Do We Have A Right to a Clean Environment?

“Environmental Justice is a movement to address issues – such as air quality, clean water, and climate change — that affect all people, especially low-income and minority communities.”

These communities are more likely to live in close proximity of industrial pollution, toxic wastes, and contaminated water, as evidence of “environmental racism.” Environmental advocates argue that discrimination against low-income and minority communities is not accidental, but results from decisions by for-profit institutions and government agencies that knowingly discriminate these groups.  In this narrative, if people were to document the causes and consequences of discrimination, and organize around the issues, it might create change.  

Young people care about the environment and want to take action.  They want to “turn off the lights,” “recycle their waste,” and participate in community service activities like “sweeping the streets.”  They took plastic bottles of safe water to the residents of Flint, as a way to deal with the water crisis.

Other young people work for environmental justice by identifying the structural causes of discrimination, and organizing around the for-profit institution and government agencies who are responsible for it.  Community organizing for social justice is about using strategies and tactics — such as policy advocacy and protest demonstrations — that generate the power to create needed change.

Here are some discussion questions from the readings:

  • What is “environmental justice”? Why is this movement important, and for whom? 
  • What is “environmental racism”? Why do low-income and minorities of color live closer to environmental hazards? 
  • How are environmental issues related to inequalities in society, or prejudice and discrimination, or power and privilege?
  • What are the facts about “clean water,” “clean air,” and “climate change?” What are the causes and consequences?
  • What do some elected officials deny the facts?
  • Do you have a right to environmental justice?
  • What are some steps that you could take to take action on the issues?

Activists speaking out:

Here is a video playlist of a college professor and a few youth activists who are concerned about the climate change issue:

Listed below are tips and resources for teachers:

Download the YCRA Social Justice Case Study on the Flint water crisis here.  

The academy aims to prepare a new generation of civil rights leaders. For more information contact Barry Checkoway (barrych@umich.edu).