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Archive for May 6th, 2010

Towards a Just Sustainability

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Julian Agyeman

Julian Agyeman

Julian Agyeman – SFU May 5, 2010

Professor of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, Boston, Mass

This lecture was sponsored by the Centre for Sustainable Community Development and the City Program at SFU as well as the Pacific Institute for Climate Studies at UVic.

Since the first climate change conference at Rio we have ‘picked the low hanging fruit’. But issues of equity and justice have not been tackled. The lecture addressed three questions

How is sustainability science constructed?
Why is justice separate from sustainability?
Is there a middle way?

New Environmental Paradigm – Catton and Dunlap the first critique of environmental science. While scientists concentrated upon the need for environmental stewardship, and saw ecological sustainability in terms of inter-generational equity (saving the planet for our children and grandchildren) they did not look at the current, broader impact on equity. It is clear that environmental quality and human equity are in fact inseparable: despoilation of the environment is always linked to questions of social justice. The issue of the quality of the environment is linked to equality. For example, the fight for human rights in Nigeria is inextricable from the impact of the oil industry on that country.

[Note: Professor Agyeman quoted extensively from publish academic articles using slides with extracts he read. I have left his brief citations, and Google searches will help to track them down but nearly all are only available to those who have subscriptions to various journals or databases. I am not therefore linking to those citations.]

While Europeans have identified the need for joined up thinking, research such as Warner, 2002  shows that few US cities acknowledge a link between sustainability and justice.

How did we come to separate out environmental quality and human equality? He quoted a large chunk of text which included the assertion “sustainability has won” Campbell 1996 and that the current problem was “simply” how to achieve that. It has not, of course been simple [and I would challenge the idea that it has “won” anywhere!]. “For 30 years we have talked about concept but achieved little”. Environmental justice is a robust concept whose true potential has yet to be recognized. Hempel (1999) implies that it is about politics not what it promises for ecology. He goes on to assert that “sustainability will be achieved by citizens”. Sustainability is a political construct just like freedom, justice or democracy The limiting factor is good social science not environmental science.

For example, all of the documents about the impact of sea level rise and the need to relocate populations of small South Pacific islands deal solely with the techniques of moving people, not the psychological and cultural trauma of being moved.

“The need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, living within limits …

Environmental Justice Paradigm

Taylor 2000

Taylor presents an analysis of the relationship between the ideologies and institutions that underlie the environmental justice movement. The success of the environmental justice movement, she suggests, lies in its effective aligning of the civil rights paradigm with the environmental paradigm. This frame alignment, Taylor points out, helps in building coalitions between environmental, labor, and minority concerns. Emerging environmental issues during the inception of environmental justice movement provided the political opportunities which fostered the movement’s success


There are two dimensions of environmental justice: one is local and activist and, at the same time, it is also a policy principle.

In “Speaking for Ourselves” Agyeman and his colleagues showed that there is a positive relationship between low income and pollution levels. To some extent this is more obvious in the US due to zoning regulation: he said that in the US zoning was developed as part of the move towards racial segregation in the 1890s.

environmentalism and the movement for justice came from two different movements. [Environmentalism came from scientists like Rachel Carson and] the movement for justice from activists such as Erin Brokovitch. The headquarter of the environmental organizations are in DC because that is where they do their lobbying. The organizations pursue local issues and use a different approach, and different language. There is, he said, a “reluctance to engage in a white middle class discourse”. The pursuit of environmental justice is more of a collective effort and there is a “history of distrust” between the two types of organizations. The local EJ groups tend to point out: “You are not employing us, and you don’t come into our communities.”

Is the way ahead coalitions between the groups or a “movement fusion”?

“Clean Buses for Boston” – a campaign to buy 350 CNG buses for garages in Roxbury was cited as a successful example of a coalition which “must be built around what we all agree on”. [see below for my take on this issue]

Others argue that EJ advocates do not have a large enough power base to influence the major environmental groups but he thought there might be some avenue of progress using the concept of “food justice”.

Is there a middle way?

“Just sustainabilities: development in an unequal world” holds that there is, emerging among newer groups a link between the Environmental Justice Paradigm (EJP) and New Ecological Paradigm (NEP). It “reframes EJ but does not negate real EJ struggles. EJP is an activist agenda.

Urban Ecology Oakland CA places its priority on creating healthy human habitats.

Global per capita resource allocation: 4.5% of the people on earth consume 25% of its resources. He said that in Europe there is still a “discourse of rationing” that is unknown in North America. Here there is more to be gained by focussing on the “environmental space in between the dignity floor and overconsumption profligacy ceiling”. He showed a slide of the current targets and pointed out “we are nowhere close”.

Community well-being:  happiness should be the measure not the GDP. He cited the work of the New Economics Foundation in the UK

“Well-being: What can governments do?” NEF 2005 [the link to NEF well-being publications does not reveal this title]

Spatial Justice: life justices are distributed geographically in a very unequal manner: hence the concept of “the other side of the tracks”. The Coalition for a Livable Future in Portland has produce a regional equity atlas of their metro area.

He also spoke about the need for rethinking urban parks so that public space begins to reflect cultural diversity. For instance he said that he is developing a “park bench theory”. He says that every park bench is designed to simply accommodate the “four bottoms of the nuclear family” but does not meet the extended families’ needs?

He feels that there should be planning for intercultural cities like New York, Toronto or London. He said that there are three good examples in North America

Keep your coins: I want Change

Keep your coins: I want Change

It would, he thought, be better once we see diversity as an advantage.

Q & A

The first question was inaudible – no-one used the microphones – but I caught the words “intercultural context”

Framing sustainability must be about gaining a better quality of life, not giving things up. “Giving up” can be offensive. We have relied  too much on giving out information when all the evidence is that it doesn’t work. We need to start social marketing with culturally appropriate messaging. There is now no node of communications of the problem. Community tv has failed and is now simply an “episodic public address system”. We need to re-imagine our communications system.

What at an EJ community based level is the role of businesses? Are there best practices?

Business used to be a bad word: not now. There are community benefits agreements – community forums – good neighbour agreements – increased communications

You spoke of a “history of mistrust”. What lead to that?

The evidence was that none of the big 10 environmental organizations were gearing programs around urban residents. There were no people of colour on their boards. The personnel of both sides are very different and there is mistrust on both sides.

What are the prospects of EJ in the current economy?

Limited.  The precautionary principle if adopted in a way that was true to intent would change the burden of proof. Proponents would have to show that they would do no harm, not that the harm done could be mitigated. The success of EJ has been to relocate the problem. We now need to extend producer liability.

A raft of things that has to happen including redistributive justice and spatial justice. However that opportunity is proscribed.

You talked about the community deciding. How does that impact land use/transportation? How will local determination affects regional systems?

He spoke about the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative where eminent domain powers were given to a community group in Roxbury in the late 1980s. They developed affordable housing but it did not impact the transit network.

The questioner responded that the were issues e.g. increased density to promote transit where the perceived impact on the community hinders development.

It can’t just be local decision. We also need to look at regional equity: a good example is Portland’s regional networking. However the US is not big on regions. In US there is always a multiplicity of local governments.

We saw proposals for freeway expansion in the 1980s in Vancouver where local communities united to stop construction. We now have the same fight going on.  Do you know of successful examples of the sort of coalitions you spoke of?

“In short, no”.  In Roxbury all the large roads go through and do not serve the local area. There are issues where a project benefits the larger community, for instance the “out of towners” who get a faster journey at the expense of the locals who get the pollution. Why did New York City not get congestion charges? Because Albany made the decision. there was local support in Manhattan, but the Westchester commuters got t their state representatives.  Livingstone in London was clever. He did build a coalition. The money generated by the charge goes into sustainable transportation – bike lanes and the separation of bikes from traffic. [Actually more significant was the expansion of bus service prior to the charge’s introduction.]


It was one of the most academic lectures I have heard in any of these SFU lectures. There were a great many words – many of them directly quoted and cited, most displayed on the screen at the same time. There were “very few pictures or conversations”. I have alluded above to the problem of references, but I found plenty of links, I think. I also had to insert some of my own thoughts – shown in square brackets – just to make sense of my notes. I cannot type fast enough to keep up with this type of lecture.

One issue caught my eye – which I have talked about in this blog often enough. CNG buses are not, in my view, “something we can all agree on”. They are a product of the way the environmental problem in cities in the US has been framed – mostly based on air pollution. This is where the US EPA and its rules and the controls over US federal funding of transit had – and have – effect. But in my view the problems of inner city populations are far more complex than the weight of diesel particulate in an air sample. CNG buses cost a lot, are less efficient in energy terms and less reliable. In this region their record of performance is dismal. Buying CNG buses usually means there is less transit than if diesel buses had been bought. And the impact on air quality is negligible. It is all about window dressing. Because air quality in most urban areas – and especially this one – is driven by single occupant cars. There just over a thousand buses (let’s ignore the ZEV trolleybus for now) but a million or more cars or trucks are used for personal transportation.

I happen to think that the issue to be addressed is car dependency – but then I would, wouldn’t I. In the short term, most cities would be greatly improved on many of the EJ indicators by reducing car use, cutting the space in cities devoted to single occupant vehicle movement and parking, and at the same time greatly increasing the attractiveness of other travel options. I would spend most on transit, but obviously bikes and walking must be local priorities. Land use also must change – not “to support transit” but to produce better places for people to live in. At the same time, shifting away from fossil fuelled powered personal transportation will do a lot to cut ghg emissions.   CNG buses do nothing to increase transit mode share – and that is the indicator I care most about. It has not changed very much in this region in the last twenty years, despite spending vast amounts on rapid transit. Not has it in Portland, for that matter, which made different technology choices.

One of the least regarded social pressure groups in this region is the Bus Riders Union. The idea was imported from the US – and many of their issues were imported from there, and have somewhat lower resonance here. The one group that has impacted bus use are the student unions of UBC and SFU – hardly representative of the sort of people EJ activists care about. I have not seen any analysis of the redistributive effect of UPass – but my bet is that it did not make life much easier for the poorest sections of our community. I have some inkling that much of the EJ debate works in the US simply because that is a society that is more divided by race and class than we are – and where, as he pointed out, those divisions have been given a sharp geography by zoning.

No one can be against justice – and of course our society, just like the US, has become less equal. And we are far into overconsumption profligacy compared to most of the rest of the world. Yes, we now have to contemplate not growing any more so that others may have a better quality of life without risking the entire planet’s livability. Of course there has to be greater social justice in our society too. But I do not think it will be achieved by “hitching a ride” on environmental concerns. A lot of what passed for environmental protection has been to preserve the privileges of the wealthy. Ducks Unlimited, for instance, care about wetlands, but only so they can shoot ducks for sport. People who own a nice pair of Purdy’s don’t have to worry about the price of poultry.  The impetus has to come from a shift leftwards in our politics. We have to start by disenfranchising business: money is not speech: corporations are not persons: economic growth is going to kill us all and has to be stopped quickly.

It would be nice to think that coalitions of environmentalists and community activists could achieve any of that but on the experience to date, that seems wildly optimistic. Environmentalists seem – on the evidence of what I see everyday – to enjoy nothing more than fighting each other, and accusing others of selling out to corporate interests. And I really do worry about the exclusivity he referred to. Many groups that self identify by ethnicity seem to me to offer far too many opportunities to some of the most divisive and selfish instincts of humans: the whole “us versus them” bit that was once vital to our survival but not threatens not just our existence but every other species as well.

At least we did not hear the “you care more about polar bears than poor people” stuff. But it really bothers me when I hear about a “reluctance to engage in a white middle class discourse”. In my experience that means we put popular notions (or at least those popular in our favoured group) above those determined by science. After all, almost everyone who is educated enough to understand the complexities of ecology or atmospheric pollution is almost certainly going to be accused of being “middle class”.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 6, 2010 at 2:02 pm