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David Pellow describes environmental injustices and need for action in inaugural dean’s lecture

A new dean’s lecture series through the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability launched Dec. 6 with a conversation on environmental justice by David Pellow, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A screen shot of the Zoom recording of David Pellow, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, speaking at Munzer Auditorium on Dec. 6. (Image courtesy of Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability)

Faculty, staff, students, and postdoctoral researchers filed into Munzer Auditorium on Dec. 6 to hear an overview of environmental justice and injustice from David Pellow, Dehlsen Chair and Professor of Environmental Studies and director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

The conversation spanned public health, environmental health, social inequities, and more, providing the audience with an introductory understanding of how, when, and where policies and social movements have shaped environmental realities for communities across the U.S. In addition to in-person attendees, many watched the lecture on a Zoom livestream.

Following a traditional land acknowledgement, Rev. Dr. Sakena Young-Scaggs, senior associate dean for religious and spiritual life and pastor of Memorial Church, presented Arun Majumdar, who announced the lecture series last summer after being named inaugural dean of the Doerr School of Sustainability that launched this fall. 

The goal of the series is to bring together scholars and thought leaders for discussion regarding the frontiers of research, education, practice, and impact related to an area or theme in sustainability that would help us better understand the topic and inspire us to do more, Majumdar wrote in an email to the school. The planning committee was led by Rodolfo Dirzo, who is associate dean for environmental justice on a team led by Senior Associate Dean for Integrative Initiatives Scott Fendorf. Future talks in the dean’s lecture series are scheduled for Feb. 8 and April 7-8.

“The purpose of the dean’s lecture series is to identify those topics that are cross-cutting, that do not fit well in a single department,” Majumdar said. “It’s also an admission that we don't know all the things, all the issues we need to learn, and that requires us to bring together eminent scholars and thought leaders.”

Majumdar discussed the school’s intention to question and reimagine traditional academia to address the immense challenges of climate change. 

“Today’s talk – and this broader lecture series – is critical to this effort,” Majumdar said. “By elevating environmental justice in all our work, we will make the progress that is critical to ensuring a livable planet.”

Pellow, a widely published author who teaches courses on social change, movements and environmental justice, sustainability, and social inequality at UC Santa Barbara, began his talk by describing the small town of Oxnard, a majority working class area whose residents are  mainly Latinx and people of color, which hosts more power plants than any other city on the coast of California. 

Many community members suffer from serious asthma resulting from particulate matter from the plants, and when a fourth power plant was proposed in Oxnard, “people came together and mobilized and successfully pushed back against this power plant proposal – and that was a major victory for environmental and climate justice,” Pollard said. 

The example laid a foundation for the rest of his talk: How are human and public health linked with environmental health? What role does social inequality play in shaping environmental and public health? What roles can grassroots social movements play in defining and improving our environmental health?

“This is the defining challenge of our time: Indigenous communities, communities of color, low- wealth communities face disproportionate environmental and climate threats,” he said. “We call this environmental injustice. When it involves people of color, communities of color, we specifically call that environmental racism. So this is what we’re fighting against.”

Pellow then discussed the issue of corporations polluting communities on the southeast side of Chicago, saying it’s “not about the law, so much as it’s about the cultural and the political decision that we’ve made to locate so many polluting plants in a community that is mostly people of color. So that’s a political decision – it’s a power play.” 

He continued with other examples that have guided environmental justice and injustice, including historic protests against a PCB landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, the impacts of the steel industry in Indiana, research led by non-academic institutions to identify correlations between race and the location of hazardous waste sites, and more.

“If you ask me, ‘What is the most important, enduring success of the environmental justice movement?’ I would say it’s not some law, it’s not some policy that we got passed,” Pellow said. “It is, in fact, a change in the way we think about the environment and its relationship to human beings, and the question of inequality – and it’s a change in the way we even define the environment.”

“People understand that justice is at the core,” he added.

In his dialogue on the notorious water crisis of Flint, Michigan, Pellow described the decision of an appointed bureaucrat that led to massive lead poisoning as a “deficit of democracy.”

“The justice focus is a good start, but we do need to consider the deeper roots and driving forces,” he said, then elaborated on settler colonialism, the removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples by settlers. “Settler colonialism is something we are now grappling with at all stages of the environmental justice framework.”

Pellow aligned food justice with environmental justice and climate justice, noting hopeful examples of how residents and organizations are farming to provide their neighborhoods with nutritious, affordable options. He also described the research showing that efforts to improve gender equality and gender justice may be more effective if paired with campaigns to address climate change and ecological harm.

“Justice is what love looks like in public – you’ve got to commit yourself publicly to making promises and following through on those promises,” Pellow said. “Collaboration, I like to say, occurs at the speed of trust, so you can’t rush these things as much as we would like to. We need to invest in people, we need to invest in our programs, but we need to invest in dreams – dreams that might even seem impossible.”

Elliott White Jr., Khalid Osman, Emily Polk, David Pellow onstage and Sakena Young-Scaggs at podium
From left, Elliott White Jr., Khalid Osman, Emily Polk, and David Pellow are introduced onstage by Sakena Young-Scaggs at the podium. (Zoom screen shot courtesy of Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability)

Following the talk, three Stanford Q&A panelists took the stage: Khalid Osman, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Elliott White Jr., an assistant professor of Earth system science; and Emily Polk, an advanced lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric who co-leads the Stanford EJ Working Group. Young-Scaggs moderated the conversation, disclosing her personal passion for environmental justice resulting from growing up near contamination from the original Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) plant in New Jersey. 

The panel guided discussion around how environmental justice is being emphasized in higher education, the role academic institutions should play, the scalability of environmental justice research, hopes for the future of the field, and how to balance activism and the pursuit of an academic career.

“If we can figure out a way to shift resources in the hands of communities, to redefine what we mean by security, by public health, by policing, and all of that on up to this question of more formally dealing with pollution, we have solved some questions and some challenges at the very scale that it matters most to so many people,” Pellow said.

“What gives me hope is just everybody around me who is working for change,” he added.

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