Environmental Concepts, Considered
Justice is a firmly human concept, and it’s almost entirely based on subjective experience. Remember the last great nature video you watched? Remember when that beautiful cheetah, mother of 3 cubs, was sprinting her heart out to catch a baby caribou to sustain her and her babies? And that caribou family who’s newborn calf had just set foot on his wobbly legs? Who are you rooting for? What’s justice in this scenario? What is a just outcome? I suppose that if we had to stretch the concept to apply, justice could only be understood on a systems level – such that justice is the balance that both species experience in the opportunity to hunt, and run.
But what about natural disasters? What about the earthquake that devastated Nepal? How could the concept of fairness and justice apply? And zooming still further out, how do we understand the 6th extinction as “man-made” and deplorable, when the five extinctions that preceded it were simply acts of god / time / geology / scientific forces / random events? Is this current extinction spree wrong because we’re the culprits? And our violence is distinct from the violence of nature?
What is it about justice that’s so particular to us human animals? There is, of course, no universal justice. A horrible act of violence and terrorism for one is an act of the utmost justice and right for another. Injustice, inequity, unfairness for some is quite alright for others. So how do we navigate the murky waters of justice and use it as a tool for good, without oversimplifying and falling back on familiar slogans and dominant myths?
The environmental movement, with its ideology rooted in both worlds – the world of people and the world of nature - can offer some important insights into the fuzzy realm of justice. Certainly, it’s not fair that some people take on the environmental burdens of our industry and economy – and of course these “some people” are often poor people of color. When people demand justice, as they demanded in the antebellum south, as they demand today in Baltimore, and tomorrow in your back yard, they are proclaiming their right to a great many number of things – most generally, the freedom for self-determination. The freedom from violence, unjustified and systematic; the freedom from imprisonment of the body and mind; the freedom to live and let live.
And therein lies the key to understanding environmental justice. At the end of the day, justice is about Freedom and Oppression. A single act of violence, conservation, generosity, or dissent can only be understood through the lens of justice if it creates or restricts space for freedom in the world. It’s not whether or not the cheetah kills the caribou that determines justice, it’s that the cheetah gets to hunt at all, that both animals have a chance at survival, and that both species have the opportunity to thrive. Justice is about securing access and opportunity to the means for surviving and thriving for all species. There's no guarantee that a drought wont come and damage our material reality, but it's the knowledge, skills, and personal connections that all living things rely on for survival that are our most powerful tools for justice.
The environmental movement, and any movement for that matter, must commit itself to freedom, liberation, and profound agency if it is to proclaim its allegiance to justice.
- Eugenia Manwelyan