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Culture, Justice, and Environment

To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.

Originally appears in the Winter 2018 issue.

Carbon footprints. Food chains. The effects of pollution. Climate science. Green teachers are familiar with many vitally important concepts like these — concepts students must learn in order to become eco-literate. But there are other questions and concepts of equal significance that sometimes fall through the cracks. These are questions of culture, values, and beliefs. Why are we facing the environmental challenges we are burdened with in the first place? How can we tackle the broad and overwhelming problems of environmental degradation, social justice, and environmental justice simultaneously? What do children in Flint, Michigan and tigers in Indonesia have in common? In short, what is it about our society, our history, and our way of life that leads us to believe that we should act in certain ways toward the natural world and toward other living beings?

These are the questions at the heart of EcoJustice Education. Teachers and scholars in the field of EcoJustice Education argue that there are cultural belief systems at the root of all of our behaviors, and these belief systems often go unexamined in our society. We suggest that in order to create sustainable and just ways of living, we need to examine the roots of culture that influence us to live the way we do.

What a society believes about other living beings affects how we treat them; this much seems simple. It becomes a bit more complicated, however, to trace the root metaphors and beliefs influencing modern exploitative and unsustainable behaviors. How does our modern industrialized culture view the natural world? As an inanimate object? As a machine? As a resource? What different outcomes are produced if a population views the natural world as a community or a living body, instead of as an object? How do we see other species of animals, and groups of humans who are different from us? How can we trace and identify these beliefs, and creatively imagine alternatives that would lead to a healthier and more just future?

When we start looking at these cultural roots, we start to see that issues of social justice and environmental justice are not only related, but actually spring from the same source — the same beliefs that justify oppression and abuse. The values that justify treating some humans as less important also justify treating some nonhuman beings as less important. This can be mind-blowing for students! And it means that we don’t have to tackle environmental and social issues as separate insular problems — we can address them together.

Examining our cultural foundations can be tricky — the worldviews and beliefs that influence our behavior are second-nature to us, and often made to seem normal and natural, even when they aren’t. To analyze these beliefs we need to mobilize all subject-areas, including English and Social Studies, as sites to equip students to think critically about their own beliefs and cultures.

Such a mission should be at the very core of any educational institution — to equip students to think critically about the cultural roots of modern life, to analyze language, text, and history as the keys to understanding cultural worldviews, and to use compassion and creativity to develop transformative new views of the world. That mission has spurred my own teaching and scholarship, and has led me to design and test a series of curriculum materials meant to help students and teachers examine and re-imagine the foundations of our beliefs and behaviors. I’ll be sharing a few examples of those curriculum materials here. These lessons are intended for secondary and post-secondary students in language arts and social studies classrooms, but the materials are very adaptable and some parts can easily be used with students in other settings or for other skill levels. More detailed versions of these lessons, and many others, can be found in my book Teaching for EcoJustice1.

Hierarchies that Justify Oppression
When we examine our root cultural belief systems, a few things become clear. One is that our society tends to hierarchize different living beings, and even different groups of humans. These are called ‘value hierarchies’: we subtly find ways to make it seem reasonable and normal to believe that humans are inherently more important than birds or ants or trees, and that certain humans (traditionally white men) are more important than others. These hierarchies appear in many forms, whether it’s Thomas Jefferson discussing the inability of black slaves to follow Euclid2, or modern laboratory scientists and university presidents suggesting that women aren’t as well suited to certain fields, or arguments for human uniqueness among other species of animals (many of which have been debunked)3.

A second thing that becomes clear is that these hierarchies, once established and made to seem normal, are used to justify oppression and exploitation. This may mean a political leader in 1911 asking, “why allow women to vote when they clearly need protection from the dirty realm of politics?”4. Or it may mean suggesting that since chickens aren’t intelligent (a false premise, by the way — see 2), it doesn’t matter if they are kept in inhumane conditions in factory farms. This use of hierarchies to justify unequal treatment is referred to as ‘logics of domination’5: creating a logical framework that justifies the domination of some beings by other beings.

I’ve developed a unit that explores these parallel forms of exploitation and ‘logics of domination,’ as well as other questions of language, worldviews, and belief systems. Here are the guiding questions I want students to consider when they engage with this unit:

-What do you believe is the purpose of the natural world? What is the purpose of human beings?
-How do people acquire their beliefs?
-What messages do we get from our culture about our role in the world? How do we get these messages?
-What messages do we get from our culture about animals, plants, and the land? How do we get these messages?
-Does our culture believe some beings are superior to others? What leads us to believe this?1

To examine hierarchies and logics of domination in the classroom, I introduce these concepts with a short reading from Karen Warren5. Then I share a number of historical documents that offer examples of logics of domination in action [see 2, 4, and 6; many texts are available for free on my website, 7]. I ask students to analyze the language in these documents and identify the value assumptions — what is the author assuming about the worth, significance, rights, or abilities of certain groups of beings? What behavior is the author justifying through making these assumptions? Who benefits most from these assumptions and who is harmed?

The documents I’ve shared here as examples are from early US-American history and ancient Greece. For more locally-focused examples internationally, look to any public debate over the rights of certain groups of beings. Documents and memos from Nazi Germany can provide extremely chilling examples of logics of domination. In addition to historical documents, it is unfortunately all too easy to find modern examples of public figures engaging in the same practice. I often share some contemporary examples from the news, or have students select and share some of their own. This can make for an engaging group research project.

One of the important things to remember when exploring these sorts of issues with students is that the goal is critical thinking. Whether the student believes that a lobster has less inherent value than a human being may be an important conversation to have, if done in a respectful and thoughtful way that makes all parties feel safe in the classroom — but it’s easy for students to become caught up in their own personal beliefs, and even feel that their worldview is being threatened in a way that makes them defensive. Remember this is about understanding how this process has been used by people in power throughout history, and is still being used today. Acknowledging that different groups have been discriminated against throughout different cultures and time periods helps point out that the strategy of hierarchizing and creating logics of domination is an effective tool for those in power, whether the group being exploited is poor children of color in your home city or trees clear-cut to grow palm oil on another continent.

Food and Rights
Another example of a topic that lends itself well to this kind of analysis is food. Green teachers are exploring food issues in their classrooms in a range of ways, from learning about food deserts and modern industrial agriculture to growing food in school gardens. A central component of any exploration of food should be examining the cultural underpinnings of food-related inequities. From the child living in a food desert, to the undocumented worker picking tomatoes, to the cow who can’t turn her head in a factory farm, injustice occurs throughout the modern food system.

Here are some of the guiding questions I expect students to explore in my food unit:

-Where and how is the food you eat produced, and who is affected by its production?
-How does culture influence what choices we make about what to eat?
-How does gender, race, and income level influence what we choose to eat and what food we have access to?
-How do food practices in our country affect other countries?
-How do national and international policies influence what foods are produced and how they are grown/made? How do business interests influence what foods are produced and how they are grown/made?
-How are other beings treated in the process of making our food, and is this treatment ethical?
-What impact does modern food production have on the natural world?
-What are the most healthy, ethical, and sustainable ways to grow and consume food?1

My students and I consider these questions together in many ways. We read a range of texts to introduce students to the social, health, and environmental issues related to the modern food system8. There are a number of high-quality documentary films related to food as well (see Additional Resources below for some examples). I have my students work in groups, with each group selecting a different film to watch and create a report about. Groups present to the class, sharing clips from the films, information they’ve learned, and further research connecting the films to their own eating habits.

I also have students engage in creative writing. They trace a food item or ingredient; identify the various human and nonhuman beings who have been affected by that food’s growth, processing, and shipping; and then write a poem or short story from the perspective of one of the beings affected along the way.

Food is a personal and engaging issue for students, something they can all relate to. Learning about the darker side of the modern food system makes for an informed consumer, as all acts of buying, growing, and eating food either support or change the current system. However, it’s important to go beyond just identifying injustices within the modern food system; we must tie these injustices back into the larger questions of how and why our society organizes in unjust ways. Why do we, as a culture, find it acceptable to allow certain human beings to work as fruit pickers in horrible conditions for less-than-subsistence wages? Why do we find it acceptable to allow animals raised for food to suffer immensely throughout their brief lives? Why do we accept that many families do not live within easy access of fresh produce? Race and species hierarchies are at the core of many of these questions. People of color are more likely to live in food deserts or near pollution9, and industrial agriculture has depleted soils, altered ecosystems, and caused enormous suffering for nonhuman beings8. The belief systems behind these inequities are consistently reinforced by modern practices, consumer culture, and media. To change them requires first unmasking them.

EcoJustice in Every Classroom
EcoJustice educators ask that students, and all of us, look around at the beliefs promoted by our own cultures, and that we have the courage to question those beliefs and the creativity to imagine alternatives. This can be delicate work, but it is also incredibly rewarding for students. The more students make these connections between culture and action, the more missing pieces fall into place for them. The more insight they gain into injustices that, at first, seem incomprehensible and overwhelming. The more free they feel to voice values outside of current social norms — to speak about love for other species of animals, grief at environmental destruction, and horror at their own inadvertent complicity in injustice.

Making these lessons a success does not require a specific subject-matter classroom or age group. It does require an open and critical classroom environment in which students are encouraged to explore and question, and a culture of both inquiry and empathy. Feeling for and relating to others is the first step in re-imagining more just ways of living. Beyond this, these lessons can and should be modified to suit your students and situation. Some of the materials are more challenging or abstract than others — they can be swapped for other readings, and local issues can be infused into the discussion. I encourage teachers to design their own materials.

Her book Teaching for EcoJustice: Curriculum and Lessons for Secondary and College Classrooms provides detailed lesson plans aimed at helping students to think critically about the cultural roots of environmental and social problems. The materials cover topics from personal experiences of nature, to media and language, to food, consumerism, and ethics. Each lesson includes sample activities, readings, objectives, and examples of student work. It is available from Routledge, 2015:

1. Turner, R. (2015). Teaching for EcoJustice: Curriculum and Lessons for Secondary and College Classrooms. NY: Routledge, 2015.
2. Jefferson, T. (2011). Notes on the State of Virginia. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. February 21. ccer- new2?id=JefVirg.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/par sed&tag=public&part=14&division=div1.
3. Dunayer, J. (2001). Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Derwood, MD: Ryce.
Honeyborne, J. (2013). Elephants really do grieve like us: They shed tears and even try to ‘bury’ Their dead – a leading wildlife film-maker reveals how the animals are like us. Mail Online. January 30.
Soussan, T. (2004). Scientist: Prairie dogs have own language. redOrbit. December 4.
Viegas, J. (2005). Chickens worry about the future. ABC Science. July 15.
4. Sanford, J.B. (2014). Argument against women’s suffrage, 1911. San Francisco Public Library. Accessed October.
5. Warren, Karen. (2000). Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
6. Aristotle. (350 BCE; 2014). History of animals. Translated by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. The Internet Classics Archive. Book IX, Part 1. Paragraphs 5-7.
8. Estabrook, Barry. (2012). Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Reprint edition. Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.
Lappé, Anna, and Bryant Terry. (2006). Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. New York: Tarcher.
Shiva, Vandana. (2000). Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.
Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
9. Clark, Lara, Millet, Dylan, and Marshall, Julian. (2014). National patterns in environmental injustice and inequality: Outdoor NO2 air pollution in the United States. PLOS One. N.A. (2012). Unshared bounty: How structural racism contributes to the creation and persistence of food deserts. ACLU, New York Law School Racial Justice Project.

Additional Recommended Resources
Benenson, Bill, Gene Rosow, and Eleonore Dailly. (2009). Dirt! The Movie. Documentary. Common Ground Media.
Bozzo, Sam. (2010). Blue Gold: World Water Wars. Documentary. Purple Turtle Films.
Canty, Kristin. (2011). Farmageddon. Documentary. Kristin Canty Productions.
Kenner, Robert. (2008). Food, Inc. Documentary. Magnolia Pictures.
Kennedy, Scott Hamilton. (2014). The Garden. Documentary. Black Valley Films.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Martusewicz, Rebecca A., Jeff Edmundson, and John Lupinacci. (2011). EcoJustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities. (1st ed.). New York: Routledge.
Meadows, Donella. (1999). Lines in the Mind. Our Land, Ourselves: Readings on People and Place, edited by Peter Forbes, Ann Armbrecht, and Helen Whybrow (2nd ed., pp. 53–55). San Francisco: Trust for Public Land.
Merchant, Carolyn. (2000). Ecofeminism. In Environmental Discourse and Practice: A Reader, edited by Lisa M. Benton and John Rennie Short (pp. 209–13). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Robin, Marie-Monique. (2008). The World According to Monsanto. Documentary. Image et Compagnie.
White, Lynn. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science 155 (3767): (pp. 1203–7).
Woolf, Aaron. (2007). King Corn. Documentary. ITVS


Rita Turner currently teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. A former secondary language arts teacher in the Baltimore City public school system, she is a resident of Baltimore, Maryland and an activist in ecojustice and regenerative urban ecology. Her website provides resources for teachers to infuse EcoJustice into their classrooms, including video lessons, links to free readings, and lists of objectives met by the lessons.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. David Hall, Regina Canada #

    I find that laying blame for eco-injustices never gets me very far in my classroom. I choose to examine the design of the system that led to an environmental problem. In our classroom we come to the conclusion that people are not bad, but the design and the goals of the design need to change. This excites my students as we examine sustainable ways of creating products we all use. I suggest reading Cradle to Cradle and Upcycle to help move your classroom conversations further along these new design models.

    February 21, 2018

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