Abolition and Environmental Justice


During the coronavirus pandemic, movements for penal abolition and racial justice achieved dramatic growth and increased visibility. While much public discussion of abolition has centered on the call to divest from criminal law enforcement, contemporary abolitionists also understand public safety in terms of building new life-sustaining institutions and collective structures that improve human well-being, linking penal divestment to environmental justice. In urging a reimagination of public safety, abolitionists envision much more than decriminalization or a reallocation of police functions to social service agencies or other alternatives to imprisonment and policing. Instead, for abolitionists, meaningful public safety requires, among other things, a just transition away from an extractive fossil fuel driven economy characterized by vast racialized inequality and held in place by penal bureaucracy, and towards new regenerative economic, social, and ecological systems. This Article explores the connections between abolition and environmental justice, examining social movement organizing, litigation, and proposed legislation. These abolitionist environmental justice projects aim both to confront the harms associated with criminal law enforcement and ecological catastrophe and to build a more sustainable and just future. These efforts represent a necessary turn towards addressing multiple interlocking crises together rather than treating the harms involved in criminal law enforcement, climate change, and racial capitalism as separate and distinct. This Article attends carefully to and attempts to think with abolitionist and environmental justice movement participants, engaging the ideas and strategies generated by these movements as sources of insight into law’s injustice and possible abolitionist futures.