No Egalitarianism Without Environmental Egalitarianism

This is part one of a two-part essay.

2004 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Margie Richard grew up in the historically African-American neighborhood of Diamond in Norco, Louisiana, a community with abnormally high rates of cancer, birth defects, and other devastating health ailments. More than a third of Norco’s children suffer from asthma or bronchitis, whilst Richard herself lost her mother to lung disease, and her 43-year old sister to sarcoidosis.[1] You may then be shocked, or perhaps unsurprised, to learn that Richard’s childhood home stood just 25 feet from a Shell petroleum refinery, and that Norco, situated in the notorious “Cancer Alley” along the Mississippi River, is named after the New Orleans Refining Company. For years, Diamond’s residents had inhaled a “toxic bouquet” of pollution – to which the Shell plant contributes over 2 million pounds of chemicals annually – and suffered numerous devastating industrial explosions.[2]

But whereas Richard succeeded in winning compensation from Shell to relocate her neighborhood, her tale has become canonized in environmental literature precisely because it is a fortuitous aberration. Countless other communities continue to suffer because mainstream environmentalism today is a largely middle-class phenomenon that marginalizes the interests of minorities and the poor. The belief that mainstream environmentalism is elitist has precipitated the rise of the “environmental justice” movement, which prescribes care for both the planet and vulnerable human communities in concomitance. But not only does this internal discord damage the credibility and strength of environmental movements, it also precludes the realization of a truly egalitarian standard of justice wherein environmental benefits and burdens are distributed equitably. Ultimately, justice only truly obtains through “environmental egalitarianism”; mainstream environmentalism must hence be reframed to eliminate the tradeoffs that often occur between environmentalism and the rights of marginalized groups.


  1. Mainstream Environmentalism and Environmental Discrimination

I take mainstream environmentalism to comprise those cosmopolitan groups that focus primarily on wilderness preservation and the general “health of the planet,” rather than local, grassroots concerns. This includes large, wealthy, transnational brand-name organizations like those which constitute “Big Green” in the United States: the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, amongst others. They prize the protection of a “pristine,” “untouched” nature, with an emphasis on ensuring its continued utility to human beings for recreation, spirituality, education, and perhaps science.[3] It is particularly telling that the Big Green-endorsed Wilderness Act of 1964, penned by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, defines “wilderness” as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”[4]

Such a stance is exclusionary insofar as it disregards the dependence of marginalized communities upon their immediate environment for survival. Indigenous peoples are often either evicted or prosecuted for “illegal” resource use because they inhabit areas designated for conservation; in Central America, for instance, this accounts for 85% of all protected areas.[5] Mac Chaplin argues that the interests of indigenous groups and mainstream environmentalists are irreconcilable: the former are principally concerned with living sustainably off the land to ensure their long-term survival, but Big Green fears that engaging in “political action” by supporting grassroots movements would jeopardize its fundraising efforts.[6]

Mainstream environmentalism is also perceived as being unconcerned with the daily struggles of marginalized communities. The landmark letter from the Southwest Organizing Project in 1990 accusing Big Green of neglecting colored communities was particularly damning, exposing its members’ support of policies that threatened the livelihoods and cultures of minorities in the name of environmentalism.[7] Many of Big Green’s partners, like BP, Dow Chemical, and Coca Cola, are also known polluters with poor worker safety standards and histories of racial discrimination and community destruction. Such inequality and discrimination has led environmental justice groups to label mainstream environmentalism as inherently elitist.


  1. “Environmental Elitism”

The “environmental elitism” argument entails three distinct charges. “Compositional elitism” claims that environmentalists largely belong to the socioeconomic elite. Indeed, studies have shown that “core environmentalists,” viz. the leaders and active, due-paying members of mainstream environmental groups, invariably tend to be white college graduates with professional-level occupations and above-average incomes.[8] “Ideological elitism” suggests that that mainstream environmentalism is a front for the pursuit of middle-class self-interest at the expense of other socioeconomic groups. To illustrate, middle-class NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movements that oppose industrial developments near their communities do not necessarily oppose development in and of itself, but invariably wish to avoid its negative externalities. Development then shifts near marginalized communities instead, whilst affluent communities continue reaping its benefits. Marginalized communities like Diamond, however, are less capable of mounting their own NIMBY campaigns because corporations either convince them to trade health for employment, or simply employ “job blackmail” against them.

Finally, “impact elitism” holds that mainstream environmentalism has “regressive social impacts,” like unjust and unequal distributions that exacerbate social inequalities. More nature preserves and urban parks could mean the eviction of poor and marginalized communities; factory closures often lead to greater unemployment, particularly within the lower socioeconomic strata; and the prohibition of “dirty” power plants could deprive vulnerable communities of cheap electricity for hot water and heating. Although there exist valid counterarguments to all of the above, insofar as “environmental elitism” possesses a modicum of truth, it is imperative that mainstream environmentalism realize the need for a more egalitarian outlook, lest it continue imperiling the very people it claims to protect.


III. “Environmental Egalitarianism”

The solution is an “environmental egalitarianism” that demands policies addressing both environmental protection and social justice, which in turn means an equal distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. How, then, might we arrive at a fair and valid philosophical construction of “true environmental egalitarianism”? One way is to expand the contemporary capabilities approach to egalitarianism, most prominently proffered by thinkers like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. The latter in particular provides an articulation of egalitarianism containing considerable conceptual space for the inclusion of environmental interests.

Nussbaum’s project is a list of central human capabilities to be politically endorsed by all peoples as the moral basis of central constitutional guarantees.[9] Drawing from Aristotelian and Marxian tradition, she appeals to some universal notion of “human dignity”; that is, “central capabilities,” and not mere resources, determine if an individual can live a “fully human” life.[10] To adopt this view is to regard every individual as an end, not a means to another’s flourishing. Justice then demands that states deliver to all citizens a certain basic level of capabilities.[11] Said capabilities must constitute an “overlapping consensus” – all peoples must agree to their sanctity even whilst retaining their own disparate beliefs and value systems.[12] Further, “[all capabilities] are of central importance and all are distinct in quality,” but can be subjected to cost-benefit analysis to determine trade-offs.[13] In 2001, Nussbaum presented a list of ten capabilities, including life, bodily integrity, emotions, and play, inter alia.[14]

Nussbaum declared her list universal but not timeless, and indeed, the time has arrived for a revision, for it offers no protection for the environmental rights of the vulnerable; its closest attempt, capability #8, “Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature,” is superficial at best. I extract from the 1972 Stockholm Declaration a basic conception of these rights: Principle 1 notes “the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,” whilst Principle 2 emphasizes that “[t]he natural resources of the earth […] must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management.”[15]

The latter affirms that it would be insufficient to regard environmental rights a mere capability because a healthy environment is absolutely crucial to securing all the other capabilities in the long run: pollution, as evinced in Diamond, precludes life and bodily health; environmental destruction prevents play and interspecies interaction; and the loss of lush nature may inhibit the exercise of senses, imagination, thought, and emotions. Egalitarianism in fact presupposes environmentalism, so no quarter should be given in the latter’s enforcement, for an unsustainable egalitarianism is no justice at all. Therefore, environmental rights should join the list as a primus inter pares; the pursuit of any particular capability must be constrained by the precondition of sustainability and environmental health, though without detracting from the essentiality of each item.

Additionally, the ability of the poor to exercise “practical reason and affiliation,” which Nussbaum takes as essential to “fully functioning human beings,”[16] is compromised by their being held ransom by both mainstream environmentalism and corporations that constantly seek to pass negative environmental externalities onto their communities. Instead of privileging the social bases of these “uniquely human traits,” as Nussbaum suggests,[17] it is more important to secure the material bases that enable multiple conceptions of what a “fully functioning human being” entails. The “overlapping consensus” between these conceptions should be that securing the means of our shared existence is central to any pursuit of justice. By privileging environmental rights, we create an egalitarian framework to which all environmental groups should be expected to adhere, whilst political institutions should endorse and adopt the new eco-conscious capabilities approach. The future of egalitarianism is necessarily an amalgamation of social justice and environmentalism, an “environmental egalitarianism” that recognizes the centrality of environmental rights to the flourishing of human life.


  1. A Sustainable Egalitarianism

Mainstream environmentalism has lulled itself to a deep, complacent slumber, and has proven negligent toward the disadvantaged. It must hence recalibrate and embody the ideal of environmental egalitarianism if justice is to prevail. And yet, since infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, perhaps we do have to move toward a “post-contemporary” construction of egalitarianism regardless. Unbridled economic growth will only perpetuate and exacerbate inequality; questions of just allocation will never be sufficiently addressed whilst humanity fetishizes greater consumption and material throughput. The only means of arriving at a sustainable equilibrium, then, may well be a reorientation toward a “de-growth” prosumer plenitude economy, wherein sustainability and self-sufficiency ensure economic security and higher standards of living all around.[18]


Works Cited:

Chaplin, Mac. “A Challenge to Conservationists.” World Watch Magazine. November/December 2004.

Kalamandeen, Michelle, and Lindsey Gillson. “Demything “wilderness”: implications for protected area designation and management.” Biodiversity and Conservation 16, no. 1 (2007): 165-182.

Lerner, Steve. Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

“Margie Richard.” The Goldman Environmental Prize. Accessed on 30 November, 2017.

Morrison, Denton E., and Riley E. Dunlap. “Environmentalism and elitism: A conceptual and empirical analysis.” Environmental management 10, no. 5 (1986): 581-589.

Mowforth, Martin. “Indigenous people and the crisis over land and resources.” The Guardian. Last modified September 23, 2014.

Nussbaum, Martha. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Purdy, Jedediah. “Environmentalism Was Once a Social-Justice Movement.” The Atlantic. Last modified December 7, 2016.

Schor, Juliet. Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2010.

Southwest Organizing Project. Southwest Organizing Project to Jay D. Hair. March 16, 1990.

[1] “Margie Richard,” The Goldman Environmental Prize, accessed on 30 November, 2017,

[2] Steve Lerner, Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

[3] Michelle Kalamandeen and Lindsey Gillson, “Demything “wilderness”: implications for protected area designation and management,” Biodiversity and Conservation 16, no. 1 (2007): 168.

[4] The Wilderness Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1131-1136 (1964).

[5] Martin Mowforth, “Indigenous people and the crisis over land and resources.” The Guardian. Last modified September 23, 2014.

[6] Mac Chaplin, “A Challenge to Conservationists,” World Watch Magazine, November/December 2004, 21.

[7] Southwest Organizing Project, Southwest Organizing Project to Jay D. Hair, March 16, 1990,

[8] Denton E. Morrison and Riley E. Dunlap, “Environmentalism and elitism: A conceptual and empirical analysis,” Environmental management 10, no. 5 (1986): 582.

[9] Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 74.

[10] ibid., 73.

[11] ibid., 71.

[12] ibid., 76.

[13] ibid., 81.

[14] ibid., 80.

[15] United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (June 1972),

[16] ibid., 82.

[17] ibid., 81.

[18] Juliet Schor, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2010).

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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