Hamilton Faculty Speak on Environmental Justice and Sustainability

A group of Hamilton faculty from a variety of disciplines spoke in the newly renovated Kirner-Johnson Auditorium about "Environmental Justice and Sustainability" on Sept. 9.  The event, sponsored by the Diversity and Social Justice Project and the Levitt Center, provided few answers to pressing questions of sustainability but helped clarify the challenges that face humanity in preparing for the future. 

Professor of Biology Ernest Williams spoke first, bringing a scientific perspective to the debate; this was fitting, as biology and ecology developed the original concept of sustainability through examination of ecosystems. Williams suggested that sustainability must be considered in terms of both living "lightly on the earth" by adopting specific practices, and in terms of developing ideas of sustainability that can be applied on a broader level than specific solutions like recycling.
To Williams, sustainability incorporates three key concepts: the future (and concern for future outcomes), the recognizance of limits, and the values that individuals hold to encourage environmentalism. The three greatest challenges that he saw facing sustainability were global climate change, the challenge of obtaining resources and disposing of wastes, and the "extinction crisis" of a loss of biodiversity worldwide (a problem infrequently discussed outside of scientific circles). He stated that "we are failing" to maintain a sustainable environment, due in part to a lack of leadership on sustainability issues by the White House, and despite the increasing attention paid to sustainability through the awareness of global warming and adoption of individual environmental programs (such as the American Association of University Presidents' Climate Commitment).
While Williams recognized that "being alive means producing waste and using resources," the ultimate question is how to build a livable future; he quoted the principles of Thomas Jefferson, who stated as far back as 1789 that "no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence." 

Professor of Women's Studies Joyce Barry discussed the history of environmental justice and its gendered nature. She mentioned how environmental justice "combines concern for social and economic justice with environmentalism," often originating from struggles of the impoverished or marginalized to prevent waste from being dumped in their communities or to gain access to basic environmental benefits like clean water or public parks. As such, environmental justice "strategically places humans back into environmental thought and policy" by defining the "environment" to include the places where people spend their daily lives.
For early examples of environmental justice activism, she specifically cited the Love Canal controversy (involving a toxic waste site near Niagara Falls where resident activism eventually led to relocation of their houses and creation of the Superfund, a fund for cleanup of toxic environmental problems) and the dumping of toxic wastes in Warren, North Carolina (where dumping in African-American communities prompted critiques of environmental racism, leading to incorporation of civil rights activism and environmental activism for the first time). Environmental activism continues today in places like New Orleans (regarding cleanup from Hurricane Katrina), West Virginia (concerning mountain-top removal mining), and in Navaho Indian reservations (opposing uranium mining).
In all these struggles, Barry noted the "gendered nature" of environmental justice activism; working class white women and women of color have traditionally constituted the majority of environmental justice movements, including 60 percent of the leadership, which Barry attributes to those women extending their traditional gender roles of protecting the community to defense of the community against environmental threats. 

Professor of Government Peter Cannavo focused on differentiating sustainability and environmental justice, noting that the two concepts need not coexist. A sustainable environment could be created through imposition of unjust remedies; it is easy to imagine a racist society that is still sustainable, simply offloading environmental problems on marginalized groups. Conversely, a truly "just" distribution of natural and social resources may not be sustainable if communities or individuals are not willing to make sacrifices for the greater good; some facilities may be ecologically necessary but harmful to the welfare of an individual group, making it difficult to distribute such ills fairly. 

However, Cannavo came down on the side of environmental justice as the more important concept, arguing that so long as environmental justice is defined as the provision of system-wide conditions for the flourishing of human capabilities, then if "we start with justice and an expansive notion of what justice involves, we might require sustainability."
Professor of Economics Erol Balkan invoked the frequently cited 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development definition of sustainable development, calling it "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of those in the future to meet their own needs." Balkan pointed to the problems in this definition, as the concept of "needs" is unclear; while this definition did bring "environmental and social progress" into debates about economic development, it also has shown results that are "slow-paced at best." 

Today, 1.3 billion people lack access to clean water, while about 2 billion lack access to adequate sanitation, live on less than the equivalent of $2 U.S. a day, and lack access to electricity. Resource use is "extremely skewed," with the richest 20 percent of people in the highest income countries consuming 86 percent of the world's wealth, compared to the poorest 20 percent of people who consume a mere 3 percent of global resources. Despite the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from the United Nations and World Bank, there has still been little progress in economic terms or improvement of biodiversity. 

Because of the imbalances that exist, the difficulty of accurately assessing needs, and the necessity of integrating political as well as economic judgments into the process of negotiating sustainability, Balkan believes that achieving sustainability "will prove to be exceptionally difficult, if not a dream without political will." 

Audience questions inquired about the lack of awareness Americans often show on green issues, the role of multinational corporations in helping or hurting sustainable development, and the best manner to conduct public advertising campaigns about sustainable practices. While there were no clear answers, the professors at this panel demonstrated that a clear grasp of the challenges involved in sustainability is key to moving forward. 

-- by Kye Lippold '10
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