Using FWC as a case study for uniting environmental and ecological justice movements

Is the Flint Water Crisis a case study for environmental justice or ecological justice? How can these two movements unite around a specific definition of injustice as it relates to Flint? If activists and movements employ the term in the same way, will they leverage more focus and more power? And in addition, if these movements were able to critique themselves and address the gaps laid out of Schlosberg, could they create a more powerful and effective resolution for future environmental and ecological justice concerns?

David Schlosberg asks these questions in his book Defining Environmental Justice (2007):

  • “What is the relationship between environmental justice, which addresses environmental risks within human communities, and ecological justice, focused on the relationship between those human communities and the rest of the natural world” (Schlosberg, 2007, 3.)? 
  • Can we, “apply the same conceptions of justice, and the same broad discourse of justice, to both sets of issues – environmental risks in human populations and the relationship between human communities and nonhuman nature” (ibid., 6)? 
  • “Do those who speak of environmental justice, and those who call for ecological justice, understand the concept of ‘justice’ in similar ways” (ibid., 3)?

 Schlosberg identified two major gaps:

First Gap: the distance and relationship between justice theory (and theorists) and the environmental movement (and its activists). They are not considering, much less integrating, each other’s contributions effectively.

The Flint Water Crisis (any many other soon to be crisis in other American cities) is a case study of justice theory. Maldistribution of clean water as a function of a maldistribution of lead pipes and resources occurred. In addition, misrecognition of those impacted by the polluted water occurred. Those without a ‘voice of authority’ could not get their concerns heard or respected. As a consequence, they were poisoned by water that they knew was bad but had been assured was clean. Without the ‘credentials’ to make their voices heard, how can they overcome procedural injustice with political and decision-making power? The Flint Case Study is ongoing, but how can the environmental movement learn from this and position themselves to support not only Flint, but other communities in the future? What should the environmental movement consider and integrate from a justice theory assessment of the Flint Water Crisis?

  • “The problem that I see is not that distributive theories of justice cannot be applied to environmental justice. Rather, the issue is that justice theory has developed a number of additional ways of understanding the processes of justice and injustice – and these developments have rarely appeared in the literature on the environmental justice movement” (ibid., 4).
  • “The environmental justice movement supplies ample evidence that all of these conceptions of justice are used in practice, and that, in fact, a comprehensive understanding of the way that movements define the ‘justice’ of environmental justice must include all of these discourses” (ibid., 5).

In addition to Distributive, the environmental movement should consider the following unapplied justice concepts:

  • Recognition – addressing the processes that construct maldistribution (Young, Fraser, Honneth)
  • Capability – capacities necessary for individuals to fully function in their chosen lives (Sen, Nussbaum)
  • Participation – necessary for individuals to ensure functioning (Fraser, Sen, Nussbaum)

Second Gap: disconnect between environmental justice and ecological justice

“We should extend the organizing framework of environmental justice, “to include the conception of ecological justice as well” (ibid., 7). – think Rachel Carson Silent Spring

Lead pipes are poisonous – period. Every lead pipe in the country used for water that touches humans, should be removed. But why isn’t anyone talking about the initial problem of the severity of pollution of the Flint River? Why can we not incorporate environmental justice efforts with ecological justice efforts? They are completely integrated.

  • “The vast majority of work on environmental justice does not concern itself with the natural world outside human impacts, and most work on ecological justice does not pay attention to issues raised by movements for environmental justice.” (ibid., 6).
  • “We can draw parallels between the application of notions of justice as distribution, recognition, capability, and participation in both the human and nonhuman realms. A broad set of theoretical concerns, notions, and tools can be applied to both environmental and ecological justice” (ibid.).
  • There is, “potential of using the same languages(s) of justice in addressing both sorts of issues and relationships” in the environmental and ecological justice movements (ibid.).

The Flint Water Crisis could be used as a case study of how to expand justice in general by connecting the environmental justice movement with the ecological justice movement.

“Issues of inequality, recognition, participation, and the larger question of the capabilities and functioning of individuals and communities – human and nonhuman – can come together in a broad and inclusive discourse that can strengthen the explanatory (and mobilizing) power of the movements that use the language of environmental and ecological justice” (ibid., 8).

Schlosberg, David. (2007). Defining Environmental Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One Reply to “Using FWC as a case study for uniting environmental and ecological justice movements”

  1. Excellent points. The distinction/separation between the environmental justice movement and the ecological justice movement reminds me a little bit of the distinction/separation between the lead-paint poisoning prevention movement (a.k.a., the “childhood lead poisoning prevention” movement) and the movement for lead-free drinking water. It is not uncommon for members of one movement (usually the most powerful of the two) to view the other movement as a “threat” or “distraction.”

    One question I have is: What might be the potential benefits of integration of environmental justice efforts and ecological justice efforts? For example, why would anyone in the fight for environmental justice in Flint want to bring attention to “the initial problem of the severity of pollution of the Flint River”? Similarly, why would anyone in the fight for ecological justice in Flint (is such a fight even occurring?) want to bring attention to the problem of systematic and systemic silencing of Flint residents between 2014-2015 (and one could argue all the way to today)?

    If integrated, would the explanatory and mobilizing power of the two movements be amplified? If so, how?

    PS. I would love to hear more about your take on Flint’s “maldistribution of lead pipes and resources.” Are you suggesting that lead pipes were installed primarily in neighborhoods of marginalized/oppressed groups? In Flint? Nationwide?

Leave a Reply