Dr. Robert Bullard, a sociologist widely regarded as the father of the modern environmental justice movement in the United States, states that “Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.” What is the point of technical innovation that does not move us closer to a world where this statement is no longer a radical outpost of hope on the horizon?
The climate crisis is no longer a looming threat on the horizon—it’s here. In the 21st century, every problem can be considered an environmental problem: from street planning to pandemic management to which celebrities we are particularly mad at for taking private jets.
Though the climate crisis affects all of us, colonization and ongoing imperialism through labor and resource extraction means that some people—like those in the Global South—are more affected than others. Moreover, some nations, institutions and corporations bear greater culpability for causing the current environmental state we are in.
Every environmental problem must be considered through a justice lens if there is any hope of the root causes of the issue(s) being addressed. Environmental justice is not an abstract concept. It is a framework that addresses the realities of how the causes and impacts of environmental issues and crises are closely intertwined with racial injustice, colonialism, pollution, economic injustice, gender injustice, and disability injustice, among several other experiences.
While environmental justice principles have been coming into the mainstream discourse within environmental projects, and environmental applications have been increasingly centered in the tech space, there is very little overlap between these two circles focusing on environmentally just technology. This is an oversight in our innovation landscape, and it is vital for tech practitioners to begin co-creating environmentally-just technology—technologies that center the well-being of people and the planet first and foremost.
Let’s take the energy sector as a case study for where environmental justice practices should be applied to technology. To continue to have a livable planet in the near future, one of many things we need to do is move towards clean, carbon-free energy that does not contribute to the climate crisis through greenhouse gas emissions. But we need to do this in a way that does not further enable environmental destruction—as mining for raw materials for technologies that harness renewable energy sources currently do—and we also need to move beyond the bare minimum of required environmental impact assessments on local land and water, and have widespread adoption of some kind of justice based framework for project assessment as well.
This could look like a lot of different things, many of them already somewhat in motion. This includes incorporating stakeholder engagement practices alongside environmental impact assessments for renewable energy projects, ensuring that consensus-building practices are centered when permits are being sought, a review of historical air and water quality readings in an area cross-referenced with certain health-related complaints, overlapping maps of flood risk and low income areas, and much more. There is a lot of excellent work that has already started to take these first steps with regards to energy justice, led by scholars and community leaders like Dr. Tony Reames and Shalanda Baker, as well as Indigenous leadership and land defenders worldwide, who have been fighting for environmental justice since the violent dispossession of their land through colonization.
Furthermore, we cannot fully contextualize justice-centric technology without accounting for the constraints put in place by capitalism, where profit is the primary driver for any action. These profits are not only the unpaid wages of workers, but are often made at the cost of the greater public good. For example, in the country I grew up in and currently live in, the United States, having basic human rights like healthcare and housing is nearly impossible without employment, due to a messy combination of private ownership, undue corporate influence, lobbying, and the necessity of profit over societal well being under the current framework.
Even though we have to have zero tolerance for new oil and gas projects, in line with the latest (and honestly, even historic) scientific guidance, we also have to have the understanding that every person working in the oil and gas industry is not necessarily doing so out of a passion for destruction, but out of a necessity to survive, or even have a good life. Workers may be reliant on extraction because it is the main supporter of their local economy, even though it ultimately leads to more harm on the local and global scale.
The Gilet Jaunes protests, which started with workers demonstrating against exclusionary environmental policy in France, is an example of the unfairness of implementing policies that pass on the costs of the climate crisis to marginalized workers instead of corporations that caused the issue in the first place. To move towards a justice-centric framework for tech projects, we need to recognise that workers are often alienated from their labor and opportunities, and actively work with, listen to, and seek leadership from individuals and communities already living at the intersection of these complex issues. This dynamic is essential to understand when considering a just transition away from the oil and gas industries.
Eliminating racism from tech practices cannot be a secondary consideration in environmental tech. It must be a primary focus, starting with systematically dismantling systems of oppression that prevent the brightest minds of a generation from achieving their full potential, and extending to noticing when racism seeps into the language of our operations, such as terminology like “master” and “slave” when referring to electronic relays. It also means examining why already ethically dubious facial recognition technologies have had so much funding and research effort from police and military when they uphold racially discriminatory patterns, and often deployed in poor communities or at borders. We have to ask uncomfortable, sometimes complex questions, like who got to design these technologies, and be the arbitrators of the capitalist system that drives their scaling and adoption? Who was able to access education in order to not only interface with and improve upon, but develop these technologies? Who was shielded from the harsh realities and consequences of the human and environmental destruction often required to harvest raw materials that drive much of the industrialized world today?
We have to be courageous enough to explore the environmental tech space at the intersection of wonder and disbelief, and a large part of this is being able to break free from the harmful status quo of economic growth that lessens our chances for having a livable planet. As a global community, we need to carefully consider which solutions to the climate crisis are elevated and provided with funding, and which projects are dismissed, overlooked, or under-resourced, even though they may be more effective.
Many of these questions can be addressed through open tech philosophies, focusing on openness and slowness. To a certain extent, this echoes through other philosophies as well – to exist in harmony with other things so that all can know peace. Returning to the collective understanding that we are a part of the world, not apart from it, and recognizing that we are not above nature, despite how many things we build (even if weight of those things is now more than all biomass) is a key part of the fight going forward.
A fundamental part of why it’s important to center environmental justice is that it provides a comprehensive, realistic set of practices centered around creating a living world for all – not just a few. Billions of dollars of wealth and resources should not be hoarded by a few individuals, especially when we recognise that wealth is always built on the direct exploitation of people and the environment.
That is exactly why there is an urgent need for us as both tech practitioners and humans to dedicate our efforts to envisioning and building an environmentally just future for tech, centering regenerative practices. Let’s not be limited by the confines of extractive capitalism. It is a behemoth of a task, but not something any of us have to do alone. We can rest in the shade from the shadows cast by intellectual and engineering giants, focusing on ancient technologies that can serve multiple purposes like qanats, and we can race forward into the future by harnessing the full potential of natural materials, strengthened by advances in materials science. We can seek guidance from those leading solar revolutions in areas where capitalists have given up, and be nourished by nutritious food that makes the most of what all forms of science have to offer. We can create an environmentally just future and use technology to help, not hinder this mission.
But, we actually have to get started.
What will you do to integrate environmental justice practices into tech practices and development?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sanjana Paul is the co-founder and executive director of Earth Hacks, and is currently a researcher at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and physics.
Earth Hacks’ Environmental Justice in Tech Project is a collection of resources dedicated to imaging the future of what environmentally just technology looks like, exploring environmental justice in previous and existing technology projects – and the lack thereof – along with mapping research, projects, and outcomes by practitioners leading environmentally just tech initiatives.