Julie Sze is a professor of American Studies and founding director of the Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Davis. She has authored and edited three books and numerous articles on environmental justice and inequality, culture and environment, and urban and community health and activism. Her latest book is Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger. It delves into some recent examples of mobilization and movements that offer cautious hope and decisive action in the face of social injustice and the destruction of our environment.
Sze reminds us that “When we bother to look, we see things that disturb us. At the same time, we see rebellion all around. We should be troubled by the world, and we should seek to trouble it.” And, she reminds us we have much more work to do to reimagine our world.
Interview has been edited for length.
Interviewed by Alli Vail
Alli Vail: You cover important ground in this book and it builds on work you’ve done in the past (Noxious New York, your professional work), and it’s related to your work as the director of the Environmental Justice Project at the University of California. What made you decide this is the book you’re going to write now?
Julie Sze: I’ve been teaching environmental justice and working in the field for a long time at this point, since ‘94. I’ve been teaching a class on environmental justice and it’s been interesting to watch because when I started, the debates and conversations were really different. It was ‘is there such a thing as health inequality that’s tied to race,’ in class. There had to be an empirical proof conversation. And now a lot of that is more settled and the students are coming in … knowing about Flint or Standing Rock, or different hurricanes. But what I thought wasn’t happening … was a way to connect all those things together. A lot of people knew about the pipeline struggles, but the way of understanding why and how, and how these struggles were linked — a lot of it has to do with the rise of social media so there’s this outburst of everybody knowing about one thing, say Standing Rock, or the other peoples’ struggles — but there wasn’t a good overview that kind of summarized it in a short and succinct way so I wrote the book mostly for that purpose.
AV: That’s interesting. It’s fascinating that you had to have that pre-conversation almost, to convince people that there was a problem.
JS: And now the students are coming in and are like, ‘what are we going to do about it.’ It’s a different landscape. And a lot of that at least in the US was tied to the rise of social media and people sharing campaign information but also the way the political and broader culture changed after Trump was elected. You have to write differently, to match what students are coming in to. For me, as a teacher, that was kind of the purpose of it. But I’ve also worked with social movements and organizations for a long time so I wanted to write stuff that was accessible.
AV: Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger is a slim volume but it is jam packed with information — if readers took away one thing, what do you think is the most important nugget in the book?
JS: I guess that maybe as long as there has been injustice there have been struggles to undo the injustice. So when I say ‘as long as,’ I mean a really broad timeline. That’s why the first chapter starts with Indigenous land rights and Indigenous struggles because a lot of the Indigenous environmental justice organizations are like, ‘we have been fighting since 1492.’ But as long as there has been injustice there have been people fighting to make it right.
It’s sort of a basic point, but I wanted to basically say there’s a moment now where people feel really overwhelmed. I’m in California right now. Especially a couple of years ago — there was COVID and you couldn’t go into any space. But then you also had wildfires and you couldn’t go out. That feeling of complete entrapment is something that certain communities and peoples have faced for a very long time. And maybe if you’re middle class or you’re from a suburban neighbourhood there was a way you can insulate from environmental violence, and now that’s not a reality.
More people are understanding that there are systems that make people feel like they don’t have any control. But the reality is if you understand that there are systems that are produced by humans and in history, then you can undo them. I think that’s part of the idea too. The students that came from impacted communities always knew about it.
I also have a lot of students who don’t buy environmental racism or whatever those systems are — [but] you’re still impacted by it and you still benefit from it. So a lot of students who lived in little bubbles before of privilege — my air is clean, my water, my food — there is no way you can be separated from that, and I think more people understand that now than ever before.
Some of my middle class students were like, ‘oh my god, what’s happening, I feel like I have no control.’ Well, you know, there are a lot of people who have not had control over their lives, whether it’s Indigenous people or people who were living in the afterlives of enslavement in the US context. [For example] poor people are vulnerable to systems that try to control their lives. And so that middle class people who could think they were not part of these things, instead of it leading to despair, it should lead to anger and activism, is my argument.
AV: In your introduction, you talk about how environmental justice is about challenging the status quo, rather than “fixing” our current system which is “grounded in domination, racial terror, and colonial control.” I found this very hopeful and agree it’s incredibly necessary. What do you think are the building blocks to begin this work? It can be so overwhelming that people don’t know where to start.
JS: People need to become educated and people need to connect with the movements that already exist. Yes, on some level it’s about your education and your process and learning, especially around police violence and the organizing around it. There could be a way in which you didn’t know that police were violent against people of colour. You could not know that.
The question is not about not knowing, the question is what do you do after you know. The idea that you put your head down in the sand and you just hope the problem goes away, that’s not going to work with climate change or police violence. And so there’s a level of awareness, and then what do you do with that information? You can’t just keep on learning, you also have to be involved in the struggles and so that means showing up to social movements, knowing what are the organizations that are working on these things and being an ally and participant in these struggles. No one gets to sit out the fight, is what I’m saying.
AV: One thing that really resonated with me was how you write about these momentous anti-capitalist movements like #NoDAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) being a part of environmental justice, and how anti-capitalism and environmental justice work together because they’re both not about exploiting our environment (and people) for more. But outside of major movements, or making a movie like Sorry to Bother You, which you call a radical anti-capitalist film, what anti-capitalist rebellions can people make in their daily lives?
JS: There has been a long standing debate about not individualizing problems right? Yes, individual actions matter, but so do structures. It’s not a choice, like either you do individualism or you do a structure. I don’t want to overestimate individualism, and I don’t want to underestimate it either. I think that we can have a critique that looks at things away from a lens of markets and consumerism as the answer to that. We can see the stands around carbon trading and thinking about carbon markets as being inherently flawed. Because there have always been people and communities that don’t do well in markets because of the structures that exist around capitalism and colonialism and the afterlives of both the ongoing dangers of those systems.
I think that rejecting the idea of consumerism, like buying your way out of crisis, is really important. Yes, individual actions matter, but only to a point. But buying more sustainable stuff for sure is not going to be the route to it.
There’s so much good conversation because of COVID about mutual aid and solidarity, [and] how do we have solutions that are not market based and individual. There are lots of creative ways that is happening on the ground.
AV: Environmental justice is an urgent issue and it seems like there is more bad news every day about our climate, and it is often hard to see forward momentum on all forms of social justice. You call the examples and stories you use “cautiously hopeful” about the future. What makes you feel cautiously hopeful?
JS: Honestly, I think my non-naive radical hope is in hearing that the things that social movements and environmental justice movement have been fighting around for a long time have become more normalized and are impacting policy. You have to have a long view of movements. This idea of success or failure, or depression and leading to nihilism and so on, I also have those feelings. So when I’m writing against that, I’m sometimes writing to convince myself, to be honest. Because you read the reports and you just go ‘ugh’. Then I remember the individual activists I know. Their kids have died of asthma attacks, and they don’t fall into a pit of despair. Or they are exposed to arsenic in their water, and that galvanized them to keep on fighting.
And then I’m like, well how can I be woe is me? These are folks whose communities were primed for death and they don’t sit there lamenting stuff. Yes, you have to read it, you have to understand it, but it’s a privilege to have despair and to think ‘this system that I thought worked isn’t working’. The people who have known that it doesn’t work have been saying it. And so the optimism I have is that … more people … understand how they are related to these systems even if it doesn’t seem they are. That is a substantive change that I’ve seen in the consciousness of many of my students.
In my classes that I taught for years, people would be like, ‘well, there can’t be racism because Obama is president.’ A lot of my students thought that. And now that’s not what people are understanding in general.
You can’t say everything is the same. It’s not. I know it’s not. Some of the environmental justice folks are very involved with the White House and setting policy at the federal level and I understand that it’s very complicated. We would be having a very different conversation if Trump had won the last election, obviously. These [issues] are not settled. And the stuff in the US around the Supreme Court is not settled. A lot of stuff is being unsettled. And so the unsettling feels awful and it’s destructive, but the unsettling can be galvanizing too. We have to look at it in that way.