Dylan Ruan, Living Lab Intern, UCSB Sustainability

An environmental movement that looks to be truly sustainable, inclusive, and momentous will be thoroughly incomplete without social justice.

David Pellow, Professor of Environmental Studies at UCSB, has spent his career at the intersection of social inequality and environmental justice.

One of the roles that David plays on campus is directing the Global Environmental Justice Project at UCSB. A group that looks to initiate, launch, and support anyone who is doing work related to environmental justice.

“I promise to never separate the ecological from the social,” David said. “I think that most people would agree that not only do we currently live in a society that is ecologically unsustainable, but one that is also socially unsustainable.”

The Global Environmental Justice Project is a hub where groups who would normally not have an immediate stake in each other’s interests can find common ground and converge their movements for a greater good. In many cases, this allows them to collectively tackle both environmental and social issues.

“Whenever we see something that’s a social problem,” David said. “I’m looking for that ecological angle. Few people look at the ecological consequences of prison and poverty. Vice versa, what is the social angle of fracking or oil spills?”

David is currently leading a group of undergraduates on a project that is exploring the ecological impacts of the United States’ mass incarceration system. The project is a testament to his belief that ecological and social issues are bound to crisscross and is a part of David’s broader Global Environmental Justice Project. His team is not only trying to explore the effect of prisons on ecosystems, but also stage a conversation between individuals who support the environment and those who support an end to mass incarceration.

“These are groups of people who haven’t really thought of each other as allies and probably haven’t thought about each other’s issues a lot,” David said. “If there are significant negative ecological impacts of the prison system, I can bring these folks together.”

His group shares a variety of interests with the “Prison Ecology Project” headed by social activist Panagioti Tsolkas, a man who put the issue of ecological impacts of prison on the map and will be speaking at UCSB in 2016.

David’s background in Sociology and Environmental Studies has allowed him to work in departments that aren’t afraid to jump into the fray. “Black studies, ethnic studies, and environmental studies understand that we need to use science and our knowledge to create social change. That gives us a platform, history, and foundation.”

Academics need to step out into the community to make their voices heard and give compelling arguments that inspire people to create social change. “Journalists and political operatives motivate people. That’s their job,” David said. “But I think it should also be our job as academics to motivate people.” Academics often feel pressured to remain impartial, data-driven, and objective. David, however, believes that they can participate in community conversations, make arguments for change, and act in roles usually reserved for activists without losing the merit of being an academic.

The environmental justice movement–and certainly the environmental movement as a whole would benefit from researchers of all disciplines coming forward to discuss issues concerning the planet. David argues that although great strides towards a cleaner planet have been made in the past through laws such as the superfund and Endangered Species Act, the environmental movement as a whole has failed to live up to its purpose in a social sense.

Taking an environmental justice approach to tackling issues requires us to examine how we structure the movement and whose voices are heard in its chorus. In many ways, the movement has excluded marginalized groups such as people of color and individuals living in low-income communities. These are people who have been pushed down the ladder of social justice.

The lack of diversity and voices heard are holding the environmental movement back. If our society is to truly become sustainable, we will have to incorporate David’s conclusion that we must never separate the ecological from the social.

This makes the case for environmentalists to incorporate a variety of worldviews into their campaigns. A more diverse movement will be essential if global issues like climate change are to be addressed effectively. Similarly, a more diverse movement reflects the idea that the climate problem will require more than one answer.

Like many researchers, David believes that a solution to the climate crisis will require a mixed bag of solutions, none being a “silver bullet.” In fact, he stresses that the most instrumental change will be in the hands of our communities and not our politicians.

“When you look at what people are doing in their communities whether it’s gardening or organizing, the things people do on an everyday basis that may not so visible,” he said. “We should imagine them as part of this massive movement because they are mobilizing ideas, thinking, people, and action. They might not be getting on a plane to go to Paris, but most of the action is not happening at the COP, or certainly not inside the COP.”

COP, or Conference Of the Parties, is an international convention formed by the United Nations that looks to discuss emerging issues regarding the environment. COP21 was held at Paris in 2015 where almost 200 nations gathered to come up with a global climate treaty to limit global climate change.

The COP itself would benefit from incorporating a greater democratization of respective societies, industries, and governments to build sustainability. And as David says, to never separate the ecological consequences from the social.

“Let’s bring more people to the table so we get better ideas. That’s what a healthy ecosystem is about.”