Environmental justice is a concept established by the World Health Organization and adopted by the European Environment Agency but environmental injustice is widespread in many Italian areas, where populations more exposed to pollution live but who do not enjoy greater benefits and often do not benefit from fair participatory processes. The ecological transition should have environmental justice among its criteria, and initiatives aimed at rebalancing equity should also be included in the distribution of the Recovery Fund.
When it comes to the environment and health, the issue of fairness and injustice in the absence of fairness is rarely adequately addressed. Environmental Justice is a concept born in the United States in the early 80s and today established by WHO and taken by the European Environment. Environmental justice refers to social and political movements committed to the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, but it has also become a multidisciplinary area of the social sciences that studies environmental and justice theories, laws and policies environmental, planning and governance for sustainable development, and more generally political ecology.
If it is intuitive that actions with effects on the public sphere can generate inequalities, this does not mean that the problem is considered a priority in decisions concerning the environment and health. Speaking of ecological transition, this concept appears even less valuable in consideration of the fact that the choices on how much and what energy is needed today and will be needed in the future and on how to produce it, on public access to drinking water, and how to manage it, on how to close the waste cycle, which agriculture is sustainable and so on are matters of general public interest and decisions about them are full of consequences, also in terms of environmental justice. There is no environmental justice when the risks and benefits are not distributed equally in the population.
It is enough to apply these simple criteria to reality to be able to share a judgment of environmental injustice widespread in many Italian areas, where populations most exposed to pollution live but which, despite being more vulnerable, do not enjoy greater benefits and often do not benefit from equitable participatory processes. The example of the sites that have been waiting for reclamation for years is enough, currently, 42 areas considering only those of national interest (SIN) where about 6 million people live who are on average more exposed to pollutants and register a worse state of health. In many of these areas, the risks are not equally distributed and the benefits are often not the prerogative of the same communities or more fragile groups: this double disparity increases environmental and socio-economic inequalities,
It is never superfluous to remember that when it comes to stakeholders, the main interest is related to overall well-being and not only to the economic one. Intervention/treatment partialities are facilitated when you do not know precisely which areas and communities are most impacted, due to lack of data or because you have environmental and health data referring to large areas that contain within them groups more or less overloaded with risks and problems. In situations with studies at a macro-area level, for example on one or more municipalities, the data often tell us that in polluting areas there are health anomalies and that therefore it would be necessary to intervene to reduce the environmental and disease burden, but to know which groups are most exposed at a sub-municipal level, further investigation is needed.
The links between the type and detail of environment and health knowledge and environmental justice are evident. Deciding beneficial interventions for prevention, rehabilitation, mitigation, compensation, is a delicate activity crowded with responsibility because by distributing according to a principle of equality, inequality can be accentuated. This apparent paradox recalls at least two fundamental philosophical theories:
utilitarianism from the Greek philosophers to Bentham and Hume in the eighteenth century according to which in/for a just society one must pursue the greatest possible well-being for the greatest number of people or, in other words, it is considered right to do the act which, among the alternatives, maximizes overall happiness, measured by utility
distributive justice (John Rawls, Theory of Justice, 1982) which, starting from the criticism of utilitarianism as it tends to sacrifice the interests of minorities, is based on the idea that social goods must be distributed equally, but a distribution the same can exist only if it benefits the most disadvantaged. Rawls speaks of equitable distributive justice that can consider the undeserved inequalities and create a system where the least advantaged can get the maximum possible. Without going further into the philosophical study, it is however clear that undeserved inequalities are closely linked to environmental and socio-economic inequalities.
If we want to pursue options of environmental justice, there are many situations and circumstances in which fair distributive justice is needed to ensure greater benefits for those most subject to environmental risks. In this vision, one wonders why in the face of economic incentives for the benefit of development initiatives, often improperly enriched with the suffix green or bio there is, for now, no significant trace of similar practices to support prevention initiatives. Areas more overloaded and with more fragile communities are not only those of reclamation sites, but there are many others, even of large proportions, such as large portions of the Po Valley for years subjected to heavy air pollution that has made the resident populations more fragile and therefore more susceptible to external agents of any kind.
The ecological transition understood as a goal aimed at avoiding or reducing the harmful alterations that human activities produce in the natural environment should have among the criteria that of environmental justice. The Essential Levels of Assistance (LEA), i.e. services and services that the National Health Service is required to provide to all citizens, and in particular relating to the collective prevention and public health sector, and the Essential Levels of Environmental Technical Services (LEPTA) provided by law 132/2016, they can also represent a useful framework for providing additional allocation criteria for the national and regional health fund to rebalance documented situations at different environmental risk and state of health.
Initiatives aimed at rebalancing equity should also be included in the distribution of the Recovery Fund, providing ad hoc resources for primary prevention interventions concentrated in situations recognized at greater risk, to strengthen the health service, to finance studies and research aimed at developing knowledge on the distribution of risks and benefits, to consolidate environmental and health impact assessments (VIA, SEA, VIS). On the latter.
We have recently witnessed criticisms or clearly spurious or poor arguments, supported by objections on a long time and the cumbersome that would prevent the realization of interventions of usefulness and harmlessness assured a priori, rather than requiring to give more tools to the evaluation commissions, national and regional. Impact assessments also have close links with environmental justice, having to take into account the characteristics of the populations subject to impacts and involve stakeholders, also through the procedures envisaged for public debate. The knowledge society is the salt of democracy, shortcuts and escapes forwards or backward lead in other directions, which have already been experienced in the past.