Center for Digital Learning at SUNY Geneseo

Environmental Issues: sustainability, justice, and antiracism

Theewaterskloof Dam in 2017 Satellite photo of Theewaterskloof Dam, South Africa, during the Cape Town water crisis of 2017-18. Processed via Sentinel Hub.

Editor’s note: This post is one in a series by Geneseo faculty who in Intersession 2021 taught courses that either focused centrally on issues of racial justice or incorporated those issues via dedicated modules and interwoven content. To find all posts in this series, part of Geneseo’s project of becoming an antiracist college, look for the tag “intersession 2021”.

As a social scientist teaching Environmental Issues (ENVR 124), I have a lot of fun disrupting students’ perspectives of what constitutes “the environment.” Students typically come into my class expecting to spend the bulk of their time exploring ecological concepts and problems, but they quickly learn that much of the course focuses on digging into the relationships between humans and our surroundings. By positioning Environmental Issues as an explicitly antiracist course for the 2021 intersession, I took these connections further to examine the impacts of power relations and economic structures. I encouraged my students to consider “environmental issues” as components of broader socio-ecological systems and to conceptualize the implications of such problems for questions of sustainability and justice.

Starting on the same page

I grounded Environmental Issues in two assumptions introduced at the very beginning of the course. First, climate change is real, happening right now, and is human-caused. Second, ecological degradation and climate change are intricately linked with social injustices, which often manifest along racial lines. These two assumptions simultaneously ensured that the whole class started on the same page, pushed students to reconceptualize their interpretations of “the environment,” and laid out a values system that the rest of the course built on. However, in stating these assumptions, I also invited debate and discussion around them, noting that students might not share the same assumptions and that grappling with these assumptions is a critical part of the learning process. As I discuss below, actually creating opportunities for such debate and discussion was made difficult by the asynchronous nature of the course.

A modular approach

I divided the course into four, one-week modules. The first introduced students to core concepts, such as sustainability, climate change, and ecosystems. The second and third integrated these concepts into topics and issues, including biodiversity, minerals, water, energy, food, and urbanization. The fourth applied the lessons learned in the first three modules by explicitly situating them as socio-ecological systems that humans continuously influence and are influenced by: health and the environment, environmental governance, and transformations and solutions. As we progressed through these course modules, I increasingly integrated concepts of social (in)justice such that students simultaneously developed an understanding of the complexities of socio-ecological systems and the ways in which these systems contribute to oppression, exploitation, and uneven power relations. Specifically, we moved from learning about how environmental systems and humans interact, to thinking about how the impacts of these interactions vary depending on location and populace, to analyzing these impacts through an environmental justice lens, to drawing out the racial injustices inherent in today’s socio-ecological systems.

Class assignments reflected this progression. Starting with an assignment designed to ensure that students engaged critical thinking skills throughout their coursework, students were asked to distinguish between credible sources and “fake news.” Subsequent assignments asked them to think critically about deforestation in the rainforest and citizen science projects, and to trace the possible supply chain for one item that they owned. (For example: What minerals went into making your computer and what were the socio-ecological implications from mining those minerals?) As we progressed into explicitly examining social and racial injustices, we dug into Cape Town’s water crisis, the social implications of agriculture subsidies in the US, the disparate health impacts of Covid-19 on Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities, and the role of grassroots movements in addressing socio-ecological issues.

“Aha!” moments

I had taught this course in a very similar manner in fall 2020, but I was in person with my students for the majority of that semester. Because my teaching style is very discussion-based, I found that students in the fall developed a deep understanding of the socio-ecological issues we were learning about by working through questions and concerns together as a class and by being exposed to and learning to incorporate multiple perspectives and lived experiences. However, I found this type of learning experience extremely difficult to replicate through an asynchronous online course.

I offered weekly optional discussion hours, where students could choose to join a group discussion via Zoom rather than writing reflections and posting them to discussion boards. These discussions always started with responses to specific questions, such as, “Do you think that industrial agriculture results in a net benefit or net harm for humans today and in the future?” or “Why is environmental justice important to consider when devising solutions to environmental issues?” But answering these questions always diverted us to talking about other issues, such as specific instances of injustice that someone has witnessed at home, or who is left out of environmental justice efforts. These discussion hours were my favorite part of teaching this course. Witnessing the “Aha!” moments, such as a student’s connecting an environmental issue to today’s economic system to injustices witnessed at home, is incredibly rewarding.

Yet I only had two to three students out of 13 join most of the discussion hours. In comparing the assignment submissions of those who attended the group discussions to those who did not, I found that those who attended began to make connections and draw insights that the other students were struggling with.

Concluding thoughts

The outcomes of this informal comparison make sense: linking environmental issues with social injustices and thinking critically about the causes and impacts of such socio-ecological systems are ways of thinking that many are unused to, and learning how to think in these ways is a process. Being able to work through related questions and concerns with other students and learning from each other are, I believe, extremely important parts of this process. Because not all students took part in the group discussion hours, I believe that many students did not develop as complete an understanding of the interconnections between environmental issues and social and racial injustices as I hoped that they would. Therefore, in the future, I would prefer to have at a minimum a required synchronous component to this class to ensure that all students have the opportunity to undergo the process of understanding these important connections and implications.