Leslie Fields

Leslie Fields

National Director, Policy Advocacy and Legal, Sierra Club

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin

Environmental Advocate and former North America Director of 350.org

Brian Lowery

Brian Lowery

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business

This conversation took place on January 25, 2021

Summarized Transcript

Brian Lowery: What is the nature of environmental justice?

Leslie Fields: The technical definition of environmental justice is the meaningful involvement and fair treatment of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, income, and other vulnerabilities to respect the implementation, development, and enforcement of environmental laws, policies, and regulations. Fair treatment means that the burdens and benefits of our society should be equally distributed. However, due to our history of colonialism, slavery, the pillaging of the environment, internal racist terrorism, redlining, and now gentrification, they aren’t. Our society is deeply unequal, and we have to support the communities that are most severely facing the burdens of industrial pollution. I love EJ because I meet the best people in the world — anybody can get involved — it’s about protecting, promoting, and enjoying your community.

Brian Lowery: How do you connect racial justice to environmental justice?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Vernice Miller-Travis has defined environmental justice as a lens that you put on other systems, which seems to me like the best descriptor. When you put it onto building codes, you suddenly start to see disparities. You add it to highways and begin to see more citations. It analyzes how things are designed and who that design helps and who it doesn’t. The federal government’s definition of environmental justice is about its relationship to the Earth’s resources. However, I always challenge people to question that. Why should we accept a definition that comes from the place where all of our resources disappear? It is my opinion that people do justice, but institutions don’t. Humans live in a human-level lifecycle, but institutions carry the things we do for generations. When it comes down to it, we must look for equity from institutions because they carry that work out for generations to come. The government, however, has bastardized the meaning of environmental justice.

Brian Lowery: People have asked about taking back their government with a sense of ownership within this country. How do you think about ownership of the environment?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Ownership of the environment is a colonialist, social construct that has no basis in reality. Let’s start with the idea that one may own what is free to everyone: clean air, clean water, etc. Those resources have been taken through many systems to become the property of others. The people who polluted the air and took away our ability to have multigenerational health are the same people selling us bottled water and air purifiers, things that would have naturally come through Earth’s life cycles. We’re living in a time when the stock market is selling water shares and where farmers are betting for climate change, and against themselves, in hopes of making enough money to cover the debt they’ll be in shortly when their crops can no longer grow. There are real-life implications to the things that seem big and abstract. A friend of mine, Judith LeBlanc of Native Organizers Alliance, says that indigeneity is about having a relationship to the land, not a relationship to rights; you have to assert your rights. If people bring ownership into a conversation that’s about stewardship, we won’t live forever. We’re a series of stewards pretending to own things. This is an extensive conversation, and it’s one that we need to have as climate change makes resources scarce.

Leslie Fields: We are only here temporarily, and we need to make sure that we are taking care of this planet, our communities, and our children. The concept of our government was formed by people who enslaved those who looked like us. We need to assert our personhood and rights as human beings as being extremely paramount. We also must be mindful that the planet we’re living on is very precious, and as a society, we need it to be taken care of for future generations.

Brian Lowery: Ownership is the basis of our economy now. How would you want to shift the way that we engage with the environment and beyond?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: The experiment that we live in, America, is essentially a racist widget machine; everything it produces separates people by class or by race and includes or excludes them from a significant number of things. Sometimes, it feels like racism is like an ATM that we use to move money from place to place. My specialty is to think about both impossible and essential things — fossil fuel nonproliferation, for example. We need to have a conversation that makes the inventory of all the bad things clear, because stranded assets aren’t simply defined by Shell and all those other companies that own things that used to be free to everybody. That inventory has to be managed by everybody. In this country, there’s a lot of talk about the movement around Black lives, and radical visions about our liberation. At the same time, we’re talking about giving land back to those who deserve it. Both of those things are getting at the same thing: where equity comes into play. We need to stop talking about stories of harm and talk more about what that harm has wrought. We’re in a moment where we have to examine what it means to hold people accountable — whether it’s the insurrection of just a few Wednesdays ago or the seeming reformation that happened the Wednesday after that. Sometimes, it feels like we’re living in a movie, and we’re on to the next part of the story arc. But we’re not. To get to climate reparations, we first need an admission from someone that they have done something that has harmed people. And then, after they say they are sorry, they must agree to either cease the behavior or give those they have hurt some token of what they have lost. We’ve been trying to answer the questions around ownership, justice, and solutions for a long time, but we’ve been doing that inside of a system that isn’t interested in doing that because it continues to make money every day that we don’t talk about racist capital. The solutions are about a radical transformation of the system. We’re suffering from poor design ending where it has been designed to lead us, and the question of our age is: Are we going to stand up and redesign it? Or are we going to die along with all this infrastructure and stranded assets?

Brian Lowery: What would the redesign look like?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: We’re going to have to design around climate change. There’s a book called 2100: A Dystopian Utopia that talks about what kind of housing will exist if we’re right about our climate projections. From our predictions, we are going to be living in houses that will be flooded 80% of the year, yet will still function as living spaces. One in four of us will be climate refugees because of the harm we’ve already done. In terms of what we can do — those of us who have “wilderness” in our name need to give all our resources to the people who are calling the land back. Stewardship and redistribution had been happening even before we erected the social and environmental nonprofit industrial complex; we figured out how to move things and people that were nomadic and make decisions that weren’t about fundraising and philanthropy. There are solutions, but they don’t belong to any singular person. Many communities have been using them to survive the system that they now live in.

Brian Lowery: A lot of what you’re saying pushes against the existing system, but there’s so much power in the current system that it’s hard not to work from inside it as well. What is the difference between working inside and outside the system?

Leslie Fields: At the turn of the 20th century, John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt for a camping trip in the woods, which shortly after became Yosemite. However, to do that, he had to kick out the indigenous people who had been living there. And that became the norm for the whole world’s parks system. As Tamara mentioned, we can’t live in a park, yet much of our world’s land is now used for the park system that has been created. From working in government and the private sector, I’ve seen that the environmental sector is a microcosm of our larger society. The sector that the environmental conservation world grew out of was very exclusionary and segregationist; it was for upper-middle-class people to go to parks. There are certainly people within that sector that are pushing against the system, though. I don’t think some people realize that the United States is only 3% or 4% of the world’s population. Yet we use 25% of the world’s resources. We need to leverage opportunities for change and then also do the reform at the same time. Our society has a long way to go in terms of understanding that we have to play into the whole foundation donor industrial complex to effectuate change in this capitalist system. The internal aspects of this sector are very reflective of our larger American society. Unfortunately, this past summer has shown us that there has to be Black pain and murder for people to realize that we’re still living in a macro system of racism and white supremacy.

Brian Lowery: What has been the nature of the rift in the environmental movement?

Leslie Fields: The rift has been that we have been forced to expand to work in justice and join an official “conservation group.” I grew up hunting and fishing with my grandparents, and I have always cared deeply about the environment. The idea that we have to now join a group, such as the Sierra Club, in order to be considered someone who “cares about the environment” is a fallacy. Many people are great stewards of the environment but don’t necessarily belong to an organization. That’s been the most prominent change.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I agree with what Leslie said. “Murder everybody, save that grass” is not conservation. If you want to see how much conservation has grown, let’s talk about the fight for the sage-grouse: People fought and died to preserve a particular thing at the cost of everything else; it was systemic blindness. It was a set of choice points that felt like reality, similar to politics itself; politics is a set of choices we’ve made in a container of other decisions regarding governance. We must lift how business, government, and people all work together in a set of agreements. The “redesign” part I referred to earlier asks: Do we want to keep those agreements? Most of us were born into a set of agreements that we do not feel are working in favor of most of us, so it seems like a good time to renegotiate.

Brian Lowery: What challenges do your solutions create?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I have been called racially insensitive, to which I respond: “You are damn right. I make racists feel deeply uncomfortable.” This is largely because we live in a society that has made choices that resulted in how we organize ourselves as people who, scientifically, have no differences other than race. Given that we have labored to build all of these constructs, the idea of suddenly uprooting people invested in this version of society creates multi-generational conflicts. From my account, environmental work has four generations of us pushing for this at the same time. This includes people who just wanted to save a tree and ended up with a job after a party at Woodstock, who simply watched every documentary on Netflix, who read every book by Bill McKibben, and others. These people became so radicalized from not wanting to die in a fiery gas ball that they gave up their education and many other aspects of life solely to fight climate change. The multigenerational conflict there is: “What happens when people who are deeply invested in this system run into conflict about the same set of resources with people who have nothing but debt?” The only entrée they have into this system is continuing to be embedded in agreements they didn’t make. One way to deal with that is to weaponize your pension — maybe the people who are leaving the planet can stop investing every dollar they have into a system that doesn’t serve them. Additionally, as a person who has been an employer of many people, I can assure you that the latest generation of people have the same 30-year gold watch dreams that their family members had. But they live in a gig economy, which means that they don’t have the same rights, they’re not tied to the same things, and they don’t stay in the same jobs as long. We have a job market that no longer serves people. COVID-19 has proven that if you don’t have a plan for it, people are unrepresented and lose their lives because they don’t have a seat at the table. I have watched unions start to shift around this conversation. The old ways are getting shredded, and the conflicts are between people who want to hold on to the past at all costs and people who are willing to call it into question and discuss it. There are many problems, but they often fall in that rift of the generations. And we could fix it if people were willing to ask more questions.

Brian Lowery: “We can fix it” sounds like a utopian possibility if everybody is on the same page. But I’m deeply skeptical of utopian possibilities. In this new world, what are you trying to create? What are the fears that you have that you think the people listening should have?

Leslie Fields: I’m worried about the incrementalism, that we just came through this purgatory of an election with blood, sweat, and tears. We required people (primarily working-class and Black) to go out, stand in line, and vote in a pandemic. Some big things could get done if we had the political will to do them. I live a mile from the Capitol, and the events of January 6th were extremely traumatic; I saw the military and the helicopters zooming up and down my street. It’s a beautiful community — this is why we have to become a state in the District of Columbia and vote for HR 51 DC Statehood because we do have taxation without representation. We have more people than eight states and DC is still majority people of color. We have to go bolder and bigger. That’s been done before, and it shouldn’t always take a crisis for it to happen. It took the Depression to get the New Deal; it took World War II to pull us out of the Depression. That’s how it is in this country. My Uncle James came back from fighting fascism in World War II to find fascism, racism, and Jim Crow here. The only job he could find was as a hotel doorman when he should have been able to go to grad school, and that is tragic. We can’t waste anybody’s potential anymore. I’m a practicing Catholic, so I believe in penance, and that you have to confess and admit your wrongdoing to heal. There has to be a reckoning on many levels, starting with convicting former President Trump in this impeachment so that he can’t get a pension, or federal funds for a library, or protection. These things have to happen in the rule of law, and we have not been practicing that in our society. It’s been well known that white supremacists aren’t considered terrorists; “terrorists” in this country are people who are brown and Black. And Black people had to die for that to change.

Brian Lowery: Climate change has faced a lot of resistance. Help me understand what you believe are legitimate concerns about what you are suggesting.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: If I was a benevolent dictator for a day, I would finally give everybody basic universal income. I couldn’t care less what they do with it — those who don’t need it can go spend it on a t-shirt or something — but the idea that some people still don’t have their basic needs covered in a country this wealthy is absurd to me. People would no longer have to pay for healthcare, and we would defund the police. I always say that we can tell what someone truly cares about by their budget, and at the end of the day, instead of spending all our money on weapons that people have to fight, we should spend it on care and repair. People are terrified that the thing that they have hidden behind — a racialized identity and class privilege — will not save them from what’s coming. I think that we can form a conversation where people would be willing to stop worrying about who’s being saved and start worrying about those that we’re sacrificing if people realize that their basic needs will be cared for. As a former lobbyist, it was easy for me to talk to anyone, because I’ve never met a single parent who doesn’t want their child to have nice teeth or go to a good school. A great way to talk to people about what they’re concerned about is to figure out what they’re invested in, and everybody wants to avoid dying in a fiery gas ball. But some of us think that by seizing the means of production and holding on to the ways we have done business, they will have enough capital to escape the worst consequences, and can get a ticket to Mars and hang out with Elon Musk in a bulletproof car. I don’t think that those people are trying to destroy us, but they’re just looking at the pie as “zero-sum” and deciding that they need to have it all. I believe that if we start to flatten the basic premise of what it means to be a person, people will be less like that (although there will always be weirdos on either side).

Leslie Fields: We’re the only country that lets the loser create our history surrounding the Confederacy — people are still arguing against taking down statues from 150 years ago. Typically, when you lose, you are erased from history, but in the U.S. the North allowed the South to keep themselves in it. Everybody’s been complicit in this fight to keep African Americans in their “place,” and keep them in slavery by another name as much as possible. People still want to get that means of production as cheaply as possible, and with our gig economy, there are all kinds of ways to do that now while also making it sound like we have autonomy. The incrementalism has concerned me more as I’ve gotten older.

Brian Lowery: Our country is one of much abundance, and people working in this system would suggest that the abundance is a function of the way the corporate system is organized. What would you tell those people? How can you continue to produce the economic abundance through the corporate system while having those corporations be a part of the solution to the problems you highlighted?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I think about this a lot, because I cultivate relationships with people who build their businesses outside an extractive system. There’s a whole brand of b-corps that are trying that out as an experiment; they’re not altruistic, but they know the things that matter to them and to their mission. There are some real opportunities for experiments. National green banking is an alternative to continuing to bank in ways that subsidize things you don’t like. This administration has taken up the social cost of carbon, which means that we can no longer simply write it off for tomorrow; we can’t send the externalities to someone else. If we can reform banking by pointing out who the bad guys are, make insurance invest in communities instead of divesting them, stop picking winners and losers in climate change by freezing the ability to recover lost assets, and deal with people who put a price tag on every plant and coral reef, I think that we will be in a better place. There are examples of people who want to do this, and entire businesses that are focusing on the care economy and mutual aid. In the pandemic, I would argue that mutual aid showed up to do more for people than the government. There are a lot of great examples of us undoing the things that we’ve done wrong, but they haven’t made it to the mainstream because people are too busy talking about the woman who flew in a jet to cosplay storming the government. Perhaps if we flipped our media narrative a bit, we could cover more of the stories of people making different choices.

Leslie Fields: Budgets reflect priorities. We have a huge military budget, and for what? Are we going to prosecute wars against people who are desperate and, because of climate disruption, are running into conflicts with each other? There are so many communities who would have more solutions if they had the ability to not be thinking hour-to-hour, day-to-day. Communities like Uniontown, Alabama, the poorest county in Alabama, were shipped toxic coal ash after a terrible coal ash spill in Tennessee. For those people, the only option for economic development was a trade-off of a million dollars to put that toxic coal ash in their landfill. The burdens are always on the same communities. Why are those same communities flooding all the time? Because they’re segregated at the bottom [socioeconomically]. And not just in the South — in California and in the Midwest as well. We need to really understand what it is to be human, and that’s going to have to play out externally. We’re in not just an existential crisis, but a spiritual crisis of not recognizing other people’s humanity.