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date: 18 April 2024

Environmental Justicefree

Environmental Justicefree

  • Rebecca McWilliams Ojala BallardRebecca McWilliams Ojala BallardFlorida State University


The Environmental Justice Movement emerged in the 1980s as a political framework uniting diverse struggles by multiply marginalized communities (especially communities of color) against disproportionate exposure to environmental harm. Since then, environmental justice has expanded to encompass not just the pollution and hazardous waste issues that first inspired it but a range of other environmental health concerns and environmental rights, and it is best understood as an extensive network of political projects that extends in time and space beyond its 1980s US origins. Despite a common narrative situating environmental justice as one relatively recent stage of the environmental movement, environmental justice has important historical precedents in the organizing work of minoritized communities outside of mainstream Western environmental thought or politics. Similarly, beyond social movements, philosophical work on environmental justice puts pressure on many assumptions of Western environmental thought, revising environmental critiques of anthropocentrism to situate human concerns in multispecies contexts and centering Indigenous and non-Western ways of understanding and living in relation to land. Environmental justice issues have been represented in diverse literatures and across genres (nonfiction prose, literary fiction, poetry, drama, popular and speculative genres, etc.) since the emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement in the 1980s. However, the concerns of the Environmental Justice Movement are evident in earlier literary works as well, particularly those by variously minoritized writers, and literary scholarship on environmental justice has often focused on reclamation and canon revision, seeking to identify the presence of environmental and especially environmental justice themes in literary works not previously articulated as environmental because they did not fit neatly into “nature writing.” Climate change produces a range of environmental justice problems relating to exposure, vulnerability, dispossession, and displacement, and 21st-century literature’s increasing engagements with climate change have led to both the telling presence and the telling absence of climate justice concerns. Environmental justice ecocriticism thus does not merely trace connections between the Environmental Justice Movement and literature explicitly responding to it but operates as an interpretive framework that considers the full range and broader implications of literature’s engagement (or lack thereof) with issues affiliated with environmental justice.


  • Fiction
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing
  • Poetry
  • Cultural Studies

Political Movements for Environmental Justice

“Environmental justice” is often used synonymously with “the Environmental Justice Movement.” The latter refers to a historically specific social movement whose formal origins are often tied to a series of 1982 protests in Afton, in Warren County, North Carolina, roughly twenty miles from the state’s northern border with Virginia. The 1982 protests responded to an event that had been unfolding since 1978, when a man seeking to dispose of industrial waste containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic industrial chemicals common in manufacturing before they were banned in the United States in 1979) illegally dumped more than 30,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil along roadsides in a number of rural counties in North Carolina. The perpetrator saw relatively lenient legal consequences; meanwhile, the illegally discarded oil soaked into roadside soil. When the state finally set out to address the thousands of truckloads of PCB-contaminated soil collected from 240 miles of road, it soon targeted Afton as the site of its proposed PCB landfill—a decision clearly motivated by the demographics of the poor, largely Black community and not by ecologically informed standards for safe site selection (including groundwater proximity and soil permeability). Political stakeholders ignored concerns from scientists and community members that the proposed landfill would contaminate groundwater supplies, a risk which loomed especially large since plans for the landfill ignored basic safety protocols which might have kept the waste from leeching out. In 1982, as trucks carrying the contaminated soil approached the proposed disposal site, national civil rights organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) worked with local residents to stage massive protests in the wake of failures to forestall the project through legal means. Marches, demonstrations, and lie-ins blockading the trucks lasted six weeks, and more than five hundred protestors were arrested. The event captured the attention of national media outlets and sparked widespread interest and outrage about the newly named problem of environmental racism, or the exposure of communities of color to pollution and other sources of environmental harm. Articulating the concept of environmental racism was a crucial step for the Environmental Justice Movement: it reframed environmental exposure not as something unfortunate but random but, rather, as a function and a form of institutional racism. Though racism is not the only issue environmental justice takes up, the Warren County protests established race as a crucial axis along which environmental harm is disproportionately distributed and racism as an explanation for who is rendered disproportionately vulnerable to environmental harm through exposure to the effects of environmental extraction, pollution, and degradation.

Though the Warren County protests failed to stop North Carolina from establishing the PCB landfill—which would eventually lead to contamination disasters, deleterious health issues, and belated cleanup efforts lasting more than a decade—the national spotlight the protestors had strategically worked to cultivate succeeded in attracting broader interest in environmental racism. In an effort to confirm the structural nature and scope of the problem, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, a SCLC leader and one of the wrongfully convicted “Wilmington Ten” activists whose convictions were eventually overturned, and who had been centrally involved in the 1982 protests, led the research and publication of a landmark 1987 study by the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites.1 The study confirmed what many minority communities had been asserting for years: race was the most significant factor associated with exposure to toxic waste, and hazardous siting could only be interpreted as intentionally targeting communities of color. “Frontline” communities (those most directly and immediately experiencing environmental harm) and “fenceline” communities (those living adjacent to major pollutants and sources of environmental risk), in other words, tend to be composed of people of color.

The Environmental Justice Movement picked up more steam in the 1990s. In 1990, sociologist Robert Bullard, whose wife had led a 1979 legal effort to resist the siting of a landfill in Houston on the grounds that it was a violation of anti-discrimination civil rights guarantees, published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality,2 adding to a growing academic consensus and critical conversation. In the same year, movement leaders began to call out the racial failures of the “Big 10” mainstream environmental groups (including Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and others), citing racial bias in their hiring practices and a damning lack of policy attention to exposure to environmental hazards and its disproportionate distribution along racial lines; others reached out to officials in the US presidential administration of George H. W. Bush, with some degree of success. In October 1991, the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice sponsored the four-day First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, which saw wide participation and produced the “Principles of Environmental Justice,” a document with seventeen core tenets of environmental justice that continues to circulate widely and inform movement work. In 1994, US president Bill Clinton, who had appointed Chavis and Bullard to positions on his transition team, signed Executive Order 12898, formalizing federal attention to the problem of environmental racism and racial disparities in environmental health. Throughout the remainder of the 1990s and into the 21st century, the Environmental Justice Movement has continued to expand beyond its earlier, US-based, hazardous-waste-disposal-focused origins. In the early 21st century, the Environmental Justice Movement also encompasses global (particularly Global South) movements, workplace as well as domestic exposures, and issues as diverse as land sovereignty and dispossession, resource extraction, vulnerability to natural disasters, environmental aesthetics and access to greenspace, and infrastructural exposure; and it increasingly attends to how intersecting identity categories such as gender, ability, age, and class inflect racialized forms of environmental harm. (As the section “Environmental Justice in Anthropocene Literature” will address, the Environmental Justice Movement has also shaped responses to climate change, which, like so many other environmental hazards, disproportionately affects the multiply marginalized.)

Environmental justice has a broader political history beyond the Environmental Justice Movement, however. Most immediately, the emergence of the movement in the 1980s is often read as part of a genealogy of various social movement precursors in the United States. Despite a still-too-common narrative that situates environmental justice as an outgrowth or stage of the mainstream environmental movement—an issue explored in more detail in the section on “Philosophical and Ecocritical Implications of Environmental Justice”—the US Environmental Justice Movement developed from African American civil rights activism not only in its attention to the structural conditions of anti-Blackness but also in terms of the protest strategies, national organizations, and individual relationships that shaped its early emergence. Other important antecedents include a number of local antitoxics movements such as the one at Love Canal, a New York suburb near Niagara Falls which made national headlines in 1978 when residents realized their idyllic community had been built on top of a landfill replete with toxic industrial wastes and identified this as the reason for previously unexplained patterns of cancer, birth defects, and other adverse health outcomes. Such political projects stemmed from the broader concern with the long-term effects of chemical exposure launched in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; while the antitoxics movement did not always focus on the intersection of social marginalization and environmental exposure, tending sometimes toward elite “NIMBYism” (short for “Not In My Backyard”), it did inform the Environmental Justice Movement’s account of environmental racism. Other proto-environmental-justice struggles were focused specifically on the racialized dimensions of space: the Latina group Mothers of East Los Angeles, for instance, organized in the 1980s around resistance to the establishment of a prison in their community, linking that project to the building of the highway system through the neighborhood years before and later extending their efforts to encompass resistance to the construction of waste incinerators in Latinx and Black neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area. Still others focused on racially determined exposure beyond the home: Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, for instance, worked from the 1960s onward with the United Farm Workers and its antecedents and took on exposure to pesticides as a labor issue for farm workers (with particular attention to pesticide exposure as a feminist reproductive issue). Even further back, US public health movements from the turn of the 20th century encompassed urban health and occupational welfare, while for centuries, continuing into the present, Indigenous communities in both Global South and Global North countries have resisted settler colonial land theft and environmental destruction.

In other words, the Environmental Justice Movement should not be studied without recognizing the political history of environmental justice both avant la lettre and beyond the boundaries of US politics. The Warren County protests provided the terminology and formalized a coherent understanding of the Environmental Justice Movement, and they thus remain one important center of gravity, but it would be demonstrably false to suggest they are the origin of political movements for environmental justice, which are grassroots, diverse, and globally as well as historically extensive. Another center of gravity might be the Zapatista movement, which began in 1994 in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and its calls for various forms of land sovereignty and resistance to extractivism. Another might be the Indigenous groups in Ecuador who filed a class action lawsuit against Texaco in 1993 in response to disastrous petroleum pollution in the Lago Agrio oil field from the 1960s onward. Another might be Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and the 1990 presentation to the Nigerian government and the United Nations of the Ogoni Bill of Rights protesting and demanding redress for the devastating ecological, cultural, and economic effects of oil extraction in the Niger Delta. Another might be the 1989 lawsuit, brought by the island nation of Nauru and settled in 1993, holding the Australian government responsible for environmental damage due to phosphate mining. Another might be Pan-African resistance to the exporting of toxic waste from the West to Africa for disposal in the 1980s and 1990s. Another might be the 1984 chemical accident at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, exposing more than half a million people to toxic gas. Another might be militarism in the Pacific Islands, from the US seizure of the Hawaiian island of Kahoʻolawe in 1941 as a military testing site that would continue in use during the Vietnam War and catalyze decades of Native Hawaiian resistance via the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana movement, to the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific group that emerged in the 1970s, contesting decades of nuclear testing in the Pacific by Western powers. Yet another might be a century of organized efforts by the United States and Canadian governments to force Indigenous tribes off of oil-rich land to make room for petro-extraction, and the diverse ways these communities fought back. These are among the many global projects of resistance to environmental racism and its intersections with capitalism and imperialism.

Another way to put this is to say that environmental justice is most usefully understood as a political framework for identifying, drawing global connections among, and collectively contesting the structural forces which establish certain spaces—and the communities who live, work, and play in them—as “sacrifice zones,” areas marked by the powerful as disposable in the service of profit. In other words, though the Environmental Justice Movement began in 1982, environmental justice itself did not. There is an important distinction between the Environmental Justice Movement and the more inclusive, less US-centric concept of environmental justice as a framework for interpreting structural inequity, one uniting a variety of movements at the intersection of environmental harm and political marginalization.

Philosophical and Ecocritical Implications of Environmental Justice

Western environmentalism’s narrative of its own history tends to center, and to identify as an origin, mainstream environmental philosophies and aesthetics. It also tends to situate environmental justice as a relatively recent development within the larger context of environmentalism in general. According to this narrative, contemporary environmentalism begins in the West, often with the late 18th- and early 19th-century preoccupation with nature and the natural during the Romantic period, progresses through the preservationist and conservationist commitments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the management of natural resources and environmental services began to be institutionalized by imperial and settler colonial states, and coheres in the 1970s into a concern with protecting a degraded natural world for its own sake; concerns about the effects of environmental degradation on human health and well-being (and their uneven distribution along lines of social power) are framed as one among a number of recent shifts within environmental thought.

This (admittedly somewhat oversimplified) account of environmentalism produces particular understandings of environmental philosophy and aesthetics. It tends to prioritize ecocentrism or biocentrism over anthropocentrism and to frame environmental concerns as altruistically protecting nature and not as fighting for the rights of human communities, including one’s own. In the realm of aesthetics, it tends to value representations of wilderness or “untouched” nature as a counterbalance to human civilization and development. Environmental justice, however, offers a very different set of philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic commitments, which also carry with them distinct aesthetic and ecocritical values. Environmental justice has major implications not only for philosophical thought related to environmentalism and the nonhuman but also for ecocriticism—environmental approaches to literary interpretation. As ecocritic and cultural studies scholar T. V. Reed argued in 2002’s “Towards an Environmental Justice Ecocriticism,” an environmental justice framework requires not only different political values from other forms of ecocriticism but also different aesthetic and critical emphases, different corpora and canons, and different ethical stakes with respect to literary analysis.3 Environmental justice, in other words, is not merely an area of concern or set of issues to be represented within ecocriticism but a call to rethink various foundational premises of the study of literature and environment. There are at least three major philosophical areas—wilderness/ecocentrism; (multi)species; anticolonialism—in which environmental justice has differentiated itself from mainstream environmental thought not as a new stage of mainstream environmentalism but as a different tradition altogether. These areas also inflect the study of environmental literature and culture through an environmental justice framework. While its major philosophical interventions are foundational to the way the environmental justice framework has been articulated in distinction to mainstream environmental thought, the point is not that they represent a “new stage” which began to emerge in the 1980s. Instead, as the 1991 “Principles of Environmental Justice” indicate, these philosophical tenets speak to longstanding philosophical, ethical, and political work by marginalized communities, with intellectual genealogies that are largely separate from hegemonic forms of Western environmentalism.

Against Anthropocentrism: Two Variations

One crucial way in which environmental justice has articulated its differences from mainstream (Western) environmental thought concerns a rejection of the preoccupation with “wilderness,” whether as a physical space hegemonically (and fictively) constructed as “untouched by human influence” and thus marked for enhanced political attention and protection, or as a cultural value and aesthetic distinguishing anthropocentric from biocentric values. Historian Ramachandra Guha’s 1989 essay “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” published in Environmental Ethics, played a crucial role in establishing this point.4 Guha took aim at “deep ecology,” a radical environmental philosophical-political movement, dominant within environmental discourse during the previous decades, which called for a shift from anthropocentric ethics to biocentric ones,. Though deep ecology masquerades as universal, Guha suggested, it is actually quite provincial, tied specifically to the histories and values of the United States; radical environmental thought, his essay showed, looked very different in other national contexts, even in Global North countries like Germany. Further, Guha argued, deep ecology’s fetishizing of wilderness preservation had little to do with the most pressing contemporary environmental crises of overconsumption and militarization, and indeed served primarily to distract from the structural elements of those problems, thus leading to policies which exacerbated social inequality and furthered US imperialist aims. Finally, Guha critiqued and corrected deep ecology’s appropriative misreading of the Asian philosophical and historical roots to which it often laid claim. In “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation,” then, Guha sought to unsettle deep ecology’s positioning of biocentrism as an unproblematic environmental value in order to clear space for radical forms of environmental thought that focused less on the aestheticized ethics of wilderness and more on the political analysis of broadly Western and specifically US environmental harm.

Within a US framework, environmental justice has similarly rejected the preoccupation with wilderness. Take, for instance, environmental historian William Cronon’s 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” which also critiques the US tradition of equating “wilderness” with “environmentalism.”5 Though Cronon, unlike Guha, focuses explicitly on how a Western environmental genealogy culminates in American wilderness culture, the two come to allied if not identical conclusions. They both argue that deep ecology’s emphasis on wilderness is ultimately a problematic US export, and that the idea of wilderness inevitably serves the interests of the powerful elite who do not protect wilderness so much as produce it by forcibly removing Indigenous inhabitants from environments that have long been shaped by human-nature interaction, have long enabled human thriving, and have only recently been identified as “untouched” wilderness in need of top-down protection. Consequently, they both argue that environmentalism, if it were to identify non-“pristine” spaces as equally worthy of protection and care, would be not only more effective in terms of protecting nonhuman nature from human degradation but also more just in terms of human concerns. Though Guha and Cronon are only two examples, they represent two important claims of the environmental justice critique of wilderness. First, emphasizing wilderness obscures the real nature of the environmental dangers and devastations of global industrial modernity. Second, human concerns, particularly in relation to social justice, can and indeed should be part of any environmental politics: anthropocentrism need not be a dirty word.

Guha and Cronon illustrate environmental justice’s rejection of purist biocentrism, or, put differently, its rejection of the rejection of anthropocentrism. In this context, the next major distinction under discussion might seem to be something of a contradiction: namely, the turn toward multispecies thinking. There is an important difference, though, between the deep-ecology-inflected construction of strictly nonhuman nature and an environmental justice approach to thinking the more-than-human. The former collapses “the human” into a homogenous unity and evacuates it to emphasize an imagined version of untouched nature separate from the concerns of human difference and justice. The latter contends that humans and nonhumans cannot be cleanly separated and that the same structures, processes, and ideologies which cause disproportionate environmental harm to socially marginalized humans also wreak havoc on nonhuman beings and environments; it thus calls for the recognition of multispecies intimacies and the extension of a justice framework to multispecies collectives.

Feminist philosopher of science Donna Haraway offers a useful illustration of the way environmental justice and the multispecies turn have intertwined. From her publications on primatology in the 1980s and 1990s; to her theorization, in the 1985/1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” of the cyborg as a figure which crosses the fundamental Western boundary of human/animal as well as other, related boundaries (living/machine and physical/non-physical); to her scholarship addressing human-canine interactions in 2003’s Companion Species Manifesto and 2007’s When Species Meet; to her most recent work on multispecies kinship and community in the Anthropocene (as in 2016’s Staying with the Trouble), Haraway offers a consistent example of how multispecies work within an environmental justice framework can move beyond the human without replicating the human/nature binary of deep ecology.6 For Haraway, as for many theorists of the multispecies turn, turning away from a certain kind of anthropocentrism does not mean disavowing or deprivileging human questions of difference and justice. In fact, multispecies thinking in an environmental justice context is often based on the premise that a comprehensive approach to human issues of environmental justice requires engaging the more-than-human. The multispecies ethnography of anthropologist Anna Tsing, for instance, engages nonhuman species to examine the complex entanglements, violence, and possibilities of modernity and capitalism, as in 2015’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, which uses the matsutake to trace the ecological and social manifestations and impacts of commodity chains and probe (per the book’s subtitle) “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.”7

Multispecies environmental justice work often overlaps with feminist and queer politics, linking multispecies intimacies to queer and feminist disruptions of empiricism, subjectivity, and embodiment, as well as to ecofeminism’s interest in the intersections of “nature” and our ideas about it with social constructions and experiences of gender and sexuality.8 Even beyond an explicitly feminist context, however, questions of environmental justice are frequently articulated through a multispecies lens: in What is Critical Environmental Justice?, for instance, sociologist and scholar of both ethnic and environmental studies David Naguib Pellow frames the project of environmental justice in relation to multispecies relationships and agencies, emphasizing that justice cannot be materially understood without mapping how environmental harm travels through more-than-human assemblages.9

These pressures from environmental justice philosophy have also inflected ecocriticism. Environmental justice ecocriticism redirects environmental aesthetics away from a fetishizing of nonhuman “purity” and toward an interest in the representational dimensions of environmental problems and experiences beyond wilderness spaces. It thus articulates an ecocritical approach whose proper range of study is more capacious than “nature writing” and which is more sensitive to a wide range of places as “environments” capable of marking a text as “environmental literature.” It also attends to the presence and representation of more-than-human worlds and intimacies, especially in relation to how they both reveal and shape differences in human experience. In other words, an environmental justice framework shapes considerations of anthropocentrism not only in philosophy and critical theory but also in ecocritical attention and interpretation.

Decolonizing Environmental Justice

The first two major theoretical distinctions between environmental justice and mainstream environmental thought concern revisions and re-imaginings of the meaning and stakes of anthropocentrism. The third is rooted in the anticolonial project of working outside of Western cosmologies, epistemologies, and histories. This project not only takes aim at the mainstream environmental movement and its legacies of imperialism, racial capitalism, and militarism, which critics of wilderness-based environmentalism have also called out; it also puts pressure on any expressions of environmental justice which too readily accept the basic operating terms of settler states and capitalist logics.

Often articulated from an Indigenous studies perspective, this pressure takes varied forms. For instance, environmental studies scholar Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi) analyzes the presentist discourses of environmental catastrophe which obscure the centuries-long nature of the settler-produced climate crisis Indigenous communities have experienced acutely.10 Geographer Max Liboiron (Red River Métis/Michif) asserts that settler colonialism shapes much of the scientific practice associated with environmentalism and environmental justice and articulates the importance of anticolonial scientific models.11 Similarly, scholar and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Mississauga Nishnaabeg) calls for centering (rather than decontextualizing and selectively appropriating) Indigenous knowledge and relationships to land in environmental justice efforts.12 Beyond these North American examples, global decolonial work has sought to disentangle environmental justice from the norms, values, and assumptions of settler colonialism and capitalism so as to put pressure on how environmentalism’s and environmental justice’s understandings of humanity echo what, to follow Caribbeanist philosopher Sylvia Wynter, might be understood as the overrepresentation of Western conceptions of Man.13

There are important philosophical alliances, then, between environmental justice and the postcolonial. In the realm of ecocriticism, these alliances have been particularly strong. Postcolonial ecocriticism, even when not explicitly taking up political questions of environmental justice or their representation in literary and cultural texts, shares with environmental justice ecocriticism an investment in redefining the terms and intellectual genealogies through which the concept of “environmental” literature is defined. Attending to ways of living in relation to land that predate, were produced within and against, and continue to resist and evade colonialism, anticolonial environmental scholarship situates particular instances of environmental justice in extensive histories of empire and racism. Postcolonial ecocritics have reshaped the environmental canon, directing critical attention to literary and cultural objects which engage the environment but might not read as “environmental” through a Western lens; they have used this new canon to redefine environmentalism itself, engaging anticolonial thought and cultural practices through literary works. In and beyond ecocriticism, postcolonial environmental thought calls attention not only to specific environmental harms but to the broader structures, systems, and indeed cosmologies informing those harms, a perspective that has become especially pointed in the context of climate change.

Literatures of Environmental Justice

Scholars and actors invested in environmental justice have frequently turned to literature and the arts for their ability not only to represent environmental justice issues for audiences but also to generate political and emotional investments in addressing those issues. In her contribution to The Environmental Justice Reader, “From Environmental Justice Literature to the Literature of Environmental Justice,” American studies scholar Julie Sze argued for the importance, to the generally social science–dominated discipline of environmental justice, of artistic texts and interpretive humanities methods: “Cultural texts, such as novels,” Sze argued, “broaden the emerging academic field of environmental justice studies by enhancing our understanding of the experience of living with the effects of environmental racism . . . and connecting environmental justice with other intellectual and activist fields.”14 Sze’s intervention set the tone for 21st-century work on environmental justice and culture, explicitly highlighting aesthetic objects for their ability not just to document environmental harm but to represent it in uniquely compelling and theoretically rich ways.

This critical approach has found fertile ground for its activities. Since the emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement in the 1980s, a large and growing number of literary works have addressed inequalities of environmental exposure, the violation of environmental rights, and the experience of participating to various degrees in political projects of resistance to environmental injustice. Many of these works are in the genres of narrative nonfiction, memoir in particular, with writers documenting environmental exposure and injustice with more or less explicit references to their personal involvement in the issues they cover. American science writer Rachel Carson is an early and important example of such a figure: her 1962 work Silent Spring translated scientific accounts of the deleterious ecological and human health effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides into vivid, compelling prose.15 Though Carson herself was fighting breast cancer, which would cause her death in 1964, she took pains to conceal this fact, in no small part out of fear her vociferous critics in the petrochemical industry would be able to use it to discredit her warnings of the carcinogenic effects of pesticides as personally motivated and overblown. Silent Spring is written not as a memoir but as a work of nonfiction nature writing. In later decades, however, environmental justice writers would tend toward much more explicitly personal disclosures of their investments in the issues about which they wrote. Environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon calls such figures “writer-activists,” arguing that they use prose (especially nonfiction) to document environmental harms and create social change. His 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor looks at many examples of Global South writer-activists, such as Kenyan activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who established Kenya’s Green Belt Movement in the 1970s, and Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who co-founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in 1990 and was executed in 1995 after years of protesting the Royal Dutch Shell oil company and its destruction of the Niger Delta: their autobiographical writings, such as Saro-Wiwa’s 1995 diary of his time as a prisoner before his execution, A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary, and Maathai’s 2006 memoir Unbowed, link structural accounts of environmental racism and state complicity to personal stories which help to galvanize empathy and outrage.16 Similarly, environmental health memoirs such as 1991’s Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by US environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, and 1997’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, by US biologist Sandra Steingraber, weave the memoirists’ own experiences with cancer into broader accounts of chemical and nuclear exposures causing cancer clusters and of state failures to address these issues.17 In this way, environmental justice shifts the parameters of environmental nonfiction away from the wilderness-focused “nature writing” of figures such as John Muir and toward narratives that regard human lives and environments affected (often deleteriously) by humans as worthy of attention. In particular, the genre of memoir engages deep ecology’s rejection of anthropocentrism insofar as it is organized around human life, even as environmental justice memoirs intimately address the more-than-human world.

In addition to memoir and other nonfiction, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have also seen a proliferation of fiction which weaves fictionalized accounts of real environmental justice issues and movements into characters’ lives. Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) addresses extractivism and Indigenous land sovereignty in all of her works, including through discussion of the global nuclear complex in 1977’s Ceremony and multiple plotlines dealing with hemispheric movements for environmental justice in 1991’s epic Almanac of the Dead.18 Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) frequently incorporates Native North American environmental justice issues into her fiction, from 1990’s Mean Spirit, which revisits the violent exploitation of the displaced Osage in the 1920s, when oil was discovered on their new territory, to 1995’s Solar Storms, which describes the destruction of the Boundary Waters area by a fictionalized version of the hydroelectric dams of the James Bay Project, tto 1998’s Power, which follows human-animal entanglements in Florida,to 2008’s People of the Whale, which takes up Indigenous fights for water rights in the Pacific Northwest.19 Chicana writer Ana Castillo’s 1993 novel So Far from God includes industrial workplace exposure to harmful substances among the many issues women of color face, while the 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus by another Chicana writer, Helena María Viramontes, centrally features the injustice of migrant farm workers’ exposure to pesticides.20 American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki’s fiction takes up wide-ranging questions of environmental harm, including factory farming and hormones in 1998’s My Year of Meats and agribusiness in 2003’s All Over Creation.21 Maori author James George’s 2006 novel Ocean Roads traces global legacies of nuclear and other military devastations, emphasizing nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands.22 British-Indian writer Indra Sinha’s 2007 novel Animal’s People offers a picaresque take on the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster.23 Cameroonian-American novelist Imbolo Mbue’s 2021 novel How Beautiful We Were follows an African community’s fight against an American oil corporation.24

These texts are only a small sampling of literary engagements with the global Environmental Justice Movement: while they are some of the most commonly studied and taught examples of “the literature of environmental justice,” they are by no means the only such works. Even in these brief examples, however, what should be evident is the extent to which the literature of environmental justice takes up the philosophical commitments of environmental justice. These authors reject wilderness as the only truly “environmental” aesthetic and expand the boundaries of “environmental literature” beyond wilderness writing, paying attention to environments as varied as the city, the farm, the factory, and the mine. They unpack the social construction and multispecies contexts of the “human” in Western humanism, showing the intimacies between human and nonhuman animals and the ways in which human environmental degradation affects marginalized humans and nonhumans alike. Finally, they incorporate decolonial thought by narrating the lasting violence of empire, presenting conflicts which are explicitly linked to environmental racism and colonialism, directing narrative energy against those systems, and dealing with cosmological and ethical systems beyond those of the West.

In addition to these works of literary fiction, which tend to represent “ordinary” characters dealing with fictionalized versions of historically grounded environmental justice issues in a real-world context, genre fiction has also begun to include environmental justice themes. In the United States in particular, one of the most prevalent genres in which environmental justice appears is mystery fiction. Chicana author Lucha Corpi’s Cactus Blood (1995), African American novelist Percival Everett’s Watershed (1996), and African American mystery novelist Barbara Neely’s third entry in the popular Blanche White series, Blanche Cleans Up (1998), all explore environmental justice themes through the conventions of noir and detective fiction, as protagonists investigate various environmental devastations and seek redress against corruption and suppression.25 Speculative fiction is another genre where environmental justice issues have often been represented outside of specific, historically grounded events: Afrofuturist writers such as Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and N. K. Jemisin frequently take up the questions of exposure, embodiment, and extraction that motivate movements for environmental justice, situating those issues in speculative futures or alternate worlds. Meanwhile, beyond fiction, environmental justice is also a common theme in contemporary poetry (as evidenced by the curation and publication of anthologies like 2018’s Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, which features many of the most prominent modern and contemporary poets who write about these issues) and in contemporary drama (as in Chicana playwright and activist Cherríe Moraga’s 1992 play Heroes and Saints, which represents pesticide exposure among Mexican immigrant farm workers).26

The examples above are all literary works produced since, and indeed in conscious dialogue with, the emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement. However, just as it is important to look beyond the Environmental Justice Movement and see environmental justice as a political framework embracing global social movements that did not explicitly identify themselves as pursuing environmental justice, it is also important to register environmental justice ecocriticism as an interpretive framework which can help to identify environmental justice themes and concerns in a wider array of literary works. Some of these predate the Environmental Justice Movement: there are many 19th-century realist narratives dealing with pollution and associated public health issues of industrial modernity, as well as 20th-century works that explicitly address devastations that a 21st-century perspective might characterize as issues of environmental justice, including the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster in US poet Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (1938), the Dust Bowl in US novelist John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and conflicts between colonial and local land use and agricultural practices in South African writer Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), to name only a few.27

Indeed, one of the major thrusts of environmental justice ecocriticism has been the work of literary reclamation. Environmental justice ecocriticism is often invested in making the case for the presence and importance of environmental justice frameworks in newly expansive archives, including pre-1980s literary and cultural genealogies as well as contemporary texts which have been excluded from the canon of environmental literature because they were produced by minoritized writers whose understandings of “environmental” had more to do with the framework of environmental justice than with the assumptions of mainstream Western environmentalism.28 This ecocritical project takes shape both in works of literary criticism and in projects of curation and collection such as Ghost Fishing and poet and critic Camille Dungy’s 2009 anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. “For years,” Dungy writes in the introduction to Black Nature, “poets and critics have called for a broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics, one that acknowledges other voices and a wider range of cultural and ethnic concerns,” but because “the poetry of African Americans only conforms to these [Western nature writing] traditions in limited ways,” because “in a great deal of African American poetry we see poems written from the perspective of the workers of the field,” these calls were not heeded and ecopoetics lacked an understanding of a specifically Black environmental literary imagination.29

In other words, environmental justice ecocriticism, rather than targeting a subset of environmental literature, often engages with the environmental and social ideas of a much broader corpus of texts. Furthermore, since environmental justice ecocriticism has, since its inception, been in dialogue with cultural studies, the field puts pressure not just on the “environmental” but also on the “literary” boundaries of “environmental justice literature,” widening the frame in order to take up for analysis a variety of cultural objects and aesthetic texts which do not fit neatly within the canonical strictures of the literary.30 In short, to work in environmental justice ecocriticism is to take seriously the nuanced relationship between environmental justice and the literary, attending not only to how literary works represent specific issues of the Environmental Justice Movement in a variety of literary genres and through a variety of relationships to documentary or the “real,” but also to the ways in which historically, geographically, and formally diverse cultural objects reflect and refract the more capacious political frameworks of environmental justice for distinct political ends.

Environmental Justice in Anthropocene Literature

Climate change presents, if not new, at least newly inflected issues of environmental justice. Broadly, “climate justice” refers to the structural understanding that climate change is neither equally produced nor equally experienced by all humans: the Global North has been and continues to be disproportionately responsible for the carbon consumption and emissions driving climate change, and vulnerable populations are disproportionately likely to suffer from the effects of climate change. These effects include land loss from sea level rise, geographic and infrastructural vulnerability to heat waves, hurricanes (whose strength is impacted by warmer temperatures) and wildfires (which occur during a greater part of the year), poor air quality, food and water shortages, and exposure to pathogens whose reach and danger are enhanced by changing climate conditions—all of which lead to increased threats to poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities. Climate justice, then, is a framework that insists on the importance of recognizing human difference, power, and justice in the context of climate change: like environmental justice, it attends to how environmental harm produced by the powerful rebounds onto marginalized human populations.

Climate justice is very much a feature of many literary engagements with climate change. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)31 are often identified as among the earliest works of “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. These critical dystopian novels, set in a near-future United States, weave global warming into the characters’ daily lives as well as into the macro-scale political features of the dystopian world, paying particular attention to how environmental devastation has rendered the already socially marginalized even more vulnerable to interpersonal and structural as well as environmental violence. Butler’s early attention to climate justice echoes through many climate-focused works of speculative fiction from the 1990s onward. For instance, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 near-future novel The Ministry for the Future addresses climate justice both in its exposition of the unequal harm that climate change inflicts across different human populations and in its titular establishment of an intergenerational structure seeking to secure climate justice for future generations.32 Beyond speculative fiction, contemporary environmental literature often addresses issues of climate justice, as in Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, which narrates a Mississippi family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina, or Craig Santos Perez’s (Chamorro) 2020 poetry collection Habitat Threshold, which situates the Anthropocene in historical and present networks of colonialism and racial capitalism.33

Even so, climate justice is too frequently relegated to the background even in literature that addresses climate change. Increasingly, as the effects of anthropogenic climate change have become more evident and public awareness of the phenomenon has increased, it seems that (nearly) all Anthropocene literature is environmental literature—that the boundaries between “environmental literature” and the rest of the contemporary canon have begun to erode. But if climate change has permeated contemporary literature, the same cannot be said of climate justice, at least not to the same degree. Too often, Western conversations about the Anthropocene represent climate change as something that unites humankind, sweeping aside differences as if all humans face the same crisis—a perspective historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has put into critical conversation with the commitments of postcolonial studies.34 Some literary engagements with climate change reproduce this perspective—as, for example, in speculative fictions or storylines within literary fiction that situate climate violence as something which may befall even the privileged in the future, rather than as something already affecting the less powerful in the present.

Climate change thus presents an especially striking example of the importance of decolonial thought to an environmental justice framework. For, particularly in the context of climate change, environmental justice ecocriticism often aims to identify or interpret not only the presence but also the telling absence or misrepresentation of climate justice in literature about climate change—to emphasize the ways literary objects reinforce varied rather than monolithic perspectives on the Anthropocene.35 Climate change, in short, contributes new dimensions of political and environmental harm to the intersections of environmental justice and literary study, even while staying within environmental justice ecocriticism’s commitment to widening the frame and questioning the assumptions of mainstream environmentalism.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of environmental justice in literature was first articulated in the early 2000s in terms of a second “wave” of ecocriticism, one that was moving away from an earlier orientation toward deep ecology and biocentrism and toward engagement with different kinds of environmental spaces, experiences, and ethics. Literature scholars Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein’s 2002 edited collection, The Environmental Justice Reader, is a benchmark in the emergence of environmental justice as a humanistic field of study, encompassing essays on social movement history and ethnography, ecocritical approaches and literary engagements with environmental justice, and pedagogical approaches to environmental justice from a humanities perspective.36 The Reader established the lines along which a great deal of subsequent humanistic environmental justice scholarship would proceed, in particular the way it modeled various forms of the critical expansion of the parameters of critical attention which would continue to drive environmental justice ecocriticism. One foundational dimension of this expansion concerned disciplinary boundaries. Environmental justice scholarship is necessarily interdisciplinary, and environmental justice ecocriticism often both draws from and addresses other environmental studies disciplines. In other words, environmental justice ecocritics argue not just for the presence of environmental justice issues in literature but for the political impact and significance of literary representations of environmental justice issues. Julie Sze’s essay in the 2002 Reader illustrates this trend, which continues to shape the way environmental justice ecocriticism not only engages with environmental science, policy, and social history in its interpretation of culture but also shows how cultural objects exert agency in those fields.37

Another common move of environmental justice ecocriticism concerns the expansion of the boundaries of the “environmental literature” which is the object of ecocritical attention. Environmental justice ecocriticism follows environmental justice politics in emphasizing the thought and work of minoritized groups and individuals—not making an assimilationist argument for their “inclusion” in a broader environmental movement, but seeing what environmentalism looks like and how it changes when it begins from these histories and subject positions. The Reader includes essays on Pacific Island, Nigerian, and other Global South environmental figures, movements, and cultural fields as well as work on US ethnic politics and literature. In the years that followed its publication, environmental justice ecocritics began tracing genealogies of environmental justice thought and literature that predated the emergence of the Environmental Justice Movement, as well as pursuing the (often related) project of articulating Indigenous, postcolonial, and Global South forms of environmental thought that emerged outside of Western frameworks. US examples of this trend include Jeffrey Myers’s Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature (2005) and Paul Outka’s Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance (2008).38 Major works in Global South and postcolonial ecocriticism (which has important overlaps with environmental justice ecocriticism: see “Decolonizing Environmental Justice”), include Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism (2006, revised 2015), Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee’s Postcolonial Environments (2010), focusing specifically on Anglophone Indian novels, Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley’s edited collection Postcolonial Ecologies (2011), Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), Cajetan Iheka’s Naturalizing Africa (2018), the edited collection Latinx Environmentalisms (2019), and Jennifer Wenzel’s The Disposition of Nature (2020).39 Environmental justice ecocriticism has also expanded its reach in terms of conceptualizing marginalization, attending to disability and sexuality as well as race, ethnicity, gender, and class.40

Drawing on its foundational interest in articulating how literature and literary studies can contribute meaningfully to interdisciplinary and extra-academic projects, environmental justice ecocriticism has given significant and sustained attention to the difficulties of communicating about environmental harm in effective and compelling ways. Literary scholars have taken up sociologist Ulrich Beck’s concept of the “risk society” in relation to environmental health and harm in works such as Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008), which examines how literary works represent the new planetary scale of environmental risk, and Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures (2010), which names the phenomenon of “transcorporeality,” the permeability of the human body to nonhuman matter, and shows how writers have grappled with it. In a similar vein is Nixon’s work on slow violence, which reshaped environmental justice ecocriticism, with its titular concept becoming a way to name various forms of environmental injustice that operate gradually rather than directly. Though not primarily focused on environmental justice, Timothy Morton’s use of the concept of the “hyperobject”41 also fits into this category of ecocritics grappling with problems of scale and representation. More recently, ecocritical work on literature’s political utility has begun to take up questions of affect42 and, in the emergent field of empirical ecocriticism, to work across disciplines to measure the effects of environmental literature.43 These new developments extend longstanding investments in the interdisciplinary significance of environmental justice ecocriticism for shaping public engagement with environmental justice.

Further Reading

  • Adamson, Joni. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.
  • Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein, eds. The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
  • Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
  • Cronon, William, ed. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: Norton, 1995.
  • DeLoughrey, Elizabeth, and George Handley, eds. Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Guha, Ramachandra, and Joan Martínez Alier, eds. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. Abingdon, UK: Earthscan, 1997.
  • Heise, Ursula. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Houser, Heather. Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
  • Huggan, Graham, and Helen Tiffin. Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2015.
  • Iheka, Cajetan. Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Mukherjee, Upamanyu Pablo. Postcolonial Environments: Nature, Culture and the Contemporary Indian Novel in English. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Myers, Jeffrey. Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
  • Nishime, Leilani, and Kim D. Hester Williams, eds. Racial Ecologies. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018.
  • Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Pellow, David Naguib. What Is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018.
  • Posmentier, Sonya. Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
  • Stein, Rachel, ed. New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and Activism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Sze, Julie. Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.
  • Wald, Sarah D., David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, eds. Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2019.
  • Wenzel, Jennifer. The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020.