Environmental Justice

Christopher Wells, ,
Macalester College


Poor and minority populations have historically borne the brunt of environmental inequalities in the United States, suffering disproportionately from the effects of pollution, dispossession of land, resource depletion, dangerous jobs, limited access to common resources, and exposure to environmental hazards. Paying particular attention to the ways that race, ethnicity, class, and gender have shaped the political and economic dimensions of environmental injustices, this course draws on the work of scholars and activists to examine the long history of environmental inequities in the United States, along with more recent political movements—national and local—that seek to rectify environmental injustices and develop new possibilities for understanding the human place in nature.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites. It is a required course for Environmental Studies majors with an emphasis in Environmental Justice. It also satisfies the humanities distribution requirement within the ES major and the college's general education requirement for multiculturalism. Typically the large majority of students major in the social sciences and humanities, with 10-20% of students majoring in a science.

Course Content:

This reading-and-discussion based seminar-style class pays particular attention to the ways that race, ethnicity, class, and gender have shaped the political and economic dimensions of environmental injustices. The first unit focuses on the long history of environmental inequalities in the United States across a range of specific topics, including slavery, enclosure, residential segregation, and older forms of activism focused on environmental inequalities. The second unit focuses on the rise of the modern environmental justice movement. The third unit surveys various types of activism around environmental inequalities since the rise of the environmental justice movement. The course concludes with student groups sharing the "toxic tours" that they have designed around various sites in the Twin Cities.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to assess the ways that environmental inequalities emerge from institutionalized social, political, and economic practices, and to think critically about the implications of environmental inequalities for marginalized social groups. They will be conversant in a wide range of ways that environmental inequalities have shaped the American past, and with the ways that the modern environmental justice movement has launched concerted (if fractured) efforts to remediate them.

Course Features:

The final project for this course is a "virtual toxic tour" on a location in the Twin Cities. As one form of activism, many environmental justice groups put together toxic tours that expose tour-takers to the environmental inequalities and disproportionate environmental burdens that confront marginalized communities. For this assignment, students work together in groups to research a site in the Twin Cities and to assemble a virtual toxic tour.

Course Philosophy:

As a historian, I chose to design this course as an interactive, reading-based seminar. Although my own research is not in this area, I decided to put it together in response to substantial student demand. Because I am still familiarizing myself with the field, which is not predominantly driven by historical scholarship, each class begins with a 10-12 minute oral "book analysis" by a student on a key piece of environmental justice literature relevant to the day's assigned reading. I found that this helped me rapidly gain additional fluency in the field and gave students a sense of how many areas are touched by environmental inequalities.


Students deliver one presentation (their book analysis), complete daily reading responses, write a research paper on a topic of their own choice, and design a virtual toxic tour as a member of a group. Participation in discussions also comprises a substantial percentage (30%) of their final grade.


Wells Environmental Justice Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 41kB Mar15 13)

Teaching Materials:

Toxic Tour assignment (Acrobat (PDF) 17kB Mar15 13)

References and Notes:

The course averages ~100 pages per week, with some mix of article(s), book chapter(s), or essay(s) for each class.