The term from philosophy and politics is somewhat abstract, relying on two Latinate words, but it encompasses a simple idea: to each her or his due. To “distribute” is to divide and dispense in portions, including goods and services, and we all want any such distribution to be done with justice, or fairness. What gets distributed includes not only benefits but also burdens. The contest is over who gets to make that decision and what criteria are used to determine fairness.
One way of ensuring goods and services are distributed fairly is to give equal portions to each person, a form of egalitarianism. Others of a more conservative political bent would see this as unfair and smacking of socialism. They might see distribution more fair if done according to how hard one works, how much merit one earns, or by how much money one holds. While it may be an abstract term, it is loaded with controversy.
An application in the environment field is the discussion of how environmental goods, such as natural resources, are distributed among the nations of the globe. The atmosphere is one such resource and developed countries have been filling it with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the detriment of the resource. Now the emerging economies of certain countries, including China, India and Brazil, also want to fill that resource with GHG emissions to assure their people have the same benefits as those of developed countries. So the issue becomes, how can the burdens of reducing GHG emissions be fairly distributed across countries.
Some further ideas to explore on Distributive Justice:
Have students assume the role of different countries and let them argue how they should be treated for purposes of distributing in a fair way the burden of reducing GHG emissions. Be sure to include someone to speak for Ireland, Northern Ireland, UK, EU, US, China, India, Brazil, and any other country that seems to balance the discussion. You might also include a spokesperson for the next generation.
How do the economic, social and/or cultural values of the country influence the positions taken in any such arguments.
Pick a specific, small environmental burden in your immediate environment — classroom, home, community — and devise how you would distribute it among people who share that space.
See, Sunita Narain, “Equity: the next frontier in climate talks” in the current Articles section of irish environment.
European Environment Agency, “The Concept of Environmental Space,”
For an application of distributive justice considerations to the problem of nuclear waste disposal, see Statement of Thomas B. Cochran, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) before the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Production of the Committee on Science and Technology U. S. House of Representatives (May 16, 1979).
Maiese, Michelle. “Distributive Justice.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/distributive_justice/