasingly a de facto barrier to environmental justice. In one recent example, its failure to ban deadly paint strippers contributed to the death of two young men, leading VPIRG to join their mothers and other environmental and public health advocates in a lawsuit against the Agency.  

While there is no question that the disproportionate impacts of environmental harm on people of color and other marginalized groups must end, the definition of environmental justice put forth by the Energy Justice Network goes further, stating, “The environmental justice movement isn’t seeking to simply redistribute environmental harms, but to abolish them.”  

We are still far from either ideal. In fact, it is well-documented that environmental degradation in the United States disproportionately impacts communities of color and poor communities. It is true that achieving environmental justice requires that these communities be better welcomed into the decision-making process on environmental issues, and that policies that address environmental problems – whether climate pollution, toxic contaminants, or waste – are designed and implemented equitably. It is also true that we must ultimately strive towards complete abolition of human-caused environmental degradation.  

If you would like to learn more about the history and purpose of the environmental justice movement in the United States and better understand the importance of anti-racism in the environmental movement, here’s some of what we’ve been reading of late:  

We at VPIRG have been grappling with the racist origins of the environmental movement itself, how that legacy impacts VPIRG as an organization, and how that understanding can shape our role in creating the Vermont we all want to live in, in an equitable manner.  While VPIRG’s work on environmental issues has not often highlighted the term environmental justice, principles of environmental justice have long been a part of our policy design and advocacy – though they have not been as central to our work as they should be. 

In the coming weeks and months we will be working to deepen our understanding of environmental justice, and environmental injustice, and will be increasing our focus in this area within our environmental campaigns. We are always striving to improve our organizing and advocacy work to include more diverse voices and push for just solutions to complex problems. If you have ideas on how we can do more to forward the cause of environmental justice or are interested to learn more, please email vpirg@vpirg.org.