Environmental Injustice: Evaluating the evidence

This page is authored by Kim Smith, Carleton College.
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this part of the course, students are introduced to the empirical, quantitative research purporting to demonstrate that environmental hazards are disproportionately sited in minority and low-income neighborhoods. Several class sessions are devoted to understanding the methods used in these studies, and students are also given an introduction to spatial analysis. They then write a short paper summarizing their evaluation of the evidence.

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Learning Goals

The chief goal of the exercise is to demonstrate how quantitative data is generated and how to make argument using that data. I also want students to come away with a basic understanding of spatial analysis (what it is and what it can be used for). And the assignment also seeks to develop their ability to write a persuasive normative argument (about the justice or injustice of a situation) using quantitative data.

Context for Use

This is a mid-level class with 25 students, mostly political science or environmental studies majors. It doesn't require a previous methods course, but some familiarity with regression would certainly be helpful to the students. It makes use of our GIS lab and instructor. Without the GIS component, it would be easily adaptable to most other institutions. The assignment is given about 1/3 of the way through the course. The first part of the course focuses on theories of distributive justice, the history of the environmental justice movement and the claims of environmental justice activists.

Description and Teaching Materials

Included is a reading list and the final paper assignment, along with a section of the syllabus relevant to the exercise. The students' instruction also includes an introduction to ARCGIS, but those exercises aren't available for posting.
We begin this section by reviewing the empirical literature showing that hazardous waste facilities are disproportionately located in low-income, minority communities. The leading study is Bullard's Dumping in Dixie. The articles by Susan Cutter explain several methodological problems with the kind of research Bullard did. An updated study, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, uses spatial analysis and other methodological improvements. I assign the methods appendix of that study, which explains how Bullard dealt with the problems noted by Cutter. I also introduce Cutter's more complex model of social vulnerability and we review her methods for measuring that. The students then receive a basic introduction to spatial modeling, using ArcGIS. This introduction is designed to make more concrete the method used by Bullard to study spatial distribution of hazardous waste faciliities. They go through an exercise exploring the spatial distribution of toxic release inventory sites in New Orleans, considering various explanations for the distributions they discover. The final exercise is the paper evaluating whether the empirical support for Bullard's environmental injustice claim are adequate.
Environmental Justice - QRE Section (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Sep8 10)
Environmental Justice - Reading List (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 11kB Sep8 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This assignment does require some explanation of regression analysis and spatial analysis. If its difficult to cover these topics adequately in class, it is helpful to post lecture note or supplemental explanation on a course website. This assignment also assumes the students have received some instruction in theories of distributive justice, which is essential to evaluating whether the evidence supports the claim that the current distribution is unjust.


Assessment is straightforward. The paper should demonstrate that the student understands the limitations of the older studies, and can identify how more recent studies, using spatial analysis, overcome those limitations.

References and Resources