GCSC Seminar: Reframing the Story of Environmentalism to Highlight Inequality, Justice

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office

What is the role of the university in addressing the climate crisis? How can academics engage proactively in environmental and social justice work? How can we transform our institutions to meet this political moment with the urgency it demands?

In her upcoming Global Change & Sustainability Center talk, “Interdisciplinarity, Intersectionality and Environmental Justice: The Time is Now,” Dr. Julie Sze, author and professor of American Studies at the University of California at Davis, will tackle these challenging questions. Sze, whose background is in English, Ethnic Studies, and Peace and Conflict, was drawn to environmental justice work because of the movement’s intersectional approach to environmentalism.

“Mainstream environmentalism is constructed as mostly white, and wilderness, and conservationist,” Sze says. “That erases the stories of people of color and cities and workers,” whereas “environmental justice as a movement was always about reframing the story of environmentalism.”

Sze’s research, which emphasizes environmental justice, inequality, and the intersection between social movements and policy, has led her to believe that we must construct a different kind of university in order to respond effectively to the climate crisis.

What does a different kind of university look like? Sze explains that there is no hard and fast answer to this question, but that we must think critically in ways that draw upon social movements and systemic alternatives to discover the university’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

“There isn’t one easy model,” Sze says, and the process involves examining what students are taught in classes, who they learn from, and what is left out of the curriculum. She says it also means imagining universities that are not based in neo-liberalism, debt, and extraction, and planning campuses that provide more services and less policing.

“Can we have campuses without cops?” Sze asks. “That’s a different kind of university.”

As a scholar and educator, Sze also values academic spaces as entry points to environmental justice work. She was motivated to become politically engaged as an undergraduate student, but says of her upbringing, “I didn’t come from a very political background. It’s not part of my genealogy, my family history, my community, to be interested in these kinds of things.”

She believes that universities are integral to solving the climate crisis because of the opportunities they create for students like her to learn things outside of their own lived experiences and to develop passion for environmental justice regardless of their upbringing. When universities make space for students to ask questions, feel outraged, and be curious, “more and more of them want to do this work…and make meaning in their lives,” she says.

On creating a “new kind of university,” Sze argues that we must always remember how our work in academia is connected to the outside world. She points out that while scientists have been warning about climate change for years, our response has not met the magnitude of the crisis. “How much empirical evidence do we have to show before something’s done?” she asks.

The crises we face today must be met with creativity and urgency. “On the one hand, we have to do what we’ve always done, because it really matters,” Sze says. On the other hand, we have to do something else.” Join Sze at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22 at tinyurl.com/gcsc-sze to learn more about what that “something else” looks like, and how you can contribute to the movement.

What prehistoric societies can teach us about climate change

By Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office

The common rhetoric surrounding the contemporary climate crisis often frames the dramatic manifestations of climate change as unprecedented in their intensity. The scorching heat and record-level dryness that has plagued the Western US in recent years clearly indicates an ominous shift to a “new normal.” However, while there is no denying the evidence of climate change, archaeological data also suggests that this is not the first time the Western US has experienced similar events. To aid our contemporary fight for sustainability and adaptation, could we look into the past and learn from how ancient peoples survived through climate change?

Doug Kennett, professor of Environmental Archaeology and Human Behavioral Ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes the past can help us understand the present crisis. On Tuesday, October 22nd, from 4 – 5 PM in room 210 of the Alice B. Skaggs Biology Building, Kennett will explore how climate change in the West affected ancient peoples in his lecture, “Drought and Long-Term Sociopolitical Dynamics West of the Hundredth Meridian,” as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Kennett earned his Ph.D in archaeology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1998. During his student years, he experienced first-hand the effects of climate change as the Western US was hit by intense periods of drought. Kennett recalls thinking that “the prehistoric record probably has something to say about what these droughts have looked like in the past, and how people responded under different types of social and political conditions.”

Kennett’s initial research focused on early peoples of the Yucatan, but as his interest in historical drought grew he also began to study indigenous cultures of coastal California. Working with climate scientists, they used reconstructed climate records alongside archaeological evidence to decipher how these cultures responded to climate change. As Kennett explains, “we [now] know that in the climate system in the West, from the climate record and the archaeological record, that conditions can be much more severe with much more extended droughts.” 

His work has since driven him to dive deeper into the climate history of the West, from California’s Channel Islands to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. “I’m interested in the persistence of prehistoric societies in the face of environmental and climate change,” Kennett says. “So, in other words: what worked? But I’m also interested in when things go badly and we see the disintegration of social and political connectivity and what we colloquially call ‘collapse.'”

Kennett’s research has also led to collaborations with geneticists, in particular David Reich at Harvard University. Through genomics, Kennett has been able to analyze the genetic population structure of prehistoric peoples. This has provided insight in his research on the environmental factors that contributed to the collapse of these ancient cultures, and has been significant in his research on drought in Mayan civilization in the Yucatan.  “You may say that the Maya were in a tropical forest. How could you have trouble with water in that kind of context? In fact, there were times when there were droughts that had significant impacts on the population.”

There are far-reaching implications for this cutting-edge research in developing strategies for combating climate change in the 21st century. “From a sustainability perspective, I’m arguing that the archaeological record has great value for what’s happening today,” Kennett explained. This is especially evident in his work in the Yucatan. According to Kennett, “In the case of the Maya, with [regards to] sustainability, there were also major transformations of the landscape because they were large-scale agriculturalists. There were very well-documented geological or geomorphic changes made to the landscape associated with deforestation.” Understanding the changes that occurred in the landscape during the time of the Maya can provide insight into how the landscape has become what it is today, and how these changes affect contemporary populations.

If you’re interested in learning more about what climate change in the past can tell us about the present and future, come by ASB 210 on Tuesday, October 22nd for Professor Doug Kennett’s lecture, “Drought and Long-Term Sociopolitical Dynamics West of the Hundredth Meridian,” as part of the GCSC seminar series.