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Cultivating Action: Environmental Justice in the Environmental Science Classroom

Kate Darby, , Allegheny College

Too often, environmental studies/science courses and students begin with the presumption of a people-free environment. When I ask students in a lower-division environmental science class what words come to mind when I say "environment", they typically respond with "forests," "wilderness," or "trees". I've yet to hear students respond with "cities," "people," or "home." Most of our students buy into what environmental historian Cronon calls the myth of a pristine wilderness; they tend to view the environment as something "out there" that is (or should be) untouched by human activity. Of course, we know that humans have always manipulated – and been manipulated by – the landscape. Yet, we rarely start a discussion of the environment with a discussion of people.

The students at our liberal arts institution also often enter my classroom with little understanding of power, privilege and difference within the United States. Recent media attention to income inequality, such as this recent viral video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QPKKQnijnsM), are beginning to catch their attention, but many of them still have trouble believing that racism in any form still exists in the U.S. And notions of institutionalized racism, classism and sexism are even more difficult for much of the fairly-privileged student body to swallow. Unfortunately, some students even arrive in my classroom with a sense of global environmental superiority – "If only people in China would stop having babies and polluting so much, then our environmental problems would go away." (To which I respond, "the majority of goods produced in Chinese factories are consumed by people in the U.S.")

These two issues – the role of people in the environment, and social justice – are related: All environmental issues have a social equity component. As a critical social scientist in an Environmental Science department at a small liberal arts college in Western Pennsylvania, these themes underpin most of my courses, which tend to be interdisciplinary and reflective of changing environmental and social conditions. I aim to equip them with the tools to understand the social (and then, inevitably the issues of justice, equity and fairness) in the environment. I also maintain a normative goal of helping them rethink environmental problem-solving in a way that incorporates social justice.

While I address these issues most explicitly in my environmental justice course, they also inform how I teach all of my ES courses. How do I attempt to work through these intellectually complicated and personally challenging topics with students? I tackle three perspectives of enviro-social problems: the historical (i.e. process), the contemporary narratives and evidence (i.e. pattern) and the normative (i.e. application).

Helping students understand the social justice components of contemporary environmental problems is perhaps the easiest of the three tasks. Students (and I) seem to find the prototypical EJ maps depicting environmental hazards and demographics to be particularly compelling, so I often begin with these visuals and other empirical research. I also, though, find it useful to provide a more humanistic account of current problems, so I rely heavily on videos and personal testimony from those affected by environmental injustice. In the past, I've relied on Valerie Kuletz's Tainted Desert to give students a deeply personal and ethnographic account of nuclearism in the U.S. West as a case study.

Once presented with a picture of current socio-environmental conditions, most of us want to know how and why things came to be this way. It's important to give students the tools and language to understand "why." Sometimes answering "why" requires attention to key theoretical concepts, such as Peggy McIntosh's "Invisible Knapsack" of privilege. Oftentimes, it also requires attention to historical context and path dependencies. In my EJ course, this means that I give a great deal of attention to key historical moments, including the post-WWII redlining practices and suburbanization that contributed to many of the spatial environmental inequities we see today. We also situate the contemporary environmental justice movement within its historical context; to do so, I often draw on Robert Gottlieb's EJ history, which finds the movement's roots in not just the civil rights and anti-toxics movements, but also in the Progressive Era's settlement houses and Cesar Chavez's work. I stress the importance of a historical approach in other environmental science courses, as well. For example, in a unit on organic agriculture, I spend a week explaining the history of farming in the U.S. and the movement towards mechanization and scientization of agriculture to help students understand contemporary debates surrounding the Farm Bill and other agricultural policies.

Because of my concern for social justice, and my belief that all environmental problems carry implications for justice, equity and fairness, my courses are unapologetically normative. I want students to question the tremendous income, gender and racial disparities in the U.S. and the even larger inequities globally. And I'd like them to do something about it. I call them to action. In my environmental justice course, I frame up EJ as both an academic field of inquiry and a mode of engagement. I require students in the class to apply the ideas they've learned to an advocacy and service project of their choice (e.g. art-based campus protest, volunteer work at an EJ organization, letter to the editor). I encourage and often require civic engagement in my other classes, as well. For example, in a unit on ocean environments, I asked students to write and send a letter asking an elected official to take a particular action on an oceans-related policy.

Finally, I believe it's important to tackle environmental justice issues with a sense of optimism. By allowing the normative to enter the classroom, and by talking explicitly leverage points in the system, and effective activist strategies, I hope to give students some tools to cultivate action. In my EJ class, we end the semester by reading Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark; I also ask students to document a person or organization that gives them hope for the future. As students share their photo essays, quilts, songs, paintings, and videos, I can feel the collective energy of our group grow. When we're finished with one of my courses, I hope students leave with a sense of tempered optimism, and an understanding that their work on environmental justice – both the intellectual and the practical – has only just begun.

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Cultivating Action: Environmental Justice in the Environmental Science Classroom (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 153kB Mar15 13)