What is the environmental justice movement?

The environmental justice movement, as Richard Kerrigan notes in his very helpful essay on “Environmentalism and Ecocriticism” in Oxford’s 2006 Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, is “a collective term for the efforts of poor communities to defend themselves against the dumping of toxic waste, [as well as] the harmful contamination of their air, food, and water” (page 531).  Consequently, as Kerrigan makes clear, “ecocritics responsive to environmental justice will bring questions of class, race, gender, and colonialism into the ecocritical evaluation of texts and ideas, challenging versions of environmentalism [such as first-wave ecocriticism] that seem exclusively preoccupied with the preservation of wild nature.”  In this sense, the environmental justice movement, which has become very influential in the past few years, did for ecocriticism what second-wave feminist critics, such as Gayatri Spivak, did in their field in the 1980s.  Just as Spivak warned that it was both naive and dangerous to consider issues relating to gender without also taking into account a range of additional factors, such as class, race, and colonialism, the environmental justice movement made clear that ecocritics also need to consider these and other factors, including gender.  As one might imagine, this enormously complicates–and greatly enriches–the practice of environmental criticism.  For example, in 1992 the chief economist for the World Bank, Larry Summers (who later went on to become Harvard University’s President for a time), baldly stated in an internal memo that “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country [i.e. Africa] is impeccable,” as such an arrangement would presumably allow wealthy nations to dispose of their toxic waste, while impoverished countries would receive much needed capital for accepting it.  Although Summers denied that the memo was intended seriously (and later denied its authorship altogether), because it in fact reflected the World Bank’s policy, this document makes clear that environmental concerns are often entangled with factors like class, race, and colonialism.  If we just read the statement made by Summers from an environmental perspective, we risk not taking these other issues into account–as well as risk being oblivious to the horrific implications of the statement.

Texts of nearly any genre and period can be read from the perspective of environmental justice.  For example, in 1635, a century and a half before William Blake famously took up the subject, William Strode penned what is likely the first “Chimney-Sweeper’s Song.”  Read with a concern for environmental justice, this song makes clear that the individuals of the working class performing this job suffered, as the poor generally still do today, far more from the dangers that come with burning fossil fuels than individuals of wealthier classes.  (This profession actually emerged with urban air pollution, as prior to the 16th century most English homes did not have an actual fireplace with chimney, but rather a designated place on the floor for a wood fire under an opening in the roof.  Because smoke from coal was too noxious for such an arrangement, residential chimneys, and chimneysweeps, became ubiquitous in England by the end of the 16th century.)  Not all second-wave environmental critics are part of the environmental justice movement; however, few ecocritics today would be so naive as to not take issues of environmental justice into account.