by Louise Segreto. Art by Ricardo Levins Morales
The tragically unjust death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has raised a global consciousness about equity and justice. In the wake of his death, even environmental/conservation organizations like our Bush Lake Chapter Izaak Walton League have stepped back to examine what “Environmental Equity” and “Environmental Justice” mean and should look like as we move forward.
While these are not new terms, they are often confused and incorrectly used interchangeably. The fundamental conceptual principle is that we are all entitled, despite who we are, what color we happen to be, how much money we make, how old we are, or any other demographic we can be identified as belonging, to safe drinking water, healthy air quality, and a clean environment. These environmental entitlements are basic human rights. And, the Izaak Walton League (“IWL”) has been proudly involved in Environmental Equity issues and Environmental Justice long before these terms were even used. The IWL has been doing Environmental Justice work years before it came to be referred to as a social movement.
What is the difference between “Environmental Equity” and “Environmental Justice”?
“Environmental Equity” refers to how environmental risks are distributed across diverse population groups and how our policies create or respond to the equitable or unequal distribution of environmental risk. There are many different types of equity, but in recent months we have been focused on inequities that affect racial minorities and low-income populations. Similarly, environmental risks can be wide ranging from broader environmental disasters such as flooding, wildfires, mudslides caused by climate change to more localized environmental hazards such as contaminated water from industrial agriculture or factory effluent pollution, to changes in hunting and fishing regulations that disproportionately affect a disadvantaged northern Minnesota Native American Tribe. The simple fact of the matter is that people that lack economic power or political clout usually bear the brunt of carrying the risks of environmental downsides associated with industrial and capitalistic “progress”.
The term “Environmental Justice” refers to the actions and activism necessary to highlight the inequalities in environmental risk distribution across populations and pave the way to leveling the playing field in achieving environmental equity. Environmental Justice activism can take many forms. For example, advocating for proper oversight and review of Federal, State and local agencies, ensuring proper permitting and licensing, and advocating for changes in rules, regulations and statutes are different strategies. Ideally, Environmental Equity is the outcome of Environmental Justice.
But, striving for Environmental Equity & Environmental Justice are just lofty aspirational words, unless we really focus on these concepts and integrate them into every aspect of our lives and work. As members of the Bush Lake Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, let us all pause and think what each of us might do to contribute to achieving Environmental Equity through our work in Environmental Justice today and in years to come.