Future of Sharing: Just Sustainabilities: Exploring the Intersection of Social Justice & Environmental Sustainability

Julian Agyeman, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, believes that social justice and environmental justice are—or at least, should be—inextricably intertwined. The question we need to be asking, Agyeman says, is how do we improve people’s lives in a just and equitable manner, and how do we do that while living in the limits of supporting ecosystems? Agyeman cites research that demonstrates the link between social justice and environmental protection, adding, “Maybe the way we treat each other can be indicative of the way we treat the environment.” He also speaks about the corrosiveness of income inequality, and the link between income inequality and a nation’s carbon footprint. Agyeman advocates for increased “joined up” thinking in the global North, particularly the US and Europe, that doesn’t separate issues of social justice from issues of environmental justice. He highlights a program called Clean Buses for Boston that sought to tackle both pollution and high rates of asthma in a lower income neighborhood being disproportionately affected by CO2-belching buses.

Agyeman believes that an important part of the solution to issues of both social justice and environmental sustainability is sharing. He argues that, despite good intentions, the sharing economy has been derailed by a flood of venture capital. He sees a distinction between sociocultural, or historic, sharing and mediated sharing revolving around economic transaction. According to Agyeman, the notion of shared spaces and of making contact across difference is at the heart of the multicultural, 21st century city. “I have yet to find a city that truly harnesses the great capacity of its people,” Agyeman says. He thinks that both city officials and sharing economy companies need to “come to grips with the idea of difference” and to pursue inclusive policies and initiatives from the get-go, rather than trying to retrofit policies and initiatives for inclusivity after the fact. For example, most bike share programs are based around the needs of tourists and commuters, and not members of low-income communities. What might a bike share program that takes the needs of these communities into account look like? Agyeman sees great potential in developing sharing economy startups within minority and refugee communities. “Just because people are on the margins of society,” Agyeman says, “doesn’t mean they don’t have great ideas about how they can make money and improve the quality of their lives.”