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.