Walking With the Word ‘Justice’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ insights from a workshop exploring the word ‘Justice’. This was the first in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.


2,900 words: estimated reading time = 11.5 minutes


It was during an online Creative Environments workshop from the University of Bristol last September, led by Dr Paul Merchant, that I first came across his work with the Centre for Environmental Humanities there, and he mentioned the idea of looking at keywords associated with the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. Later, he brought together a group of interested people inside and beyond the university for an informal exploration and we offered to support the idea of a project. We quickly settled on a short investigation into three words that have complex meanings and usages in different disciplines and contexts and where there is an ever-present risk of groups talking past each other as we grapple with the urgencies and nuances of our climate and biodiversity predicaments. 

Paul and facilitator Anna Haydock-Wilson devised a series of workshops and, while I can’t be at the workshops myself, we agreed I should follow up each one with short discussions — by email or Zoom — with the researchers, community group members and creative practitioners who take part. My aim is to explore their insights from the events and their experiences of the different keywords.

As such, this post is not an account or evaluation of the ‘Justice’ workshop or an ‘objective’ overview of that word and its meanings — even less, an attempt at a definition. I hope it’s a fair reflection of some of the things participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop. And that it offers one way in to further conversations on justice, how we talk about it, and its role in helping us navigate our climate and environmental futures. I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.

Fresh encounters

This group’s exploration of the word ‘Justice’ began with a ‘Walk and Talk’ in the Easton area of Bristol. Participants — as local residents, community project workers and activists, writers and artists and researchers — met, shared ideas of justice and made personal notes as they walked, about what this means for them in an environmental context. Everyone then gathered back at the local community centre to share their perspectives on the walk and their own work or involvement with the issues, and split into two groups for a role-playing game. In that session, each group made a ‘justice map’ of the local area to help bring their ideas into focus, before a final discussion together at the end.

Sharing the word 'Justice' - showing the workshop group on its local walk
Easton Walk & Talk
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

One of the community participants said of the session as a whole: “It was a great group of people, and I found it really interesting to have representatives from both academic and non-academic backgrounds in the same room and to hear about the different types of work people are doing linked to climate. I would love to find more ways to translate some of the research and work being done into projects we’re doing locally at a very grassroots level. I’m really glad these workshops have begun, and I think there’s a lot of work for us to be doing to make sure the spaces where words like justice are discussed are shaped by people who have traditionally been on the receiving end of injustice.”

Another said: “I really loved that there were people from very different backgrounds there — both cultural and from the work they did and the experiences they had, on all those fronts.”

A third person told me how: “It has motivated me and confirmed a value for what I do. It was good to have different perspectives in a room coming from different backgrounds or professions. I also really enjoyed the game Anna devised with the role-playing — thought that worked well.” 

One member of the group shared a couple of strong and, it seems to me, complementary memories from the introductory walk — of “the river Frome overflooding under a motorway bridge” and of “how easily conversation flowed with everybody.” Another explained how “I see the environment as a key factor to enable or disable people being exposed to it. On our walk, we had lots of opportunities to explore this and how this might contribute to environmental justice.” Someone else told me how in “an interesting conversation I remember … I noticed that much of her thoughts surrounded the ‘why’, which I felt was powerful.” 

As a prelude to shared conversation within the usual ‘workshop’ environment of a closed room — such as the community centre offered later on — a walk allows for a more open-ended mix of private thought, personal encounter with the local environs and chance conversations with different people one-to-one. In a way, it’s a little like an extended version of that experience when we first arrive at a venue for an event: the bumping into new people at the initial pre-conference tea or coffee, but with the added fuel of fresh air, new perspectives gained out-of-doors and the ever-changing location brought by physical movement. After all, we don’t normally expect to be walking around for a meeting.

The fact that the walk preceded the formal part of the workshop — was actually integral to its design — was clearly appreciated. For one participant, this spoke to a core aspect of our own nature. “Through being active and interacting with the world, particularly walking around, we have a chance to develop new neurons. And our brain, as with other parts of our body, is changing depending on the environment and our interactions. … The physical and the mental go hand in hand and the environment is crucial as it provides the stimulation you need, both on the physical and the mental side.” In this sense, our personal environment — and therefore our shared environment, as social animals — is embodied within us; the boundary between ourselves and the ‘external’ world, where our body stops and the world begins, is not fixed in the ways we commonly think.

“In fact, where our body starts is an interaction between our brain, our environment and our body and the way our senses work to define what is actually around us. We do this all the time. We have to combine what we see, what we hear, what we feel to be able to know what ‘belongs’ to an object, to us, to someone else.”

Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Here, then, justice starts to have a very direct relationship with personal experience and with being in and moving around a place. But — like an urban river — that relationship can be submerged, can sink out of our conscious mind until a new context brings it to our attention. As one person fed back to me: “The walk made me notice things which I sometimes take for granted, or you just accept them as they are. Like poor, not thought out architecture in this instance. The grotesque wheelchair access at the train station; the motorway. So if an area has been poorly designed, what are our rights to change anything? Things feel so set in stone sometimes, we don’t know we actually have a voice to change things.” Another pointed out how “We have this idea when we talk about disability or inclusiveness, this tendency to restrict it to someone in a wheelchair or who is blind. But that’s more or less it. Anybody else, with all the sensory variability that is out there and all the consequences that has, is not at all considered.” 

Our urban and others spaces can design in forms of injustice, as illustrated above: embedded in the ways we become accustomed to think about what should even be part of that design process. While this can be addressed through greater care in new design codes, attention will always be needed to what lies outside the efforts to improve these. You cannot code everything. Standards cannot capture all the ways that our dynamic natural environment and we as diverse humans interact. Like a river, the human and the more-than-human break out and exceed the boundaries and order we try to impose.

A testing ground for conversations

While in some places, some people and communities do find voice and agency — their own ways to make change happen — in too many places many cannot: “I considered the active involvement in a neighbourhood — guerilla gardening in a small patch close to the Bristol-Bath trainline — vs no involvement in the garden/play space square in a concreted-over sad excuse for a playground in a social housing complex.” This participant had spoken with another “about the will or capacity of people to do such things to a space outside their own house boundaries” — capacities that can be bound up with different, perhaps overlapping identities.

“We spoke about cultural differences, about new residents from other countries not wanting to stand out, or draw attention to themselves. I have noticed behaviours before with poor recycling rates, with the problem being the visible bins — where residents did not want their neighbours to see what they consume. There is a social status which needs to be upheld. This is the same for people participating in the flea market as traders of second-hand goods. New residents i.e. first-generation arrivals from other countries, need to prove themselves to others from their own cultures that they are being successful.”

Someone else shared how in the group session another member of the group had “mentioned the word justice terrifies some people. It never occurred to me to think that, but made me make the connexion with my fear of the police. I will be very careful to define what it means to me when engaging in conversation with others. From now on I will make sure that when I talk, ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A point echoed by another person, who said to me: “It was really useful to connect the word and concept of justice as a focus to the environment. It anchored the importance of the issues for me.”   

The word 'Justice' - showing a flooded road under a local bridge
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

Another comment gets to the heart of the matter, sharing how in their work with local communities: “a common theme that has come up when speaking with people is how disempowering the language used around climate can be and the negative impact it can have on people feeling that they don’t belong in ‘green’ spaces. Based on that feedback, I’d been thinking about ways we could start working together within our community to build more shared understanding of what the words often used in climate action and decision-making mean, so that more people can use them and the power they hold. When Paul got in touch about the workshop on justice, I was keen to get involved, seeing it as something of a testing ground of how we might begin having these conversations.”

I was sent a link to locally-led research demonstrating how resilient blue spaces are connected to higher quality of life, from which this participant concluded: “so the quality of more greenery around rivers, which we consider good for our wellbeing, would be rather seen in spaces with less deprivation. The justice of the river itself — so majestic round Snuff Mills [a park in the Stapleton area of north Bristol], and in flood it is a powerful beast — to then be turned into a drainpipe and hidden away under concrete for the last bits of its journey into the city. … You feel differently as you follow the river, depending on where it is.”

This also starts to point me to a wider or expanded sense of justice. If environment, body and mind are in relationship within and around each of us and ‘social justice’ contains something of that relationship then — just as where our body ends and the world starts is less fixed than we suppose — justice must encompass something of the wider natural world as well as ‘society’. Something in that phrase, ‘The justice of the river itself’ — a river that has its own life in itself, a powerful beast, and yet is forced into concrete, underground, away from us — speaks to injustice on a more-than-human scale.

Seeing the word 'Justice' - showing a local window with a poster, 'Stop fly-tipping'
Photograph: Anna Haydock-Wilson © 2022

A noun, a verb? In a word, Justice

When asked how they felt about the word ‘Justice’ now, whether this was different since the workshop, one participant said “It feels a lot closer to the bone,” while I’ve already quoted another: “From now on I will make sure that when I talk ‘Justice’ and ‘Environment’ are together.” A third person shared that “I would say that justice used in this climate conversation felt very complex. Already all intertwined, decision-making done with consideration to every living being and their livelihoods is ‘Justice’.”

A further response suggests that a process such as this walk-and-workshop itself is an enactment of what we are seeking: “That’s for me ‘justice’: the listening, the learning and the working together.” And what flows from that might be something that retains a diversity, that “we would start to think of whether we can develop what we call almost a shared mental model … where we know which angle we are coming from but we have an understanding of where they might all fit together. And then instead of having a fixed outcome, rather think of it as a theory of change; how can we change these things and move together to something that is more just, more resilient?”

To appreciate the ‘angle we are coming from’ and how others’ paths intersect, converge, overlap our own, is an expansion of our own map, our mental model, into something larger and shared, although always incomplete. Two conversations gave me different impressions of an area I’ve never visited but can imagine from my encounters with other places I’ve lived or worked. Different but, importantly, not necessarily conflicting — and both speaking of injustice.

One was an email where a few lines provided almost a prose poem: “the trainline with lots of freight trains, high pollution in a local neighbourhood; the architecture at the train station; graffiti and street art; River Frome, DIY skatepark; the lack of green in neighbourhoods, pocket parks; then finally the council estate with a concreted over play park. Had a few trees, but I was surprised and shocked actually at such a loss of opportunity.” 

The other came during a Zoom call, reflecting on the same scene as “On one hand a very sad space but on the other almost an amazing space, when you think about the way the youth make it their own. The dumped sofas, the building rubbish and rubble and whatever, integrated as obstacles into the skatepark; the graffiti going over them as if they are becoming part of the landscape; the ceiling of the M32 with an enormous graffiti, it’s the skeleton of an animal, which brings in almost the life and the change of all these things. The River Frome then going over its edges, going onto the car park, where it can come out and starts to become a river again. So all that is to see how nevertheless life takes over. The walk to the train station there, the little path where the flowers break out to try to get their own space. That’s actually really nice. And I think that by gentrifying that area that community would lose a lot. That’s where justice comes in again: how do you approach such things without destroying what the community creates to survive? That was one of the things where I hadn’t appreciated just how much they’re making that space liveable for them and useable.”

I also saw something of this possibly creative tension between different ways of living in, of seeing, the same ‘environment’ in what another person shared as one of their strongest memories of the event: “the feeling that some areas, particularly those with lots of graffiti, gave a harsh feeling to the area. As graffiti is a huge part of Bristol’s character it’s not a question about removing it but more about offsetting it in the areas it’s the most prominent by revitalising playgrounds and greenspaces.”

Fencing in the word Justice: showing a graffiti area behind a barrier
Photograph by a workshop participant © 2022

Maybe a vision of justice might be something fluid, able to move with people and environment and the others we share it with. And part of that flow might be to recognise not just that justice must include the many and the diversity that we are and share, but the seemingly conflicting forms and appreciations of what is ‘good’.

What does the word ‘Justice’ mean to you?


Find out more

See below for comments on this post – and contribute your own to be part of the conversation!

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

You can find out more at our new Environmental Keywords section, including the suggestion to explore an ‘undisciplined glossary of our three keywords: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page. 

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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