Four Questions to Help Integrate Environmental Justice into Your Course

Daniel J. Sherman is the Luce-Funded Professor of Environmental Policy and Decision Making and Director of the Sound Policy Institute at the University of Puget Sound. He studies the roles individuals and groups play in environmental politics, policy, and sustainability. In addition to his undergraduate text,  Environmental Science and Sustainability, Sherman published Not Here, Not There, Not Anywhere: Politics, Social Movementsand the Disposal of Low-Level Radioactive Waste with Resources for the Future Press. He is an award-winning teacher who seeks to engage his students directly in environmental decision-making contexts.

Dan Sherman
Image Credit: Christina Sherman

As Earth Day approaches, I’m thinking about the ways we teach and learn about environmental science. When things are at their best in my classroom, the students and I have moved beyond mastering basics of environmental science and start to consider how we can engage more critically and effectively as environmental decision makers. These class conversations help spark curiosity about environmental justice (and injustice)—the ways in which environmental harms and benefits are distributed across different groups, and the extent to which different groups are empowered to play a meaningful role in shaping environmental policy. Below is a series of questions I use in my course that help my students develop a deeper understanding of issues affecting environmental justice, while building connections to issues affecting us here in our hometown and out in the wider world as well.

Questions to ask your students:

Why are environmental harms concentrated in particular places?

Discussions of environmental justice often start with research on disparate harms—like the recent EPA findings that Black Americans have greater exposure to particulate matter air pollution on average than White Americans regardless of income levels. One way to take your teaching and learning on environmental justice deeper is to develop a curiosity about why the “bad stuff” is disproportionately concentrated in particular places. Often when we follow the disproportionate exposure of communities of color to environmental harms, like particulate matter pollution in the air, lead in drinking water, or hazardous waste sites, we find legacies of discriminatory housing practices and policies. In the U.S., racially restrictive covenants on property and “redlining” maps were used by the government and banks to approve or deny mortgages in segregated communities, denying people of color home ownership and residency in the most desirable “green” and “blue” neighborhoods on the maps, while concentrating environmental harms from polluting industries in the “red” and “yellow” zones. While the discriminatory housing policies began to change in the 1960s, the environmental legacies persist. For example, Los Angeles county hosts the largest urban oil field in the world with more than 6,000 active oil and gas wells. More than 75 percent of the residents living within a mile of these sites are people of color. This disparity can be linked back to the redlining maps of the 1930s that restricted housing options for people of color to petroleum-producing areas of the county.  This discriminatory pattern of exposure has been identified across dozens of other U.S. counties as well.

What are the cumulative impacts of environmental harms?

Because environmental harms are often concentrated in particular places, the communities in those places suffer from the multiplying effect of cumulative impacts. Therefore, it’s important to move beyond teaching and learning about pollution as a series of single impacts and to consider the way these impacts overburden the environmental health—and ultimately the life expectancy—of particular communities. For example, the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were particularly devastating for communities that were already facing chronic exposure to multiple sources of air pollution because they were more susceptible to the virus.  Many states are now using environmental health indices that compile cumulative impacts to identify especially vulnerable communities. New Jersey even passed an environmental justice law recently that identifies and protects overburdened communities from the siting of additional polluting facilities. 

What is the relationship between consumption and environmental harms?

One way to reflect on environmental disparities on a personal level is to consider the way that the goods and services we consume are linked to environmental impacts elsewhere. On a global scale we can teach and learn about inequities between the wealthier countries where most new clothing is consumed, compared to the labor and environmental conditions where most clothing is produced and later discarded. A similar contrast can be drawn between the consumption of electronics and the illegal global trade in hazardous e-waste from discarded devices. Within the U.S., a team of engineering and economics researchers found racial-ethnic disparities in pollution exposure and consumption by developing a “pollution inequity” metric that compared the pollution various groups generated with consumption patterns, versus the pollution they were exposed to where they lived. They found that White Americans experienced 17 percent less pollution exposure than they generated through consumption, while people of color faced a pollution burden of more than 50 percent excess exposure compared to the pollution they generated through consumption. 

Who should pay to address environmental harms?

A major focus of the international community during recent climate talks has been the responsibilities wealthier (and more climate polluting) nations owe to the countries that are least responsible for climate change, yet are likely to face some of the harshest consequences. The issue was first raised in 1991 as the low-lying island country of Vanuatu proposed a compensation mechanism for the effects of sea-level rise. The effects of climate change are mounting as evidenced by last year’s catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, with damages upwards of $40 billion. A “loss and damage” fund to compensate countries disproportionately harmed by climate impacts has been incorporated into international agreements, although wealthier countries have been slow to pay into the fund. 

In the U.S. we can think of the question of “who should pay?” pertaining to a wide range of environmental harms—including the problem of lead in drinking water. Traditionally property owners have been responsible for replacing the water lines and fixtures closest to their homes and the larger infrastructure has been financed by rate payers. However, some cities, like Washington, D.C., now have programs that redistribute funds from wealthier utility customers to help lower income households replace water lines. The federal government has also recently devoted more than $15 billion to lead service line replacement. An understanding that disparities in exposure to environmental harms are often linked to legacies of discriminatory policies and inequities in consumption versus exposure can help us see opportunities to repair past damage and provide new forms of support that bolster environmental health.

Exploring environmental justice where you teach and learn:

I’ve found that these questions open up deeper conversations, inquiry, and analysis on nearly every environmental science topic from air, water, and climate science to food, population, urbanization, and waste. It is also important to ground our understanding of these issues with activities focused on the places we teach and learn. Here are some resources to get started:

  • The University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project is a great place to find redlining maps and data for many U.S. metropolitan areas.  The maps can be a starting place for learning more about the legacy of discriminatory practices. 
  • Redlining maps can then be paired with environmental health and justice indices that map a wide variety of environmental factors, like air pollution, hazardous waste, and even risk from sea level rise. The EPA EJScreen is a national tool and many states have also developed their own online tools as well. 
  • Finally, there are activists and community members fighting every day to protect their communities from environmental harms and provide environmental benefits. If you start following the siting and land use decisions in your community, you will likely have the opportunity to learn from them and lend your support.

One thing I’ve learned from integrating environmental justice into an environmental science textbook and the classes I teach is that every environmental issue raises environmental justice concerns, and every place has an environmental justice story to tell. 

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