Race, Class, Gender and the Earth Crisis: Sustainability and Social Justice Meet

Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Seattle University

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

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  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


The primary aim of this integrative assignment is to develop in students a growing understanding of two "big ideas." Each resides both in sustainability studies and in my academic discipline, Christian Ethics.

First is the idea that social justice and ecological sustainability are inseparably linked. The other idea is that social change aimed at ecological sustainability and at social justice is achieved through the interaction of behavioral change and structural change.

The assignment asks groups of four students working collaboratively to: 1) select a common consumer product and then uncover the adverse ecological and social justice consequences - both direct and indirect – of its production, transport, and use and 2) propose paths of action that would dismantle or diminish those adverse consequences and that involve both behavioral and structural change. This second step draws upon theoretical frameworks about social action introduced in the course. After each group has presented its findings, the entire class works collaboratively, drawing upon the body of presentations, to construct knowledge about the intersection of social justice and ecological integrity and movement toward them. The assignment has an additional aim residing in a less cognitive sphere. It is to cultivate in students a growing sense of moral agency in relationship to ecological and social ills.

Learning Goals

The assignment has an additional aim residing in a less cognitive sphere. It is to cultivate in students a growing sense of moral agency in relationship to ecological and social ills.

A dangerous intellectual and moral fault line of the sustainability movement in the United States is the failure to acknowledge and address links between Earth's degradation and social injustice in its many pernicious forms. Here we consider in particular three forms: white privilege, class privilege, and gender privilege. These manifestations of social injustice are inextricably linked with ecological degradation. (For example, descendents of the tribes of Europe and people with economic resources, in general, have a greater chance of protection from the impacts of global warming and toxic waste than do many of Earth's peoples.) Efforts to address global warming and other aspects of the "Earth crisis" may either exacerbate or reduce existing injustice based in race/ethnicity, gender and class. The word sustainability has varied denotations and connotations. At its best, it is the commitment to hold social justice and Earth's health as inseparable in the quest for a sustainable relationship between the human species and our planetary home.

This learning activity reveals links between the matrix of oppression based on race/ethnicity, economic status, and gender on-the-one hand and ecological degradation on-the-other. Said differently, students will engage the terrain in which efforts to dismantle white privilege, economic privilege, and male privilege intersect with efforts to forge sustainable Earth-human relations.

Context for Use

The learning activity responds also to a common weakness in education for sustainability and social justice. An essential first step in that pedagogical process is to heighten what moral theory refers to as "moral consciousness," an awareness of the gap between "the way things are" and "the way things ought to be." Equally crucial is the second step of enabling "critical consciousness," an ability to uncover root causes of social injustice and ecological degradation. Increasingly, liberal arts education includes the first of these through such movements as service learning. The second is likely to appear in coursework sensitive to social critique. A third step, however, is far less evident in many educational programs seeking to develop social justice and sustainability proclivities in students. It is the step of enabling them to respond to social injustice and ecological degradation in ways that address their systemic roots rather than merely ameliorating their manifestation. Said differently, efforts in the liberal arts to encourage active response to social and ecological ills, tend toward "service" rather than deep systemic change. My deep concern is that students who learn to care about and recognize systemic injustice through the first two steps noted above, often do not learn ways to respond to it as systemic (the third step above). That gap is dangerous; it may lead to a sense of powerlessness and even despair. This integrative assignment aims at providing conceptual frameworks and other tools for imagining, recognizing, and implementing ways to challenge the systemic roots of social injustice and ecological degradation.

The assignment is being developed for a course entitled "Structural Violence and Christian Responses," taught through the disciplinary lens of Christian ethics. The assignment could be adapted for courses in philosophy or many of the social sciences or interdisciplinary studies. The course presupposes upper level undergraduate students who already have experience in "service learning" or other form of meaningful engagement with people on the margins of privilege and power.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment in Sum

This is a "class project" composed of multiple "small group" projects. That is, the findings of each "small group" are reviewed by all members of the class to enable collaborative knowledge production based upon shared knowledge and experience.

Small groups (4) of students will:

  1. Choose one consumer product that has adverse ecological and social justice impacts. It must be a product common in the lives of university students in this region. (The options are endless: a cell phone, a banana, a blouse, a computer, a car, a shoe, a piece of fried chicken, etc.)
  2. Conduct research to identify those impacts and establish connections between social and ecological impacts. This portion of the work is called "Seeing What Is."
  3. Develop a set of proposals for actions that–working in concert–would dismantle, diminish or otherwise challenge those impacts. Proposals must entail multiple "levels" of change and engage multiple "modes of action," in accord with theoretical frameworks introduced in the course. (See the "Resources" section below for explanation.) This portion of the work is called "Seeing What Could Be."
  4. Write a written report on both "What Is" and "What Could Be."
  5. Develop and present a multi-media presentation aimed at motivating the audience to engage in steps to reduce or eliminate the adverse impacts.


The assignment is developed for a 10 week term. The assignment could be adapted to a longer semester-long course.

Weeks 1, 2, 3: Preliminary conceptual work for the assignment is integrated into course readings and classroom work.
Week 3: Small groups are formed, choose the product to research, and begin developing research questions.
Weeks 4, 5, 6, 7: Research, writing, presentation preparation.
Weeks 8 and 9: Group presentations.
Week 10: In-class analysis and reflection on "what we have learned" in relationship to the two aims of the project as articulated above.

The Learning Activity

Preliminary Coursework:Weeks One through Three

Reading material develops students' working familiarity with concepts key to the assignment. These include structural violence; racism; white privilege and its components of denial, entitlement, and structural investment;2 male privilege; class privilege; sustainability; environmental racism; environmental justice; religious environmentalism; social construction of knowledge, etc.

Reflection on readings, case studies, films, and lived experience enable students to recognize intersections between ecological and social oppression, and to conceptualize various levels and modes of action aimed at environmental justice. These levels and modes encompass and require action aimed at both behavioral and structural social change

In the third week small groups are constructed and engage in team-building activity. Each team selects a product and begins developing a working set of research questions. Classroom time is used for this teamwork. Questions are refined through inter-team peer consultation. Following is an example of research questions aimed at investigating the social and ecological impacts of one illustrative consumer product, a salmon steak.

  1. What steps and processes occur in order for the salmon steak to reach my table?
  2. What people are in some way touched by those steps and processes?
  3. What are the environmental impacts of the various steps in growing, shipping, selling, and consuming that salmon? Include here multiple forms of impact: green-house gas emissions, toxic waste, water use, soil depletion, water pollution, etc.
  4. How do those environmental impacts in turn impact people on the margins of power and privilege whose lives are touched in these processes?
  5. Who benefits and who loses in the short-term from the processes involved in producing, selling and consuming this salmon?
  6. Who benefits and who loses in the long-term?
  7. Who has the power to make decisions that shape these process and thus their ecological and social impacts?
  8. Whose voices are unheard? Whose existence and human rights unrecognized?
  9. What amounts of water and protein are consumed by production and transport?
  10. What legal structures enable these processes? What international trade agreements or institutions?
Research and Constructive Proposal Development:Weeks Four through Seven

Students carry out the assignment beginning with "What Is" and moving to "What Could Be." (See numbers 2 and 3 in section entitled "The Assignment in Sum".) Classroom work during this time develops conceptual and theoretical frameworks to be used in research on both. Emphasis is on tools for the "What Could Be," conceptualizing proposals for social action toward ecological integrity and social justice in response to the product's impacts.

The possibilities for this assignment are difficult for students to conceptualize without illustration. I illustrate with a salmon steak as the product in question.

Illustrative findings for "What Is"
One student may explore the impacts of "farming salmon." A pound of fishmeal to feed the salmon requires five kilos of deep water fish to be processed. Those deep-water fish are "caught off the Pacific Coast of South America, where catches are declining because of overfishing." The local fisher people whose livelihoods and culture have been sustained for generations by fishing no longer are able to make a living; they are cast from sustainable livelihoods into abject poverty. Processing the catch into fishmeal in Peruvian coastal towns produces hazardous waste matter that endangers the local population. Another student might consider greenhouse gas emissions generated by transport of fishmeal to salmon and salmon to market, production of Styrofoam and plastic packaging, etc. Turning then to analysis of which of the world's people are likely to suffer first and foremost from the ensuing global warming, she/he might find that the most endangered populations are disproportionately people of color and economically impoverished. Yet a third student might focus on impacts of producing and disposing of equipment and chemicals used in "farming" and transporting salmon. Are they produced in "free trade zones" of Guatemala or maquiladoras near the Mexico/United States border? What are the ecological impacts of those production plants? Do they allow labor the right to organize?

llustrative constructive proposals for "What Could Be"
Here I illustrate using tools noted in the "Resources" section.

Presentation and Paper:Weeks Eight and Nine

The written report is a collective project supplemented by a one-page statement written by each individual group member. The collectively written report includes:
  1. Abstract (must identify the product in question).
  2. Succinct summary of research methods: describes sources used, division of labor, problems encountered, resolutions to them, etc.
  3. Findings for "What Is": describes the chain of adverse consequences uncovered.
  4. Findings for "What Could Be": describes the constructive proposal focusing on how various components of it relate to each other.
  5. Acknowledgement page: acknowledges people who have supported the work of the group or its individual members.
Parts 3 and 4 above comprise the bulk of the report.

Group presentations are in the eighth and ninth weeks. They are not a presentation of the paper per se, but rather are a creative presentation of the findings (numbers 3 and 4 in the above description of the paper). Presentations may take varied forms depending upon student creativity (i.e. digital story-telling, PowerPoint, role-playing, film projects, panel presentations, dramatized interactions in a staged venue such as an elevator or a jail cell, etc.) Students may invite guests from the university community and outside of it. Group presentations are posted on the class website and, if appropriate, on one of the university's sustainability websites.

Collaborative Knowledge Construction regarding the Two "Big Ideas": Week Ten

Week ten holds collaborative analysis and synthesis regarding the two "big ideas" around which this learning and teaching activity focuses: 1) the idea that social justice and ecological sustainability are inseparably linked, and 2) the idea that social change aimed at ecological sustainability and social justice is achieved through the interaction of behavioral change and structural change. The first of these ideas - the social justice, environmental health nexus - may be viewed through the lens of a slightly more particular sub-idea: The high ecological costs of United States citizens' over-consumptive lifestyles mediated through political-economic systems are disproportionately born by people the world over who are economically impoverished and are colors other than white.

While the primary aim of this integrative assignment is to develop in students a growing understanding of these two "big ideas," it holds an additional aim. As noted above in the Abstract, that intent is to cultivate in students a growing sense of moral agency in relationship to ecological and social ills. In this final week students reflect also on the extent to which and ways in which this aim has been accomplished.

Teaching Notes and Tips


References and Resources

Illustrative Conceptual Frameworks for Constructive Proposals Aimed at Social Change toward Eco-justice

Following are four frameworks that I use. They may be supplemented or replaced by any number of others. The essential characteristic is that the frameworks encompass and require forms of action that seek behavioral change and forms that seek structural change.
  1. Four "levels" at which social change is sought: households/individuals, corporate business, other institutions, public policy (local, state or provincial, national, international)
  2. Ten "modes" of action: legislative advocacy, economic advocacy (boycott, socially and ecologically responsible investing, socially and ecologically responsible purchasing, shareholder action), electoral advocacy, community organizing, protest, consciousness-raising/education, charitable giving, service and "development" work, religious worship and prayer, and theological and biblical education. (I ask students to construct a typology of various "modes of action." Thus the number of "modes" will vary from class to class.)
  3. Gateways to corporate change: internal culture, external culture/pressure, legal action, public policy.
  4. Ethical business frameworks such as triple bottom line.
Films Illustrating the Social Justice / Ecological Integrity Nexus

"Delta Force"

"Katrina's Children"

"Blood Diamond"


"The World according to Monsanto"

Suggested Texts

For conceptualizing the range of possibilities for impacts (consequences) of consumer products: Stuff: the Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan T. Durning.