Social and Ecological Justice: on a conflicted relationship

Current events keep confirming my conviction: the 21st century will be the ecological one, no matter what actually happens to the environment. Just like the 20th century was the century of wars even if you happened to live in a place that saw none, so will this century be defined by ecology, inasmuch as ecological matters will increasingly have to be taken into account, everywhere (whether in lip service only is a different matter). Recent events, from the inspirational climate strikes to the daily news of both doom (ecological collapse) and hope (almost entirely in the form of future green technologies), confirm this intuition: the ecological century is growing into its destiny. 

As this is happening, progressive causes in particular are rightly appropriating ecological discourse. Theoretically speaking, it has been argued in various intellectual circles for quite some time that we really need to be thinking at the socio-ecological level. In other words, ecological and social processes are intrinsically linked, and to speak of one without paying attention to the other is to err by omission, in a grave way. I myself have argued for this position and believe that the socio-ecological level is the appropriate unit of analysis today. 

However, thinking at the socio-ecological level doesn’t come with its own political program, but simply draws new lines for thinking through problems of complex causation. The ideas of ecological and social justice are progressive ways of politicising the intrinsic relations between social and ecological issues. In this case, the inherent relation between social and ecological processes is often taken to mean an equivalence between ecological and social justice. What I mean is that progressives implicitly and explicitly argue that it is via social justice that ecological justice can be pursued, and vice versa. If you pull in the right direction on one of these two issues, the other will follow the same line of motion. But is this true? 

Let’s first look at what ecological and social justice mean. In short, ecological justice is the idea that all should participate in the fair distribution of environmental benefits and harms, and in the fair use of resources (let’s call this ecological justice 1). Social justice is the idea that all, regardless of personal or ethnic characteristics, should participate in the fair running of the social order and therefore in the fair distribution of social rights, benefits, and duties. In this fashion it would appear that social justice is a subset of environmental justice, in the sense that universal democratic participation in the fair distribution of environmental harms, benefits and resources already takes care of the social part. Conversely, becoming socially just includes questions of environmental distribution. 

Besides these meanings, environmental justice also has the connotation, sometimes activated sometimes not, of justice for the environment. This aspect of the idea is increasingly becoming popular, particularly as more and more jurisdictions are passing laws that grant rights to nature. In this version of environmental justice, delivering is has nothing to do with extracting benefits for humans from the environment, but rather with letting environments be. Let’s call this version ecological justice 2. Often, and almost always implicitly, versions 1 and 2 are thoroughly mixed. 

There is an obvious overlap between social and ecological justice 1 in the idea of democratic participation. The opposite of that, exclusion, is also a point of overlap. puts the point thus: “issues that impact the environment have impacts on the people who live there as well. And when some people have access to resources that help them relieve those impacts while others don’t, that becomes a social justice issue.” In other words – and this is the crux of the socio-environmental justice assemblage – “from a community scale to a global scale there is an intense connection between people and the Earth, and harm to one cannot be escaped by the other.” This is what I mean that socio-ecological matters are seen to move in the same direction: if you harm one, you also harm the other.

Neoliberal economies are basically set up to profit from harming lands, which also means that some people that live in or around particular lands profit from harmful activities (think industrial scale agriculture, for example). This aside, let’s pretend that it is always the case that harming lands harms the people that live there. Is it then also true that harming people harms the land? No, of course not, and examples abound. The most successful rewilding initiatives, for example, are the result of human tragedy and disaster. Chernobyl has become a de facto wildlife refuge, while the old cold war border in Europe has rewilded itself so thoroughly that now there are activists dedicated to its protection.

But let’s return to the issue of participation: if everyone participated in a world of social justice, such that all benefits are shared fairly and evenly, this does not logically (or historically) presuppose that impacts on the environment would lessen. If anything, the opposite might be correct. For example, the wealth distribution in China and India has undeniably improved, getting those countries closer to a model of social justice (far from perfect, I know, but that isn’t the point). But it would be absurd to argue that, on account of hundreds of millions of Chinese getting wealthier, the Chinese environment is benefiting (ecological justice 2). 

As Chakrabarty points out, economists like Amartya Sen go as far as equating human development with freedom, a point that social justice advocates cheer for. Indeed, human freedom is linked to basic development, but basic development today, and for the foreseeable future, is linked to carbon-intensive industrial development and to the general churning of nature’s stuff and its reassembly into human stuff. There is, in other words, a veritable chiasm between ecological justice 2 and social justice: promoting social justice usually means intensifying environmental pressures, and promoting environmental justice denies rights to development that are intrinsic to a social justice model. Similarly, the association between ecological justice 1 and social justice in practice means that environmental concerns are subjugated by developmental ones, as we imagine a world where we can all consume to our heart’s content, but ‘cleanly’. The uncomfortable relation between these various kinds of justice is, I think, the greatest problem for progressive thought on environmental politics today. 

This does not mean that the only way to achieve environmental benefits is through restrictive, undemocratic political means (there are plenty of historical examples to back this up). It does mean, however, that the easy assumption of a fundamental connection between environmental and social justice is not particularly solid. The more people inhabit the planet and desire to get on board the project of modernity, however you might distribute those social (or socio-environmental) gains, simply means a compounding amount of environmental problems. The future is either non-consumptive, or else it isn’t environmental at all. 

The problem with that conclusion is that the non-consumptive ethos is far from equally distributed. Many in the Global South understandably think that they have a right to material development, as do many of those in the Global North left behind by current models of development. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to develop that is not materially intensive, and inasmuch as material intensity is involved, it is bound to have environmental costs. This is the case whether we are anti-capitalist in our environmental politics or not. As Chakrabarty also pointed out, it is deceiving to argue that it is capitalism, not resource extraction as such, that damages the environment. Or as Sophie Pinkham put it in recounting the Bolshevik colonization of Chukotka, “accelerating production quotas soon imperiled animal populations, although the Bolsheviks had been criticizing capitalist rapaciousness just a few years earlier. Now that the revolution had succeeded, they had decided the problem had been capitalism, not overharvesting”.

The chiasm between social and environmental justice is sometimes discursively plugged with future technological innovations. This amounts to progressives falling back on neoliberal techno-optimism when the chiasm opens, in the form of saying: development yes, but only under conditions of fair and clean technologies. There is nothing wrong in principle with desiring clean technologies; the problem is that you cannot hold on to a convenient idea (the close relation between social and environmental justice) by imagining conditions that are not realisable. As long as technological tools are made from materials, there will always be an environmental cost, no matter how clean their emissions. To quote Pinkham again, “even the Soviets couldn’t pretend forever that it was possible to produce something out of nothing”.

I admit it: it is lovely to think that environmental and social justice are linked in the sense that they both move in the same direction. Social justice in the form of development and environmental justice (whether in the sense of fairer distribution of goods, or of justice for the environment) are different phenomena that often involve trade-offs between them. This means that the challenges of our ecological century are more stubborn than we’d like to think. Politicising the intrinsic relation between social and environmental issues is not as easy as equating fundamentally different conceptions of justice. What benefits environmental health is often human tragedy, and most development, if not all, has meant some measure of impact on the environment. 

This post has already exceeded the supposed timespan of contemporary attention, so I’ll stop here. In the next post I want to look at one specific way in which the difficulties of squaring the circle of socio-environmental justice manifest themselves: the new wave of so-called ‘social enterprises’ that try to monetize nature while helping people make a living. The typical example would be an eco-tourism business in a newly protected area that, in theory, offers locals a way to profit from not exploiting their natural environment. This would imply both kinds of ecological justice are satisfied, and the social one to boot. I’ll take a closer look at that next time. 

1 Comment

  1. Indeed a crucial issue. Certainly neither the Soviet Union nor Maoist China are good examples, rather the contrary because of their productivist mania and a voluntarist ideology entirely ignorant of nature. The experience of Cuba on the contrary may be worth investigating: the obligation (because of economic reasons) to drastically cut energy dependence in the 1990s and therefore energy consumption seems to have had important positive ecological by-effects.


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