Sustainable Communities, Environmental Justice

Having worked for an organization for so long that organized for environmental justice, it is interesting coming to grips with this breadth of literature and various academic framings brought to it. Wonderful, also, to have time to think, to read theory, to better learn the history I have only heard in snippets and reminiscences. And ‘sustainability’ is, of course, n even bigger buzzword that everyone must at least pretend to care about, so this book seemed a valuable addition.

Julian Agyeman looks at the different framings between environmental justice and sustainability, sees the two as essentially sitting at the opposite ends of a continuum. This is because EJ organizations have mostly risen from grassroots activism in the civil rights movement, fighting to expand the traditional environmental discourse. Sustainability is in many ways the traditional environmental discourse. It needs a lot of expanding. So on the one hand there is the Environmental Justice Paradigm (EJP) as outlined by Taylor (2000), and on the other, the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) of Catton and Dunlap (1978).

Apologies for these acronyms, but typing is work, right? And apologies I haven’t dropped the citations, but I think I will need them.

While far distant from one another, Agyeman argues there exists a nexus between the two of cooperative endeavours (drawing on Schlosberg 1999) to work together on common issues, but it needs to be developed. Agyeman argues that the Just Sustainability paradigm is one way to do so.

I quite love the term cooperative endeavours. It is really in working together towards a common goal that common ground is built and paradigms shifted. It takes time of course.

So in building a paradigm that can bridge the two, Agyeman uses a ‘discourse analytic and interpretive approach’  to look at EJP and NEP. He cites Brulle (2000:97) in a quote I particularly liked:

the discourse of a movement translates the historical conditions and the potential for mobilization into a reality that frames an organization’s identity. This identity then influences the organization’s structure, tactics and methods of resource mobilization.

I like how this highlights just how important our words are in shaping our organizations and the struggle they undertake, though I’m not too sure how much ‘reality’ and our understanding of reality  and how we act to change that reality overlap. That seems to carry a weight of philosophy in it. Carmin & Balser come from a slightly different interpretive approach, where ‘experience, core values and beliefs, environmental philosophy, and political ideology contribute to interpretive processes that take place within environmental movement organizations that in turn shape the selection of repertoire’. Agyeman is combining the two here to look at these paradigms, the discursive with the interpretive. I’m still not quite sure I get the difference as these are approaches I am unfamiliar with. Anyway.

Environmental Justice

So a brief history recap of EJ — I feel like collecting these, they all highlight slightly different things: EJ concerns have been around since 1492, but the seminal struggle in the current EJ movement as self-defined really was the battle in Warren County, NC to stop the dumping of PCB-contaminated dirt into a local landfill. Cole & Foster (2001) describe EJ’s foundations as the civil rights movement, antitoxics movement, academia, Native American Struggles, labor movement & traditional environmental movement. Really, it is a focus on environment from a social justice frame. I’m not sure how well it captures the richness of it, but I am partisan.

He goes on to cite Laura Pulido, whose work I admire immensely, and who sought to broaden out understandings of racism and how these undergird privilege. He doesn’t much mention how she situates this geographically — the spatialities of white privilege are so key to EJ, but I know I am a geographer.

Back to the theorisation of EJ, and some useful definitions — Agyeman and Evans (2004) argue that it has two

distinct but inter-related dimensions… a vocabulary of political opportunity, mobilization and action. At the same time, at the government level, it is a policy principle that no public action will disproportionately disadvantage any particular social group. (19)

It has been (somewhat) successful in fighting top-down knowledges, in challenging experts and opening up the research process to be ‘more transparent, accountable, and democratically informed’ (21). It has redefined environmental issues to not just include wildlife, recreational and resource issues, but issues of justice, equity and rights. It has both procedural justice aspects and substantive justice aspects.

I’m always a bit wary of framing as anything more than a tool in a box full of other tools, I feel that this kind of approach needs some level of suspicion, self-awareness, so I feel the need to look more closely at Dorcetta Taylor’s 2000 article, also Devon Pena’s critique of it. But later. For now, the other end of the spectrum.

The Sustainability Discourse and Sustainable Communities

There is a growing consensus, Agyeman argues, that:

sustainability is at least as much about politics, injustice, and inequality as it is about science or the environment. (43)

I hope that’s true.

I really love charts that summarize the literature by theme at a certain point in time and bring some clarity to an enormous field, even if I problematise it later. So first, Agyeman’s ‘Characteristics of a Sustainable Community’:

Then a summary of the differences between Broad-and Narrow-Focus environmentalism (from place-based environmental problems to both local and complex nature of problems but expanding on ideas of empowerment of citizens — parallels Gould et al’s (2004) distinction between biocentric and anthropocentric environmentalisms, without making any value judgements between the two)

Just Sustainability in Theory

So the hope is that the JSP can bridge the gap between the EJP and the NEP. The first is the framework emerging out of threats to local community and from popular, grassroots community movements, the second a sustainability discourse that is largely institutional and expert, the first communitarian discourse , the second individual knowledge and the skills to decipher academic jargon (81).

So. A summary of the Just Sustainability Paradigm, and some of the ways it might be measured and how we are doing by such measures. These are useful in the funding and policy world, but I kind of hate them. But I remind myself they are useful in the funding and policy world.

He starts with the existence of the Genuine Progress Indicator as apposed to GDP from Redefining Progress. I really do hate GDP, the drive for constant growth and all that is left out of it. Some of that is listed in this description of the GPI from their website:

The GPI starts with the same personal consumption data that the GDP is based on, but then makes some crucial distinctions. It adjusts for factors such as income distribution, adds factors such as the value of household and volunteer work, and subtracts factors such as the costs of crime and pollution.

As of 2004 we were stagnating…

We need something new and better. So what is this JSP then?

  1. A central premise on Developing Sustainable Communities
  2. A wide range of progressive, proactive, policy-based solutions and policy tools
  3. Calling for, and has developed, a coherent ‘new economics’ (predicated on ‘sufficiency’ is happiness, not more stuff, see McLaren 2003)
  4. Much more of a Local-Global linkage
  5. More proactive and visionary than the typically reactive EJP

ooh, I bet that last point might rankle with a few folks.

For bullet pt 1, Agyeman builds on the Environmental Justice Research Centers’ 1997 conference and publication healthy and sustainable communities: Building model Partnerships, which is no longer to be found online, so I shall quote his bullet points. I really like these bullet points, but really they are just another reframing of the original declaration I suppose:

  • Grassroots community groups want to see sustainable development that is not only environmentally and ecologically sound but is also just.

  • They support a sustainable economy that improves the vitality and self-sufficiency of their community and its residents.

  • They view education as a key ingredient in long-term community health and sustainability plans

  • They advocate the right of all people to a safe and secure livelihood, including the right to education, safe and affordable housing, and adequate health care

  • They promote democratic access to and control over natural resources

  • They demand that all groups are included as equal partners in development decisions

  • They promote government and corporate accountability to the public for decisions about production and consumption

  • They support the acquisition and preservation of open space in our community

  • They promote respect for cultural diversity, Mother Earth, and the spiritual connectedness among all living beings.

  • The support the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment, without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment

  • They support public policy decision making based on mutual respect and justice for all people, free from any form of discrimination. (100-101 EJRC 1997: 4)

So to compare the two in their theorists, their central premises and focus, their approach, their policy solutions, their planning practice, policy tools, attitudes towards markets — everything you need, in short, to think very practically about how implementation works and to fight for its implementation and to know where you stand vis-a-vis the other side, which is dead useful:

Just Sustainability in Practice

He develops a Just Sustainability Index, which ranks people on discourses around equity, justice and sustainability, then looks at range of issues being tackled. I confess, I most loved this as just a list of awesome work being done and the very broad nature of the issues:

Land-use Planning (Urban Ecology, Oakland; Bethel New Life, Chicago; The Bronx Center Project)

Solid Waste Management (The Green Institute, Minneapolis; NYC Environmental Justice Alliance; Reuse Development Program, Baltimore)

Toxic Chemical Use (use of Right to Know, Toxic Use Reduction, Precautionary Principle, Clean Production: The Silicon Valley Toxics Colaition; Alaska Community Action on Toxics; Toxic Use Reduction Institute, Lowell MA)

Residential Energy Use (National Centre for Appropriate Technology, Butte Montana; MA Energy Consumer’s Alliance; Communities for a Better Environment, Oakland CA)

Transportation Planning (LA Bus Riders Union; Unity Council, Oakland CA; Transportation Alternatives, NYC)

Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE)

It ends with a case study, this deep look at ACE in Roxbury that is wonderful because they are pretty amazing. Agyeman quotes the then ED (from 1995) Penn Loh on their EJ model, which he argues is:

not about surface solutions. Its always been about finding deep, systemic solutions, which means that if the movement wants to be grassroots led, really community driven, you can’t do anything but try to work with people so that they are building their own perspective, so the tools that we have around “how do you do that?” and “how do you do that and help folks develop strategies that end up with things that they can see as progress?” and that’s the continual challenge. I wouldn’t say that we’ve come up with the right formula. We’ve tried different things. (145)

Exactly. It then goes on to give their program selection criteria — always so useful! I wish I had read this years ago while selecting programs myself, though in truth it is not too different than our own:

Tier 1, Criteria for meeting ACE Mission: programs that address priority concerns derived by, achieved for, and led by the Roxbury and Greater Boston residents.

Tier 2, Criteria for an Effective Campaign: easily understood goals that can be achieved within a clear time frame. The program should also provide the foundation for future community partnerships, increase resident awareness of EJ issues, and allow future campaign development.

Tier 3, Criteria for sustaining ACE as an organization: builds ACE’s strengths, allows fundraising support, and creates unique programs that can be shared across the country. (146)

I love too Loh’s quote that coalition isn’t always useful — they decided not to be part of the MA Smart Growth Alliance, for example:

…we didn’t feel that the justice issues were front and center enough to make it worth it. We don’t want to spend time, even if there are some opportunities to be had there, fighting within the partnership itself to ensure that the approach is right. (178)

We knew that feeling all too well.

From Confrontation to Implementation

Short and sweet. Justice needs to be the focus (see quote above). And a final thought, organizations can be both EJP and SJP, which makes sense…SJP in some ways is just more of tactic, a practical way to find common ground with organisation and institutions who see the world very differently. But I’m still thinking about that.

[Agyeman, Julian (2005) Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice. NY & London: New York University Press.]




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