Environmental Justice

Kate Darby, ,
Allegheny College


This course explores the justice implications of environmental problems by examining the history of the environmental justice movement, current conceptions and definitions of environmental justice, and case study applications. We draw from contemporary and historical case studies such as e-waste, industrial pollution, public transit, war and sustainable development. Emphasis is placed on student-led discussions of roles that gender, race, ethnicity and class play in environmentalism and environmental controversies.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper division elective for our Environmental Studies majors. For Environmental Science majors, this course may count towards their required upper-division "studies" (i.e. social science or humanities) course. The course also serves as an elective for two minors – Black Studies and American Studies – as well as the Global Health major. It has been a very popular course, with long waiting lists each semester. The course is limited to juniors and seniors at Allegheny College, a selective liberal arts college.

Course Content:

I present Environmental justice (EJ) as both a mode of scholarship and a social movement. We begin with an introduction to EJ as a social movement, and an introduction to ways of thinking about justice, especially within the context of class and racial inequity in the U.S. With this foundation, we read some of the classic EJ studies and begin to understand the patterns of environmental injustice within the U.S., and to form explanations for those patterns. We spend a little bit of time at this point brainstorming ways that individuals and groups intervene in these patterns and processes. After we've explored the more classic facility siting and toxics topics in EJ, we turn to a series of case studies that typically include about three of the following: food justice, native American EJ, parks and greenspace, e-waste, unnatural hazards, hydrofracking, nuclearism in the U.S. West, natural resources, or women and EJ movements. To combat the sense of helplessness and despair that many students face at the end of the semester, we spend the culminating two weeks discussing reasons for hope within the EJ movement.

Course Goals:

In this course, students will:

- Understand how people from different backgrounds are differentially affected by environmental problems,
- Apply the theories and methods of environmental justice to broader environmental controversies,
- Develop critical reading and group leadership skills, and
- Apply these skills in a series of field assignments and supplementary activities.

Course Features:

I largely run this course as a student-led seminar to help students digest the challenging readings. Occasionally, I provide short lectures to help orient them or provide necessary historical context. The course assignments (especially the supplementary activities) require students to reflect on what they've learned in class and apply it to a real world problem that concerns them.

Course Philosophy:

I present Environmental justice (EJ) as both a mode of scholarship and a social movement. The course organization and assignments reflect this dual approach. In this class, students are asked to not only understand EJ patterns and processes, but also to engage in EJ issues. I also believe that understanding environmental justice in the United States requires a strong sense of the inequity that certain groups in this country face. To move forward in the class, students must, to a certain extent, buy in to this inequity and be concerned by it. Consequently, I spend a bit of time at the beginning of the semester presenting evidence for institutionalized and more explicit racism and classism. The evidence includes some key theoretical frameworks, data about differentiated experiences and outcomes, as well as videos and readings that present personal narratives of those affected by racism and classism. To drive these points home, we take a couple of fairly unstructured field trips to local neighborhoods, where I set students loose and ask them to talk to people and make some observations about the experiences particular to that environment, and reflect on what that means for EJ. Finally, I feel a certain level of responsibility in helping students develop tools to combat issues of environmental injustice. Too often, I find that Environmental Science/Studies courses present a litany of problems and explanations, but leave students with little sense of agency.


I assess the student's intellectual development in several ways. To assess their understanding of the theoretical and methodological tools of EJ, I administer a take-home midterm and final. These exams require essay-length responses to questions based on the readings and class discussions. To assess the students' application of the course content, I ask them to engage in a series of four supplementary activities and two field assignments. A toxic release inventory field assignment exposes them to one of the key tools used by EJ researchers and activists, while also asking them to question whether or not the TRI system meets its right-to-know goals. A GIS field assignment requires students to try out one very common method in the EJ research toolbox. For the supplementary activities, students are asked to independently apply what they've learned in class in four areas: research, service, advocacy and appreciation. In the past, research supplementary activities have included an assessment of food deserts in our town, a media analysis of hydrofracking in western PA, and an assessment of gendered communication in environmental studies classrooms. The remaining three areas – service (e.g. volunteer at local community garden or creek cleanup, provide research brief to regional EJ organization), advocacy (e.g. write an LTE, meet with an elected official, stage an arts-based campus protest), and appreciation (e.g. create a quilt depicting the successes of an EJ activist, write a song about Love Canal, create a photo essay about a food justice organization) require students to directly engage in EJ issues. Finally, to assess students' development of critical thinking and reading, I assign grades for classroom participation/engagement and discussion leadership.


Environmental Justice Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 697kB Mar15 13)

Teaching Materials:

Supplementary Activities Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Mar15 13) TRI assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Mar15 13) GIS assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 432kB Mar15 13)

References and Notes:

From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement, Cole & Foster; Environmental Justice: Concepts, Evidence and Process, Walker; Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability, Alkon and Agyeman (eds)
See syllabus