Panel 10: Justice, Injustice, and Activism



Panel 10: Justice, Injustice, and Activism

Valuing Histories of Activism:Empowering Us in the Battle Against Climate Change

Alex Ketchum, McGill University

Food production and consumption are prominent fronts of the climate change battle and have been for several decades. By tracing the historical backdrop of these processes it is possible garner insight into the social and environmental impacts associated with them over time. In particular, this paper looks at feminist food activists to provide a framework of how history can be a valuable field in our current struggle against environmental degradation (more).

Can Environmental Law Work for the People Who Need It Most?

Tamara L Slater, Washington University School of Law

It is often the case that communities harmed most by environmental degradation and climate change are repeatedly marginalized and ignored by our current legal system. This talk utilizes a critical race theory framework to explore why there is a failure on the part of legal regimes to promote equality in light of climate change. Despite this, the author argues that these regimes nonetheless have the capabilities for equality if they are just given the opportunity to do so (more).

Q & A

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14 replies
    • Tamara Slater, Washington University School of Law says:

      Alex, I really enjoyed your talk!! In particular, I loved the “Alt Man” story. It’s lesson is actually fairly similar to a Derrick Bell allegory I excerpt in my piece, which focuses on racial privilege rather than gender. I wonder how you think we can resist falling into those same patterns of the past (i.e. prioritizing white, male leadership). From your research, have you come across examples of when knowledge of such past failings has allowed later groups to re-structure and therefore avoid those same failings?

    • Corrie Ellis, University of California, Santa Barbara says:


      Thank you for your talk! I agree that we can learn a lot from the past and think that the climate justice movement is doing good work along these lines to try to center justice at the root of the struggle to address climate change. I wonder if they are using any of the insights from examples you highlight. I am curious about how your work engages with ecofeminist writers. Greta Gaard, for one, comes to mind with her critique of animal agriculture (Gaard, Greta. 2013. “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies.” American Quarterly 65(3):595-618.) It seems like engaging ecofeminists explicitly could add to your work – perhaps you are already writing on this.

      In addition, I am curious to know more about the feminist groups you examine – where are they situated geographically (urban, rural, all in North America?), racially, and along class lines? If they are primarily white feminist groups, what do we learn from that fact for how we engage as a movement today? My students just watched Cowspiracy and some raised some great critiques – I’d love to see a feminist critique of the film. Your argument brought this to mind because I thought about whether or not the feminist groups you look at recognized issues of accessibility to fresh food for working mothers, for example.

      I loved the comic! It made me think about a possible parallel: Could we say that academics who do not work to engage beyond academia (especially with the issue of climate justice) are like the men in the comic who refuse to do the on the ground work in the interest of writing about equal gender roles. Food for thought! Thanks for sharing your intriguing work!

      • Alexandra Ketchum, McGill University says:

        Thank you for your comments and questions. I know Greta Gaard’s work very well and actually brought her to Wesleyan University when I was an undergrad there to be on a panel with Lori Gruen about ecofeminism. Ecofeminism plays a part of my current work and definitely was important in my past research.

        In terms of your question about location, it really depends. My work challenges the dominant historiographical trend of focusing only on activism happening in New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco and looks throughout the US and Canada. My current project is dominated by more urban analysis but my past work was more rural based. Here is a link to the website in which I document my current project: This project looks at feminist coffee houses also as they required less economic resources and less racial privilege to establish which allows me to look at the important contributions of working class feminists and women of color. While dominant historical accounts of feminism from the 70s are good to point out issues of racism within feminist activism during the period, many of these narratives also erase the activism done by both women of color and white women that combatted racism. Authors like Benita Roth in “Separate Roads to Feminism” complicate these narratives.

        Issues of privilege are rampant especially in the dominate narrative of food activism and the food movement. Food justice allows for a more intersectional approach.

        For the final point, I think it is important to challenge the binary between academia and activism. For one, many academics are activists. Also, what is “activism”? Is teaching a form of activism?

        Thank you.

  1. Tamara Slater, Washington University School of Law says:

    Hi all, thank you for your interest in this panel! Like Alex Ketchum, I am very much looking forward to your feedback over these coming weeks.

    (P.S. I was re-watching my talk and noticed a slight error in how I recognized the important work of the Maldives within international law on issues of climate change. I do not believe they specifically brought a climate change case in front of the ICJ.)

    • Alexandra Ketchum, McGill University says:

      I learned so much from your talk! I would like to show it in my class on feminism and environmentalism.

      I was wondering if you had read: Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Vol. 3. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.?

      • Tamara Slater, Washington University School of Law says:

        Alex – Very cool, I’d be flattered!

        I am, of course, familiar with Dr. Bullard but have not yet read Dumping in Dixie. It’s now on the top of my list! There is a fantastic new book called “International Environmental Law and the Global South” (specifically chapters by Carmen G. Gonzalez and Maxine Burkett) that I would also highly recommend on this subject for the international, legal piece of this issue.

    • Corrie Ellis, University of California, Santa Barbara says:


      Thank you for your talk! I think your use of critical race theory to understand how inequalities motivate inaction on climate change is a powerful argument. I have no doubt this important paper will find a good publication home! I am also happy that you have hope for interests converging – I hope things don’t have to get super bad, in terms of climate catastrophe, before interests converge. What do you think it will take? I often reach this same conclusion – that those in power will have to feel the effects before action happens at certain levels. I didn’t know that so many human rights laws were written before the environmental movement. This point powerfully illustrates one component of why the young people who are suing the US for violation of their constitutional rights have been successful so far. As you point out, they are appealing to a broader, more common understanding of human rights – one couched in terms of live, liberty, and property, rather than environment. This is the message that I see anti-fracking activists using in Idaho. Thanks for making this legal connection! I’m eager to explore this issue in the broader legal context.

  2. Danen, Dalhousie U says:

    Thank you both for these thoughtful talks! Both of you made me think about bell hooks’ call to discuss the intersections of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, which really nails the questions of who is being privileged and who is being harmed ( As you both discuss, even ideal situations (like communes and legal encounters) often still reproduce and reinforce those same interlocking structures. The lack of concern for the environment and the lack of concern for the people harmed by environmental decay seem connected to the same social privileging of an elite few (mostly white, wealthy patriarchs), and I like the that you (Alex) really foreground the multiplicity of ethical issues at stake in any given choice (even about what to eat!). And the way that Tamara unites native communities on tar sands oil, poor communities next to coal plants, islanders who lack the resources to adapt to climate change, thousands of people dying in India from rising temperatures: all these groups are being victimized to serve the interests of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. And as you point out, it is precisely the groups who lack the cultural+monetary capital invested in the systems (legal, etc) who need those systems most. Likewise, aiming to diminish ecological impact through food choices is also often co-opted by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, reinforcing unethical social hierarchies while ostensibly relieving ecological burdens. While the whole phrase is somewhat unwieldy and jargonistic already, I wonder if there is a way to also add “anti-environmentalism” to the combined hegemony of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”? Something that implies the way powerful institutions create a hierarchy of life (some of which can be sacrificed, some of which is relegated to unpaid household labor, some of which reaps all the profits) that extends to the non-human (as some non-human life is cherished more than human minorities, like pet cats, while other non-human life is deemed sacrificable). Is there a short-hand theoretical term, along the lines of “capitalist” or “patriarchal,” which summarizes the essential disregard for life-forms considered lower hierarchically (both human and non-human), or anything that could connect environmentalists’ concerns to the same essential ground as other counter-hegemonic concerns?

    • Tamara Slater, Washington University School of Law says:

      Danen, thank you for your comment and for pointing out the relevance of bell hooks’ work on intersectionality as it is certainly essential to this way of understanding oppression as well as social change and social movements. I wonder if you think the existing term “climate justice” (perhaps alongside environmental racism and environmental justice) is sufficient? I’m personally inclined to try and more effectively link climate change thematically to already well developed ideas (i.e. white supremacy, intersectionality) and bodies of law (i.e. human rights) rather than coining a new term that would require development, definition, and adoption before if can be a useful shorthand. But that certainly doesn’t mean a new term couldn’t have great value, especially for someone focused on awareness and movement building. I’d love to know if you have ideas for a new term.

      • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

        Thanks for your replies: I like both answers, climate justice as a goal and anthropocentricism as a root problem. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy all employ anthropocentric rhetoric to excuse environmental injustices — and even something like Humanism can be aptly critiqued when it becomes exclusively anthropocentric in focus, rather than focusing on humanity’s interdependence and interconnections with the environment. It seems like an important intersectional thought to add to other justice movements (such as diversity discussions that seem focused only on human diversity and exclude environmental biodiversity), and “justice” is a term that seems worth using on account of its weighty history. Lots to think about — thanks again for your talks!

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