Environmental Justice and Sustainability

Josefina Li, ,
Bemidji State University


The course investigates the ethical and moral dimensions of environmental choices, and the legal, philosophical, political, and economic underpinnings of various theories of justice. A major focus is the inequitable distribution of environmental risks and the implications of policies that attempt to combat these risks through case studies. Lectures are used at first to establish the framework and theories of justice, which is then followed by case studies in the form of class discussion. Student work is assessed through two short set essays, a final research paper and a poster session.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

Introduction to Environmental Studies is the pre-requisite for this course. This course serves as a required course for students in the environmental studies program. It is needed for outdoor education emphasis, environmental policy and planning emphasis, and ecosystem studies emphasis. It is cross-listed as an upper level undergraduate and graduate course. Most of the students are environmental studies major, with a few biology and chemistry majors.

Course Content:

This course integrates topics within environmental ethics, such as ecofeminism, deep ecology, social ecology, Buddhist economics, mainstream environmental economics; cases of environmental racism, environmental injustice in trade and development, environmental policies and varieties of environmental activism. Students read articles from competing ideas on a same topic, and read cases analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively. Group discussion, discussion questions are adopted for the case studies.

Course Goals:

Students will understand various theories of justice, which lead to phenomena observed in the environmental injustice cases. They will also understand the concept of sustainability, be able to understand the basic qualitative and quantitative methods used in the case studies. Students will find their individual capacity to contribute to sustainability. They will apply the different theories to a set topic and a topic of their interest. They will compare and contrast contending paradigms of justice and evaluate each of their merits and demerits, critically analyze the philosophical root on injustice from a historical perspective, and coming up with their own grassroots initiatives.

Course Features:

The first set essay asks the students to compare and contrast the different environmental ethics, and to evaluate each of their merits and demerits. The second set essay asks the students to analyze a quote about environmental racism in the context of historical development of injustice. The final research paper requires students to conduct research on a topic of their interest, and apply the theories of justice, simple qualitative and/or qualitative to their research.

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed to help environmental studies students realize that environmental issues are not just about science, and science and technology alone cannot solve all the issues. Environmental injustice is a complicated issue with layers of reality that must be dealt with in an interdisciplinary manner. With majority of the students from white, rural/suburban, working class families, the evidence of injustice being well and living today blows their mind, whether they reaction is denial or acceptance, at least they become more aware.


Assessment takes place in four ways. Minute papers at the end of class is used to assess their physical as well as mental attendance. The two set essays are used to assess their understanding of the lectures and readings, and their ability to put theories and evidence together to critically analyze a debated topic. The final research project is a way to assess students' ability to apply knowledge and research skills to topics of their interest. The poster session is assessed by their peers as well as the instructor. The students are given a guideline to evaluate their posters on ten different categories, such as organization, comprehension, clarity, etc.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 112kB Mar16 13)

Teaching Materials:

Guideline for a set essay (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 128kB Mar16 13) Final paper and poster guideline (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 119kB Mar16 13)

References and Notes:

The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book, Van DeVeer, Donald and Christine Pierce (eds.)
The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution, Bullard, Robert D. (ed)