UConn Authors Exploring Just Sustainabilities

Linking social and environmental justice

sunset on storrs campus

Sun shining through the trees at South Campus. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

As the world faces a future shaped by the climate crisis, solutions working to achieve sustainability must be ones that pair both social and environmental justice.

UConn researchers Mary Buchanan ’21 (PhD) and Associate Professor in Residence Phoebe Godfrey have edited a book of case studies called Global Im-Possibilities which explores the concept of “Just sustainabilities”, including policies, practices, and challenges, faced by individuals and governments working toward a more sustainable future.

Q: Can you introduce readers to the concept of just sustainabilities?

“Just sustainabilities” is a concept originated by Julian Agyeman from Tufts University, which he defines as “the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems.” Essentially, this framework aims to achieve environmental sustainabilities in connection with expressions of social justice, rather than focusing primarily on one or the other. The emphasis on the plurality of possibilities is key in that it allows for place-based specific solutions that emerge out of the culture and needs of a given community. It also makes clear that these ideas – and particularly the way that efforts to achieve them actually play out – are intrinsically linked. A shared future that embodies just sustainabilities will allow all people to meet their specific needs in ways that are just and equitable without overtaxing the natural systems that keep us all alive.

Q: Can you explain why social justice is so important for environmental sustainability?

Humans are a part of the environment, and in almost all cases of environmental destruction or exploitation, there are humans suffering alongside. In most cases, the humans who suffer the most are those who are already socially marginalized as a result of structural inequalities such as racism, sexism, classism, etc. The book includes several case studies that make these intersecting inequalities apparent, such as indigenous communities living in areas where mining or other natural resource extraction is carried out by multi-national corporations, or rickshaw-drivers whose livelihoods are impacted by the same transportation policies that also lead to more greenhouse gas emissions from cars. So, the first reason for including social justice in conceptions of sustainability is that our understandings of the actual challenges at hand would be incomplete without it. The next reason is that – particularly when you’re talking about policies, plans, and practices as this book does – this understanding is going to affect the way you set goals, find collaborators, and measure success.

Q: It seems people are starting to recognize the connection between environmental and social collapse, is this your perception too? Can you talk about why it is so important to realize the inter-connectedness?

We certainly think the connection is becoming clearer to people. Perhaps the most obvious example is the increasing intensity of weather events, which we’ve seen so much of this year and which will only continue to worsen in the future due to climate change. It’s just as much a social problem as it is an environmental problem, and of course the bulk of our environmental problems are the result of our social actions. It used to be that images chosen to illustrate the risks of climate change in media were things like polar bears on melting ice, whereas now you’re just as likely to see images of flooded highways. Both are real concerns, but the floods (or the droughts, or the wildfires, or the storms) feel much closer to home. Climate change has been affecting humans this whole time, of course, and like other environmental justice issues it has most impacted those who were already marginalized – which no doubt influenced both the level of attention and the level of urgency devoted to the crisis. However, as climate change continues and those with privilege are also faced with its impacts, these issues are getting more attention and the conversation is reaching new audiences. Realizing this inter-connectedness is important for motivating collaboration among a wide range of actors, including those divided by social class, race, and/or gender, and making sure that working to solve one problem doesn’t inadvertently either reinforce existing inequalities or cause a new but equally challenging problem.

Q: What are some examples of sustainable measures that take social justice into consideration?

The last section of the book looks at some examples of attempted solutions to challenges of just sustainabilities, although we try to emphasize that even these have their shortcomings and contradictions. However, the more we are willing to be transparent about the shortcomings – the paradoxes and contradictions of our “solutions” – the more we can make adjustments along the way. One chapter explores holistic grazing, in which livestock are managed in a way that doesn’t deplete the soil and still provides livelihoods for ranchers. Another traces the history and structure of a community organization on a rehabilitated landfill that is also actively working to provide space for the indigenous peoples who once lived on the land before colonialism. And finally, the book highlights a community activist group in Baltimore that is tackling food sovereignty, economic development, and youth education.

Q: What are some things that people, anyone, can do to address these challenges?

Educating yourself is always a great first step, but you can’t stop there. Many of the case studies in this book show how important collective place-based action is – in other words, working where you are with others who share your goals. Some of these collective actions might be marches, community gardens, advocacy for specific legislation, leading classes, etc. but in all cases making the larger goal putting social justice into practice. There aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions, so find out the specific challenges affecting your community and start there. As the title of our last section says: “Reimagine the Possible”… and work towards it.

Q: What was the collaborative process like for creating this book?

We worked on this book while I, Mary, was a graduate student, so for me it was also a look behind-the-scenes into the academic editing and publishing world. It took several years of soliciting chapters, reviewing drafts, and encouraging revisions before we ended up with the final collection. It was great for the two of us to be able to work as equals to provide the best possible feedback to our authors -- which often meant wrestling with the nuances of just sustainabilities ourselves to figure out where/how we could ask for more from our authors, or to decide how we were going to group these very different cases so that the whole book would feel coherent and useful. At the same time, I was completing my dissertation, which also drew on the concept of just sustainabilities, so our work to make the arguments in this book stronger also helped me to make my own case for my doctoral degree.

For me , Phoebe, it was a great opportunity to not only work with an extremely capable and talented graduate student but also, I apricated the fact that the theoretical lens of 'just sustianbilities', along with the case studies we were editing for the book were invaluable for her own dissertation research. I think the more we can help all students engage in work that goes beyond a given class and builds real life experiences that aid in both personal and professional development the better.

Join the authors for a free virtual book launch on October 14th from 6 - 7:30 pm EST. Register here.