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.

The Future of White Pines in the West

By Nicolas Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

For many Utahns, white pines are a fact of life. Different species of white pine fill the mountainous landscapes of the Intermountain West, and their distinctive cones dot the forest floors. Yet compounding threats caused by changes in climate and forest management are putting these trees at risk.

That’s where Dr. Diana Tomback, professor and associate chair in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Colorado Denver, comes in. Her innovative research on different species of white pine throughout the West is building hope for their survival. On Tuesday, April 2nd, she will discuss this pressing issue in her lecture, “Biodiversity catastrophe in real time: Loss of five-needle white pine communities and cascading consequences” as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series.

Professor Tomback received her Ph.D from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she researched the role of Clark’s nutcracker in the dispersion of whitebark pine seeds. She has spent much of her career at the University of Colorado Denver, studying white pine populations throughout the Rocky Mountains.

In 2001, Tomback was a founding member the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, which brought together federal officials and scientists to discuss and address threats to the Whitebark Pine alongside grassroots-level organizers and activists. She served as the Founding Volunteer Director for 16 years and now coordinates policy and outreach at the foundation. She is also Lead Scientist in the National Whitebark Pine Restoration Strategy, a federal initiative to restore white pine ecosystems.

Tomback’s work today focuses on a group of five pines, known as five-needle white pines. As she emphasizes, “forest health is now a major concern in North America.” White pines play an essential part in the forest ecologies of the American West and are among the tallest and oldest living trees in the world. They have also long been economically important as a historical source of lumber. “We have changes in fire regime driven by climate change, climate change itself, and on top of that, globalization has brought about an exchange of pests and pathogens from around the world for which our species [of white pines] have little natural resistance,” says Tomback.

There are many challenges facing the white pines in the 21st century. “Warming climate has supported the outbreak of the mountain pine beetle,” explains Tomback. They are also threatened by imported tree diseases such as white pine blister rust, which was unintentionally imported to North America from Asia. Blister rust is particularly dangerous because it spreads rapidly through spores carried by the wind, and because there is little natural resistance.

Yet despite these threats, Tomback has hope. The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, the Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula, her own lab at the University of Colorado Denver, not to mention many other concerned organizations, are contributing to the development of restoration and prevention strategies. Her hope is that new strategies will take advantage of declining beetle numbers and innovative research to preserve these important trees.

If you’re interested in learning more about Professor Diana Tomback’s innovative research on white pines and the future of the West’s forests, come by ASB 210 on Tuesday, April 2, from 4 – 5 PM for her GCSC seminar series lecture, “Biodiversity catastrophe in real time: Loss of five-needle white pine communities and cascading consequences.”