Championing the Common Good: From the Bottom Up

Environmental justice will be achieved by the efforts of subaltern populations, the social groups who are excluded from established structures for political representation, the means by which people have a voice in their society. These are the people most impacted by environmental harms because they do not have the political, economic or social power to prevent them.

These populations, by working together among themselves and with their allies, must gain a voice and empower themselves to fight back against the interests that would destroy local environments ultimately leading to irreversible impacts on our climate. The most impacted must speak out against the unjust system. Because they bear the brunt of our systemic actions, they see the problems that are invisible to mainstream civilization, which reaps the benefits of these actions. 

The class who benefits from environmental harm and who therefore perpetuates it, (see, James Boyce, “Is Inequality Bad for the Environment”) is too blinded by the temporary material gain to recognize that the severe danger the planet is in will inevitably negatively impact their own livelihoods.

Noam Chomsky writes:

Environmental catastrophe is far more serious: The externality that is being ignored is the fate of the species. And there is nowhere to run, cap in hand, for a bailout.

In future, historians (if there are any) will look back on this curious spectacle taking shape in the early 21st century. For the first time in human history, humans are facing the significant prospect of severe calamity as a result of their actions – actions that are battering our prospects of decent survival.

Those historians will observe that the richest and most powerful country in history, which enjoys incomparable advantages, is leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster. Leading the effort to preserve conditions in which our immediate descendants might have a decent life are the so-called “primitive” societies: First Nations, tribal, indigenous, aboriginal.

The countries with large and influential indigenous populations are well in the lead in seeking to preserve the planet. The countries that have driven indigenous populations to extinction or extreme marginalization are racing toward destruction.

Thus Ecuador, with its large indigenous population, is seeking aid from the rich countries to allow it to keep its substantial oil reserves underground, where they should be.

Meanwhile the U.S. and Canada are seeking to burn fossil fuels, including the extremely dangerous Canadian tar sands, and to do so as quickly and fully as possible, while they hail the wonders of a century of (largely meaningless) energy independence without a side glance at what the world might look like after this extravagant commitment to self-destruction. (

In the book, Law and Globalization from Below,  Bonaventura de Sousa Santos created the term “subaltern cosmopolitan legality,”  to refer to “the plurality of efforts at counter-hegemonic globalization.” Subaltern cosmopolitan legality refers to the “variegated counter hegemonic movements and organizations … articulated through transnational networks.” The editors argue “these proposals challenge our sociological and legal imagination and belie the fatalistic ideology that ‘there is no alternative’ to neo-liberal institutions. (p.1)”

What accounts for the resistance to seemingly dominant social structures and practices by some of the most vulnerable members in our society?”  – Luke Cole and Sheila Foster in From the Ground Up