Published 23 November 2017
Our Environmental Justice Conference held on 6-8 November 2017, featured presentations by leading and emerging thinkers in the field of environmental justice scholarship and activism, and encouraged thought-provoking and inspiring discussions between panelists and attendees.
As a way to keep the ignited conversations going, we have developed the ‘EJ Series’, that will feature blogs based on the papers given by selected speakers and reflections by Chairs and attendees. Over the next four weeks, the blogs will touch on the key environmental justice issues discussed at the conference and will allow the conversations to continue.
To preface the upcoming Environmental Justice blog series, our 2017 Honours Fellow Andrew Brodzeli, shares his take on the conference and explains how the ideas explored at the conference can be used to address issues of environmental injustice in Australia.
In eco-philosopher Tim Morton’s words, climate change is a hyper-object. It sticks to any entity involved with it – whether a rural community, climate researchers or an oil company. It operates at huge temporalities, phasing in and out of our awareness: any attempt to detect it locally cannot directly access it. Most shockingly, it is something which heralds the end of our insular, and rather blissfully ignorant, human-centric world.
The response of those in power has been predictably retrograde – hypocritical, weak, and lame. They refuse to acknowledge our fragility – despite the experiential and scientific facts.
For this reason, we need new social-science approaches that connect the dots across multiple disciplines, tracing the disparate yet interrelated effects of something as dispersed and complex as climate change.
We need new academic approaches that imbue our research with an activist ethos, that connect the irreducibly gritty experiences at the frontline of environmental injustice with the wider-scope view of peer-reviewed research. Tactics need strategy, and strategy needs tactics. One divorced from the other rarely succeeds in the long-run.
The Environmental Justice (EJ) framework has proven fruitful in bringing together the efforts of communities, activists, and researchers in creating a united community against socio-ecological damage wrought by negligent companies and governments.
The EJ movement has its origins in the Southern United States, where community activists often in predominantly Black and Latinx neighbourhoods began demonstrating against racially-discriminatory environmental pollution. It reflected the Civil Rights movement that preceded it, in both its demands for social justice and in its tactics, using direct and mass protests, neighbourhood demonstrations, picketing and political pressure.
The efforts of pioneering US researchers including Robert Bullard, Maxine Burkett, Kyle Powys Whyte and the Sydney Environment Institute’s (SEI) David Schlosberg, have reflected upon these oft-disparate local movements, connecting their commonalities and their significance as part of the global shift away from fossil fuels and toward a socially and ecologically equitable future.
The Sydney Environment Institute’s 2017 Conference
The 2017 Environmental Justice Conference, held on Gadigal country at the University of Sydney and hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute provided an excellent opportunity for reflecting upon the past and future of the EJ movement. Significantly, it commemorated twenty years of EJ activism and scholarship, with numerous speakers considering the movement’s development since the first EJ conference, held in Wurundjeri country, Melbourne, in 1997.
As well as hosting these international researchers, the conference also shed light upon work done by a great diversity of academics from across the world, including Australia. It was these Australian researchers – social scientists, legal experts, poets and writers, among others – who provided much-needed insight into the shape and prospects of EJ closer to home.
By bringing together international EJ scholars with local researchers sharing the same concerns, the conference provided a bridge for extending the predominantly US-based EJ movement to domestic situations facing many of the same challenges of environmental racism.
Optimism despite the challenges
There are great environmental challenges facing rural and particularly Aboriginal communities in Australia, often arising from the strength of the fossil-fuel industry, the colonial history of the state, and Australia’s geographic sensitivity to climate change.
Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, the conference proved an important occasion for the sharing of success stories, skills learnt and new perspectives, that fostered a sense of collective power to change the status quo. Blair Palese, a representative of 350.org, surmised this feeling when she noted that the discussions sparked across the conference’s three days had generated important ideas, “ideas which will be needed very, very soon”.
It is a testament to the Sydney Environment Institute’s efforts in bringing together such a diverse group of activists and researchers that optimism could emerge from such politically deadlocked circumstances. It is critical that further scholarship continues to engage across disciplines and across the activist-academic divide to ensure our future socio-ecological wellbeing.
Andrew Brodzeli is a 2017 Honours Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. He undertook Honours at the University of Sydney, in the Department of Political Economy. Andrew’s research applied a world-ecological methodology to understanding the present ‘convergent crisis’ of energy, capital, and climate in Australia through a study of the technology-capital-state nexus. He explored how the neoliberal state, partnered with financial capital, is seeking to overcome this crisis through expanding commodity frontiers into renewable technology.