Climate Change, Coronavirus, and Environmental Justice

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What happens when a coronavirus pandemic breaks out in the middle of a Cornell University undergraduate course in environmental ethics? This collection is the beautiful, extraordinary result of both tragedy and hope.

We started the Spring 2020 semester with two main goals for this iteration of “Ethics and the Environment”—an introductory survey that attracts diverse students from disparate majors across the university. First, our teaching team sought to further decolonize this class and the field of environmental ethics by interrogating seemingly basic concepts like “nature,” engaging with ethical thinkers not necessarily recognized within academic philosophy, and wrestling with Cornell’s implication in and complicity with settler colonialism, particularly as a land-grant institution.[1] For the first time in any of our extensive individual teaching experiences, or even for most of our students’ experiences in a Cornell classroom, we began with a “Land Acknowledgement” to the Haudenosaunee lands on which Cornell University sits.[2] This set the very deliberate tone for the semester. We also pushed students to engage with the colonial dimensions of conservation and environmentalism—practices and movements often uncritically celebrated within not only the environmental movement and environmental sciences, but also environmental ethics.[3] Second, while our class addressed many historical and contemporary issues, we wanted our students to consider how environmental ethics can help address the climate crisis and ultimately realize climate justice.[4] This second goal, stated explicitly on the syllabus, was the planned topic of the final paper in the class.

Then COVID-19 hit. Cornell began a three-week hiatus and we returned to online-only classes in early April. Soon it was already time to start thinking about crafting and distributing the final assignment.

Given what was happening in our world—locally, nationally, and globally—we shifted course. Instead, we decided to ask our students: How can ideas and rationales in environmental ethics help us understand and address either climate change and climate justice or the current COVID-19 crisis? We also gave students two options for the format of their final assignment: a traditional academic essay or a creative project with accompanying “artist’s statement.”

From conversations, emails, and confidential surveys, we knew that many of our students (and their families and friends) were struggling with the multifaceted effects of the coronavirus pandemic: illness, loss of loved ones, economic precarity, and overwhelming anxiety, to name just a few. We suspected these effects were not evenly distributed among our students—a troubling prediction that emerging and subsequent analyses have sadly upheld.[5] We understood that for some students, engaging with the contemporary moment through classes and assignments offered a valuable way to process and make sense of what was happening. But for others, doing so meant reliving ongoing trauma their coursework distracted them from. These students needed nothing more than not talking about COVID-19. For these reasons, we gave students the option of putting our class in conversation with climate change or coronavirus in their final assignment.

Yet, as we soon saw in our students’ work, it was hard to think about one without the other. Most explicitly, scientists and news media began reporting that the pandemic and associated economic slowdown resulted in decreased carbon emissions and industrial pollutants.[6] On Twitter, one “sustainability strategist” actually celebrated human population decline due to the coronavirus pandemic as a way to reach climate emission targets that have failed through other means.[7] In class, we paused and discussed the racist and misanthropic assumptions of such arguments. As it turned out, it was our last in-person class together. It also happened to coincide with the lecture complicating hagiographies of Aldo Leopold, including his engagement with prominent eugenicists.[8] On their own, many students began wrestling with the shared causes and consequences of COVID-19 and the climate crisis, including capitalism, racism, inequality, and pollution.

We hoped that offering students two formats for their work would, frankly, enable them to get something meaningful out of a final assignment that might otherwise feel like a rote hurdle at the end of an impossible semester. We hoped that a creative project—a collage or poem, rap or op-ed, sculpture or spoken word—would be more engaging and rewarding than a standard essay. We wondered if making art or writing poetry or putting together a presentation for a community group might allow students to express their emotions, passions, and convictions in ways traditional papers do not. We also wondered about the therapeutic value of art and creative expression in challenging, even overwhelming, times.

In the end, the responses were remarkable. We have selected the creative work of nine students for this collection: one spoken word piece, two poems, and six works of visual art. Most projects are accompanied by a short essay, which explains the thinking behind the piece. Many of the artists’ essays are poetic works in their own right. As instructors also struggling through the challenges of the current moment, our students have helped us to better understand the power of creative projects and unexpected synergies between the classroom and the world, as well as the need to be empathetic and willing to responsibly adapt our own pedagogies on the fly. We are grateful for the lessons our students have taught us.

At the end of each semester, most undergraduate work finds its ending place in dusty piles in our offices or somewhere in a Google drive in perpetuity. We did not want our students’ work to follow suit. They argue both passionately and insightfully for a better, more just world—a vision we need now, more than ever.

We became particularly committed to publishing selected student work after the horrific murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and mass protests against police brutality, violence, and systemic racism across the United States (and beyond) that have continued in the months since.[9] These movements have drawn out how intricately connected issues of environmental ethics, COVID-19, and systemic racism truly are—connections our students forged in their work earlier that May. Although not part of the original or revised assignment, the collection also speaks to this tragedy. Furthermore, when we originally drafted this Introduction in July 2020—as coronavirus infection rates were again spiking, Black and brown Americans were dying (and continue to die) disproportionately, temperatures in the Arctic surpassed one hundred degrees Fahrenheit the previous month, and California burned—these creative projects became even more timely.[10] Unfortunately, that has not changed in the weeks since.

Each creative project makes its own contribution, but we believe the sum of this collection is greater than the parts. These pieces, when read together, are more powerful thanks to common concepts and themes. First, as some students note, the climate and coronavirus crises are, in fact, linked, resulting from many of the same processes and histories: capitalism (Isabella Armas-Leon and Liana Perez); environmental racism and injustice (Darnell Campbell, Jr., and Oderachukwu Ugwu); and inequality (a vital thread that runs through all of the pieces).[11] The final assignment’s “two options” therefore artificially divide intertwined phenomena and interconnected ways of understanding both crises through an environmental ethics lens.

Indeed, one common insight from these projects is interconnection, entanglement, and ultimately interdependence—what Renee Lee calls “interwoven,” the title of her artwork. In different ways, many students emphasize the interconnections among humans, as well as “between” humans and the natural world (a grammatical phrase that presumes and reproduces their very separation)—even as some individuals and political leaders increasingly highlight difference.[12] As Ugwu writes, “Simply put, we are ALL in this together. Black, white, American, Chinese, and even non-human. The health of one affects the health of all, and this has never been more blatantly obvious than in the midst of a wildly-infectious zoonotic virus.”

Another powerful current running through these creative projects is environmental (in)justice.[13] Students highlight multiple forms of social inequality, nationally and globally. As Julia Dinmore notes, nature enables life. As Campbell writes in his poem, “Nature is supposed to be pure . . . [it] is supposed to be the cure.” Yet environments can be forms of violence—through dispossession, air and water pollution, urban heat island effects, lack of healthy food, unequal access to parks and green space, and more.[14] Several of these factors have, in fact, worsened, even “fueled,” the coronavirus pandemic—for some people.[15] Both natural and human-shaped environments thus disproportionately threaten many communities of color. In response, the authors and editors of this collection demand environmental justice.

The traditional environmental movement has only begun to recognize and wrestle with its colonial, racist, and anti-immigrant histories—and, alas, present.[16] Eve Hallock pushes environmental activists and scholars to contend with their own complicity in this history. We recall that early in our semester together, every single student in the course could identify “Greta” (Thunberg, notably identified only by her first name) in a photograph, but not a single student had heard of Autumn Peltier, fifteen-year-old chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation in Canada.[17] Yet, in the end, it was environmental justice writers from diverse backgrounds and movements who most inspired our students. We note that several scholar-activists of color, including Robert Bullard, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Leah Penniman, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, and the Mexican worker-anthropologist-filmmakers who documented the socio-environmental realities of maquiladores, particularly influenced many students and their projects.[18] Our students’ mobilization of their arguments suggests why it is imperative to understand diverse traditions of environmentalism, listen deeply to environmentalists and climate activists of color in North America and around the world, and move towards intersectional environmentalism.[19]

At a time of growing inequality and injustice, we greatly admire our students’ commitment to equality and justice. As Emily Muniz puts it, “Real change will come from a shift in power dynamics and a voice given to those who have been silenced.” We support their call to recognize our common humanity. To use Rashke’s words, our students are inspired by love and reciprocity.

At a time of illness, loss, tragedy, precarity, and uncertainty, these students—and their projects, their ideas, and their passion—give us hope.[20]

Dear reader, this is their charge to you.

[1] For vital critiques of “decolonizing” courses, disciplines, and higher education, see E. Tuck and K.W. Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40, https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/article/view/18630.

[2] For more information about the Haudenosaunee, see “Who We Are,” Haudenosaunee Confederacy, https://www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com/who-we-are/, accessed September 5, 2020.

[3] M. Dowie, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

[4] On “climate crisis,” not “climate change,” see S. Zeldi-O’Neill, “‘It’s a Crisis, Not a Change’: The Six GuardianLanguage Changes on Climate Matters,” Guardian, October 16, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/16/guardian-language-changes-climate-environment.

[5] For emerging analysis during our spring semester, see J. Eligon, A.D.S. Burch, D. Searcey, and R.A. Oppel, Jr., “Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States,” New York Times, April 7, 2020 (updated April 14, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/coronavirus-race.html. For subsequent analysis, see R. Oppel, Jr., et al., “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus,” New York Times, July 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html.

[6] On the decline in carbon emissions, see C. Le Quéré, et al., “Temporary Reduction in Daily Global CO 2 Emissions during the COVID-19 Forced Confinement,” Nature Climate Change 10, no. 7 (2020): 647-53, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x. For one example of reductions in industrial pollutants, see J. Slater, “In India, Life under Coronavirus Brings Blue Skies and Clean Air,” Washington Post, April 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-coronavirus-delhi-clean-air-pollution/2020/04/10/ac23dd1e-783e-11ea-a311-adb1344719a9_story.html.

[7] B. Zarnett, “Is Covid-19 the Silver Bullet for a Stable Climate?” Medium, March 11, 2020, https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/is-covid-19-the-silver-bullet-for-a-stable-climate-b96af11f4dfb. To read more about Brad Zarnett, see his twitter account: “@BradZarnett,” https://twitter.com/BradZarnett, accessed September 5, 2020. 

[8] M.A. Powell, “‘Pestered with Inhabitants’: Aldo Leopold, William Vogt, and More Trouble with Wilderness,” Pacific Historical Review 84, no. 2 (2015): 195-226, https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2015.84.2.195.

[9] On mass protests in the United States, see L. Buchanan, Q. Bui, and J.K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html. For one example of the global movement, see R. Diallo, “A Racial Awakening in France, Where Race Is a Taboo Topic,” New York Times, July 14, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/world/europe/france-racism-universalism.html.

[10] For more on the context in which these students’ projects were created (and revised), we recommend M. Barbaro, “Why Is the Pandemic Killing So Many Black Americans?” New York Times, May 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/podcasts/the-daily/black-death-rate-coronavirus.html; Oppel, Jr., et al., “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus”; A. Borunda, “What a 100-Degree Day in Siberia Really Means,” National Geographic, June 23, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/what-100-degree-day-siberia-means-climate-change/; B. Demuth, “The Empty Space Where Normal Once Lived,” Atlantic, August 28, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/08/covid-19-and-climate-change-have-same-root-cause/615844/. For a comprehensive list of California “wildfires” thus far during 2020, see CalFire, “2020 Incident Archive,” https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/2020/, accessed September 8, 2020.

[11] For an important analysis of capitalism and the environment, see V. Kolinjivadi, “The Coronavirus Outbreak Is Part of the Climate Change Crisis: Therefore, Climate Action Should Be Central to Our Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Al Jazeera, March 30, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/coronavirus-outbreak-part-climate-change-emergency-200325135058077.html. To read more about the environmental justice movement, see “Environmental Justice/Environmental Racism,” https://www.ejnet.org/ej/, accessed September 8, 2020.

[12] For one compelling (and also beautiful) analysis of just how “interwoven” our current world is, see K. Brown, “The Pandemic Is Not a Natural Disaster: The Coronavirus Isn’t Just a Public-Health Crisis. It’s an Ecological One,” New Yorker, April 13, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-pandemic-is-not-a-natural-disaster.

[13] For an overview of the environmental justice movement, see “Environmental Justice/Environmental Racism,” https://www.ejnet.org/ej/, accessed September 5, 2020,.

[14] On dispossession, see M.D. Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). On air pollution and inequality, see C.W. Tessum, et al., “Inequity in Consumption of Goods and Services Adds to Racial–Ethnic Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 13 (2019): 6001-6, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1818859116. On water pollution and inequity, see K. Pullen Fedinick, S. Taylor, and M. Roberts, “Watered Down Justice,” Natural Resources Defense Council Report 19-09-A, September 2019, https://www.nrdc.org/resources/watered-down-justice. On urban heat island effects, see M. Anderson, “Racist Housing Practices From The 1930s Linked To Hotter Neighborhoods Today,” NPR, January 14, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/14/795961381/racist-housing-practices-from-the-1930s-linked-to-hotter-neighborhoods-today. On food deserts (also “food apartheid”), see A. Brones, “Food Apartheid: The Root of the Problem with America’s Groceries,” Guardian, May 15, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/15/food-apartheid-food-deserts-racism-inequality-america-karen-washington-interview. On unequal access to parks and green space, see M. Wen, et al., “Spatial Disparities in the Distribution of Parks and Green Spaces in the USA,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine?: A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine 45, suppl. no. 1 (2013): 18-27, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-012-9426-x.

[15] L. Friedman, “Race, Pollution, and the Coronavirus,” New York Times, April 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/climate/coronavirus-pollution-race.html; H.A. Washington, “How Environmental Racism Is Fueling the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Nature 581 (2020): 241, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01453-y.

[16] On The Sierra Club, see H. Hopkins, “Racism Is Killing the Planet,” Sierra Club, June 8, 2020, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/racism-killing-planet; “Sierra Club Apologizes for Racist Views of ‘Father of National Parks’ John Muir,” Guardian, July 23, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/23/john-muir-sierra-club-apologizes-for-racist-views. For additional readings on racism and environmentalism, see J. Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” New Yorker, August 13, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history. On anti-immigration, see S. Cagle, “‘Bees, Not Refugees’: The Environmentalist Roots of Anti-Immigrant Bigotry,” August 16, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/15/anti. On continued racism within the environmental movement, just one example is Christian Cooper and “birding while Black”; see R. Young, “Birding While Black: Jason Ward On Central Park Video, Racism And His Passion For Birds,” June 9, 2020, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/06/09/black-birder-racism-cooper.

[17] For more information about Greta Thunberg, see C. Alter, S. Haynes, and J. Worland, “Time 2019 Person of the Year: Greta Thunberg,” Time (December 23 and 30, 2019), https://time.com/person-of-the-year-2019-greta-thunberg/. For her recent book, see G. Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (New York: Penguin, 2019). For more information about Autumn Peltier, see “Autumn Peltier,” Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autumn_Peltier, accessed September 5, 2020. 

[18] We read the following writings from these authors (among others) in our class: R. Bullard, “Overcoming Racism in Environmental Decision Making,” in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, 5th ed., L.P. Pojman and P. Pojman, eds. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2007): 644-56; R.W. Kimmerer, Braiding SweetgrassIndigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledgeand the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN.: Milkweed Editions, 2015); L. Penniman, “Black Land Matters,” in Farming While BlackSoul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land(White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018), 1-10; S. Watt-Cloutier, The Right to Be ColdOne Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). For access to the film, see Maquilapolis: City of Factories, directed by V. Funari (San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2006). For more information about Bullard, see https://drrobertbullard.com. For more information about Kimmerer, see https://www.esf.edu/faculty/kimmerer/. For more information about Penniman, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leah_Penniman. For more information about Watt-Cloutier, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheila_Watt-Cloutier.

[19] For more information about important environmental activists of color, see “9 Climate Activists of Color You Should Know,” Teen Voguehttps://www.teenvogue.com/story/youth-climate-activists-of-color, accessed September 5, 2020. To read more about “intersectional environmentalism,” see S. Hirsh, “‘Intersectional Environmentalist’ Platform Launches to Dismantle Racism in the Climate Movement,” Greenmatters, August 2020, https://www.greenmatters.com/p/intersectional-environmentalist-leah-thomas, accessed September 24, 2020.

[20] B. Velocci. “These Uncertain Times,” Avidly, June 4, 2020, http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2020/06/04/these-uncertain-times/.

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  • Sara B. Pritchard

    Sara B. Pritchard is Associate Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, where she specializes in environmental history and the history of science and technology. Her current research focuses on the history and politics of light pollution and scientific research about this issue. Related research has been published in Environmental HistoryJournal of Energy History, the Discard Studies blog, and the Society for the History of Technology’s “Technology’s Storytellers” podcast.

  • Rebecca Harrison

    Rebecca Harrison is a PhD candidate in science and technology studies at Cornell University. Her research considers how agricultural biotechnologists are deliberate, ethical actors navigating both a complex political economy and increasing public concern about genetic engineering. She works with academic scientists to imagine a more reflective type of public engagement around their work.

  • Amanda Domingues

    Amanda Domingues is a PhD student in science and technology studies at Cornell University and co-editor of the Society for Social Studies of Science Backchannels blog on the Global South. She investigates how archaeologists transform bones into knowledge about an ancient society and how these practices differ in North and Latin America.

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