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The Principles of Environmental Justice: Guiding Sustainable Development

The concept of environmental justice emerged from the struggles of marginalized communities against environmental racism and inequality.

It asserts that everyone has the right to reside in a healthy and secure environment, irrespective of race, class, gender, or nationality.

Furthermore, environmental justice emphasizes the importance of involving affected communities in decisions that impact their surroundings and well-being.

This article delves into the origins, evolution, principles, and applications of environmental justice.

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It also explores the connections between EJ , sustainable development, climate justice, and energy justice, while providing instances of environmental justice movements worldwide.

Origins and Evolution of Environmental Justice

The term “EJ ” was coined during the 1980s by activists and scholars in the United States.

They documented the disproportionate impact of pollution, waste disposal, and hazardous industries on low-income communities and communities of color.

The EJ movement gained momentum following the 1982 protest against a PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina.

African American residents staged a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to oppose the dumping of toxic waste in their neighborhood.

In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was convened in Washington, DC.

Delegates from various ethnic and racial groups adopted the Principles of Environmental Justice, which comprised 17 principles.

These principles affirmed the sanctity of Mother Earth, the interconnectedness of all species, the right to self-determination, participation in decision-making, compensation and reparations, and the need to challenge colonialism and oppression.

Over time, environmental justice has grown into a global movement encompassing diverse concerns such as:

  1. Climate change.
  2. Biodiversity loss.
  3. Food sovereignty.
  4. Water security.
  5. Land rights.
  6. Indigenous rights.
  7. Gender equality.
  8. Human rights.
  9. Social justice.

It has also influenced international environmental policies, including:

  1. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992).
  2. The Kyoto Protocol (1997).
  3. The Paris Agreement (2015).
  4. The Sustainable Development Goals (2015).

Principles of Environmental Justice

The Principles of EJ offer a framework for comprehending and addressing environmental injustice.

They can be categorized into five groups:

  1. Distributive justice.
  2. Participatory justice.
  3. Recognition justice.
  4. Corrective justice.
  5. Social justice.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice concerns the equitable allocation of environmental benefits and burdens among different groups.

It necessitates public policies founded on mutual respect and justice for all, devoid of discrimination or bias.

It also mandates responsible and balanced use of land and renewable resources to uphold a sustainable environment for all life forms.

Participatory Justice

Participatory justice entails the meaningful involvement of impacted communities in decisions affecting their environment and well-being.

It asserts the right to equal participation at all decision-making levels, from needs assessment and planning to implementation, enforcement, and evaluation.

It also upholds the rights of workers to a safe work environment without compromising their livelihood.

Recognition Justice

Recognition justice involves acknowledging and respecting diverse cultures, languages, beliefs, identities, and experiences.

It affirms the right to political, economic, cultural, and environmental self-determination for all.

It also safeguards the rights of victims of environmental injustice, ensuring full compensation, reparations, and quality healthcare.

Corrective Justice

Corrective justice demands accountability for past and present perpetrators of environmental injustice.

It calls for the cessation of toxin, hazardous waste, and radioactive material production.

Those responsible should be held strictly accountable for detoxification and containment at the point of production.

Additionally, it views acts of environmental injustice by governments as violations of international law and human rights agreements.

Social Justice

Social justice aims to establish an environment fostering economic, political, social, cultural, and legal development.

It advocates for universal protection from activities like nuclear testing, extraction, and disposal of hazardous substances.

It requires individual choices that minimize resource consumption and waste production.

Furthermore, it urges conscious efforts to reshape lifestyles for the well-being of the natural world and future generations.

The Interplay between Environmental Justice and Sustainable Development

EJ and sustainable development share common goals and values, aiming for equilibrium between environmental protection, social fairness, and economic progress.

Both recognize the interconnectedness of human and natural systems and emphasize participatory governance.

However, they differ in certain aspects.

Environmental justice delves into the historical and structural origins of environmental injustice, challenging paradigms that ignore marginalized and vulnerable groups.

Sustainable development takes a pragmatic approach, seeking to integrate environmental, social, and economic objectives within existing frameworks.

Yet, it might not fully address underlying issues of injustice affecting development sustainability.

Hence, EJ and sustainable development complement each other, offering holistic and justice-centered development visions, alongside practical frameworks for solutions.

Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and Energy Justice Connections

Environmental justice extends to other justice forms dealing with specific environmental facets, such as climate justice and energy justice.

Climate justice acknowledges climate change’s social ramifications and strives for equitable responses that respect human rights and foster participation.

It demands considering countries’ historical responsibilities and capacities in climate action, supporting vulnerable communities, particularly in the Global South.

Energy justice perceives energy as a political, ethical, and social issue affecting well-being.

It asserts access to affordable, clean, and safe energy, while distributing costs and benefits fairly.

Energy justice empowers marginalized communities with limited energy access.

These three forms of justice—environmental, climate, and energy—are interconnected, advocating for equitable societies, challenging dominant structures, and encouraging inclusive environmental governance.

Global Environmental Justice Movements and Initiatives

Around the world, various EJ movements have emerged to address diverse environmental injustices. Notable examples include:

Anti-Chevron Campaign in Ecuador

Indigenous groups, farmers, activists, and lawyers have protested against Chevron Corporation’s contamination of their lands and waters with oil waste.

Chipko Movement in India

Rural women embraced trees to halt commercial logging during the 1970s.

Ogoni Struggle in Nigeria

The Ogoni people resisted Shell Oil Company’s exploitation and pollution of their land.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the United States

A Native American tribe protested the Dakota Access Pipeline threatening their water sources and sacred sites.

Green Belt Movement in Kenya

Women planted trees to restore the environment and improve livelihoods, led by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.

Environmental Justice Atlas

An online platform mapping global environmental conflicts and resistance cases.

These movements exhibit the strength, diversity, and determination of those fighting for EJ. They inspire collective efforts toward a more equitable and sustainable world.


Environmental Justice strives to rectify environmental disparities affecting marginalized groups.

Its 17 principles address various justice dimensions, while also connecting to climate justice and energy justice.

These interconnected concepts share common goals of equity, sustainability, and democracy.

By learning from global EJ movements, we gain insights into the resilience and courage required to counter environmental injustices.

EJ provides a comprehensive framework for sustainable development, endorsing human rights, equity, and participation.

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