Environmental justice handbook: capturing the breadth and diversity of environmental justice research

27 November 2017
Gordon Walker, a co-editor of the recently released Environmental Justice Handbook provides an overview of how the Handbook sets out to critically assess the current state of EJ and set an agenda for the future.

Environmental concerns, such as water and air pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change, are sometimes represented as universal, affecting us all. However, as contemporary struggles in many parts of the world starkly demonstrate, they do not affect us all equally, to the same degree, or with the same consequence. Nor do we have equal ability to prevent or decide on solutions to these concerns, or to take action to address them. This unequal and differentiated positioning, which typically places the heaviest environmental burdens upon marginalized, disadvantaged, and less powerful populations, forms the central premise of claims of environmental injustice and the hope for environmental justice as a solution.

Environmental justice scholarship focused on these concerns and ambitions has been developing and flourishing for the past 30 or so years, to the extent that it can be difficult to capture the breadth and diversity of the research field. Together with co-editors – Ryan Holifield at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Jayajit Chakraborty at the University of Texas at El Paso – we therefore took on the rather mammoth task of putting together the Environmental Justice Handbook recently published by Routledge, in order to provide a broad systemisation and documentation of the diverse, rapidly growing body of environmental justice research.

From its origins in grassroots activism and engaged scholarship, primarily in the US, environmental justice (EJ) research has generated what is now a vast, multi-disciplinary field of literature encompassing a wide range of issues and politics in countries throughout the world. Initially focused on environmental pollution and risks, the scope of EJ activism and research has now expanded to encompass many other concerns, including rampant industrialization, resource depletion, energy and climate justice, food justice and access to greenspace and environmental amenities. Attention has focused on the differential effects on minority, indigenous, and low-income communities, as well as other groups such as disabled, immigrant, and linguistically isolated populations, as well as future generations. Much of this diversity was represented at the recent Environmental Justice 2017 Conference at University of Sydney, where the Handbook’s antipodean launch took place.

The handbook is big, made up of 51 chapters, involving over 90 authors from many different disciplines and countries around the world. The list includes 6 authors based in Australia demonstrating the substantial contribution to EJ scholarship, both theoretical and empirical, that is now being made by Australian academics and activists. The Handbook is structured into four sections, dealing with theory and concepts; methods; substantive issues and global and regional dimensions, with two chapters focused on Australia in that section.

We challenged our authors not only to introduce and critically assess the current state of the art, but also to set an agenda for the future. The present moment is particularly important for EJ research. For one thing, it is no longer a new field; it has had time to develop and evolve, in multiple contexts and directions. EJ scholarship now engages with and contributes to a wide array of social, political, legal, ethical, and geographical theories. It draws on and helps advance an increasingly sophisticated and diverse collection of methodological approaches – quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methodological approaches of various kinds, as well as action-research designs that are strongly embedded in local communities. However, ongoing political changes and pressures in many parts of the world are doing little to prioritise environmental concerns, let alone attend to questions of inequality and justice, so the need for engaged environmental justice research, writing and advocacy is stronger than it has ever been.  We now have a substantial foundation as laid out across the Handbook, but much more work has yet to be done.

For more details on the Environmental Justice Handbook, click here.

Professor Gordon Walker is in the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on environmental justice, sustainable energy transitions and the dynamics of energy demand. His recent authored and co-edited books include ‘Environmental Justice: concepts, evidence and politics’ (Routledge, 2012); ‘Energy Justice in a Changing Climate’ (Zed 2013) and the ‘Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice’ (Routledge 2018).

Header image: by Aran Smith via Unsplash.