Editors note: This semester we want to invite you to come with the Cooper Project to Professor Harris-Perry’s class “The Politics of Environmental Justice.” First, download the course syllabus to read along with the class. Then, every Wednesday, our Head Research Fellow Morgan Franklin will bring our class to you, sharing parts of the week’s lecture, readings, and discussion. You can join the conversation about environmental justice each week in the comments below, or on twitter with the hashtag #EJ or #EnvironmentalJustice.

Week One: What is the Meaning of Environmental Justice?

Morgan Franklin

This week in class, our first discussion in Professor Harris-Perry’s spring course, The Politics of Environmental Justice, centered around the actual definition of the term “environmental justice.” We were first posed with the questions “What does the word environmentalism mean to you?” and “What exactly constitutes the environment?” While my fourth-grade Earth Science textbook made these seem like easy digestible definitions, the reality of these questions and the implications of how they are answered is much more complex.

We began class with a discussion of the definition of 'the environment' and an examination of which communities are active in environmentalism

Sure, I did the school projects on the environment involving bean sprouts and faucets leaking into Dixie Cups, but has there ever been a time when I was asked to think about the impacts of environmental disparity between varying socioeconomic levels? Environmentalism is a subject that, in schools and everyday life, is presented in a relatively one-dimensional way. Yes, we should recycle and conserve water because it will save the earth, but these initiatives also fit into a larger framework of questions concerning justice. Why save the earth? Should we treat the earth’s resources as market items to efficiently allocate them, or is the tragedy of the commons a too pervasive problem to forgo governmental regulation? Why does the refrain of environmentalism’s rhetoric tend to center around our progeny and not our neighbors who presently suffer from environmental disparity?

…the tiered access to opportunity, resources, and influence that exists within our society seems to seep into our understanding of environmental protections

During the remainder of class we continued to delve deeper into the aims of the course and were introduced to certain principles on which environmental justice activists often base their initiatives. Among these principles are meaningful involvement, insistence on all stages of development, implementation and enforcement of law and policy, and fair treatment. Though we have not yet discussed it in detail, the tiered access to opportunity, resources, and influence that exists within our society seems to seep into our understanding of environmental protections. The focus of activists on equality of treatment and justice for all regardless of background alludes to the marginalization of those in specific communities and the connected lack of value associated with their voices.

What makes an issue fall under the purview of environmentalists?

As with courses that have the most promise to be at once intellectually stimulating and academically challenging in the best ways, I found myself leaving our first meeting with so many more questions than I had when I walked in. I’ll leave you with the questions that I walked out of class considering:
1. Which tools do activists use in their efforts to mobilize around such broad and shared problems?
2. Do communities that are more significantly impacted by environmental injustice have a greater stake in finding solutions, or do negative externalities of such disparate outcomes lead to greater collective responsibility?
3. What are steps that individuals can take in order to mitigate personal contributions to common problems?

Each week we will engage with questions like these and attempt to provide a more multidimensional analysis of environmental justice.

Check back next Wednesday to join Professor Harris-Perry’s class as they untangle questions of justice and collective responsibility.

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