Aug 29, 2019 | essay

Saving the World, Saving Ourselves: The Role of Justice in the Enviromentalist Movement

Edited by Julia Rios

Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:

Many people who care about environmentalism and conservation – those vague notions we have for stopping climate change or saving the sea turtles – have this defeatist mentality that humans are creatures of destruction, a plague unto the earth. The people who make these claims generally live in developed countries, and decry earth’s growing number of people – particularly in developing countries – as overpopulation. The sinister implication is that this world just isn’t big enough for all of us. Over-population isn’t the problem, though; it’s over-consumption.

Depending on which sustainability calculator you use1, if everyone were to live like an American, it would take 3 to 7 earths to sustain us all. Weighing in at around 5% of the earth’s population, Americans consume over 30% of the world’s resources. The problem isn’t too many people; the problem is that a small group of people are consuming Earth’s resources at disproportionate rates. The fast fashion and food industries are two of the main driving forces of climate change and pollution, and most people can’t afford to shop sustainably. For many countries, a culture of mass waste production has become the norm.

Most countries go through the same general stages2 of development: populations start off with high death and birth rates, transition to low death rates and high birth rates with the advent of better technology, and eventually to low death and birth rates as living standards increase. Many developing countries are currently in the middle stage, which is characterized by an industrial revolution and a spike in population. This growth should be recognized as a temporary phase and sign of prosperity but, instead, these countries are shamed for creating pollution through the same industrialization process that developed countries have already gone through.

The prosperity of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and most world economic leaders has come from industrialization: a period of trial and error, of creation and destruction. People living in developed countries so easily forget that they pioneered the art of pollution before they outsourced those same factories to the countries they now shame for creating pollution.

Sometimes cutting pollution comes at the cost of jeopardizing people’s lives. An example of this is DDT, which is useful for stopping malaria in African countries, but has been heavily restricted ever since Rachel Carson shocked the world with Silent Spring. Sponsoring global regulations for such a caustic chemical was a noble endeavor, but the millions of malaria cases the world sees every year could be easily decreased if we recognized that some circumstances justify its use.

Truly progressive environmentalists will accept that countries should be encouraged to adopt environmental regulations and technology at rates that suit their economic and political state but, in order to for environmentalism to succeed, it must be treated as a humanitarian effort. Environmentalists must work not in spite of people, but for the sake of them.

The newly developed field of urban ecology seeks to bridge this gap. Today, a majority of people live in an urban environment3. This is a good thing; it’s ultimately more sustainable for us to live together than sprawled out. Urban ecology asserts that cities are porous, and we should fill the gaps with green. City planners have made great strides towards integrating concrete jungles and nature, but this endeavor must be taken on carefully and responsibly.

Environmental gentrification is a phenomenon that many planners overlook when establishing urban greenspace, and its results can be catastrophic for the people that live near these establishments. Once a greenspace – usually a park, or garden, or even a small patch of trees – has been established, property value increases. For homeowners, this is good news. Low-income families, on the other hand, tend to rent, and when property value goes up, so do their monthly payments. Apartments are sold out from under people who have lived in them for years, and they are forced to move elsewhere. In attempting to provide people with a natural space for recreation, the city only ends up displacing them.

Another issue is that oftentimes an environmental organization gets ahold of a plot of land, but doesn’t know a thing about the people who live near it. Demographics from race to religion to gangs play a huge role in community development, and if someone tries to build a park in the wrong spot (such as between two gang territories, or in a place that’s off-limits to people who aren’t of a certain background) then they haven’t helped anyone. Environmentalism is largely based on individual, grassroots endeavors, so when it contributes to exclusion, the movement harms itself in the long run. One of the best ways to bring environmental awareness to a group of people without drastically altering the neighborhood they live in is the partnership of community parks and gardens with local nonprofits. Chicago’s Burnham Wildlife Corridor4, a long, skinny stretch of urban greenspace alongside Lake Shore Drive, has five unique gathering spaces that represent local neighborhoods and artists. These spaces serve as cultural monuments for the communities they represent, and the more natural areas of the Corridor have seen hundreds of native species thrive in an urban environment. It’s an incredible use of a space that everyone thought was worthless.

When asked why they care about the environment, most environmentalists will probably pick their favorite marine creature, or cite some camping memory from childhood, or even talk about how they were personally impacted by environmental degradation. There’s no wrong reason to be an environmentalist, but I think a sense of justice is the best one. As our climate changes and our planet becomes more volatile, some people will have the money to shield themselves from adversity, but other people will be at the mercy of rising oceans, violent storms, and scorching droughts. The people who will bear the brunt of humanity’s irresponsibility are the people who have contributed the least to it, or who have been unwilling contributors through the over-pricing and unavailability of unsustainable goods. Environmentalism does not ascribe itself solely to science; it is a question of what is right and what is wrong in terms of how we allocate our resources. In order to save the planet, we all must first agree to save ourselves along with it.

  1. is one such calculator. 

  2. According to Demographic Transition Theory: 

  3. World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas: 

  4. Burnham Wildlife Corridor: 

© 2019 Grace Villmow

About the author

Grace Villmow

Grace Villmow was born and raised in Chicago and is a rising senior at St. John’s College. Her environmental background comes from her time working with conservation organizations in her home city, her passion for Chicagoland native plants, and catching toads. She is the Editor in Chief of The Epoch Journal, St. John’s College’s political journal, and enjoys writing about urban ecology.