Sustainability and Justice

AuthorSarah Krakoff
Chapter 11:
Sustainability and Justice
Sarah Krakoff
The Great Gatsby is not usually described as an environmental justice
story. Yet, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes”—the despoiled way
station bet ween Ma nhattan, the urban mecca where wealth is cre-
ated, and West and East Egg, the sparkling waterfront towns where wealth
is enjoyed—provides a vivid rendering of environmental have-nots. Myr tle
and her husband toil in working class circumstances amidst industria liza-
tion’s refuse while Gatsby, the Buchanans, and Nick Caraway enjoy its ben-
ets, including the ability to remain untouched by what we now call “market
externalities.” e valley of ashes and its real-life counterparts remind us that
while the term “environmental justice” came to prominence in the 1980s, the
rich have long had disproportionate access to the privileges of a clean, healthy,
and aesthetically pleasing environment.
e long-standing nature of inequitable access to environmental benets
serves to naturalize it, and also ma kes it dicult to unwind as a matter of
political economy. As long as access to environmental benets improved with
overall economic development, the problems occasioned by potentially lim-
ited natural resources could be ignored. To reconsider development or distri-
bution was to risk, according to the dominant narratives, either the health of
the economy, or democratic governance, or both.1 In t he 1970s and 1980s,
the global human rights and environmental movements began to reconsider
the unrestrained-growth approach. As these movements became increas-
ingly awa re of the collision course bet ween development according to rst
world standa rds and the biosphere’s limits, t he vocabulary of “sustainabil-
ity” and particularly “sustainable development” came to prominence. e
terms gained widespread use after the 1987 release of Our Common Future,
the report by t he World Commission on Environment and Development.
1. See David Luban, e Political Economy of Consumption, in T E  C: T G
L, J,  G S 113–30 (David A. Crocker & Toby Linden eds., 1998).
I am grateful to Michael Daugherty for his excellent research assistance and to participants
in the Colorado/Duke Climate Change Works-in-Progress Symposium for invaluable
feedback on an earlier draft.
200 Rethinking Sustainability
e report’s goa ls were to marry global environmental protection with the
elimination of global poverty. As such, the report (nicknamed the Brundt-
land Report, after Nor wegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland who
chaired the Commission) described the injustice, as well as the impractical-
ity, of attempting to solve global environmental problems by freezing devel-
opment in poor communities while letting rich ones reap the benets of
their past exploitations. Development in poor countries should occur, but it
should be “sustainable,” dened as development that “meets the needs of the
present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
own needs.”2 Unfortunately, as a plethora of global environmental a nd eco-
nomic measures indicate, there has been little progress toward achieving the
integrated goals of social justice a nd global environmental protection.3 We
have, in some cases, made progress on social justice goals, and in others, had
success responding to global environmental problems.4 But vast numbers of
people continue to live in extreme poverty even as we march past several key
indicators of global environmental health, ma king it clear that the Brundt-
land Report’s aspirations remain elusive.
In these pressing times, when scientists prescribe a carbon budget for the
planet that we risk exceeding by mid-century, concerned members of the
environmental and social justice communities should be working together to
enact rigorous policies to achieve the co-equal goals of planetary health a nd
a just distribution of environmental benets. ese communities should be
aiming with urgency, in other words, for what Kate Raworth has aptly labeled
the “safe and just space for humanity.”5 Given the need to pull together, this
may seem like a terrible time to cast a critical eye on aspects of American
environmentalism. Instead of looking at its aws, some might be drawn to
glossing over problems to unify support for strong policies to address climate
change, biodiversity loss, ocea n acidication, and the other interrelated pro-
cesses identied as key to keeping the planet within stable operating bound-
aries. Yet, glossing over will likely prove to be counterproductive for two
interrelated reasons. First, understanding how environmental protection may
perpetuate status quo structures of inequality (including disproportionate
2. U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Overview, ¶27,
U.N. Doc. A/42/427, Annex (1987), available at
3. See J G S, T B   E   W 38–42 (2008) (summarizing
reports that conclude that we have already or are on the verge of surpassing worrisome benchmarks
with respect to the health of earth systems).
4. See Robert Engelman, Beyond Sustainababble, in T W I, I S
S P 8–9 (2013).
5. Kate Raworth, Dening a Safe and Just Space for Humanity, in T W I, I
S S P 30 (2013).

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