Environmental Justice, Defined

Time needed

20–30 minutes

Why do it?

This exercise will introduce your students to the term “environmental justice” and develop their thinking about the concept by asking them to write their own definitions.


  1. In a discussion format, ask your students to brainstorm definitions of the terms “environment” and “justice.” After a handful of students have volunteered definitions, read the definitions below from the Merriam Webster online dictionary. How do they compare to the definitions you generated?
    1. environment:
      1. The complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.
      2. The aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community.
    2. justice:
      1. The quality of being just, impartial, or fair.
      2. The principle or ideal of just dealing or right action;
        conformity to this principle or ideal
      3. Righteousness.
      4. The quality of conforming to the law.
  2. Now ask the students how these two definitions could be combined. What do they think “environmental justice” means? Give students several minutes to write their own definitions. Encourage them to think of real life experiences as well as the previous discussion to inform their definition.
  3. Ask for volunteers to share their definition and describe how they came up with it.
  4. Finally, share the definitions of environmental justice below used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and ejnet.org. Discuss in what ways the definitions generated by students differ from or are similar to these definitions.
    1. Definition from US EPA: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
    2. Definition from EJnet.org: “Environmental equity: Poison people equally. Environmental justice: Stop poisoning people, period. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement’s response to environmental racism. ‘Environmental equity’ is not environmental justice. ‘Environmental equity’ is the government’s response to the demands of the environmental justice movement. Government agencies, like the EPA, have been co-opting the movement by redefining environmental justice as ‘fair treatment and meaningful involvement,’ something they consistently fail to accomplish, but which also falls far short of the environmental justice vision. The environmental justice movement isn’t seeking to simply redistribute environmental harms, but to abolish them.”


  • Have students work in groups to create their definitions.
  • Incorporate a comparison of the Principles of Environmental Justice adopted by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, supported by Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and other environmental justice groups nation-wide.

Recommended Reading

  • Sze, J. and London, J. 2008. “Environmental Justice At the Crossroads.” Sociology Compass, 2(4): 1331–1354.
  • Bullard, R. 2001. “Environmental Justice in the 21st Century,” www.ejrc.cau.edu/ejinthe21century.htm