What is justice?

As ‘Urban struggles are predominantly socio-ecological struggles’ (Swyngedouw, Heynen and Kaika, 2015), the environmental challenges that face LA are transformed into social issues by the city. So, what should justice look like in the face of these glaring inequalities?

Environmental justice is concerned with the uneven distribution of environmental burdens. Finding its routes in the ‘blistering’ 1987 report; Toxic Waste and Race, which concluded that ‘race is a major factor’ in exposure to unsafe environments in the US, , with ‘3 out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans living in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites’. The environmental justice movement seeks to remedy the disproportionately heavy load BIPOC people face, recognising three interconnected types of justice.

  • Distributive, which seeks to redistribute environmental benefits and burdens.
  • Procedural, which subjects everyone to the same laws and procedures.
  • And corrective, whereby the dysfunctional urban flow needs to be fixed through financial and infrastructural changes.

There are 17 principles of environmental justice laid out in the 1991 manifesto. Central to the EJ movement is the ‘demand that public policy be…free from any form of discrimination or bias’.

People's Climate March
EJ is becoming increasingly central part of both the civil rights and climate justice movement

This can be achieved in many different ways. Principle 2 ‘opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.’ Perhaps this would have been particularly helpful during Los Angeles’ streetcar scandal, which I discussed in my second blog. General Motors and Standard Oil of California, among others violated the Sherman anti-trust act by creating transport monopoly. Despite having broken the law, they received a ‘slap on the wrists’, with GM paying a fine of just $5,000 (The Guardian). Until it is unprofitable for companies to break the law, they will continue to do so. I would argue, perhaps somewhat cynically, that this falls within the realm of procedural justice whereby the degree to which you are forced to comply with the law depends on who you are, and the level of legal support you can afford.

The Owens Valley, and its ensuing hydrological collapse at the hands of Los Angeles County Council, was also subject to a great degree of procedural variability, despite the clear evidence pollution levels in Owens valley far exceeded the legal limit. It was only when Eric Garcetti was elected in 2013, a mayor who was willing to cooperate with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, that the situation was finally solved, and full corrective justice was received. Referring back to the 1991 manifesto, Principle 10 considers ‘environmental injustice a violation of international law and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.’ Again, raising questions of procedural justice on a broader scale, international law is often seen as ‘pliable’, and is frequently unenforced.

Owens Valley Salty As Los Angeles Water Battle Flows Into Court : NPR
Owens Lake – now reduced to a salt flat

The Owens valley disaster, like the streetcar scandal, are perhaps a symptom of a broader problem of unequal participation within urban governance. Principle 7 demands equal participation at ‘every equal of decision making’. However, this is difficult to implement in practice. Both logistically, but also in terms of keeping a community interested and engaged in the issues in question. Bottom up GI schemes, such as the PRADS that we discussed last week, provide a way to involve communities more.

I think the EJ movement offers an important perspective when thinking about how to rectify the socio-ecological problems experienced in LA. The focus on legal protection and environmental regulation is an essential step in forcing governing bodies to uphold safe environmental standards, ensuring a procedural consistency often lacking in LA city governance. This would force environmental policy to divorce itself from a city’s finances, potentially making government subsidised transport infrastructure, or car free zones in the city a possibility, despite the financial draw backs.


Chavis, B. 1987 ‘Toxic Waste and Race’

Braxton Little, J., 2015. Keeping the dust down in California’s Owens Valley. [online] Hcn.org. Available at: <https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.4/keeping-the-dust-down-in-californias-owens-valley&gt; [Accessed 31 January 2020].

Kuehn, Robert R., “A Taxonomy of Environmental Justice” (2000). Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium International (APRCi). 307.

Npr.org. 2013. [online] Available at: <https://www.npr.org/2013/03/11/173463688/owens-valley-salty-as-los-angeles-water-battle-flows-into-court?t=1610191466440&gt; [Accessed 29 December 2020].

Nrdc.org. 1991. [online] Available at: <https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/ej-principles.pdf&gt; [Accessed 29 December 2020].

Sierra Club. n.d. History of Environmental Justice. [online] Available at: <https://www.sierraclub.org/environmental-justice/history-environmental-justice#:~:text=The%20environmental%20justice%20movement%20emerged,minority%20and%20low%2Dincome%20communities.&gt; [Accessed 29 December 2021].

The Guardian, 2016 ‘Story of cities #29: Los Angeles and the ‘great American streetcar scandal” – https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/25/story-cities-los-angeles-great-american-streetcar-scandal

Van Zeijtz, C., n.d. Green Gentrification — Activism Beyond the Classroom. [online] Activism Beyond the Classroom. Available at: <https://www.activismbeyondtheclassroom.com/public-writing/2019/12/11/green-gentrification&gt; [Accessed 31 December 2020].

York, C., 2020. [online] Huffingtonpost.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/uk-international-law-brexit_uk_5f58a5a2c5b6b48507f9df76&gt; [Accessed 29 December 2020].

2 thoughts on “What is justice?

  1. This is very interesting that despite the acknowledgement of racial factors in toxic waste 30 years ago, it is still a significant topic of discussion that is yet to be resolved. I strongly agree with your suggestion that larger fines are needed to be noticed by companies operating illegally. It perhaps would have been useful to see images or a youtube link to break up the text and to highlight the two different examples you refer to in the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! It is dispiriting how little has been done in the last 30 years but I do think that financial ramifications are particularly important for profit driven companies. Thats a great suggestion, thank you


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