[Program begins at 0:01:21 mark]
My name is Susan Phillips, and I’m the Interim Director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability. And I wanted to welcome you all today, first by acknowledging our presence on traditional ancestral lands of the Gabrielino Tongva people, and we’re lucky enough to be able to work in partnership with them here at Pitzer College and with the Redford Conservancy, in particular. And I just wanted to say a couple things about the Conservancy. Our mission is to engage people in communities and work for socio-ecological justice and sustainability in our region and beyond. And each fall and spring, we bring distinguished speakers to our campus, or in this case, to our virtual space, our virtual campus. And the point is to engage in discussion and conversation to have symposia or panels.
I wanted to let everyone know that this will be recorded, I’m going to actually cut and paste, in case you have classes or other folks that you think would like to access this after the fact. This is the website where it will be recorded. I just put it into the chat. And actually, there’s a bunch of other wonderful events and wonderful talks on there that have been done in the past. And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to say which before we do this today, I wanted to acknowledge Brinda Sarathy, who is the Director of the Robert Redford Conservancy, and this talk with Julie Sze and Mike Mendez was totally her conception. So, I just wanted to thank her for that, and also for trusting me with the reins of the program temporarily while she’s on leave. So, thank you, Brinda. I wanted to say in terms of housekeeping-type stuff, we are going to have questions. The chat is open, you can feel free to chat. But if you do have questions that you would like to be addressed (oh, the chat is disabled in Zoom). Okay, the chat has been disabled. I will…
[John, I think we’ll be able to you…
IT Support: If you change the message from “all panelists” to “all panelists and attendees,” attendees will be able to see it. So you can just repaste the link.]
Oh, nice. Got it. Thank you. Okay, I just repasted the link. And that link is where this event will be recorded and where you also can find previous events. So, what I was going to say about the chat and how to thank you, select how to add, ask questions. During this event, we’re going to have a Q&A period, feel free to chat up a storm if you want to during the conversation. People love to do that. And it’s one of the really fun ways of building community during things like this. But in terms of if you want to have a question answered, it’ll be a little bit harder for me to follow those through the thread of the chat. So, if you could put your formal questions in the Q&A, that would be wonderful.
Okay, so without further ado, I want to introduce our speakers. And basically, Michael Mendez and Julie Sze, they’re both here to discuss their new books about climate change and environmental justice. And I’m going to take a minute to introduce them. Then I will ask them a question that kind of allows them to talk about their books. So, each of them is going to be doing a mini-kind of presentation of their book and their work and themselves. And then I will ask them more questions, we’ll kind of have a conversation. And at about 5:45 or 5:50, we’re going to open it up to the audience for question and answer. And again, I’ll be monitoring the chat as much as I can, but try to focus on the Q&A.
Michael Mendez is an assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at the University of California, Irvine. He previously served in California as a senior consultant, lobbyist and gubernatorial appointee during the passage of the state’s internationally acclaimed climate change legislation. His new book is Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement, published with Yale in 2020. And it’s about the contentious politics of incorporating environmental justice into global climate change policy. He argues that we have to incorporate local knowledge, culture and history into policymaking in order to fully address the global complexities of climate change, and the real threats facing our local communities.
Julie Sze is a professor of American Studies at UC Davis. She’s also the founding director of the Environmental Justice Project for UC Davis’s John Muir Institute for the Environment, and in that capacity is the faculty advisor for “25 Stories from the Central Valley.” Her new book is Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger published with UC Press in 2020, and it examines mobilizations and movements, from protests at Standing Rock to activism in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and her book has been called an essential primer on environmental justice and is packed with cautiously hopeful stories for the future. All the proceeds from this book are split between the Community Water Center, and UPROSE which are two environmental justice organizations. In other words, buy the book, buy both books, you’ll be doing a lot of folks a lot of good.
I want to thank you both so much for being here. And this is where the crowd normally would really start to applaud. But I’m going to move right into the first question. I wanted to start today with the title of Julie’s book, Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger. And this is the question where I’m kind of asking you to talk about yourself and your book, but linking it to this contemporary moment in terms of politics and climate emergency. In other words, how do you both, in your work separately, define this moment of danger? How do you work within that moment? And also, how did you come to the work? Is it about you, your positionality, your history, that led you to these topics? And how is that moment of danger sort of shifted and changed through time? And what shape does it take in your work? So, this is an invitation for Mike; go ahead if you’d like to share your screen and we’ll look forward to hearing what you have to say followed by Julie.
Thank you, Susan. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation. I’d like to thank the director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for extending the invitation to both myself and Julie. And it’s quite an honor to be on this esteemed panel with Julie Sze. I remember reading her very first book and now I’m on a panel with her and her third book. So, thank you for this opportunity.
So, to answer that question, I’m going to start with talking about a broad overview about my book. (Let me share my screen and make sure…. Okay, there it was full screen.) In California, we’re experiencing a major climate change crisis. In the last two months, millions of people have been impacted by the fires, blackouts, heat waves, hazardous air quality, and the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic. These are all major life events and very representative of this historic moment for social justice. Most importantly, currently, three of the 10 largest wildfires by acreage in California’s history, are currently burning. These compounding of disasters have cascading health, socio-economic impacts due to existing structural inequality. These impacts are disproportionately affecting low income people of color.
To address the climate emergency, activists and policymakers have proposed the Green New Deal at the federal level. As many of you know, the Green New Deal is a radical proposal to decarbonize our economy and address poverty and inequality. For the last two decades, local communities of color have also put state and local governments to experiment with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and approaches that also address inequality and public health. These efforts and climate experimentation, however, have been contentious and are often met with significant resistance. However, I’m also here to tell you that there’s nothing new about the Green New Deal; as I mentioned before, climate activists, environmental justice activists have been doing this for nearly 20 years. Climate change experiments in places like California, which is the basis of my research, have been all-out street fights. Environmental justice activists are often pitted against traditional environmentalists who favor the least costly mitigation solutions, which does not necessarily maximize equity and public health outcomes, let alone communities of color. These conflicts over climate change are cultural at their core. They illustrate that although the science of climate change is clear, policy decisions about how to respond to the effects remain contentious. Even when such decisions are claimed to be guided by objective knowledge. They are made and implemented through political institutions and relationships and all the competing power struggles and interests that this implies.
If we look towards the example of California, it reveals a contingent nature of climate policy. Assumptions and social political cultural attitudes that often create conflict between community understandings of local environmental conditions and the prevailing global top-down conceptualization of climate change. In California, tensions between different approaches to addressing climate change are often centered on the politics of scale, economics and race. These differences in worldviews, if unacknowledged, can lead to the breakdown of trust, even among groups that are nominally working towards the same goal, reducing the harm climate change would do to human societies and our planet. For insight into national level climate conflicts around climate change, about working towards climate change and justice, one should look to the nearly two-decades experiment of incorporating environmental justice and health equity principles into climate change policy. For environmental justice activists in California, the main threat from climate change is a disproportionate harm it causes to their bodies and the health of their communities. For them, climate change is not just about greenhouse gas models. Rather, it’s also about opposing worldviews to which policy and science is seen.
Yet California is so often seen as a modulus entity that uniformly values environmentalism and climate action. This image universalizes the idea of climate change and detaches it from its cultural settings. It also obscures how the localization of environmental policy and science within the state involves processes of public consultation and legitimacy. For example, in this 2018 book that was published by a major academic University Press, it takes a very traditional environmental narrative of California’s environmental history, which includes in the ratio of people of color and their influence in comprehensive environmental policy, (I’ve blocked out the name of the book and the authors; I don’t want to target them here), but in this nearly 300-page book that markets itself as a definitive environmental history of California, people of color are only referenced three times throughout the whole book. So, there’s this continual erasure of people of color. And therefore, my book, Climate Change from the Streets, has an explicit focus on people of color. And this book [unintelligible] people placed in power in the context of climate change inequality and trying to write in people of color and California’s environmental history.
This research originated in my public policy work for the California State Legislature during a 15-year period. This provided me valuable insight into how the interactions of governments, activists, businesses and NGOs shaped climate change policy. My research is further influenced from my experience growing up in Latino immigrant communities of Los Angeles that face multiple environmental threats. As a youth in Pacoima, I was surrounded by people resisting environmental racism, whether protesting the siting of landfills or organizing to demand cleanup of toxic sites. They sought to understand how these situations originated, to develop alternatives and to imagine new environmental futures. This has focused my work on what the conceptualization of environmental justice and climate change has meant to activists, policymakers and scholars.
The case of California is particularly productive as a climate experiment as the world’s fifth-largest economy, and the only US state to implement a comprehensive program of regulatory and market-based mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. California has consistently been at the forefront of broader national and global environmental experimentation. The state’s cap and trade program, a central market-based mechanism for ensuring carbon emissions reductions, is the third-largest in the world after the European Union and China. The program has been especially contentious in debates within California, yet supporters emphasize its global reach and cost-effectiveness and detractors criticize inequitable facts on specific local communities and demographic groups. California’s prominence in climate policy makes it an ideal place to investigate the dynamics of such disputes, and their roots in differing climate change worldviews.
My multiscale ethnographic policy approach weaves together analyses of three interconnected case studies. The first two look at climate and public health activism in two heavily impacted communities of color, Richmond and Oakland, California. The second looks at conflict over state-level carbon trading and use of its revenue for investment and low-income communities of color most harmed by air pollution. And then finally, it looks at international-local implications of forest conservation projects in the global south and Mexico and Brazil, allowed under California’s market-based climate change loss. These cases combine to reveal the contested politics of local, state, and transnational levels on which California makes climate change policy and takes action. Therefore, to summarize, my three aims of my multiscale research is to demonstrate that public health and environmental justice perspectives can be central to successful climate change policy development and implementation, offer an interdisciplinary framework for theorizing the kinds of negotiations between scales and worldviews that are involved in the development of equitable climate change policy, and finally, provide a set of findings that activists can use to negotiate with governments that legitimizes their perspectives about the differential impact of climate change on disadvantaged communities of color. So, in closing, mind-body research represents new models of engagement with climate change that makes space for alternative paradigms of environmental protection. My engagement with key stakeholders since 2006 has allowed me to critically analyze how the success of climate policy in California now depends on incorporating marginalized voices and embodied perspectives on the local and global scales.
Thank you for this opportunity, and I’ll hand it off to Julie.
Thank you, Mike and Susan. It’s really great to have a chance to chat with you. And I was really excited to be on a panel with Mike, who I’ve known for a few years. In terms of how I got here and what this book is about, and sort of how it’s all threaded together; I come from a working-class immigrant community in New York City. I had no prior experience with any conception of nature or the environment or environmental justice. For me, I came to this material much later in life. I was a college student at UC Berkeley. I took Carl Anthony’s “Race, Poverty and the Environment” class in the early 90s. And what I didn’t know at the time, was that who Carl Anthony was and how important he was. And I just was sort of lucky enough to be at Berkeley when there was this coalescing of social movements around racial justice, and this burgeoning awareness by activists at the student scale, both undergraduate and graduate students, and also at the community level in the Bay Area around environmental justice issues. So I cut my teeth, I was a student organizer that got really deep into environmental justice, while there was all this organizing against Prop 187, against the anti-affirmative action, the anti-immigrant referendum, the anti-three strikes, you’re out. And so, I was just lucky to be taking classes with Ron Takaki, and Carl Anthony. And I didn’t really even understand how I was, it was a function of time and place. But there’s nothing really about my background that would say that I have to, that would explain why I have spent 27 years working on environmental justice movements, except in so far is that the ethnic studies worldview, and my own lack of understanding of the history of the US, especially race and racism, and around settler colonialism. I retained that kind of outrage that I had when I was 18 when I learned about all these things that I had never learned about before. I knew about anti-Asian racism in a sort of generic sense because we lived it, growing up in Chinatown. But I did not know the full history within the US of how much it is built on anti-blackness and settler colonialism. And so I think, why that story matters is that I like to actually retain my anger, a) and not knowing and b) not accepting these as like just the way it is. So that kind of shapes my sensibility.
I took this work; I did student organizing with environmental justice organizations. And then I worked in New York with an environmental justice group. And I went back to grad school because organizing work and academic work, there is some overlap. But sometimes there isn’t really a space to ask certain kinds of questions because of the kind of urgency. But even as a grad student doing the research for my book, I was always, I’ve always been connected with environmental justice movements, there’s no separation for me between my research and the movements that I work with, and an alliance. So engaged scholarship and community struggles are really central to what I do and why I do it. So that’s a big preface to I just want to briefly go into this.
[Can you see my screen right now? Okay, is that visual cut off? Right there? Can you see it? No, it’s perfect. Okay.]
So yesterday was the debate. And I really liked this Jake Tapper quote afterwards, which you could read it yourself. And I posted this on Facebook. And then my friend said, “Yeah, and also a wildfire and also a pandemic.” And so I think in this question of why, what is this moment of danger right now we’re in? I wrote this book before the pandemic exploded, before this explosion of wildfires, before this precipice of this political crisis that we are on an edge of a political crisis that has not been seen in the US for a very long time. And it’s very scary, and it’s frightening. So, I think the question of crises and what is the danger right now, is only heightened by what I talked about in the book. I was also thinking about this idea of syndemic, which in a disease context, is talking about how there are interlocking, how things can make each other worse. So, coming from a disease standpoint, the medical anthropologist who coined this was talking about tuberculosis and AIDS in African American communities. There are these things that pile on and make things worse. And in a lot of ways, I was thinking about this, because I remember the moment, I remember the moment when environmental racism was made clear to me, and which took my breath away. Because for me, and I’m old enough, that there wasn’t GIS, there wasn’t this kind of cool visualizations that happened, it was still the old school transparencies. And so I remember this transparency of race and lead poisoning, and asthma, and I don’t remember school absences, whatever it was; stuff that now, I think we understand that it exists.
But in the early 90s, it was much more like you have to empirically prove it was true. But I remember that moment going, Oh, my God, you know, this is horrendous, and I’ve always wanted to understand why. And I think that idea of this syndemic or these interlocking conditions, is the basic framework, as Michael indicated, of what environmental justice offers. The environmental justice movement always said there was no separation between racism and environmental inequality; there was no separation between these different problems. And I think this moment now really makes that so clear to anybody who didn’t know, or anybody who cares. And so, you could see this in the wildfires and the climate crisis. And Michael’s done some important work on this, about how the conditions of wildfire hit the people who are already burdened the most like farmworkers, for example.
I’d like to put these up now, too, because this is like a new slide for me. Some of this I just learned, like the first one, that the US is the single greatest contributor to cumulative carbon emissions since 1750. So, 25% of global emissions comes from the US. I’m a professor of American Studies. So, thinking about what that means from a US context, and what is the weight of our responsibility, being in an institution that’s based in the US. Before, until 1882, it is the UK because of colonialism. Many of you know this already but it’s worth making very clear. 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions. And further, if you want to drill down, 20 firms are responsible for one third of global emissions. So that question of disproportionality, that question of power, is very much a core analytic for the environmental justice movement. Less than 5% of the world’s population is in the US, but a vastly disproportionate number of the world’s incarcerated people are here. Incredible racial disparities for Black, Latinx, and indigenous people; highest rates of police killings, four times higher than the next highest, which is Canada. America, the US owns, people in the US own 45% of the world’s privately-held firearms. And now the US has 25% of the world’s COVID deaths, incredibly racially disproportionate deaths, rates of death in Black and Latino populations. I think that number is now down to 20%. But my point is about the question of disproportionality both within the US context, but also further in without, within the US, there’s racial disproportionality.
So, I like to put this together because I think this at least gets to your question, what’s at stake? What are the dangers we face right now? So, this book, Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger comes from the American Studies Now series, which are these short, teachable books. And I think I wrote this book, mostly as a way to synthesize a lot of the different movements that people know about. So as opposed to the early 90s, where there was this step of empirical documentation, now, because of social media, many more people will say, oh, I know Standing Rock, or they’ve heard of what happened in Flint, or so on. But at the same time, there’s so much information that it can be hard to kind of go through or understand exactly what happened and when. So, I wrote this as a short kind of primer for people around these issues of environmental justice, and you mentioned already, the royalties go to two organizations that I work with. UPROSE is my collaborator in New York that I’ve worked with for 27 years.
So, the book asks a simple question: what crossroads and moment are we in? And what might we learn from environmental justice in our moment of danger? And I’ll actually get to the second question, I think, in the Q&A. But just to be clear, for me, the moment of danger is many things that are interwoven, that cannot be separated, they’re threaded together. That’s anti-immigrationism, anti-refugee politics, there’s a national political authoritarianism. There’s militarized security discourse, racist public policies, regressive gender policies, and climate change, denial and hostility. And this is not unique to the US. This is true in the US, but it’s also true in the Philippines, India, Brazil, Poland and Hungary. So, I wanted to both talk about the particular US dangers, because of the weight of the US-based multinationals, but also understand what’s happening in the US within this broader global context. And so, the book is structured (it’s very short book), as a combination of key words and case studies. So the first chapter looks at Standing Rock and anti-pipeline protests, through the framework, through key words like settler colonialism, extraction, gender violence, and each chapter also has an environmental justice group to anchor, because a lot of the book is also about in the weight of all this danger, there’s still always resistance and that’s the most important lesson to take away. That’s the non-naive, radical hope to leave with.
The second chapter looks at water racism, injustice, and injustice looking at Flint and the Central Valley region of California, and to look at those two case studies together, through understanding the politics of privatization and neoliberalism and the organization there is a community water center. The last chapter looks at disasters, these kind of very excessive disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Maria, climate justice activism in Kivalina and Alaska. Kivalina is one of 400 Arctic native villages that are currently facing sea level rise and have to be relocated. Kivalina is not exceptional. But it is important because they sued 25 oil and gas companies for the damage from their climate emissions. The lawsuit got thrown out because it was seen as not a legal issue but a political one.
So again, I think, you know what Mike was pointing to environmental justice, does it accept those separations? It accepts that these things are deeply interconnected. Whereas the traditional framework might say, oh, well, that’s legal, that’s political, that’s public health, that’s housing. Environmental justice and justice movements do not accept those boundaries. The chapter also focuses on radical hope and disasters through thinking about restorative environmental justice. And the anchor organization in that chapter is UPROSE in New York, and their leadership in something called the Climate Justice Alliance and the idea of just transition, which is connected to what Mike was talking about as well. Of the argument of the book is that environmental justice are freedom struggles. And by freedom struggles, I mean, connected to the struggles of the Black radical tradition, freedom struggles in terms of decolonizing movements, they’re particularly significant now because the threats that they have been fighting are even more intense. So, I guess in some ways, you could say all of us now are feeling like communities that have been victims to environmental racism. We’re getting to all the shit that we never used to have to, if you didn’t grow up in these communities, you didn’t have to think about. And maybe that’s shocking to some people, maybe it’s normal to others. But I think as more of us feel the burden of all of this, like the wildfire smoke and the heat wave and the pandemic, it behooves us to look at the lessons of organizers who have been fighting on those multiple fronts for a very long time. Environmental justice as a framework and as a movement is intersectional. And I really appreciate my attention to the body and thinking about multi-scaler approaches, and environmental justice movements across time and space. So, the analytic that people are talking about sometimes, like in Kivalina, they talk about the Doctrine of Discovery and the problem of timescale being from colonialism and contact. So anyway, that’s all I wanted to say, and then we’ll move it over to questions.
Great, thank you so much for those wonderful kinds of summaries, and just encapsulating all of those things. One of the things that came up in a previous talk that we had a couple of weeks ago, as part of our Racial Justice Initiative, is something that I always have in my mind, as well, which you’ve kind of touched on here, which is that if you protect the, if you work to include and protect the most vulnerable people and the most vulnerable places, then you really will have protected everyone. If you think about the idea of breath, I’ve been thinking a lot about just the idea of breathing right now, and all the things that you’re both bringing up about. That kind of cross sectional resonance, the idea of I can’t breathe, starting with the idea of police violence, and then, of course, asthma rates due to the particulate matter, the idea of people across the country due to COVID in ventilators, that this attacks the lungs. And then, of course, in California in particular, in the West, the idea of rampant wildfires. And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the right to breathe as a kind of foundational concept. And then, of course, I know a lot of people who are really interested in mindfulness, and they’re like, you just have to come back to your breath. And, and it’s like that foundation is somehow really compromised. And I think that you both do a wonderful job of really talking about that intersectionality.
And one of the questions I guess I have for you is, you’re two scholars and you work, in a sense, on different, on the same issues in a way, but just have really, really different approaches. And so, I wanted to hear you both. And you started to touch on this a little bit, Julie, in terms of talking about Mike’s work and the embodiment. But to talk about how do you understand that difference in each other’s work? And how do you value the work that the other one does? If you have any key questions for the other person, like what would they be in terms of why they approach things, who are they talking to, who’s the audience? What are the conceptualizations that really formulate, what it is that makes a scholar, a public scholar? In that sense, what you both are are activist scholars, engaged scholars and public scholars in different ways. So just wanted to throw that out there for either of you to address. Maybe Mike, because Julie’s just been talking you, can you start not to put you…
Sure, thank you for that question. And I think what I gain most from Julie’s work and other colleagues like David Pellow, is at this understanding of how do you move the environmental justice on theories, ideas and frameworks to the next level? And they’re part of a new generation, second generation of environmental justice scholars that are looking at what’s called Critical Environmental Justice Study. It’s what Julie and, Susan, what you talked about: looking at multiple scales and understanding, move beyond a very bounded field site. Traditional environmental justice has been focused on hazardous waste dumps, a very localized type of injustice or environmental racism, if you will. But understanding more of the structural, political, social and economic structures that create that injustice, and that part in Pacoima and Bronx, New York, is part of it. To solve a local problem, you often have to jump to different policy scales to resolve it and move constantly between those areas. And that’s what I do in my book. And what I’ve learned from people like Julie and David Pellow, about that is really understanding that multiple scales and how these environmental justice groups are not bounded either by space or time and that they’re moving simultaneously. But from the local scale, to the regional, statewide on to the national and then even to the United Nations and other countries.
And a second aspect that I really appreciate, this critical environmental justice scholars focus again is on intersectionality. And looking at the ways in which gender, race, income, immigration status, sexuality, intersect to create disparate and new forms of impacts. And these in terms of environmental impacts, climate change impacts or disaster impacts, that’s where my research now is going to that more intersectional approach. Julie mentioned a new research project I have on looking at undocumented, Latino and indigenous migrants in California, and their impact with wildfires. And I just published an article in one of the leading on geography journals, Geoforum, with community organizers. So this is a top tier journal in geography and I co-wrote it with them. They provided great field influence, and it gave them an opportunity to speak for themselves as experts in their own right, both in academic terms to the media. And now in sort of these policy briefings, we’re doing policy briefings up and down the state now, the governor’s office, local government, and county offices, and we’re going to even do a joint webinar with the United Nations and the International Organization on Migration. So that’s another aspect that I appreciate from the work.
Yeah, I think a question about breathing and what the wildfires bring up is really important. My colleague, Lindsey Dylan and I wrote an article about asthma and police killings, and we looked at the Eric Garner killing in New York, and on a parallel one, based on her 15-year engagement at Hunter’s Point. And we talk, we use a lot of things that had that thing about colonialism, like impinges upon your ability to breathe, and that showed up a lot in the police, anti-police killing organizing; you see that I can’t breathe, everywhere, like with the NBA players, and so on. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And the New York Times did an overview and they I think they found it was like over 130 police killings where the person who was being killed said I can’t breathe. They have this incredible report that documents that. Also, in the book, I talk about that phrase, I can’t breathe, because it’s also what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was killed by agents of the Saudi government, which is an oil petro-oligarchy in Istanbul. And I talk about this, there’s a film called “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change” by Josh Fox, and you know, he’s the director who did “Gasland.” But he has this incredible point where he talks about what does it mean, what can’t you do when you can’t breathe? Or what can you do when you can breathe? And he talks about singing, and dancing and love. And so, I’ve been trying to think about what that idea of what is it that people in the environmental justice movement want? And so at the very beginning, I don’t know if you know, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or something, but the ability to have life continue is important, obviously, and then not beyond that, but in addition to that, there is a sort of positive kind of freedom that isn’t even, we can’t even imagine what that looks like, to be free from oil and to be free of capitalism and to be free of white supremacy.
And so the book also is trying, or I’m trying to think about freedom in both the not just the negative sense, but like the positive sense of what does it mean to imagine differently, and so that’s why I think it’s important to do all of the different levels of work. The policy translation work that moves, movement values into the state of California, that’s incredibly important. And there’s also work that goes on culturally in literature through Octavia Butler’s work, and the ways to imagine that are more in the sort of cultural literary sphere. And my thing is that I don’t really think of these as separate domains, but they’re all part of the same struggle, and so that everybody does their thing. And we need this work in every way, in all translation work possible. And I’m really inspired by Elizabeth Yeampierre’s work in UPROSE. It’s community-based, but they were big leaders in the people’s Climate March. And they’re really involved in thinking about climate justice, both in the US, network within the US, but also globally. And so, it’s a big task but I think, for this big a task, we need as many people on deck to do it, however it looks, and not to prioritize one at the expense of another approach.
Yeah, I also think that one of the things I tell my students a lot is work where you work best. Find your best self in the work and figure out if you like numbers and data, do that work, but deploy it in the service of social justice and social change and environmental justice. Others have a different thing. I wonder if you both think that in terms of transformational moments, it’s a moment of danger, right? But it’s also a moment of immense transformation right now. And those two things, kind of like conflict and collaboration in your book, Mike, they’re very closely intertwined, this idea of the incredible danger of this moment, but also the incredible promise. So we’re on the cusp of something, that we’re on the cusp of, and I’m not ever sure whether to think about, “Oh, we’ve got 10 years,” is that helpful to say 10 years? Or is it just going to disengage a lot of people; what happens after year 10? Do we just throw up our hands? So, I just think there’s this kind of like razor’s edge that we’re on right now, where, according to science, we haven’t necessarily passed the point of no return. But we definitely need to act now and quickly. And I do see the two, not to make it into an opposition, but sort of the policy work, working kind of in tandem with broader changes in conceptualization. How do we even conceive of, should we even have a term for nature, or should it be something else? How do we conceive of worlds beyond capitalism? So yes, it’s a cliché to say it now. But why is it easier to envision the end of the world, rather than to envision the end of capitalism? And I’d like to open that to you as a question. And also, to ask you, if you have any favorite examples of what you think of as a healthy post-capitalist type of space that could exist? What would be in that space for you? If even if you haven’t thought about it, but think about what would you populate it with? Julie, do you want to start?
Sure, the last chapter of my book talks about, actually asked that question, and that’s why I talk a lot in that chapter about narratives and storytelling. And I talked about “Sorry to Bother You,” that film, which I think is an important, I think culture and cultural production, is important in terms of shaping the terrain of both critique, but also possibility. I am very impacted by the writing of Rebecca Solnit, which I think many of us are, but she had a piece that she called “’The impossible has already happened’: what coronavirus can teach us about hope.” And I think that in that piece, she talks about these kinds of big questions, which I think this is what… I always hate using the crisis opportunity language because then you end up sounding like a, you know, like a university administrator, or like a government official, do you know what I mean? Like the crisis lets us just… so I don’t mean it in that neoliberal sense of let’s use this as an opportunity to cut, or to get rid of things. But I think for me, I have been struck by thinking of abolitionism, and abolitionist practice around policing and defunding the police, to think about how those ideas are being leveraged in terms of the idea of building something different and building new.
And so in Rebecca Solnit’s piece, she talks about this idea of crisis, crossroads and disasters, and those are her key words. But she also ends the piece talking about freedom and what those moments of extreme danger are when these amazing things emerge. And that’s the topic of one of her books, where she looks at disasters and so on, these places where mutual aid and solidarity just sort of happens organically, like after the 1906 earthquake, or so on. So, I think there are examples, but I think we also have to make them. And that’s where, that’s what, that’s the moment we’re in. And I think the crisis has forced us to look at gigantic terms that usually we don’t really think about or gigantic questions like, what’s the point of an economy? What’s the point of a government? And I think one of the things that the crisis did was explode the idea that there wasn’t money. Like the first stimulus, and all the inequities in it, it kind of blew apart the economic argument about “Well, we don’t have money for a transition” and so on. And so, I think we need to think about this moment, there are lots of on-the-ground climate justice communities that are talking about this as a lever point, or having more people who, in different political moments, will just be kind of like, everything’s kind of fine. I’m kind of fine the way it is. And so, I’ve always I use Gramshi a lot in the book, and so I use this quote about, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” And so it’s kind of horrible. It’s like a horrible way to live in the moment of monsters. But on the other hand, we don’t really have a choice and other people have lived through those moments of monsters, or annihilation, or transformations in their way of life. And so, for me, the only thing that helps me is to connect with people who share the values of social justice and environmental justice, and to think with those folks and to build community. So not to be too Pollyannish about it, but I think that we really have to be careful not to go into some sort of nihilistic spiral about “We only have two years left, and our decarbonization window is closing.” And it’s sort of like the mental abuse that we had yesterday from the debate. If you’re so demoralized, you’re just like, what’s the point? You know what I mean? That’s also a political stance, too. I think what organizers give us and what movements give us is clarity, and insistence. And that’s actually the main lesson from the book.
Yeah, that’s beautiful. And if you haven’t read this book, you should read it. The thing I also love about it is it’s short. I love those short books, because it’s a really wonderful kind of… and not… I’ve written a long book. So don’t take… I always aspire to write a short one. But I think for that reason, it’s accessible. And it’s right there and the argument is right there. And it’s very easy to just immerse yourself in it in a short period of time, which I think can be transformational, kind of in a personal way. Mike, do you want to follow up with that question? I’m going to actually urge the audience, we have a couple of questions in the Q&A. I would urge folks in the audience if there are more questions to please put them in and we’ll get started, maybe after Mike weighs in on this part of the conversation.
I would agree with everything that Julie would say, I think we’re at an historic moment. These compounding of disasters and issues with racial justice, it’s really creating ruptures in our society, where we can really sit back, we’ll stand back ,that is, and reflect on what we want our society to look like. And really coming to terms and no longer being able to look the other way of these sacrifice zones and, or issues of police brutality or sacrifice zones in terms of environmental stabilization, and understanding that if we don’t have a sustainable society, we continually have these sacrifice zones where dumping in all the environmental hazards and environmental [unintelligible] that eventually through a feedback loop, an assistance-based approach is going to reach the rest of society, and no longer will be sustainable. So, I would agree with Julie in terms of social movements; social movements are putting up political pressure. You can have the best policy report, the best data out there proving your disproportionate impact or the solution that you want. But without any political exercise, exerting political power, and building coalitions that will never come into manifestation. So right now, we’re writing the momentum to push forward for the type of society that we want.
Great, I’m going to go ahead and open it up to questions. I think that the first question we have is from Wilfredo Bautista, “Where do you see the EJ movement globally? Thinking about Puerto Rico and abroad in how the Black Lives Matter movement may be opening new avenues to EJ globally and locally?” So does anybody want to tackle that one?
Sorry, somebody asked me about a statistic of where I got that number from. So, I was in the middle of cutting and pasting, I get distracted,
I think know what I would rather we… I mean, I would like…
I actually would rather answer, I let myself get distracted by trying to be… I knew someone was going ask me the stat and here I have it. I will put it in the chat.
And we can address it live if you want to stop.
Alright, so I think the environmental justice movement is working in partnership and collaboration with people all around the world. I think this is one of the amazing things about the moment we’re in is that the movements themselves are making, are building solidarity across struggles. And so the book talks about how people in Flint went to Standing Rock, for example, and when I think about what is happening now, and where it comes from, I was talking to my husband, who is a political journalist, and I was telling him, life was so much better before the internet, because I’m old enough that I can remember when the internet started, and stuff. And so the internet and conspiracy theories, and all of the ways that there’s, not to be too naive about it too, because obviously, the technology can enable organizing across right wing groups, and for right wing groups to organize. And that’s, you see that very clearly as well. But on the other side, groups who have are fighting similar struggles, or similar actors are networking, globally, and they did before the internet, but the internet allows there to be easier connection before that. And so, I think that there are coalitions after in Puerto Rico, that are very involved with these growth movements in Latin America. And so, movements, justice movements are always very capacious in their geographic scale, and in their temporal scale.
And so, the Punta Gente is a coalition after Maria that focuses on climate transition, and sort of what food justice look like, post-Maria, on the island. And so, I think that there are a lot of examples that are out there. The internet also enables more knowledge to be shared about the struggles that people are facing, and also the histories behind them. And so part of what the goal of the book was that when something happens like Standing Rock, now people can share these like, syllabi, where they’ll explain a lot of history or what happened after in Charleston when Dylan Roof went in and killed nine black churchgoers. So there are all these incredible resources that are being available, that made available, but that most people aren’t going to sit and read them all, and so I wanted to synthesize it, but also just give people a taste of like, all of the work that justice movements are doing on the ground, which is pretty vast. So, climate justice, the indigenous environmental network is involved with global indigenous struggles, their network with folks out in Latin America, and also, indigenous groups in Europe. And so, there’s just so many examples, and that’s, without… I always have to answer this question of the internet allows that and it also allows something like much darker. So, what we need is the clarity to kind of cut through that.
Mike, do you want to talk a little bit about Chiapas, or…
So that’s specifically a question that comes up in my book in Chapter Six that looks at these trends, local movements, that California Environmental Justice groups, as I mentioned, on this analysis of a multi-scale, how these activist groups are moving between policy, geography scales and timescales as well. And understanding that these carbon trading markets that have aspirations to become global markets have implications for places like Mexico and Brazil. And I talked about that chapter and really aim to show the power of these trends, local movements, how concept of environmental justice, activists of environmental justice in California, were able to work with indigenous rights groups in Mexico and Brazil, that were both confronting issues of environmental impact, dispossession of lands, and issues of environmental justice and how they came together in commonality to build trust. Understanding that well, these were both justice issues, the California justice issue, and in a global south justice issue, they were quite different in the context on, were different and how they came to terms with that. So we see this, we see this at the United Nations, we see this as other types of global platforms where environmental justice groups, indigenous tribes, from the United States and other groups, confronting environmental injustice are collaborating, both on the internet and in these global platforms, and its helping create new concepts that are traveling throughout the globe.
Great. Thank you so much for that. Let’s move to the next question, which actually mirrors a question I was going to ask you anyway. This is from Thomas Kim, “What models of practice are out there to guide young people toward radical action, consistent with the themes of the session? Put differently, what specific campaigns or organizations are out there that you would point to at this moment?” And I would say, adding to that, what advice would you give, like college-age students, in terms of what they can do to make a difference, and they’re dealing with a very grave world, all of our children are actually, regardless of age. I don’t think that the youngest of children are really insulated from anything. So, I’d be curious to know what your, how you would give students advice, and what models of practice you think are out there to guide people toward action, making a difference?
I would say, get to know some of the key community organizations working on environmental, if you’re interested in environmental or social justice issues, looking at what are the organizations in their community, and do the work. Reach out to them, build a relationship with them, volunteer your time, donate either your time or your resources to help enact some of those campaigns. I always encourage students that are interested in environmental justice work to have a form of reciprocity. If they’re pursuing their education and doing a research paper and they’re studying these issues, that not only are they interviewing these people, are reading about them, that’s just not enough. But you also have to have a reciprocity and ensure that what you’re doing also benefits them. And you’re creating a product, you’re, again, doing other types of work that directly helps the movement. We see this with the Sunrise Movement that’s been bringing in a more of an intergenerational resurgence into the environmental justice and climate justice movements, important process. But there’s also long-established organizations such as UPROSE that Julie mentioned, that are there that want to continue and have those relationships. So, there’s a lot of organizations now that I would encourage people to find out that are out there, specifically in your own backyard.
Yeah, I think that Mike hit on a lot of really good examples. I think the way you framed the question of what advice can I give, and I think actually, we’re in a really different moment where I learn as much from my students, and their ability to learn and connect things. It is incredible what is happening now. And it’s also an incredible psychological burden as well. Because I think that I was, for example, I remember when I was working in New York, I never knew about climate change. That wasn’t a thing that we understood because the oil and gas companies had basically suppressed it for decades. But I didn’t know about climate change. And I remember reading Hurricane Katrina, from the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Coalition, they had done a fact sheet about what a hurricane would do in New Orleans, what a hurricane, a major disaster event, it was 1997. Katrina was in 2005. And I remember reading it and thinking, oh, my God, this is not real. This can’t happen. And, of course, I was treating it like a dystopian novel, when actually the reality that we’re in is that we’re all in a dystopian novel where you’ve seen those memes of “Octavia Butler tried to warn us,” that kind of thing. And so, I think I don’t understand what it’s like to be a young person to not have, to grow up with this and how it shapes your sense of hope and futurity. I don’t understand that. And so, it’s hard for me to give advice, because it’s a very different psychological kind of landscape. The only advice I could say is that there are people who have been fighting for a long time and at some point, you make a choice to fight with them. The fights are going to happen, whether you opt out or not. So, you throw down on a side, and you do whatever that is, whatever you can.
That said, there are politics of working with community-based organizations, they’re sort of issues around expertise and that kind of thing, which can be questions that are tied to educational privilege, sometimes they’re tied to class, sometimes they’re tied to race. And so, I think, to do work collaboratively with a community-based organization or a tribe, for example, they have a lot of students who want to work with them. But sometimes… I remember when I was directing the Environmental Justice Project with Beth, which Beth Middleton now directs, we did this gathering, and the head of this tribe was like, if you start this, you are with us forever. And so, this, if you want to engage, it is a lifelong engagement. And I think that can be scary sometimes for people, but on the other hand, we’re in this all in for the lifetime anyway. So, I think it’s better to have a sense of clarity in the stakes. And I’m really impacted. I really like this book by my colleague, Sarah Jacquette Ray, it’s called A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet. And she talks a lot about what climate change for the Gen Z generation looks like, and sort of how to not fall into a politics of despair, but around sort of principled opposition to extreme economic concentration, extreme carbon, the harms from climate change, and so on. So, I think that’s why I wanted to share the stats, because I think there’s that sense always of, oh, this is a huge meta scale problem, and we can’t do anything about it. Well, of course we can, because it had a history and their ages, and they’re unequally distributed. So if we keep our focus on what the fights are, and who the targets are, oil and gas companies, for example, and by extension, what does it mean to have a government that, where the Environmental Protection Agency is captured by oil and gas companies? If we keep our focus on what the stakes are, then you can keep yourself from going into that nihilistic spiral.
So, I would just, use that as a chance to reframe the question, which is, I don’t really have advice to give, because I have a different set of life experiences, why I feel my role as a professor right now is to support the struggles and aspirations of a generation of people who are facing things without any innocence that I was allowed to sort of have because by virtue of my age. I’m Gen Z, by the way, I’m not a boomer. My kids always say, okay, Boomer, and I’m not a boomer, not to oversimplify the generational argument. But I do think that there’s something unique for young people now. And so also part of the book is talking to myself at different moments, like talking to myself when I was like, Oh, this thing can happen in Hurricane Katrina. Well, now it’s happened many times, not just with Maria, but Harvey and Sandy and so on. So, our life now is devoid of innocence, of violence, whether that’s environmental violence, or police violence or social violence, and we’re about to see a lot more overt violence right now, political violence. On a scale that is not exceptional, but it is rare and the US historically has been insulated for many of our lives. And so what we need to understand is all of the different struggles of people in the US, so learning about the history of COINTELPRO in the US is helpful to understanding the moment we’re in, understanding the policing of social movements, and understanding what they look like in other places the world. We cannot have an innocence, which, as people in the US we’ve been (and I’m generalizing), have been allowed sometimes to have, and that moment is gone. That moment is like the band aid being stripped off. So, the question is, what do you do? And that’s the organizing question.
What do you do? There’s a couple more questions here, one of ones I had wanted to ask you both was really was about the idea of the streets and protest, and what it means to occupy the streets and really, ultimately, it’s about land and control over land. So, there’s definitely, I think, embedded questions in all this that lead in many different directions. And so, as people interested in making change, you just need to pick one, and just go. I think that this question, for me, at least, the question of expertise, is really, really important. Don’t go in there thinking you’ve got the answers, recognize that the people who are close to the problem are the closest ones to the solution, and they’re the experts, like Mike was saying earlier as well.
We have another question: “Outside of academia, what key disciplines do you see as having the potential to accelerate a sustainable society?” There’s another question about “Cap and trade has been a successful economic approach to limit global greenhouse gas emissions in California, but it is subject to manipulation and injustices, and suggest another approach about a carbon fee.”
And so, I don’t know if you want to tackle both of those in tandem? You know, academia is made up of disciplines, and I’m pretty sure what the question might mean, like what realms of work, maybe as opposed to disciplines, have the potential to accelerate a sustainable society?
One of the key arguments that I make in the book is that climate change, and this conflict over climate change, is a cultural and a political question. It’s not a scientific one; we have the science; we know the science is about the implementation. And then you, Julie, mentioned a little bit about that innocence that we had before. And now, it’s in your face. But I would also argue that for many people, they ignore it, they have their own privilege. And they’re benefiting from the current economic system, or the capitalistic system, and so they’re quite fine with that. And they don’t see that or don’t relate to that. So, it really does take political processes, political power, organizing social movements. So, I say that growing up in the environmental justice community, I was turning towards more politics and public policy, because I wanted to be involved in a field, in a profession that could have more macro and micro structural changes. And I saw that I’d rather be at the seat of power next to that power with policymakers and other types of experts and representing the communities that have environmental justice and be able to do that. So that’s why I picked that. I think everyone has, as Julie mentioned, everyone has a different path. But I was more drawn to that political public policy realm. And the importance, another key theme in the book, it’s important, the inside-outside strategy among social movements. You need the agitators, you need the people protesting you, the people creating all this noise, needed noise, but you also need people in these agencies, in the legislature, in Congress that are writing these bills or that know the maneuvers.
So we see that in California, there’s this unique inside-outside where you have activists now that were diehard activists, that are in the governor’s office now or at Cal EPA as assistant secretary, or on powerful regulatory agencies such as the Public Utilities Commission, the State Water Board, and how this or the Air Resources Board, how this has changed the dynamic. I started my career in the legislature in 2003. And to see that progression from all-white male, mostly white male-dominated environmental movement, to having women of color, particularly Latino women, Latino men, African Americans, writing some of the key legislation, almost two-thirds of the key legislations revolving around climate change were written by a person of color; that’s changing a little bit. But in the last 15 years, people of color have been leading that charge, that unique inside-outside, so that’s when I saw that a book about that marketed itself as a definitive history of California’s contemporary environmental movement. I was so angered by it, that people of color were just a footnote, when people of color have been leading the charge. But constantly, the mainstream environmental movement oftentimes doesn’t want to acknowledge that. Neither did they want to talk about the environmental racism, or the conflicts that have happened in California’s climate change programs. That’s why the subtitle of my book is “conflict and collaboration.” And quite frankly, I get a lot of pushback by environmentalists, even environmental scholars that are wedded to those market-based systems such as cap and trade and believe in the Holy Gospel of cap and trade as ultimate savior. They see talking about these fights and these infights within California, who the global leader on this, kind of detracts from that message; puts California back; but we need to honor that history. Understanding why these conflicts and tensions exist and continue to exist, otherwise, we’re not going to have any changes, any structural changes that we see.
We just have a couple minutes left, I wanted to note that Zoe put a link to the Sunrise Movement for Claremont. Monica Mahoney has a question about activism taking place virtually and the sort of minimization of how does the lack of available public space in marginalized communities contribute to the suppression of voices? And I think, Julie, you were touching a little bit on this when you were talking about the power of the internet and the power of organizing in virtual spaces, kind of leading to all kinds of outcomes as well. Does anybody want to talk about that just sort of as our last thing? And our very last question is, “What are some leverage points we see as being important to target in order to tackle the political and social systems and institutions that have spurred the entire environmental justice movement?” So thinking in terms of leverage points, if we could maybe just keep those questions in mind, if you have just the last thing that you’d like to say to the audience, or to kind of sum up your work today. I want to thank, obviously, members of the audience for contributing these questions. But I do want to give Mike and Julia the ability to kind of to wrap up a bit.
I just wanted to acknowledge Mike’s point about more people, some people, are still comfortable, but I think the question is, “Are more people becoming less comfortable?” And that to me, not being someone who is an empiricist, it certainly seems that way. Maybe I don’t know if that’s actually true. I don’t know. But I think that we are in a really big moment and so we can’t keep on doing the things that we’ve done. Because this is where the time running out thing does feel, is real. And so, I think that we need to think about the urgency of the moment. And so this other book I wrote, which is much more in environmental studies and sustainability collection, is really I do think that there’s more interest in thinking of these questions of social justice interdisciplinarity crossing sectors, than there has been in, in the 16 years I’ve been a faculty member. So, more people are trying to understand, what does that mean for my work, so my colleagues who have been sort of able to think about teaching environmental policy, but never teaching environmental justice? They have to now take it seriously, in the state of California, you have to take it seriously. I would argue you have to take it even more seriously now in the US, even as it’s being erased and attacked at the federal level. And so, I think we all have a role to play and we’re all different people at different times. Sometimes we’re students, sometimes we’re teachers, we’re all members of the public, we’re all consumers, but we’re also all citizens. And so those are all (and I don’t mean citizens in like the documentation sense of citizens), we’re members of a community and we have kinship with others and that is a thing that is other beings, non-human beings and animals and ecosystems. And that’s actually a natural, I think, a universal thing that gets taken away kind of the more professionalized we get. And I think that there is something, I have to believe that my hopefulness is that there is something that’s very core for many people across many traditions, that believes in empathy and kinship with others. And so that’s sort of how I feel like the moment we’re in is that there’s this feeling of what’s actually, what feels like most people have, but I don’t know, maybe that’s not true. We’ll see.
No, I agree, I actually cling to that as a core thing, as well. And I do think it is almost the definition of being human, so I do think that that’s an important one. Mike?
I thank you for again, thank you for this opportunity to present my book and to have this very dynamic and engaging conversation with Julie and Susan and everyone out there. Thank you for that opportunity. We are in this climate emergency and climate crisis. We see California, Texas and Florida are at the forefront of the climate crisis. We have a compounding of disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic. And hopefully, these compounding disasters are trigger points, and political science and public health, they often talk about these trigger events, that some catastrophe happens. And then there’s major structural changes in policy and infrastructure that normally would not have occurred absent a crisis. So perhaps when I was having a conversation with someone about the climate crisis, and it’s also important to note that before, you would have people of the privileged classes to be able to get away from and protect themselves and safeguard themselves from floods, sea level rise, wildfires, and go away. But with the lockdowns and COVID-19, you can’t run away with influence anymore. It’s these disasters are now following even the wealthy. So no longer you can go into the quote, unquote, your ivory tower or your castle, or your summer home, like outside of England, or even to Aspen or someplace like that, that these climate disasters are following. So hopefully, that’s sort of a trigger that’ll have a multiplier effect for changes in our society. So, thank you again for the opportunity. But I am hopeful that the social movements, the younger generations, are able to continue the fight and put a strong forward and intergenerational approach and strategies to address the climate crisis or climate emergency. Thank you.
Thank you so much to Julie Sze and Michael Mendez. I’m so pleased to have them. I wanted to also thank Stephanie Estrada from Communications, as well as John Morgan and Jessica Levy from our IT department for helping to set this up. And thanks to the audience for your wonderful questions. I hope everyone has a wonderful evening. And for Michael and Julia, I put in a chat to you, the next place where we’re going. Okay, thank you so much, everyone. Bye.