ENVS203 Study Guide

Site: Saylor Academy
Course: ENVS203: Environmental Ethics, Justice, and World Views
Book: ENVS203 Study Guide
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Date: Wednesday, September 27, 2023, 5:09 PM

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Study Guide Structure

In this study guide, the sections in each unit (1a., 1b., etc.) are the learning outcomes of that unit. 

Beneath each learning outcome are:

  • questions for you to answer independently;
  • a brief summary of the learning outcome topic; and
  • and resources related to the learning outcome. 

At the end of each unit, there is also a list of suggested vocabulary words.


How to Use this Study Guide

  1. Review the entire course by reading the learning outcome summaries and suggested resources.
  2. Test your understanding of the course information by answering questions related to each unit learning outcome and defining and memorizing the vocabulary words at the end of each unit.

By clicking on the gear button on the top right of the screen, you can print the study guide. Then you can make notes, highlight, and underline as you work.

Through reviewing and completing the study guide, you should gain a deeper understanding of each learning outcome in the course and be better prepared for the final exam!

Unit 1: Ethics and the Environment

1a. Identify what is meant by ethics and ethical behavior

  • What are ethics and ethical behavior?
  • What are some current and past challenges to ethical behavior?
  • Why are ethics critical to formulating environmental policy?
  • What does it mean to think and act ethically? What is the difference?

We derive the word "ethics" from the Greek word ethos, which means a cultural custom or habit. We derive the word "moral" from the Latin word moralis, which also means custom. Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with morality. Many use it synonymously with moral philosophy.

Ethics refers to the moral principles or "code of conduct" we use to determine what is "good" or "bad", and "right or wrong". Ethics is based on our community's accepted value system. Ethics signifies established standards of behavior that provide insight into how we believe we should behave or act in a given situation, and in matters of life or death.

Our ethical values inform the policies, regulations, legislations, and conventions we adopt as a society. We use our ethical values to hold individuals, politicians, and community leaders accountable for what they do, and what they fail to do. Our ethical values can help us mobilize collective action toward a shared objective. Our ethical values inform the actions and behaviors we consider important, true, beautiful, and what constitutes a good life. We use our ethical values to resolve humanity's most pressing problems, via a moral course of action.

We use our ethical values to decide a longstanding question: "who gets what, when, why, and how much?"

To review, see What is Ethics? and Basic Ethics Concepts, Ethics in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and Ethics: Current and Future Challenges.


1b. Distinguish between ethics and morals

  • What is the difference between ethics and morals?
  • What is beneficence?
  • What contributions did the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) and Plato (c. 424–348 BC) make to the foundation of Western ethics?
  • How did Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BC) regard the human condition as members of the natural world?

Many people use the words "ethical" and "moral" interchangeably, but some philosophers detect a subtle difference between their meanings. "Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs".

For example, in the real world, beneficence is a concept in research ethics which states that researchers should consider the welfare of their research participants during a clinical trial or research study. Maleficence, the antonym of beneficence, refers to "a practice which opposes the welfare of the research participant".

Pay close attention to the ethical concepts virtue, action, and justice, which are explored in depth in Unit 4. These terms underscore the study of ethics.

To review, see What is the Difference between Ethics and Morals?The Origins of Western ThoughtSocrates: Philosophical LifePlato: Immortality and the Forms, and Plato: The State and the Soul.


1c. Identify the key ethical viewpoints and how they differ from one another

  • What is the difference between metaethics and normative ethics?
  • What is deontology?
  • What is applied ethics? What features distinguish it from the other two main ethical viewpoints?
  • What does ethical reasoning entail?
  • What are the major subfields of applied ethics (legal, business, environmental, and medical or bioethics), and the challenges they address?
  • Can ethics be universal or is it culturally dependent? Explain and provide examples that support your response.

Metaethics (or analytical ethics) is concerned with uncovering the origin and nature of moral principles, moral attitudes, moral judgments, and moral properties. Metaethics is concerned with what it means to say we should or ought to act in accordance with normative theory.

Prescriptive or normative ethics refer to the code of conduct we use to determine how we should act or exist in our community. This study is prescriptive and practical. We do not simply act as a matter of course without asking what we ought to do, or what we should do. Examples of normative questions include, "Is it ever ethical to lie?" and, "Do I have a duty to help the poor and those less fortunate than me?" Prescriptive or normative ethics provide practical guidance, according to our norms, about how we should act; it tells us what is right and wrong.

Deontology, derived from the Greek word deon, refers to the philosophical study of our obligation or sense of duty to act in a certain way. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued that we determine the value of our actions by examining our motives, or whether we acted from a sense of commitment or duty. For example, does a passerby have a duty to help an individual who is sick or needs help? Do we have a moral obligation to help?

In terms of environmental ethics, human interactions in a shared environment matter because they are not neutral: our actions have an inherent and lasting impact. Evaluating our impact through a moral or ethical lens helps us determine how to respond and act accordingly. The environmental rights movement is grounded in the ethical belief that we have a duty to preserve the environment and everyone has a right to be protected from environmental degradation.

Study Tip: applying globally distinct examples can make it easier to identify patterns of inequality that put the importance of environmental ethics into focus. It is helpful to visually map these examples.

To review, see Normative EthicsAn Introduction to Ethical Reasoning, Applied Ethics, and Universal Ethics.


1d. Define environmental ethics

  • What is environmental ethics?
  • What are the broad categories of ecosystem services?
  • What are some benefits people gain from ecosystems?
  • What is intrinsic value? Does nature have intrinsic value?
  • Discuss some non-western perspectives of environmental ethics.

During the past century, the environment has undergone dramatic changes for many reasons, including the accelerated development of cities, a global culture of consumerism and waste, our reliance on non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, and climate change. Communities commodify, or attach a monetary value, to our natural resources, such as precious minerals, diamonds, oil, and water, in ways that cause competing businesses and governments to fight over who owns the profits. Business monopolies promote exploitation and frequently cause impoverished and marginalized communities to erupt in violence.

Environmental ethics refers to the moral relationship human beings have with their world. Polluters are no longer the only recipients of blame. Doesn't everyone have a special duty, obligation, and responsibility to protect our planet and natural species? Shouldn't we take every precaution to ensure impoverished and disconnected communities are not subject to undue harm and stress?

Environmental ethicists discuss ways to minimize the stress, pain, injury, and death environmental degradation imposes on our ecosystems. They seek to improve and promote a clean and healthful environment and sustain properly functioning ecosystems which include agroecosystems, forest ecosystems, grassland ecosystems, and aquatic ecosystems. They argue that we, as human beings, are responsible for our environment because we have the freedom and rational capacity to make ethical and moral choices. We must regulate the provisions our ecosystems provide.

To review, see Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value?, Introduction to Environmental Ethics, Ecosystem Services: Economics, and Non-Western Perspectives on Environmental Ethics.


1e. Analyze the issues of environmental responsibility and our duty to the environment

  • What are the "Tragedy of the Commons" and altruism?
  • How would you explain the emergence of climate ethics and its current relevance?
  • What is a carbon footprint?
  • What dangers do climate deniers present to our shared humanity?
  • How would you explain the history and struggle for animal ethics and animal rights?

The concept of environmental ethics emerged from the civil rights movement in the United States. The goal of environmental ethicists is to distribute natural resources fairly and justly and reduce health hazards associated with environmental degradation. They believe unchecked production, distribution, and consumption of resources can fuel unhealthy levels of pollution. Advocates argue we need to reduce our human ecological or carbon footprint to support the earth's sustainability.

To achieve environmental justice, we need to identify and redirect policies that disproportionately and structurally impact our most vulnerable populations, such as people of low socioeconomic status. Climate change is a primary example of an environmental issue that negatively impacts human life. Consider how various recent natural disasters have transformed, displaced, and impoverished so many communities.

Because we share the planet and its resources, we cannot extricate human activity from climate change and the sustainability of the earth. This means every individual has a responsibility and moral duty (as we discussed above) to each other to protect the environment so we can secure our survival.

Study Tip: Consider the ethical responsibilities of the international community, and the political implications of the international treaties, such as the Paris Agreement or Kyoto Protocol. You do not need to know about the specifics of these treaties for this course, but you should be familiar with their general tenets.

To review, see:


Unit 1 Vocabulary

  • action
  • analytic ethics 
  • beneficence
  • carbon footprint
  • consumption
  • deontology
  • environmental ethics
  • environmental justice 
  • ethics
  • health hazards
  • Immanuel Kant
  • international treaties
  • justice
  • Kyoto Protocols
  • maleficence 
  • metaethics
  • moral
  • moral obligation
  • natural resources
  • normative ethics
  • Paris Agreement
  • prescriptive ethics
  • rational capacity
  • sustainability
  • values
  • virtue 
  • vulnerable populations 

Unit 2: Environmental Ethics Approaches and World Views

2a. Describe the various approaches to environmental ethics

  • What examples can you give of how our society views environmental ethics?
  • How would you compare anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric environmental ethics?
  • What are four approaches that support the environment and the advancement of technology?
  • How would you compare anthropocentrism with biocentrism?
  • What are ecocentrism and egalitarianism? What was Aldo Leopold's relationship with these concepts?
  • What is deep ecology? How does it relate to the Gaia hypothesis? What are some of its impacts?
  • How would you compare and contrast the four central ethical viewpoints: metaethics, descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and practical ethics?

Many believe the environment is the most urgent issue of our lifetime. From water contamination in Flint, Michigan to the inhumane conditions that exist in the diamond mines of the Congo, environmental inequities often impact our at-risk populations the most. These communities frequently lack protection services and are on the frontline for receiving serious health hazards.

For these reasons, environmental ethicists believe local and global policymakers must find ways to ethically inform and align their individual and collective environmental behaviors – our global community is interrelated. For example, an oil spill can put entire maritime ecosystems at risk, poison the people and marine life that consume the contaminated fish who swim in the polluted waters and damage the coastal marshlands and beaches 30 miles away.

Environmental ethics are based on the value we assign to nature and our environment. This discipline emerged in response to the negative effects of the industrial revolution and the unique ethical challenges related to biodiversity loss, pollution, and other environmental issues, such as climate change and environmental inequities.

We can differentiate major environmental ethical theories by the value they assign nature and the actions they prescribe to address environmental problems.

To review, see:

2b. Categorize beliefs about environmental ethics

  • How are Western ethics anthropocentric and individualistic?
  • What is ethnobiology?
  • How does cultural or ethical relativism impact our environmental predicament?
  • Explain how and why religion has (or has not) become a significant political advocate for environmental issues?
  • How did the people in ancient Greece view the environment? How has this view evolved?
  • What is the relationship between environmental history, science, and philosophy?

We do not usually assign economic value to something that has "intrinsic value" because we consider it to be "priceless". However, everything we value has an element of subjectivity. Environmentalists argue that our community leaders must act in ways that express their value for nature if they consider it to be "valuable".

For example, communities can impose extreme penalties and sanctions against those who harm the things they value most. These penalties and sanctions provide a measure for the amount of intrinsic value our policymakers assign these items. As you review this section, think about how communities that are most vulnerable to environmental hazards, are often the least responsible for causing the problems.

Cultural or ethical relativism refers to the fact that our ethical framework depends on or relates to our particular culture. In other words, our cultural background dictates an inherent bias that informs or colors how we value things. However, although ethics can be relative to cultures, environmental ethics is inclusive and shares principles based on our shared need (regardless of culture) to protect the earth.

As you study, try drawing a timeline that charts how the world has evolved in its view of the environment.

To review, see:

2c. Examine the differences between utilitarian conservation and biocentric preservation

  • What is biocentric preservation? How are its concerns individualistic?
  • What is utilitarian conservation? How are its concerns holistic?

Biocentric preservation is underscored by a mindset or belief that gives nature the same prominence for life, with a will-to-live that matches that of humans. Throughout history, we can identify biocentric principles, especially in societies where humans live in close connection with the natural world. For example, consider how many Native American traditions stress a deep connection with nature that binds everyone and everything. According to their value system, all living beings and natural objects have a fundamental "sacred" value.

In this vein, biocentrists promote policies that aim to protect every individual living thing from the negative impact of environmental degradation. This outlook has deep ecological roots since supporters believe humanity is part of nature, rather than separate or superior to the natural environment.

To review, see Utilitarian-Based Land Ethic and Relationships between People and Animals.


2d. Identify the key arguments of the Gaia hypothesis, and evaluate the evidence of the theory

  • What is the Gaia hypothesis?
  • Building the Gaia hypothesis, what role does biodiversity play in the stability of ecosystems?

The Gaia hypothesis posits that life on earth, and its nonliving surroundings, unite to create a "single and self-regulating complex system" that is vital for sustaining life on earth. This theory suggests that this united system seeks a physical and chemical environment that is ideal for contemporary life. A meta-life form that once occupied earth began a dynamic and continual process of converting the planet into its own substantive material. Every life form is part of our planet, Gaia, or earth.

Think about how many cells comprise our organs and bodies. Consider how earth's many diverse lifeforms contribute interactively to produce and sustain the conditions for the evolution and prosperity of earth.

To review, see The Gaia Hypothesis, From Gaia Theory to Deep Ecology, and The Gaia Hypothesis.


2e. Critically analyze various religious viewpoints about the environment

  • How did people who lived in Ancient Greece feel about the environment?
  • How do people from Native American cultures view the environment?
  • What do people who follow the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Sikh religions say about the environment?
  • What are some examples of similar and different beliefs that people from these different religious traditions have regarding the environment?

Our religious beliefs often help us define our ethical values, moral beliefs, and influence our individual and collective behaviors. A close relationship between religion and the environment has endured throughout time. We can find many examples in contemporary society. It may be helpful to create a chart to highlight the similarities and intersections between these beliefs and their views on the environment.

To review, see:

Unit 2 Vocabulary

  • biocentric preservation
  • biodiversity loss
  • climate change 
  • cultural relativism 
  • environmental degradation
  • environmental inequities
  • environmentalists 
  • ethical relativism 
  • Gaia hypothesis
  • inclusive 
  • interrelated
  • intrinsic value 
  • pollution 
  • religious beliefs
  • value 

Unit 3: Environmental Ethics History and Its Pioneers

3a. Detail the history of the environmental ethics movement

  • What was the historical period called the Great Acceleration?
  • How does human activity affect soil degradation, deforestation, wetlands draining and damming, air pollution, and climate change?
  • What are some positive and negative environmental milestones that occurred during prehistory and antiquity?
  • What major environmental events occurred during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period?
  • What positive and negative experiences and events during the Industrial Revolution and 20th Century promoted the environmental movement?
  • What major human developments occurred prior to 1970 to shape the environmental ethics movement?

Environmentalists argue that we are responsible for damaging the environment by creating large amounts of garbage, industrial waste, and pollution, due to our ever-expanding human population. We continue to exploit additional energy sources, mine the earth's natural resources, and inflict further environmental degradation.

However, environmentalists believe we can promote environmentally sustainable practices and use advances in technology to positively impact the environment, such as by encouraging recycling, reuse, and creating renewable energy sources to promote efficiency and reduce waste.

In addition, the Internet and other communications technologies allow us to access information on a global scale, so the international community can communicate more effectively to resolve environmental challenges more quickly.

A goal of the environmental ethics movement is to reduce the depletion of natural resources and mitigate environmental degradation by mobilizing the population to promote sustainability and protect the earth for future generations.

To review, see:


3b. Identify some key events that changed the course of environmental attitudes

  • What was the significance of the first Earth Day?
  • What does Earth day teach us?
  • What is the main role of the U.S. European Environment Agency?
  • How would you describe some main milestones in European environmental history, such as the launch of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Amsterdam Treaty, and the establishment of the World Wildlife Fund?

To review these topics, see How the First Earth Day Came AboutWhat The First Earth Day Can Teach Us About Sharing, and Europe's Environmental Achievements.


3c. List key pioneers whose work on behalf of the environment has influenced environmental morals and ethical behavior

The American environmentalists John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson all contributed to the Early Conservation Era, which led to the environmental ethics movement.


John Muir

  • What is preservation ethics?
  • How did John Muir promote preservation ethics and help found the U.S. National Park Service?
  • Summarize John Muir's main contributions to the environmental ethics movement.

John Muir (1838–1914), the famous Scottish-American naturalist, author, and environmental philosopher, helped preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and many other U.S. wilderness areas. He co-founded The Sierra Club, the American conservation organization, and pushed the U.S. Congress to establish Yosemite National Park in 1890.

To review, see Biography of John MuirHistory of the National Park Service, and The Sierra Club.


Theodore Roosevelt

  • How did the environmental legislation President Theodore Roosevelt enacted during his presidency support the nascent environmental movement?
  • What were Theodore Roosevelt's main contributions to the environmental ethics movement?
  • Do you think Roosevelt's participation in game hunting during his tour of Africa after he left office compromised his environmental legacy?

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) led the "Golden Age of Conservation from 1901–1909" when he was president of the United States. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. He used his position to protect approximately 230 million acres of public land.

To review, see Theodore RooseveltA Very Brief History of the Bureau of Reclamation, and The National Wildlife Refuge System.


Gifford Pinchot

  • What is biocentric ethics?
  • How did Gifford Pinchot use his position within the U.S. Forest Service to support biocentric ethics?
  • What were Gifford Pinchot's main contributions to the environmental ethics movement?

Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946) served as the first chief of the United States Forest Service from 1905–1910 and coined the term conservation ethic. Pinchot promoted scientific forestry and emphasized the controlled, profitable use of forests and other natural resources to benefit mankind. He was one of the first leaders to demonstrate the practicality and profitability of managing forests for continuous cropping, where trees are maintained and replanted.

To review, see History of the First Chief of the U.S. Forest ServiceThe Greatest GoodHistory of the U.S. Forest Service, and The Fires of 1910.


Aldo Leopold

  • What is ecocentric ethics?
  • How did Aldo Leopold use his belief in wildlife management to support ecocentric ethics?
  • What are the central themes and public impact of Leopold's book The Sand County Almanac?
  • What were Aldo Leopold's main contributions to the environmental ethics movement?

Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) contributed to the science of ecology and believed that individuals are interdependent. His ethical viewpoint advocated for respect for land, which shifted the view from conqueror to member, and also believed that problems arise when land is viewed as a commodity. Commodifying land put at risk the preservation of the integrity, stability, and beauty of land.

To review, see Aldo LeopoldAldo Leopold's Life and WorkA Sand County AlmanacThe Land Ethic, and Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time.


Rachel Carson

  • How was Rachel Carson able to use the ecological destruction and health side effects of the pesticide DDT to rally the public to support environmental causes?
  • What were the central themes and public effects of Carson's book Silent Spring?
  • What were Rachel Carson's main contributions to the environmental ethics movement?

Rachel Carson (1907–1964), an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist, is credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Carson began her career as an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Her book Silent Spring (1962), publicized environmental concerns to the wider public and convinced Congress to ban DDT and other pesticides. Carson's writing also inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To review, see DDT and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.


3d. Analyze the proceedings that led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

  • What are the key goals of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?
  • How did science drive the direction of the environmental rights movement?
  • What political ideas and movements influenced the environmental movement post-1970?

To review the importance of the EPA for the environmental ethics movement, see The Origins of the EPA.

Unit 3 Vocabulary

  • commodity 
  • conservation ethic 
  • DDT
  • environmental ethics movement
  • environmentally sustainable practices
  • Gifford Pinchot
  • John Muir
  • pesticides 
  • Rachel Carson
  • Sierra Club
  • Silent Spring
  • sustainability
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • United States Forest Service (USFS)
  • U.S. Bureau of Fisheries
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Unit 4: Environmental Justice

4a. Define environmental justice

  • What is the EPA's definition of environmental justice?
  • What do environmentalists mean by fair treatment and meaningful involvement?
  • How did Plato's ideas about the state and the soul shape what we understand of justice?

Proponents of environmental justice believe that every individual has a right to be protected from environmental degradation. Environment justice includes maintaining a clean and healthy environment for everyone who lives, works, and plays in areas that are closest to sources of pollution. Activists call for equal access to information, participation in decision-making, and justice in environment-related matters.

Environmental justice advocates note that environmental protections are often overshadowed when business leaders and politicians value profit incentives, in the name of progress and development, more than the need to protect poor and underrepresented populations from negative health consequences. Some call this attitude "environmental racism", "toxic imperialism", or "toxic colonialism". They complain that political and business leaders often target impoverished and minority communities when they seek to dispose of trash and hazardous materials or conduct experiments that create environmental hazards.

To review, see:

4b. Explain the factors that drive environmental prejudice

  • What is environmental prejudice?
  • What are four drivers of environmental prejudice?
  • Why is environmental justice a social justice issue?
  • What groups are most impacted by exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins and why?
  • What sparked the environmental movement to address inequity?

Minority and impoverished communities frequently face higher levels of environmental risk due to environmental prejudice and racism. Some activists argue these occurrences are deliberate and note that race has become a useful metric that scientists can use to assess exposure to environmental risk.

For example, many communities build landfills and incinerators near minority communities that put these populations at risk. They often fail to properly warn new homebuyers about the accompanying health risks when they move there. Native Americans face water pollution problems that create health problems and put their cultural traditions, which are tied to water resources on and off their reservations, at risk. Minority communities often lack sufficient representation among corporate decision-makers, regulatory bodies at all levels of government, and even among the leadership of environmental and natural resource advocacy organizations.

To review, see:

4c. Examine examples of environmental injustice from different parts of the world

  • Why does environmental justice represent a shift in thinking among world governments?
  • What is the relationship between economic development and environmental health?
  • What are four examples of environmental injustice and describe their impact on communities throughout the world?
  • What environmental injustices occurred in the fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California?

When segments of the local, regional, and global community suffer from the unhealthy side-effects of pollution, industrial waste, and other contaminants, they can no longer contribute to the economic success of their communities. They fall further and further behind, while their wealthier and healthier neighbors move on with their lives.

The chemicalization of our everyday environment, where toxic chemicals contaminate our bodies via the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink, and personal care products we use. These chemical toxins harm our health by exposing us to carcinogens that cause many forms of cancer, neurotoxins which damage our neurological systems, and chemicals that promote birth defects.

Environmental ethicists argue that companies tend to build their incinerators and dispose of their chemical waste in low-income communities that are less politically organized and have fewer political and economic resources to defend themselves. In some cases the communities that are most impacted by the pollution are located in a different political district from the offending company – the people who suffer the effects of the pollution have fewer political avenues to oppose the company that is disposing of the waste.

Meanwhile, pollution and poor land management practices cause further destruction and economic decline when they restrict the community from engaging in healthy farming, fishing, and the efficient use of natural resources. Proponents of environmental justice argue that everyone (without exception) should have the opportunity to be involved in the effort to help develop, implement, and enforce environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

To review, see Environmental JusticeThe Chevron Oil Refinery Fire, and Greening the Ghetto.


4d. Formulate links between the human rights movement and environmental justice

  • What is the relationship between human rights and social justice?
  • What role has the World Health Organization played in the environmental rights movement?
  • What is the significance of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment?
  • What historic event took place during the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991 in Washington, DC?

Environmental justice advocates argue that a healthy environment should not be restricted to some segments of the community, and not others. However, research shows that certain groups disproportionately suffer environmental harms and/or are disproportionately denied environmental benefits and protections due to discriminatory practices. Those most affected include certain impoverished people and communities, minority and ethnic groups, and segments of the population who have achieved lower levels of education.

Members of the international community have proclaimed that environmental justice is a fundamental human right.

For example, Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held on June 16, 1972, establishes a foundation that links human rights, health, and environmental protection when it declares that "Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being".

In her paper, Dinah Shelton notes "Procedural human rights are emphasized in environmental agreements. Several dozen international treaties adopted since the Stockholm Conference call upon states to take specific measures to ensure that the public is adequately informed about environmental risks, including health risks, posed by specific activities. In addition to the right to information, the public is also given broad rights of participation in decision-making and access to remedies for environmental harm. The protections afforded have increased in scope and number since the adoption of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development".

International organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, offer valuable information about the global environmental risks our communities face. These organizations research these global challenges and document their work in comprehensive annual reports.

To review, see Human Rights, Health, and Environmental Protection, UN Conference on the Human Environment, and Principles of Environmental Justice.


4e. Identify major changes brought about by environmental rights litigation

  • What is a toxic tort lawsuit?
  • What do you need to prove to successfully bring a toxic tort lawsuit?
  • What are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) five top areas of environmental concern?
  • What are the main objectives of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Environmental Quality Improvement Act?

Environmental rights litigation has helped countries maintain regulatory compliance, reduce negative environmental impacts, and integrate environmental programs into their public policy. Additionally, this litigation has created mechanisms for monitoring environmental performance, identifying root causes of environmental degradation, and conducting corrective and preventive actions.

A toxic tort lawsuit is a type of personal injury lawsuit individuals and groups bring against the manufacturer or supplier of a chemical product that causes a toxic injury. In addition, the U.S. Congress has passed the following legislation that authorizes various federal agencies to promote, regulate, and enforce environmental sustainability in the United States.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (1976) authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to: 1. assess and regulate new commercial chemicals before they enter the market, 2. regulate chemicals already existing in 1976 that posed an "unreasonable risk to health or to the environment", such as PCBs, lead, mercury and radon, and 3. regulate the distribution and use of these harmful, toxic chemicals.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) (1980), also known as the Superfund, authorizes federal natural resource agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, and Native American tribes to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. Sites managed under this program are referred to as "Superfund Sites".

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (1970) requires "all executive Federal agencies to prepare environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs). These reports state the potential environmental effects of proposed Federal agency actions. In addition, the U.S. Congress formally recognized that each person has a responsibility to preserve and enhance the environment as trustees for succeeding generations".

The Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1970) created the Office of Environmental Quality whose role is to "assure that each Federal department and agency conducting or supporting public works activities which affect the environment shall implement the policies under existing law".

Review toxic tort lawsuits, environmental rights litigation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Environmental Quality Improvement Act, and the National Environmental Education Act in the following resources.

To review, see Environmental Law and Modern Environmental Management.

4f. Examine environmental management strategies

  • What are brownfields?
  • Why do brownfields present a great concern for environmental agencies?
  • What are the components of an integrated waste management strategy?
  • What are four characteristics that define hazardous waste?
  • What regulations govern the management of solid and hazardous wastes, radioactive waste, and medical waste?

Environmental management systems bring together the people, policies, plans, review mechanisms, and procedures used to manage environmental issues to create strategies that facilitate environmental compliance, address environmental impacts, broaden environmental responsibilities to all whose work has a significant impact on the environment, and contributes the necessary technical expertise.

To review, see Environmental LawModern Environmental Management, and Greening the Ghetto.


4g. Identify the goals of the environmental rights movement

  • What legislation has the U.S. government passed to protect our environment?

The environmental rights movement argues that the earth's resources are limited and risk being completely depleted. As our population grows, many factors contribute to environmental health hazards and inequities, including habitat destruction, deforestation, overhunting, overfishing, and an increasingly negative impact on each individual.

The environmental movement emerged due to the public's increased concern for the apparent rise in air and water pollution, radiation, pesticide poisoning, and other problems. It became increasingly clear that environmental pollution was a health hazard. Consequently, protective regulations and ethical management of the environment became a priority for the environmental rights movement. Advocates demanded the federal government accept responsibility for the degradation and take appropriate action to resolve it. 

To review, see Environmental LawModern Environmental Management, and Greening the Ghetto.


Unit 4 Vocabulary

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
  • deforestation
  • environmental degradation
  • environmental health hazards 
  • environmental management systems
  • environmental prejudice
  • environmental justice
  • Environmental Quality Improvement Act
  • habitat destruction
  • human rights
  • incinerators 
  • landfills
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
  • National Environmental Education Act
  • overfishing
  • overhunting
  • toxic tort lawsuit
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • United Nations (UN)

Unit 5: Environmental Law

5a. Identify major events in the history of environmental law

  • What are some key events within the environmental law history timeline?
  • How do state and federal environmental laws differ in the United States?

How humans interact with the natural world has evolved over time. The preservation of wilderness and the conservation of resources was a main focus when the environmentalism movement emerged. However, in response to the environmental movement, several laws emerged to regulate pollution and to protect natural resources which were at risk because of human activity.

To review, see Environmental Law History Timeline.

5b. Describe key environmental laws in the United States and the European Union

  • In the United States:
    • What is the history behind the introduction and implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)?
    • What are the main goals of the Clean Air Act?
    • What are the main goals of the 1977 Clean Water Act?
    • What are the main goals of the Endangered Species Act?
  • In the European Union:
    • Name some of the main goals of environmental policy in the European Union (EU)?
    • What is considered our shared life support system?
    • Define environmental impact assessment (EIA).

In Europe, many communities require individuals, businesses, and industries to present relevant policymakers with an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for any development proposals they have that may impact the environment and surrounding community.

For example, these laws require a developer who wants to build a housing development to identify and predict whether their plans will have any biophysical, social, or other relevant effects on the community, such as whether it will negatively impact the water supply, wildlife, or create pollution or industrial waste. Businesses need to detail how their company will mitigate any negative environmental damage they may cause.

To review, see:

5c. Assess the impact of these environmental laws

  • What is the purpose of some major international environmental treaties of past decades?
  • What are some shortcomings of the current international framework?
  • What are the proposed principles to ensure environmental compliance in the 21st century?

It is important to understand the ways we use laws to protect the environment, such as to alleviate the negative effects of climate change. For example, climate change can destabilize communities and exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases, resource depletion, and accelerate migration. Environmental laws seek to address climate change through legislation and legal systems on the local, regional, national, and global levels.

To review, see Has Policy Improved Europe's Air Quality?, One More Failed U.S. Environmental Policy, and What Future for International Environmental Law?.


Unit 5 Vocabulary

  • climate change 
  • conservation
  • environmental impact assessment (EIA)
  • mitigate 
  • preservation