By Lindsay Key

Managing natural resources in an inequitable way—such as placing the burden of pollution or scarcity on one group of people more so than another group—leads to injustice and potential human rights violations in a society. These are among the topics explored in a new course, Human Security and Environmental Justice, offered as an elective in Virginia Tech’s MNR (Online) program

The course examines environmental justice issues through the lens of the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security planning framework, according to Dr. Marcy Schnitzer, Professor of Practice at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). Schnitzer developed the course as a natural extension of her decades of experience as a researcher and advocate for environmental justice. It will be offered for the first time during the Fall 2022 semester and is open to all MNR (Online) students and other virtual campus students.

Training students to recognize—and respond to—injustice
The course is part of a cluster of elective courses focused on the emerging field of environmental security. Students can choose to focus their studies in several key areas in the MNR (Online) program: Biodiversity and Ecosystems, Cities and Urban Systems, Climate Change, Environmental Security, Environmental Policy, Sustainable Business,  and Water and Marine Systems.  

Historically, Schnitzer has incorporated environmental justice and human security in all courses she teaches at Virginia Tech, and she found that the topics always resonate deeply with students. “Our professional students are encountering issues of environmental injustice in their day-to-day lives,” said Schnitzer. “These are real situations that they’re aware of, and that they encounter.”

Schnitzer’s new course digs deep into environmental justice scholarship and theory—which is heavily community-based— and provides numerous case studies as examples of theory application. Some of the cases covered, she said, might include uranium mining on Navajo land in the southwestern United States, the dumping of toxic waste and its impact on communities of color, food deserts, and the inequitable impacts of sea level rise on poor and wealthy populations.

Marcy Schnitzer headshot

Using a case study approach to examine systemic inequities
“Environmental justice is really a grounded phenomenon,” explains Schnitzer. “It comes from the community level. It comes from organizers. It comes from advocates. Most of the readings in this course are from authors who are working at the ground level.”

By the end of the course, students will be able to analyze environmental issues according to the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security planning framework, and reframe environmental justice in the context of global freedom from fear, want, and indignity. They will also be able to evaluate human security risks and harms to environmentally challenged populations, characterize systemic roots of inequity in distribution of environmental harms, and explain social, cultural, and economic determinants of environmental risk. 

“Using a case study approach, this class will examine public policy, geography, economic opportunity, systemic inequities, and other factors that result in human vulnerability to environmental hazards and risk,” said Schnitzer. 

“The MNR degree strives to prepare students to respond to the environmental changes we face in a manner that is timely, just, and fair,” said Elizabeth Hurley, a faculty member with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, where she leads the Center's efforts to develop students' intercultural competence. “Human Security and Environmental Justice will provide students with the knowledge and strategies they need to address disparities and injustices and create a sustainable future for all.”