Justice in and to the Environment

Professor Nicholas Low, organiser of the inaugural Environmental Justice Conference in 1997, reflects on environmental justice scholarship and activism and discusses why EJ is needed now more than ever.

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In 1997, I initiated an international conference on the theme of environmental justice that was held at the University of Melbourne. Twenty years on, and that theme is being taken up again at the University of Sydney. The conference, entitled ‘Environmental Justice, Looking Back – Looking Forward’, is being organised by the Sydney Environment Institute, led by Co-Director David Schlosberg, who was one of the contributors to the debates in Melbourne. The conference features Robert Bullard, a leading scholar-activist of the environmental justice movement in the USA, who will be a keynote speaker in Sydney, as he was in Melbourne.

As we lead into the 20-year anniversary of the Melbourne Environment Justice conference, it is essential that we reflect on environmental justice scholarship and activism, and understand why it is needed now more than ever – and why environmental and social justice need each other.

The importance of Justice in the Environment

Why is ‘justice’ important in environmental debates? Climate change, like many other environmental issues, has an ethical dimension in its consequences. Climate change is not, as Tony Abbott, asserts a ‘post-Christian’ religion. Unlike religion, knowledge of climate change is not based on faith. The science of climate change is extensively and deeply researched and well understood. Caused by the use of fossil fuels in the development of the rich nations, the worst consequences will be visited on the poorer more vulnerable nations and regions of the world. Consider Bangladesh. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh’s annual per capita CO2 emissions in 2014 were 0.5 tonnes. Australia’s were 15.4 tonnes. The citizens of Bangladesh have contributed almost nothing to global warming, while Australia’s citizens are among the largest contributors on the planet. Bangladesh is a poor country subject to intense cyclones and storm surges. A rising sea level will have a devastating effect on most of the population. We should ask ourselves, ‘is that fair and just?’

The costs of climate change will be widespread and geographically variable over the Earth. There is also the long run effect of climate change transferring its costs onto future generations. While we’re OK, our children’s children may not be: that is a question of intergenerational injustice.

Global warming is just one example of an issue of ‘justice in the environment’. Bob Bullard and his colleagues drew attention to another more local injustice in the USA, the tendency to locate toxic waste sites in territory occupied largely by African Americans: they rightfully termed this environmental racism.

The distribution of environmental harms, within and between nations and regions, is a critical issue of injustice. But there is another ethical question which also must be addressed. Humans are not the only creatures on this planet. What do we owe in justice to other life forms? If we benefit from Nature, is that all Nature is to us: an instrument for our welfare until it is used up? These are ethical questions which come under the heading of ‘ecological justice’, justice to the environment. In terms embedded in Australian indigenous culture, it is ‘justice to country’.

These ethical environmental questions may have faded somewhat from public debates over the last twenty years, displaced by struggles over human rights and injustices in the here and now – but they are coming back forcefully on a range of environmental issues.

The intersection of social justice and environmentalism

Members of the conservative religious fringe have long asserted their ownership of the ethical high ground. But since the global financial crisis, the public in Australia, as in the UK, USA and parts of Europe have become aware of the unfairness of the costs of that crisis now being imposed on the middle and lower income levels while the very top of the income heap continues to pile up untold wealth. The religious fringe has nothing to say about that social injustice. There is a visceral sense of unfairness which vents in electoral acts such as Brexit and the election of a maverick property developer with a record of abusive and sexist language as president of the USA. It is why Jeremy Corbyn’s slogan ‘For the many and not the few’ was so appealing at the last UK general election.

The sociologist Karl Polanyi writing in the 1940s argued that in capitalist economies labour, land (or more broadly the natural environment) and money are treated as commodities to be traded subject only to market rules. But that commodification is a fiction. A vulnerable ‘fictitious commodity’ is one that can only safely be treated in a regulated way since complete commodification will destroy it or make it unusable. Without regulation of the use of labour, land and environment, capitalism faces its self-destruction[1].

Polanyi showed in his historical monograph ‘The Great Transformation’ how the growth of capitalist markets in the UK was necessarily accompanied, belatedly and gradually, by the protection of the working class from the dire consequences of the ‘labour market’, a movement that culminated in the ‘welfare state’ with basic social protection for all. The German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck shows how the commodification of money in derivative trades led to the global financial crisis, and how the new pressure on working people via deregulation and austerity policies winding back universal rights is eroding the social protection of labour[2]. Thus, as he argues, capitalism is heading towards its end.

The social injustice of neo-liberal capitalism is in today’s Zeitgeist. Environmentalists who want to put environmental justice back on the political agenda must join forces with those advocating a return to universal social protection. Let’s embrace the term used pejoratively about the environmental movement: ‘watermelons’ – green on the outside and red within. Environmental justice and social justice are better together. The watermelon is a beautiful and refreshing fruit.


[1] Polanyi, K. (2001 first published 1944) The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] Streeck, W. (2016) How Will Capitalism End? London and New York: Verso.

Professor Nicholas Low is the author or editor of ten books, two of which have won national and international prizes. He is known for his contributions to the study of the politics of planning and transport, and for his international research on urban sustainability published in numerous international journal articles. He convened the 1997 conference at the University of Melbourne on Environmental Justice. His book (with Brendan Gleeson) Justice, Society and Nature won the Harold and Margaret Sprout Prize of the International Studies Association 1998 for the best book published on ecological politics in that year. He won a major grant from the Volvo Foundations to create the Australasian Centre for Governance and Management of Urban Transport (GAMUT) which he directed from 2006 to 2011.