In our book Power, Justice, and the Environment, Robert Brulle and I used the term “critical environmental justice studies” (Pellow and Brulle 2005), which has since been adopted by other scholars working to expand the academic field and politics of environmental justice (EJ) (Adamson 2011; Holifield, Porter and Walker 2010). This concept is meant to build on recent scholarship in EJ studies questioning assumptions and gaps in earlier work in the field, by embracing greater interdisciplinarity and moving toward methodologies and epistemologies including and beyond the social sciences. As this direction in scholarship is still in its formative stages, here I take the opportunity to offer some guidance for what critical EJ studies might look like, with particular attention to the ways that urban space shapes struggles for environmental justice and resilient communities.
Why critical environmental justice studies? In order to answer that question, I must first offer a brief overview of the field of environmental justice studies. EJ studies has moved us toward a clear understanding that, where we find social inequalities by race and class, we tend to also find environmental inequalities in the form of marginalized groups being exposed to greater levels of pollution, toxics, “natural” disasters and the effects of climate change/disruption, as well as their exclusion from policy-making bodies that influence those outcomes (Bullard 2000; Bullard and Wright 2012; Fothergill and Peek 2004; Fothergill, Maestas and Darlington 1999; Harlan et al. 2006; Hunter 2000; Klinenberg 2002). Thus environmental risks disproportionately affect poor communities, communities of color, immigrants, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized communities around the globe. Scholars have been studying this problem for many years, and while many important cases have emerged from rural communities, it is a problem and struggle largely based in urban spaces. Researchers have also refined and improved our ability to measure the details and granularity of spatial environmental inequalities by race, class, and space (Bullard et al. 2007; Crowder and Downey 2010; Downey 2006; Mennis and Jordan 2005; Mohai and Saha 2007).