Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2017

Environmental Justice in the Context of Sustainability

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Teaching Environmental Justice: Interdisciplinary Approaches, held in April 2013.

Environmental Justice is a topic that incorporates dynamic and complex scientific issues with equally complex issues of power, history, race, class, and more. As such it requires perspective and information from multiple disciplines to be understood and addressed. Environmental Justice and sustainability are intertwined in important ways that offer educational openings for students. Both have inherent geoscience elements that can introduce students to a scientific understanding of the Earth and grand societal challenges.
Why teach Earth-centered Societal Issues? »

What does InTeGrate mean by Environmental Justice? »

Pedagogic guidance

Engaging and complex, there are many pedagogic strategies that can be used to incorporate Environmental Justice into your curriculum. These include community partnerships through service learning, utilizing socioscientific issues, and using a systems approach to address the complex physical and social systems involved.

Environmental Justice provides an opportunity to teach students how to bring together perspectives and ideas from multiple disciplines to bear on a problem and how to work in interdisciplinary teams. Understanding of differing perspectives is important to social justice movements because it allows you build the capacity to work with those that don't share your background and context (for example, Understanding "Community", An Introduction to Capacity-Building (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 3MB Apr15 13), by J. Kyle Bryant, U.S. EPA). Interdisciplinary teaching strategies can help you find ways to incorporate your own expertise with that of your colleagues, while contrasting narratives can help your students view topics through multiple lenses.

Environmental Justice is an excellent way to engage students in the study of environmental issues because it incorporates the scientific examination of the cause and effects of environmental issues with personal and community impacts. With such an emotionally charged topic, it is essential to understand both your students and the affected populations, and consider the affective domain in your course.

Effective strategies for teaching Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice is a grand societal challenge that can benefit from students graduating with a creative, capable, and interdisciplinary perspectives. Earth-related sciences, social sciences, and humanities all play a role in a topic that is effecting our society every day. Whether working directly with a local community or working in the classroom, students' learning can benefit from addressing this immediate challenge. If you are planning to work directly with an affected community, you may benefit from drawing up a community involvement plan, such as the EPA uses for superfund community partnerships.

Understand the community with which you're working (students and study communities)

There is a strong tension between educating and engaging students in Environmental Justice and respecting the affected communities. The community connection takes time, commitment, sensitivity, and skill. Anthropologists and sociologists have experience with these issues and can support mutually beneficial interactions. Listening, sensitivity to context, and reflexivity are essential. Students may benefit from struggling to understand the importance of differing perspectives while interacting with research and directly with communities.

Example courses and activities

Consider ways to approach difficult issues

It is essential to maintain hope and agency in the face of a long lasting complex challenge like Environmental Justice. Studying success stories, people who have made a difference, and actions that give hope can be effective, though there is a tension between maintaining hope, and understanding the full extent of how complex and deeply entrenched the problems are.

Ideas and resources

Engage with the community and engender action in students

Create products that can be used beyond the classroom (e.g producing data and maps usable by the community).

Ideas and resources

Example courses and activities

Seek additional support for program sustainability- center/infrastructure/institutional support

A difficulty with entering into the Environmental Justice discussion in an academic setting is the short length of an academic term and the restrictions that puts on moving to action. Providing continuity and lasting community partnerships can be approached by a number of methods, but are greatly improved with additional resources. This could be institutional support, external support, inter-campus partnerships, or more.

  • Campus center with legal experts, science experts could provide internships and partnerships with students
  • Environmentors Program: Environment based mentoring program for high school students
  • Campus compact : civic engagement and sustainability summit

Additional Resources

InTeGrate-Developed Module

  • Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources by Adriana Perez (Dona Ana Community College), Jill S. Schneiderman (Vassar College), Meg Stewart (Independent instructional technologist), Joshua Villalobos (El Paso Community College); Editor: David McConnell (North Carolina State University). This module enables students to identify the freshwater components of the hydrologic cycle and connect them to the basic need of all human beings for equal access to clean freshwater. This is accomplished by framing the water science within theories of environmental justice defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

Case Study Collections

From the Participants of the 2013 Workshop on Teaching Environmental Justice: