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Introducing students to a critical realist approach to environmental justice in the U.S.

This page authored by Anna Versluis, Gustavus Adolphus College, Geography Department and Environmental Studies Program.
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Students in a combined geography and environmental studies undergraduate course are introduced to the concept of environmental justice from a critical realist perspective. The full lesson and activity, which require at least 4.5 hours of class time, plus substantial out-of-class work, will raise student awareness of environmental justice issues in the U.S., and help students differentiate between "spatial science" approaches and "critical realist" approaches to understanding and explaining environmental injustice. Students use the E.P.A.'s environmental justice mapping tool, EJView, and a number of scholarly texts to propose their own research on a U.S. environmental justice case study.

Learning Goals

  1. Students will discover that environmental hazards in the U.S., especially point sources like landfills, industry, and brownfields, are frequently spatially correlated with lower-income, immigrant, less-educated, or minority race neighborhoods.
  2. Students will read critically, summarize complex ideas in writing, and work together with other students to provide cogent arguments in writing, class discussions, and verbal presentations.
  3. Students will compare, contrast, apply, and evaluate two approaches to environmental justice: one based on spatial proximity and siting, and one based on a critical realist approach that emphasizes structures, cross-scalar interactions, and broader sociospatial and historical contexts.
  4. Students will appreciate and articulate how a critical realist approach critiques the spatial siting approach.

Context for Use

I designed this activity for a 200-level course, Nature and Society, which is the core, required social science course for the Environmental Studies major at Gustavus Adolphus College and an elective for the Geography major. The class enrolls 25 students, most who are sophomores and juniors. The course introduces students to a range of environmental thought in the social sciences by discussing how different scholars answer the question "What is the root reason for environmental problems like pollution, habitat loss, and climate change?" Using the 2010 text by Robbins, Hintz, and Moore, Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, we survey seven fundamental responses to this question: population pressures, externalities and inefficient markets, dismantling of the commons, misplaced ethics and values, risk and environmental justice, capitalism and uneven development, and unexamined discourses. This activity falls in the unit on risk and environmental justice.

We devote three, 80-minute class periods to this unit on environmental justice. To prepare students for the activity, they first read from the Robbins, Hintz, and Moore text as well as three scholarly sources and perform homework exercises to help them understand and respond to the texts. The first two class periods are spent in a combination of lecture and discussion using these texts as our foundation. For the third class, students work in small groups to prepare and present a research proposal to study a potential environmental justice issue in the United States. This is the main activity described below.

Description and Teaching Materials

Class 1
Preparation: Students read the "Risks and Hazards" chapter in the Robbins, Hintz, and Moore text. Students also read the book chapter by Oliver-Smith titled "Peru's 500-Year Earthquake." Students respond to these texts by submitting reading questions.
In class: Lecture and discussion on different approaches to environmental risk and hazard: risk assessment, risk perception, cultural theory, and political economy. Discussion of how the Oliver-Smith study fits into these approaches. Students are assigned groups and the culminating activity to propose an environmental justice research study, to be presented in written and verbal formats on Class 3.
Example of in-class activity used in Fall 2012: New York City's Mayor Bloomberg recently said this in response to Hurricane Sandy: "'For all we do to recover, it's fair to say we can't replace the lives of the people lost in the storm,' he began, speaking in a softer voice than he had used at earlier briefings. 'Any loss of life is tragic; sadly, nature is dangerous, and these things occur. The best thing we can do for those who did die is make sure this city recovers for those who come out of this and build a better life for those left behind'" (as quoted in the New York Times). What would Oliver-Smith say to this? Use a quote from his study to support your claim.

Class 2

Preparation: Students take the racial implicit association test on Harvard's website. Students read excerpts from Pulido's article on race and environmental justice in Los Angeles and Harvey's chapter on environmental justice. Students respond to these texts by submitting reading questions.
In class: Lecture, interspersed with class discussion, on the political economy of environmental hazards, using the Pulido and Harvey readings as our foundations. These are both difficult texts and students require help in understanding them. I rely on student responses to the reading questions (due an hour before class to our class webpage) to help guide our class time and alert me to confusion students may have. I also may share thoughtful student reading responses, usually unanimously, with the class.

Class 3
Preparation: Using the EPA website EJView and the course texts, students work in small groups to propose a research study that investigates a potentially environmental unjust situation in the United States.
In class: Students present their research proposal and the class discusses these. I will usually select the one or two best proposals for the first examples, and then allow students time to discuss and revise their proprosals. Often some revisions are necessary, and groups are allowed to use the class and instructor feedback to make revisions.


Student Instructions

Teaching Notes and Tips

Because the Pulido and Harvey readings are long and difficult, I provide the students with excerpts rather than the entire articles.

My classes tend to have a high percentage of white and affluent students who may not be familiar with the concept of white privilege (used in the Pulido text), so I have designed these activities, especially the IAT and reading questions, with this in mind.

All written assignments are due to the class webpage one hour before class so I have the opportunity to look over at least some student responses, gauge their understanding, and select some outstanding responses to share with the class (without identifying the student, if the response is a personal response).


I read student responses to the reading questions and provide feedback and a grade for some (but not all) of these. The main assessment occurs in the third class when I read and listen to student research proposals for an environmental justice case study. I especially look for if students are able to apply lessons from the course readings to support their proposed research, and if they show evidence of understanding the distinction between the "spatial science" and "critical realist" approaches to environmental justice.

References and Resources

Student Assignments

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