On Monday (October 21), The Guardian launched Our Unequal Earth, a year-long series on environmental justice. But before it delves into investigative reports of some on the most egregious examples of environmental injustice—from the Flint water crisis to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to a drought on the United States-Mexican border—it is covering the basics: What is environmental justice? How did it begin? How does it impact lower-income earning people, communities of color and Native Americans?

In a piece published Monday, five key activists explain why environmental justice is one of the most critical issues of our time. Here, words from some of the movement’s leaders:

Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice and a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University:

I started working on environment and race in 1978-’79 by collecting landfill data for a landmark civil rights lawsuit filed by my wife in Houston, Texas, against the city and the state. This study found that between the 1930s and 1978, 82 percent of all the waste in Houston was dumped in Black neighborhoods, even though only 25 percent of the population was Black. This was not random or isolated; it was targeted and widespread across the southern states and the nation. We lost in court, but the concept of environmental racism was born.

Kandi Mossett-White, the native energy and climate campaign coordinator at Indigenous Environmental Network:

We cannot talk about environmental injustice without understanding the historical context of colonization and capitalism. The federal government put us on reservations on land they believed to be worthless, but many turned out to be rich in “resources.” This means we’re in the way of profits. In most cases we don’t want these megaprojects coming in and destroying our land and water, but it happens anyway. The situation is even worse for our brothers and sisters in the global south where people are silenced, disappeared and killed to make money with no hope of justice.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president, environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Confederation:

Environmental injustice is about [the state] creating sacrifice zones where we place everything which no one else wants. The justification is always an economic one, that it makes sense to build chemical plants on so-called cheap lands where poor people and people of color live, but which are only cheap because all the wealth and economic opportunities have been stripped out. The people who live in these areas are unseen, unheard and undervalued.


The cuts to the EPA proposed by the Trump administration are about protecting the industries which supported Trump’s campaign, and power and discrimination. It’s about showing communities of color and poor communities the administration can do whatever it wants to them because their lives don’t matter.

Jamie Margolin, climate justice youth activist and founder of #ThisIsZeroHour:

Climate justice has mobilized young people because there’s something in it for everyone. Whether you care about animals, science, pollution, racism or sexism, all these issues are intertwined with the climate crisis in the worst possible way. Poor people and people of color are much more likely to die in climate disasters than rich people. This means addressing racism, colonialism and patriarchy, because inequalities do not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the climate crisis. It’s the result of all the other societal evils.

LeeAnne Walters, Flint resident who led a citizen’s movement to expose the water crisis:

The Flint scandal showed the American people and the world that access to clean water in the U.S. is not always a given. It showed that we have testing methods that are flawed, and we need them fixed, and that sometimes the people who are paid to protect us don’t always do what is in our best interests. 


I was an ordinary citizen compelled to take action after watching my children break out in rashes, scream in agony from taking a bath, unexplained illnesses, losing their hair and being told the problem was specific to my house even though the same things were happening to children all over Flint.

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