Towards an Expanded History of Environmental Justice

by Ellen Burke, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP

A view of the Hudson River and adjoining neighborhood that would have been most impacted by sewage from Vassar College prior to Ellen Swallow Richards’ intervention. / image: Poughkeepsie bridge, 1906, Detroit Publishing Company via Library of Congress

Towards an Expanded History of Environmental Justice in America: Ellen Swallow Richards and Human Ecology


Histories of environmental justice (EJ) in the United States situate its founding in the late 20th century, in grass-roots activism to address environmental harms such as pollution in inhabited places, including urban neighborhoods and rural communities. EJ is described as challenging traditional ideas of environmentalism in the US that focus on “pristine wilderness” and endangered species, and scholars of the movement have noted the ways that race and gender intersect with differing approaches to defining environmentalism [1, 2]. Early leaders in traditional environmentalism were largely white men, writers like John Muir and Henry Thoreau. In contrast, early leaders of the EJ movement were largely women and often poor women of color. Their focus was on links between human and environmental health, and on calls for self-determination in the quality of one’s immediate lived environment.

In 1982 residents of Warren County, North Carolina, challenged the siting of a toxic-waste landfill facility in their community with six weeks of marches and protests, including blockading trucks arriving at the landfill. This organized action, while not the first of its kind, is often identified as the beginning of the EJ movement [3]. Other histories locate the movement’s beginnings in 1968 with Dr. Martin Luther King’s support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, or the 1969 grape boycott organized by United Farm Workers [4]. Each of these events are direct actions taken to protect human health, and recognize that burdens of pollution are inequitably distributed based on race and class. Gordon Walker’s seven characteristics of the EJ movement are evident in these early actions, including emphasis on the politics of race, a focus on justice to people in the environment, and demands for participatory justice [5].

A citizen is removed forcibly by law enforcement agents during the 1982 Warren County protests which mark the beginnings of the environmental justice movement. / image: courtesy of Ricky Stilley

EJ is often seen as an extension of the civil rights movement, as early organizers aligned with civil rights leaders, used similar methods for non-violent engagement, and addressed issues of race and human rights. But the core focus of the movement—concern with human health in the lived environment and a recognition that environmental harms are inequitably distributed—can also be connected to a longer history. The understanding that environmental harm is also harmful to human health can be found as early as the mid-1800s in the sanitary reform (SR) movement in England and the United States. While the SR movement had different aims and goals than contemporary EJ activism, both connect two important concepts: the effects of environmental modification on human health, and the inequitable distribution of risk and harm. For example, an early pioneer of the SR movement, Edwin Chadwick, identified patterns of mortality related to social class in mid-1800s London in his study General Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain.

As EJ grows to become a global movement with a wide array of concerns, expanding the theoretical history of the movement is important to situate it in a longer dialogue about human health and the environment. Doing so can help to identify entrenched patterns of ill-health, urban form and socio-economic class and race beyond the relatively short history of the existing EJ movement, and can provide scholars and advocates with a longer-range vision of root causes, and potential strategies for action. Equally important, an expanded history can potentially forge new forms of allyship, and demonstrate that the way environments are planned, including planning for pollution and waste, is a societal issue that does not have to be accepted in its current forms.

Ellen Swallow Richards, oekology, and environmental justice

Ellen Swallow Richards was a leader in the SR movement in the late 1800s, and is notable for her accomplishments within the field, as well as her many firsts as a woman, including being the first woman to graduate from the all-male Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1873 and the first woman to work for MIT on the teaching and research staff of the chemistry department. Richards focused on environment as an inhabited place, adopting the term oekology, which today describes the scientific study of relationships between living organisms and their environment but which she described as “the science of the conditions of the health and well-being of everyday human life” [6].

Coined in 1875 by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, oekology was derived from ancient Greek oikoc meaning “house” or “dwelling” and was introduced in the United States by Richards in 1892 (after correspondence with Haeckel). She described environment as consisting of natural features like climate, as well as those produced by human activity, such as “noise, dust, poisonous vapors … dirty water and unclean air” [7]. Similarly, EJ activists understand environment as an inhabited place, defining it in complex interrelated terms. Robert Bullard summarizes the position as “the environmental justice movement … basically says that the environment is every-thing: where we live, work, play, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. And so we can’t separate the physical environment from the cultural environment” [8].

Portrait of John Muir / image: Francis M. Fritz via Wikimedia Commons

The focus on the daily, inhabited environment contrasts with the work of traditional environmentalists such as John Muir which focuses on preservation of areas understood as untouched by human inhabitation. A contemporary of Richards, Muir focused on wilderness preservation [9] in Yosemite Valley, California, helping to draw up the proposed boundary for the National Park in 1889. In some ways, both focused on health. Muir framed wilderness as a tonic for the spiritual ills of society at his time, a place to heal the soul through contact with fresh air and beauty [10]. He spent time hiking and living in wilderness areas, and through his writings advocated for the transcendent qualities of places as yet visually untouched by modern human inhabitation. Richards’ interest was in the very places of ill-health that Muir’s writings excoriated—cities and industrial areas—but sought instead to understand the relationship between pollution and human health and to develop means of improving these conditions. It is important to note that unlike EJ activists and some of her contemporaries in the SR movement, Richards did not recognize how race, ethnicity, and class impacted health outcomes in the environment, and despite her own achievements she largely accepted traditional gender roles in labor divisions.

The overlaps and dissonances between Richards’ work and the field of environmental justice are discussed here through her major accomplishments: advocacy for state responsibility to ensure environmental health, pioneering infrastructures of sanitation, and advocacy for the role of women in enacting environmental health through organized participatory action.

Click here to read the full article, published in Volume 10 of Dialectic, the peer-reviewed journal of the School of Architecture at the University of Utah. Excerpt republished on The Field with permission.


  1. Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.)
  2. Di Chiro, Giovanna. “Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1995), p 298-303.
  3. Newton, David, E. Environmental Justice: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1996), p 1-2.
  4. Bullard, Robert, D., Glenn S. Johnson, and Angel O. Torres. Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable, and Livable Communities (American Public Health Association, 2011), p 82.
  5. Walker, Gordon. Environmental Justice: Concepts, Evidence and Politics (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), p 20-21.
  6. Dyball, Robert and Liesel Carlsson. “Ellen Swallow Richards: Mother of Human Ecology?,” Human Ecology Review 23:2 (December 2017):17-29, p 22.
  7. Richards, Ellen H. Sanitation in Daily Life (Boston, MA: Whitcomb & Barrows, 1907), p v.
  8. Mohai, Paul, David Pellow, and J. Timmons Roberts. “Environmental Justice,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34:1 (November 21, 2009):405-30, p 407.
  9. Muir encountered Yosemite as a wilderness empty of people in part because its indigenous inhabitants had been driven from the land in 1851 by the Mariposa Battalion, prior to his arrival.
  10. Samuel Hall Young, Alaska Days with John Muir (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1915).

Ellen Burke, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP, is associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She teaches and writes on resilience and regeneration in urban contexts, including food systems, designed ecology, landscape performance, and community-based environmental justice projects. She has published in Landscape Research, Avery Review, Bracket One and the collection Food Waste Management: Solving the Wicked Problem (Palgrave Macmillan) and her research investigations have been funded by ArtPlace America and the Landscape Architecture Foundation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vassar College and a Master of Landscape Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Leave a Reply