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Environmental Justice Book Recommendations for Earth Month

April is Earth Month, and we’re celebrating with book recs on environmental justice. Learn more about the topic below, and then explore the eight selected titles. You can also see the books on display near the Circulation Desk at Shields Library.

What is environmental justice?

Environmental justice is about the intertwining of the environment and society, with a concern for how patterns of inequality are reproduced, how policy and resource exploitation decisions are made, and how some groups are discriminated against and unfairly burdened.

Broadly defined, environmental justice means that all people—irrespective of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and physical ability—have the right to live in clean, healthy, and safe environments; to have equal access to safe and healthy workplaces, schools, and recreation areas; and to have access to safe and nutritious food and clean water.

Environmental injustice was first recognized in the United States when activists began to fight race and class-based oppression, initially as part of the U.S. civil-rights movement when African-American communities protested toxic dumping and the siting of hazardous facilities in their communities.

In the early 21st century, environmental justice can best be understood as a shared framework and coalition of activists for health, labor, civil rights, Indigenous sovereignty, amongst many others. Their common conviction is that environmental problems are largely structural and that political issues cannot be solved apart from social and economic justice — they call for a transformative approach and the restructuring of dominant economic models, social relations, and institutional arrangements. Learn more:

Environmental Justice: Approaches, Dimensions, and Movements by Leah Temper. Oxford Bibliographies Online, 2020.

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

By Lauret Savoy

This book is a beautiful amalgam of memoir, natural history, and travelog. It’s a crucial reminder that concepts like nation-states, borders, and race are all constructed and imposed on the land. Savoy weaves together stories of geologic time and human migration, tracing them to contemporary struggles over displacement, sovereignty and extraction.

Check it out

All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis

Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Keeble Wilkinson

This book is a collection of essays, poetry, and art from the women behind the All We Can Save Project. This project seeks to challenge individualism that focuses on a narrow set of actions and contributions to address the climate crisis by highlighting those working towards a collective future. Individualism is a toxic ethos that not only privileges certain voices and ideas, but the burden of work also takes its toll. This book demonstrates that to avoid burnout and apathy, we need each other to sustain systemic change. “To change the world, we need everybody.”

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Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land

By Leah Penniman

This book is another great blending of memoir, history, and a very practical guide to small-scale farming. The author notes that while agricultural management is predominantly white, the majority of labor is done by BIPOC farm workers—and these same communities disproportionately live in “food apartheid” neighborhoods suffering from diet-related illness. It traces the author’s journey from an urban gardener to owning acres of farmland and operating a successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm-share. This book will help you to understand so much more about our food systems, reclaiming ecological knowledge and the food justice movement.

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Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger

By Julie Sze

This is an essential primer on some of the most urgent environmental justice issues we’re facing as a nation. Sze clearly links the resistance movement by water protectors at Standing Rock to the threat of agricultural pollution to California’s watershed, the dislocation of vulnerable communities in New Orleans and Puerto Rico due to hurricanes and Alaska Native communities that may be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels. These are presented as case studies in what Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as ‘strategic abandonment.’ Sze encourages us to think about restorative environmental justice and envision new ways to redress environmental racism.

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Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything and Endangered the World

By Jocelyn C. Zuckerman

This book is a fantastic lens to explore the ways in which our global industrialized food systems wreak havoc on the environment. Palm oil is an ingredient primarily used as an emulsifier in processed foods like peanut butter and icing—which is to say, it’s a small, flavorless additive that’s just there to give consumers a palatable texture. Yet, reliance on this small additive has resulted in mass deforestation, devastating habitat and biodiversity loss, brutal labor conditions and forced displacement of Indigenous communities. The real strength of this book is Zuckerman’s reporting with firsthand accounts from workers, smallholder farmers, poachers, environmental activists, palm oil barons, and government officials as she travels through the supply chain.

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As long as grass grows: the Indigenous fight for environmental justice from colonization to Standing Rock

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Gilio-Whitaker contends that the concept of environmental justice, as it is applied to other marginalized communities in the U.S., cannot appropriately encompass the struggles of sovereign Indigenous nations. What I found to be so informative about this book is learning through specific case studies how Native communities have to work within governmental and legal frameworks that are often antithetical to their systems of kinship, land stewardship, and the sacred. Environmental movements should not compound those hardships by coopting Indigenous knowledge and practices, or pushing for policy solutions that do not adequately address Indigenous sovereignty.

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Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change

By Aja Barber

There is a lot of criticism about focusing on consumer-related choices to address the climate crisis—which is why Barber is so emphatic that collective change is what’s necessary to confront the exploitation at the root of fast fashion. She traces the long history of the textile industry, which has always been contingent on slavery and resource extraction. This is a great, contemporary introduction to Marx’s analysis of the fashion industry through the lens of our now super-charged globalized, social-media marketplace world. Barber asks us to examine our “doing it for the ‘Gram” alienation that props up these systems of profiteering.

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Evolution of a Movement: four decades of California environmental justice activism

By Tracy Perkins

Born from Perkins’ master’s dissertation at UC Davis, Evolution of a Movement explores the successes and failures of the environmental justice movement in California from the 1980s to the 2010s. Perkins draws on case studies and 125 interviews with activists from Sacramento to the California-Mexico border, providing insight into the perceived routes for meaningful change as well as the strengths and limitations of social movement institutionalization.

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