Megan Cistulli: Welcome to today’s episode of Unwritten, where expert authors join student hosts for discussions on the most important current events of our day. Today we’ll be exploring the critical need for environmental justice, evolving green technology and scalable solutions for this very special Earth Day Episode.
I am Megan Cistulli, a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Political Science with an emphasis in International Relations and Public Law and I am a Campus Ambassador at Pearson. I’ll be moderating today’s discussion.
I am also joined by Erika Webb-Hughes, the Vice President of Sustainability and West Coast Government Affairs at Pearson. We’re glad to have Erika here today to moderate our audience questions. So everyone, please get your questions ready and put them in the Q&A at the bottom of your screen. We’ll get to them in about 20 minutes.
And please join me in welcoming Dr. Jason Neff, Professor of Environmental Studies and the Director of the Sustainability Innovation Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is also the author of a Pearson text called “A Changing Planet”.
Dr. Neff, thank you so much for being here. Could you start off by explaining why you think today’s conversation is so important?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah, of course. It’s nice to be here with both of you today. This is a very strange Earth Day. You know, we’ve been locked up for a year. I think everybody who is watching this probably feels like this has been a really, really tough year, and I think COVID, if nothing else, COVID has exposed how fragile our systems are and how things can fall apart when they’re pushed too hard or pushed in new ways, and in some ways that’s kind of the story that we’ve been hearing from the environmental movement for decades, but now all of a sudden we’re sort of living the consequences of big changes.
And I think that’s been a pretty traumatic change this year and I think also COVID has exposed some things in the way our world works; one of those is the inequality that exists across the world.
I think you put that together with like the reckoning that’s underway with institutional racism in the US and it’s starting to feel like even more so than ever before, you can’t talk about sustainability if you’re not talking -- if not first, then seriously about equity and justice.
So I think that’s kind of the backdrop, but I don’t want to leave it all negative, because I think the other thing that’s amazing to me this year is these mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer are astounding, right, like nobody knew that we could build a vaccine for a virus that just emerged and get that out to literally millions and millions of people in the course of a year, right? That’s astounding. And I think in that actually there is a lesson for all of us working in the environment is that innovation and dedication and the desire to solve a problem, like we can do it when we put our minds to it, and I think that’s a good -- that’s a positive thing to take out of 2020 and early 2021.
Megan Cistulli: Thank you Dr. Neff, we really appreciate that perspective and understanding how COVID has impacted our world and sustainability in general. And with the understanding of why this conversation is crucial, I would like to start off with where we are today. So can you set the record straight in what’s the current environmental landscape and what are the top two or three sustainability issues that we’re facing?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah, boy. I think it’s hard not to talk about climate right now. I think we face so many challenges, but that’s the problem that we’ve got to solve and we have to solve soon. And if we don’t solve it, there is some pretty big consequences to failure.
So I live in Colorado and we were talking about fires just a little bit ago, and boy, the fires in Colorado last year were terrifying.
I’ve talked to a couple wildland firefighters who said we’ve never seen anything like this before and you hear that kind of story everywhere around the world right now, and so I think we’re in for much more of that if we can’t get a handle on this problem. I actually have some optimism around this. I think we’re going in the right direction in some ways, but I think that’s really crucial.
And the other thing that I would mention actually is inequality, so I think some people would say well, why is that a sustainability issue, and I think actually the best way I would have to explain it is an example.
So I work a lot in Africa and when I go to a place like Nairobi, I’ll often take Ubers around and if anybody has been to Nairobi, you don’t take a 15-minute Uber ride, it’s two hours, three hours, four hours, the traffic is horrible, but in those rides you talk to a lot of people and those stories are often, you get in a conversation, why did you move to Nairobi, and it’s like well, I left farms, I left my rural village, I wanted opportunity, I wanted my kids to have a better chance and I wanted to improve life for my family.
And to me that story and those stories really underpin so much of what sustainability has to be about, like we can talk about resource use or we can talk about CO2, but if we don’t recognize that there are billions of people trying to live a better life, trying to having more of an opportunity for their kids or for themselves, then I think we really miss something very important that’s sitting underneath and we’ve got to find a way to balance the need for human development and equity with the need to rein in some of these impacts that we have environmentally.
Megan Cistulli: I think that is extremely important the fact that sustainability goes beyond the climate. It goes towards injustice and inequality and having those personal experiences to really understand and talking with people who have faced those inequalities and injustices. So what are the key factors then contributing to environmental injustice, shifting back to environment, and then what would environmental justice look like to you?
(00:06:07) Dr. Jason Neff: Boy, it’s such a hard question, right? I mean unfortunately there are so many different things that contribute to these problems. So we can kind of take the really obvious stuff, the pipes in Flint, Michigan, neglect, ignoring people who are not in positions of power, ignoring people who don’t have a political voice, the factories that are built in a poor neighborhood, a neighborhood where people don’t have agency to fight that development, who are then disproportionately impacted by it. So there are all of those sorts of things that are environmental injustice, but there are other ones as well.
So internationally there is the notion that the wealthy countries are the ones creating climate change problems and the poor countries are going to be the ones who are impacted by it, that’s one of the biggest forms of injustice that’s there. And then I think there are other ones that are a little bit more buried.
So for example, in the US, take air quality. We’ve done a phenomenal job over the last 50 years in the US to really bring down air pollution in this country. It’s a success story. But when I teach one of the stories I always tell or one of the papers I show is this paper from Oakland and it’s a horribly depressing paper, but I think it’s a really important one, because what they do is they look at an elementary school that’s sitting next to a freeway in a community of color and they compare that and the health outcomes in that school to another elementary school that’s a few miles away in a more affluent community. And the asthma, the respiratory distress, some associated learning disabilities are way higher in that school that’s sitting next to the freeway.
And I think in that there is this sort of collective failure that we’ve had, which is that when we have gone after environmental problems, we have gone after them in a way that says okay, on average is the air quality in Oakland better? Absolutely. Is it better by the same amount for everyone? No. Are there people who are disproportionately impacted today? Yes.
And so I think what does environmental justice look like, I think it looks like taking those questions far more seriously than we have in the past and placing those sorts of conversations and issues and approaches front and center when you start talking about solutions. So whether it’s a policy solution or market solution or a technology innovation, I think we’ve got to be much more deliberate and involved in the conversation about whether those innovations or those changes are going to benefit everyone equally or even more importantly are going to bring those folks that are more impacted today up even to where other people are.
So yeah, boy, it’s a big question, unfortunately.
Megan Cistulli: It’s a big question indeed and I think as you begin to touch on what environmental justice looks like, what excites you about the future of green technology and what do you foresee as the green jobs of the future?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah, boy, there are so many neat things going on right now. Again, I’ll maybe just give an example from Africa. I give examples from a lot of places, but I really like some of these. So people sometimes think that rural Sub-Saharan Africa is in the middle of nowhere and there is giraffes and practically nothing else, but there are about a billion people worldwide that live in those rural parts of Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia and almost all of them now have a phone, not a smartphone necessarily, but a phone. So there is a lot of energy right now around how do you mobilize information technology to help people.
So what that might look like, there is a really interesting example out of Africa in agricultural settings, farmers, at the end of the road they need a car, they grow some crops and they need to get it to market, where oftentimes somebody will come and buy those crops for pennies on the dollar because they have a car, take it to market and make a lot of money. It’s called predatory middlemen; they’re usually men and they're definitely sort of taking advantage of the rural poor.
Well, a phone can now allow farmers to actually look at the prices in the city, to bundle their crops with their neighbors, to actually kind of think of the reverse uber, right, to actually get a transport out, it’s all transparent. They're getting a higher rate of income for their crops and getting those crops to market. So it's better for food security, it's better for economic security, it puts less pressure on the natural systems to develop more land. So that’s one example.
We see it also with using phones to provide information on sustainable practices in agriculture. So I think those are two kind of cool examples from Africa.
I have seen stuff in the US of behavioral change apps that are trying to get people to turn off lights and just make simple changes in behavior to impact climate in a positive way, but which are going to be deployed sort of in a commercial way on a phone.
So I think there are lots of examples. And in terms of green jobs, there is lots of technology. I think data science has taken over the world right now, and between remote sensing and figuring out how to use all of the information that’s flowing around in an equitable, in a responsible and in a moral way, I think those are going to be some of our big challenges, but also opportunities moving forward.
Megan Cistulli: Wonderful. Thank you for those insights and I think that really is just extremely exciting to think about that there are problems, but there are solutions. So I think those green jobs and the green technology and your examples are phenomenal and they are just fantastic. So you're an educator, you're an author, you've written extensively on sustainability. So how do you see your role and the role of educational institutions in creating a sustainable future and in combating environmental injustice?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah. Well, I think universities have been a phenomenal place for calling attention to the problems that we face around the world, for highlighting inequality, for highlighting the problems we face in a sustainability environment, and I think without universities, without those sorts of research efforts or communication efforts we would be in a very different place.
But I think moving forward, I think we need to think of universities in a little bit -- and our own roles as researchers or faculty in a different way and I think we’ve got to lean further into the solution space. I think it’s not enough anymore to find the problem and to allocate blame somewhere.
I think we have to become agents of change in some way and that looks different for different people. It might be becoming an entrepreneur and building a business. It might be building technologies that you think are scalable and can be deployed into parts of the world that don’t have them.
It might be activism. It might be policy. But I think it means definitely sort of sticking our necks out in a way that often in universities we're not necessarily comfortable doing and trying to engage in a much more deliberate way in that solution space.
And so I have a hope that maybe 10 or 15 years from now you're going to see at Berkeley or other universities, you'll see these sort of innovation hubs where you've got great new ideas for businesses sitting right next to like super innovative policy mechanisms that are being discussed and that the whole conversation is really about how do we solve these problems, and then embedded in that is this whole sort of, not subtext, but like super text of, this has got to be -- you've got to deal with equity, right, you've got to deal with racism where it exists, you've got to find ways to give everybody opportunity and not just some.
So that's -- we'll see what happens, but that would be my dream for universities in the next couple decades.
Megan Cistulli: That’s wonderful. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said agents of change. I think what we all need to do is challenge the status quo. We need to be change makers and we need to think outside of the box and think in that solution space.
And now thinking more towards current events and COVID-19, this is obviously still on the top of everyone's mind. So what developments have you observed in your own work since the COVID-19 pandemic and what are your biggest takeaways?
Dr. Jason Neff: I miss my friends. I miss my colleagues around the world. I miss the conversations in taxis. I miss the conversations over dinner. I miss meeting new people and learning new things. I've always said when talking about science and the scientific process, there is a lot of kind of methodology and plotting that goes on in science, but the interesting part of science, that's the necessary part of science, to me the interesting part are the leaps in innovation, it's that realization.
And I think a takeaway from COVID is how often those leaps are made with someone else, not on Zoom. I mean we've had to, right, but I think it's in that room or while you're having dinner or when you're going for a walk with someone that you find that sort of perspective, that new perspective comes in, you change the way that you were thinking about something and you move in a new direction.
And so my takeaway from COVID is that I miss that and I am really looking forward to it coming back and I am very thankful for all of these sorts of things like Zoom, but I am looking forward to the in-person again.
Megan Cistulli: I can second that. I definitely miss in-person classes, researching in a lab and being with other people for sure.
Thank you Dr. Neff for all of your insights, they are extremely valuable. And we do want to take some questions now from the viewers who have joined us. So Erika, over to you.
Erika Webb-Hughes: Thanks Megan. All right, ready Jason?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah.
Erika Webb-Hughes: So here is the first one right out of the gate and not an easy question by any measure. So there has been a push to digital as a means of supporting sustainability. What sort of impact do you think technology actually will have on the environment as we shift from a more analog life to a more digital one?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah, it is a hard question. I think it can go both directions. I think everybody has probably heard about bitcoin and bitcoin mining and how much energy that takes.
There is an example of something that in principle could actually contribute to global sort of financial identities and creation of financial identity for people who don’t, or maybe some equity or separation in certain places, where you need to be separate from government fiscal management. But it also has a downside.
I think the promise of digital, like the examples with the phones and that sort of stuff is really high. I think whether we're there yet is very much an open question. Whether the world will have dozens more dating apps in 10 years or dozens of apps that are focused on sustainability depends very much on where innovation comes from and it also depends on what a venture capitalist decides to fund and all of those sorts of things. So I think that story is not written yet.
Erika Webb-Hughes: Yeah, I think to just pitch off that a little bit, we've seen so much during COVID about EdTech investment, right, lots and lots of money coming into EdTech to figure out in this new way of working and learning that we've all been thrust into what can we take from this and build a model that actually works better since we have the opportunity to essentially move beyond a very 20th Century educational model.
So in thinking about the question I asked you about digital transition as a whole, in just thinking about education and what it's teaching us about how we educate, how we democratize and create more access to education in a digital format, what would be your thoughts about what we're learning and where we could go from here?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah. Well, I know what I learned in the fall is that it's very hard to be live and online at the same time, and I think we've seen that in K-12 as well. You can do really great on digital and you can do really great in-person, but it's hard to mix and match. Doesn't mean to say we can't do that, but I think our platforms don't support that yet.
I think the big picture, right, it's been amazing that we've gotten through this year at universities, right, like the fact that we're still able to teach and still able to engage is great, but I think our lessons coming out of that are that we have to figure out how to build a community around digital resources.
I think equity and access are a big deal, whether that's financial barriers or it's accessibility for the blind or for the deaf or for any other sort of disability that limits, not just your ability to interact digitally, but to do it hour after hour after hour, I think that's been a real challenge.
So yeah, there is enormous promise there and I think -- I mean we did a big experiment and I think we're going to be learning from this for the next year or two and I bet there is going to be some great innovation that comes out of this.
Erika Webb-Hughes: So one more question on this education track I think just to stay with it for a second, as it is being reshaped by not only COVID, but about how we talk about climate change, how we talk about sustainability, what is in that umbrella in an educational or academic sense, beyond fields like science, where do you find that we’re able to thread those tenets of sustainability across other disciplines and where do you think we could do that outside of a field of science that can really create the most impact?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah. Well, there are two places that I would note. So one place I am seeing a lot more conversation is in actually the business schools. There is -- it still is -- it may be a not dominant conversation at all, but it’s increasing sort of in volume, is around sustainability, around sort of equity issues, around climate. So I think that’s becoming more prevalent. I think it’s really, really important just because of the importance of business.
And I think in the arts there have been some really interesting things too. I think sort of art-oriented education or mixing environmental sort of conversations into performative settings, I think you’re seeing that come up a little bit more. Yeah, so I think there are some interesting little shifts underway that could be really important.
Erika Webb-Hughes: Thank you for that. One of the questions that came in is actually very specific in this area, which actually might be a sweet spot for you, it’s which colleges are the best for environmental science, plant or soil science in the US?
Dr. Jason Neff: Well, there are a bunch. For soil science; Davis, Cornell, Berkeley are all great, any of the ag schools usually are really great soil science spots.
For plants also, yeah, the agricultural schools, the Colorado State University or Michigan State University does enormous amounts of work, Kansas State, so all the state institutions tend to have a lot of expertise in those areas and are a great place to go look for people who really want to get their hands dirty in a real way in the ground.
Erika Webb-Hughes: I have a couple questions that I am going to put together. So in efforts to mitigate or address climate change, what’s working and what seems to be the most difficult lift and maybe take this question from an individual perspective on what a person can do and then what you’re noticing about what large organizations can do?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah, that’s a good question. So when we’re talking about mitigation, we’re talking about really trying to reduce the sort of factors contributing to climate change.
And I’ve got to say for mitigation, on both the individual and the sort of innovation space, it’s electric cars right now. I mean to hear GM say we’re going to be electric by 2035 and Volvo saying 2030 and Tesla is making profits and all these companies are coming out and people are buying those cars, I think has to be a transition that we really sort of highlight. 10 years ago when I would teach on electric cars I was like it’s going to be decades before we change this infrastructure and I am so glad to be wrong, it’s really moving quickly.
So I think that’s an example of a place that’s changing. I think also that’s true for a lot of electric generation, so solar energy, wind, all these things are becoming cheaper than other sources of energy and totally accepted for end use at home.
What’s hard, boy, the international climate conversation is really tough right now. We’re just not moving quickly enough on some of these things; methane emissions for example from oil and gas production are not coming down nearly quickly enough and are a huge contributor to warming. I think we’re going to have a lot of problems with more adaptation to sea level rise rather than mitigation, but yeah.
Erika Webb-Hughes: Yeah, big challenges ahead for sure and quick needed solutions by everyone, individual or organization, right, and governments. One person commented that they would like to include in your list of universities, land-grant universities, with their mention being ag and natural resources.
Dr. Jason Neff: Absolutely, and that’s what I mean by this -- that’s what I mean by the state institutions, those are almost all land-grants, yeah. They’re just -- they’re phenomenal resources, not just for education, but for the country, they’re amazing institutions.
Erika Webb-Hughes: As people are considering roles that much more align and we’re seeing this right now with the generation going into college and coming out of college right now is mapping and aligning their career goals with their social justice goals and their environmental interest goals. What degrees do you think are at the forefront if someone really wanted to have a career that is heavily focused on environmental science or sustainability?
Dr. Jason Neff: I think if you really want to go down the science path, you need to kind of -- it’s best to come out of a biology or a geosciences or a sciences or one of the sciences, because the foundational training takes so long in those fields. I think if you’re interested more broadly in sustainability or even in these sort of like the environmental social governance components of kind of business activities or corporate activities, I see a lot of pathways into that.
I think it’s more about experience and perspective than it is necessarily about a degree, so whether that’s political science or that’s economics or it’s anthropology, I’ve seen people kind of like move into those sorts of careers from multiple directions and I think that’s kind of neat. It means that there is a lot of different ways that you can enter into that conversation.
Erika Webb-Hughes: And it really does take all of us, regardless of our path, right, so you can go down the path.
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah, different skill sets.
Erika Webb-Hughes: Absolutely. One interesting pivot, how do you feel about the conversation around investment? So we’ve been talking a lot about these big changes, very complicated changes to reduce emissions, to do carbon sequestration and capture, to build out new technologies to address some of these issues, this would require a lot of investment.
(00:27:00) So what do you think about that conversation and how to tackle those budget conversations with perhaps people who may be a little resistant to the price tag?
Dr. Jason Neff: Yeah. Well, I think there are a lot of places where it just makes good business sense to invest in the more sustainable technologies anyway; like if you’re going to build a power plant for electricity generation, it’s a little archaic, you wouldn’t do coal anymore. In the US we’re not pretty much and natural gas is on its way. So I think some of those are already shifting. I think if -- there are -- you always need to see innovation and I think the national government can play a strong role there and does play a role, I am sure we could do more in terms of providing sort of the incentives and the funds to get things off the ground.
I think the private sector has a much bigger role to play. I think if I look around and look at where capital comes from, I would argue that far too much of it is oriented around making a new dating app or putting money toward high growth companies, potentially high growth companies that may not do any good for the world. And I think the broader financial community is starting to talk a lot more about not just sustainability as a goal, but sustainability as something that’s going to be central to a modern and a future business and I would love to see that conversation accelerate.
Erika Webb-Hughes: I couldn’t agree more with you, that is exactly the conversation we’re having at Pearson, right, which is we have to have this and the tenets and principles around sustainable development as part of our business goals overall and our corporate strategy, because we have to be looking at this, because it’s going to impact everything we do.
We are coming up on time and I’ve really appreciated getting to ask you these questions and talk about these very complex challenges, but one last question I would say is what leaves you hopeful and then we’ll turn it back over to Megan to close?
Dr. Jason Neff: I think the innovation spirit that people have makes me hopeful. The energy in the African cities around innovation and ideas I think is really exciting. The things I see at startup accelerators and sustainability in the US is really exciting. And the other changes we’re seeing; the cars, the way the electric grid is being transformed, I think you’ve got to hold on to all that as hope for the future.
Megan Cistulli: Wonderful! Thank you so much Dr. Neff for all of your insights and thank you for your time. Thank you Erika! And I would also like to thank everyone who joined us today for our very special Earth Day Episode and I hope this conversation was just as insightful for you all as it was for me. Have a great day everyone and stay safe out there!