Environmental justice is the frontier of the environmental movement in the US and around the world. The field, scholarship, and advocacy instill the principle that biodiversity, social diversity, ecology, and health are interconnected. The nitty-gritty is democratic systems change—no less than sustainable realignment of the economy and the environment, health for all, and shared prosperity.

Environmental justice takes on the racial, social, and economic root causes of disparities. Attention paid to race, gender, culture, and class is critical to ensuring that those who are hardest hit by pollution can access opportunities, participate in policy decisions, and benefit from investments. In sum, environmental justice is the multicultural dimension of environmentalism.

The focus of Big Green environmental and conservation groups that emphasize biodiversity and protecting wildlife and natural habitats like oceans, rainforests, grasslands, and desert ecosystems is different, however. Who gets included as part of “Big Green” is not always consistent, but helpfully the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch identifies 10 lead organizations. These are: Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund. (A more extensive list of the 25 largest environmental groups is available here.)

Compared to the environmental justice movement’s multiplicity, Big Green leaders, staff, members, and affiliates often remain largely white. Likewise, grappling with equity in programming and policy advocacy is in short supply. Analogous to how equity, diversity and inclusion is too often treated in the workplace, Big Green groups have normalized the term “environmental justice,” but have far from fully integrated its more extensive frame, which refers to the need to not only change the boundaries of environmental policy, but reconceptualize what counts as the work of environmentalism and what it means to be an environmentalist.

Friction between green groups and environmental justice groups is longstanding—with environmental justice groups often accusing Big Green groups of elitism, racism and, valuing the wilderness more than people. This tension continues to play out locally and in policy debates. Working across differences may be harder in the near term, but, if the hurdles of difference can be negotiated, the potential for collaboration to deliver much greater returns is great.

Defining Terms

Imagine an environmental movement that breaks new ground by tackling equity and the overlapping social and physical determinants people of color and others face on the frontlines of pollution and climate change. While environmentalists can surely count gains made for the planet, more can be gained by grappling with root causes instead of symptoms. Environmental justice is the diversity shot in the arm that Big Green needs.

There is no one universal definition of environmental justice, but the following well-accepted description draws from the Principles of Environmental Justice.

“Environmental Justice (EJ)…refers to those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainable communities where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing, and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential…where both cultural and biological diversity are respected and highly revered and where distributed justice prevails.”

Professor Bunyan Bryant, University of Michigan, Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions

This is a Peoples’ Agenda—from the bottom up—rooted in political, human, and civil rights, and driven by local grassroots organizing across disciplines and geography. Percolating into mainstream public consciousness, this reframing weaves a social change narrative grounded in fairness for all. Big Green’s traditional ecological, nature, wildlife, and outdoors mission could provide potentially complementary common ground.

Exploring Origins

Some environmental groups have roots in the late-19th century conservation movement (such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club), while others that formed in the mid-20th century might cite Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, wildlife extinction, and the Cuyahoga River fires as inspiring their founding. The environmental justice field arises a bit later, from a series of racial discrimination driven protest actions in the US,