Coping with environmental burdens

Coping with environmental burdens: Perceptions of self-efficacy and empowerment in low-income neighborhoods affected by industrial pollution

Basic project information
Susanne Börner

Project executive:

Project association:

The project is conducted by Susanne Börner within the working group "Sustainable Development" at Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in cooperation with the Faculty of Spatial Planning of the TU Dortmund and the Faculty of Geography of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM).

This project is funded through the BMBF within the international research network "Saisir l'Europe - Europa als Herausforderung"

October 2013 - September 2016


This project draws on environmental justice as a critical analytical framework. It aims to explore what determines the agency of people to cope with environmental risks and to assume an active role in shaping their environment. It thereby seeks to provide a better understanding of how particularly low-income and minority populations can be empowered to take part in environmental decision-making.

Poster presentation of the 'Coping' project (2015)

This research project is located at the interface of social inequality, environmental burdens, environmental health disparities, vulnerability, and capabilities. Research has indicated that particularly low-income and minority populations that lack political and economic influence are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards such as industrial pollution, emissions from waste dumps, etc. (Braubach et al., 2011; Brulle und Pellow, 2006; Pearce et al., 2011). At the same time it has been illustrated that low-income and minority populations often do not engage in processes of environmental decision-making, and are often not aware of the possibilities to participate (Böhme und Reimann, 2012; Sinning, 2013).

Environmental injustice occurs "[whenever] some individual or group bears disproportionate environmental risks […] or has unequal access to environmental goods […], or has less opportunity to participate in environmental decision-making” (Shrader-Frechette, 2002:3). At the same time, environmental justice scholars such as David Schlosberg have argued that "[one] cannot talk of one aspect of justice without it leading to another” (Schlosberg, 2007:73). The unequal distribution, the lack of recognition and constrained participation all work towards constructing claims for injustice (Schlosberg, 2007).

Yet, discussions about environmental justice should not only deal with patterns of social differentiations in terms of burdens caused by environmental bads or access to environmental goods and the meaningful participation in environmentally relevant decision-making processes. Rather, focus should be on the ability or the agency of people to cope with environmental risks and to participate in decision-making processes in the first place, since the lack of meaningful participation is often due to a lack of capacities or capabilities.

This research seeks to assume the perspective of low-income and minority populations that are affected by environmental burdens in order to explore how perceptions of individual resources and social opportunities determine their capability to participate in environmental decision-making. Furthermore, it is considered that coping with environmental burdens must be understood as a process over time. Hence, a biographical perspective will be adopted in order to understand how self-perceptions of agency are shaped within a life-perspective and how past experiences have an influence on present perceptions of self-efficacy and therefore on their coping-actions.

Methodological considerations and theoretical framework
This research uses narrative biographical interviews to produce narratives of coping with environmental injustice. The narrative biographical interviewing method makes it possible to actively engage community members into participatory story-telling and to give a voice to individuals from marginalized overburdened communities.

This research project furthermore draws on Köckler's "Model on Households’ Vulnerability towards their local Environment“ (MOVE) as a heuristic to analyze how vulnerable populations cope with environmental burdens. The model combines Hobfoll's Conservation of Resources Theory and Ajzen's Theory of Planned Behavior to understand how coping-capacity, perceived behavioral control, coping intentions and coping actions relate to each other. For the purpose of this research, the model was adapted to illustrate coping as a life-long process rather than a static present condition.

Case studies
Much of the environmental justice scholarship has focused on the experiences in the global North despite a large number of mobilizations for environmental justice in the global South. Environmental justice may however offer a powerful lens through which to analyze environmental struggles worldwide and to make a link between Northern and Southern experiences (Sikor et al., 2014). These considerations have motivated the choice of two case studies from Germany and Mexico in order to understand how different cultural narratives shape the ways of coping with environmental risks (Furedi, 2007), and how individuals can be empowered to act as agents of change across different cultural, political, and institutional contexts.

The German case study deals with the PCB pollution of the harbor district in the Northern part of the city of Dortmund as a result of the inappropriate disposal of large transformers containing PCBs by the company ENVIO. The second case study explores coping experiences in the neighborhood Maney in Huichapan, Mexico, where the incineration of waste in a CEMEX cement factory has affected the neighborhood. In both cases, local communities not only face waste-related environmental, social, and health impacts, but they furthermore struggle for a voice in environmental decision-making processes. Hence, local protest groups have formed in both communities in order to leverage community empowerment and to achieve environmental justice. Yet, even though members of the local communities have begun to take action as agents for environmental justice, it can be observed that large parts of the population have remained inactive in the face of the environmental health risks that threatened quality of life and well-being in the neighborhood. This research therefore aims to shed light on how self-perceptions of individual resources and of social opportunities have determined the coping-actions of active but also of non-active residents in the affected neighborhoods.

Böhme, C. and Reimann, B. (2012). Stadtentwicklung nicht ohne Gesundheit. Ein Plädoyer für gesundheitsfördernde Stadt(teil)entwicklung. In: Planerin, Mitgliederfachzeitschrift für Stadt-, Regional- und Landesplanung 3.
Braubach, M. and Fairburn, J. (2010). Social inequities in environmental risks associated with housing and residential location – a review of evidence. European Journal of Public Health; 20(1):36-42.
Brulle, R.J.; Pellow, D.N. (2006). Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequities. Annual Review of Public Health; 27: 3.1-3.22.
Furedi, F. (2007). The changing meaning of disaster. Area 39 (4): 482-489.
Pearce, J.R.; Richardson, E.A. and Shortt, NK. (2011): Environmental justice and health: a study of multiple environmental deprivation and geographical inequalities in health in New Zealand. Soc Sci Med; 73(3): 410-420.
Schlosberg D. (2007). Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford University Press.
Shrader-Frechette K. (2002). Environmental Justice. Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. Oxford University Press.
Sikor, T. and Newell, P. (2014). Globalising environmental justice? Editorial. Geoforum 54: 151-157.
Sinning, H. (2013): Partizipation in der sozialen Stadtteilentwicklung. Daueraufgabe für öffentliche Hand und Wohnungswirtschaft. URL (25.03.2014).