Social Justice & the Environment Honors Barry Commoner, Combines Perspectives

2017 marks the 100th birthday of one of Washington University’s most notable alums: Barry Commoner. Commoner was a founder of modern ecology, and was influential in the creation of the EPA and development of foundational environmental legislation. Importantly, Commoner believed that one of the four rules of ecology, “everything is connected to everything else,” necessarily extends beyond the strictly natural world, into the realm of social justice. In order to honor Barry Commoner, and his remarkable life, the Office of Sustainability partnered with the Brown School, the Center for Social Development, Environmental Studies, and InCEES to put on “Social Justice & the Environment,” an event seeking to enhance university and community engagement around environmental and social justice.

This event featured an articulate and inspiring slew of speakers and panelists. The combined perspectives and partnerships demonstrated across faculty, community members, and students illuminated the urgency and importance of addressing environmental justice issues. It consisted of three main portions: three brief presentations on social justice and the environment; a panel of community partners engaged in environmental justice work; and a presentation by Student Associates from the Office of Sustainability’s Environmental Justice team, highlighting opportunities for engagement and action.

SLU Professor Fernando Serrano presented his past research and ongoing work studying lead contamination in a small mining town in Peru. Anthropolgy Professor Bret Gustafson spoke of the violence that the fossil fuel industry exacts upon countless populations, and the degree to which this industry has permeated organizations such as Washington University. Brown School students Stephen Bell (Lumbee) and Julian Wahnee (Comanche/Dine) spoke about the environmental injustices inflicted upon indigenous communities, focusing specifically on pipeline construction that violates past treaties and disproportionally threatens the health and livelihood of indigenous populations.

The community panel featured Georgia de la Garza from Shawnee Hills and Hollers , Sunni Hutton from the  Dutchtown South Community Corporation, Heather Navarro from Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman from Just Moms STL. These women offered an important window into the injustices that minority populations constantly endure in all of our backyards. Their organizations are all engaged in extremely important work, and frequently benefit from partnerships with WashU student and faculty to help with tasks such as data collection and analysis, or raising awareness.

In an effort to help students engage in academic and extracurricular work relating to environmental and social justice, the Office of Sustainability’s Environmental Justice Initiative website features many opportunities for engagement. On the website, students can:

We encourage you to explore the community panelists’ websites, and our Environmental Justice Initiative website to learn more and get connected.  If nothing else, it is important to start and continue conversations on campus around these urgent topics!

Lastly, for students particularly interested in working with faculty to develop action items to address environmental injustices in the region, we are currently accepting steering committee applications.

This article was written by Environmental Justice Intern, Annalise Wagner.