Faculty Journal Posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Why Social Justice Today Means Environmental Justice

Omar Dahbour Professor and Chair of Philosophy, Hunter College; Professor of Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center; Ph.D., Philosophy, City University of New York, 1995; Ph.D., History, University of Chicago, 1987

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House Faculty Journal series on the New and Renewed Visions of Environmental Justice.


Environmental justice in the USA, though not necessarily elsewhere, has generally been characterized in two ways. First, it has been taken to be a “special issue” pertaining to the effects of various environmental problems on certain peoples or communities. Today, this is usually a matter of viewing environmental justice as equivalent to “climate justice,” that is, a new problem or issue standing alongside of, but separate from, existing problems or issues of “social” justice. Second, it has been regarded as an idea that mandates an equitable distribution of environmental harms such as air and water pollution, or waste disposal. This is often put in terms of the concept of “environmental racism,” that is, the positioning of waste, pollutants, and other harmful substances or practices, in minority and/or poor communities.

Both these characterizations are mistaken. Environmental justice is not a special issue, but of general interest—affecting the most basic problems of survival and flourishing of peoples and societies. Furthermore, environmental justice is about environmental goods—who has access to the prerequisites of a flourishing human life—just as much as it is about harms. It is time to revise our ideas of social justice, and understand them as theories of the allocation of “ecosystem goods and services,” which are necessary to produce socioecological systems, within which all peoples live.

Contemporary theories of social justice can be divided between distributive theories (for example, those of John Rawls or Amartya Sen) and proprietary theories (those of C.B. McPherson or Robert Nozick). While the ethical justifications vary, I will focus here on how to understand the substantive ideas for a just society that these theories embody.

Distributive theories usually argue for a just distribution of personal income. What a just distribution means can be understood in a couple of ways. It might be one that justifies an unequal distribution for various reasons, or it might be equivalent to a fundamentally egalitarian distribution–both resulting in taxation schemes to redistribute income. Conceptions of human rights can also provide justifying grounds for an egalitarian distribution. Another way a just outcome might be formulated is as one that compensates for persistent disadvantage or (unjust) discrimination. Views focusing on difference and/or identity (e.g., race, gender) usually involve such a compensatory idea. In these cases, various forms of preferential treatment–for instance, employment programs targeting certain groups–may be advocated.

But there is one big problem with all such views: they concern distribution of the total amount of goods and services—and this total is determined in a way that is itself not subject to considerations of justice. Only what is produced can be distributed; and what is produced is determined by market mechanisms, corporate interests, and the private choices of those with the wealth to make major investment decisions. For this reason, any theory of distributive justice, whether it concerns equity and justice by class, identity, or other parameters, is fundamentally limited by its disinterest in the property arrangements that determine the production of wealth in a society.

Proprietary theories address this problem by focusing on the justice of particular forms of ownership, and whether they facilitate the production of wealth and economic value. On some accounts, what is considered a just form of ownership will be essentially private—ownership by entrepreneurs, for instance. On others, it will be public—e.g., collective ownership by workers. However, in both instances, what produces the most economic value (for instance, human labor or industrial plants) is thought to be the crucial matter. Whether ownership of these things is private or public is determined by what is thought to be the most productive aspect of society.

The problem with proprietary theories, however, is that neither individual entrepreneurs nor a class of industrial workers are the most productive force for the generating of wealth anymore. To argue for the ownership of labor or factories in the 21st century is to miss the point that wealth is increasingly based on resource extraction or technological innovation. On the one hand, industrial societies are overdeveloped and overbuilt, plagued with debilitating environmental problems, and facing excess industrial capacity and falling consumer demands, even in the Asian countries with the highest economic growth rates. Of course, at the same time, there are vast human needs going unmet by this antiquated industrial system. On the other hand, to the extent that industrial production can find a demand for its products, this demand is being met by increasingly automated processes that now produce more, with less capital and labor. Standard proprietary theories of justice are about ownership of things that don’t matter much anymore for the production of social wealth.

Wealth—and therefore, considerations of justice—are increasingly a matter of directly procuring the most basic aspects of material life: food, energy, and land. This is because, as such things become increasingly scarce and/or expensive, direct access to them (i.e., ownership) is becoming important again. For much of the world, local foodstuffs, clean air and water, adequate fuel for heating, and land for affordable housing is becoming the real measure of wealth—not money or commodities. Socioecological justice is about ownership of these things. The idea that best captures this is that of the commonwealth. The commonwealth is a new understanding of property ownership of “ecosystem goods and services”—whatever can (directly) sustain life, within a given ecosystem (including urban areas).

Accordingly, justice today means the just distribution of both environmental goods and harms through ownership of the commonwealth. Rather than focusing on redistribution of income by class or identity, principles of justice should be formulated that justify the direct ownership of wealth. Here are two possible principles: first, a principle of ecological equity that means ecosystem goods should be held in common by those who are most directly dependent on them, and second, a principle of environmental sustainability that means an environment should be maintained by those who are most committed to its sustainable

These two principles of justice together provide a justification for the protection and/or restoration of sustainable socioecological systems. In the first case, peoples would have the right to protect their commonwealth from those who would exploit the basic “web of life” on which they depend. In the second case, they would have the right to regard as a common possession unused and degraded ecosystems, for the purpose of restoring them, in order to build sustainable lives for themselves.  But the important point is that justice today is not only about the redistribution of income to selected social groups, but concerns ownership by peoples of the environmental goods which they need for the production and reproduction of their way of life.

About the author:

Professor Omar Dahbour (Ph.D. in Philosophy, City University of New York, 1995; Ph.D. in History, University of Chicago, 1987) has taught full-time at Hunter College since 1998. He also taught part-time here from 1989 to 1994 and has held teaching appointments at Ohio University, Colorado College, and other institutions.

He regularly teaches the following courses: Revolutions in Modern Philosophy (PHILO 218), Political Philosophy (PHILO 246), International Ethics (PHILO 248), and Problems of Ethics and Society (PHILO 250), as well as other courses such as Philosophy, Politics, and Society (PHILO 106), Radical Philosophy (PHILO 220), Hegel (PHILO 386), Marx (PHILO 390), and Justice and Contemporary Society (PHILO 346).

His recent publications include three forthcoming articles, “Borders, Consent, and Democracy” in Journal of Social Philosophy, “The Response to Terrorism: Moral Condemnation or Ethical Judgment?” in Philosophical Forum, and “Three Models of Global Community” in Journal of Ethics; a book, Illusion of the Peoples: A Critique of National Self-Determination (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); and other articles or chapters, such as “National Identity: An Argument for the Strict Definition” in Public Affairs Quarterly (2002) and “Self-Determination without Nationalism” in Beyond Nationalism?, ed. Dallmayr and Rosales (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).