Initial Publication Date: March 20, 2013

The Uneven Burden of Risk: My Approach to Teaching Environmental Justice

Anna Versluis, , Gustavus Adolphus College

I address environmental justice in the 200-level Nature and Society course that I teach annually at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, MN. This course is required course for the Environmental Studies major and an elective for the Geography major. The course is a broad overview of social science approaches to human-environment interactions. We study seven possible answers to the question "Why are there environmental problems?" One of these "answers" involves environmental justice: environmental risks are not shared equally by members of society; the greater burden of risk falls on the poor and minority communities.

In our study of environmental justice in Nature and Society, I draw on the following texts and ideas:
  1. People are differentially exposed to risk and hazard. Risk is sometimes imposed on others, especially poor and minority communities. People's range of choices may be limited by political-economic conditions. Information about risk and hazard may be manipulated: people do not necessarily have full and correct information to make informed decisions. (Robbins, Hintz, and Moore 2010, 89-93).
  2. Addressing issues of white privilege and the broader spatial and historical context is a necessary component to understanding environmental racism in the United States. Simplistic analyses based on narrow definitions of racism (e.g., racism as defined only by hostile, intentional, individual acts) and scale are mistaken. (Pulido 2000).
  3. The environmental justice movement is a grassroots, people's movement that has developed, in part, in opposition to other environmental approaches. It refuses to deal with cost-benefit accounting and focuses instead on problems of inequality. It does not fully embrace expert environmental discourses and resist co-optation by the middle class and professional class. It is anthropocentric. It involves protest, moral outrage, and emotional response. It is a somewhat fractured and fractious movement that is often focused on point-source hazards and human health issues. (Harvey 1999)
  4. Historical and political-economic contexts like colonialism play a role in making communities more (or less) vulnerable to hazards and natural disaster. (Oliver-Smith 1999)

In addition, my views on environmental justice have been influenced by the following:
  1. My personal experiences working and conducting research in Haiti, where lack of safety measures and the extent of disaster vulnerability are often very great and inextricably intertwined with issues of poverty, race, and history.
  2. My faith community's commitment to justice and mercy.
  3. The work of geographer Gilbert White and others (e.g., Bob Kates, Kenneth Hewitt, Piers Blaikie) on natural hazards and disasters.
  4. The work of Amartya Sen and Michael Watts on political economy of famine and drought, respectively.

In teaching students about environmental justice, I currently focus on two main goals: 1) to raise student awareness (and indignation) of environmental justice in our own country, and 2) to recognize the value of a "critical realist" approach and how it critiques a "spatial science" approach. (Please see my environmental justice activity for more information on this.)

(Partial) List of References

Robbins, P., J. Hintz, and S. A. Moore. 2010. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oliver-Smith, A. 1999. Peru's 500-year earthquake: Vulnerability in historical context. Pp. 74-88 in The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspectives, A. Oliver-Smith and S. Hoffman, eds. New York: Routledge.

Pulido, L. 2000. Rethinking environmental racism: White privilege and urban development in Southern California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90 (1): 12-40.

Harvey, D. 1999. The environment of justice. Pp. 153-185 in Living With Nature: Environmental Politics as Cultural Discourse, F. Fischer and M. A. Hajer, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Downloadable version of this essay

The Uneven Burden of Risk: My Approach to Teaching Environmental Justice (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Mar15 13)