Thirty years ago, the environmental justice movement emerged as a powerful critique of traditional environmentalism, which had largely ignored the distribution of environmental harms and the ways in which those harms were concentrated on the poor and communities of color. This Article calls for a similarly groundbreaking reimagination of both mainstream environmental policy and environmental justice: we argue that, to truly embrace justice, environmentalists must take account not only of the ways that environmental harms uniquely impact vulnerable populations, but also of the costs that environmental protection imposes on the most vulnerable among us.
In this Article, we contend that both mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice have taken inadequate account of the costs and harms that environmental protection imposes on the vulnerable, particularly the poor and communities of color. Drawing on examples from a wide variety of contexts—from the formation of national parks, to the protection of endangered species, to regressive environmental taxes and regulations, to net-metering policies that promote solar power—we demonstrate that there are many instances in which environmental protection and social justice arguably go head-to-head rather than hand-in-hand. We suggest that environmental literature has largely ignored these situations. Scholars have not attempted to adequately identify or theorize principles to guide consideration or mitigation of the harms that come when we protect an endangered species, restrict resource extraction, designate areas with protected status, or take other steps in the name of environmental conservation and protection.
We then make the case for pursuing what we call “just environmentalism”—grappling with what procedural and distributive justice may require when an environmental good comes at a disproportionate cost to the poor or communities of color. Throughout, we take particular interest in those instances in which the preferences and autonomy of tribal sovereigns come into conflict with the goals of environmentalism. We do not advocate for less rigorous environmental protection, but for a more just consideration of that protection’s costs. The paper seeks to launch a robust scholarly conversation about the issues it identifies and the questions it raises, with particular focus on the ways in which just environmentalism presents unique challenges beyond those considered by traditional environmental justice. Wrestling with these difficult challenges is necessary, we argue, not only for the pursuit of justice but also for continued environmental progress in our deeply divided country.