Applying Environmental Justice Concepts—Contextualized Essay Options

This page is authored by Paul Jeffries, an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Ripon College, for use in his PHL 243 Philosophy and the Environment Course
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Initial Publication Date: March 20, 2013 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


For this assignment, students will be applying insights they have gained from reading and discussing a series of essays on topics surrounding environmental justice that are found in Environmental Ethics, 6th ed. by Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman (Wadsworth, 2012). Students will not only be able to demonstrate their understanding of the issues surrounding environmental justice, but they will also explore ways to share these insights in somewhat realistic contexts where the principles might be "applied" in a meaningful setting. While this particular activity is based on a specific text, it could easily be adapted to many different readings related to the topic of environmental justice.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Since this assignment occurs in the context of a more general course on philosophy and the environment, a central goal of the project is to introduce students to several of the fundamental issues of environmental justice, such as environmental racism, ecofeminism, ethical forms of economic development, and legal tools (local, national, and international) for bringing about change.

Specific goals for the essay include:

-Explicate three to four arguments related to an essay(s) on a topic in chapter on environmental justice.
-Critically assess the strengths and weakness of the arguments presented.
-Demonstrate how the concepts can be applied in diverse settings in academia and beyond.

Context for Use

This assignment is designed for a philosophy-oriented course, but could be easily adapted to other disciplinary contexts. I use it in a mid-level course (mainly for second and third year students) in a small liberal arts college. The class size is usually between 20-25 students. It is designed to develop students' analytical reasoning skills while also helping them think about how to apply arguments related environmental justice in a variety of settings. While I typically use the assignment for a modest essay, it could also be expanded into a longer project, both in size and duration.

The assignment occurs two thirds to three fourths of the way through the course. By this time, students are familiar with the nature of philosophical arguments and have basic understanding of philosophical and ethical concepts as they are often found in environmental ethics literature. As the students are working on their essays, we are discussing several of the relevant essays in our class settings. Sometimes we work through an article through a large-group Socratic dialogue. Other times I will break the class into groups to discuss different articles and/or to discuss rival perspectives on the same article. In most, if not all, of these discussions, we seek to first exposit the analysis and arguments in the articles. We then critically engage the ideas presented, often considering their practical implications.

Because this assignment, as currently used, focuses more on the concepts, there is not a major focus on data used to support any proposals that the students make in their essay. By introducing new skills and tools into the project (especially in terms of the geoscience resources), the proposals the students make might be more concretely developed.

NOTE: Grade Level is 14-15

Description and Teaching Materials

As noted above in the "Context" section, this assignment can be applied to many possible readings even though I use a particular text. Given the nature of the course and the text I use, students are expected to have a fundamental understanding of the relevant topics, but only focus on a particular issue from our readings. The essays this assignment is based on come from Chapter 9 of the Environmental Ethics 6th ed. by Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman (Wadsworth, 2012). They include:

Chapter 9: Race, Class, Gender: Environmental Justice, Ecofeminism, and Indigenous Rights

Chapter Readings:
"Overcoming Racism in Environmental Decision Making," by Robert D. Ballard
"Just Garbage: The Problem of Environmental Racism," by Peter S. Wenz
"Deceiving the Third World: The Myth of Catching Up," by Maria Mies
"Environmental Risks, Rights, and the Failure of Liberal Democracy: Some Possible Remedies," by Laura Westra
"All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life," by Winona Laduke
"Indigenous Knowledge and Technology: Creating Environmental Justice in the Twenty-First Century," by Linda Robyn
"Earth Democracy," by Vandana Shiva
"The Power and Promise of Ecofeminism," by Karen J. Warren
"Earth Charter: From Global Ethics to International Law," introduced by Laura Westra

From these essays, students will select one of the essay options and craft a paper that demonstrates the extent to which he or she understands the relevant arguments and can suggest how they might apply to the specified context set out in the writing scenarios Environmental Justice Issue Essay Assignment (Microsoft Word 28kB Mar18 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is important to try to help students consider how some of the concepts in the chapter readings can be applied in concrete settings. This helps them have a better sense how to apply the ideas and arguments from the readings in their essays. I also stress the importance of specificity when identifying arguments and practices. Again, gleaning specific examples from the readings in our class discussions can help illustrate how this can be done effectively.


When assessing these essays, I am most interested in whether the student has successfully set out and critically engaged the arguments, concepts, and/or practices relevant to the option selected. It is important for the student to also demonstrate an engagement with the material from the assigned readings.

I then look for a substantive critical assessment of the ideas presented. Stronger essays will have more detailed and creative explanations about the assessment of the issues under discussion.

Next I consider how successful the student was at taking the specific scenario into consideration. Stronger essays tend to be better at this skill. If a student merely talks about the ideas, that weakens the overall effect of the essay.

Finally, I consider the technical aspects of the essay (following instructions, grammar, clarity, etc.).

References and Resources