Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene
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Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene

From (Un)Just Presents to Just Futures

Stacia Ryder, Kathryn Powlen, Melinda Laituri, Stephanie A. Malin, Joshua Sbicca, Dimitris Stevis, Stacia Ryder, Kathryn Powlen, Melinda Laituri, Stephanie A. Malin, Joshua Sbicca, Dimitris Stevis

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eBook - ePub

Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene

From (Un)Just Presents to Just Futures

Stacia Ryder, Kathryn Powlen, Melinda Laituri, Stephanie A. Malin, Joshua Sbicca, Dimitris Stevis, Stacia Ryder, Kathryn Powlen, Melinda Laituri, Stephanie A. Malin, Joshua Sbicca, Dimitris Stevis

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About This Book

Through various international case studies presented by both practitioners and scholars, Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene explores how an environmental justice approach is necessary for reflections on inequality in the Anthropocene and for forging societal transitions toward a more just and sustainable future.

Environmental justice is a central component of sustainability politics during the Anthropocene – the current geological age in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Every aspect of sustainability politics requires a close analysis of equity implications, including problematizing the notion that humans as a collective are equally responsible for ushering in this new epoch. Environmental justice provides us with the tools to critically investigate the drivers and characteristics of this era and the debates over the inequitable outcomes of the Anthropocene for historically marginalized peoples. The contributors to this volume focus on a critical approach to power and issues of environmental injustice across time, space, and context, drawing from twelve national contexts: Austria, Bangladesh, Chile, China, India, Nicaragua, Hungary, Mexico, Brazil, Sweden, Tanzania, and the United States. Beyond highlighting injustices, the volume highlights forward-facing efforts at building just transitions, with a goal of identifying practical steps to connect theory and movement and envision an environmentally and ecologically just future.

This interdisciplinary work will be of great interest to students, scholars, and practitioners focused on conservation, environmental politics and governance, environmental and earth sciences, environmental sociology, environment and planning, environmental justice, and global sustainability and governance. It will also be of interest to social and environmental justice advocates and activists.

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Thinking on the Anthropocence


Just Anthropocene?
Dimitris Stevis, Melinda Laituri, Stacia Ryder, Kathryn Powlen, Stephanie A. Malin, and Joshua Sbicca
This volume explores environmental justice (EJ) in the Anthropocene by addressing the contested concept of the Anthropocene, the spatiality of EJ, just transitions, and just futures. In this general introduction we provide an overview while the two chapters of the first section delve into the concept of the Anthropocene. Introductory chapters in each of the subsequent three sections address spatial justice, just transitions, and just futures in more detail while summarizing how the various contributions address these themes (Sbicca et al.; Ryder et al.; Powlen et al. all in this volume).
Debates over naming our era “The Anthropocene” are less about whether it is a new geological epoch – although that is also an important issue (Davis 2011; Malin in this volume) – and more about its political economy (Moore 2019). Debates between universalist narratives that privilege an undifferentiated planetary totality – whether limits to growth, global environmental change, planetary boundaries, or the Anthropocene – and historical narratives that open up that totality – such as ecological imperialism, Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, or environmental justice – have been competing throughout history and modern environmental politics has not been an exception (Buttel et al. 1990; Stevis and Assetto 2001). For critics, universalist narratives serve to obscure differential responsibility for our predicament and, thus, obligation for getting us out of it (Malm and Warlenius 2019; Malin in this volume).
Even when stemming from the best of intentions, such universalist narratives can suspend democratic debate and fights for justice by obscuring or, worse, dismissing the views of the exploited and the vulnerable, often in the name of saving the Planet (Swyngendow 2010; Methman and Roth 2012). Environmental justice stands as a guardian against such sacrificial practices, particularly when, as used in this volume, it fuses justice amongst humans and justice between humanity and nature – what is commonly called ecological justice (Low and Gleeson 1998; Schlosberg 2013), multispecies justice (Celermajer et al. 2020a, 2020b), or the even more inclusive eco-justice, as some of the EJ pioneers called it in the early 1970s (Gibson 2004). From that perspective every social practice is also an ecological practice and every ecological practice a social practice (Taylor 2000; Pulido 2017).
Accordingly, EJ requires that we interrogate space and place – whether addressing the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, or the Plantationocene – keeping in mind that scale is both the product of historical social relations and a metric of place (Sbicca et al. in this volume; Hollifield et al. 2009). What is the spatial scale, or spatial scales, of a particular disruption, whether ecological imperialism, climate change, toxins, loss of biodiversity, or pandemics? What are the implications of the fact that almost every place in our world has been shaped and reshaped by global divisions of labor throughout time (Grove 1994; Marks 2015; Mann 2011; Hornborg and Martinez-Alier 2016)? Sensitivity to the historical and relational nature of space and place, therefore, also allows us to better understand that temporality is also the product of contestation (Adam 1998; Nixon 2011).
As the chapters here showcase, environmental justice is inherently multi-scalar, and it also complicates scales of time and space. Environmental justice activism began in spaces where weak occupational health and safety practices, toxicants, hazards, and environmental risks like chemical contamination and nuclear waste threatened workers, communities, and other beings (Bryant 1997; Taylor 2000). These contaminations often transcend time, as they can last for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years (in the case of nuclear). This has important implications for intergenerational justice. At the same time, space can also be transcended and complicated, as these contaminants can move from places where they originated to other spaces through water, air, and human and geological processes.
For these reasons we made spatial justice explicit through a series of case studies that examine the following questions (Figure 0.1): Who and what do we include in our spatial scales – what is their intersectional scope (Young 2006; Malin and Ryder 2018)? Are our local or planetary scales limited to particular people (Hultgren 2015; Whyte 2020) or species and to particular ways of looking at well-being? When we include a subaltern – whether species or humans – do we ask about its subaltern (Egan 2002; Sze and London 2008)? Do we care as much about crickets as we do about butterflies? Do we care as much about the immigrants that produce our food as we care about those who attend to our health or fight our wars (Park and Ruiz 2020)?
Figure 0.1 Case study locations. Cartographer: Louisa Markow and Sophia Linn, Geospatial Centroid at Colorado State University.
The transition from existing injustices to just futures is a process which requires properly crafted transitions whereby the means are consistent with the ends (Lohman 2009). The section on Just Transitions broadens the scope beyond energy making it clear that just transitions are necessary across sectors and scales (Ryder et al. in this volume). In examining just transitions EJ prompts us to recognize that all social and environmental injustices are felt locally and by particular people. Like an empire, globalization does not take place in some ethereal space but operates through specific places and people (Dicken 2015). Just transitions, as well as just futures, require that we pay close attention to articulations of scale and scope (Stevis and Felli 2020). This is necessary if we are to avoid the “militant particularism” inherent in some initiatives that while seemingly just or desirable, when viewed within limited spatial or temporal parameters, may actually externalize inequality and injustice (Williams 1989; Gough 2010). For example, “militant particularism” is evident in urban decarbonization policies that do not account for their impacts on coal communities. Just transitions place in front of us the challenge of crafting effective policies that fuse urgency, sustainability, and social justice (Just Transition Research Collaborative 2018; Ciplet and Harrison 2020) rather than privileging one or the other.
Finally, in the section on Just Futures, we consider the elements of an environmentally just world (Powlen et al. in this volume). Who and what visions are included? How can they be fused together in an intersectional manner that challenges structural inequalities (Malin and Ryder 2018; Di Chiro 2020; Ryder 2017; Ryder 2018)? An important question is that inclusion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for environmental justice. EJ encourages analysts and practitioners to ask what the price of inclusion may be, who gets to set the parameters on inclusion and “send out of the invitations,” and whether the power relations responsible for injustice are themselves subject to fully democratic participation and deliberation. One of the major mechanisms of power – in addition to force – is the ability of the powerful to fragment, coopt and naturalize inequality (Gaventa 1980; Pulido 2017). EJ prompts us, therefore, to ask whether the powerful are required to be at the table with the full understanding that their power itself is the topic of deliberation and regulation. EJ is not only about empowering the marginalized; it is about weakening the powerful.
For the meaningful inclusion necessary for just transitions to lead to just futures, there has to be a dramatic shift in the world political economy and ecology. These will not come about without contestation – indeed many efforts to curb climate change have been met with resistance by powerful actors such as national governments and the fossil fuel industry. Egalitarian researchers and activists should not be paralyzed by a Manichean choice between transformation or defeat, society, or nature. Neither should they call every change transformational and every non-transformational change a defeat. Difficult as it is, EJ analysts and practitioners must be particularly alert in differentiating between managerial reforms that address crises from structural reforms that allow us to envision and strive for a more egalitarian and ecological world (Just Transition Research Collaborative 2018; Ciplet and Harrison 2020).
A key message of this volume is that EJ is not simply an “add-on” which we can address only after dealing with more existential issues – for those who already experience environmental injustices it is already an existential issue. Its difference from other lines of research and action is not that it adds a normative concern to the study of our world. EJ research can be as systematic and scientific as research in the service of the accumulation of private wealth and, thus, inequality because, in the words of Kristin Shrader-Frechette “we can all be more ‘objective’ in doing our research but none of us is ‘neutral.’” As our volume shows, by centering questions of social inequality and environmental exploitation, we can gather a more accurate understanding of the uneven empirical realities of this epoch, however we may call it.
Robert Cox (1981) argued that “problem solving theories” do not interrogate the world in which we live while “critical” theories ask how that world was created, whom it serves and how it can be made more egalitarian. EJ is a “critical” approach because it calls for research and practice that aims at a more inclusive and realistic understanding of the world, including those accomplishments on whose foundations we can build a more egalitarian and ecological world (Pellow 2018). We fully understand that such a commitment faces formidable and ubiquitous power relations that engender inequality and injustice. Yet, we also know that history is not only a cemetery of despair and sacrifice – although a great deal of it is. It is also a garden of flourishing and hope that we can help reveal and nurture.


  1. Adam, Barbara 1998. Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards. London: Routledge Press.
  2. Bryant, Bunyan 1997. The Role of the SNRE in the Environmental Justice Movement. http://umich.edu/~snre492/history.html
  3. Buttel, Frederick, Hawkins, Ann and Power, Alison 1990. From limits to growth to global change: Constraints and contradictions in the evolution of environmental science and ideology. Global Environmental Change, 1(1): 57–66.
  4. Celermajer, D., Chatterjee, S., Cochrane, A., Fishel, S., Neimanis, A., O’Brien, A., Reid, S., Srinivasan, K., Schlosberg, D. and Waldow, A. 2020a. Justice through a multispecies lens. Contemporary Political Theory, 19: 475–512.
  5. Celermajer, D., Schlosberg, D., Rickards, L., Stewart-Harawira, M., Thaler, M., Tschakert, P., Verlie, B. and Winter, C. 2020b. Multispecies justice: Theories, challenges, and a research agenda for environmental politics. Environmental Politics, 1–22, ahead-of-print
  6. Ciplet, David and Harrison, Jill 2020. Transition tensions: Mapping conflicts in movements for a just and sustainable transition, Environmental Politics, 29(3): 435–456.
  7. Cox, Robert 1981. ...

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