New research on Canadian environmental organizations; We need to talk about “Just Sustainability”

by Randolph Haluza-DeLay and Heather Fernhout

Canadian Environmental Organizations, graphicIn most people’s minds, the environment is associated with “nature”. However, this mindset  may be a barrier to bridging with other sorts of progressive movements. In particular, as our recent research shows, there is a lack  of interest by Canadian environmental groups over the concerns for “social inclusion” that are at the heart of other civil society organizations.

“Social inclusion” serves as a “masterframe”, an overarching way of linking a variety of concerns for a better society. Racism, gender discrimination, low income, and poor integration of immigrants serve as  forms of exclusion. Therefore, the proactive vision for a positive future is one of social inclusion, full participation for all people in the country. Of course, a vision for the future must also be sustainable.

“Environmental Justice” is one term that bridges these two groups of concern. The term is more common in the United States and whole movements focus on bridging social justice and environmental sustainability. Our research shows that neither the term “environmental justice” nor the concerns for social inclusion or social justice have penetrated much of the Canadian environmental establishment.

We drew a random sample of Canadian environmental organisations (ENGOs associated with the Canadian Environmental Network ) and looked at their online communications. Websites are one way that environmental groups communicate most directly to their members and the public. The websites of environmental organization are not filtered through the media, which is important because this is directly what Canadian environmental groups are trying to communicate.  We focused on 7 key dimensions of inclusion – poverty, multiculturalism, disability, gender, immigration, fair employment, and generalised social inequality.   Alas, few Canadian environmental groups mentioned any of these issues.

Specifically, 60% of the sample never mentioned social concerns like poverty or inequality. Most of those that did, did so in a superficial way. For example, they may have referred to jobs in a green economy but not providing job training for resource extraction workers. But research shows that hazardous wastes or poor water quality are more likely to affect low income communities, and public transportation has both environmental benefits and benefits to those without the resources to own an auto. We also know that many of the same drivers of environmental destruction are the drivers of economic inequality. While environmentalists and Aboriginal peoples have sometimes been allies, preservationist campaigns may run into Aboriginal treaty rights and a desire of First Nations to engage in both economic development and environmental caretaking. Research also shows that the children of immigrants are more interested in the environment than the average Canadian-born, and are especially interested in issues around the globe.  We also know that they find the way that environmental groups describe sustainability to be less-than-relevant to their concerns about employment or discrimination. This inhibits their involvement in urban environmental groups or visiting national parks.  Some environmentalists even blame immigrants for increasing environmental degradation.

This research shows that there is a long way to go in bridging the gap between social inequalities and the environment. Canadian research – like my book “Speaking for Ourselves: Environmental Justice in Canada”  shows exposure to environmental risks and lack of access to environmental amenities are associated with social inequality. Attention to inequality, inclusion and environment would make for a broader coalition, organized around something like “Just Sustainability”. If environmental organizations want to expand their audience, they should broaden their focus and present a bigger vision of a positive future for Canada.

Randolph Haluza-DeLay is an associate professor of sociology at The King’s University College in Edmonton. He has long been involved in anti-racism and peace projects as well as over a decade in environmental education.

See also the review  of “Speaking for Ourselves” .