Sustainability projects are justice-oriented when they are primarily concerned with redressing various forms of environmental inequality, injustice, and/or racism. They focus on political critique and engagement that leads to broad forms of social and environmental change. The increasingly fall under the title of "just sustainability."
In part, this approach originated in environmental justice [EJ] movements in the U.S. and the global south. EJ's roots can be traced to the 1960s and '70s, when community organizers and activists, together with scholars and scientists, identified the disproportionate environmental risks faced by low income people, people of color, and/or indigenous groups. In the U.S., drawing on Civil Rights strategies and tactics, the movement targeted the siting of toxic facilities, dumping of toxic waste, or use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and other industries through protests, lobbying, and direct action. In the global south, frequently emerging out of broader post-colonial struggles, EJ campaigns were concerned with toxics as well as the destruction of poor and indigenous communities through dam building, deforestation, and other environmental consequences of development and displacement.
Justice oriented approaches to sustainability also draw theoretically from academic fields, including the environmental humanities and social sciences, political ecology [PE], and urban political ecology [UPE]. They emphasize the co-production of human and non-human environments—such as through studies of the "urban metabolism." Further, to the degree that they align with a PE perspective, they insist upon the situated-ness of environments within structures of power and incorporate critique of contemporary, neoliberal forms of capitalism, particularly in relation to urbanization, development, and industry.
In the current period, EJ, PE, and UPE have influenced the formation of political coalitions, such as between environmental, labor, feminist, anti-racist, and/or housing rights groups. Examples include the food justice, climate justice, and right to the city movements.
Justice-oriented approaches to sustainability often position themselves in opposition to market-oriented approaches. Insofar as a focus on justice privileges social concerns and the human environment, they may also de-emphasize the role of ecology and non-human nature. However, through the coalitions mentioned above, they often are found to be linked with eco-oriented and/or vernacular approaches.
Image: Occupy the Farm protest at the Gill Tract in Albany, CA, April 2012; photo: Matt Werner