Sustainability Movement Lacks Social Justice

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island College, in conjunction with the Environment Council of Rhode Island Education Fund and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, recently unveiled the Rhode Island Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) led by Jed Greenberg. The program includes a series of lectures and classes focused on reinventing our communities to make them viable and vibrant for the foreseeable future and beyond.

The SCI Community Enrichment Program seeks to provide a foundation of knowledge in sustainability while enabling participants to share their interests and concerns. Rhode Island students are encouraged to contribute to the SCI Sustainable Communities Index and a sustainability resource guide for the public. The SCI Index is a research tool being developed to help residents evaluate the sustainability performance of their towns and cities.

The SCI Community Leaders Program offers those interested in acquiring core competencies in sustainability the opportunity to apply this knowledge in their own communities. Participants will be prepared to lead Sustainability Learning Circles with the support of SCI in their communities and contribute to the development of the SCI Sustainable Communities Index.

“RIC is very pleased to be partnering with Jed Greenberg and SCI,” said Dante Del Giudice, campus administrator for the initiative and interim director of RIC’s Professional Studies and Continuing Education. “He is a veteran of and young leader in the Rhode Island environmental movement. His SCI project is unique in its vision to affect real change one community at a time in partnership with concerned individuals, leading environmental scholars, environmental agencies, participant training and higher education.”

The lecture series began Feb. 16 with a talk by Julian Agyeman titled “Just Sustainabilities: Re-imagining (E)quality, Living within Limits.” Agyeman is a professor and chair of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and the co-originator of the concept of “just sustainabilities,” which focuses on the integration of social/spatial justice and sustainability — defined as "the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems."

Agyeman began his lecture by offering an idea that is becoming voiced more frequently in the circles of sustainability, most notably by Naomi Oreskes, author of the best-selling book “Merchants of Doubt.”

“We have the (physical) science of sustainability,” he said, “but sustainability questions are answered, more often than not, by social science.”

Agyeman believes that human equality and environmental quality are the same thing, but has found in his research that a small minority of environmental advocacy groups actually address social justice as a part of their mission. It’s no wonder that the poor are marginalized by the majority of the environmental movement, “when you look at who’s on the board and who’s employed by Greenpeace,” Agyeman said.

Too often, we hear stories of Rhode Island being behind in this or that. Fortunately, we're ahead of the curve when it comes to the synergy of environment and social justice. The Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island has been successful in educating and empowering residents in the immigrant and poor population on the city's South Side, particularly about the former Gorham Silver Mill site on Adelaide Street. The Beats of Resilience project is working closely with the state's Commission on Climate Change to ensure that these communities are fairly represented and that our response to climate change isn't driven to expensive alternatives that, quite frankly, a growing part of our population can't afford. Too often, these segments of our society are marginalized within the political and regulatory process.

Agyeman's research has shown that in societies that have the greatest level of inequality are much more prone to social breakdowns. “The Nordic countries,” he offered as an example, “have the most just and environmentally responsible societies, and have exhibited fewer social breakdowns.”

In comparison, countries with the greatest levels of human inequality, like many of the war-torn countries in Africa, experience larger and more frequent implosions of social structures. “In the U.S.,” he said, “that inequality is heightened by our competitive consumerism.”

The problem, as Agyeman sees it, is the idea that the environmental justice and environmental sustainability movements are separate. This concept is reinforced when you consider that, through his work, Agyeman found that only 40 percent of American cities that have sustainability action plans include environmental justice as a component. “These movements need to fuse to achieve long-term success," he said.

The face of conservation has traditionally been caucasian, but Agyeman stressed that, “Environmental organizations cannot be frozen in a moment in time. We have to look at growing populations to know what the future of conservation will look like.”

He leveled an indictment of colleges whose sustainability actions go for, as he put it, “the low hanging fruit of recycling and greenspace. Campuses have to look at things like reducing instances of violence and increasing access to mental health services,” in order to become truly sustainable.

One of the greatest challenges to creating just, sustainable communities is changing civic structures to celebrate, rather than tolerate, diversity. But Agyeman's research has found that of the 87 planning schools in the United States none have cultural components.

There is a major disparity in the global consumption of resources. The United States represents only 3 percent of the world’s population, but consumes a full quarter of the world’s natural resources. “This overconsumption is only possible due to the underconsumption of a vast majority of the world’s population," Agyeman said. "We’ve defined the minimum levels of consumption allowable to sustain (one) life, why have we not defined the maximum consumption allowable to sustain (all) life? We know that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the relative satisfaction of a population have no correlation, yet we continue to behave as if one has something to do with the other.”

The good news is that this overconsumption is being more often and more steadily questioned, and social structures are changing, albeit slowly, to address the issue. Agyeman offered the proliferation of the sharing revolution as an example of these changes. “In more and more cities, we see things like Zipcars, time banks and even private vehicle owners participating in ride share projects.”

Agyeman’s just sustainability includes a spatial justice component as well. He questions why streets are not thought of as public spaces similar to parks and open space. “In the same way that we cannot afford to distribute justice along class and race lines, we can’t afford to distribute justice geographically, either.”

He again pointed to the Nordic countries as an example of this spatial justice. “In Sweden, only 20 percent of streets are dedicated to automobile usage.” In the United States, nearly 100 percent of any given road is dedicated to autos. This automatically puts segments of the population that choose to, or are forced to by income, illness or other factors, not to drive a car at a distinct disadvantage.