If you asked 10 people on the street what “sustainability” means, they would probably say it’s about preserving the environment, but that’s not all it is to Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.
“This idea of just sustainability is about reimagining the ways environmental quality and human equality intersect,” Agyeman said Thursday evening at “Just Sustainabilities: Re-imagining e/quality, Living Within Limits,” part of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series on Nature and the Environment.
Agyeman said he first started to recognize the connection between environmental degradation and human rights abuses after the death of Chico Mendes, a prominent union leader for rubber tappers in Brazil who was assassinated in the 1980s. Through his work with the Black Environmental Network, environmental journals and the Royal Society of the Arts in Britain, Agyeman began to establish an academic link as well.
“We found that countries that were trashing their people were also trashing their environment. I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship, but I’m saying there is a connection between how we treat our environment and how we treat our people,” Agyeman said.
Many environmental organizations in the United States continue to overlook or ignore this connection because they are concerned that engaging with social issues will dilute their message, Agyeman said.
Eight of the 10 largest environmental organizations in the country are headed by white men, he said. This means their leadership may lack the perspective to identify environmental justice issues that affect immigrants and people of color.
“If your organization doesn’t look like the communities you’re serving, you’ve got a problem,” Agyeman said.
Lynn Stoddard, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University, said the divide between professionals and 9-to-5 workers who aren’t paid to engage with environmental issues can make it difficult to get the right people in the room, however.
“It’s harder to do than to say, of course, we’re just struggling with building some stakeholder engagement with the work we’re doing in Connecticut,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard, who is working to create a sustainable community rating system for municipalities, said her organization does its best to engage with local leaders and make meetings as convenient as possible for the public.
In addition to supporting racial diversity as more than a tokenistic measure, Agyeman said environmental justice encourages people to create intercultural spaces in cities, promote food justice, urban agriculture and to redefine our definition of success. Income inequality between and within countries has been found to spur consumption, increasing an area’s carbon footprint he said, but by bridging that gap we could empower people to put a greater emphasis on happiness over things.
“In societies where everyone’s equal, people don’t need to keep up with the Joneses,” Agyeman said. “We are consuming far more than is healthy for us and this planet, we can do that because many more people are living below the minimum needed to secure quality of life.”
Carol Atkinson-Palmobo, assistant professor of geography at UConn, said Agyeman was the first speaker to focus on equity and justice issues during the Teale Lecture Series.
“It’s very integrated human-environment perspective,” Atkinson-Palmobo said. “It’s the need to ensure a better quality of life for all now and into the future in a just and equitable manner while living within the limits of supporting ecosystems.”
The next Teale Lecture, “Our Rivers on Drugs: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products as Agents of Ecological Change in Aquatic Ecosystems,” will be given on Nov. 3 by Emma Rosi-Marshall, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York
Kimberly Armstrong is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.