Tag Archives: environmental justice

Neil Blumofe: “Shemittah (Sabbatical Year): the remission of debt, manumission, and the concept of home in relationship to the current disruptions and climate crisis in our world”

The Fall 2021 Faculty Fellows met for the first time on Thursday, August 26, led by Rabbi Neil Blumofe, our Community Fellow. Blumofe leads Congregation Agudas Achim, a synagogue in Austin. He presented the concept of “shemittah,” a sabbatical year, a time at which routine is disrupted and the land is allowed to rest. His project—which he is approaching as a spiritual autobiography—seeks to consider shemittah within the framework of land ethics and conservation. His reflections come just before the celebration of the Jewish New Year of 5782, a shemittah year which begins on the evening of September 6th.

Blumofe sees the sabbatical year as a way to disrupt routine and as a way to give poise. He began the session by sharing photos from a recent trip he made to the western USA: open landscapes populated by bison; mountains; and glacier lakes. The two final photos showed sites that mark depletion and the destruction of land, the Minuteman National Historic Site and the Sanford Underground Research Facility, located in an abandoned gold mine. He closed the introduction with song and an invitation to contemplation taken from Rav Kook quote found  in David Seidenberg’s essay on Jewish ecological thought:

“Contemplate the wonders of Creation, the divine dimension of their being, not as a dim configuration that is presented to you from the distance but as the reality in which you live. Know yourself and your world . . .”

Blumofe explained that shemittah is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible. Historically, it entailed a pause in the cultivation of land; remission of debt; and the release of enslaved and indentured persons.  The shemittah year resets the economy. Private property ceases to exist: plants and animals are given reign over land, and people may access it without restriction. Those in debt are amnestied.

Fellows explored what it means for land to rest. For what purpose?  Is it rested because of diminished productivity, so it can produce later?  Is it rested so that it may return to some previous state? If there are multiple users of the land, who decides when it should rest? What is the vision for the land after its rest period, and who determines that?

The discussion included different ways that humans interpret land at rest.  Human management of land often seeks to restore it to a previous state. Restoration implies modifications of some kind; perhaps the soil is amended, or trees are planted. The goal of restoration is to make the land function as humans think it should. Another way of “resting” land is through preservation, setting it aside and allowing nature to have its way.

Fellows suggested a third term: remediation.  Remediation is not a return to pristine state. Whereas restoration is an erasure of history, remediation doesn’t pretend to erase history. It leaves us with something less than pristine. It holds the trace of history and is a reminder of that.

Many classic—and some contemporary— environmentalist and conservationist texts ignore or idealize the perspectives of indigenous and other marginalized peoples and consign them to the past. Fellows grappled with how to read such works. How are these texts considered  historically and how do those conversations reverberate with current conversations?  How do we think about manumission during movements of abolition? What is the place of reparations?

For Blumofe,  the shemittah year provides sanctuary and allows a lessening of the hold of commodification. He understands it as a spiritual model, a perspective that is more than ours, regardless of privilege. To illustrate this, he turned to two texts, Leviticus 25:2 from the Torah, and a 2nd century commentary on that passage. The passage from Leviticus describes Moses on Mt. Sinai, receiving a message from the divine: “the land shall observe a sabbath, a sabbath of the divine.” The commentary focuses on why the concept of the sabbatical year is juxtaposed with Sinai.

Blumofe explained that the commentary asks, what does it mean to speak from a place that is Mount Sinai? It’s aspirational: Sinai is a place where everyone together was able to receive a revelation of hope and aspiration.  For Blumofe, shemittah is a way of thinking about reordering, a way to look at the world and find a way through. The  juxtaposition gives us a sense of how to live in the world, something to work in our everyday lives. We can also keep it ahead of us. We may not experience the shemittah, or know whose land it is, or even who we are, but we can move forward. The shemittah doesn’t just give you rest from exhaustion, it allows you to do the work.

 

 

Sinai mountains with a yellow. pink. and purple sky
The Sinai Mountains, photo by Mohammed Moussa, through Wikimedia Commons

Difficult Dialogues Spring Public Forum: Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment

This spring’s Difficult Dialogues Public Forum, held on April 13, featured three of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows: Dr. Andrea Gore (College of Pharmacy);  Dr. Ben Hodges (Cockrell School of Engineering, Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering); and Dr. Katherine Lieberknecht (School of Architecture, Community and Regional Planning) speaking on the topic of “Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment.” Each panelist spoke briefly, followed by conversation moderated by HI Director Dr. Pauline Strong.

Dr. Lieberknecht’s presentation focused on the importance of including local knowledge in climate planning. She heads a National Science Foundation-supported collaborative project located in Dove Springs that seeks to find ways to integrate community knowledge into city efforts to contain flooding and ameliorate extreme heat. Lieberknecht identified three kinds of infrastructure planners consider when designing solutions: the built environment; the ecological environment; and the social environment. Using seasonal flooding as an example, the built environment includes structures such as levees; the ecological environment includes efforts to create green space; and the social environment includes communication networks within communities. Local knowledge incorporates information about all three. Community members know which storm drain always backs up, which route to the grocery store is shadiest in the heat of summer, and who organizes community responses. The Dove Springs project is still in its beginning stages—the research began roughly 6 months ago, and some aspects have been hampered by C19 restrictions—but Lieberknecht and her academic and community partners hope that its findings will help planners and communities design more robust climate solutions.

Dr. Hodges followed. He opened his presentation by sharing a simple fact: global warming means increasing rain, increasing rain means more floods. Floods happen for three reasons, Hodges explained. Rivers exceed their banks; storm surges overwhelm coastal areas; and “water bombs,” localized intense rainstorms. Cities are not currently designed to manage such storms. Design criteria must change. But civil engineering solutions operate almost exclusively from a cost benefit analysis.  Wealthy people live on the most valuable land, so it’s that land that civil engineers strive to protect. Hodges pinpointed a dilemma in infrastructure planning: when changes are made to mitigate undesirable circumstances, such as flooding, property values rise. Gentrification often follows, driving the original residents out. How can engineers and city planners create solutions that preserve communities instead of displacing them? Hodges suggested a few ways to change current practices. Firstly, he encouraged more interdisciplinary work to provide more holistic understandings of the problems and possible solutions. He promoted investment in ripping out concrete and asphalt to create new green spaces, and stressed the importance of building codes in addressing infrastructure inequities. He also proposed that cities begin thinking of eminent domain as a tool to bring more valuable properties into green space.

To close the panel, Dr. Gore brought a more direct focus on health outcomes. Since the “chemical revolution” of the World War II period, synthetic chemical production has increased dramatically. Many of these chemicals allow us to have products that make our lives easier or more convenient. However, their production often causes pollution that harms both human and non-human life. Gore described her research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which she defined as “a chemical that interferes with any aspect of hormone action.” Hormones, she explained, affect brain development and behavior regulation, among other factors. She emphasized two points: EDCs have adverse effects on brain health, and these adverse effects can affect the health of future generations. We’re all exposed to EDCs, primarily through food. Chemical contamination harms wildlife as well as human life, which Rachel Carson demonstrated in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. As the planet warms up, the polar ice caps melt, and chemicals once trapped in the ice are released into the air and water. While it would be impossible to avoid all exposure to EDCs, Gore offered some actions we all can take in order to minimize risk. She advised microwaving in glass containers rather than plastic; drinking filtered water, not bottled water; and eating fresh produce—organic, if it’s affordable—instead of industrially processed food.

A lively discussion followed. Participants discussed the tension between local and national needs when addressing infrastructure issues, and the need for context-informed solutions. Lieberknecht cited the need to “think with equity.” Solving these issues requires thinking holistically, including conversations about living wages, affordable housing, and access to healthy food. While all agreed that community cultures of care are important, they stressed that it’s the role of municipalities to step up and address problems.

Several resources were shared by the panelists and participants in the chat. Some are linked below.

City of Austin Climate Equity Plan 

Planet Texas 2050

“Editorial: An International Riposte to Naysayers of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” Andrea Gore

“Policy Decisions on Endocrine Disruptors Should Be Based on Science Across Disciplines: A Response to Dietrich et al.” Andrea Gore, et al.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs

The Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life  Eric Klinenberg

Thinking in Systems and other work by Donella Meadows

Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource David Sedlak

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies Geoffrey West

 

Photo of the 2015 Halloween flood in Austin, TX courtesy of the City of Austin

Dialogue Techniques for Fostering Environmental Awareness across the Curriculum

written by Dr. Sarah Ropp

Spring has arrived to Austin–arguably its most beautiful season–and with it, growing hope for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the devastating effects of February’s extreme cold are still evident in the landscape, perhaps most poignantly in the collapsed nopales splayed out over the sidewalks. And the financial and health impacts of infrastructural and political failures to support the people of Texas during that extreme weather event have produced a lingering bitterness in many of us. April is Earth Month, and there is no better time to consider how we can bring a greater sense of environmental awareness into our classrooms through a few minutes a week of focused peer-to-peer dialogue. 

No matter what content we teach, place-based pedagogies are important. They support students’ mental health and ability to engage in the classroom by acknowledging and attending to the ways in which our relationship to our environment affects us on a moment-to-moment basis. They break down artificial boundaries between “in here” and “out there” and encourage students to understand classrooms as an extension of communities and themselves as critical agents within their environments. They illuminate the ways in which varying experiences of restriction and freedom within environments are fundamental to understanding social inequities created by ableism, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, transphobia, and more. Below are a few opportunities to engage your students in dialogue around the environment over the course of this month.

5 Ways to Incorporate More Classroom Dialogue about Environmental Awareness 

This infographic details 5 quick ways to foster more eco-awareness in your classroom without losing instructional time devoted to your content. 

Difficult Dialogues Public Forum on Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment

April 13, 7-8pm, via Zoom

The Spring 2021 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum features three of our 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows in a conversation about health, infrastructure, and the environment. Faculty from a range of disciplines will discuss their research on environmental contamination, climate change and climate planning, and environmental racism and injustice. The presentations will be followed by a Q&A session moderated by HI Director Pauline Strong. 

Click here to register and learn more about the speakers and their topics.

Controversy and Conversation Film Discussion of An American Ascent

May 6, 7:30-8:30pm, via Zoom

An American Ascent focuses on the first African American expedition to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak. The film also discusses what it refers to as the “Adventure Gap,” referring to the disproportionately low number of African Americans participating in nature-based recreational activities. One of the nine climbers poses: “Think about the story that mountaineering has been. It’s been mainly white male, and if a little black girl were to look into mountaineering and hear that single story, she would probably say ‘I don’t have much of a place there.’” Follow the group on their challenging journey to the summit of Mount Denali as they discuss the impacts they hope to have on their communities.

Starla Simmons, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, will lead the discussion. Professor Simmons’s work is rooted in social justice and racial equity. In addition to her clinical practice and  academic work, she has served as the Austin leader for Outdoor Afro, an organization dedicated to promoting and celebrating Black leadership in nature.

Click here to register and to find more information about the film and how to watch it.

Heather Houser: “Affiliating Reproductive and Climate Justice.”

Dr. Heather Houser, associate professor in the Department of English, led the February 11 session of the Faculty Fellows Seminar. Houser presented a new project she is developing, an exploration of the challenges and the possibilities of including reproduction as part of the response to climate crisis.

Influenced by her work as part of an interdisciplinary team at Planet Texas 2050 and the research and writing of her monographs Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction (2014) and Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data (2020), Houser seeks to write outside of the frame of a traditional academic monograph. Both literary writing and visual art that incorporate scientific information open space for artists to question western epistemologies and to entangle them with other knowledges, a prospect that she finds stimulating and challenging.  Examples of  writing she finds compelling include Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), by Isabel Wilkerson. She imagines writing shorter, more personal pieces, such as the work of Roxane Gay and Elizabeth Kolbert.

In this initial exploratory stage, she wishes to get a sense of how conversations around family, reproduction, and climate develop. She began her inquiries with a set of questions: what are the frameworks within which climate conversations happen? What  ideas galvanize those conversations, and what  ideas or themes are taboo?

Houser decided on the term “affiliation” to link her areas of inquiry both to avoid prescriptive framings and to deflect the tendency to subordinate one form of justice to the other.  The point is to think of reproductive justice and environmental justice together. For her, affiliation gets at creating conditions for thriving, one of the central concerns of the reproductive justice movement.

Both the climate justice and the reproductive justice movements have thorny and complicated racial histories. Houser intends her work to bring a critique of white dominance to both. At her current stage of inquiry,  she finds the critiques provided by the history of Black feminism and the Black women’s health movement most valuable, citing works such as  Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present for their engagement with racial histories of science in the USA. She’s interested in thinking about particular ideas of justice, and what justice means in different communities. The project requires self-reflection and awareness of her own positionality as she works in and with traditions of thought, advocacy, and expression without being appropriative.

Houser also directs attention to the concept of “choice.” A key point for the reproductive justice movement is the ability to have—or not have— children according to one’s own terms. Her initial impression is that  “childfree” is a position predominately held, or more publicly owned and capitalized upon, by white women. However, under conditions of racial injustice and health inequities, the choices of some are limited or completely removed: communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental toxins that disrupt or impair human reproduction, and are also targeted by racist policies that pathologize certain family structures and seek to control reproduction, including through forced sterilizations.

Fellows suggested several avenues for further exploration. One possible trajectory is to question the relationships between justice and choice. How does justice differ from choice?  Is justice about making an individual choice with knowledge of the structures that shape that choice?  What would it mean to reframe the notion of self-determination in a collective sense?  The work of Eve Tuck proposes justice as an important, but limited, meeting place. Justice works within the confines of the state. It provides a space for movement building and advocacy, but the end goal of these movements is not necessarily redress within the state.

Another approach is to think along the lines of labor and care as they apply to reproduction and sustainability. What are the ideas of family and community that make care more or less sustainable? What are other versions of family? Both Silvia Federici and Maria Mies provide accounts that reconsider domestic and family labor. Perhaps different communities of care and support open new possibilities for reproductive justice and environmental justice and sustainability.