Those who are socially disadvantaged are more likely to live in polluted areas with limited access to so-called ‘positive’ environmental factors, such as parks and forests, or clear air and water, and are exposed to greater health risks. In contrast, wealthier members of the population have more opportunities to avoid environmental impacts or to adapt to changes in their environment. In general, this means that social inequality can be further exacerbated by environmental problems.
When ecological justice is taken into account, environmental protection has the potential to contribute to the pursuit of social justice – and gender justice – within society.
At the same time, social injustice and inequalities have a negative impact on the ecological balance of a society. For example, the compulsion of growth is often stronger in contexts where inequality prevails, since poorer people try to imitate the lifestyle of the rich by consuming more and more, such as by purchasing status symbols. Given that growth can be seen as resulting considerable benefits, the resulting environmental damage is also more likely to be accepted.
Furthermore, measures to reduce environmental impact can have different effects on people. Environmental policies which raise prices with the aim of making consumers more environmentally aware, for example, will hit those with lower incomes much harder – the majority of whom are single and older women. In addition, not all people are involved equally in the processes of environmental decision-making.
The concept of ecological justice is considerably broader, in that it sees nature as a subject entitled to justice.
Eco-justice is not just a matter of distributing natural goods or the negative impacts of their destruction more ‘fairly’ among the population – instead, it requires preventing that the ecological, social and monetary costs are passed on to the general public in the first place.
Ecological justice is understood as a matter of social justice and can thus only be achieved when all people have equal access to environmental resources (ecological equity). It is based on morally justified rights (ecological human rights) and that notion that people must be equally involved in making decisions about how to deal with the natural environment (ecological participatory rights).
The category gender certainly plays an important role. A gendered division of labour, gender roles, differing consumption patterns and usage of transport, as well as differences in income, education and access to resources, mean that individuals of different genders are affected differently by environmental impacts and do not have the same capacity to react to them.
Pollution is the largest cause of disease and death in low- and middle-income countries
A study released by The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution in 2014 points to environmental pollution as the largest cause of disease and death in the developing world.
Environmental Pollution – meaning the contamination of air, water or soil caused by the mismanagement of chemicals and wastes – is a risk factor that causes heart disease, stroke, cancers, infections, and developmental and neurological disabilities, among other diseases. It is estimated that more than one death in seven worldwide is the result of environmental pollution.
The World Health Organization calculates that in 2012 exposures to polluted soil, water and air resulted in an estimated 8.9 million deaths worldwide – 8.4 million of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). By comparison, HIV/AIDS causes 1.5 million deaths per year and malaria and tuberculosis fewer than 1 million each.
The overwhelming majority – 94 percent – of the burden of disease from pollution falls on low- and middle-income countries, those least equipped to deal with the problem. Most, if not all, toxic sites tend to be in poorer neighbourhoods and women and children are especially vulnerable to environmental pollution.