Why Should You Care About Equity Over Equality in Environmental Work?
Among other things, the EcoWomen Community is a network of change agents and activists who take on the cause of healthy and balanced society. We convene to learn from one another, support individual development and sustain a growing community of professional women.
As a member of the DC chapter, I have firsthand knowledge of our collective skill in developing relationships for lasting growth, power and access for women across sectors.
This post compares two conceptual frameworks we apply to the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges that underlie our pursuit for a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. To reach these noble aims, we must scrutinize our individual perspective by looking more closely at the ignoble status quo.
We all think we want equality, right? To avoid zero-sum outcomes we must look at the currency and costs for everyone involved. And that requires us to opt for equity instead.
Equity and equality: do they mean what you think they mean?
Equality is the quality or state of being equal; the feature or status of having the same rights, social status, etc., whereas equity is demonstrating fair treatment of people within relative circumstances. Superficially, the ideas seem virtually identical– honorable, proper, even moral. However, in real life, the difference can contribute to detrimental outcomes for vulnerable people.
Let’s agree to think of equality as fairness, based on a presumption of sameness. It aims for equal treatment through equal access to a tool, medium or a resource. Whereas, equity is akin to justice, a more contextualized form of access; it considers the circumstances and background of everyone involved, exercising deference to each.
To think about it abstractly, equality is like the golden rule and equity is more like the platinum rule, if such a thing exists. Equity treats people how they would like with the understanding that resources, benefits, and burdens are meted out based on culturally derived and defined differences.
Metaphorically speaking, equality gives everyone a boat, whereas equity ensures that each boat, based on its location, is able to make it to shore in light of the conditions facing it.
Why should you care about equity over equality in environmental work?
Umm…to avoid silos. Environmental work does not occur in a closed universe, but in interrelated systems. As such, we work on improving the quality and impact of specific efforts to protect the whole environment and we do it as women of intersection, bringing our entire selves to the site of our resistance (air, conservation, oceans).
In the rush to save the planet, we should avoid greenwashing the past, which is full of poor land use decisions, wasteful, destructive, polluting activity, and excessive burdens stacked on vulnerable and disenfranchised populations. We must look at it all, in policy and practice, in order to make it together into the future.
What does equity look like?
Acknowledgment, assessment and dismantling of privilege.
Equity as a practice involves habitual refocusing on those persons, communities, and groups at risk in a given action. It means taking steps to provide relative access to a right or a benefit that may be available to all, with the knowledge that all things are not equal.
Equity demands recognition of systematic privilege created for the benefit of some and a willingness to address the corresponding burdens for those that are not privileged. The disenfranchisement accumulates at the same rate as the advantage for those the system of privilege is designed to serve.
Further, equitable practice means engaging the past. It means re-balancing norms that perpetuate present and continuing harms. And a sober assessment of policies that protect privilege and create inequity followed by corrective actions that dismantle the systems that safeguard the inequity.
Equity in green spaces
So, what does equity look like in our work? Program and policy initiatives that seek to understand the lived experience of disenfranchised groups and communities. This includes analyzing the current array of economic and environmental health, programs, as well as land use and transportation decision-making strategies.
Equity forces us to question the present day make up of advocates for under-served groups, and it takes cues from affected people when targeting issues of concerns on their behalf. Resulting methods should incorporate community knowledge into the baseline factors that determine where to allocate our dollars, what problems to address and who is employed to respond to identified problems. And all of this must come with a conscious excising of bastions of privilege and redistribution of resources as a matter of economic policy aimed at offsetting wrongs.
Environmental equity looks like parity, in processes that determine who bares the impacts and burdens of an action, project or an undertaking. It takes shape in policy, in the development and enforcement of legal boundaries that actively protect against shifting pollution or hazards from one group onto another.
In effect, it is environmental justice.
Equality in green spaces
To be clear, equality isn’t malevolence, it’s just not enough. Access, even equal access, can be a well-meaning and sincere disservice.
Unless it is coupled with equivalent ways and means, we cannot realize the dream of unfettered, healthy contact with nature. Unless we create space for environmental work that reaches the under-served, as they exist, and not as we would make them we waste our efforts developing climate justice tools, education and policy.
Tamara is an environmental advocate focused on civil society and justice issues. She holds degrees from The City College, City University of New York and two advanced degrees from Vermont Law School. Her hobbies include reading boring books about politics and neuroscience, writing diatribes about what she reads, traveling, and yoga.