USP 515 – Environmental Justice
- Summarize what you learned from each and every session in this course. You are required to refer to each session separately and individually with the name of the session on top of each part of your answer.
Session 1 “First Peoples and Traditional Territory Introductions”
We started by learning about approaches for discussion in this class. It was basically the same as the other class. There was a lot of metacommentary. We talked about how to talk about the topics. We learned for the first time that the professor preferred students to interject and interrupt, rather than using tools like “raise hands” on zoom. This made me think about which student groups in the class are privileged by this policy and which are marginalized. I had previously taken a class on the topic of the way that professors set expectations in classes which typically favor extroverts and make things harder for introverts. This seemed like a good example of that.
We also learned that the professor would be requiring everyone to attend class synchronously without recordings to refer back to. This led to a similar discussion about spring semester and the anecdote that nearly all the black students had dropped as a result of these and other policies in this class.
We also learned about one another’s expectations for a safe classroom such as “speaking from I,” allowing people to articulate their point before reacting, and as one student put it, “appreciating one another’s valid subjective opinions even when they’re different.” We finished the first day of this session with an open discussion where the professor asked everyone to explain what they think sustainable development is, and then the professor explained that none of us know what sustainable development is. This is when I learned that the tone of the class would be deeply ideological, with all references to the personal beliefs of the professor portrayed as absolute facts from a universal and objective perspective, rather than within the broader dialectical context of the many valid alternatives to each conclusion offered. Given the context of the previous comment about institutionally racist policies in the class, and the disregard for ameliorating the outcome of “all black students dropping,” plus the fact that this comment came just after a discussion about respective subjective experience, I almost dropped the class at this point because I find it difficult to have patience when claims are presented this way. It did lead to many tense moments later on, but I’m glad I stuck around because we ended up learning many interesting things as we will see on future pages.
This session was split into two days. On the second day, we learned about self-care in the context of the urban process, departing from the 514 topics. This motivated me to reflect more deeply on Harvey’s essay about the Urban Process Under Capitalism and the way that taking a social justice class during a pandemic highlights the absence of BIPOC people and the institutional complicity it takes to make most minority students drop all their classes because of what I would later learn is called “unequal protection from harm.”
Session 2 “Central Concepts”
During this session, we discussed the terms and concepts that would be central to the course. We learned that the professor would be applying an anthropocentric definition of the term, excluding any discussion of animal welfare, the welfare of the ecosystems, and rather framing issues only from the perspective of environmental costs and benefits to humans. This seems like an ironic position to take in retrospect, based on claims made later about the inherent flaws of all cost-benefit analyses.
Since we were taking an anthropocentric perspective on the topic, I offered several concepts from my social justice degree to the discussion such as systemic oppression, the definition of allyship, and the duty for reparations. I learned that these core concepts of social justice would not feature in the discussion or as part of the central concepts of the course. This motivated me to think more deeply about the overall purpose of the course and whether it was based on a colonized perspective of what justice is and should be, rather than on an honest critical analysis of the lessons, demands, and strategies conferred by those people most impacted.
It was also interesting to learn the claim that environmental justice must necessarily feature redress as a core duty. This motivated me to reflect with some confusion during later units about cost-benefit analyses vs the precautionary principle. This claim from the beginning of the class seems to be yet another contradiction with that later claim. If redress is the core duty, then how are we avoiding any discussion of reparations or the duty of allyship (in the social justice sense) and focusing instead on demanding future actions be taken only after entities prove they will do no further harm? Reflecting further, it does seem that these core claims of the course are in conflict.
We learned the in-class definitions of things like race, class, ethnicity, and poverty which were roughly equivalent to the social justice definitions with the possible exception that race and ethnicity are generally not treated separately under Critical Theory Analyses like they are in this class.
We also learned the in-class definition of the environment which confusingly does include the animals and ecosystem and not just humans. This motivated me to reflect more deeply on what struck me as an odd contradiction at the time; we had heard in the previous session that we would not be hearing or making any moral arguments about the rights of any entities in the environment except homo sapiens. Syntactically, the class is called “environmental justice” and we have just defined the environment to include all animals, and yet we are only talking about the impact to humans and not the duty to protect animals for their own sake. Perhaps the class should be called human justice? Reflecting further now, it does seem like a core conflict in the curriculum of this class.
We then unironically learned that the definition of prejudice in this class would be the belief that some groups are better or more deserving than other groups, and that institutional racism means racism in institutions like education. This motivated me at the time to note that we had already seen examples of both of these in the class.
Session 3 “Central Theories”
In the Feagin and Eckberg reading, we learned that most of the social science literature contains the assumption that prejudice causes discrimination, but that the reality is more complex. Discriminatory actions within one institution are frequently related to discrimination in other institutional settings. For example, it would be easy to argue that the low rate of black enrollment in the SFSU USP program makes it easy for professors to ignore the environment they create which excludes those few black students who do enroll. The big takeaway from the article is that there are dimensions of racial discrimination and that each of the permutations should be studied and remedied in a different way.
We also learned in the Bullard article about the strong connection between settler colonialism and the displacement and extermination of native populations around the world. This was the first time we touched on the fact that Costly externalities cause disparate impact for those communities unable to resist being a dumping ground for toxic colonialism. This was also the first link back to the idea of sacrificing long-term interests in favor of short-term interests.
In the Mohai and Bryant article, we learned about evidence that an inverse relationship exists between proximity to whiteness and proximity to environmental harms; white people are protected from harms at the expense of BIPOC.
We also learned from the Democracy Now interview about the timeline and details of the Flint water crisis. I had been aware of the broad strokes but I think this was the first time I really learned the details of the case study. Particularly interesting was learning about the white emergency manager who subverted the democracy of the city and exposed the black residents to harm for the promise of some trivial degree of austerity.
Session 4 “Environmental Justice”
In this session, we defined environmental justice as a social movement in relation to environmental movement with a social justice component. I noted at the time being surprised that the topic was not centered around stronger core social justice principles and in particular epistemic and moral frameworks like feminist ethics and animal rights.
It was interesting to learn about the disparity between which nations cause problems and which nations pay the price for problems. In past classes I had studied toxic colonialism, but I had not explicitly studied the way the causes and impacts of climate change mirror the issue of toxic colonialism.
We learned about how capitalism is at the core of what’s wrong, because we have a profit-motivated economic system built on centuries of things like the legacy of slavery, redlining, the Chinese exclusion act, the concentration camps, xenophobic immigration laws, and the prison industrial complex. With such a foundation, how could it be possible to have a just system? This motivated me to reflect more deeply on whether this argument is internally consistent or whether critiquing across an epistemic gap is just pandering without the capacity to affect change. I figured this would be developed further in later modules, which it does seem to have been.
We also touched on the same topic from 514 about post-war America being the only remaining developed industrial power and having lots of big, temporary advantages which were distributed unequally to white people instead of black people. The legacy of this moral failure survives to this day.
This was also the session when we first learned the term LULU: Locally Unwanted Land Use. In the context of this session, we discussed land use policy, the political process, and the way these and other factors comingle to give us infrastructure and justice/injustice outcomes. We also learned about the way that the LULU is the chicken that comes both before and after the egg of the local population. They are sited where minorities live, and then those areas are more affordable drawing more minorities who are exposed to the harms related to the LULUs.
Session 5 “The Politics of Pollution”
This was the first real meat and potatoes of the course. We learned in the Davies and Davies reading about the way interdisciplinary scientific study of pollution is not based on science. Instead of being scientific, the standards used to study pollution are political. The standards are arbitrary but presented as scientific fact. At the time, I reflected that this was a missed opportunity in the class. It would have been the perfect moment to point out that we are making moral claims about how people should be protected from harms, not scientific claims about how harms are bad. Good and bad are not scientific terms after all, they are moral terms. We could then couch that perspective within a strongly developed moral framework like feminist ethics or critical theory.
In the Bullard reading, we learned more about the way proximity to whiteness corelates inversely to exposure to harms. Reflecting more deeply now within the context of the previous paragraph, this is an example of a good scientific claim; it is testable, reproducible, and can be used to explain the past while making testable predictions about the future. Again it seems like a missed opportunity to contrast this kind of good scientific claim with bad scientific claims like how much lead exposure is fine. (This is actually a moral claim, since it’s not testable, reproducible, etc.)
We also learned about the story of Alex Nieto with regard to gentrification. I had not heard this story before, being new to the city. White gentrifiers wrongly called the police on a person of color who had grown up in what was now a colonized neighborhood. He had been eating a burrito on a break from work, and the police showed up and murdered him for no reason. This story has played out across the city and across the country countless times for centuries, but this local example is particularly germane for those of us who exist in the spaces where this example took place.
Session 6 “Unequal Protection from Harm”
We started by learning about a wild memo that was written by Chief Economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers in 1991. In it, he argues that developing countries are “under-polluted” because shorter lifespans there means it’s more likely that people will die of other causes before dying of pollution, thus reducing the cost to polluters from lawsuits and other barriers to pollution. He also argued that only rich people care about pollution, so it makes sense to produce our pollution where there are mostly poor people. There was nothing particularly surprising about this since it’s basically been the state of the world since the industrial revolution started, but it was the first time I had seen it worded so concisely and unironically.
We then learned that Brazil’s then secretary of the environment Jose Lutzenburger responded, “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane… Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in…. If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility.” Ironically, this sound moral response to an absurd moral claim by Summers earned Secretary Lutzenburger a termination because we live under the fascistic hegemony of capitalism which works hard to silence any moral critique.
We then read David Harvey’s piece, The Environment of Justice. Harvey talks about both the statements from both Summers and Lutzenburger before connecting to several recent session topics. For example, Harvey points out that the presence of minorities is the strongest indicator of LULU siting, and points to the fact that endorsing toxic colonialism is antithetical to any notion of justice and progress. I noted that the text seemed to be cut off suddenly mid-piece, and we discussed in class that this had been intentional.
We also learned about a religious organization which published a list of examples of forms of pollution and related health conditions. They also listed many significant events in the history of the environmental justice movement. All of this was tied back to religion in what seemed like an attempt to frame the issue of environmental justice as an eschatological argument. This motivated me to reflect more deeply on the fact that this example deviated from the class’ norm of making objective scientific claims about what are actually moral issues rather than scientific issues as I’ve mentioned several times. Eschatology seems sort of adjacent to morality since it evolved to fill that niche in religion. I actually appreciate this framing of claims within a clear epistemological framework. I may personally reject religion, but at least this argument is logically consistent.
We touched briefly on spatial issues, and learned that a person’s zip code is the most important indicator of success in life because privileged and oppressed groups are sorted into regions where they are either protected from or exposed to harms. We learned that for research purposes relating to environmental justice, zip codes are treated as essentially interchangeable with factors like race, class, and other demographic characteristics of populations.
Session 7 “Health Justice: Case Study of Covid 19”
It was interesting to have this similar unit from the other class but with an EJ twist. We learned about the impact of covid on undocumented immigrants specifically. We learned that while covid has exposed huge disparities across the board, few examples are as shocking and problematic as the impact on undocumented immigrants. We also learned about the racist exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the Affordable Care Act, and the way that Obama’s own signature healthcare package failed to achieve parity for immigrants.
We also learned that the stimulus and relief efforts in response to covid deliberately exclude these immigrants who are already most at risk not just of poor health outcomes but also poor economic outcomes as countless jobs disappear overnight.
We also touched briefly on the Black New Deal. Again, I have to say I feel like this was a huge missed opportunity. Something like this would be a perfect overall framework for the class; it is full of a long and comprehensive list of specific claims based on outreach to those who are actually in the populations we’re talking about and paired with specific solutions to the problems they bring up. It’s an excellent document which deserves at a minimum its own unit. The fact that in an environmental justice class, the only place for the Black New Deal is as a footnote on a session about covid just does not make sense. At a minimum it should have its own session. Ethically, each section of the BDN should have its own session.
In prisons in particular, we learned that the impacts of covid are widespread and dramatic. Inmates in California have about triple the risk as the average person. In New Jersey, this gap jumps to over seven times. Death rates are also extremely high with half-again the deaths in New Jersey prisons versus the overall population.
We touched very briefly in this session on sacrifice zones which seems like another huge missed opportunity. We learned about the fact that LULUs are often clustered together in formerly minority neighborhoods which essentially become uninhabitable toxic areas called sacrifice zones. This led me to reflect more deeply on the way many of my past environmental justice classes have framed this and other topics the other way around; instead of talking very dryly about correlations between minority racial prevalence and LULU citing, they tended to talk about the way capitalism creates sacrifice zones, converting whatever minority neighborhoods are not bulldozed and gentrified into toxic waste sites, leaving nowhere for minorities to go. This kind of claim is moral rather than scientific, highlighting disparate impact with a call to action for progress towards justice rather than merely citing a statistic and moving on.
Session 8 “The Environmental Justice Movement”
In this class we learned a lot about psychedelic drugs including the stoned ape hypothesis. The connection being the fact that any amount of time spent in nature reflecting on the complex ecology around us makes us feel some obligation of stewardship towards the land. It’s a perspective that seems to make its own arguments to those who agree, and to create a gulf between these stewards and those who voluntarily salt and burn the land with no apparent regard for the future.
This was the first time we learned about the open letter published by the conference of top environmental justice organizations accusing the large environmental organizations of being environmentally racist and ineffective in their mission. For example, the letter highlights that the staffs of these organizations are rich white people who focus only on wilderness areas while ignoring the impacts to the environment of the urban landscape. The letter went on to point out that the policy advocacy of these organizations was never focused on BIPOC issues and the urban poor. The letter finished with demands that these organizations diversify their staff and boards and stop tokenizing black children to fundraise for rainforests if they are not actually going to help those black children and work on the environment where those children live.
We also learned about the professor’s perspective on how to discuss these issues with Malthusian ecofascists. The professor advised that we should talk about big problems first, then talk about small problems, before advocating for specific things we agree about like moving away from industrial agriculture. The professor also recommended that we make a distinction between avowed ecofascists and those who merely share all their views, because there is some chance that for people who merely hold ecofascist views there is some potential to change those views if we argue correctly. If we start with articulating the problem descriptions which we agree on, we can use those agreements to advocate for fundamental changes instead of incrementalism.
Session 9 “Research and Measurement Issues”
This was the session when we learned about measuring disparities using biomarkers. We learned about biomarkers of exposure, biomarkers of effect, and biomarkers of susceptibility. Each of these can be measured separately and correlated with demographic data to make real scientific claims about the disparate impact of environmental injustice. For example, if we compare exposure to lead based on race, we are likely to see white people with lower lead levels than black people.
One critical area in research which we learned about is culturally equivalent measures and cultural bias. It’s important that research is conducted without the assumption that subjects who have different cultural perspectives will see their biomarkers measured the same way because of the potential for confounding variables, different sets of connotations, and other cultural factors which need to be controlled for in this kind of research.
Next we learned about the differences between community and institutional research. Most of the really interesting examples in the history of the environmental justice movement are when institutions which ostensibly exist to do this kind of research instead fail to serve the community. Institutional research is often deeply political and based on motivated reasoning rather than objective scientific review of the evidence. It takes work as we saw in the last paragraph to conduct good research on diverse populations. It also takes work to ignore the evidence of problems in those communities. Examples we’ve learned about include the changing of the “official” levels at which lead contamination is dangerous rather than admitting there is a problem. This is where community research comes in. In examples like Love Canal and Flint, the community worked together to demonstrate the problem. The community did this because the institutions which ostensibly existed to research and prevent exactly these kinds of problems were complicit in actively hiding the very problems they existed in order to prevent.
Session 10 “Climate Justice”
We started by learning about the climate gap. Communities of color contribute less to the climate problems we face as a global society. Despite that, they face more of the impacts. For example, they suffer more during heat waves without access to life saving climate control. They suffer dirtier air which exacerbates the risks of covid, asthma, and other respiratory problems. They face higher prices for basic necessities. They also have fewer prospects for jobs and economic growth and advancement.
The report we read for the class contains several recommendations. We learned that it makes sense to site new LULUs in communities which don’t already have LULUs, privileged communities in order to share the burden of pollution with rich white people who are currently not sharing in the risks and side effects of these sites.
In the case study on Malawi, we got the first statistics about the gap between impacts felt by rich white countries versus poor BIPOC countries. This gap is 200-300x according to the reading. The nation of Malawi is working hard on increasing resiliency to storms, droughts, floods, agricultural externalities, and other problems. Despite this work, they are still subject the side effects of countries like the US where instead of mitigating these outcomes, the outcomes are simply shifted onto countries like Malawi.
Next, they give a list of ways that rich countries can help Malawi survive what we have exposed them to. Specifically, they want help with solving hunger, poverty, and flooding. This led me to reflect on whether that seems likely to happen, since the US refuses to even admit that this reality exists. I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only once they have tried everything else.”
Lastly, one of the readings covers five ways to make the climate movement less white. It was very interesting and useful to learn about this list of specific actionable steps. First, we need to build intergenerational power for BIPOC people, and this is something we already see happening today, particularly in the context of the BND proposal. Second we need to require white organizers to acknowledge and confront their internalized white supremacy. I see this more and more in direct action organizations where I volunteer, but it needs to grow and be further normalized in society. This made me reflect more deeply on the finding from the economist that the most strongly correlated factor that predicts how someone voted in the recent election is whether or not they admit that systemic racism exists. Next, we need to acknowledge, converse with, and understand those activists who don’t look like the cookie cutter activist. This is critical and connects back to many of the points we’ve covered in the class so far from the value of culturally competent community research to the fact that outreach is the only way to form solutions which actually represent what is needed by those who are actually a part of the communities being affected. Lastly, we need to provide accessible environmental education that comes from nonacademic ways of learning, and this really ties them all together, because if we’ve doing to acknowledge the history and practices that created the problems we’re trying to solve while also including and centering those who are most affected, then we have to acknowledge the fact that our institutions are complicit and responsible for the problems we’re trying to solve. Therefore, those same institutions are not the solution to the problem which they themselves helped to create.
Session 11 “Transportation Justice: Case Study of Curitiba, Brazil”
This was covered in the other class. It was very interesting to learn about the Curitiba BRT system in the YouTube video we watched. I had always heard BRT described as a half-measure that rich people would not adopt. It was interesting to see a whole city built on BRT and with such high ridership. This caused me to reflect on whether what I’ve heard about BRT was potentially inaccurate or incomplete. The idea of doing elevated platforms with people paying before they get on seems particularly helpful for the speed of the system. It will be interesting to see how BRT works out for the new East Bay BRT line.
The line that stuck with me most from the Curitiba case study was “Adding population without adding infrastructure and planning to support the additional population will result in a lower quality of life and an increase in social problems in the city.” This seems to be close to where we are at today in America. The idea that we are already in such a housing crisis plus we are adding another 70 million people in the next few decades presents similar sorts of challenges to what this quote is talking about. We will either make changes now or we will make them later, but the way things are just isn’t going to keep working.
One thing that raised my eyebrows in this case study was in “Bogota: Building a Sustainable City”(3:15-5:20) when Penolosa seemed to argue for broken windows theory; that people will decide what kind of life to have based on their surroundings, and so eliminating the negative cues about the kind of neighborhoods you have will cause people to choose to live in a better way. He said this gave people more self esteem which solved urban social problems. This idea is directly responsible for a huge number of social problems in America. I have repeatedly reflected deeply on this segment of the video since we watched it. I think it would take a great deal of research to reconcile these arguments, and I may do that at some future point.
We also learned about the problem of connecting centers rather than connecting people to where they need to go. This problem seems like one of the most challenging unresolved issues in urban design; how can you build infrastructure for the future when the future is in flux? The example of the Chicago trains radiating like wheels on a spoke was very interesting. When the system was built, it made sense, but today most people are commuting from one suburb to another and there is effectively no simple and fast transit option for them using the existing infrastructure.
Session 12 “Civil Rights”
This was a pretty straightforward session. We learned about the history of voter suppression and disenfranchisement in America, particularly the legacy of poll taxes, gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement within the context of a racist police state with a deeply corrupt and for-profit school-to-prison pipeline.
This led to a discussion of the prison abolition movement and the call to defund the police. We learned that many of our cities are spending more on their police forces than nations spend on their militaries, again all as part of a corrupt for-profit scheme to commodify minorities into a product to be unjustly incarcerated.
There is much cause for hope. We learned in the “Restoring Voting Rights for Felons” reading that an amendment in Florida recently restored the rights of millions of formerly incarcerated people to vote, with similar bills being worked on around the country as a response to the BLM movement.
Session 13 “Addressing Environmental Injustices/Cost Benefit Analysis/Precautionary Principle”
This was covered in the other class. We learned about two alternate approaches to evaluating the relative good and bad between different options in urban planning: cost benefit analyses versus the precautionary principle.
In the first reading, Pricing the Priceless, we learned about the principle of cost benefit analysis analyzed through the perspective of a moral argument about society. The claim of the paper was that a cost benefit analysis offers a deeply flawed method which biases economic value above all other concerns. Within this framework, there is no way to argue for social most justice issues and environmental issues, because there is no clear, direct economic measure to compare with these kinds of concerns. On the other hand, some social justice and environmental issues can be addressed under this framework. If we have a long-term financial incentive not to destroy the biosphere, then there is a rational cost-benefit reason not to do that. If it’s cheaper to give homeless people housing, then there is a rational cost-benefit reason to do that.
In the second reading, The Precautionary Principle Puts Value First, we learned about the precautionary principle which argues that rather than basing decisions on economic interests, we should require evidence for a lack of potential harm from those entities who wish to undertake any action in society. It argues that instead of just being a profitable endeavor, products and enterprises should have to demonstrate proof that they will not harm people in the process of what they want to do.
The way this dichotomy was presented led me to reflect on whether this is a true dichotomy or perhaps rather a case of people with different epistemologies talking past each other. Both of these concepts are based on different ideas about how to decide what’s true and right, and both of these concepts have problems. The cost-benefit analysis is often the only possible language which our institutions and businesses can legally interact with. Maybe that should change, but it’s not clear that the precautionary principle is up to the task, based on the readings.
It’s not possible to prove a negative. The idea that every entity should be required to prove it will not cause harm before taking any action would not only be logically impossible but also essentially outlaw all harms. Certainly there are egregious harms from some entities which should be addressed, but a certain amount of risk is part of life. If I want to open a café, how can I possibly prove that I will harm no one? What degree of risk is acceptable? Should we institute a worldwide ban all products containing peanuts because of the risk to someone with an unknown allergy? Under the precautionary principle as stated in this class, yes we should.
This session poses a false dichotomy where neither option works all the time. The missing attempt at reconciling these ideas leaves any underlying truth uninterrogated and demonstrates only that neither of these options works in all situations, while only one of them can even approach those with the power to actually make decisions on these topics. Towards the end of the session, the professor said we “should be thinking conceptually rather than theoretically or practically.” Indeed, that’s the only way I can rationalize the argument made by session is by starting with the assumption that’s right and not thinking too deeply about it.
- What have you learned in this course about the concept of “environmental justice”?
I think the biggest change for my own knowledge after already having a degree in social justice and taking many other environmental justice classes before has been framing that knowledge within the context that there is still a lack of consensus about how to define and accomplish the goals of environmental justice. It has been interesting to read so many articles and essays from central bankers, professors of related fields, and other sources.
In the past my own perspective has been much more focused on and aligned with what the people in marginalized communities are saying about what they are experiencing and what they need me to do about it. I have always been somewhat averse to the sociological perspective which often overlaps with the neoliberal perspective; form a nonprofit and board of directors to lobby institutions for reform. I was glad to see this class touch on that and reject it, favoring the community perspective over the institutional perspective.
In short, there are many versions of what environmental justice is, and this class reinforced my own perspective that the version I want to be a part of is the one that listens to those most impacted, measures things like biomarkers, shares the knowledge and takes concrete steps to demand change. I really related to the session when we learned about the way a group of activists called out the leading environmental institutions as being a part of the problem and that’s really the kind of environmental justice that I want to be a part of.
- What are your five main takeaways from this course?
It seems like a lot of the claims and points made in both classes include people talking past each other and equivocating on many of the terms being used. The first thing I take away is the failure to distinguish moral arguments from ontological claims. It’s one thing to make a claim about reality, for example black families have 1/10th the wealth of white families on average. It’s another thing to try articulating a “scientific” claim that we should do something about this. That just isn’t a scientific claim, it’s a moral claim. And the problem I see is conflating the way we talk about these different types of claims. A have noted numerous examples in the previous pages where acknowledging that the claims being made are actually moral claims would make them clearer and enable us to use the tools of ethics and logic to examine and compare conflicting ideas which are in my opinion incorrectly presented as equivalent and dichotomous. This is a common failure of academic discourse particularly on interdisciplinary topics where it is much harder to broad some of these topics without committing equivocation fallacies.
Unequal protection from harm is another key takeaway for me. In my Sociology and Social Justice degree programs, there was a huge focus on measuring disparate impact and the first stage of Kingdon’s model for solving social problems, but this was always from the perspective of harm, not protection. It is interesting and new for me to reflect on harms as a byproduct of society with their impact being unevenly distributed specifically because some groups and being protected while others are not. This also opens the door to epistemic questions about the argument being made for these protections, and why they do not apply to everyone. It’s a novel perspective which I’ve picked up as a result of this class.
Sacrifice zones and toxic colonialism both seem like a missed opportunity as I mentioned before. We talk a lot about the way we colonize the developing world and dump our trash and toxins there, but it’s very interesting to reflect on the way this also happens domestically with LULU siting in our own communities. The same arguments against dumping our toxins in Nigeria can be applied to minority communities in California. This opens a whole can of worms. It would be very interesting to explore the way America has turned many of its own communities into sacrifice zones not at all unlike those far-away lands outside the circle of sentiments where we’re used to thinking of the sacrifice zones as being.
Voting rights never really seemed like an environmental justice issue with the definitions I had before this class. I like the way this class frames the environment to include causes and effects of the problems and centers the discussion where people actually are, the urban landscape. It’s easy to see now how disenfranchising minorities is both a natural side effect of injustice and also a potential avenue for progress through efforts to enfranchise those who have been pushed out.
- How has this class impacted you professionally?
As I mentioned in the other class, I left my previous career in Software Engineering with a degree in Computer Science. My primary academic goal is to get and MBA and then start working on a PhD in Strategy. I decided I wanted to get a broad undergraduate background in social sciences on the way to my primary goal, as a way to develop a strong understanding of social problems and the way they relate to different communities in cities. In three years on a triple full time workload, I got six associate degrees in Sociology, Social Justice, Women’s Studies, Behavioral Science, Arts and Cultures, and LGBT Studies and Queer Studies. I always knew I wanted to study Urban Planning for my Bachelor, but the reason I came to San Francisco to study the topic of what’s wrong with cities is because there is nowhere in the world where problems with housing, transportation, wages, equity gaps, and institutional racism are worse. This city is the capital of doing things the wrong way, so it’s naturally the perfect place to study these social problems in depth. I’m also doing three minors along with my Bachelor: Race and Resistance Studies, Queer Ethnic Studies, and Philosophy. The purpose of all of these is to tie together a strong understanding of the way that social problems effect many different types of communities in cities.
Also again, my ultimate professional goal is to develop nonprofit solutions to social problems in cities. I’m planning to start working specifically on housing and then eventually on food as well. This class has impacted my professional development by providing many important connections between the topics I chose for my many other degrees as background for understanding the state of these communities and the problems they face. Importantly, these are a mostly different set of connections from the other class. For example, unequal protection from harm is a radically different perspective on social justice from my past experience. Rather than viewing impacts as impacts, we can view impacts as a side effect and view the way they are distributed and who is protected from them as what’s most interesting to study. This again means that all those places where people are being protected from harm have already made the arguments and passed the laws and built the institutions to do that. These successes merely need to be replicated for those who are not currently protected, ideally at the federal level so that everyone is protected in the way only rich white communities are today.
- How has this class impacted you personally?
As I mentioned in the other class, I think the biggest benefit personally has been the strong cohort that has formed to support each other though the many overlapping disasters we are all enjoying this year. Having a team of motivated people to rely on and collaborate with has made this year a lot easier.
Also again my frustration with the lack of focus on things like the BND which exists in this class only as a footnote to the covid session has led me to try to elevate that particular document in my own research, discussions, and efforts outside this class.
My feeling that ethical and scientific claims are not sufficiently differentiated between has also led me to explore creating a podcast on the topic of learning about different epistemologies. It’s easy to picture two people with very different ideas yelling at each other while both of them feel like their own argument is 100% correct while that of the opponent is 0% correct. We live in an age when shouting is easy but understanding others on such a level that we can actually motivate them to change their minds is very hard. This art is absent from much of today’s discourse, and my frustration with it in this class has motivated me to explore it for myself and potentially to try to help others do the same.
- What was your experience taking USP 530 classes on Zoom?
I hate zoom. I hate that it is not accessible to so many people. I hate that it reinforces structural racism by excluding so many marginalized students, and also I don’t see any alternative. This year has been a nightmare and no part of it was ideal. I hope that it spurs someone somewhere to invent a better option, and I hope most of all that SFSU finds a way to offer online options to students who don’t feel able to follow the president’s demand that we start looking for jobs and apartments “starting now” in spite of the stay at home order.