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].

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