Perspectives on Environmental Justice for Community Development

Some thoughts offered to participants at the Community Work: Principles, Policies & Perspectives conference of the Department of Applied Social Studies, NUI Maynooth: 14 November 2013.

Sometimes when I think about community development and the environmental justice movement, I feel its a little bit like two estranged members of the same family. They have so much in common and yet the rarely speak to each other. Yet now more than ever, we need to have a family reunion.

As we gather today in Maynooth, the governments of the world are meeting in Warsaw for the 19th annual UN climate change negotiations. So far they have failed at the 18 previous attempts to agree a global deal that could halt climate change. Climate science proves beyond all reasonable doubt that humans are causing climate change. And it is increasingly clear that climate change is the single greatest threat to human rights and social justice we have ever faced.

The scale of this challenge calls for systematic changes to the way in which we think and act in the world. It is no longer enough to simply  ‘think global, act local’.  It’s only through collective processes for social change, such as those practiced by community development, that the root causes of this climate crisis can be overcome.

So our challenge as community development practitioners and policy makers is to not to ‘think global, act local’, but to ‘think structurally, act strategically’.

The question, of course, is what does that mean for our practice? This morning’s speakers have made clear the links between the social and the environmental, and I’d like to propose three very simple steps that might help to bring about that much needed family reunion:

1. Practitioner analysis

The first step is joining the dots between community development and environmental justice in our own practitioner analysis. The principles of community development articulated in Towards Standards, are very much in line with those of environmental justice- which recognises the effects of pollution and unsustainability are most felt by those marginalised communities which have the least access to resources and power. Environmental justice, like community development, places a specific emphasis on the participation and empowerment of those most disadvantaged communities.

Making the link in our practitioner analysis between the social and environmental is particularly relevant now as our Government and the EU are planning responses to climate change and the transition to a ‘low carbon future’. Any such transition must not happen without specific commitments to social justice and equality. Whether in Ireland, or globally, poor and marginalised communities must not be forced to pay the price for the pollution of an elite few.

2. Dialogue

Building on the development of our own practitioner analysis, the second step is dialogue; beginning conversations in the communities where we live and work. And when the issues at stake are so massive and overwhelming, as they are with climate change, there is a real need to create spaces where people can, as Peter Westoby suggests, ‘reveal their fears, come to terms with their doubts and gradually embrace alternatives’.

These processes of conversation are the bread and butter community development, which deals daily with structural issues of poverty, racism and gender inequality in people’s lives. Bringing environmental issues into these conversations we can build on people’s lived reality of environmental injustices. Many people who live in marginalised communities experience the reality of a poor quality environment- whether its dumping, poor infrastructure on halting sites or lack of consultation on planning issues. The links are there to be made.

3. Alliance building

Building on these dialogues, which must begin in our own communities, the third step is creating alliances between those groups concerned with social justice and equality and those concerned with environmental issues. Despite the huge negative effects of austerity on communities we have not seen the sort of mass collective action on austerity that has been brought about by the dangerous gas mining process called fracking,. Communities all over the north west and County Clare are coming together to take collective action on that issue

Yet the reality is that the State’s neoliberal social, economic and environmental policies are all interconnected. Fracking and austerity go hand in hand as part of a broad neoliberal project. If we are to have any chance of overcoming the challenges that neoliberalism poses to our communities and our environment there is a pressing need to build broad coalitions which brings together communities fighting injustice from every dimension: social, economic and environmental.

At a national level community development and the environmental movement need to build alliances. With initiatives like Claiming Our Future and the CWC joining the Stop Climate Chaos coalition that work has began. At local level there is potential to reach out anti-fracking groups, to local authority energy agencies, to communities concerned about wind farms and the Transition Towns movement

So returning to our thinking structurally and acting strategically, I’m asking you to chew those three ideas over:

  1. Let’s build environmental justice into our own practitioner analysis;

  2. Let’s begin dialogues in the communities where we live and work;

  3.  Let’s join our issues together and build broad alliances to challenge systemic social and environmental injustices of neoliberalism.


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