by Sian Pankhurst, December 1, 2019

When looking at social justice movements, how can we link environmental issues and environmental justice into it?

Environmental issues and social justice issues are intertwined. These issues are caused by climate change-related incidents, and affect the environment which in turn, affects all people too. This link can be recognised in issues such as natural disasters, where people are left with very little and are seen as hopeless to natural forces more powerful than them. This article discusses whether there can be a separation of the two (environment and social justice) and how Church teachings can guide us to understand this connection.

Well, what is social justice anyway?

It’s a word that is thrown around a lot within society. Some schools have a social justice team or club, and some organisations say that they have strong social justice focus within them.

Social justice is defined as a state of egalitarianism (Merriam Webster, n.d.), but it aims to give groups and individuals fair treatment and to promote fair distribution of societies advantages and disadvantages – regardless of status or background (Forest Research, n.d.). Some of the first thoughts when people hear social justice is charity initiatives such as food drives, local schools and churches doing Christmas hampers. However, social justice also includes looking at spheres of influence and how we can improve this world one step at a time.

Environmental justice on the other hand is defined as the just distribution of environmental risks and benefits amongst all of the population, and the right to meaningful participation in environmental issues decision making. (Kerins, 2019) This deals with the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens:

For example, ‘benefits’ of the environment could be:

  • Extensive greenspace
  • Clean air and water
  • Investment in pollution fixing solutions
  • Landscape improvements

And examples of ‘burdens’ could be:

  • Risks and hazards from pollution (Forest Research, n.d.)

Understanding what these terms mean can allow for us to understand how they interconnect with each other and what Laudato Si (2015) can help us understand in the teachings of the Church and the words of Pope Francis. 

Related image
Catholic Priests from the World Council of Churches join Standing Rock People in the protests over pipelines across First Nations land. Source The World Council of Churches, 2016.

And what is environmental justice?

Environmental justice considers the between the well being of society to the degradation of the environment. It is the integration of social justice outcomes in the environmental space and how in a ‘socially just world’, we must think about the needs of a clean, healthy and functioning environmental system. The theory which emerged out of the 1980s environmental disasters, including Love Canal, a town which had unacknowledged hazardous waste seeping into people’s homes. Due to this, local residents experienced health problems. This highlights chow modern day social justice is not just issues about chemical wastage anymore, but about improving quality of life, for this generation and the ones afterwards. (Forest Research, n.d.).

How do these two concepts link?

There is plenty of discussion discussion within environmental and social justice circles about the power of connecting the two concepts.

Why do these work so well together, but are hardly mentioned within discussions? Well there is no real answer, but what we can do, is find ways to incorporate both. If instances such as air pollution and water pollution will affect communities – many of whom cannot afford to have products such as water filtration – then it is not an issue that both environmental and social justice have to deal with? These people tend to be the poorest, the most marginalised and hold the lowest level of power and influence on global society. They are inherently more at risk of feeling the impacts of environmental injustice.

Linkages to Laudato Si’

Under Catholic tradition, we are the stewards of the earth as the earth was given to us to look after and that if we do not look after it, those who do are the most affected by it, as ‘the poor end up paying the price” (Laudato Si, 2015).

But despite all this, we need to have a look at how we can link these issues to Laudato Si’ (2015). Those working as academics, activists and participating in this space echo the sentiment of Pope Francis – addressing the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor. All of these movements within social and environmental justice hold the main basis of beliefs, they just have different ways of exploring them and finding solutions to them.

Pope Francis talks a lot about “cry the earth, cry the poor”, and this is one of the most basic links to how social and environmental justice are intertwined. Since Laudato Si (2015) discusses how we are stewards for creation and how the poor are the most affected when climate change-related issues occur. Those who undertake the least amount of damage to the earth, are most likely to feel the impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, altered ecosystem function and pollution events.

The Church discusses the importance of looking after the poor through Proverbs 31:8-9 which states: “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Laudato Si points provides us with powerful actions we can take to answer this call: lowering pollutants, thinking of the future generation and the impact of a materialistic, highly consumable society.

It also discusses how some countries will require more assistance due to factors including poverty and war with limited resources and that those who have benefitted from industrialisation. Indeed the industrialised world will need to have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problem that they have caused (Laudato Si, 2015).

In the words of Numbers:

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live… you shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell.”

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live… you shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell.”

Numbers 35: 33-34

Recommended resources and further reading

Urban Forest Research UK – Urban greenspace, social and environmental justice ‘Race, class and environmental justice’, Susan L Cutter in Progress in Human Geography, 1995.

‘A healthy environment shouldn’t just be for the rich’, Jason Byrne in The Conversation, 2012