On 13-14 October 2022, the RIAS will host a major academic conference on environmental justice in American history, which aims to assess the state of the field, identify some of its most fruitful developments, and lay out some challenges for the future. The event is scheduled to be held in person.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Warren County controversy, which scholars and activists tend to characterize as the starting point of a modern environmental justice movement. The complaints of residents in North Carolina against the US Environmental Protection Agency, which had authorized the construction of a landfill site for the disposal of polychlorinated biphenyls (the infamous PCBs), became a broader campaign for social and racial justice. Civil rights organizations joined forces with local citizens, bringing new protest tactics, funds, expertise, networks, and organizational capabilities to the campaign. Soon, the Warren County protests outgrew the boundaries of the local community and put social, economic, and racial justice at the center of the national environmental debate. Such a debate gave rise to a series of cross-sectional studies that established a direct link between racial and economic marginalization and environmental exploitation, like the well-known Toxic Wastes and Race report, a nationwide analysis compiled by the United Church of Christ in 1987.

In the following years, environmental justice issues moved to the forefront of many popular campaigns in the US and abroad. These struggles developed into a more comprehensive transnational call to liberate marginalized communities from toxic pollution and from long-standing disparities in many parts of the world. In about a decade, environmental justice activists built networks and connections worldwide, further validating and reinforcing their work and legitimacy at domestic and international levels. These efforts resulted, for instance, in the adoption of a series of shared principles and recommendations highlighted in the final declaration of the 1992 Rio Global Summit.

In the last two decades, the work of environmental activists and indigenous leaders have pushed national and international institutions to recognize the rights of disadvantaged groups and communities more and more. In a world that has grown painfully aware of the implications of the environmental abuses perpetrated in the last two centuries to uphold its most dominant paradigms of development, the safeguarding and promotion of environmental justice and health have become unavoidable issues in domestic politics and global affairs. As a result, concepts such as environmental democracy, equity, and sustainability have also expanded significantly. Yet, uprooting the causes of discrimination has proven far more elusive – and remedying the situation even more so. In many cases, environmental injustice resulted from a long and complex legacy of social, political, cultural, and economic factors hard to disentangle or act against.

The study of these issues – and how the United States has affected them – has generated an extensive interdisciplinary body of research in both humanities and social sciences. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and many others working on questions of environmental justice have produced eye-opening accounts of the conditions in which many American communities lived (and continue to live) and their struggle for recognition and inclusion. These efforts to understand the complexity of the historical processes that determined past and present (environmental) inequalities are even more important today now that, after four decades of mobilization, the country faces urgent calls to change behaviour and protect the global environment.

This conference aims to gather contributions discussing theories and practices of environmental (in)justice in American history from a wide range of perspectives, and we welcome original and innovative research on the topic.

The full list of conference topics as well as more information about the conference and on how to apply as a speaker can be found here.