Environmental Justice

“Environmental justice is the new civil rights” -- Kurt Schmoke, former Mayor of Baltimore and current Dean at Howard University School of Law

The EPA says, “Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, culture, education, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal environmental programs and policies.” (1)

The key concept within this definition is disproportionate impact. Although the greatest environmental injustice is the toxic legacy we leave future generations who have no say at all, the landmark studies by the United Church of Christ (UCC), Toxic Waste and Race, in 1987 (2) and then in 2007, Toxic Waste and Race at 20 (3), together have documented how “people of color and persons of low socioeconomic status are still disproportionately impacted and are particularly concentrated in neighborhoods and communities with the greatest number of (toxic waste) facilities.” The lack of economic and social justice also frustrates these same disproportionately burdened communities from enjoying the benefits of the environment or its exploitation.

Sustainability can abate environmental injustice by both reducing the environmental degradation that is ultimately shouldered by marginalized communities and by empowering those communities to sustain themselves.

The ‘solar-backpack’ is a great example of this principle in practice. Enabled by micro-inverter technology, ‘solar-backpacks’ are a small, inexpensive, and easily transportable power generation stations. Used by We Care Solar, these systems have helped to bring electricity to hospitals in Africa that either have unreliable electricity or none at all. This type of system was also sent into Haiti immediately following the earthquake.

Using small-scale renewable energy to bring power to places with unreliable electricity or none at all has made for a highly successful new venture for Noble Peace Prize winning ‘Banker to the Poor’ Muhammad Yunus.(4)