Humphrey School News—April 22, 2019

It’s Time for a More Inclusive Earth Day

Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler urges more diverse perspectives in addressing climate change and its impacts

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Head shot of Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler
Assistant Professor Bonnie Keeler is co-director of the CREATE Initiative, which advances research and education at the intersection of water and equity through community engagement, interdisciplinary scholarship, and graduate training.

Commentary by Bonnie Keeler

With more research released every year documenting the devastating impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, Earth Day stands as a reminder of the dire biological threats to our planet. However, in our focus on protecting our planet, the human aspects of environmental change are often overlooked.

The Earth Day activities of the past—campus composting and climate marches—are not only insufficient to meet current challenges, they leave out crucial voices that are persistently underrepresented in the priorities of the environmental movement.

In my classes we discuss the importance of taking a systems approach to understanding the social, ecological, and technological dimensions of complex environmental problems. Nature can no longer be considered in isolation from the institutions, politics, and economics that largely determine the exposure to pollution and access to parks and green spaces.

Just as we cannot discuss the promise of “green” infrastructure without acknowledging the human actions that contributed to the floods and pollution these nature-based solutions are meant to address, the environmental community cannot advocate for environmental policy interventions without addressing underlying systems of power and privilege that for centuries have driven the unequal distribution of environmental benefits and harms.

The CREATE Initiative was conceived as a response to environmental challenges that cannot be distanced from the concerns of communities, especially historically marginalized communities who have not shared equally in the benefits of environmental investments. To address these challenges, CREATE researchers are piloting new models of academic scholarship—ones that attempt to bridge the gap between our conceptions of a healthy planet, and our societal commitment to all communities.

With the help of historians and geographers, the project has made clear the enduring legacy of structural racism on the distribution of nature’s benefits, the coupling of infrastructure and privilege, and the urgency of concerns about gentrification and displacement emerging from urban investments in green infrastructure. Just as the Green New Deal has explicitly linked climate change and social justice, our work has revealed the interdependencies of our social and natural systems.

It’s time for a radical Earth Day agenda that aligns environmental and racial justice and centers diverse perspectives—Native, people of color, immigrants—in defining desirable environmental futures. The environmental community has long prioritized concerns of the privileged over the poor.

Let this Earth Day serve as a reminder of the need for transformation—not only in the activities that drive planetary harm, but also in the institutions that determine who bears the costs and receives the benefits of environmental change. 

Bonnie Keeler is an assistant professor in the science, technology, and environmental policy area, and the co-director of the CREATE Initiative.

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