History of Environmental Justice


The environmental justice movement emerged in the late 1980s when a blistering report exposed massive disparities in the burden of environmental degradation and pollution facing minority and low-income communities. These issues existed and had been recognized previously, most notably in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, where thousands of tons of PCB-ridden soil was intentionally dumped in a facility in an African American community despite the community’s protest. This incident and others sparked research into the environmental and health burden born by these communities, culminating with the publishing of the study Toxic Waste and Race in 1987.

Over the next decade, the movement gained momentum and groups sought governmental action to ensure that the hardships of pollution and environmental degradation would not be further imposed upon any community, especially those already facing discrimination. While pursuing legal and legislative action, the movement has stayed true to its grassroots beginnings with local environmental justice organizations appearing in communities across the country. The federal government began to address the issues associated with environmental justice in the 90s with Executive Order 12898, which established environmental justice offices in the EPADOJ, and other federal agencies.

Currently, the movement consists of an extensive formal and informal network of community, national, and international organizations that provide a new framework for addressing some of the most pressing environmental and social issues facing us today. Working both in the government and within historically marginalized communities, the environmental justice movement has attempted to mitigate the disproportionate subjugation of these communities to the consequences of flawed environmental policies and practices. By approaching the broader environmental movement through these means, the environmental justice movement provides an avenue for social justice for all people, regardless of race, color, gender, or income, in the pursuit of a more cooperative and sustainable future.

At the Sierra Club, we have been working for environmental justice across the country for more than 20 years. Our policy and principles for achieving environmental justice were adopted early on and remain some of the most important pieces in our work.

Environmental Justice Policy

The Board of Directors of the Sierra Club recognizes that to achieve our mission of environmental protection and a sustainable future for the planet, we must attain social justice and human rights at home and around the globe. The Board calls on all parts of the Club to discuss and explore the linkages between environmental quality and social justice, and to promote dialogue, increased understanding and appropriate action.

Adopted Board of Directors - September 18–19, 1993

Environmental Justice Principles

Remembering that the Sierra Club's founder, John Muir, said: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike," and reaffirming our stated Purposes:

The Sierra Club's purpose is to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.

We adopt the following Environmental Justice Principles to provide a vision of how our Club's Purposes should justly serve the Earth and all of humanity. Through these Principles, we intend that Earth's wild places should be protected so that all people and future generations may explore and enjoy nature's beauty; that the Earth's ecosystems and resources should be used responsibly and sustainably so that all people and future generations may share nature's bounty; that the natural and human environment should be restored to the benefit of all people and for other living things, and their future generations; and that no community should bear disproportionate risks of harm because of their demographic characteristics or economic condition.

1. We support the right to a clean and healthful environment for all people

A. The Right to Democracy

We support government by the people. Corporate influence over governments must be constrained to stop the erosion of the peoples' right to govern themselves and governments' ability to establish justice and to promote the general welfare.

B. The Right to Participate

People have the right to participate in the development of rules, regulations, plans, and evaluation criteria and at every level of decision-making. Environmental decision-making must include the full range of alternatives to a proposed action or plan, including rejection of the proposed action or plan. Barriers to participation (cultural, linguistic, geographic, economic, other) should be addressed.

C. The Right to Equal Protection

Laws, policies, rules, regulations, and evaluation criteria should be applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. Laws, policies, regulations, or criteria that result in disproportionate impact are discriminatory, whether or not such a result was intended, and should be corrected. We support environmental restoration and the redressing of environmental inequities.

D. The Right to Know

People have a right to know the information necessary for informed environmental decision-making.

E. The Right to Sustainable Environmental Benefits

People are entitled to enjoy the sustainable aesthetic, recreational, cultural, historical, scientific, educational, religious, sacred, sustenance, subsistence, cultural, and other environmental benefits of natural resources. However, actions that tend to ruin the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community are unethical.

F. The Right to Equity

Environmentally degrading land uses should be avoided, but when such uses occur, they should be equitably sited taking into account all environmental and community impacts including the cumulative and synergistic ecological and health effects of multiple facilities. All people have the right to a safe and healthful work and home environment.

G. The Right to Generational Equity

Future generations have a fundamental right to enjoy the benefits of natural resources, including clean air, water, and land, to have an uncontaminated food chain, and to receive a heritage of wilderness and a functioning global ecosystem with all species naturally present.

H. The Rights of Native People

We oppose efforts to dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands, their cultures, and their right to self-determination. We support Native Peoples' wielding of their sovereign powers to protect the environment and to establish environmental justice.

2. We support an end to pollution

The long-range policy goal priorities for environmental protection must be:

(1) to end the production of polluting substances and waste through elimination, replacement, redesign, reduction, and reuse (zero waste),

(2) to prevent any release of polluting substances (zero emissions, zero discharge),

(3) to prevent any exposure of plants, animals, or humans to polluting substances, and

(4) to remediate the effects of any such exposure.

3. We support the precautionary principle

When an activity potentially threatens human health or the environment, the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof as to the harmlessness of the activity. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Adopted by the Board of Directors, February 17, 2001.

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