Environmental “think tanks” raise practical issues

Editor’s note:  The Environmental (Dis)Locations conference included a series of “think tanks” lead by seven different activists who approached questions of the environment from a practical perspective.  Think tank leaders had specialized expertise— and in many cases hands-on experience—in a variety of different settings, including the UK, Southeast Asia, Latin America, South Africa, the Amazon, and South America.  Among the think tank leaders was Julian Agyeman, chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University and founder of the UK’s Black Environment Network.  Following is a report on this think tank session.

By Frank Brown, Assistant Director, Publications

During a think tank session on the conference’s second day,  Julian Agyeman echoed the emphasis on the geography of environmental justice expressed the night before at the  opening plenary by Robert Bullard, a sociologist who directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

“A lot of planners don’t like the term ‘environmental justice’ because they think of it as an advocacy agenda. Why don’t we use a different term, ‘spatial justice?’,” said Agyeman, a professor at Tufts University and chair of its Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. Participants in the session picked up on Agyeman’s framing of the issues, including the need to address environmental issues contextually.  Andrew C. Revkin, author of the New York Times’s Dot Earth blog, noted, “There are places that still need fossil fuel to progress,” in reference to sub-Saharan Africa’s need for conventional energy sources as it develops economically.

In his talk, entitled “(Re)Imagining a ‘Just’ Sustainability,” Agyeman prompted listeners to look beyond traditional borders and geographic constructs by, for example, examining patterns of manufacturing and consumption. “China has become an environmental laundry because we are laundering our carbon through them. They produce everything. … When we talk about Chinese carbon production, that is our carbon,” said Agyeman, co-author in 2009 of Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union.

Anne Marie Dalton, a professor of religious studies at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, encouraged Agyeman in his approach. “It would be a wonderful exercise to identify who controls that space that is producing the most carbon,” she said, following up on Agyeman’s notion of spatial justice. Other participants had practical questions for Agyeman. “What is the connection here between the green building movement and just sustainability?’ asked Larry Troster, a rabbi and fellowship program director at GreenFaith, an ecumenical environmental organization in New Jersey. Agyeman responded, “That’s a really interesting question. I absolutely want to see the green building movement move into more of a social justice mode.”

Other think tank leaders included Amy Doolittle, associate research scientist in conservation and development at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; Desmond D’sa, chair of the Wentworth Development Forum and coordinator of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, both in South Africa; Sheila Foster, associate dean for academic affairs at Fordham University; Felicio Pontes, federal prosecutor in the Amazon region of Brazil; Nila Robinson of Greensboro, NC, director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative; and Ivonne Yanez, co-founder of Accion Ecológica and Oilwatch in Ecuador.