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Social Justice and Environmental Sustainability: At odds or (mutual) ends?

I recently attended a fireside chat at UBC’s Green College, where I had the opportunity to be part of an intimate discussion with the noted scholar, Susan Fainstein. Fainstein is a professor at Harvard University, a leading figure in urban planning, and the recent author of the book, The Just City. The book examines the differing ways in which planners and policymakers can include principles of social justice in urban development, combining issues of material well-being with considerations of diversity and participation.  In her lecture, Fainstein spoke to how she felt such principles of equity, accessibility, and diversity have not been adequately prioritized in today’s global society–a sentiment which I would agree with.

I highlight this point here in particular, because I find that all too often, such concepts of social justice are forgotten most easily by those in the environmental field.  The land, or wilderness, becomes privileged beyond other perspectives. This tendency may stem from a larger history of North American environmentalism, of which a large portion has roots in a conservation ethic, which tends to see “environment” as an entity differentiated from that of humans, as an untouched and pristine space (William Cronon, among others, has written an excellent piece that relays this in far more depth). It has been argued that this separation, accompanied by a loss of wide-spread knowledge about natural systems, is a fundamental cause for the difficult course which our planet is currently charting.

In my own work, I tend to employ a definition more often used by those in the environmental justice movement–that the environment is the space in which we live, work, and play. It includes our parks and schools,  shops and workplaces, our homes and backyards.  Environmentalism includes the health effects of children living by freeways, the planning of a new sub-division in a city, the vegetables grown in the yard of a rural or urban home. Without understanding our environment as something in which we are a part, the chasm between “people” and “place,” “society” and “environment,” will continue to loom large.

I would like to argue that such a dichotomy is not, and must not be true; and that privileging the land over people, or vice versa, is not a “sustainable” behaviour. Yet all too often, it appears that one side of the equation is left out, depending on what sphere of influence one happens to travel within.  Social justice is often a forgotten cast-off in the environmental sphere, while environmental impacts become minimized by those privileging a social lens. Each side believes they are justified.

It may be true that the needs of land and people are not always–at least in the short run–mutually beneficial.   The destruction of rainforest for subsistence or crop farming is one well-utilized image which portrays this trade-off. Despite these short-run predicaments, however, I continue to suggest that the two spheres are indeed, compatible–and that researchers and practitioners in both areas must be open to this suggestion in order to work together towards such an ideal. Though this may seem a rather simple or forgone conclusion, I make it here again because too often it appears that though we know something to be true, acting upon such knowledge–or even being open to the doors it may create–isn’t done.

So I make the suggestion here, as it has been done before: that as students, researchers, and citizens, we must be careful that our own specialization not be overly myopic. That things such as environment and society remain forever intertwined–and regardless whether the needs and impacts of both can ever be truly reconciled–there are positive outcomes to be had from being truly open to, conversant with, and fully engaged at the intersection of these fields.

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: March 14, 2011, 10:00 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , , ,

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