In the early 1980s in Warren County, North Carolina, the state decided to place a toxic waste landfill in a poor, rural, and predominantly African-American community. This, in and of itself, was not unusual as the siting of such landfills in or near minority communities was (government) business as usual. What was unusual, however, was that when the first of a planned 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs neared the proposed site, they were met with massive protests resulting in over 500 arrests. These were the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill. Though the demonstrations failed to stop the siting of this particular toxic waste disposal facility, this protest marked the beginning of a national environmental justice movement.

As detailed on the Sierra Club website, over the next decade, the movement gained momentum and groups sought governmental action to ensure that the hardships of pollution and environmental degradation would not be further imposed upon any community, especially those already facing discrimination. While pursuing legal and legislative action, the movement has stayed true to its grassroots beginnings with local environmental justice organizations appearing in communities across the country. The federal government began to address the issues associated with environmental justice in the 90s with Executive Order 12898, which established environmental justice offices in the EPADOJ, and other federal agencies.

Then, in 1991, delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met to discuss the environmental injustices their communities were suffering. This was a turning point in the environmental justice movement as no longer would the word “environment” connote remote wilderness areas and pristine natural landscapes – “environment” was now “where one lived, worked, studied, played, and prayed.” The delegates drafted and adopted 17 principles or “best practices” of Environmental Justice which have become the defining document for the environmental justice grassroots movement:

  • Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.
  • Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
  • Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.
  • Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
  • Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.
  • Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.
  • Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.
  • Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
  • Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provided fair access for all to the full range of resources.
  • Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.
  • Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.
  • Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.
  • Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.
  • Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

Five years later, in 1996, forty members of the environmental justice movement met at the Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade held in Jemez, New Mexico. These representatives generated the following guidelines to create a shared understanding among people from divergent cultures, political backgrounds, and organizations:

  • Be Inclusive
  • Emphasis on “Bottom-Up” Organizing
  • Let People Speak for Themselves
  • Work Together In Solidarity and Mutuality
  • Build Just Relationships Among Ourselves
  • Commitment to Self-Transformation

Social and environmental justice groups have widely adopted these two sets of principles or “best practices.”

Currently, the movement consists of an extensive formal and informal network of community, national, and international organizations that provide a new framework for addressing some of the most pressing environmental and social issues facing us today. Working both in the government and within historically marginalized communities, the environmental justice movement has attempted to mitigate the disproportionate subjugation of these communities to the consequences of flawed environmental policies and practices. By approaching the broader environmental movement through these means, the environmental justice movement provides an avenue for social justice for all people, regardless of race, color, gender, or income, in the pursuit of a more cooperative and sustainable future.