Environmental Justice and Equity

Thematic Essay

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Just sustainabilities

Julian Agyeman, Tufts University, USA

The ideas of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ first achieved prominence among academics and international policy makers, together with policy entrepreneurs in Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), in the 1980s. They quickly became central concepts in policy, planning and development discourses, from global to local, especially after the publication in 1987 of the World Commission and Environment and Development (WCED) report “Our Common Future,” which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” and the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the so-called ‘Rio Summit’ or ‘Earth Summit’, which gave us Agenda 21 and Local Agenda 21, global and local sustainability agendas for the 21st Century.

Since then these terms, and variants such as ‘sustainable communities’, have become pervasive in government at all levels, amongst business leaders and in activist and civil society discourses, and there has been a massive increase in published and online material focusing on these topics.

The conceptions of sustainable development put forward by WCED and UNCED, while contested (e.g., Jacobs 1999; Bourke and Meppem 2000; Gunder 2006; Connelly 2007), imply a process in which reasonable human, material needs are met within ecosystem limits. Despite legitimate critiques regarding various and culturally specific definitions of ‘development’ and ‘needs’, Larrain (2002) describes, from a global south perspective, the concept of the ‘dignity line’ ‒ a culturally specific minimum level of material consumption needed to allow a life with dignity. The ubiquity of the terms sustainability and sustainable development has also led to contestations over what is to be sustained, by whom, for whom, and what is the most desirable means of achieving this goal. To some, the discourse surrounding these terms is too all encompassing to be of any use. To others, the words are usually prefaced by ‘environmental’ and ‘environmentally’, as in ‘environmental’ sustainability or ‘environmentally sustainable development’. The term ‘ecological sustainability’ is also sometimes used to emphasize the interdependence of species within this discourse.

The dominant discourse of sustainable development in Europe is, according to Smith (2003) ecological modernization, which is:

 “A discourse of eco-efficiency. Its primary concern is the efficient use of natural resources within a capitalist framework (Hajer 1995, Christoff 1996, Gouldson and Murphy 1997). Criticisms have been leveled at the lack of attention paid to social justice (both within and between nations) and the failure to conceive of nature beyond its value as a resource.” (4)

Some see sustainability and sustainable development as trendy, fashionable concepts whose time in the limelight will soon pass. However, it is hard to see this happening when the terms have been around for over 30 years and are still generating a frenzy of interest in academic, activist and policy and planning circles. To still others, the discourse offers a sense of integrity and holism that is lacking in contemporary, reductionist, silo-based policy-making and planning (Davoudi 2001). Indeed, the trend is to talk of sustainable development policy making as ‘joined up’ or ‘connected’ policy making, that is, policy making in specific areas, e.g. housing, economic development, diversity or environment, with an explicit eye to its intersections, interconnections and effects on the policy architecture as a whole.

Two major challenges to achieving sustainability, sustainable development and more sustainable communities are the increasing scientization of sustainability, and the need to foreground the issues of equity and social justice. Despite the greater allocation of funding for research into the scientific aspects than the social scientific aspect, the ‘science’ of sustainability is not our greatest challenge. In almost all domains of sustainability, we know scientifically what we need to do, and how to do it. The problem is that all of us, whether in the global North or South, are simply not doing it. This is especially so for so-called wicked problemssuch as climate change: the challenge is not the science, but how do we shift the paradigm, the political and civic culture such that thewill to act is prized by our politicians ‒ and how do we inculcate public understanding such that the need for action is both supported and assured?

In part as response to these challenges, a growing number of activists and commentators in both the global North and South (e.g. Middleton and O’Keefe 2001; Adger 2002; Shiva 2002; McLaren 2003; Buhrs 2004) have commented on issues of equity and social justice, or what Agyeman (2005: 44) calls the ‘equity deficit‘ that still pervades most ‘green’ and ‘environmental’ sustainability theory, rhetoric and practice. Agyeman et al. (2002) note:

Sustainability cannot be simply a ‘green’, or ‘environmental’ concern, important though ‘environmental’ aspects of sustainability are. A truly sustainable society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic opportunity are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems.” (78)

Integrating social needs and welfare offers us a more ‘just’, rounded, equity-focused definition of sustainability and sustainable development than the WCED, while not negating the very real environmental threats. A ‘just’ sustainability is therefore:

“The need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems” (Agyeman et al., 2003: 5).

While defining ‘just sustainability,’ we used the term ‘just sustainabilities’ because we acknowledged that the singular form suggests that there is one prescription for sustainability that can be universalized. The plural, however, acknowledges the relative cultural and place-bound nature of the concept. This definition of just sustainabilities focuses fundamentally on four essential conditions for just and sustainable communities of any scale. These conditions are:

  • i) Improving our quality of life and wellbeing.

    Improvement in people’s wellbeing is essential for both justice and sustainability. As is becoming increasingly clear, our current neo-liberal model of economic growth cannot be relied upon to deliver wellbeing to the majority rather than a minority. Can wellbeing be delivered without continued economic growth? There is growing interest in the idea that there are emerging economic models, such as co-production, that might enable social wellbeing and flourishing. It refers to the involvement of the consumer in the manufacture of the goods and provision of the services they consume, thereby blurring the distinction between producer and consumer. One thing is for certain: humanity needs better yardsticks for measuring progress based on wellbeing than our current headline indicator: GDP.

  • ii) Meeting the needs of both present and future generations (intra- and inter- generational equity).

    A key question is what is the relationship between material consumption and needs, particularly considering the extent to which justice and equity are needs? There is growing evidence (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009, Piketty 2014) that inequality damages our capability for flourishing, our ability to meet our needs. Increasingly, human need for social identity is defined by our ability to consume. This is ‘Bling’ culture. How do we break this link, supplanting consumption-based social identity generation within a more just and sustainable framework?

  • iii) Justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome.

    Justice is not a simple concept. Different ideological foundations can lead to very different conclusions and outcomes: for example, utilitarian (justice as the most beneficial outcome for wider society), egalitarian (justice as meeting individuals' needs) and libertarian (justice as fulfilling merit) perspectives can differ radically. Sen (2009) takes this as reason to argue for a goal of reducing manifest injustice, rather than seeking perfect justice. Both Sen and Nussbaum (2000) suggest a central role of the notion of capabilities for flourishing. Nussbaum's full capability list includes: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment. Sen, on the other hand, suggests that communities must be involved in listing their own set of capabilities ‒ more because such control over the conditions of life is necessary for justice, than because capabilities may be culturally specific, although this latter factor should not be ignored.

  • iv) Living within ecosystem limits (also called one planet living).

    Despite several decades of research, the very concept of environmental limits remains controversial, especially in the USA. The Club of Rome report (Meadows et al. 1972), and in the UK The Ecologist magazine’s 1972 ‘Blueprint for Survival’, framed debate in terms of 'limits to growth' that stimulated very powerful and well-funded counter-arguments and rebuttals. By the 1990s, in public and political discourse around the world, the very idea of 'limits' had been discredited by the apparent failure of predicted shortages of natural resources to emerge.

    However, ecosystem limits are very real (Rockström et al.2009). Whether they constitute a fundamental limit to economic growth probably depends more on the nature of the economy than on the economy of nature. What is clear is that as constraints on natural resources have emerged, the capitalist economy has sidestepped them by shifting the crisis around in space, or between environmental domains. For example, in the US, the approach of Peak Oil has triggered the cry of “Drill Baby Drill”, exhorting Americans to exploit oil in yet more remote locations, and to develop unconventional gas and oil sources through ‘fracking’ and tar-sands extraction, both of which involve significantly higher carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuels. As a result, apparent limits in resource availability have been translated into still greater pressure on the climate system.

    The concept of ‘Greenhouse Development Rights’ (Baer et al. 2008) makes an allowance of emissions to meet basic needs, and takes into account the differential capabilities available to reduce emissions (as a function of disposable income) in attempting to determine globally just targets for emissions reduction. Typically, such assessment (e.g., Baer et al. 2008) concludes that rich countries need to make greater reductions in emissions than current emissions levels. In other words, as well as reducing their own emissions to zero, they need to also take responsibility for financing additional reductions in poor countries, or develop technical means to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the so called 'Negative Emissions Technologies' (NETs).

    Sustainability, sustainable development and sustainable communities are contested concepts on many levels. For the past thirty years they have been subject to eager and heated debate. Are they political constructs or rational, technical, or scientifically achievable notions? Are they ‘destinations,’ places that we will recognize when we get there, or ‘journeys’ in local civic participation, or both? Should they focus on a ‘brown’ agenda of poverty alleviation, infrastructure development and public health as many activists and academics in the global South have argued, or a ‘green’ agenda of wilderness preservation, greenspace provision and climate change, as many activists and academics in the global North would argue? One thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that the potential in these concepts will only be fully realized on two related conditions: First, that progressive activists in different domains should work together to build large scale, even global 'movements' (MoveOn.org (US); 38degrees.org.uk (UK); Los Indignados (Spain); MST (Brazil)), and second, if there is a shift from current reformist strategies toward a politics of transformational change.

    Incremental, linear change based on reform is unlikely to seriously challenge the underlying structures that (re)produce injustice and un-sustainability.


Adger, N. (2002) ‘Inequality, Environment and Planning.’ Environment and Planning A, Vol. 34, No.10, pp. 1716-1719.

Agyeman, J., Bullard R. and Evans, B. (2002) ‘Exploring the nexus: bringing together sustainability, environmental justice and equity.’ Space and Polity, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp 70-90.

Agyeman, J., R. Bullard, and B. Evans (eds) (2003) Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Agyeman, J. (2005) Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice. New York: New York University Press.

Baer, P., Athanasiou, T., Kartha, S. and Kemp-Benedict, E. (2008) The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework. The right to development in a climate constrained world. Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin.

Bourke S. Meppem T. (2000) ‘Privileged Narratives and Fictions of Consent in Environmental Discourse.’ Local Environment, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 299-310.

Buhrs, T. (2004) ‘Sharing Environmental Space: The Role of Law, Economics and Politics.’ Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 429-447.

Christoff, P. (1996) ‘Ecological Modernization, Ecological Modernities.’ Environmental Politics, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 476-500.

Connelly, S (2007) ‘Mapping Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept,’ Local Environment, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 259-278.

Davoudi, S (2001). ‘Planning and the twin discourses of sustainability.’ In A. Layard, S. Davoudi, and S. Batty (eds) Planning for a sustainable future, 81–99. London: Spon.

Hajer, M. (1995) The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gouldson, A. and Murphy, J. (1997) ‘Ecological Modernization and the Restructuring of Industrial Economies.’ In M. Jacobs (ed) Greening the Millenium. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gunder, M. (2006) ‘Sustainability: Planning’s Saving Grace or Road to Perdition?’ Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 26, pp. 208-221.

Jacobs, M. (1999) ‘Sustainable Development: A Contested Concept.’ In A. Dobson (ed) Fairness and Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larrain, S. (2002) ‘La línea de dignidad como indicador de sustentabilidad socioambiental. Avances desde el concepto de vida mínima hacia el concepto de vida digna.’ Polis 3 Online at http://polis.revues.org/7695#text.

McLaren, D. (2003) ‘Environmental Space, Equity and the Ecological Debt.’ In J. Agyeman, R.  Bullard, and R. Evans, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. London: Earthscan/MIT Press.

Middleton, N. and O’Keefe, P. (2001) Redefining Sustainable Development. London: Pluto Press.

Nussbaum, M.C. (2000) Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piketty, T (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E., Lenton, T.M., Scheffer,M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H., Nykvist, B., De Wit, C.A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sörlin, S., Snyder, P.K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U.,  Falkenmark, M., Karlberg, L., Corell, R.W., Fabry, V.J., Hansen, J. Walker, B., Liverman, D., Richardson, K., Crutzen, P., and J. Foley (2009) ‘Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity.’ Ecology and Society. Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 32.

Sen, A. (2009) The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane.

Shiva, V. (2002) ‘The real reasons for hunger.’ The Observer newspaper. 23 June. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/jun/23/1.

Smith, D. (2003) Deliberative Democracy and the Environment. London: Routledge.

United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (1992) Agenda 21. Geneva. United Nations.

Wilkinson R., and Pickett, K. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone. London: Allen Lane.

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Case Study: Fairtrade Gold

Margaret Robertson

In small-scale mines around the world, mining is often done by people with limited options who are very poor, live in harsh conditions, and have little access to education or healthcare. According to the international standard for fair-trade certification, Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), over 100 million people depend on artisanal and small-scale mining, trapped in supply chains where middlemen take large cuts of their profits (FLO 2011; Fairtrade Foundation). Mining laws tend to give preference to large-scale industrial mines, so small-scale miners are often forced into illegal operations where safety and health measures are non-existent (Fairtrade Foundation).

In the jewelry industry, the origins of 99.9 percent of gems and precious metals are unknown, and many are produced under dangerous and exploitive conditions (Wills 2013). To bring transparency to the jewelry market, in 2010 FLO developed Fairtrade standards for gold and silver. When customers buy Fairtrade gold, which is always marked with the Fairtrade Certification logo, they know they are getting gold that was produced exclusively by artisanal and small-scale miners in mines that meet safety and environmental standards, and that the miners were paid a fair price. In Fairtrade mines, the rights of women miners must be recognized, child labor is not permitted, and miners are guaranteed the right to bargain collectively (Fairtrade Foundation). Miners who fulfill the conditions to become certified are guaranteed a minimum price, set at 95 percent of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) price at the FOB export point. Miners are also guaranteed a Fairtrade premium payment of 10 percent above the guaranteed price, based on the LBMA price, which must be invested democratically and can be used in their businesses or communities (Fairtrade Foundation). The decision-making process strengthens the social fabric of communities and gives them experience in forming bargaining groups. Some mining communities have used these premiums to improve schools, healthcare, and community gardens.

There are still challenges. While surface mines can use digging pits or panning in streams to find gold, underground hard-rock mines must excavate large quantities of ore and then extract gold from it, usually by using toxic mercury or cyanide. In order to receive Fairtrade certification miners must be trained to handle toxic chemicals safely, and typically must reduce the use of chemicals to a minimum, and where possible eliminate them over an agreed-upon time period (Fairtrade Foundation). Some communities use the Fairtrade premium to invest in cleaner processing methods. In addition, some small-scale mines result in deforestation and pollution of soil and water. Miners who extract gold without the use of chemicals and who practice ecological restoration can certify their product as Ecological Gold, which means they will receive a 15 percent Fairtrade premium (Fairtrade Foundation).


Fairtrade Foundation. http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/gold/

Fairtrade Gold and Silver. http://www.fairgold.org/

FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International). “Fairtrade Gold Fact Sheet.” February 2011. http://www.fairtrade.net/fileadmin/user_upload/content/2009/resources/2011-02_Factsheet_gold_updated.pdf

______. “Fairtrade and Fairmined Standard for Gold from Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining, Including Associated Precious Metals.” March 15, 2010. http://www.fairtrade.net/small-producer-standards.html

Wills, Jackie. “Cred: A Golden Moment for Ethical Jewellery.” The Guardian, May 16, 2013.

Case Study: Responsibility to Future Generations

John Blewitt

Sustainable development operates over both time and space and at its core is our responsibility for future generations. Barbara Adam has published a Challenge Paper for the UK-based Schumacher Institute on the ethical implications of this. She writes:

As cultural and social beings we are inescapably future oriented. How we live and produce futures, however, is biographically, culturally and socially distinct. It changes historically, over our lifetime and with specific contexts. As knowledge practices, approaches to the future have consequences. Today the consequences of technological action in particular present us with a new context for accountability and responsibility. It is the challenge to moral conduct, presented by the contemporary context, I want to consider here.

She asks three very important questions:

  1. What is our responsibility to the future?
  2. Is it possible to be responsible for futures we create?
  3. Are we and should we be responsible to future generations?

Please download her Challenge Paper and see if you agree or disagree with her reasoning.

Paper available at: www.schumacherinstitute.org.uk/downloadable/BAdam

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading




Free Journal Articles

Dierwecther, Yonn (2014). “The Spaces that Smart Growth Makes: Sustainability, Segregation, and Residential Change Across Greater Seattle.” Urban Geography
Agyeman, Julian, Robert D. Bullard and Bob Evans,‘Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity’
Fragkou, Maria Christina, Luis Salinas Roca, Josep Espluga and Xavier Gabarrell, ‘Metabolisms of injustice: municipal solid waste and environmental equity in Barcelona’s Metropolitan Region’

Blogs and Websites

  • This blog presents thoughtful, well researched ideas on cities, focusing mainly but not exclusively on the USA

    Urbanophile http://www.urbanophile.com

  • A treasure trove of practical ideas for sustainable cities

    This Big City http://thisbigcity.net

  • Excellent ideas on harnessing community imagination as a tool of social transformation

    The Enabling City http://enablingcity.com

  • Spearheading the sharing economy, this website is indispensable for those wishing to develop practical projects

    Shareable http://www.shareable.net

  • The go-to website for those interested in 'placemaking'

    Project for Public Spaces http://www.pps.org

  • Thoughtful, critical blog about cities around the world

    Polis http://www.thepolisblog.org

  • Focusing on economics as if people and the planet mattered, NEF leads in generating creative, equity based solutions

    New Economics Foundation Blog http://www.neweconomics.org/blog

  • Perceptive blog focusing on difference, diversity and cultural aspects of cities

    Intercultural Urbanism http://www.interculturalurbanism.com

  • Blog which focuses on re-imagining equality and living within environmental limits

    Just Sustainabilities http://julianagyeman.com