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Reframing Promise and Failure in the Modern Era of Environmental ‘Justice’

Fri, November 10, 4:00 to 5:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Gold Coast, Concourse Level West Tower


In this modern era of Environmental Justice—inaugurated by Bill Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 12898—we’ve seen increased environmental justice legislative efforts, diversified grassroots environmental justice leadership, and an explosion of environmental justice studies scholarship. This era has also seen the intensification of low-income and minority communities’ exposure to environmental toxicity and its attendant health and quality-of-life inequities. I view these dynamics, not as failures of implementation of Environmental Justice initiatives, but as evidence that the environmental justice movement contradicts the possibilities allowed by the liberal, modern democratic state. Conversantly, the Environmental Justice studies archive has operated under a theoretical hegemony that privileges calls for inclusion, accountability, legal reform, and recognition rooted in liberalism. I argue for the decentering of justice discourse in favor of what I call ‘black feminist ecoethics’; a set of concerns and practices that “occur below the threshold of formal equality and rights” (Hartman, 1997) and function as a counter to the hegemony of rights and justice discourse, even as these ethics are unable to be entirely disentangled from the grips of modern liberalism’s promises of raced, gendered, and classed toxicities.


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