The case for Environmental Justice: Is the duty of care undervalued?

The case for Environmental Justice: Is the duty of care undervalued?

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 12 December, 2023


My Environmental Justice research draws the value of labour into an analytical frame while acknowledging environments as produced and dynamic. Though at many times uncomfortable, these perspectives have the potential to advance the pursuit of meaningful just transitions.

Sayd Randle

Assistant Professor of Urban Studies, Singapore Management University

In brief

  1. Environmental Justice is the unequal distribution of environmental harms, benefits, and labour, with environmental labour being the work put into both the built and natural environments.
  2. There is a need for businesses and states to better value environmental labour through sustained long-term funding.
  3. There is a need for critical, close attention to environmental justice claims - not all that glitters is gold. 

A lower middle-class family is tasked with the upkeep of a new garden and street planting installation touted to provide environmental benefits to their city and local community. Instead of relaxing in their downtime, they spend hours on manual labour; weeding, watering and tending to the city’s much-celebrated “green infrastructure.” This was the case with a community in Los Angeles (LA), USA, found Sayd Randle, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies, in her paper “Ecosystem duties, green infrastructure, and environmental injustice in Los Angeles. The benefits this installation provides are known as ecosystem services; better stormwater management for the communities they were installed in, as well as municipal groundwater storage benefits for the city as a whole.

There is an underlying issue though, this new responsibility for maintenance shifted the burden from what would otherwise be municipal systems to individual homes. This new, shifted labour, is what Asst Prof Randle calls ecosystem duties. This term refers to duties needed to upkeep a functional ecosystem, which she sees as critically under-acknowledged and undervalued. The unequal responsibilities that emerge are thus a pertinent example of environmental injustice.

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What is Environmental Justice?

Originally articulated in 1991, the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice were developed in the United States against a backdrop of colonisation and racism. Contemporary environmental justice movements also foreground the structural drivers of unequal environmental conditions, situated in their own local histories and injustices. It is primarily concerned with unequally distributed benefits and harms of climate change and environmental extraction, frequently aligned with broader anticolonial, social justice movements. “This growing attention is largely due to the tireless efforts of environmental justice movement activists, who have consistently documented localised environmental harms and drawn attention to the broader forces and institutions involved in producing them,” she says.

In her own research, Asst Prof Randle looks at how the harms of labour can accompany the benefits reaped by the responsible community. “Environmental justice scholarship is key in providing stakeholders with concepts, frameworks, and other tools ,” she says. Through her paper, she highlights how already marginalised communities are further burdened with upkeeping green infrastructures. Their reaped environmental benefits, like improved stormwater management, are spatially diffused, whereas the burden of labour is high and heavy on the individual families. These disparate arrangements of labour stem from business, economic, and societal structures that undervalue the communities' labour to maintain these installations, resulting in inequality. However well-intentioned these efforts are by NGOs or public agencies, these ultimately present an unequal situation of responsibility versus benefit. 

Roles in Environmental Justice: What can be done?

“There’s a growing recognition that pursuing environmental justice is good and important, but there is less willingness by mainstream institutions to make substantive changes to established economies and power relations in the service of its pursuit,” Asst Prof Randle says. Businesses and states often play a central role in producing uneven environmental degradation; their potential to acknowledge, compensate and value environmental labour fairly, and direct long-term funding towards ecosystem duties could be monumental in the pursuit of environmental justice.

Asst Prof Randle compares her research in LA to other initiatives in Asia, such as China’s “Sponge Cities” initiatives – where cities retain stormwater, before filtering and releasing it slowly through the utilisation of wetlands and parks. There are significant differences though, land owners in LA are often single-family homes, for both wealthy and working-class people alike, whereas private land ownership is more unusual in Asian cities. The infrastructure developed in these different cities is therefore under different stakeholders’ responsibility. Sponge Cities typically rely on initial municipal investment into green spaces, whereas in LA NGOs sometimes play this role. The responsibility for upkeep is then relegated to the owners of the land - in Sponge Cities this is still the state, whereas in LA this would be the family who owns the land. Across the board though, funding for maintenance and proper compensation for that labour remains poorly addressed. She points out this common thread – specifically, the challenge is in properly valuing maintenance labour (or rather, ecosystem duties). “Perhaps this is an important issue to be taken up in the pursuit of just transitions,” she says.

The historical Loss and Damage negotiations, set for the 28th Conference of Parties (COP) 28 in Dubai in late November 2023, will be telling of the progress of environmental justice. The Loss and Damage Funding Facility is a funding mechanism that is slated to provide especially vulnerable countries with funding for climate-related losses. “Questions of payments to local communities, ecological labour, and local control over land are integral to those discussions, and I would anticipate them growing in prominence as such initiatives expand. I’m particularly interested to see how Asian countries with high per capita emissions approach environmental justice in upcoming global negotiations and climate commitments,” she says.

Being truly just: A need for checks and balances

In the growing trend of including the language of environmental justice in mainstream institutions, she suggests that critical, close attention is required towards environmental justice claims. The goal of environmental justice is a dynamic pursuit, and with that, the complexity of justice in relation to the environment must be acknowledged. Therefore, “We must develop our critical antennae to evaluate claims that an environmental project will produce just outcomes, even if it’s very, very pretty,” she asserts. 

Climate change presents an urgent situation for all - preparing and adapting to climate change is at the forefront of international discourse. Globally, societies are rushing to transform before the environment forces these unwanted transformations upon them. Environmental justice is deeply entrenched in this transition; marginalised communities are at the highest risk with the least capacity for transitioning. “Though at many times uncomfortable, environmental justice perspectives have the potential to advance the pursuit of meaningfully just transitions,” she says.

So, what does this just, green future look like? “While the particular landscapes will vary, they will be built by pursuing ecological and social repair as connected areas projects, moving beyond environmentalist projects that further marginalise certain places and people," she concludes.

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Methodology & References
  1. Rau, S. (Nov. 2022.). Sponge Cities: Integratig Green and Gray Infrastructure to Build Climate Change Resilience in the People’s Republic of China. ADB Briefs.  Retrieved from {} 
  2. LVEJO. (1991). The Principles of Environmental Justice (EJ). Retrieved from {
  3. EWG (2007). 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. Retrieved from {}
  4. S. Rau (Nov. 2022). Sponge Cities: Integrating Green and Gray Infrastructure to Build Climate Change Resilience in the People’s Republic of China. Retrieved from {}
  5. United Nations Climate Change. COP27 Reaches Breakthrough Agreement on New “Loss and Damage” Fund for Vulnerable Countries. Retrieved from {}
  6. Cop28. COP28 UAE Thematic Program.  Retrieved from {}