Ethical Issues and Environmental Justice

This article presents various reasons behind environmental prejudice and injustice, though it suggests we lack definitive explanations.

Issues of environmental justice often arise, although are not always considered, in health impact assessments. In general terms, these relate to the double or triple jeopardy that is commonly seen between socio-economic status, environmental exposures, and health. These relationships need to be recognized and allowed for in assessments, because they affect both who is at risk from environmental hazards such as pollution, and the distribution of effects of any policy or other intervention.


Definitions and Types of Environmental Justice

The concept of environmental justice is rather poorly defined. A wide range of somewhat different concepts and terms tend to be bound up under the banner of environmental justice. For example:

  • Terms such as environmental equity, environmental justice, and environmental racism are often used, and may be defined in somewhat different ways (see Kruize, 2007 and Stephens et al. - link below).
  • Distinction needs to be made between distributional justice (i.e. inequalities in outcome, the resulting distribution of environmental quality or environmental health) and procedural justice (differences in process which may lead to inequalities); see Kruize, 2007, and Stephens et al., link below.
  • Reversed associations may occur between exposures to pollution and contributions to its production, at large/global scale (e.g. exporting of dirty industrial production) and at local level (e.g. residence near waste facilities);
  • Environmental justice plays out over a wide range of scales, in terms of space, time and concept - for example, international justice (Kruize, 2007), intergenerational justice and concepts related to sustainability (see Environmental justice protocol, below);
  • Environmental justice may be conceived from an activist ('environmental racism') or positivist (scientific, 'objective' approach) standpoint.


Identifying and Measuring Environmental Justice Effects

A large body of studies has been done on environmental justice. These use a wide range of methods both to characterize socioeconomic status and environmental inequalities, and the relationships between them. Typically, these have shown that poorer population groups (however defined) tend to live in more polluted environments. Care is nevertheless needed in interpreting these relationships both because the analytical methods used are not always robust, and because the causal mechanisms producing the relationships are not well understood. 

Methodologically, for example, problems arise because analysis is done at aggregate (area) level, and relies on measures of proximity to sources as an indicator of risk. This tends to mask the inter-individual variations in experience that may occur within any area (e.g. due to local clustering of emission sources and of different socio-economic groups). Proximity is also often a poor indicator of exposure. More detailed studies (e.g. Briggs et al. 2008, Kruize 2007) have shown that the relationships are, in practice, often complex and non-linear (and in some cases contrary to expectation). 

Environmental justice effects may also arise in a number of different ways:

  • because poorer (more vulnerable) people are forced to move into more hazardous area (e.g. because accommodation costs are cheaper);
  • because more hazardous activities tend to target poorer areas (e.g. because land is cheap and opposition to these activities may be more muted);
  • because of selective outward mobility of more mobile business and people, in search of better areas elsewhere, and leaving only less profitable business and poorer people behind;
  • because of historical inertia, poorer communities (e.g. dominated by manual labor) having developed alongside older industries in the past, which have since become more-or-less fossilized.

It may also affect different population sub-groups. For example:

  • people who are vulnerable from a health perspective (children, elderly, pregnant women);
  • people who are vulnerable because of a higher environmental exposure perspective (lower socioeconomic status (SES), minorities);
  • people who are vulnerable because they are 'less empowered' (less ability to defend themselves) (lower SES, minorities).


Implications for Environmental Health Impact Assessment 

Dealing with these socio-economically related environmental justice effects in health impact assessment poses important challenges. Most epidemiological studies on environmental factors consider socio-economic factors as confounding variables; synergistic effects are rarely analyzed – although they are of great importance both for scientific and policy reasons. In the case of environmental health impact assessment, care is needed in allowing for these synergistic effects, for they often represent an important influence on who experiences the impacts of environmental hazards (or policies).

The implications in terms of policy are no less complex. They depend on the perspective of the policymakers - i.e. the extent to which priorities are given to reducing social inequalities (see Davy 1997) - which may themselves change over time. Even when policies are aimed at addressing inequalities, moreover, the solutions (or impacts of specific policy measures) may not be clear, because social inequalities are multivariate and multi-causal conditions, that reflect deep-seated social interactions and inter-dependencies. Tackling individual elements within this web of factors may have little effect. Social influences on health, as much as environmental influences, thus need an integrated approach. 

Source: IEHIAS,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Saylor Academy Knowledge Check

Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2021, 1:49 PM