Sustainability and Social Justice

shadows holding handsAs someone who works in the field of sustainability, I am occasionally asked how issues of social justice and inequality have anything to do with sustainability or the environment. Since most of us have been taught to compartmentalize the various “issues” that we care about and the various “disciplines” that we study into separate and distinct categories, this is an understandable question.

However, sustainability does not fit neatly into any one issue or discipline.

As such, the inter-connectivity of sustainability is something that must be addressed frequently and frankly as we strive to build a more livable and just world for all.

At the University of Arkansas, our sustainability academic programs employ four “systems areas” as a way of organizing the numerous aspects of sustainability. These are defined as natural systems, managed systems, built systems, and social systems. In reality, of course, all of these systems are interrelated, just as our academic disciplines are interrelated. But since humans make sense of the world around us by organizing things into groups, these four broad categories were invented to provide us with a framework for better understanding how many of our academic disciplines are interconnected within the topic of sustainability.

Under the social systems heading, topics such as public policy, community resilience, ethics, health, culture, and environmental justice are addressed. Environmental justice examines the ways that climate change, pollution, water scarcity, and other environmental harms affect people. Environmental impacts are not socially neutral, affecting all people in all places equally.

In fact, it is often the most vulnerable and marginalized people who are the worst effected by environmental harms.

The most large-scale example of this is the fact that while western, industrialized nations have consumed and continue to consume the most energy and emit the most carbon into the atmosphere, the climate changes caused by those emissions are disproportionately felt by those in developing nations and in rural areas who have the least access to energy and other infrastructure. Some see this as a key reason underlying the reluctance of some to recognize climate change as human-driven. If humans have caused this problem, that means that some of us are more responsible than others, and have a greater responsibility to avert and mitigate the damage going forward. The geopolitical implications are undeniably messy.

A map of global air pollution - showing the major sources to be the developed West and China
A map of global air pollution – showing the major sources to be the developed West and China

Beyond this, the examples of global environmental injustice are too many to count:

Environmental Disasters such as this flood disproportionately effect poor and rural areas of the world
Environmental disasters such as flooding disproportionately effect poor and rural areas of the world

Marginalized communities are the location of more polluting activities, in part because they lack the means to resist or relocate; enterprises using human slave labor are also the dirtiest; indigenous people living in coastal or island communities are suffering the trauma of relocation as sea levels rise; the impacts of wealthy nations’ consumer lifestyles are redirected to the poorest nations and neighborhoods who do the work of producing and disposing of toxic materialsremote indigenous communities are fighting against industries that would destroy the ecosystems on which they depend in search of untapped resources; the list goes on and on.

In light of all this, it becomes clear, then, that social justice is not a sustainability issue; sustainability is a social justice issue.

As we go forward with this understanding, there is plenty of room for optimism. As Van Jones, environmental and social justice advocate, argues:

The exciting thing is you can come up with a plan that accelerates putting solar panels up in poor neighborhoods, planting urban forests, delivering free bus passes, creating more mass transit. Or, you could create a plan that cuts a lot of carbon but doesn’t cut any poverty. If you’re going to start passing policies, we should cut pollution and poverty at the same time.

We should green the ghetto first. Those communities that were hit first and worst by everything bad in the pollution-based economy shouldn’t then benefit last and least from everything in the green economy. (Greenbiz. “Van Jones on the green jobs gap and what’s wrong with resilience“)

As we move forward, we must not lose sight of the imperative to create a more livable, nurturing world for all, not just some, of Earth’s inhabitants. To do this, we must put marginalized voices and needs at the center of our efforts. We must also remember that no one is a bigger expert on their own needs than themselves. Those of us already in positions of privilege and power must not only extend ourselves to bring others to the table, we must also be willing to step back and follow their lead.

If you are a U of A student and are interested in learning more about social justice and sustainability, consider taking classes like HESC/SOCI/SUST 4603 Environmental Sociology (Fa) and GEOS/SUST 4693 Environmental Justice (Sp), or other Sustainability of Social Systems courses.

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