Julie Sze, enviro-justice advocate and professor, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m an assistant professor in American Studies at the University of California at Davis.
How does it relate to the environment?
My research and teaching interests are in environmental justice, race and science, the politics of the urban environment, health and risk, social movements, and community activism.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I do a combination of teaching, research, and writing. My current class is called “Environmental Justice” and it looks at the topic from interdisciplinary perspectives, including historical, sociological, and cultural/literary approaches. I’m working on turning my research into articles, and my manuscript based on my dissertation into a book. My manuscript is called Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice. It’s a cultural and political history of the environmental justice movement in New York City, primarily focused on the 1980s and 1990s though it also includes a historical analysis of the intersection of planning and public health in the early 20th century.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I took a class called “Race, Poverty, and the Environment” while an undergraduate. I found the intersection of environmental and social-justice issues that the environmental-justice movement proposed to be very exciting and relevant to my life as an urban child of immigrants from New York City’s Chinatown. After graduation, I worked as an organizer for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance working on transportation and health issues. I decided that there was a larger story that needed to be told about the environmental justice movement in New York City, so I decided to go back to graduate school. While I was in school, I continued to work with movement organizations, doing research and organizing activist conferences on community-based environmental-justice research, and on genetics and environmental justice. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with my degree, but I ended up here at U.C. Davis.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New York City. I live in Sacramento, which is a nice, small city. But I’m a native New Yorker. As Colson Whitehead describes New Yorkers in The Colossus of New York, “I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else.” That’s me in a nutshell. Before we moved here, my husband checked that The New York Times was delivered on our street, and how many people got home delivery. We wouldn’t move otherwise.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
My parents are immigrants from China, and their value system is defined primarily around how much money you make (I don’t begrudge them that choice, but understand their history coming out of communist China). So I didn’t necessarily grow up with values that lend themselves to caring about social justice or environmentalism. I think perhaps my coming-of-age came when I went to U.C. Berkeley and became exposed to vegetarianism. I then started reading about food politics, and taking classes, and it all kind of snowballed from there.
What’s on your desk right now?
A copy of Blue Vinyl to show in class (highly recommended, comic documentary about polyvinyl chloride and pollution); Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts; Andrew Ross’ The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society; notes for an article I’m writing on love and global warming, other “office stuff” (tacks, Post-its, stapler, tape), files, a copy of an article I wrote on Asian-American activism for environmental justice from Peace Review, phone, desktop, laptop.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
There are so many under this administration, which Grist covers faithfully. I’d like to point your readers to the gutting of environmental-justice policy at the U.S. EPA as yet another example of the Orwellian wordplay of this administration. According to the EPA, the goal of environmental justice policy is for “everyone, regardless of race, culture, or income” to enjoy “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
Sounds good, but what that means is that the particular protections of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice for low-income and minority communities are substantially weakened. Like Clear Skies and Healthy Forests, this administration wants to sound environmentally friendly at the same time that its actions undermine environmental protections. The nice-sounding language belies their vision and agenda, which is basically to let industries pollute and to get government out of the way. (See the EPA’s Office of Inspector General’s report EPA Needs to Consistently Implement the Intent of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice [PDF].)
Who is your environmental hero?
Well, I’m partial to environmental writers who can bring passion and humor to grim problems. These include fiction and non-fiction writers, like Sandra Steingraber, Ruth Ozeki, my colleagues in the Environmental Leadership Program, Margo Tamez, and Kim Todd to name a few. I also like Jon Stewart from Comedy Central because he makes me laugh while I’m crying because the situation is so dire.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George Bush. I can’t believe that I have to see him for four more years.
What’s your environmental vice?
I drive alone to work, but I try to work from home two days a week.
How do you get around?
Car. But I didn’t get my license until I was 27, and I rode my bike religiously in New York City for a decade, so I travel by car reluctantly. I have a Dahon Folding Bike that I use. I also walk a lot with my baby, Sofia.
What are you reading these days?
I’m usually trying to read for my class. Whatever’s assigned, or what I may assign. Next year, I’m teaching a seminar on consumption, and there are some histories I want to take a look at, like Paul Sabin’s history of oil politics in California a book on packaging in America, or a study of the orange industry.
What’s your favorite meal?
Anything my mom cooks.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t like getting bags from stores, and I hate waste.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Chinatown, New York City. It’s loud, and chaotic, and it’s the social and environmental world from which I emerge. It’s also got a lot of air-pollution problems (both everyday and from the World Trade Center), and dreams and ambitions from across the world in it. I think that it also encapsulates a lot of issues that environmentalists need to think about, in terms of stopping the export of American-style consumption to the rest of the world (i.e., China) and the challenges of the politics of U.S. environmentalism as being defined by limits to consumption and scarcity politics. Do these rationales work? I don’t know, but it’s something I’m interested in doing further research on.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
75 percent recycling of waste (including food scraps).
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes. I teach my students about the history of the idea of environmentalism taken from a large literature of American environmental historians (William Cronon, Carolyn Merchant, and Robert Gottlieb) and its elite and problematic origins. Not to mention the environmental-justice movement’s critique of the narrowness of what “the environment” means. But I still think it’s a valuable label, and like feminist, I still wear it proudly.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Energy — until there’s a blackout.
What’s your favorite TV show?
Sex and the City and Nip/Tuck.
What are you happy about right now?
My baby, Sofia, is starting to talk. That makes me happy. Now if she would only walk! Then my back would hurt less.
Where do you see the environmental-justice movement heading in the future? — Max Weintraub, Oakland, Calif.
Max, Max, Max! Max Weintraub is a friend and colleague of mine, who has founded an excellent organization called Environmental Justice and Health Union. This question is huge, and many actors will be involved in answering it: community-based organizations, agency staff, politicians, foundations, etc. I answer the question in this way: The environmental justice movement is at its most relevant at the time that it is being marginalized by policy. That seeming paradox is because communities of color are “canaries in the mine,” who are at the front lines of bearing the brunt of the human, social, and environmental costs of neoliberalism as exemplified by privatization and deregulation.
You mentioned that the gutting of the environmental-justice policy at the U.S. EPA has infuriated you. What do you think, ideally, the EPA should be doing in terms of environmental-justice policy? — Name not provided
The EPA should put race and class back into environmental-justice policy. And make the EPA actually regulate, instead of essentially letting polluters police themselves in what is a corporate giveaway.
I have taught/assisted undergraduate college classes in environmental science and biology, and I am always curious to know what tools teachers in this field bring to their class to help their students feel ownership and empowerment when it comes to dealing with environmental-justice issues. I have found it hard to walk the line of painting what I think is a realistic, yet rather bleak, picture of our current state re: environmental issues, and yet not let my students leave feeling hopeless, but rather engaged and committed. — Debbie Rudnick, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
In addition to providing information, my goal in my class is to help them become critical thinkers, and to understand arguments and debates, as well as the role of power and ideology. A lot of people believe that knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, is the answer. It’s not; it’s only the starting point. I think reading about social movements and activism also helps my students fight the feeling of helplessness, but what you describe is definitely operational.
What lessons and ideas will you pass on to your baby Sofia as she grows up and begins to assess the world around her? What type of world do you hope she and her children and grandchildren inherit? — Name not provided
A world not based on exploitation but on caring. A world where we are part of global community, and where the U.S. does not constitute 6 percent of the world’s population and use 40 percent of the world’s resources. A world where there are still polar ice caps and the Swiss Alps and an America that lives up to its lofty ideals of freedom and justice and liberty.
Have you ever read any of Jonathan Kozol’s books? I think he does an amazing job getting the issues of social injustice across to a wide audience. Do you have any suggestions for other great books, specifically related to environmental justice? — Name not provided
Yes, I have and I agree. In Amazing Grace, he describes the life conditions that poor minority children in the South Bronx face, of which “environmental” conditions, such as poor housing and bad air quality, are a part.
Your question is a difficult one for me to answer. There is a lot of academic literature on environmental justice, but it is generally not great to read, albeit important (it’s easy to find online references to these). It’s very hard to get issues across to a wide audience, and there is no equivalent book on environmental justice that does that. (There is lyrical writing on environmental topics more generally, such as Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream. But there is fiction that is often taught in environmental-justice courses, some great, some middling. These include Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms, Barbara Neely’s Blanche Cleans Up, Ruth Ozeki’s work, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.
How do you see institutions of higher education truly partnering with community-based groups and people to move forward the important work of activism? Can we get past the “ivory tower” notion? If so, how? — Eliza Goodwin, Minneapolis, Minn.
Your question is a good one. This trend you’re identifying is part of a larger shift that has roots in the 1960s. In its recent incarnation, it is known as participatory action research or community-based research. As I mentioned earlier, I organized conferences on community-based environmental-justice research which highlighted model projects of partnerships between communities engaged in environmental-justice struggles, and partnerships with universities. There are many successful models of collaboration, and many failures as well. You might want to check out an upcoming special issue on the topic in the journal Race, Poverty and the Environment, which is published by Urban Habitat.
How can universities and faculty members make environmental studies more relevant to students? What key points of integration do you see between environmental studies and other areas of study, based on your interaction with students? — Name not provided
Through community-based research (see answer above) for one. Internships are another pathway. By assigning students to read Grist. Environmental studies has to come out of its box on campus, and be better linked to ethnic studies, women’s studies, and into mainstream disciplines like history, English, and sociology. The charge that environmentalists are elitists could be changed if there was more creative thinking on campuses about the role of environmental studies and the culture of most environmental-studies programs.
Are you tracking your ex-students to see if your area of study is having any impact in their post-graduate studies and work? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
I’m still a relatively new teacher, so no. But I know that several teachers and people have impacted my work, and I rarely let them know, so I think it’s hard to know. I hope so.
You referred to an article you are writing as being about “love and global warming.” Are you just going to leave us hanging like that? Elucidation please! — Ryan McGillicuddy, San Marcos, Texas
Well, this paper is focused on environmental vision and values, specifically on visual representations of global warming. In it, I’m examining different narrative and representational strategies on global warming, and their efficacy, such as fear, and its counterpart, love. There were some recent reports and a Republican strategy memo on the environment that are my starting points to examine the topic. Love sounds wacky, but I want to examine it seriously, as part of the conversation about how the mainstream environmental movement can be a more effective political actor, especially in the wake of the election.
Do you have any idea when we might see your book on the shelves of our local, independent bookstore? — Name not provided
Working on getting a contract as we speak. Optimistically, 2006.
A few years ago I had a professor in an ecology class who had the whole class advocating to Congress (and the public) against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A few weeks after a vote to drill failed in the Senate, I received a flyer from the same professor inviting class members along on a summer trip to Africa, which he was leading. What irony! Is not a plane ticket to Africa a demand for someone, somewhere to drill for oil? How can we solve environmental and justice problems when the environmental advocates act in such a way? What is the value of such individual choices? — Steve Davis, Loomis, Calif.
I appreciate your point of view. I think that individuals only have limited choices they can make, because industry and society have constricted those choices through policy and historical decisions. For example, if you read David Nye’s Consuming Power, which is a cultural and social history of energy, you see the relative openness at the beginning part of the 20th century about what kind of energy systems we would adopt and whether we would structure our economy and society around non-renewable sources. What choices were made were partially technical, but mostly social and political.
The problem with individual choices now, after such a history, is that a certain brand of environmentalism is about making people feel guilty about their choices. That strategy doesn’t seem to work with people who don’t already subscribe to your point of view, so it’s not that effective in terms of persuading people. Also, the problem tends to be larger. For example, when most people think about environmentalism (not environmentalists, but average people), they think about recycling. The focus on personal recycling ignores the reality that the vast majority of waste is not individual household waste, but institutional and corporate (for a good discussion of the complexities of the recycling industry, see Pellow, Schnaiberg, and Gould 2000). On a more pragmatic level on flying, I also heard about a program where you could pay to have trees planted, equivalent to your environmental cost for flying.
I’d like to see a response to an expanded view of environmental justice that addresses the view that scarcity and consumption (transformation) of land is, when spread over a scale of decades, an environmental-justice issue. Damaged ecosystems on a regional or continental scale bring harm (subtle or otherwise) to all segments of human society, regardless of whether the impacts can be measured at economic or social scales. In this view, are the challenges of the politics of U.S. environmentalism, as defined by limits to consumption and scarcity politics, limited to economically disadvantaged populations? Or, are the activities of human society on a broad scale harmful to all? — Renee Flower, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Widening the definition of U.S. environmental politics to look at race and class will not weaken it. The activities of human society on a broad scale are harmful to all, but some more than others. Take, for example, global warming. Yes, we as a planet suffer. But for island nations that will disappear, or for indigenous communities, it is not an “environmental problem,” it’s the literal destruction of their lives. There was a recent report from Redefining Progress that looked at African Americans in the U.S. and climate change that argued that African Americans are less responsible for climate change, but suffer more from the health impacts.
The question of the efficacy of framing a problem as a specific or a universal one is an open one that should be debated. Framing the activities of human society as a broad one that harms us all has not really worked politically. So environmental organizations and individual environmentalists have to think about this question. What is clear is this: Business as usual will not work. There has to be a better way and more creative thinking.
What’s your reaction to the presidential election? Do you think there are lessons for us on the left to learn? What strategy should people who care about human rights and the environment consider taking in the next four years? 10 years? 50 years? — Name not provided
Do you view environmental justice as a key component of the overall mainstream environmental consciousness, or does it need to be treated as a special independent issue, particularly considering the racism inherent in the government and business world? — Joe Kuhn, Santa Barbara, Calif.
I think the work you do sounds really interesting. I am wondering, though, do you ever get so frustrated with the way things are — the lack of care and respect for the environment, respect for other people, ignorance, the Bush administration, etc. — that you feel like it’s a hopeless cause? To me, it seems that there’s still so much work to be done that it’s overwhelming. What makes you feel like you should keep going? — Shelley Chinnan, Riverdale, Ga.
I see these three questions as linked, so I’ll answer them as such. Yes, the election was stunningly depressing, but it was also a wake-up call for Democrats, progressives, and “special interests” such as labor and environmental constituencies. I think that the mainstream environmental community is undergoing some serious discussion about how it frames its issues, and how to counter its label as elitist and anti-business. [Editor’s note: See our Gristmill post on this issue.] There are some catalysts for this discussion, and whether the environmental movement can re-frame itself to be an effective agent for social change, by including environmental-justice concerns, is an open question.
There are reasons for optimism. The anti-smoking movement utterly changed policy and the public view of smoking, but the change took decades. On a more philosophical level, I turn to Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the Beloved Community, and that place between what he called “superficial optimism” and “crippling pessimism.” The process of social change takes a long time. But as he describes in Struggle to Love, “although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness.” The way I see it, in secular terms, the point is the process, not just the point.
The federal level may be a wash for the next few years. For the next two years, work on supporting congressional candidates. For the next four years, strengthen the progressive work at the state level. Of course, continue to work on local and global issues, in the ways that you can, whether that be organizing or financial support.