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Confronting the ‘two-headed monster’ of environmental injustice

Scholars and community leaders gathered at an environmental justice conference to discuss the importance of community-driven research, intersectional frameworks, and institutional legitimacy.

Recordings of music created with Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican instruments and a table displaying handcrafted Indigenous art pieces set the stage for a two-day conference on environmental justice. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

Responding to global environmental change requires a more just and equitable approach to understanding the relationship between social and ecological systems, according to attendees of a recent conference at Stanford University on The Duality of Environmental Justice.

“We tend to think about the disproportionate impact of the harmful aspects of the environment – pollution, contamination, climate change, mining, and so on. I want to emphasize that the wonderful benefits from nature and the services that it provides – healthy food, clean water, clean air, recreation, spiritual life, and so on – are also subjected to this disproportionate impact,” said Rodolfo Dirzo, the associate dean for Integrative Initiatives in Environmental Justice at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and faculty organizer of the conference. This is the second year the conference has been offered and co-hosted by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Speakers presented 36 talks on March 18 and 19, outlining historical frameworks, challenging implicit assumptions, probing scholarly terminology, sharing findings and best practices, and grappling with the obstacles and opportunities ahead for environmental justice scholars.

Acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression

Multiple people who spoke at the conference identified the roots of environmental injustice in colonialism – the global occupation of Indigenous people’s lands and economic exploitation of the most vulnerable people and resources by predominantly white and Western Europeans.

Khalid Osman speaks at a podium.
Khalid Osman, a Stanford assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, discusses the link between race and clean water violations in the U.S. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

That legacy was critical in shaping modern environmental discourse, said Maxine Burkett, a professor of law and policy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She noted that some of the first authors to publish research using the term “climate justice” were lawyers and economists. These writers legitimized the use of cost-benefit analyses as the leading lens with which to evaluate harms and responsibility.

“The irony is that given the climate destabilization that we are orchestrating, the response that would preserve the international order is one that fundamentally reexamines the relationship between the Global North and South, attends to the needs of the most vulnerable, and understands the development of just responses in international law as part of this endeavor,” said Burkett.

Stanford researchers have employed a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to analyze rights and representation in the aquatic foods industry globally. Their findings, published in Nature Food as part of the Blue Food Assessment, highlighted the failure of dominant development policies to create equitable outcomes rooted in human rights. “It was really clear that pursuing wealth benefits – for example, profits or exports – often comes at the expense of pursuing welfare benefits, like nutrition or livelihoods,” said Rosamond Naylor, a Stanford professor of environmental social sciences and lead author of the assessment.

Environmental justice offers an alternative lens, leaning into the wisdom and firsthand knowledge of communities who have been finding pathways to resilience for centuries.

Delving into duality

Marginalized communities are often the first to experience the harmful impacts of global environmental change and the last to have access to beneficial services that nature provides. In this way, environmental injustice is like a “two-headed monster,” said Dirzo, who is the Bing Professor in Environmental Science in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Speakers illuminated the multiple ways in which this duality rears its ugly heads, and in doing so challenged some common models of evaluating environmental impact.

Dena Montague speaks at a podium.
Dena Montague, an environmental justice lecturer in the Earth Systems Program. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

Dena Montague, an environmental justice lecturer in the Earth Systems Program, described how Africa is one of the continents least responsible for carbon emissions and yet most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In addition to this disproportionate harm from historical emissions, Africa is also largely excluded from the benefits provided by its natural resources. The rare earth materials essential to achieving a clean energy transition are already being harvested and exported to non-African countries. 

Participants in the conference also explored how binary models can limit our ability to see how social and ecological issues are connected. Cities are vibrant cultural and population centers, often synonymous with the “concrete jungle” and human-engineered structures. Yet, urban centers also often contain habitats for native species; gardens provide a point of autonomy and food sovereignty for families; and parks foster creativity, inspiration, and rest. Chris Schell, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that the duality of environmental justice can also work positively. Urban biodiversity can act like a “shield” that provides essential services for human well-being, and in return, equitable, affordable urban housing that incorporates nature can bolster ecosystem health.

Consultation is necessary but not sufficient

In order to make progress on solutions, researchers will need to work directly with local communities on the frontlines of environmental impact.

Indigenous and Native stewardship has a millennia-old track record of sustainable environmental management, said Kyle Artelle, an assistant professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The concept of “two-eyed seeing” positions both Indigenous knowledge and Western science as necessary and central to understanding complex environmental issues. Artelle expanded on this idea and flipped the traditional hierarchy on its head, offering a pathway where Western science and scholarship centers and supports Indigenous science, sovereignty, and government. Dirzo reported on how his group exemplifies this approach by meaningfully involving Zapotec Indigenous people in the co-design and co-execution of resource management programs.

Violet Wulf-Saena
Violet Wulf-Saena, a 2024 Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford University and founder and executive director of Climate Resilient Communities, a nonprofit organization serving the San Francisco Bay Area. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

In collaborating with local and Indigenous communities, consultation is the bare minimum, speakers said. Successful partnerships are built on trust, humility, and setting clear intentions – a relationship in the truest sense of the word.

Scholars offered practical guidance for researchers looking to work directly with communities: Leverage your network to provide connections and resources for leaders beyond yourself. Be ready to engage over the long term, carrying on relationships through generations. There is no substitute for time and sweat equity.

With an increasing emphasis on community-engaged research projects in academia, multiple attendees highlighted the importance of moving toward community-driven approaches, where researchers preferentially answer the questions that communities identify for themselves.

Art, anger, activism, and beyond

Speakers highlighted a number of approaches that can help uncover insights and perspectives sometimes left out of research methods like community surveys, interviews, modeling, and mapping.

Intersectionality – how multiple aspects of social and political identity overlap to create unique dynamics – is also a key framework. While race and socioeconomic status are often at the forefront of environmental justice issues, gender, citizenship, cultural practices, religion, and health conditions, among others, can also influence the inequitable distribution of environmental harms.

In addition to Western science and Indigenous knowledge, art also serves as a way of understanding the natural world and our human relationship to it.

“Storytelling on its own is about capturing one view of the truth. But collaborative storytelling is capturing multiple views of the same truth,” said Tanvi Dutta Gupta, a master’s student in the Earth Systems Program. “It’s approaching a more complete objectivity, more complete empathy, and more complete authenticity of being in the world, which allows us to create a more environmentally just future by holding these conflicts, compromises, and agreements together.”

A yellow banner of stitched panels
In an act of collaborative storytelling over the past year the Environmental Justice Working Group invited students, faculty, and community members to create a banner of individual panels with interpretations of the question, “What does a just environmental future look like?” (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

Attendees discussed strategies to build legitimacy and institutional support for environmental justice research and scholarship, such as creating space for community, focusing on scaling out in addition to scaling up, and learning from past social movements.

Theresa Ong, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth University, emphasized the importance of mentorship for students. She described her field of agroecology as “a science, a practice, and a movement,” where it can be difficult to navigate the tensions between academia and advocacy.

Several speakers highlighted that interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration is essential – even when it requires difficult conversations. “I have come to the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability because I believe that all of my work on inequality can no longer be understood without climate change,” said Michelle Anderson, a professor at Stanford Law School, who recently joined the newly formed Environmental Social Sciences Department. “It’s a premise of environmental justice at Stanford that if we all stay in our little silos, we can’t figure these problems out.”

Despite the challenges ahead for developing environmental justice research and scholarship, speakers also acknowledged the decades and centuries of work that previous researchers and leaders – from W.E.B. Dubois to those in the Environmental Justice Working Group at Stanford – have put into laying the groundwork.

What makes it possible to do this work is to do the work in community. We can stand on the shoulders of those scholars who have documented not just the methodology but the ethics behind it.

Sibyl Diver Lecturer, Earth Systems Program

View the full list of conference speakers.

Rodolfo Dirzo is a professor of Earth system science in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Rosamond Naylor is the William Wrigley Professor in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. She is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a professor, by courtesy, of economics and of Earth system science.

Michelle Anderson is the Larry Kramer Professor of Law. She is also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute.

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