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It’s Not Easy Being Green

News & Features | November 27, 2012

Tufts has grown visibly more environmentally-conscious in recent years. From the phasing out of dining trays and default double-sided printing in the library to Zero Waste Week and countless more efforts, more students are trying to make a difference when it comes to sustaining our planet’s future. At the forefront of this movement is a new kind of eco-awareness. It’s called environmental justice, and it fits in with Tufts’ identity as a socially and globally conscious university.

According to Tufts’ Professor Elizabeth Ammons, who teaches a class on Environmental Justice, “Environmentalism is concern about the natural environment, while social justice is concerned with issues of human rights and equity. Environmental justice can really be thought of as those two extremely important movements coming together.” The environmental justice movement, which started in African American Southern communities in the late 20th century, has grown from a grassroots movement to its current status of international activism and policy work. Ammons says that what is especially important in terms of the movement is thinking about which groups of people are most seriously impacted by environmental degradation and damage. Research has shown that the hardship falls disproportionately on people of color, women, and those with low socioeconomic status. For example, the poorest residents of Brooklyn are feeling the worst effects of Hurricane Sandy, due to the inherent inequality in infrastructure and access to resources. Here, we see how environmental activists could also be concerned with social justice.

Tufts has long emphasized active citizenship and combating injustice around the world, and actively working to improve the health of the planet has been a global agenda for many years. In a 2008 spotlight on green colleges, environmentalist blog Earthwatch posted that Tufts has “long been a leader in sustainability—back before many people even knew the definition of the term… Tufts’ environmental efforts are nearly too numerous to name.” However, there’s a sense that this effort has become even more of a priority in recent years. Student environmental activist Claudia Tajima commented, “I’ve noticed a shift at Tufts in the four years I’ve been here, especially with the new administration. They’re placing a focus on sustainability, and we’re accepting the fact that we’re an institution with power that can make a change.”

Recent changes at Tufts have been varied, and often include an element of environmental justice. For example, through the Eco-Rep program, which was started in 2001 and reinstated in 2010 after a hiatus, each dorm or group of dorms has a (usually live-in) student expert on sustainability. In addition to organizing events to get their message out and taking charge of campus compost bins, the student Eco-Reps receive extensive training, which includes lectures on how social justice and environmentalism are interrelated. It’s important to note that the Eco-Reps aren’t just volunteers—they’re paid by the university for their work. Tufts is dedicating money to ensure the presence of student leaders in environmentalism and experts on environmental justice.

Other than the Eco-Reps, plenty of students are also environmentally involved. Under the umbrella organization of the Tufts Sustainability Collective, many student activism groups work outside of classes to clean up both the environment and the policies that support it. On-campus efforts include Tom Thumb’s Student Garden and the Sustainable Action Squad, which works on making small changes on campus that make a big difference. Food for Thought discusses contemporary food issues every week, while Green Team teaches environmentally related lessons in local schools. Finally, Students for a Just and Stable Future is a statewide student-led organization dedicated to achieving 100% clean energy in Massachusetts by 2020. While these groups have different purposes, they work to serve one goal: to make an impact on and in our community, both on campus and in the surrounding area.

This goal extends into our classrooms and lecture halls. Tufts offers an environmental engineering track, an interdisciplinary minor in environmental studies, and a minor in urban studies through the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. This upcoming semester, courses are available on environmental justice and literature, climate justice, and environmental politics. As is fitting with Tufts’ global focus, most of these classes and programs discuss environmental issues from all over the world. In addition, the final project in these classes is often a work of social action, which has sometimes caused real change on our campus. Over the past two years, Professor Ammons’ Environmental Justice class has conceived, designed, and carried out social actions that have led to the removal of plastic bags from Hodgdon and to free-range meat options in the dining halls.

These recent environmental efforts reflect a trend: because most of the activism by students takes place in the local sphere, there’s a disconnect from Tufts’ global institutional focus. The 2012 Common Reading is another example of this incongruence. Each year, the Tisch College selects a book through a nomination process, and then mails a copy to every entering student. Topics in recent years have ranged from Hurricane Katrina, to remarkable men and women’s personal philosophies, to immigration. Generally, the book is involved in orientation to some extent, and its themes run throughout the academic year. Although other books have addressed the environment and injustice to a certain extent, none match the textbook-like depth of The Story of Stuff. For the class of 2016, this book, sometimes controversial in the environmentalist community due to its radical anti-consumerism stance, was their introduction to Tufts. Freshman Moira Lavelle explained, “I found the premise of the book intriguing, and the overarching argument is certainly a cornerstone of my beliefs, but it was the first book for school I have ever not finished in my life. I care a lot about the environment, but the book didn’t offer any solutions. As a student activist who wants to make a difference, that was particularly frustrating for me.”

But the book’s environmental focus is one more thing indicative of Tufts’ growing focus in this area, and it’s not just the people on our campus who contribute to the environmentally-conscious environment. Through various programs over the course of each academic year, Tufts brings in experts in different fields, many of which are related to environmental justice. In October, the Freshman Class Council organized an event in which Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff, visited to speak. The Environmental Studies Department has the “Lunch and Learn” lecture/discussion series, and recently brought in Eugene Benson, a lawyer who directs an Environmental Justice Legal Services program and represents community-based groups in lower income communities and ones of color, working to protect and improve their environments. Hillel’s 2012 keynote speaker for their annual Moral Voices lecture is Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and author of the bestselling Fast Food Nation, whose topic of over-consumption is similar to The Story of Stuff. Incidentally, although the Moral Voices theme this year is food justice, it was environmental justice in 2007. These guests, with the exception of the community lawyer, echo the administration’s international perspective on environmental justice.

We used to think that being green was just a trend. Today, it’s becoming a way of life, especially on our campus. Many separate players are each working on their own projects, and these different tasks are representations of Tufts’ rising environmental and social conscience. Despite our productivity in recent years, however, there’s still more to be done. The problem: even though we all coexist (mostly) peacefully here on the hill, when it comes to sustainability and active change, it seems as if every activist has a different goal. This is evident in the perspectives of Professor Ammons and Tajima. While Tajima “always wants more environmental justice on campus and in the community,” Ammons says that we instead need to focus on the more international aspects. Grassroots activism can create change on campus, with the support of the administration, but sometimes it feels like authorities on campus are more focused on the global aspects of environmental justice, rather than the local. Where should the main focus of our environmental justice efforts be: our community or our entire planet? This is something to consider.

Tufts prides itself on sustainability and active citizenship in general, and in the dawning of an era of environmental justice, there’s a chance for change on a larger scale. However, this cannot happen without collaboration between student activists and the institutional structure. We don’t necessarily all need to have the same goal, but a cooperative community with a common perspective can accomplish more, and with more efficiency. At this point, it’s probably unrealistic to expect Tufts students to make a global change when it comes to environmental justice. We’re still learning; that’s the point of a university. But we are in a place that is ideal for learning about these topics.

Tufts is a bubble where environmentalism and social justice thrive, but we should also incorporate another part of our identity: a global perspective. It might seem easier to only think about the smaller changes we can make to fix the way we do things, but it’s more important to think on a bigger scale. “The real question is: what are we in the privileged world willing to change for the health of the planet?” Ammons asks. That’s why, even though our student activist groups affect positive change in the community that surrounds us, we should continue to study and hear from experts about change on a global scale. It’s important to think about environmental justice as it affects the whole planet, even if we can only actively improve the situation in our own backyard.

Despite their short-term differences, Ammons and Tajima share a vision of an environmentally just world and how we’ll eventually get there. Ammons said, “Our educational system is really excellent at helping students see what’s wrong in the world, but often we just stop. We overload students with the world’s problems. My own view is that it’s also our responsibility as educators to show how to address those problems.” Tajima added, “If I wasn’t an idealist, I couldn’t be an environmental activist.”

Student activists are already making change in our community, while our administration and faculty maintain a global focus with concrete strategies for change. With more practice and a coherent vision, Jumbos will be better prepared to apply environmental justice to life after the hill. Like Leonard of The Story of Stuff says in her documentary, changing the world “is already happening. Some say it’s unrealistic or idealistic, that it can’t happen, but I say those that are unrealistic are those that want to continue with the old path. That old way didn’t just happen… People created it, and we’re people too. Let’s create something new.”

In this day and age, environmentalism without social justice is missing a key aspect, especially at a school known for its global perspective. As Tufts’ more recent efforts have shown, the most effective and powerful path for the green movement is environmental justice.