What Does the Doctrine of Discovery Have to Do With Environmental Justice?

by Zoé Edgecomb, ASLA

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio. At the time European monarchs began granting lands of the New World to their subjects, geography was a young science, and land surveying as we know it had not yet been invented. / image: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

We need a history lesson

To really understand the American landscape, you need to know about the Doctrine of Discovery. As a set of principles used to justify European colonization, it grew over hundreds of years to become a pillar of international law, and it set the stage for centuries of imperialism worldwide.

These days, most people agree that not everyone benefited from the process of U.S. colonization. White settlers broke treaties with Native American nations, drove the buffalo nearly to extirpation, and ripped children from their mothers to be sold as slaves in the service of cotton production. But unless you’re Native American, it’s likely you’ve never heard of “Discovery.” ASLA’s position on environmental justice calls on us to address unequal distribution of resources related to land, including clean air, water, and food. The colonialist Doctrine of Discovery is at the root of unequal distribution in the United States, and for that reason it’s essential that we know about it.

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