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Environmental Justice  

Rebecca McWilliams Ojala Ballard

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.