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2014 (36) Heft 2

Environmental Justice: Empirical Concerns and Normative Reasoning


Guest-Editor: Gordon Walker

Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

In Why Things Matter to People Andrew Sayer reminds us that we are evaluative beings in which normative questions strongly figure in our everyday lives “because while we are capable and can flourish we are also vulnerable and susceptible to various kinds of loss or harm” (Sayer 2011, 1). The ‘environment’, understood in broad terms, provides one arena or frame within which evaluative questions necessarily figure, because of its centrality to our individual and collective flourishing or suffering, as well as to that of distant others—human and non-human—in space and time. But evaluation about the environment and environment-society relations, in order to be practically meaningful, also requires empirically knowing environments and our relationship to them. Only through knowledge (of some form) we can understand and respond in informed ways to the changing problems and possibilities of evidential and more hidden forms of environmental ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

The Empirical and the Normative
The relation between the empirical and the normative is an important concern of this journal, this special issue on environmental justice, and also to much of my own grappling with environmental justice. In Walker (2012) I presented arguments about the ‘claim making’ of environmental justice—as found within environmental campaigning, political debate, academic research and policy making—using this term to emphasise that there are many different ways in which we can try to make sense of, or make claims about the world in justice terms. One of the basic combinations that is often made within justice claim-making is to link evidence of a condition of inequality with a normative position on what is just or unjust—the empirical claim linked with the normative claim. Such claim-making is as evident in the arguments of environmental justice activists as it is in those of industrialists or policy makers (when they implicitly or explicitly deploy justice arguments), and it is often claims and counter claims about the empirical, the normative and crucially their interaction that are at the centre of environmental disputes and conflicts. The literature on environmental justice has though tended to either focus on analysing justice concepts and theories—drawing on various philosophical and political traditions—or on the generation of evidence of patterns of inequality (in relation to pollution, wastes, greenspace, flooding and so on). It is rare to find the linkages adequately explored, or both elements being approached as forms of claim-making, taking neither as a matter of simple fact.

Here I explore these arguments and concerns a little further, first reflecting on why it might be that the empirical and the normative have figured separately in environmental justice writing and analysis; and second looking forward to suggest how research and academic engagement might work more effectively between the normative and the empirical in the future.

One place to look for explanation of the separation of the normative and the empirical are academic disciplines and their distinct concerns, preoccupations, ways of working and writing and much else that is disciplinary specific. The social-natural world is infinitely complex and academic disciplines necessarily have to bracket out much of that complexity to centre on that which is both important, but also that which is manageable and amenable to investigation, analysis and/or contemplation. Accordingly to be a philosopher is to engage with the world in particular ways and traditions, to generate and work with certain styles and forms of knowledge, typically involving increasing detailed conceptual and normative reflection. Similarly a sociologist, geographer, ecologist or political theorist, each working with distinct senses of purpose and method—with some (at least) showing an eagerness to stockpile empirical ‘facts’ in a normatively disoriented and disengaged manner.

This is particularly relevant for Sayer’s diagnosis of the division he sees between “positive and normative thought” and “the estrangement of social science dealing with description and explanation, from philosophy and political theory, dealing with normative thinking” (Sayer 2011, 4–5). With his critique directed largely at social science, Sayer argues that social scientist have become used to prioritizing positive questions over normative ones, asking what is and rarely what ought, and failing to give attention both to the interrelation between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ and the role of reasoning in shaping values and evaluation. Hence the tendency in much of the body of social science work on environmental justice to fail to engage with how particular revealed patterns of pollution, risk, participation or involvement may or not be considered ‘unjust’; or alternatively to take the nature of injustice for granted, unproblematically equating an observed inequality with injustice, and/or following the justice claims of certain actors as necessarily those that have an a priori validity. Whilst the equating of equality with justice may often work relatively satisfactorily in terms of equality of status and recognition, it becomes far more problematic for matters of environment-related distribution and procedure.

Those philosophical disciplines concerned primarily with normative thinking, in turn have a tendency to either fail to engage their abstract reasoning with grounded empirical matters, or to work with evidence in selective and superficial ways—failing in particular to acknowledge the uncertainties and contingencies of much that is apparently ‘known’ about environmental matters. The step by step, careful and considered reasoning, proposing and challenging of arguments that is characteristic of philosophical method, typically gives little or no space for careful attention to empirical concerns.

Disciplinary differences are important therefore, but disciplines are not monolithic or fixed in stone; they are internally heterogeneous and continue to be argued about and to evolve over time. In the case of Geography, the discipline with which I am most familiar, there have been periodic calls for more careful and concerned attention to be given to normative matters generally, and specifically to the application and mobilisation of justice concepts in empirical contexts (Olson/Sayer 2009; Smith 1994; 2007). Accordingly, we can now find examples of geographical scholarship—on both social and environmental matters—that has engaged with normative theory in a more substantial way, finding both value and complexity in so doing.

This Issue
In this special issue we can also see authors from a range of disciplinary backgrounds bringing empirical and normative material together—to different degrees and from different starting points—and grappling with the consequences.

The first five papers start from empirical cases and evidence, and then work to varying degrees towards normative reflection. Richard Filcak and Tamara Steger consider the case of the Roma population in Slovakia and the severe exclusion, segregation and ghettoization that they continue to experience in environmental as well as in other terms. Evidence is collated from many different sites in Slovakia, and across an extended time period, to provide the basis for strongly made claims as how the environment plays into the construction of the Roma as a categorically subordinate group. Given the depth of discrimination involved their concern is less with establishing the grounds for claiming an injustice, than with explaining the processes through which this is being produced and sustained. Eloi Laurent reviews the growing base of evidence of environmental inequality in France, including how patterns of air pollution, chemical and noise pollution, access to environmental resources and exposure to social-ecological disasters are socially differentiated. He explicitly draws on the capability framework to reason how and where these patterns of inequality can be seen as forms of injustice, providing the foundation for working with evidence in a more normative fashion. Jason Byrne and Chloe Portanger take on the complexities of justice related to climate change and the various forms of interaction there can be between the direct and indirect consequences of climate change, and the direct and indirect consequences of action to respond to climate change through both mitigation and adaptation. Through undertaking a structured review of the literature they identify many gaps in the current evidence base as well as suggesting a framework within different (potential) justice dimensions can be interrelated.

The papers by Stephanie Malin and then Christelle Gramaglia, coming respectively from sociological and anthropological backgrounds, both engage with cases (in the United States and in France) where the empirical socio-environ- mental setting would suggest (under the dominant narratives of the environmental justice frame) that the existence of environmental injustice, and political mobilisation in these terms, would be self-evident. They both however give careful attention to the reasons why ‘expected’ patterns of justice claim-making did not materialise in the communities of their case studies, demonstrating through this the basis on which evaluative reasoning is locally and historically grounded. Both cases thereby open up questions about the proper site or location of evaluation, the internal versus the external perspective and the degree to which locally grounded evaluations should or should not be subject to critique and challenge.

The next four papers start from the ‘other end’, coming from philosophical backgrounds, working through the detail of ethical frameworks and/or problems as applied to broad environmental concerns or domains. Their arguments remain detached from particular geographically situated cases, but to varying degrees do engage with the complexities and particularities of environmental evidence. Fabian Schuppert and Ivo Walliman-Helmer take us through the measured steps of how empirical findings on environmental inequalities can be related to different normative yard-sticks for assessing whether these inequalities are unjust. Their conclusion is to find most value in a “moderately demanding social-egalitarian account of democratic citizenship and justice”. However in arriving at this end point they are careful to consider how the multidimensional and uncertain geographies of exposure, vulnerability and risk make particular demands on the resolution that they arrive at. Evidence is taken as problematic rather than given. Angela Kallhoff focuses on water ethics, considering four different concepts of water justice—distributive, ecological, cultural and procedural—in order to address the classic problem of the tragedy of the commons. A non-specific example of a water reservoir whose access conditions provoke conflicts among neighbours is taken as a case to work with and to demonstrate how the four varieties of justice can be integrated into a framework that supports cooperation and negotiation.

The papers by Richard Galvin and John Harris and by Anton Leist both address a common philosophical problem, that of how to assign individual responsibility for an environmental problem that is collectively produced through the unstructured actions of many people. If the specific cause-effect relation between individual action and harmful consequence cannot be precisely established (a problem of evidence) then how can moral responsibility be individually assigned (a problem of philosophy, and then maybe of politics)? Galvin and Harris work their discussion through the problem of climate change, Leist through the problem of local air pollution. Both identify similar conceptual difficulties, but Leist is more prepared to suggest that a resolution of the moral philosophical conundrum is possible.

Looking Ahead
These papers, and others in this special issue, indicate in their own terms some of the interesting directions that a more integrated future pathway of environmental justice research and writing could follow. There are broader considerations though, relating both to ways of working and to the content of investigation that would serve to encourage moves in that direction. I suggest, therefore, three future directions.

  • Collaborating across disciplinary boundaries: multi and inter-disciplinary working is rarely straightforward, putting pressure on comprehension, meaning, ontological and epistemological positions and much else that can be taken for granted within single discipline arenas. However it can undoubtedly be a productive way to generate new research designs and insights and to begin to dissolve obstructive boundaries of the form identified by Sayer more generally. Within the field of environmental and climate justice there are some interesting examples of collaborative teams being put together that include both normatively and empirically oriented academics. One case is a project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK focused on vulnerability to climate change impacts, which took an ‘integrated approach’ that involved bringing together philosophers (considering the terms in which well-being and vulnerability can be understood in relation to climate impacts) with geographers (processing and mapping large data sets to analysis patterns of risk and vulnerability to flooding and heatwaves) (Lindley et al. 2011). Similar collaborations could be envisaged across many other environmental justice domains.
  • Analysing claim-making in more even terms: as noted earlier my own particular approach to engaging more evenly with the empirical and the normative has been to (i) advocate an analytical focus on claim-making, seeing positions about justice as claims, as well as positions on what constitutes relevant and/or reliable evidence (thereby dissolving any easy assumption about fact-value distinctions), and (ii) to sustain a distinct separation between inequality and injustice, taking the former to be a descriptive term and the latter to be evaluative, often of the former. Both of these moves have not proved unproblematic or uncontroversial, with, for example, notions of inequality for some people carrying a priori meanings of injustice—for example in France where the notion of ‘égalité’ carries considerable accumulated political weight. However, in combination these moves have proved beneficial (for me) in challenging embedded or simplistic assumptions about both what constitutes evidence and what constitutes justice, thereby opening up a greater field of possibilities and providing the space for exploring the counterfactual, the ambivalent and the problematically uncertain, that might otherwise be shut down. I therefore continue to advocate in these ways and to encourage others to explore the possibilities and problems of approaching environment justice as claim-making, and in even terms.
  • Finding environmental justice in new places: environmental justice scholarship to my mind continues to flourish in terms of its amount, its creativity, its disciplinary scope, its geography and its substantive matters of concern in both social and environmental terms. There is evidence of flourishing in these terms in this special issue, with papers by authors working at institutions in Australia, Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Switzerland and the USA; from (at least) five different disciplines, and concerned with some very different substantive cases, both more abstractly and as situated in specific places. This substantive diversity reflects a broader trend towards (explicitly) environmental justice scholarship expanding its horizons beyond the USA, then beyond the Global North and into the Global South. There have accordingly been some excellent recent contributions that have demonstrated the power of bringing justice into a more direct relation with substantive matters that are often talked about in other terms—ecosystems services (Sikor 2013), gold mining in Africa (Tschakert 2009; Childs 2014) and solid waste in Accra (Baabereyir et al. 2012), for example. We have not delved into such cases in this special issue, but there is much scope for exploring the differences and commonalities between justice meanings and claim-making across such varied cases and global contexts.

This is all to be welcomed in terms of better representing the undoubted diversity and geography of where we might expect to find forms of environmental injustice (as claimed or unclaimed), but also provides again a bigger space in which to grapple with empirical-normative relations. Where, for example, assumptions about good democratic process do not, and cannot in any imaginable immediate material sense, apply, then justice reasoning that gives primary significance to good process (as understood in Western liberal terms) will struggle to appear relevant or useful. Where, the nature of what counts as good evidence and ‘truth’ is not rooted in traditions of modern science, contested claim-making is likely to take an unfamiliar form (Vermeylen/Walker 2011). Hence encompassing more ‘geography’ is not just a good thing, but also matters to the careful moving between the normative and the empirical that this special issue is concerned with.

Baabereyir, A./S. Jewitt/S. O’Hara (2012), Dumping On the Poor. The Ecological Distribution of Accra’s Solid-waste Burden, in: Environment and Planning A44, 297–314

Childs, J. (2014), From ‘Criminals of the Earth’ to ‘Stewards of the Environment’. The Social and Environmental Justice of Fair Trade Gold, in: Geoforum 57, 129–137

Lindley, S./J. O’Neill/J. Kandeh/N. Lawson/R. Christian/M. O’Neil (2011), Justice, Vulnerability and Climate Change. An Integrated Framework, New York

Olson, E./A. Sayer (2009), Radical Geography and its Critical Standpoints. Embracing the Normative, in: Antipode 41, 180–198

Sayer, A. (2011), Why Things Matter to People. Social Science, Values and Ethical Life, Cambridge

Sikor, T. (2013), The Justices and Injustices of Ecosystem Services, London

Smith, D. M. (1994), Geography and Social Justice, Oxford
— (2007), Geography and Ethics. A Moral Turn? In: Progress in Human Geography 21, 583–590

Tschakert, P. (2009), Digging Deep for Justice. A Radical Re-imagination of the Artisinal Gold Mining Sector in Ghana, in: Antipode 41, 706–740

Vermeylen, S./G. Walker (2011), Environmental Justice, Values and Biological Diversity. The San and the Hoodia Benefit-Sharing Agreement, in: Carmin, J./J. Agyeman (eds.), Environmental Injustice Beyond Borders: Local Perspectives on Global Inequities, Boston, 105–128

Walker, G. P. (2012), Environmental Justice. Concepts, Evidence and Politics, Abingdon


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