by John Zhao, '18
Recently, Stanford University announced its decision on prison divestment. The decision made is insufficient and Stanford remains invested in the prison industrial complex, a system of institutions that surveil, police, imprison, and exploit people. Perhaps you are wondering why this is relevant to this blog on sustainability. That is because this is relevant. The prison system - beyond the violations of human rights and dignity - is also a matter of environmental injustice. Environmental injustice manifests in multiple ways within the prison industrial complex.
Prisons often are built on environmentally toxic sites, exposing incarcerated people to environmental hazards. This summer, the EPA updated its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool to be able to overlay prisons with other sites, such as Superfund sites. One such analysis of prison siting found that “at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site [...] with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.” Thus, incarcerated people are often trapped in facilities that expose them to serious environmental hazards without consent.
The case of valley fever in California prisons also compounds the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration inflicts on people of color, as highlighted in this article by Mother Jones. The fungi that causes valley fever is found mostly in the Central Valley, where 16 of 33 prisons in California are located. Moreover, people of color are more at risk of contracting life-threatening cases of valley fever compared to white people. As a result, the justice system is not only disproportionately incarcerating people of color but also exposing them to life threatening conditions.
Moreover, the prison system often fails to comply with health and safety regulations and subject incarcerated people, surrounding communities, and ecosystems to dire circumstances. Since 2000, 8 of California’s state prisons have been cited for polluting waterways with sewage. Similar cases can be found across the nation. It is not just the prison facilities themselves that are violating these standards; companies that provide services to prisons have also grossly mistreated inmates. Food service companies often prepare highly processed, unhealthy food that fails to provide sufficient nutrition for inmates. Beyond this, companies such as Aramark Correctional Services are notorious for serving unsafe food that have been infested with maggots and rats. This is a violation of incarcerated people’s right to clean and healthy food.
The solution is not to simply make prisons environmentally friendly and safe. Various prisons have made attempts to rebrand themselves as ecologically sustainable. These reforms may improve operations related to energy and water; some even incorporate “green-collar” work and training programs to reduce recidivism. Outside the context of prisons, I would support such initiatives to build up sustainable infrastructure and a green workforce. However, the use of these facilities to imprison people in inhumane conditions should not be ignored; greenwashed prisons are still prisons. That felons can be denied jobs should not be ignored. Incarceration tears people away from familiar environments, throws them into dangerous environments, and - if they do get out- releases them back into society struggling to assimilate. From the perspective of social sustainability, the prison industrial complex pulls people away from families, making it difficult to build sustainable communities.
Prison labor is perhaps the biggest driver of the prison industrial complex. In many cases, the government and private corporations rely on incarceration for a source of cheap labor. Prisoners are often paid far less than minimum wage, often at rates less than $1/hour. The State of California relies heavily on prison labor in order to fight fires in its conservation camps under Cal Fire, saving the state $90-100 million a year. In 2014, when California federal judges ordered a program to release more prisoners early, “lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
The link between prisons and environmental justice is clear. Environmental injustices compound the damage already inflicted on incarcerate people, through relocation to toxic sites, health and safety violations, and labor exploitation. Environmental injustice will fuel incentive for perpetuating the prison industrial complex and exploitable prison labor. It is hard to imagine that a world that follows the Principles of Environmental Justice would include the prison industrial complex.
Stanford: you do not get to claim to be a leader in sustainability if you remain invested in the prison industrial complex. Listen to SU Prison Divest and divest from private prison corporation stakeholders, prison support industries, and prison labor beneficiaries.
Organization (Bay Area): Critical Resistance http://criticalresistance.org/
Organization: Prison Ecology Project https://nationinside.org/campaign/prison-ecology/
Infographic: Prison and Climate Change https://floodthesystem.net/infographic-prison-and-climate-change/
Readings: Prison Abolition Syllabus http://www.aaihs.org/prison-abolition-syllabus/
by Becca Nelson, '20
This summer, my parents woke up to find a news crew standing in our driveway. We live in a quiet little suburb of Chicago, where this kind of thing never happens. The scene was eerie. The night before, torrential rains had flooded our neighborhood, turning our street into a channel of murky brown water, filled with litter and broken branches. The lights from the cameras flashed off the water, creating jagged shadows. The Des Plaines River, which runs through our neighborhood reached a record high. A couple streets down from where I live, my neighbors were forced to evacuate their homes. Kids floated down the streets in inflatable rafts, laughing and playing, despite the health warnings about entering the water. My neighborhood sits on a floodplain, but this was the second one hundred year flood we had in the last few years. Normally, hundred year floods have a 1 in 100 chance of happening, but their frequency is increasing with climate change.
In the weeks following the flood, I realized how lucky I was. I watched news footage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria pounding the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. The hurricanes disrupted the lives of millions of people, including some of my friends and family. Warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico due to rising global temperature exacerbates the frequency of hurricanes. These natural disasters with their profound social and ecological consequences create an opening for starting a dialogue on climate change. Yet having a thoughtful discussion that catalyzes collaboration and action can be difficult in America’s polarized climate. This summer, I conducted a literature review on how to most effectively communicate and teach about climate change as a part of environmental education research I was doing in Dr. Nicole Ardoin’s Social Ecology Lab. After reading through pages of peer-reviewed journal articles, I learned the following tips about how to more effectively discuss climate change.
Foremost, optimism is far more effective than alarmism in inspiring people to take action. When the effects of climate change are portrayed as inevitable and apocalyptic, people tend to either lose their sense of efficacy in addressing the issue or roll their eyes at what they see as over exaggerated paranoia. I often get overwhelmed watching documentaries that provoke alarm without discussing solutions, thinking about how large my own carbon footprint is and how limited my agency is in tackling climate change. In contrast, messages that focus on how communities have the ability to adapt by adopting concrete actions can instill a sense of hope and urgency.
Besides the tone of the discussion, whether climate change is discussed as a social or scientific problem can also greatly influence people’s response to it. Environmental education researcher K. C. Busch researched how social and scientific portrayals of climate change were presented in the classroom. The scientific discussion of climate change appears to be much more common in schools and emphasizes empirical evidence for climate change and how it will impact the environment globally. Social discussions, however, that portray its negative effects on our society at the local scale are underemphasized in the classroom even though people tend to be more influenced by climate change’s social consequences.
Psychological distance of climate change can also affect people’s level of concern. In other words, people who believe that climate change will threaten their community or similar communities in the near future are more likely to see climate change as an important issue than people who believe that climate change will happen far in the future and far away from where they live. Discussing how climate change will affect people and places at local level can raise more concern than using vague and global terms. For example, the research I did this summer looked at how redwoods can educate visitors at California State Parks about the local impacts of climate change. The devastation from the recent hurricanes hits much closer to home for some Americans than images of polar bears stranded on melting ice floes.
Public perceptions and barriers to feeling concerned about climate change vary demographically throughout the United States. It’s important to understand what perspectives your audience comes from. For example, people in some cases distrust experts who come from outside their community. So imposing a message about climate change on a community rather than fostering an open dialogue can be ineffective. Collective action toward climate change can arise organically from within communities through networks of concerned individuals that spread in a decentralized manner. Stanford biology professor Dr. Deborah Gordon started an online initiative called Land Talk that seeks to empower people all over the world to document changes in weather and land within their own community. The website features stories in which a younger community member interviews an older member about changes within an area based on their personal observations. If you are interested in hearing their stories or sharing your own, you can learn more here.
Ultimately, how we talk about climate change influences the actions we take from lifestyle changes to environmental policy. Watching news footage of my flooded neighborhood was a wake up call for me.
References and Further Reading
Jones, C., Hine, D. W., & Marks, A. D. (2017). The future is now: reducing psychological distance to increase public engagement with climate change. Risk Analysis, 37(2), 331-341.
Scannell, L., & Gifford, R. (2013). Personally relevant climate change: The role of place attachment and local versus global message framing in engagement. Environment and Behavior,45(1), 60–85.
Busch, K. C. (2016). Polar Bears or People? Exploring Ways in Which Teachers Frame Climate Change in the Classroom. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 6(2), 137-165.
Maibach, E. W., Leiserowitz, A., Roser-Renouf, C., & Mertz, C. K. (2011). Identifying like-minded audiences for global warming public engagement campaigns: An audience segmentation analysis.
Leiserowitz, A. A. (2005). American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous?. Risk analysis, 25(6), 1433-1442.
Koepfler, J. A., Heimlich, J. E., & Yocco, V. S. (2010). Communicating climate change to visitors of informal science environments. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 9(4), 233-242. and tool development. PloS one, 6(3), e17571.
Experiential knowledge paired with trustworthy information necessary for local legitimacy of wind power
by Kira Smiley
The local implications of wind energy are a hotly debated topic worldwide. It seems to be easy to promote wind energy on a grand scale, envisioning the potential it has to generate emission-free energy and mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, all too often arguments sour when talk of wind turbine construction hits close to home. Doubts about how appropriate the construction sites are, along with fears of both personal impacts mixed with those concerning the environment and local wildlife, particularly birds.
These concerns motivated my study of local permanent and seasonal inhabitants in the Finnish archipelago. Funded by the Volpert Scholars grant, I worked as a visiting researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute based in Helsinki, Finland, acting much more responsible and put-together than I felt. After doing a broad ecological survey of the white-tailed eagle nearby wind turbines, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews on one island with wind turbines and on two without them. The interviews focused on the participants’ perceptions about the impacts of wind turbines on the white-tailed eagle in the Turku archipelago. Not only is the white-tailed eagle a locally important species recognized to interact with wind turbines, but these large and charismatic birds are a point of interest for wind power development throughout Europe.
My findings indicated that experience, or lack of it, strongly affected how participants formed perceptions of wind turbines and their impacts. Additionally, when searching for new information, local residents found it challenging to distinguish trustworthy sources. For instance, if a company or entity publishing or funding an informational article stood to gain from the results, readers were less likely to trust it, regardless of whether they agreed with the message. However, they did tend to show confirmation bias and evaluate sources they did agree with as more trustworthy.
Although often the impact of turbines on birds have been politicized as a key argument against wind turbines, my interviews indicated that perceived bird impacts had no real effect on participants’ views. Instead, concerns centered almost exclusively on personally experienced impacts. Many residents on the island without wind turbines voiced concerns that property values would drop due to view and sound disturbance. However, residents on the island with wind turbines directly contradicted this and said that property values had risen and the sound was noticeable only on very windy days. It was also interesting that despite engagement with the wind-power companies and local authorities taking place, several participants felt their views were not ultimately accounted for in the wind turbine decision-making process.
The results illustrated that misconceptions can often occur due to lack of experience or information, strengthening the need for increased knowledge exchange. We clearly have much to gain from sharing experiences and distributing research-based reliable information. For example, a concise packet of studies on wind turbines including personal experiences might be an effective way to communicate wind turbine impacts to communities that are considering or facing wind turbine construction. Moreover, platforms where locals could share views and communicate with scientists and authorities would reduce biases and support informed development of perceptions from reliable sources. This way, citizens can inform their views with reliable and diverse knowledge bases.
In terms of the experience itself, it was an engaging and amazing opportunity to be able to design, shape, and execute my own research and consult top wind power and eagle experts in both Finland and Denmark. I was able to improve my Finnish environmental and research jargon, and even pick up some Swedish (“I. understand. Little. But. No. speak. Swedish…and I like ping pong and dogs”). Overall, this work was very relevant to the changing wind power situation in Northern Europe, and addressed many of the current concerns people had about fake news. I am excited to continue to foster the relationships that formed this summer and continue to develop my research!
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.