Chapter 13: Eco-Justice: A Key Religious Environmental Focus

13.1: Justice as the Crucial Linking Dimension

In his book Simplicity as Compassion, author Mike Schut notes that addressing overconsumption and environmental degradation is a challenge that touches on many dimensions, including spirituality, theology, food, and justice. Schut would later become the environmental and economic affairs officer for the Episcopal Church USA, a position that was named specifically to emphasize the inseparability of environmental and economic elements of sustainability concerns. Similar links have shaped the discourse around climate justice, and for many faith-based environmental leaders, addressing the intersecting dimensions of environmental, economic and ethical factors is the heart of their work.

While justice is a key focus in faith-based environmental circles, it hasn’t always been a key focus of the environmental movement. As George Middendorf, one of the founders of the Environmental Justice (EJ) Section of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) says, environmentalism in the US was born through the preservation and conservation movements of the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the impacts of environmental conditions on urban communities began to emerge significantly in popular environmental consciousness, with the activism of a group of African American women in North Carolina. [1] And similarly, most ecologists up until that time had focused on wilderness and other “natural” systems, with very little involvement in studying the ecosystems that include urban areas and the balance of flora and fauna in such human-dominated environs.

Charles Nilon, current ESA EJ-Section chair notes that some of the early EJ examples of linking ecology with urban environments did not involve ecologists, but he also highlights some of the productive projects that have given shape to the field (including studies in Brooklyn, NY, on impacts of environmental contaminants through subsistence fishing, and ecological restoration surveys in Philadelphia involving the perspectives of school children and seniors). Middendorf highlights some of the key developments that put EJ more officially on the map in the US: the “People of Color Summit in 1992, the establishment of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Equity (now Environmental Justice) that same year, and Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations”, issued by President Clinton in 1994” (154). These provided support for further developments, though as Middendorf and Jablonski and Poling point out, a key point of crystallization that provided crucial momentum was the 1987 study commissioned by the United Church of Christ on toxic waste and race in the US. [2] Jablonski and Poling, who direct the Marianist Environmental Education Center in Dayton, OH, further note that faith community involvement has played a crucial role in raising the profile of justice issues within environmental concern – they note that among the 500 people arrested in Warren County, NC in 1982 for protesting a toxic waste landfill in a low-income, minority community, were the director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice and the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”. [3]

These reflections parallel the history of EJ development in the ecumenical movement as noted by many authors. Bakken, Engel, and Engel (1995)[4] note three main stages: 1) emergence in the mid-1960s and policy studies in the 1970s, 2) the mixed results of implementing the theme of “Just, Participatory, and Sustainable Society” in the World Council of Churches in the 1970s and 1980s, and 3) WCC’s convenanting on “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation” and a widening and deepening of the eco-justice movement as it became more global and cross-cultural. Dieter Hessel, one of the chief architects of early Christian ecumenical attention to EJ issues, notes some of the theological underpinnings of the movement:

E-J ethics have deep biblical roots in the Bible’s opening vision of creation’s Sabbath, the story of God’s rainbow covenant with “all flesh on earth” after the flood (Genesis 9), and key summaries of moral obligations to respond to the poor, to give animals Sabbath rest, to let the land lie fallow, and to cancel debts periodically, if not to redistribute land (see Exodus 23, Leviticus 19 and 25, and Deuteronomy 15). The same spiritually-grounded ethical posture permeates Jesus teachings (e.g., in the Gospel of Luke) about living into the kingdom of God (today we might call it “kindom”). Abrahamic monotheists informed by this fresh view of the human-earth relationship should comprehend that all beings on earth are one household (oikos) requiring an economy (oikonomia) that takes ecological and social stewardship (oikonomos) seriously. [5]

Hessel also highlights the important role that Presbyterian social ethicist William Gibson played in launching the Eco-Justice Project and Network at Cornell University starting in 1973, and its quarterly eco-justice publication, The Egg, as an important venue for scholarly dialogue.

Image obtained through the public domain.

Dick Baer recalls the role of justice similarly from his involvement in the 60s and 70s in helping pioneer and deepen American theological reflection on environmental causes. As noted in the introduction of this book, Baer and his colleagues in the Faith, Man, Nature group of the National Council of Churches found it hard to publish in the ethics and theology literature in the early 60s because “the environment” was not yet considered a serious ethical issue. The rise in awareness and concern that followed Earth Day in 1970 accounts for a significant shift in those perceptions, but Baer says it was also crucial to begin to explain the justice dimensions of environmental issues. Whereas faith communities did not have existing offices and traditions around environmental care, there had long been a concern for justice, and a good deal of social action infrastructure and literature already existed in faith communities to address justice issues. Once the implications of environmental degradation for poor and vulnerable communities became clearer, faith communities were more readily able to engage the issue and mobilize a response in dialogue and action through their existing social justice networks. It is no surprise then that two of the four partners of NRPE, the USCCB’s EJP and the NCC’s Eco-Justice Working Group (which gave rise to the NCC’s Eco-Justice Programs, which gave rise to today’s Creation-Justice Ministries), framed their environmental concern in terms of justice. This focus was reflected in an effort to raise the profile of EJ concerns and engagements across faith communities through a project led by the NRPE in the late 90s, which gleaned the best examples of EJ work at that time across the country and summarized them in a directory of “models of engagement” in EJ. The directory of projects can be viewed here.


  1. As Dieter Hessel says: choosing to address both ecology and poverty “was not characteristic of the emerging environmental movement, which even today too often lacks passion for, or adequate principles of, social justice” (from: http://fore.yale.edu/disciplines/ethics/eco-justice/)
  2. United Church of Christ. 1987. Toxic waste and race in the United States: a national report on the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites. London: Church's Commission for Racial Justice.
  3. Middendorf, Nilon, and Jablonski/Poling articles are found here: https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1890/1540-9295%282003%29001%5B0159%3ATCOEJ%5D2.0.CO%3B2
  4. Bakken, P.W., Engel, J.G., and Engel, J.R (1995) Ecology, Justice, and Christian Faith: A critical guide to the literature (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press).
  5. Hessel's comments can be found here: http://fore.yale.edu/disciplines/ethics/eco-justice/, where he also outlines what he calls the basic norms of eco-justice:

    * solidarity with other people and creatures – companions, victims, and allies – in earth community, reflecting deep respect for diverse creation; * ecological sustainability – environmentally fitting habits of living and working that enable life to flourish, and utilize ecologically and socially appropriate technology; * sufficiency as a standard of organized sharing, which requires basic floors and definite ceilings for equitable or “fair” consumption; * socially just participation in decisions about how to obtain sustenance and to manage community life for the good in common and the good of the commons.

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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.