New Directions for Environmental Justice

By Nicholas Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

Many of us who care about climate change and environmental justice take action in our daily lives to do our part: we recycle, use sustainable products, use public transportation or eat locally grown food. Yet often environmental problems play out at a larger scale, and while our personal actions can help in small ways, it is important to understand the forces at work in creating environmental hazards and injustice from the start. If we know where injustice begins, we can begin to make a change for the better.

Professor David Pellow of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is exploring new directions in environmental justice in his research. On April 16 from 4 – 5 p.m. in ASB 210, join him for his lecture, “Toward a Critical Environmental Justice: Exploring State Violence & the Settler Colonial Conflicts.”

Pellow began his research in Sociology and Environmental Justice in the 1990s when he completed his Ph.D. dissertation in Sociology,  “Black workers in green industries: the hidden infrastructure of environmental racism,” at Northwestern University. He has since taught at Colorado, UC San Diego, and Minnesota, before arriving at UC Santa Barbara in 2015. There he is the Dehlsen Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project.

In his lecture, Pellow will explore new directions in the theoretical side of environmental sociology.  He breaks it down into multiple approaches. First, he is attempting to further build on existing research that focuses on the intersection between environmental hazards and class, income, race, gender, citizenship and nationality. He sees these intersections as critical for developing nuanced solutions to the complex interactions that produce injustice. “[I am] trying to ask bigger questions about the role of government or the nation-state in producing and exacerbating environmental problems and environmental justice issues in the first place,” Pellow explains. The contradiction is one of “relying on some of the same institutions that are arguably creating the problem in the first place.”

Pellow is also concerned with questions of scale in environmental justice research. He sees environmental justice as an issue that affects us  individually as well as globally. “Environmental hazards regarding academic and policy analysis must be approached as multi-scalar,” argues Pellow. “What happens at the micro scale is almost always revealed to be linked the community or national scale.” As no environmental issues exist in a vacuum, local and regional issues are just as “global” in consequence as environmental injustice outside of the United States. Often, we can find problems in our own neighborhood. Pellow’s recent research on oil refineries located in residential areas of Richmond, California illustrates this well, showing how global economic dynamics can lead to visible environmental impacts on real people.

Lastly, Pellow will explore the ethics of environmental injustice research.”The kind of environmental research I’m doing seeks to question the expendability of ecosystems, of habitats, and of marginalized human populations,” Pellow says. Pellow believes that environmental sociology shouldn’t simply seek to expose injustice, but should fight these notions of expendability. “It’s really about declaring, loudly, the indispensability (of marginalized people). It’s about saying every voice counts. Otherwise, it’s not a democracy.”

Should you too believe that every voice counts in the fight against environmental injustice, and have an interest in the cutting edge of environmental sociology research, come to ASB 210 on April 16 at 4 PM for David Pellow’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Toward a Critical Environmental Justice: Exploring State Violence & the Settler Colonial Conflicts.”


Conscious existence is resistance—that is the theme of the 4th Annual Earth U: Sustainability & Diversity Mentorship Dinner, which takes place on March 8 from 6-8pm in the Union Ballroom. This free dinner event aims to bring many voices to sustainability issues and develop a network of diverse people, ideas, and possibilities. Panelists from the community will join students and answer questions about their own paths, giving students the chance to interact with professionals from different backgrounds and disciplines. Sign up now at

Diana Leong, assistant professor in English and Environmental Humanities, will provide the keynote address. Student sustainability ambassador Nayethzi Hernandez, the coordinator of the Earth U event, sat down with Leong to learn more about her experiences and research interests.

How do you interpret this year’s theme of “Conscious Existence is Resistance?”

The theme this year reminds me of a quote—I believe it’s either bell hooks or Audre Lorde—that says “self-care is a radical act under conditions of oppression.” The theme, I think, resonates with the idea that coming into one’s own political awareness and social awareness is not only necessary for our particular contemporary environment, especially ecologically and politically, but it’s also radically revolutionary when there are forces in the world who don’t necessarily care about your existence.

What about this event interested you in becoming our keynote speaker?

Part of what is going to sustain any sort of sustainability movement or any sort of movement that is concerned with social justice is an intergenerational dialogue. Working with people who are either younger, just entering the field, or just becoming interested in the conversation and really having those dialogues with them sustains the momentum. That momentum turns into energy, and that energy turns into action. … There are so many different concerns in the state and on campus facing our students, this event is a good way to bring those various conversations together under the banner of sustainability and diversity.

Can you provide a brief description of what will you be speaking about?

I am planning to do a meditation on the three words that are captured by the theme of our evening: “Conscious Existence is Resistance.” What does it mean to be conscious – and to be conscious of what? What does it mean to exist in a world where sometimes we are not necessarily given the tools to flourish in terms of our existence? What does it mean to resist particularly in this moment in history? … I think part of the difficulty facing us as both academics and activist members of the community is that we have a lot of political cohesion at the moment. We are coming together around a variety of issues as we should be. … We should have this political and social cohesion; however, I don’t think we have a lot of political coherence at the moment. I think that the message gets lost in the push for a sort of “blind unity.” … Usually when that happens the most vulnerable of our communities get left out. Finding ways to open dialogue to invite those members of our most vulnerable communities to become leaders in the cause as opposed to marginalizing their concerns will be explored in the talk.

What spiked your interests in ecology and African American Literature?

Growing up in Hawaii, it’s hard not to be intrinsically interested in the environment—it’s what sustains us as a community and there’s a long history of colonialism in Hawaii. Part of my responsibility as identifying as an Asian settler/colonizer is to understand the relationship that the native Hawaiians have with their community. Part of that is a deeply ecological-oriented and sustainable relationship. That’s kind of the original genesis of my interests.

The other binding together with African American Studies is that since the 15th century onward, transatlantic slavery has caused such a huge epistemological, ontological, and historical break in the way that we think about the world. It changed the way that we thought about nature. It changed the way we thought about God. It changed the way we thought about humans, about animals, about economics, about pretty much everything in the world. Understanding how the contours of our thought are indebted to this world historical event, transatlantic slavery, is crucial for understanding why we continue to have these ecological crises today. For me, there cannot be anything like sustainability without also pursuing racial justice at the same time.

What role does literature play in environmentalism?

It helps us to imagine the environment differently. The crafting of environmental narratives and stories is really important for us to understand other people’s experiences of their environment that may be different than ours. … The other thing that I think is crucial about environmental literature is that it helps us to understand the logic behind our thinking and our relationships with the environment. Not just how and why we relate to the environment in the ways we do, but how that fits into our larger concepts of the world. Helping us conceptualize our relationships to the environment alongside other major issues that may not seem, at first glance, related. For example, something like reproductive rights also being an environmental justice issue.


Hear more from Leong and other panelists at the Earth U: Sustainability & Diversity Mentorship Dinner on March 8. Space is limited, so sign up now at