From Save the Polar Bears to Save the People: A Profile of Students and Environmental Justice

Artwork: Ricardo Levins Morales

By. Lillian Zhou

With growing salience of environmental justice issues in the advent of today’s global environmental problems, many young people are beginning to focus more on the greater social significance of sustainability and challenge wilderness-focused environmentalism to also address the human costs of systemic environmental inequality. “Mainstream” environmentalism has been increasingly inclusive and cognizant of equity and many youth today are finding their voices in these social dimensions of sustainability activism.

While mainstream environmentalism most often concerned with matters such as preservation of untouched wilderness and conservation of natural resources, environmental justice focuses on the ways that social, political, and economic power dynamics impose disproportionate environmental risks on certain groups. One of the most famous examples of this was first documented in a 1983 paper by sociologist Robert Bullard, who found that toxic waste processing facilities in Houston were disproportionately more likely to be located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. An ever-growing body of studies show not only the reality of environmental discrimination and disenfranchisement, but also that prejudiced siting has been no accident.

Marjan Abubo, a student activist at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes that the tangible anthropogenic causes and consequences of climate change drive students to act. “Students care about the environment because it is nearly impossible to deny the impacts and toll that industries have on the surrounding nature … and at this point, it’s no longer a choice. We only have one Earth and we cannot survive if we do not take care of it,” he said.

As much as the sustainability movement is powered by a sense of urgency, youth participation in the movement is also sustained through an enduring conviction in the efficacy of activism. David Pellow, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project, described that “youth might be more optimistic” and more inclined to participate in environmental activism because sustainability problems are often framed in future terms: “Youth see we have an opportunity for change, for prevention now.”

From a political perspective however, it can be difficult to convert this optimism into legislation. Matto Mildenberger, a political science professor at UCSB, explains that the way policymaking is structured in the United States can make it “hard to have a voice”. According to Dr. Mildenberger, “Many politicians are less responsive to what young people believe [because] young people tend to be less consistent voters. The environmental movement has to mobilize, but when it does, it can be very effective. The political challenge is to create a collective sense of action.”

Because young people tend to be more socially progressive compared to older generations, youth activists can build momentum for the environmental justice movement by reaching out to peers who are already involved in other forms of social justice activism. More often than not, environmental equality advocates have suffered discrimination themselves and their personal experiences can be a strong impetus for action. “I think people care more about environmental justice issues because of the human aspect of it. What attracted me to environmental justice is that my community and I directly suffered from its impacts,” said Marjan. “It isn’t a choice for many environmental justice activists because if no one was fighting for our right to live, then many of us would be suffering much worse.”

The growing recognition that environmental problems are fundamentally entrenched in social problems is paramount; a justice-oriented environmentalism fosters sustainability solutions that are more holistic and contributes to coalitions between environmental activists and activists of other movements that might otherwise seem unrelated. People who might not see themselves as environmentalists in the traditional sense are now finding causes to participate in sustainability advocacy, because sustainability without cognizance of its social contexts cannot truly achieve justice.

“Moving forward, we as students and young adults need to realize that if we are going to be fighting to defend the environment, we also need to be fighting to defend the existence of black and brown lives, of queer and trans women, of our Muslim kin,” said Marjan. “We need to recognize that everything is connected and we cannot uplift the environment without also uplifting everyone who lives on it.”

Photo: Marjan Abubo

Collaboration between social movements is critical for the future of the sustainability movement, especially under the conservative administration of President Donald Trump. Although the President’s first 100 days in office have been temperamental and turbulent, the rhetoric and actions from the White House have consistently echoed sentiments from the ideological right on issues ranging from the environment to immigration to reproductive and LGBTQ equality.

It has met a powerful response. Dr. Mildenberger, who studies the origins of different environmental movements around the globe, explained, “The left right now is mobilizing a lot of people who haven’t seen themselves as political activists and creating people who see themselves as environmental activists.”

“People are connecting and focusing on more issues and connecting environmentalism with Islamophobia, discrimination,” affirmed Dr. Pellow. “Many youth are fired up because of the Trump challenge and the opportunities to respond to the challenge in ways that we might not have seen if Hillary Clinton was elected.” He explains that the social, economic, and political hierarchies that perpetuate inequality and environmental harm are nothing new, and the election of another Democratic President could facilitate complacency in long-standing oppressive regimes. According to Dr. Pellow, “Trump’s election has helped bring these views to light. It’s harder to fight a regime that operates underlying capitalism and state power … it’s not about Trump, it’s about being an explanation point for something that has always been true.”

Environmental justice activism is fundamentally tied to students’ access to education and the institutions that provide it. Even if politicians in the United States tend to be less responsive to young voices, the power that students hold is amplified in educational institutions and can be leveraged to enact change. Dr. Pellow said the education system is “critical, in any country. This is why fascist authoritarian regimes absolutely make it a point to attack intellectuals, students, universities and colleges. These have almost always been really important centers for social change. Schools are spaces in which people are raising critical problems.”

“Do not be afraid to agitate those in positions of power,” Marjan urged. “We need to take a firmer stand on the companies and corporations the UC system invests in and divest from unethical companies that perpetuate injustice.”

Students not only have vertical power to leverage important institution leaders, but also horizontal access to large numbers of peers who can help build momentum for social movements. “Every social movement scholar worth their salt will tell you that people tend to get involved in social change movements not just because a lightbulb went off in their head saying, ‘suddenly I care about X’. It’s largely because you have a friend, someone you care about telling you about these issues and providing a pathway to get involved,” said Dr. Pellow.

These pathways can be diverse and as simple as inviting a friend to a meeting or sharing details of an event on social media platforms. Websites like Facebook that offer easy-to-use digital infrastructure for event planning can significantly expand the audience that hears about a cause and a way to do something about it. According to a 2017 study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics, 87% of college students use Facebook and almost half use Twitter, with overall student use of social media platforms having increased since 2013. Additionally, social media usage is more common among young people in college than it is for youth who are not students.

Beyond organizational usefulness, the internet is also a stage for inspiration and solidarity between people who would otherwise not be able to reach one another. In Marjan’s words, “We must engage in conversations that bring critical awareness about the environment and how our generation has a role in preserving it.” Dr. Pellow suggested that perhaps the pathway to effective, sustainable change is to slow down: “In this era of superfast speed, there isn’t time for reflection … It’s important to listen to one another and listen to different perspectives of people in the world around you. By slowing down, paying attention, and asking, ‘How is the bank down the street connected to existing systems of oppression and domination? How does that connect to climate change and global systems like capitalism?’, we can connect ourselves to bigger causes by taking classes and getting together to talk about it. It takes effort and it takes time, but we can do it.”

Posted in _Featured, CSSC Blog.