New York City, and other “global” cities (e.g., Los Angeles, Delhi, Cairo), are facing twin assaults in the twenty-first century—the “creative destruction” of the capitalist world market in property and labor, and the “climate catastrophe” of rising sea levels, heat waves, refugee populations, and resource costs. The concept of environmental justice has been developed to explore the linkages between these twin economic and ecological crises.
I propose here two principles of environmental justice:  the principle of ecological equity—peoples are entitled to own common pool resources who are most in need of them for their survival and continued existence as a community; and  the principle of environmental sustainability—peoples are entitled to own common pool resources only to the extent that they maintain them for their community and its future inhabitants. The justification for these two principles, and in particular, an explanation for the importance of “common pool resources,” will be given below. But their applicability to New York City, and similar urban environments, is what will be considered first.
Environmental justice in New York City
The greatest immediate applicability of these principles would be to places and regions in which ecosystem peoples (often characterized as “indigenous”) retain a hold, however tenuous, on lands and commons that they are inhabiting. This is the case for hundreds of millions of people in Latin America, Africa, South Asia, and parts of other world regions. But for the Global North—and particularly Northern cities and towns, such as New York City—the applicability of these principles is not as obvious. Nevertheless, they can be used to argue for two important public policies—and for institutionalizing them in legislation and governance.
First, the right of remaining in place can be derived from the principle of ecological equity. The idea is that there is a population in New York City (among other large cities) that needs to secure their livelihood through the cultivation and use of existing places and spaces within these cities. This of course begins with a right to affordable housing; but this housing should not involve displacement to “urban development” projects, whether adjacent to or distant from existing locations. The crucial idea is that cities are made up of existing and intact neighborhoods, and that this social context—rather than the simple existence of “housing units”—is what people need to sustain themselves. Beyond housing, the support of locally owned small businesses—through commercial rent control, subsidization of neighborhood “enterprise zones,” and prohibitions of or limitations on “big-box” stores—creates additional resources to enable peoples to remain in place.
Second, the duty to cultivate existing resources can be derived from the principle of environmental sustainability. The most important policies that derive from this principle involve the maintenance (ie cultivation) of the existing urban commonwealth, starting with the land, water, and air within or adjacent to New York City. Here the whole collection of ideas for “greening the cities” can come into play. The duty of the city government—as well as the cooperation of private businesses—to make land and other (built) spaces available for neighborhood commons is paramount. This will involve most importantly the combined efforts of neighborhoods to grow their own food (“urban gardening”), to satisfy their own energy needs (“off-the-grid” solar, wind, and other energy production), to locally recycle waste of all kinds, and to maintain the quality of local water and air. The obligation of city government (and of private corporations—in particular, the large financial institutions) is to facilitate such efforts through subsidizing start-up costs and providing technical expertise so that neighborhoods can organize and maintain such efforts themselves over the long term.
This also means that the duty of city government to facilitate sustainable livelihoods involving the local production and reproduction of necessities (shelter, food, energy, education, health) is vital. New York City has, for at least a generation, primarily facilitated the imperatives of big business by selling off or giving away the commonwealth of the city—its land, its labor, and its environmental services (eg “air rights”). This has not only exacerbated social inequalities; it is an environmental injustice, and the principles espoused here can be used to explain why.
Environmental justice in the US
Environmental justice is generally taken to mean two things in the contemporary US — “environmental anti-racism” and “climate justice.” Both of these are certainly aspects of the concept of environmental justice; but they are not coextensive with it. Both are the result of a dawning consciousness of the inequities perpetuated or created by certain environmental conditions. But the root cause of why environmental justice has largely been taken to be synonymous with these ideas is that, in a society in which the great majority of the population has lost any direct connection to the production of their own sustenance, the environment becomes a matter of justice only to the extent that it impinges upon lives otherwise dependent upon a virtually invisible system of the production of wealth. One way that it impinges is in the disposition of environmental harms, for instance water or air pollution, or waste disposal. When these “externalities” of production processes are located amid marginalized populations, claims of injustice arise. In particular, in many cases, this disposition of harms takes place in or on minority communities, giving rise to claims of racism. Certainly, the disposition of environmental harms in a prejudicial way is an injustice. But what is missing from this notion of environmental justice is any consideration of the disposition of environmental goods, including both “natural resources” necessary for the production of wealth, and environmental goods that are essential for sustenance, quality of life, and even survival—such things as clean air and water, housing, land for food production, and so on. The disposition of environmental harms needs to be linked to the disposition of goods, as well.
A second way that environmental change can impinge upon people’s lives is in the creation of climatic conditions that lead to the loss of livable habitats. In such cases—e.g., floods, storms, droughts, fires, and so forth—climate change produces “climate refugees.” The idea that such refugees deserve redress is a major part of the idea of climate justice. Part of the difficulty with this idea is determining who is culpable for specific weather events which result in the losses that produce refugees. But a more important limitation of this view is that the phenomenon of climate refugees is only one case of a more general problem—that of “ecological refugees.” Peoples who have lost the means to sustain themselves within their environments—and in particular, have lost their farmlands, wetlands, or forests—are a prime example of this problem. In some cases, such ecological refugees may be the victims of “natural disasters”; in others, they may be the victims of human actions—such as the seizure of farmlands, the destruction of forests, or the pollution of coastal habitats. But the result is the same: the production of a refugee problem that results from environmental change. The problem with just focusing on climate refugees is that the former category applies to a much larger population; the forcing of peoples from their lands is a primary example of anthropogenic environmental change, producing millions of disenfranchised and homeless persons over the last several decades.
Political ecology of environmental change
Political ecology is the name for an emerging approach in the social sciences (especially in geography, as well as in related fields) that has produced studies detailing the conflicts over environmental goods and harms between different populations and actors in various regions of the world. Most of these studies have been concerned with parts of the Global South; but the approach is now being applied to different kinds of conflicts and struggles in the North, as well. The basic intuition is that many of what used to be regarded as class conflicts (eg between lords and peasants, or owners and workers) are really—especially in rural and non-capitalist settings (where there is still an intact landholding population)—conflicts over the ownership of environmental goods. Land, of course, is primary; but other goods (water, minerals, forests, coasts) are also central to this.
Two concepts have been crucial in reinterpreting phenomena that have often been perceived from an economic viewpoint in terms of political ecology. One is the notion of socioecological systems. The idea of a socioecological system is that each form of human social relations is made possible by a particular type of connection between human and nonhuman environmental goods and services. Rather than viewing only some societies—eg hunter-gatherers, pastoral groups, agricultural smallholders—as directly tied to environmental goods, while others are not—the idea is that all societies are dependent on a sustainable use of environmental goods. The dependence, however, may be of very different kinds—that is, as mediated by tribal groups, other kinship structures, market exchanges, or state institutions. But all such societies must establish—and maintain—a connection of this kind, and it is this which characterizes the differences between them. Industrial society, in other words, is just as much a socioecological system as any other type of society.
The second idea is that of common pool resources. It is in fact the case that the environmental goods that are an important object of (political) struggle in almost all socioecological systems are themselves often viewed as owned in common by the members of that society. This idea is related to the notion of the commons (as in the term, “common-wealth”). The commons are resources (often, but not always, including landholdings) that are not owned and controlled either by private individuals or public institutions (ie governments). They cannot be alienated by private owners and sold, nor can they be taken by states for “public” purposes (at least without changes in property law). Rather, they are owned in common by communities (and usually administered by local councils of some kind) for whatever purposes are decided upon. An implication of this concept is that attempts to take or buy common pool resources are an important cause of conflict.
Environmental justice as the resolution of ecological distribution conflicts
This has led some political ecologists to define political ecology as the study of ecological distribution conflicts. Political ecology adds the idea of conflict to the notion of socioecological systems. This is why such phenomena as environmental racism or climate refugees are viewed by political ecologists not simply as byproducts of a social system that offloads (or “externalizes”) its environmental problems. Such phenomena are matters of justice because they are the products of ongoing conflicts about how to distribute environmental harms (as well as goods).
But these conflicts are only two cases of a broader arena of struggle between different socioecological systems, each intent on establishing or maintaining its own distribution of such environmental goods and services. In particular, some political ecologists have pointed to a global contest between those who seek to maintain common pool resources, and those who seek to divide up or otherwise exploit them for private gain or (economic) development. The terminology sometimes used for this type of conflict is that between “ecosystem peoples” who seek to maintain the resources in distinct ecosystems for their own use, and “biosphere peoples” who seek to exploit commons in different regions of the world, in order to produce and consume the goods they seek from multiple ecosystems (the biosphere).
Of course, this overall conflict manifests itself as local struggles—for instance, between farming or fishing peoples and governments or corporations that seek to transform commons into plantation agriculture, seafood farms, power plants, or industrial enterprises geared to producing for global markets. It is in fact particular ecosystems (rather than the general idea of an ecosystem) that are always at stake. However, such conflicts can be generalized as one between (capital) accumulation by dispossession and protection of the commonwealth. On the one hand, businesses (often in league with governments) attempt to dispossess peoples of their resources, in order to produce goods for profit, accumulate capital, and satisfy a global consumer class (ie biosphere peoples). On the other hand, peoples dependent on a specific commons (ie ecosystem) for their livelihoods, attempt to protect them in order to maintain their ability to support themselves from local natural systems. These conflicts are some of what the concept of environmental justice is designed to address in particular.
How political ecology suggests principles of environmental justice
The feature of political ecology that is most undeveloped is that which attempts to state what a good or just resolution of ecological distribution conflicts would be. Probably the most basic normative commitment of political ecology is to communities that maintain common pool resources as sustainable socioecological systems. Since such systems are engaged in “living in place,” rather than existing in the abstract space of global capital and commodity flows, political ecology places value on the idea of place as such—it advocates a “right to place (or territory),” over the rights of capital, investment, consumers, workers, industry, development, and so forth. The basis of this valuation is the idea that places (ecosystems) give their inhabitants the ability to sustain their lives through the maintenance of the systems themselves. This ability is independent of consumption practices within an industrial capitalist economy; however, it is dependent on a healthy ecosystem. So a right to place is based on the right to satisfy needs independently of others (outside a community), and by maintenance of existing socioecological systems.
The philosophical foundation for principles of justice of this sort is a communal entitlement theory, based on the right of peoples (ie communities) to own their commons. This is distinct from the individual entitlement theory familiar to political philosophers—that of entitlement to private property rights. Rather, it consists of the idea that communities/peoples have rights to the resources necessary to produce the goods that will satisfy their basic needs, and those of their descendants (i.e., future generations). The two principles of environmental justice stated above can be derived from this general normative commitment to “living in place.”
Of course, recognition of these principles of justice will require an extraordinary political effort to protect existing places and revitalize others, throughout the city. How this effort might succeed is beyond the scope of this essay. But the reason to make the effort—as an entitlement of existing communities, urban as well as rural, to the commons and their resources is clearly entailed by the principles of environmental justice articulated here.
Omar Dahbour is Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College, City University of New York.