‘Environmental Justice’ – Taking the Conversation Forward

New content is added at the end of the page: See our latest contribution, from author and translator Rajat Chaudhuri and and researcher and writer Bill McGuire.

Our first blog post in the Environmental Keywords series offered a reflection on participants’ reflections from the workshop they attended on ‘Justice’, one of our three keywords. In that post — in what one ClimateCultures member described in his response as an ‘impressionistic approach’ to the word — quotes from the feedback that different participants had offered a few or several days after the event were placed into a conversation of sorts with each other. And the comments beneath Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ offer a further discussion — and remain open for new responses, from ClimateCultures members and others.

On this page, we can take the conversation further. It provides a space to share other contributions on the topic of ‘environmental justice’ – extracts from creative or other works that ClimateCultures members have shared.

This section remains open for new contributions from ClimateCultures members, so do send in yours! And anyone can Leave a Reply at the bottom of this page, of course. 

Many thanks to our contributors so far: Iain Biggs, Julian Bishop, Rajat Chaudhuri, Paul Feather, Brit Griffin, Alan Hesse, Susan Holliday, Neil Kitching, Bill McGuire, Indigo Moon, Helen Moore, & David Thorpe

Creative contributions from ClimateCultures members

Alan J Hesse wears several hats: an author-illustrator, educator and conservation biologist. These come together in The Adventures of Captain Polo, his series of educational graphic novels about climate change that shed light on particular instances of climate injustice. Alan says:

‘Justice’ can be an elusive concept. A case in point is the notion of ‘climate justice’ when viewing certain marginalized societies in parts of the Global South. Often located in the so-called Least Developed Countries group, such societies are already paying the ultimate price for human-induced global warming primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions originating from countries and societies on the other side of the planet.

Those least responsible for global warming are the first to routinely suffer its effects, often to the point of loss of life, destruction of homes and livelihoods, and erosion of traditions and lifestyles. In the words of graphic novel hero and globetrotting climate adventurer Captain Polo, ‘it’s not fair”.

Below are two one-page extracts from two books in the series, The Adventures of Captain Polo. Click on the images to view full size. The full series is available from Alan’s website.


Writer David Thorpe has published many short stories, novels, nonfiction books and other forms on a range of environmental and social topics. In 2016, he was one of six writers to be commissioned by charity TippingPoint following the second Weatherfronts event that brought together writers and climate experts. His story, For the Greater Good, appeared in the Weatherfronts anthology alongside other commission winners. You can see David’s reply on the ‘Justice’ blog post, and he shared the following when he emailed about two of his stories:

So often one person’s justice is another person’s injustice. Every age favours a particular set of values. To people living in the past, ours would seem a golden age if we were to tell them that everybody has access to healthcare, benefits and cheap food and we can go to another part of the world in a few hours or days, and talk to anybody or find out anything using little gadgets we can keep in our pockets. Things like electric lights, pavements and running water in taps would be seen as miraculous luxury. This would be utopia for them.

But we know the cost. Our contemporaries who choose to look the other way, ignoring this, can sleep easy at night, but we cannot for we know more than is comfortable and we speak of dystopia instead.

So the question to ask is, if everything we want were to happen, what is our blindspot? What is the cost? What might be the downside for this future society?

This is a question I attempted to give one answer to in my story For The Greater Good. Another response set in the same story world is in At The Crux. 

For The Greater Good appeared in the Weatherfronts anthology, available from Cambria Books as a free e-book. We wanted to share two short extracts from that story here, offering different experiences of injustice in the world of the two stories. For The Greater Good takes place in Cambridge, UK, and Barcelona, Spain. In this near-future world, as all countries seek ways to adjust to the ravages of the climate crisis their citizens likewise have to live with the conditions created by their governments’ responses. Carolita, a young mother whose Senegalese lover and their child have been removed from England, follows them to Spain.

At Youssou's place, a tiny bedsit on the north side of Cambridge, Youssou shook his dark, angular head and looked serious. "It's a fine pickle you're in an' no dither."
  "But you know a way around it. Don't you?" asked Carolita, making her eyes as round and dark as she could. She was very pretty, and she knew Youssou knew how much she and Javi – who had accompanied Youssou from Senegal on that long, dangerous journey – loved one another.
  He said, "No. I'm sorry. I can't help you."
  But his hands did something else. They pointed at two Eyes hovering around outside his window, and they wrote a message on a piece of paper which he folded and handed to her. "I'll see what I can do," she read. Then he took the paper back and shredded it, winking at her.
  The Eyes had followed her there and they followed her away. As if they knew what she was thinking. She told herself it was just algorithms that drove them, like everything else, such as this top she was wearing, packed with inbuilt sensors and lined with phase-change wax capsules. The algorithms helped it adjust its breathability, insulation level and reflectivity according to the temperature.
  Perhaps algorithms drove her, too. Could algorithms factor paranoia?
  She pedalled to the sea front. Stared out at the grey saltwater ribs angling onto the beach, specked by slubs in their weave where submerged trees and other objects broke surface, and she dreamed of what lay beneath – the ghostland of the rich, peaty farmland. It was once known as the Fens. Her parents had lived there, before she was born. They had told her the stories. How the sea had come back to reclaim the land it had occupied only a few decades before. About the Ditch Martyrs, who drowned themselves in an attempt to win sympathy for their cause. How the official calculations argued the logic of abandoning the Fens in order to divert scant resources to protect other regions. How the livelihoods of tens of thousands had been lost and the people rehoused inland.
  For the greater good, of course.
  "I am not a martyr," she told the Eye above her. "Nor a factor in some algorithm."
Their room in the warehouse made Carolita's flesh crawl. It smelled like a charity shop on testosterone. Beneath their mozzie net and paranoid about being bitten, she tossed all the first night. Nor could she and Javienda make love, there being others in the room and their son curled alongside. In the morning, she whispered in Javi's ear, "I can't stay here. We have to get Amas out as quickly as possible."
  "OK, but you know several hundred migrants arrive in the low city every day. The high city dumps them down here. There is no space."
  "I understand. This is the shadow city cast by the rich enclaves above us. But we must do something."
  "Well, OK," he said.
  Amas had started at an impromptu school run by volunteers in the old Catalan town hall. They walked him there, through streets covered in mud, rubbish, stuff left by the sea when it surged up. A rank stench drifted from turds and toilet paper drying in the sun. How can people live like this? She yearned for the order and cleanliness of Cambridge. The ground floors of buildings were unoccupied, while people crammed into the upper storeys. Laundry was strewn from upper floor windows to dry. She pushed her way through crowds of men, mostly also in Tuareg-style clothes to protect from the sun. They stared at her blonde hair and bright top and jeans, as obvious as a full moon.
  "We have to get some robes for you, Lita," Javienda pointed out.
  "But my clothes are fine," she hissed. "Clothes like these save lives! My top must be working overtime but if I wasn't wearing it, it would be unbearable. Just 'cause people here can't afford them–"
  "They are clever, yes. But they can be hacked. And they are a surveillance tool."
  She withdrew her hand from his. "Do you really believe that conspiracy nonsense?"
  He shook his head at her, meaning he thought her naive.
  "They can't be watching me all the way out here, can they? You think they know I'm here?"
  "Britain is obsessed with measuring everything."
  For everyone's good!" she said. "Everything is measured so all needs can be reliably supplied. It's the best way to run a country."
  In his soft voice of sand and wind he asked, "But what if all needs can't be met? What then?"
  And she knew. They were the what then.

Paul Feather is an animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics. He shared these thoughts:

 

 

Justice is a particularly interesting keyword for me in the context of climate change, because I really perceive the crisis as an environmental justice crisis. I object to framing our predicament around climate, because many people have been experiencing the symptoms of social collapse for centuries — well before the industrial era that we typically associate with burning of fossil fuels and resulting ‘climate chaos’. For example, ‘Indigenizing futures: decolonising the anthropocene’ by Kyle P Whyte discusses climate change as merely an intensification of settler-colonialism (from the perspective of American Indigenous people) — an ongoing process for 500 years.

It is frustrating to me when people propose ‘solutions’ that seem plausible when our framing is centered around ‘climate’ and carbon dioxide, but which just perpetuate the systems of injustice and exploitation that are obviously (to me) integral to the broader environmental justice crisis that we face. (For example: solar farms and electric cars). 

You can find the article that Paul mentions in the ‘Further explorations’ section below — along with links to the two other articles Paul shared in his comment on the blog post: ‘The Recognition Dimensions of Environmental Justice in Indian Country’, also by KP Whyte; and ‘What Environmental Justice Means in Indian Country’ by Dina Gilio-Whitaker.


Independent artist and researcher Iain Biggs shared an article he published recently at PLaCE International, a research collective of creative, practice-led individuals who address issues of site, location, context and environment at the intersection of many disciplines and practices. Open mappings in depth or Business as Usual? discusses developments in the “shifting practices and modes of thinking that are sometimes referred to as ‘deep mapping’” and in it, Iain touches on issues relating to justice — not least through the quality of attention that an in-depth exploration of a place and its people and other inhabitants can bring to what concerns them most intimately. 

At this point I want to reference observations made by Talitta Reitz’s account of the practical consequences of William Least-Heat Moon’s book PrairyErth: A Deep Map. That book came out in 1991, the result of over five years fieldwork, research and face-to-face interviews and its subject is the last remaining area of tall grass prairie in the USA. Least-Heat Moon makes it very clear that, with one notable exception, the ranchers who embodied local identity were absolutely opposed to any attempt to protect the unique habitat they owned. Yet in 1991 local opinion had shifted towards doing just that. By 1994, when management issues were resolved to the satisfaction of the local community, it became possible to create the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve.
  Talitta Reitz notes that a local rancher is reported as saying: ‘the book had a positive impact, overall. Because I think it raised our self-esteem. We thought: ‘Wow, somebody could see something in us that we didn’t see”’ She concludes that PrairyErth: ‘added new values to existing relationships between Kansas communities and their environment’. While I don’t doubt that Least-Heat Moon’s six hundred and twenty four page book did make an impact I rather doubt, as someone familiar with the workload of those engaged in rural enterprises, that many of the Chase County ranching people actually read it cover to cover. In the light of my own experience of a deep mapping where we failed to produce such a tangible outcome, I would suggest that the primary catalyst for the change in local attitudes was not primarily the book itself. Rather I believe that it was the approach Least-Heat Moon adopted - the curiosity, humour, patience, close attention to his informants and genuine interest in every aspect of Chase County that is also evidenced in the final publication. I think, that is, that it is those qualities of careful attention and respect for its past and present, as perceived by the Chase County community over time, that gave it a new sense of itself.... The value of the project that resulted in the book PrairyErth lies in people. In people’s expertise, confidence, understanding and orientation to particular issues, problems, concerns, and opportunities; in their sharing conceptual tools and practical abilities. That its informal aspect is a living relationship expressed through processes of investigation, argumentation and understanding, which is why it is able to initiate real change. The substantive outcome of such work is ultimately the development, maintenance and support of responsiveness to the world, of response-ability.

Writer Brit Griffin is author of three near-future cli-fi novels and a writer of poetic/story musings, whose interests lay in reconciling with non-humans and exploring the human/creature boundaries. She responded to our blog post Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ by writing a new post for us. It’s a powerful reflection on the permeability that we find in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations, and as a possible reaching towards the more-than-human in thinking about justice. You can read the full post Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations, and we have an extract here:

A tiny smushed head/body and long, extended legs, splayed out, stuck to the bottom of the ditch. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing — a partially eaten frog, a deformed one? And how to think about it — can I mourn this creature in the particular, as an individual, when we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of populations, relating to creatures at a species-level? And if I can realign my perspective to see this one frog, how then to mourn, and is mourning enough, are reparations owing? I have no idea, but this seeing-imagining-reparations is what I am trying to explore in my thinking and writing. 
  I think best when I am walking, following the same path daily, sometimes twice a day. I live just outside a worn-out mining town in northern Ontario, the scars of homo extractus are everywhere. It is surely a place of hard takings.
  So, the morning walk: past the towering cement ruins of the mine mill, along patches of Baltic Rush (remarkably arsenic tolerant), down a small hill flanked by historical tailings dumps with their arsenic, cobalt, and mercury. The ditches that run between the bottom of this hill and the road rarely hold much water, but if there is enough rain it will pool in these shallow troughs, gathering just enough water to attract frogs.
  On that morning, the oddly distorted frog caught my eye, warranted a closer look. There were others, small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota) seemingly inert: were they dead? The disfigured one, yes, dead. And the one floating on the surface, belly up and coated in Oomycetea, a gelatinous water mold, he or she was also dead.
  But what of the ones I startled, that hopped into the water and settled on pond bottom? There they became immobile, appeared to be mud-sunk dead. Have to say it’s a pretty good party trick — they can safely rest down there because they have no air in their lungs. They do, however, still need oxygen when they are under water — so, clever creatures that they are, they breathe it in through their skin. This interests me. This permeability of the frog.

A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, Susan Holliday left a comment on the post Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ that the word “feels too big, too definite, too impenetrable. Perhaps we are overly seduced by abstract nouns” — and recommends the idea from writer Robert MacFarlane that “we see ‘in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words’.” Susan adds here:

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on the indigenous wisdom of her Potowatomi heritage to offer her own ‘weft of words’ on the subject of ecological justice:

“Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

I find it hard to imagine a more complete understanding of the underlying values of reciprocity, respect and moderation which surely lie at the heart of Justice. What strikes me in her book is that Justice emerges out of intimate relationship. Injustice stems from distant, objectifying relationship. Perhaps this is why the walking that preceded your discussion on Justice was so fundamental. The natural world is infused with presence, a sovereign otherness, a particularity (this river, this tree, this bird) which needs to be experienced (not just thought). The more we generalise, abstract and distance ourselves from the natural world (and each other), the easier it becomes to neglect, to exploit, to harm. Justice, I believe, is a natural consequence of relationship, so my plea on the subject of ecological justice is for radical changes to the education system so that children are supported in their inherent curiosity about the natural world through immersion, exploration and cultivation. On this subject I would warmly recommend Lucy Jones’ book The Nature Seed.


And Susan Holliday has added in a further comment on the Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ post:

Reflecting further on the Environmental Keywords and taking forward Robert MacFarlane’s insight that we see ‘in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words’, I sense we may need to find articulations of Justice, Resilience and Transitions that lie somewhere between the monolithic singular abstract noun and the unbounded form of open descriptive text. It occurs to me that Haiku, with its distilled form and bounded syllable structure (5:7:5) could offer this middle ground, a manageable yet still vital ‘weft of words’.

Applying this to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful evocation of Justice, I offer the following Haiku concerning Justice:

Take just what you need
Don’t waste what you have taken
Leave some for others

Perhaps we could stitch together a collage of Haiku ‘wefts’ for each of the three keywords. Anyone else have a Justice Haiku to contribute?


Poet Julian Bishop has taken up Susan’s ‘haiku challenge’ with his contribution, Equivalance, and says

West Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. Photographer: W Clarke 2016

Two strands come to mind in my response, the first a resolution passed first at state then at national level in the US that acknowledges the legal personhood of the saguaro cactus. The idea of giving the cactus personhood was the brainchild of Austin Nuñez, the chairman of one of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s eleven districts after continual threats to the plant from developers and poachers. The way I read it, if anyone tries to uproot a saguaro, it’s at best an assault, at worst attempted murder…?

Second, anyone who’s read Richard Powers’ brilliant novel The Overstory may well be familiar with the work of Suzanne Simard, the Canadian ecologist who presented proof that trees have sophisticated methods of communicating with one another.

As an eco-poet I shy away from anthropomorphism but I find it very alluring that plants and trees possess animalistic qualities, it puts them more on a level playing field with humans. Granting them “rights” seems entirely logical as a consequence.

Capturing this in a haiku is tricky but here’s a first draft:

Equivalence

I feel I touch I
See I speak sea I am bird
I hear oak I breathe

Offering one of her poems for each of our three keywords writer, poem artist and activist Indigo Moon says “These themed pages sound fascinating and so vital to the climate conversation.” This and her poems offered for our ‘Justice’ and ‘Resilience’ pages are part of a selection of six recent poems Indigo has now published here on ClimateCultures – see Only Star.

 

A Brush to Fingertip

Rhythm marauding 
at the back rooms
cups a check,
brushes a lip,
their fingertip,
a grace to my outline, 
a decadent sweet,
a most thriving constellation.

Helen Moore is an ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects. Offering an audio performance of her poem ‘Earth Justice’, Helen says:

 

 

For me when you mention the word ‘justice’, I think of the Ecocide campaign, started by the late and great Polly Higgins, which aims to create a legal redress for widespread destruction of ecosystems. 

‘Earth Justice’ was inspired by attending the mock ecocide trial at the Supreme Court, London in 2011, and the poem features collages of some transcript material from the court proceedings. The trial was staged as part of the campaign to make ecocide an international crime and had Michael Mansfield leading the prosecution. The poem is dedicated to Polly Higgins, a barrister who had the vision for ecocide becoming a law to bring those responsible for ecological destruction to account.


Neil Kitching is a geographer and energy specialist who has witnessed climate change’s creeping effects and whose book Carbon Choices addresses common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. He has written about taxation for action on climate change on his blog and, as he says, it’s a topic where “there are elements of climate justice throughout.” In We Need to Talk about Tax, he looks at a number of different possibilities to tax: on pollution, resources, fertilizers, income, corporations and property. This is an extract:

There are three broad solutions to climate change – taxation, regulations and behaviour change by individuals. So why do we usually talk about behaviour change?

Tax is often perceived as an ‘evil’ or a burden, yet it should be seen as an essential mechanism to provide shared public services and to redistribute wealth. But, politicians are scared to propose the radical tax changes that would benefit us. Get tax wrong, or perceived to be unfair, and the population will campaign, riot and can even overturn governments.

It is my belief that sensible taxation could provide around one-third of the solutions to climate change in a way that would be better for society and good for the planet. In a nutshell, we should tax pollution – tax the bad and reward the good. This could be revenue neutral but will direct our economy towards a more eco-friendly direction which will be good for all of us – including those in poverty who are most affected by pollution and by climate change.

Will Tax Hurt the Poor?

An argument often made is that carbon taxes will hurt the poor. This does not need to be the case. Many taxes, such as Air Passenger Duty, already impact more on better off households who tend to fly more frequently. Half of our population do not even take a flight in any given year. A ‘frequent flier levy’ would help to minimise the impact of an overall increase in flight taxes by protecting ‘hard working families’ taking an annual holiday overseas.

In any case it is possible to introduce all sorts of targeted exemptions, discounts or alternative subsidies. An example would be to increase the tax on gas, and to use the money raised to subsidise insulation. Another option is ‘tax and refund’, where energy taxes are increased and a refund is paid direct to all or certain individuals as a refund. This may sound bizarre, but given the increased cost of energy, it encourages people to use less energy. The UK Government is currently introducing something similar, with a discount from Council Tax, to offset the increase in gas prices.

And Neil has also blogged on the topic of Climate Optimism:Why on Earth is a serious writer on climate change writing a blog on ‘Climate Optimism’? Simply, because the solutions to climate change have multiple benefits for people, society and the environment. Action on housing, city and rural land-use, travel, shopping and our diets will all improve the quality of our lives in so many ways.”


Rajat Chaudhuri is a bilingual writer and activist whose works include eco-disaster novel The Butterfly Effect and who has worked with international NGOs and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Rajat writes that “There can be hardly any meaningful discussion about climate change without discussing justice and equity. Exploitation, forced displacement and colonisation of Nature and peoples are embedded in the origins of anthropogenic climate change.” He shares a Literary Hub interview, Amitav Ghosh on the Lies of History and How the Natural World Fights Back, — about Ghosh’s latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse — to make the important point that “New research has demonstrated how the technology of warfare employed by colonisers later led to innovations that fuelled the industrial revolution and increasing emissions from there on to this day.” As Rajat says:

So injustice and exploitations lie at the heart of the problem.

It begins with injustice and through its manifestation; climate change has widened the ruptures and inequities of society leading to a wide range of justice issues. From a woman in an Indian village whose duty to fetch water from long distances is becoming increasingly difficult because of worsening droughts and falling water tables to the situation of small developing nations not receiving the full amount of promised climate funds, climate change and justice are inextricably entwined.

A stocktaking of the extent of injustice right from the early beginnings of climate harm to the present, followed by climate reparations, can partly address this but the structure of the international order and the skewed nature of power prevents this from happening.

The mainstreaming of justice issues in climate movements worldwide alongside the establishment of robust international and national legal mechanisms is a way forward. Thankfully we find grassroots climate movements increasingly addressing climate justice issues but their impact on policy has been limited. Still this gives us a modicum of hope. 

We hope and we look forward. We look forward to that day when all humans and other-than-humans — river, rock, animals, trees and mountains will have rights as legal entities. That would be a good day for justice.    


Bill McGuire is a researcher in the science of global heating and climate breakdown, and a writer of non-fiction on natural hazards and climate change and of speculative and climate-related fiction, who values his contribution to climate activism above everything else. He writes: “In my 2020 novel, Skyseed, a clandestine attempt to tackle global heating by engineering the climate goes catastrophically wrong, with terrible consequences for the planet and humanity. As for the perpetrators, extraordinary crimes require extraordinary punishment.”

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineering

It was a wordy proclamation, but the gist of it was that the defendants had been found guilty on all counts, including murder and conspiracy to illegally and unilaterally modify the climate, and thereby threaten the well-being and existence of human civilisation. The defendants were silent. They had expected nothing else. How could they not?

Gort’s shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly, but she held her head high. The others looked down at their hands. The senior judge paused for a time to consult with her two colleagues before scribbling something on a piece of paper in front of her. She looked up and her eyes roved around the courtroom, as if to make sure everyone was paying attention. You could have heard a pin drop. Then she cleared her throat, turned towards the Skyseeders and began to read, a little louder this time, no doubt acutely aware that the eyes of the world were upon her. There was again an excess of verbiage, and the attention of the court and the defendants began to wander as the judge’s castigation of their actions went on – and on. Karl saw Norbert Aitken sneak a look at his watch and had to admire his coolness. After maybe fifteen minutes, the judge paused to take a sip of water. When she went on, it was in a voice tight with emotion.

‘You have been found guilty of unprecedented crimes against humanity. For your own ends, you participated willingly in an illicit conspiracy, without regard for risks or consequences. You gambled with the future of human society. You gambled, and you lost, so that now billions of innocent humans will pay the price.’ She paused and took another sip of water.

‘Extraordinary crimes require extraordinary punishment.’

At this, a stir went around the courtroom and the gallery. The defendant’s heads came up as one and turned to look at the judge.

‘You will return now to your cells. You will have one week to compose yourselves and settle your affairs. Then you will be taken to a place of public execution, where you will suffer death by hanging. That is all.’

Skyseed is published by The Book Guild. In our post Hacking the Earth, fellow ClimateCultures member Rob La Frenais discusses the novel with Bill. And Bill has also contributed an excerpt from his new book, Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide (published by Icon Books on August 4th, 2022) to our Environmental Transitions – Taking the Conversation Forward page.


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