Education and Environmental Justice: Hydro-hegemony and liminality

By Elsa Lee on behalf of and with support from the EEJ steering group (Mollie Baker, Haira Gandolfi, Taylor Hughson, Mary Murphy, Alexandre da Trindade and artist Rachel Wooller) 

Mainstream media has given much attention to both the youth movements on the climate crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement over recent years.  Readers will doubtless be aware of how these two movements intersect, including through critiques of groups like Extinction Rebellion’s white middle class privilege, and the problematic nature of using a term like the Anthropocene to label this era[i].  The term has been criticized in part because it universalizes the responsibility for the environmental degradation that we are facing equally across all peoples; thereby erasing the kinds of ‘slow violence’ that people living in poverty and deprivation suffer[ii].  

Our launch event, explained how we have come together to set up this Education and Environmental Justice reading group precisely because we find ourselves ill-informed about how the notions of equity and justice are implicated in the debates around human-induced climate change and environmental degradation in the educational sphere.   Journals dealing with these questions include the Environmental Education Research Journal, The Journal of Environmental Education and the Journal of Sustainability. 

Individuals within our steering group are well informed about either social justice or environmental education, but what we lack is a shared understanding of how social justice and environmental education are connected.  This is despite the burgeoning of research into concepts like sustainable development that purport to try to address social inequality and environmental degradation through economic development. These questions have come be conceptualised as questions of environmental and climate justice and they are well known to peoples living as Indigenous inhabitants around the world. In academic circles environmental justice has been gaining traction over the past 3 decades in disciplines like Sociology, Anthropology and Geography, but are only now coming to be prominently recognized within Education.  In these disciplines a focus of this work is the way in which capitalism as a dominant system is implicated in both racial discrimination and human induced environmental degradation.  

In England, political questions that put the systems of capitalism into question  are very difficult for educators in formal and informal settings to address.   Teachers have to consider the wellbeing of their students, the students’ parents, the policy imperatives, and the range of different perspectives within the general public when weighing up how to approach issues about which there is significant disagreement across society and across the political spectrum in the classroom. Bringing the kind of difficult questions about capitalism as a racialized system raised by Kathryn Yusoff[iii] to be discussed in the classroom, for example, is extremely challenging.  This is especially true in the context of a packed curriculum where there is limited time to devote to anything that does not have immediate relevance to the stated, mandated aims. It is likely that a conscientious teacher who wants to approach questions of race and discrimination in light of environmental degradation sensitively within what the curriculum allows from different vantage points will decide that the risk of not being able to do so thoroughly is too great and so will decide to focus only on the kind of climate change science content that is proscribed.  

However, the calls from youth in all parts of the world (see the Youth Strikes for Climate Change as an example) attest to the importance of addressing these questions in the roundin schools and through wider public education.  The reactions to the educational impacts of policies such as that which was recently introduced here in England to limit discussions of anti-capitalism[iv] in schools are a spur towards ensuring that academics in the discipline of Education begin to develop knowledge and practice in this area.  Such knowledge is necessary to support those practitioners who are struggling to work in a space in schools that is held in tension between a policy agendas and different public factions with a plurality of differing priorities.  

Image 1: Image of 3D sculpture entitled: Fundamental Disconnect 2021. By Rachel Wooller, Commissioned by EEJ. Materials: concrete, rope. A rope stretched across a void is cut and yet oddly stays in position, suggesting a yearning for connection

Authors who have been addressing the tensions between ideas like sustainable development and diverse epistemologies include Arturo Escobar whose research spans the past three decades; in part inspired by detailed ethnographic study of river communities in Chile[v]. The conclusions he draws in relation to decoloniality, pluriversality and territories of difference put the notion of a shared globality of values that underpins the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into question.  His work and that of other authors such as De Sousa Santos[vi] highlight how indigenous and black communities’ knowledges have often been erased, and what this has done in terms of developing activism, with or without NGO influence.  

Another writer that has been influential in this area, is Rob Nixon[vii]. His treatise on the Environmentalism of the Poor and what he calls the ‘slow violence’ of living with intensifying environmental degradation reveals the inequities of a market-based political economy. His work resonates strongly with Escobar’s, but is perhaps more centrally focused on the impacts of environmental degradation, where one might interpret the direction of Escobar’s work to be motivated by social degradation and erasure of epistemologies that counter the dominant neoliberal paradigm.

Kathryn Yusoff also can be considered here; and increasingly Achille Mbembe[viii] whose take on necropolitics is proving illuminating in terms of understanding how environmental degradation has an inequitable impact on the mortality of those not privileged by the modern capitalist project. Yusoff and Mbembe appear to be influenced by new materialist ontologies.  This leads us to consider other posthumanist scholars such as Donna Haraway[ix] and Anna Tsing[x] who have long been thinking about these questions across (and erasing)  species and material boundaries, stretching the concept of environmental justice to include non-human animals for example; and centralizing the intra-relations and intra-actions of human and non-human beings and things.  

What do the epistemological questions raised by these different authors and bodies of work mean for Education, across the Global North and South? How might the UN’s definition of Education for Sustainable Development look through the lens of Escobar’s notion of pluriversality, for example? 

Hydro-hegemony

Our first paired session was inspired by the UKRI funded research study Connecting Water to Global Citizenship via Education for Sustainable Development (www.cw2gc.org), we began by reading Laura Pullido’s study of the Flint River crisis in the US[xi] complimented by a reading of Kathryn Yusoff’s book (A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None).  Both of these works focus on the different ways in which environmental degradation can be interpreted as racialized. The authors identify a myriad of ways in which systemic racism can be seen to be continuing to shape the structures in which we are embedded and which drive environmental degradation. Our discussions arising from this session demonstrate how these authors lead the reader to question their own position within these systems, and the way in which we approach the educational project we are involved with in one way or another, perhaps becoming more aware of whose voices we are privileging and what epistemological positions we are taking. Rachel Wooller’s artwork that illustrates this blog post responds to these readings and our soft launch event, and captures the kind of disruptions and ruptures that these readings created for those present, recreating the knowledge in a different form to develop how we think about these questions in the round. 

Image 2: Image of 3D sculpture entitled: The Water’s Fine 2021. By Rachel Wooller, Commissioned by EEJ. Materials: found tap, wood, wire and lard

Rachel Wooller says about Image 2: ‘Lard strikes me as an excellent metaphor for capitalism, it looks pure and innocent, yet is a fairly disgusting by product of the rendering of animals, which contaminates that which it touches. Therefore it seemed irresistible to use lard to represent the contaminated water of Flint: the water of Flint was contaminated because of the pressures of capitalism, the people of Flint regarded as disposable surplus labour for the same reason.’

In our second session we focused on some emerging outcomes from cw2gc (www.cw2gc.org) that led the researchers on that project (Elsa Lee and Mary Murphy) through some challenging analytical thinking in relation to the place of race in learning about environmental behaviours. The session was shaped around a dialogue between Elsa Lee and Mary Murphy about a specific ethnographic encounter in the South African context, that led the two researchers to think about how their own experience of race and nationality across their own lifetimes influenced how they interpreted the encounter.  This dialogue then led the participants in the session to discuss their own positioning in relation to indigenous epistemologies, and to think about how being (dis)emplaced in a land where indigenous knowledges prefigure colonization affects relational epistemological positioning. In this regard, we might ask what it means to a white or European person to inhabit what might be called a liminal space between indigenous and northern epistemologies?  And what might it mean for someone from the Global South who becomes (dis)emplaced into the Global North? What role can liminality play in bringing a world where all worlds fit, a pluriversal world, into being? What does this kind of diasporic experience have to offer to such an endeavor? 

While we do not intend to put these specific experiences ahead of any others, in a pluriversal space these experiences might also be considered alongside those that illuminate Global North epistemologies and Indigenous and Global South ones. In subsequent sessions we will continue to explore these questions drawing on a range of authors and speakers to develop our thinking, such as Arturo Escobar outlined above, and others working on questions of petro-pedagogy, for example[xii].  Besides reflecting on the critical impacts of the current hegemonic way of life, we are motivated to bring into this debate alternative views that emphasize the principle of self-reproduction, solidarity, humanistic and community values that do not obey the dominant logic. For instance, the Buen Vivir philosophy, which adopts principles of indigenous cultures as an alternative paradigm of human existence on the planet, and has advanced as a political project in parts of Latin America[xiii].

Throughout all of this, we will also continue to work with Rachel Wooller as a way of revealing this thinking in creative forms, and we will share our developing ideas via further posts to this blog.  

Copyright:  the images in this blog are not for reuse and are the intellectual property of the EEJ steering group and artist Rachel Wooller.


References

[i] See Yusoff, Kathryn. (2018) A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press, for example. 

[ii]   Nixon, R. (2013). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor (Harvard Univ. Press paperback ed). Harvard Univ. Press.

[iii] See Endnote i. 

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/27/uk-schools-told-not-to-use-anti-capitalist-material-in-teaching

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/dec/15/education-department-to-review-schools-guidance-on-anti-capitalist-groups

[v] e.g. Escobar, A. (2008). Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham; London: Duke University Press. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1198wg2

[vi] E.g. de Sousa Santos, B. (2018). The end of the cognitive empire: The coming of age of epistemologies of the South. Duke University Press.

[vii] See endnote ii

[viii] E.g. Mbembe, A. (2019). Necropolitics. Duke University Press.

[ix] E.g. Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

[x] E.g. Tsing, A. L., Bubandt, N., Gan, E., & Swanson, H. A. (Eds.). (2017). Arts of living on a damaged planet. University of Minnesota Press.

[xi] Pulido, L. (2016). Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(3), 1-16.

[xii] E.g. Eaton, E. M., & Day, N. A. (2020). Petro-pedagogy: fossil fuel interests and the obstruction of climate justice in public education. Environmental Education Research, 26(4), 457-473.  

[xiii] “Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien, are the Spanish words used in Latin America to describe alternatives to development focused on the good life in a broad sense. The term is actively used by social movements, and it has become a popular term in some government programs. [It embraces] the idea that well-being is only possible within a community […] One of the most well-known approaches to Buen Vivir is the Ecuadorian concept of sumak kawsay, the kichwa wording for a fullness life in a community, together with other persons and Nature” (Gudynas, 2011).   Gudynas, E. (2011) ‘Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow’, Development, 54(4), pp. 441–447. doi: 10.1057/dev.2011.86. 

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