Social justice is environmental justice

Jennifer Marienau | Op-Ed Submission

Let’s take a moment to be honest with ourselves. Life is fast, we’re all busy, and it can be really, really hard to care about the environment. Movements for social justice are much easier to connect with because they have a face, someone with whom we can empathize. Imagine the greatest civil rights offenses in the last few decades—apartheid, U.S. neoliberal economic policies throughout Latin America, genocides from Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur. These are the injustices that make press, that turn our stomachs and make us cry out for change. But the climate is changing, too, and our heavy consumptive culture in the U.S. makes us complicit in its negative effects.

Global warming and environmental degradation are human rights issues. Differences in wealth, location and power subject some people more than others to the deleterious effects of a suffering environment. The EPA acknowledges this, claiming that environmental justice “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.”

By no stretch of the imagination can one say that we are all equally affected by climate change, or surface mining, or acid rain, or desertification, or water poisoned by power production. For some, these effects are inescapable; they are unjust, and those of us who benefit from the destruction of their environments must take responsibility.

Take, for example, the communities located near mountaintop removal sites that contend with a host of dangers to their health, safety and rights. Blasting mountaintops and filling in valleys with the debris hurts local families from start to finish. The frequent blasts crack the foundations and walls of homes, send boulders and debris flying into streets and houses, and shoot silicate dust into the air, causing asthma and lung complications. The slick mountain faces cause an increase in flooding, washing out property during heavy storms. And most frighteningly, billions of tons of toxic coal sludge produced in the coal washing process are contained in earthen lagoons that frequently leak, contaminating drinking water and presenting the constant threat of structural failure. In December 2008, a coal fly ash storage lagoon in Kingston, Tenn., suffered a structural failure, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of fly ash slurry in a toxic mudslide. This sludge flooded homes and streets and invaded the Emory River, the main drinking water source for the region. Water tests following the spill showed elevated levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. It is worrisome, then, that in Raleigh County, W.Va., a several-billion-gallon impoundment of coal sludge lies just 400 yards uphill from Marsh Fork Elementary School. These families suffer health problems from skin rashes, to asthma, to brain tumors. They live in constant fear, bearing the weight of a nation that will not acknowledge their plight because “coal is cheap.”

But environmental justice issues do not end with such active destruction. As climate change catches up with the greenhouse gas concentrations that we’ve emitted for the last century, we will see even more examples of a few bearing the brunt of a global issue. As sea levels rise, coastal regions and low-lying islands will lose land area or will face an incredible economic burden to ward off the ocean’s advance. Other areas predicted to bear the brunt of climate change include Bangladesh, parts of South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum. What unites those affected most by global warming, more than any other trait, is their economic status. Across the board, it is the poor—those who cannot afford to adapt—who will carry the weight of climate change on their shoulders.

Social justice and environmentalism are not mutually exclusive movements. They require a collaboration of efforts to make the greatest impact. If you are interested in addressing environmental justice issues on campus and in our community, please join the Washington University Climate Justice Alliance (WUCJA). Founded this fall, WUCJA invites you to open your eyes to the environmental inequalities that are tied to our culture of consumption and to seek justice. For more information, visit

Jennifer is a senior in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via email at [email protected].

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