Toward a Better Future: IHC Talk on “Environmental Justice as Regeneration”

Illustration by Bridget Rios

Natalie Mifflin

Contributing Writer

Every year, UC Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC) curates a series of public events, such as lectures and interviews, to explore topics that relate to communities and modern issues. Some past series topics have been “Aftermath of War,” “Humanities and the Brain,” and “The Future of the University.” Last year’s focus was “Living Democracy” and with a new school year comes a new topic. 

Last Thursday, the IHC began its annual series with a new focus on “Regeneration.” It started with an acknowledgement of the Chumash, whose land the IHC’s building is located on. Since the event was held over Zoom, participants were made aware of the resources available, including a live transcript and Spanish translation. The series will speak with professors, artists, and experts about the idea of regeneration as the creation of new life applied in the context of several different fields of study.

The first lecture, “Environmental Justice as Regeneration,” features the UCSB Department Chair of Environmental Studies, David Pellow. He talks about how environmental issues that intersect one another on a local and global scale impact several communities. 

David Pellow is also the director of the UCSB organization, Global Environmental Justice Project, whose work extends into Santa Barbara County. The organization conducts community research for solutions to environmental issues that transcend the borders of different communities. They interview hundreds of community members and continue to find ways in which they are involved with the environment as it relates to social and political issues, some of which are talked about in this event.

Pellow’s lecture gave an overview of the kinds of problems he and his fellow researchers have been working to solve. They can be summed up into two categories, the first of which is the existence of extractive economies. These economies keep wealth in the hands of the few and view natural resources as commodities. Pellow notes that extractive economies can be seen in socialist as well as capitalist economies because they “burn, dig, and dump” with little regard for the environmental impact. 

His response to this problem encompasses regenerative economies based on ecological restoration, community protection, and equitable partnerships. Pellow shows images of entire city structures that have been reimagined by a few Nigerian artists to promote healthy soils and community access to healthy food, clean water and air, good jobs, and healthy learning environments. 

The second category he discusses is environmental injustice, where marginalized people and low wealth areas face disproportionate exposure to dangerous environmental circumstances. The answer Pellow gives is environmental justice with a goal of regenerating the environment and building up communities that have unfairly been burdened with pollution and other environmental harms.

Many of the examples he talks about are not typically considered environmental issues, but the presentation illuminates perspectives that are commonly overlooked as having an impact on the environment; they all are connected by the idea of how this generation can impact future generations with the choices and systems we set in place today. 

One form of environmental regeneration discussed was the push for prison reform. Prisons, jails, and detention centers, are hubs for environmental and human rights injustices, from forced labor for inmates to the amount of extracted resources it takes to build and operate these prisons. In the fight to improve the prison system to be more beneficial to its inmates and society, prisoners have advocated for solitary gardens and have conducted strikes to demand better living conditions and to end the exploitative “slave plantation work model,” cited by a former inmate, Keith Malik Washington. 

In the real life examples Pellow gives, improvements in these areas could hopefully make prisons become places where prisoners are able to practice relationships of care, respect, and democracy to be better members of society by the time they are released. 

Pellow also talks about how mutual aid programs have stepped up when government programs failed to address the needs of citizens. Often, people look to these community organizations which provide access to shelter, food, water, and medicine on a daily basis in times of large ecological disasters. 

What many fail to realize is that many of these organizations were already active due to some other situation they were needed in. For example, the Black and Brown-led organization, Feed the People in Dallas, existed before the huge power outage and snowstorms in Texas last year. Pellow says, “Mutual aid programs operate with a solidarity, not charity mindset,” which has mobilized people to create infrastructure where the government had built none. 

In regards to other movements that aim for policy reform, Pellow and other researchers on campus promote the Green New Deal. This policy agreement aims to bring down greenhouse gas emissions while building up a fair, just economy. This method of environmental regeneration directly engages with the state to promote sustainable, communal infrastructure for things like equitable housing, green transportation and energy, and job creation.

In this strong start to the IHC’s Regeneration series, Pellow gives a short, yet informative and impactful, introduction to how we can see regeneration through a lens of environmental justice. In his own words, Pellow says, “The varied ways in which EJ (environmental justice) movements can pursue social change reflect a wide diversity of modes and methods of engagement, political orientation, [and] points of intervention at multiple scales.” This intersectionality of numerous issues, and how ordinary people are responding to them, has the power to create change that can last generations. 

The next installment of the IHC “Regeneration” series will be hosted online on Nov. 3 at 4 p.m. with Clint Smith, a national poetry slam champion and current staff writer for The Atlantic.