Initial Publication Date: May 19, 2014

Identifying the Spatial Injustice of the Environment

Andrew Scholl, , Wittenberg University

Trained as a physical geographer I came to the issue of Environmental Justice when I started teaching a 100 level Environment and Society course. This is a general education course that is primarily composed of students from all across the University with widely varying knowledge of the environment and environmental issues, but often a strong interest in the environment and those issues. I base the course around case studies of environmental issues, but one of the underlying aspects was for the students to understand how the environment itself functions in regards to the specific case study.

I found out that most of the students had a very limited understanding of how the environment functions in regards to environmental issues, especially in the context of the complex physical systems themselves. The students often felt that everyone was equally affected by an environmental issue and correcting the issue would also impact everyone equally. Consequently, I felt that a basic understanding of the environment was important for two reasons. One is the uneven distribution of the Earth's surface and resources, and the other is the unexpected consequences that often occur in complex systems, especially when they are altered. My incorporation of environmental justice was added to the course later as I realized that the students were often unaware of the spatial inequities present in the environment and how that resulted in variable impacts on people. Being a physical geographer my approach was first focused on the variable aspects of the environment, and then incorporating the societal aspects.

First, a basic understanding of the environment is important, because the way these systems (ie. hydrologic cycle, atmosphere, etc.) function results in an uneven distribution of resources across the surface of the earth. The same is true for negative aspects like pollution. Consequently, there are differential connections with the environment based strictly upon location. This results in a spatial injustice where some locations have better access to resources than others and some locations are more highly impacts by negative aspects than others.

The second reason deals with the complexity of physical systems. This is important because most environmental issues have developed as a result of people altering an aspect of a system in some way that result in the system changing. Then over time, the changes to the system can have unexpected outcomes that often are not understood at first. These unexpected outcomes and impacts (often referred to as externalities) are unevenly distributed across the landscape, thereby producing a spatial injustice.

On top of this I incorporate people and their desires, demands, and power in an attempt to help the students understand why the groups that often experience the greatest injustice in regards to the these environmental concerns are not a random cross section of society, but those individuals who do not have the power and influence to change the situation, and how often when an environmental problem is cleaned up, the benefits are often highly variable again among different groups of people.

Basically, my goal is to help the students better understand the complexity of the environment, and how that makes it difficult to resolve environmental issues.

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