Julie Sze: Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene

On April 20, the American Studies hosted a talk by Professor Julie Sze of the University of California, Davis. Sze spoke on “Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene.” She described her ongoing research on Kivalina, Alaska, a town 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Due to the effects of climate change, Kivalina is expected to be underwater by 2025.

Professor Sze is a worldwide leader in the fields of environmental justice and environmental humanities. Her first book, Noxious New York (MIT, 2006), a recipient of the John Hope Franklin award from the American Studies Association, unveiled the disparate impacts of pollution and the complex of racial and class politics of environmental activism. In her talk at George Washington University, cosponsored by the Department of Anthropology, Professor Sze turned to a study of Kivalina, Alaska, a town 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Due to the effects of climate change, Kivalina is expected to be underwater by 2025. Kivalina is best known, perhaps, for its unsuccessful suit against ExxonMobil and other oil companies that charged them with causing global warming and sought damages of $400 million to pay for the relocation of the town.

Since that point Kivalina has been at the center of a global movement to recount and tell the stories of the town's residents and of their experiences. Professor Sze noted that such storytelling will need to be the basis of a new kind of global politics and new movement of environmental justice. She noted that global climate change not only poses unprecedented threats and damage, but also challenge our ability to develop appropriate responses.

The difficulty we have faced in reaching even the beginnings of appropriate response, Professor Sze noted, arises not so much from a lack of understanding the raw scientific facts, but a failure of imagination. We need, Professor Sze argued, the imagination, the stories and analysis developed by environmental humanities to help us grasp the significance of climate change for people and rest of the living world. Such understanding would, Sze contended, would help break the, to date, failures of political action on climate change.