Two Students Bring Environmental Justice Debate To Bowdoin

Courtney Payne ’15 and Alithea MacFarlane ’14

Courtney Payne ’15 and Alithea McFarlane ’14

For many months, Alithea McFarlane ’14 and Courtney Payne ’15 have been planning a one-day program at Bowdoin to explore social justice and diversity in the environmental movement. The event, on Feb. 8 at the Schwartz Outdoor Leadership Center, will include 15 experts, including outside speakers, alumni and Bowdoin faculty. Through talks and panel discussions, the guests will address issues such as conservation politics, public health and how to educate young people about environmental issues. The Environmental Justice program is open to the public.

First, can you define environmental justice?

Courtney Payne: It’s a little hard to define. One thing that sticks out to me as part of a definition is that the people who are doing the most environmentally harmful things are not the ones who are seeing the biggest consequences a lot of the time.

Where did you first hear of environmental justice and start grappling with the issue?

Alithea McFarlane:I first heard the term senior year of high school in my Environmental science class, and again in ES 101 here. But having to construct an entire program — and hopefully additional events — you start to grapple with a bunch of questions regarding the environmental justice movement, such as whether it falls under the umbrella of the environmental movement, because environmental justice is very anthropocentric. Then there are those who say that because of that, it’s not environmentalism.

CP: When I was in high school I spent a semester studying in South America. I hadn’t been that interested in environmental issues before. But one day, we visited a town that had recently been hit by a series of floods. Talking with the local women, we heard how they felt that because they had thrown water bottles on the ground, nature had retaliated and given them these floods. …They felt that their actions had caused the floods when really…it is our actions here. That for me was the catalyst for getting interested in environmental issues.

It has been great to help organize an event that will hopefully, similarly, bring people into environmentalism. I think when you talk about issues that are more nature-focused, some people are not interested in that, but when you bring in issues of human justice, that is something that speaks to a much broader audience. This is a great way to get more people into the conversation, people who belong there.

So it sounds like there are many things you could focus on at the program. How did you narrow your focus?

AM: The program has three broad themes we’re going to address in panels and presentations: The first is conservation politics, the second is public health and the third is empowering the next generation.

In the future will you tackle other themes?

AM: I have already talked to a couple of juniors who would be interested in continuing. Ideally I would like to use the remainder of the semester to set the groundwork for future plans, because the point is to continue the conversation. The program is not the be-all, end-all of environmental justice; it won’t cover everything despite trying to be comprehensive. It’s supposed to kick-start a more continuous conversation.

Will this program be an annual event?

AM: Now that would put some people through some stress! Just having discussions where we think broadly about matters of environmental justice and how they affect inequalities would be good. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a program.

[By the way,] this [program] would not be possible without Courtney. I just need to give a shout-out to her expertise in getting funding.

CP: I’m just an aggressive emailer! I emailed 15 different school departments asking for money and it’s been fantastic because now the math department, Asian studies, and other departments you wouldn’t expect have gotten invested in this. My whole point here doing environmental things is to try to increase the number of people who feel like they belong in the discussion of environmental issues. So if the math department feels like environmental justice is a great thing to focus on, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

[The McKeen Center, Environmental Studies department and Sustainability office coordinated the program. Supporting departments include history, government and legal studies, math, philosophy, Asian studies, gender and women's studies, earth and oceanographic science, sociology and anthropology, and Africana studies. Funding was also provided by the dean's office, the Student Activities Funding Committee, Lectures and Concerts Committee, and the The Donald and Barbara Kurtz Fund.]

AM: We can all be part of the conversation! You don’t have to be an environmental studies major. I’m not an environmental studies major; I’m a religion and Japanese major.

Where do you hope your passions for environmental and social issues take you?

CP: I am an earth and oceanographic science major, and as a scientist I am hoping to do research on different climate change issues. But…I want to continue to make sure the types of things I’m researching and the conversations I’m having are relevant to people.

There is a big divide, I think, between climate scientists and the general public. I feel that is largely an issue of communication. Scientists are not good at communicating adequately what they do and why it is important and why we should listen to them. Because of that people don’t take away the messages scientists hope they will. I would really like to somehow figure out how to change that. People don’t know they can be included in conversations about this; they leave it to the scientists or politicians, who are hopeless! It shouldn’t be left to the politicians.

AM: Because the environment is something that affects everyone and it is something everyone has a stake in, I think it’s important to be educated on matters of the environment. There are problems in the world that need to be addressed and people need to be educated about them. I don’t know where this will take me in the future but I can’t think of anything bad coming from broadening your educational perspective and learning more about problems that affect people on a global scale.

What are you plans for next year?

AM: I would like to teach English in Japan for a couple of years and then do service in the Peace Corps — that would be my ideal trajectory.

CP: You are sounding like me! I would like to teach abroad for a couple years, then maybe do Peace Corps.

thumb:Bowdoin students aboard the Arctic schooner Bowdoin