Bringing Environmental Justice to the Classroom

March 22, 2022
image of environmental science and law books at the foot of a tree in front of a building on a university campus.

The laws that govern our environment are far from neutral. Instead, they have often legitimized privilege and racism, leaving low-income communities and people of color to face additional health and ecological hazards. Environmental justice pushes for equitable policies and access to environmental protection along with reparations for past injustices. With interdisciplinarity at its core, the movement relies on input from scholars, policymakers, and community activists.  

But how should environmental justice be incorporated into the university classroom? What are the themes and methods that help educate and enable students to create their own solutions, and to leave with the knowledge that will help empower them as future leaders of their communities? Students are often at the frontlines of environmental justice and other social movements, but their diverse perspectives and experiences are underutilized in curricular efforts designed to bridge advocacy and academic study. To incorporate these voices, we reached out to students involved in climate-related work and activism to imagine how they would design a course focusing on the scientific and societal impacts of climate change and environmental justice.

Roi Ankori-Karlinsky, PhD Student in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (Urban Ecology Field Research Program)

For me, what an environmental justice class is about depends on the scope and scale of the class. Is it global? Is it local? Is it an introduction or an applied course? If it's a primer on environmental justice in the U.S., I would want to cover first and foremost, the perspective of Indigenous peoples in North America on non-human relatives, including animals, plants, and the surrounding environment. I would then give an overview of how European colonization disrupted and disrupts the agency and relationship between people and our environment. I would then focus on structural racism, from slavery to industrialization and redlining, and how an unequal society creates a suite of injustices that have environmental impacts. These are sort of summed up in a few questions: Who gets to own and develop land? Who has agency on what is done with land? And who gets to study and decide what are environmental impacts on people and ecosystems? In the U.S. at least, the answers tend to be wealthy white people and corporations, who in turn disenfranchise poor people, Indigenous and Black people, and other marginalized communities. That leads to unequal burdens in terms of pollution, lack of clean water, disease exposure, and access to green spaces. 

I would structure the class to be half field and half classroom. In my view, an environmental justice course should credit and platform activists who are doing the work to win power back for their communities, from organizations like WEACT in upper Manhattan to the Restoration Project throughout NYC. I would organize field trips to talk to community activists, visit major polluter sites, and restoration projects that empower communities to mitigate pollution and increase green spaces. Ideally, by the end of the course, students should have resources and connections to begin doing or supporting environmental justice work themselves.  

Megan Cushing, BS Student in Earth and Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering is a cross-disciplinary field that encompasses biology, chemistry, geology, sociology, and politics. Much of our class curriculum revolves around scientific and theoretical issues, neglecting to address real-world issues of application. For instance, we learn about the contaminants present in water and how to make it potable, but not how to gain the public and private participation to enforce these practices for all peoples. I would be interested in an environmental justice course being added to our curriculum. It could be structured by beginning with past issues of environmental justice that we are already familiar with from previous studies, such as the Love Canal, the Flint water crisis, and the Three Mile Island accident. This will allow us to identify the cause of environmental injustice in these instances, the type of injustice occurring, and what was done to remediate the issue. In learning about previous issues we can become better equipped to identify, correct, and prevent similar occurrences in the future. There is a political aspect to this, as they adhere to laws and regulations, so an introduction on political language and rules in place could be beneficial to students. The course could conclude with the students identifying a current environmental issue and describing the injustice occurring and stakeholders involved, and developing a plan of action. The knowledge gained from all of our classes is beneficial and I believe that the addition of an environmental justice class would allow for a place to apply that knowledge and bring power and protection to communities.

Natalie Greaves-Peters, PhD Student in Behavioral Nutrition (Environmental Justice and Climate Just Cities Network)

In a nutshell, the class I would create would model the CU Seminar in Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice course. It would also incorporate much of the Nutritional Ecology course taught by Drs. Joan Gussow and Pam Koch at Teachers College. That nutritional ecology class emphasizes the colossal role of the food system in environmental destruction. 

Ellie Hansen, BA Student in Psychology (Tricentennial Project)

A new environmental justice class at Columbia should include creative projects that attempt to solve environmental issues. This will help students move beyond discovering problems to helping imagine a better world than the one that created them.

Lauren Moseley, PhD Student in Earth and Environmental Sciences (Decarbonization, Climate Resilience and Climate Justice Network)

In Summer 2020, a group of graduate students from the department of earth and environmental sciences (DEES) began discussing the gaps in our departmental curricula. DEES excels at teaching hard science, but the students felt that we often overlook broader implications including how racism is both entrenched in the history of earth science and perpetuated by climate change. We organized the Seminar in Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice (2020-21) as a means of expanding the scope of DEES curricula to encompass environmental justice and allow students to complete course credits for engaging in these much-needed discussions. Thanks to recent funding from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, we have hired an incredible postdoc to lead and expand this course over the next three years (2022-25) - open to all interested Columbia graduate students!

Ben Mylius, PhD Student in Political Science (Climate Imaginations Network)

If I were designing an environmental justice class, I think it'd be great to include (a) work from ecofeminist and Indigenous writers and (b) work from philosophy on the ways that the "logics" of different kinds of domination often overlap with and inform one another - in other words, that there are very often resonances between the domination of women by men, Indigenous societies by colonial ones, nature by humans, and so forth. In combination with concrete work, I think these kinds of efforts can give a terrific set of intellectual resources for students to engage critically with their own areas of interest.

Charitie Ropati, BS Student in Civil Engineering (Native Rights Activist)

An environmental justice class that understands the value of Indigenous knowledge systems and how this framework can change how we view land is the root of this very idea, i.e. environmental justice. Accessibility in climate education is critical and would be an integral part of this course. I would structure this course to allow for students to engage with reading material that validates the knowledge from the original care takers of the land; texts that have conversation about the non consensual taking of land and historical trauma and how that is rooted is issues of climate change. When you view the land as a breathing entity rather than a commodity, that’s when real change can occur and is something I would love for students in this course to understand.

The continuing need for environmental justice work is clear in our society today, as access to resources, safe living conditions, and the potential to be involved with decision-making processes is grossly undistributed. The only way to make concrete and vital advancements in this social movement is through the involvement of people from all fields of study and walks of life, not just climate science researchers but community activists, public officials, urban planners, and more.

Jane Roschen, Master’s Student in Sustainability Management (SUMA Net Impact)

It is important for environmental justice to be investigated within the context of every impacted community. An important class on environmental justice would share that no standard definition across the board can solve the climate issues disadvantaged communities face. In SUMA Net Impact, we work with real-life clients to support their path towards sustainability. Equity considerations are one of our key pillars in creating successful sustainability consulting projects. In a focused project or study of environmental justice, there are important remediations for climate injustice, including how and when to clean up toxic industrial sites, nuclear power and the siting of environmental justice communities. One of the most important facets of an equitable transition to a fossil-free economy and society is looking at how the energy market restructuring and adjustments create space for energy democracy. Studying environmental justice at an institution like Columbia requires a leap of thinking that focuses on bottom-up participation and democratic processes in how we use, talk about, and pay for the energy system.

The continuing need for environmental justice work is clear in our society today, as access to resources, safe living conditions, and the potential to be involved with decision-making processes is grossly undistributed. The only way to make concrete and vital advancements in this social movement is through the involvement of people from all fields of study and walks of life, not just climate science researchers but community activists, public officials, urban planners, and more.

To read more about the Center’s focus on environmental justice this semester, visit the News section of our website or join one of our upcoming Climate and Society events, showcasing the work of leading scholars and Columbia researchers on climate, environment, sustainability and their social and cultural dimensions.

Teaching a class on environmental justice at Columbia, Barnard, or Teachers College? Interdisciplinary and co-teaching course development grants are available on a rolling basis.