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Environmental Justice and Sustainability Essay

Alex Steffen and Sarah Rich, executive editors of the bright green environmentalist online magazine WorldChanging recently observed that while environmental movements have focused primarily on confronting the ecological injustices that have become a historical trademark of industrialization, it has made little of a name for itself in addressing the social injustice that is also a part of environmental degradation. (Steffen & Rich, 2007)

Steffen and Rich remark, “the environmental movement has grown and become known (at least early on) more for its vehement advocacy for whales and rainforests than for disenfranchised citizens” noting that the latter is generally regarded as a concern of other movements related to social justice and civil rights. However, they note that it has become increasingly apparent that social injustice and environmental degradation are inextricably related to one another. (Steffen & Rich, 2007)

While many cities have begun to embrace the concept of sustainability into their policies, few have taken environmental justice into account. Van Jones neatly summarized the issue of environmental justice when he declared at last year’s Green Festival in Chicago, “Who are we going to take with us, and who are we going to leave behind? ” Jones concern was that the environmental movement is divided between the rich and the poor. (Anderson, 2007) As such, any definition of sustainability must take the social dimensions of environmental damage into account, for the degradation of the environment is in fact, a civil injustice.

Sustainability must embrace environmental justice by letting “environment” stand not just for concerns over resources, pollution and biodiversity but concerns over equitable distribution of resources, human health and racial equality. (Steffen & Rich, 2007) The city of San Francisco has embraced the United Nations definition of sustainability and has conclusively inferred that sustainability means social equity as much as it does environmental responsibility.

However, it is also rather vague about what social equitability means. (Magilavy, 2008) Sustainability policies should declare that improvements and protection of environmental welfare should be applied without discrimination. They should declare that resources are distributed equally and access to justice over environmental matters should be available to all, and that participation and decision making should be not limited to an exclusive demographic class or ethnicity.

Likewise, environmental injustices such as the systemically inequitable distribution of wealth, the discriminatory improvement of environment, or the denial of access to information and participation in decision making in environmental-related policies should be covered by sustainability policies. As such, if the heart of sustainability’s definition is concern for the ecosystem and life within it, then it also includes the human beings who are part of it as well.

The goal of sustainability should then be the achievement of the longevity of human and planet welfare, rather than just environmental protectionism by another name. The Global Footprint Network defines ‘ecological debt’ as the sum of all deficits in the biocapacity of the planet, and asserts that humanity’s demands on the planet is continuously exceeding that biocapacity. As such, the Network contends that we are in a state of overshoot, placing greater demands on nature than can it regenerate. (Global Footprint Network, 2008) This concept is crucial to the conception of environmental justice.

Sustainability metrician Mathis Wackernagel (co-founder of The Global Footprint Network) has theorized that an equitable distribution of planetary capital would mean that our ‘fair share’ would have to be limited in addition to being sustainable. As such, Alex Steffen argues that the essence of sustainability is using the planet’s resource capital to create investments such that the same capital exists for future generations, anything else is unjust. (Steffen, 2006) Ecological democracy is an important means of achieving sustainability and environmental justice.

To ensure that the environmental welfare of all individuals, regardless of race, class or gender is accounted for and that it is not done at the expense of planetary capital and the environmental welfare of future generations, decisions must be made that are free from the influence of the economic elite, racial factions, political forces and other special interests. In other words, the decisions to be made about the future of the environment must be done democratically to ensure that all have a say in the control of their local environment.

Sustainability begins with environmental justice, which in turn is possible only with ecological democracy. The only alternative to such a form of environmentalism is a continuing perpetuation of inegalitarian systems, where we save the planet not for future generations, not for our fellow men, but for ourselves. REFERENCES Anderson, D. (2007, April 22) Dispatch from Greenfest Chicago: Van Jones on Green Collar Jobs and Our Shared Future, Part 1. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from http://davidanderson. greenoptions. com/2007/04/22/dispatch-from-greenfest-chicago-van-jones-on-green-collar-jobs-and-our-shared-future-part-i/

Global Footprint Network. Glossary. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from http://www. footprintnetwork. org/gfn_sub. php? content=glossary Magilavy, B. (2008) Sustainability Plan. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from http://sustainable-city. org/Plan/Intro/intro. htm Steffen, A. & Rich, S. (2007, May 28) Principle 17: Environmental Justice. Worldchanging. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from http://www. worldchanging. com/archives/006778. html Steffen, A. (Ed. ) (2006) Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. New York: Abrams, Inc.

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