What do Geographers bring to the Environmental Justice debate?

Environmental justice is such a massive topic that it’s easy to focus on the negatives (the injustice) such as the Japanese Tsunami in 2011 and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that followed, or the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster and the environmental impacts it is having that Sophie Popratnjak wrote about (20/02/2012). However, it’s not all bad; environmental justice is about ensuring basic human needs are met, enhancing quality of life (Mcdonald, 2002) and protecting the environment and its resources for the future for the good of all of the species on Earth (Clayton, 2000).  Friends of the Earth (2001) state environmental Justice means “everyone should have the right and be able to live in a healthy environment, with access to enough environmental resources for a healthy life” they go onto say that it’s usually the poorest in society who miss out on these basic human rights.

Geographers play a very important role in all of this; when asked what geography is, most people will simply assume that it’s got something to do with maps and knowing what the capital city of a place is. As geographers our understanding of the linkages between society and the environment mean we are able, more so than most to understand how Human actions are affecting the Biosphere and the ways we should adapt our lives in order to protect the planet for the good, not only of Man Kind, but also for all of the species that inhabit the Earth. Geographers advise businesses, Governments and NGO’s on policies that will benefit the environment and help people adapt to climate change, through a geographers understanding of how local issues affect far off places they are uniquely placed to use this knowledge to inform and educate people on how their actions are affecting the rest of the World(Adams, 1999).

So what are geographers doing in order to safeguard the planet? Geographers are concerned with environmental management and in establishing how best to deal with and prevent environmental problems such as soil erosion and how our everyday actions are polluting the planet we live on. Geographers help to establish solutions to these problems such as the use of green technology for example wind turbines that provide green energy and developing flood defences and waste recycling schemes (Adams, 1999). Research plays a major part in all of this; geographers such as Dr Sue Page and Ross Morrison of the University of Leicester have been involved in research to establish the environmental impacts of palm oil plantations, research which can be used to advise on the most sustainable methods of producing biofuels (Page, et. al. 2011). By the implementation of more sustainable production methods; hopefully fewer forests will be cut down, not only are these forests important biodiversity hotspots and carbon sinks they are also home to thousands of indigenous people who are being forced to abandon their traditional lifestyles and take up residence in settled communities (Simpson 2012). Through research like this, geographers are playing a major role in helping to ensure justice for all the Earths inhabitants.


Adams, W., M. 1999: Sustainability. In: Cloke, P., Crang, P. and Goodwin, M. Introducing Human Geography. London. Arnold, pp. 125-132.

Clayton, S. 2000: Models of Justice in Environmental Debates. Journal of Social Issues, Vol 56. (3), pp. 459-474

Friends of the Earth, 2001: Environmental Justice – Rights and means to a healthy environment for all. ESRC – Global Environmental Change programme

McDonald, D., A. 2002: What is Environmental Justice. In: Mcdonald, D., A. (ed): What does justice mean in environmental debates. Ohio, Ohio University Press

Page, S. E., Morrison, R., Malins, C., Hooijer, A., Reiley, J. O., and Jauhianen, J. 2011: Review of Peat Surface Greenhouse Emissions From Oil Palm Plantations in South East Asia. The International Council on Clean Transportation.

Popratnjak, S. 2012: How the Costa Concordia has affected the environment. Environmental Justice: Issues Theories and policies, Environmental Geographies WordPress.com https://environmentalgeographies.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/how-the-costa-concordia-has-affected-the-environment/ accessed 27/03/2012

Simpson, L. M. R., 2012: Demand for palm oil is growing – and fast. At the moment, most of it ends up in hundreds of food products – from margarine and chocolate to cream cheese and oven chips. But the cost to the environment and global climate is devastating. Discuss these demands and costs and discuss the contributions geographers can make to this area of work.

Where on earth is environmental justice?

Protesters striving for environmental justice

Due to media representations and the way our culture is structured to think, it may seem to the majority of the population that there is much more injustice than justice in the world. In terms of environmental justice, it seems that more often than not the issues that are highlighted are significantly focused more around the injustices people and places are suffering. Whether this is because people are more interested in reading, talking or writing about injustices or just that they think there is more injustice in the world is irrelevant, because the point is, environmental justice is happening all around us, every day.

It would be a lie to say there is not a huge amount of environmental injustice all around the globe. But why is it only this that is ever really talked about? If people pay as much attention to the justice that is happening in the world, then maybe things would not seem so bad. From grassroots levels of indigenous groups campaigning and protesting relentlessly for land rights, to global policies trying to combat climate change, things are being done. There is good in all bad, and now might be the time that people need reminding of this.

Why aren't environmental protests like this documented as much as issues regarding injustice?

As a large scale example, the Durban climate change talks 2012 took a long time for the countries involved to come to any form of agreement and it will be even longer until these agreements start being implemented. The Kyoto Protocol and policies like it are far from perfect and the opinions of many people and places are still missing. However, it is something towards finding justice for all the people and places who are currently suffering from the effects of climate change. There are so many differing and conflicting opinions in the world that it would be impossible for everyone to agree. So what can we do? We have to start somewhere. There are millions of people who are working with what they’ve got, yet people still seem only to recognise the injustices that are simultaneously happening.

The main issue here is that not enough people know both sides to all the issues which are going on. We are therefore in need of someone to voice the opinions of the people and places who would not otherwise get a say.  Geographers are “uniquely poised to understand human environment relations, spatial and social distributions of environmental goods and bads”, which puts them in the ideal place to be able to spread this invisible knowledge. Eventually through this role which geographers play, the environmental justice which is happening all over the world will be recognised. This will hopefully allow people to think more optimistically and be educated in the ways in which they can help with environmental justice issues themselves. So where on earth is environmental justice? The truth is that it is all around us, people just need to open their eyes.

Harvey, F., and Vidal, J., (2011). Global climate change treaty in sight after Durban breakthrough. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/11/global-climate-change-treaty-durban. Last accessed 14th March 2012.

Lucas, J., (2011). Durban climate talks: we still have a chance to talk about success. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/dec/05/durban-climate-talks-success. Last accessed 14th March 2012.

Reed, M., and George, C., (2011). Where in the world is environmental justice? Progress in Human Geography. 35 (6). 835 – 842.

Tutu, D., and Robinson, M., (2011). Climate change is a matter of justice. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/05/climate-change-justice?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487. Last accessed 14th March 2012.

Wangaari Maathai: The visionary who brought environmental justice to the global population

Wangari Maathai

Wangaari Maathai’s passing in September 2011 was met with great sadness. This Nobel Prize winning activist set up the Green Belt Movement in 1977 empowering Kenyan women in the community, educating many about the importance of sustainable forestry and helping to secure a future for generations to come of impoverished African families. She rose to fame in the 80’s campaigning heavily against forest clearance proposed by the government and was arrested and vilified several times by the government of President Daniel Arap Moi. However, her legacy remains. The Green Belt movement is having a positive effect on the people who take part in the schemes and her vision is something that world leaders are calling for to combat global climatic change.

Kenya’s forests had been ravaged by government supported forest clearance The Green Belt movement was promoted by Maathai to engage women in planting trees to help meet their needs for fuel wood, building materials, and soil conservation. The project took into account traditional gender roles of men and women in Kenya, that differ so greatly from the gender roles in the UK today, reiterating the accepted roles of women in Kenya’s culture as home keepers, mothers and community organizers, whilst allowing men to get involved as agriculture is a unisex activity, avoiding as much internal conflict as possible. Although originally met with scepticism, the women who began the project had helped to plant over 30 million trees in Kenya by 2003 and now with Government backing, the Green Belt movement in the confidence of the government have looked to engage its 35000 schools, 16350 youth groups and 4300 women’s groups to target planting 1 billion trees a year as part of their official climate response strategy (Vidal, 2011). In November 2011 the government announced that the first 450 million had been planted, that’s just 419 million more than the UK planted this year.

Maathai’s vision to counter the drought, land degradation and water shortages in Kenya has lead to not only the ability for the indigenous communities to meet their own needs, and the empowerment of women in a male dominated cultural society, but has lead to the continued reforestation and climatic response that the world’s most economic countries need to engage with. Barrack Obama’s singular contribution to the Durban climate negotiations was to pay tribute to the work of Maathai and press the need for other countries to conserve their forests to help slow the effects of a steadily warming planet.

Kenya’s reforestation project is doing justice and improving the environment not only for their population, but is a beacon to all other nations showing how such a simple, inexpensive project can bring environmental justice to the global population.


Boyer-Rechlin, B. (2010) ‘Women in Forestry: A study of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and Nepal’s Community Forestry Programme,’ Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 25 (9), 69-72

Vidal, J. (2011) ‘Kenya – Ensuring Wangari Maathai’s Legacy Branches Out,’ Guardian [online] (last updated 11.22am Thursday 24th November) Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/nov/24/kenya-wangari-maathai-legacy-trees?INTCMP=SRCH&gt; [Accessed 13th March 2012]

Vidal, J. (2011) ‘Barack Obama urges nations to follow lead of Wangari Maathai,’ Guardian [online] (last updated 04.46 pm Wednesday 7th December) Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/07/barack-obama-wangari-maathai?INTCMP=SRCH&gt; [Accessed 13thMarch 2012]