The environmental justice movement was launched by residents who suffered consequences of pollution and other issues — and refused to be ignored.

By Kris Dreessen


In the late 19th century, John Muir’s writings and advocacy focusing on the Sierra Nevada mountains sparked discussions about protecting wild spaces, ultimately leading to the creation of Yosemite National Park and other preserves. 

That passion forprotecting wildlife and wild places helped launch the environmental movement in the United States, says Jordan Kleiman, associate professor of history, who specializes in modern U.S. and environmental history. An emphasis on protecting wilderness areas, along with a parallel focus on conservation of natural resources, dominated the movement for much of its existence.

Discussions today about environmentalism often include environmental justice, but widespread attention to the intersection of environmental and social justice issues came relatively late in the evolution of American environmentalism.

People started to self-identify as environmental justice advocates in the late 1970s, Kleiman says, focusing on urban and rural areas that bear a disproportionate burden of industry, waste disposal and other environmental problems. Most often, those were low-income, often minority, areas with fewer resources.

“People were always concerned,” he says, “but they didn’t have a voice — even in the environmental movement.”

Two cases in the late 1970s and early 1980s played key roles in changing that and giving rise to the environmental justice movement, says Kleiman.

The first was close to Geneseo. Residents at Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, suffered higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems linked to a chemical company’s toxic dumping. An organized movement led by women in the community, led to the government’s relocation of the local population, the creation of an on-site waste treatment facility, and, ultimately, the passing of federal legislation that established the Superfund program to deal with orphaned toxic waste sites across the nation. 

The second case unfolded in a very poor, predominantly African American community in Warren County, N.C. Activists, many of whom were veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, mobilized to block the creation of a landfill proposed by the state’s governor to dispose of 60,000 tons of toxic PCB-contaminated soil. After a failed legal battle, activists organized marches and engaged in non-violent direct action, laying down in the road to block the trucks bringing in the contaminated soil.

“While Love Canal involved a largely white, blue-collar community that organized to fend off class-based environmental injustice,” says Kleiman, “Warren County activism marked the first, major environmental justice effort in the United States that focused on what was soon called ‘environmental racism.’ Warren County activists lost the battle over the dump, but their efforts succeeded in bringing national attention to the problem of environmental racism.”

Environmental justice advocacy quickly began to influence the mainstream environmental movement and more recent advocacy around “sustainability.” 

Kleiman’s own research focuses on the history of the Appropriate Technology Movement (ATM). While the majority of the ATM’s activism predated the emergence of the environmental justice movement, the two movements had much in common, Kleiman says.

The ATM had its heyday from the 1960s through the 1980s and initially focused on finding an alternative strategy for economic development in poor countries. Central to that effort was the development and dissemination of technology that was environmentally sustainable, small in scale, democratically controlled, required little capital investment, and was not disruptive to the cultures in which it would be used. During the 1960s, the burgeoning American counterculture began to find common ground with the ATM, whose leaders expanded their focus to industrialized countries. In doing so, the ATM developed an “institution-building strategy that embraced peer-collateralized micro-loans, cooperatives and local currencies, and which would work in tandem with the movement’s technological development strategy.”

By the 1980s, there were 2,000 ATM organizations worldwide — and they had become a precursor to the environmental justice movement. 

“In its most far-reaching version, the ATM offered a radical vision of overhauling the way our economy worked,” says Kleiman. “And from its earliest days, much of the movement focused on the intersection of environmental sustainability and economic equity and justice. As such, it is an important — if unacknowledged — precursor to the environmental justice movement. It also provided a good deal of the foundation for what now goes by the name ‘sustainability.’”

This is another part of the history of American environmentalism that is almost universally overlooked, he says.

Understanding the historical relationship between the ATM and environmental justice movements gives a clearer picture of how environmental sustainability and social justice issues intermingled in the past. In doing so, Kleiman says, it can provide useful insights as we confront climate change, exposure to toxic pollution and other urgent environmental problems.

Recommended Reading:

Associate Professor of History Jordan Kleiman shares books and films that provide insight into environmental justice:

Film cover for Blue Vinyl

Courtesy of Bluefrog Films

“Blue Vinyl” (2005)
Filmmaker and cancer survivor Judith Helfand takes a humorous look at the plastics and vinyl industry and its effects on people and land. 

“Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality” (1990, then 2000)
Robert D. Bullard examines the Warren County, N.C., toxic dumping and fight.

“Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present” (2016)
Richard S. Newman discusses one of the first U.S. cases of environmental justice activism.

Book Cover

Courtesy of Rutgers University Press

“Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, and the Origins of Environmental Justice” (2007)
Eileen Maura McGurty shares information on the Warren County case.