Global environmental injustice

‘Injustice’ is a more useful concept for making global environmental comparisons that ‘justice’, argues Alice Mah, based on research in polluted industrial regions in China, Chile and Canada

The heaviest toxic burdens of industrial pollution are concentrated in black, ethnic minority, and low-income communities around the world. The unequal geographical distribution of environmental health hazards has been a central concern of the environment justice movement since it began in the 1980s. The movement has roots in the United States, where it brought together issues and tactics from the civil rights, anti-toxic, and community health movements. It aims to address social and spatial inequalities in the distribution of environmental benefits and risks. 

In recent decades, the environmental justice movement has become increasingly global, spanning different geographic and temporal scales, as well as different definitions and values of justice. I plan to use my Philip Leverhulme Prize to write a monograph on Global Environmental Injustice. This research will critically engage with debates about globalizing environmental justice, as both a concept and a movement. Developing theoretical insights grounded in multi-sited research in polluted industrial regions in China, Chile, and Canada, the book will argue that the concept of injustice is more palpable and salient than justice as a basis for making global comparisons.

Firstly, my research will critically examine the interrelated concepts of justice and injustice in social, political, and environmental theory, drawing from a range of interdisciplinary literatures. Secondly, it will examine the global relevance of environmental (in)justice in different contexts across the global South and global North, whilst challenging the boundaries of these categories. In particular, my research will focus on internal inequalities within different industrial regions and countries, in relation to indigenous, rural, and marginalized populations. Thirdly, it will investigate hierarchies of knowledge production and access to justice in the context of legacies of colonialism and uneven capitalist development. 

Petrochemical workers and core values, March 2016. Photo: Xinhong Wang

Methodologically, the research will combine two main approaches to examining global environmental injustice. The first analytical approach will draw on in-depth case study research in three contrasting industrial regions in different national contexts: 

1) Chile, focusing on links between extractive industries (copper, lithium) and logistical infrastructures around Concepción and San Antonio; 
2) China, focusing on two top chemical industry areas in Nanjing and Guangzhou; and 
3) the Canadian tar sands area around Fort McMurray, particularly in the aftermath of the wildfires of summer 2016. 

People who live and work in these areas all face environmental injustices, but with different constraints and possibilities for public action. The second analytical approach will draw on network analysis, mapping, and visualizations, to examine the patterns and dynamics of geopolitical, institutional, and local contexts of environmental injustice around the world.

Environmental injustices only become environmental justice struggles in exceptional cases, and rely on dynamics of social and political mobilisation, rather than the empirical severity of environmental injustice. Even in widely recognised cases of environmental justice, enduring and less visible injustices remain a core problem. This research will shift our attention to include not only visible environmental justice struggles, but also less visible and highly prevalent instances of environmental injustice. 

Dr Alice Mah
Philip Leverhulme Prize
University of Warwick