Environmental Studies Professor David Pellow and his group of undergraduates are exploring the ecological impacts of the United States’ mass incarceration system.
Aaron Howard

A true environmental movement is incomplete without social justice. “Whenever we see something that’s a social problem,” said David Pellow, “I’m looking for that ecological angle. Few people look at the ecological consequences of prison and poverty. Vice versa, what is the social angle of fracking or oil spills?”

Pellow is a professor of Environmental Studies at UCSB, and he has spent his career at the intersection of social inequality and environmental justice. It’s a movement toward improving the quality of life in marginalized communities that all too often bear the brunt of a poor environment’s consequences. He was recently awarded the school’s Dehlsen Endowed Chair in Environmental Studies in recognition of both his scholarship and activism.

The professor’s current group of undergraduates is exploring the ecological impacts of the United States’ mass incarceration system. His team is not only trying to explore the effect of prisons on ecosystems but the students also want to stage a conversation between individuals who support the environment and those who support an end to mass incarceration.

“These are groups of people who haven’t really thought of each other as allies and probably haven’t thought about each other’s issues a lot,” Pellow said. “If there are significant negative ecological impacts of the prison system, I can bring these folks together.”

His group shares interests with the Prison Ecology Project headed by social activist Panagioti Tsolkas, the man who put the issue of ecological impacts of prison on the map and will be speaking at UCSB on April 25, at 6 p.m., at the MultiCultural Center.

Like mass incarceration, many facets of society are not only socially unsustainable but also ecologically unsustainable. “I promise to never separate the ecological from the social,” Pellow said. The environmental justice approach requires an examination of whose voices are heard in the movement. In many ways, marginalized groups such as people of color and individuals living in low-income communities have been left out of the conversation.

A more diverse movement will be essential if global issues like climate change are to be addressed effectively. Similarly, a more diverse movement reflects the idea that the climate problem will require more than one answer.

Like many researchers, Pellow believes that there is no “silver bullet” solution to the climate crisis, and that it will require a mixed bag of fixes. In fact, he stresses that the most instrumental change will be in the hands of our communities and not our politicians.

“When you look at what people are doing in their communities, whether it’s gardening or organizing, the things people do on an everyday basis may not so visible,” he said. “They might not be getting on a plane to go to Paris, but most of the action is not happening at the COP or certainly not inside the COP.”

The Conference of the Parties is an international convention formed by the United Nations that looks to discuss emerging climate issues and chart a course for action through a global treaty. COP21 was held at Paris in 2015 and gathered world leaders from almost 200 nations.

The COP itself would benefit from including more diverse groups. “Let’s bring more people to the table so we get better ideas,” said Pellow. “That’s what a healthy ecosystem is about.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect a change in Panagioti Tsolkas’s talk from Tuesday, April 26, to Monday, April 25, as part of a nationwide Teach-In, that runs at UCSB through April 28. See the schedule here.


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