Diversity (in ecosystems, in social systems and in the academy) is critical. There are very real and systematic processes which deter participation in conservation by groups of people. I am working with Andrea Morris to find ways we can improve the diversity of voices here at Columbia. In this post by MA student Cynthia Malone, we examine some of the institutional inequities within New York and the relationship between social justice and environmental equity. I really couldn’t say it better than Cynthia does.
Conservation Science and Justice in the City
By: Cynthia Malone
To many, the association between science, particularly the science of understanding and preserving the environment, might seem detached from the vast urban metropolis that is New York City. As a native New Yorker, my experience as a child certainly did not involve engaging with green spaces as a form of recreation. My family did not go on hiking trips, I did not learn how to swim, and I did not even know what a national park was until I was taught in school.
And yet, I developed a passion for conservation science at a very young age. From my Brooklyn apartment, I dreamed of orangutans traversing the greenest of canopies and longed to become a champion for their survival. I saw an injustice in how orangutan habitat diminished in part due to consumer choices. I also saw science as a tool to solve it. Although my motivations as a conservationist have evolved significantly since these days, at the core, my vision of science as a tool for justice is the same, and very much intertwined with New York.
New York is a place of immense diversity. A melting pot of ethnic groups calls the city home. Culture oozes out of every street corner – from the illustrious steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side to African street vendors on 125th street in Harlem.
New York is also a place of great inequity. Just riding several stops on most subway lines will reveal huge disparities in income and access to opportunity. These disparities are engrained in the very fabric of the city’s institutions. The 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Report found that NYC is home to the most racially segregated schools in the United States. The NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” program illustrates how merely walking the streets can be cause for suspicion if you are black or brown.
This inequity also holds true in how New Yorkers experience nature. Across New York, people of color and of lower socio-economic status are more likely to be located in or adjacent to industrial zones. In places like the Bronx, composed of both the largest minority population and the largest proportion of residents below the federal poverty line, air pollution from industrial zones contributes to an array of health issues. According to Maantay (2007), asthma death rates in the Bronx are twice that of the rest of New York City. Poor communities are also disproportionately impacted by natural disasters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy reinforced on a smaller scale what we had already learned from Hurricane Katrina.
The people most likely to deal with pollution and suffer the brunt of damage from natural disasters arguably have the greatest stake in understanding and solving environmental problems. And yet, across the United States, people of color and of lower socio-economic status remain vastly underrepresented in environmental fields. Between 1996 and 2006, African-Americans, Native Americans/Alaska Natives, and Latinos comprised less then ten percent of graduates with degrees in conservation science (National Science Foundation, 2008).
I believe that increasing the inclusion of historically under-represented communities is vital to our ability to successfully tackle conservation challenges within the United States and internationally. In addition to being a matter of justice, more diverse groups of people (diverse in culture, socio-economic standing, ideas, etc.) are better decision-makers and more equipped to develop resilient solutions (Page 2007).
To fulfill my passion in linking justice to conservation science, I have the wonderful privilege of working with the Enhancing Diversity in Conservation Science Initiative at the American Museum of Natural History. Through collaborating with professional societies and holding collaborative workshops at scientific conferences, the initiative engages the conservation community in a dialogue about what diversity means and also the barriers that limit diverse representation in academia and the professional world.
Conservation is about more than just preserving the vital, awe-inspiring ecosystems and biological diversity the world holds. Growing up and working in the diverse metropolis of New York has convinced me that conservationists must also work to ensure that 1. access to natural spaces and the services they provide are equally shared and 2. a diverse range of voices are involved in the scientific process.
Maantay, Juliana (2007) Asthma and air pollution in the Bronx: Methodological and data considerations in using GIS for environmental justice and health research. Health and Place, 13(1): 32-56.
NSF (National Science Foundation). 2008. Degrees awarded by selected fields of natural resources by race: 1996–2006. National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Alexandria, Virginia.
Page, Scott E. (2007) The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 456 pages.