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Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway
Reflecting on Earth Day 2023

Perspective from EcoGovLab's UCI social scientists

James Adams, Aiden Browne, Abraham De Jesus Duran-Diaz, Margaux Fisher, Gina Hakim, Kim Fortun, Mike Fortun, Fred Ariel Hernandez, Tim Schütz, Prerna Srigyan, Nadine Tanio, Margaret Tebbe, Joseph Trinidad, Katie Ngoc Ai Vo, Karen Valladares, Brenda Vuong


Earth Day – April 22 – is an opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished through environmental movements, research and teaching thus far. It also is an opportunity to envision what environmental movements, research and teaching need to become going forward. Through research in many different settings over many years, building on a wealth of scholarship, activism and institution building by other groups, we share here some of the insights that we work with as EcoGovLab, founded at UCI in 2022 to coordinate a growing array of projects and collaborations supporting next generation environmental governance. A key goal is to bring social science perspectives into interdisciplinary environmental research and education, animating and enriching knowledge-to-governance pathways.

A signature of the work of EcoGovLab is constant movement from research findings into the design of new research, pedagogical and advocacy projects responsive to those findings. Our projects recognize environmental problems and injustices as resulting from a tangle of physical, ecological, biological, technological, economic, social and cultural factors, calling for new, deeply interdisciplinary research methods and study designs, and new approaches in both pedagogy and politics.

EcoGovLab field campus in the Salton Sea region.
Visiting a pilot lithium extraction facility near the Salton Sea.

pictured: In April 2023, EcoGovLab members traveled to the Salton Sea region to meet and learn from diverse environmental justice activists in the region (Mike Fortun/UCI). During their visit to the Salton Sea region, EcoGovLab visited a pilot facility for Lithium mining (Katie Ngoc Ai Vo/UCI).

One critical challenge is in characterizing both pattern and variation in environmental injustice across sites. Environmental injustice surrounding the massive hog farms of eastern North Carolina involves a different tangle of factors than the environmental injustice around the abandoned uranium mines scattered across the Navajo Nation. Environmental injustice around the petrochemical industry in Texas and Louisiana is markedly different from the environmental injustice resulting from oil extraction and refining in California. Even within California, there is dizzying variation in the forms environmental injustice takes. Going global – to sites in Taiwan, Vietnam and India, among others – complicates the picture even further.

The diversity of issues in play is overwhelming. Paradoxically, this makes it all the more necessary to learn across sites, drawing out patterns and borrowing approaches. This is the aim of EcoGovLab's Environmental Injustice Global Record project. Through side-by-side development of analysis and digital archives documenting environmental injustice in different settings, collaborating researchers (at and far beyond UCI) are working to develop fine-grained understanding of particular places, in a global and planetary frame. They also are working comparatively, identifying similar dynamics across sites, sharing both theoretical perspectives and political strategies. Importantly, the archives that collaborating researchers are building are designed to support their own research, their community partners, students, other researchers, journalists, and the many others needed to move environmental governance forward. An important goal is to help build the knowledge infrastructure needed to support next generation environmental governance.

Environmental Injustice Global Record project: Calhoun County, Texas.
Environmental Injustice Global Record project:  Kaohsiung City, Taiwan.

pictured: Collage from the Environmental Injustice Global Archive project focused on Calhoun County, Texas, a rural but intensely industrialized area (Tim Schütz/UCI). Collage from the Environmental Injustice Global Archive project focused on Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, a highly industrialized port city (Tim Schütz/UCI). .

Building the data and knowledge infrastructure needed in environmental research and governance is a critical challenge in itself, and there is wide and growing recognition of this among researchers and activists, and in government agencies – both mission agencies (like the US Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and research agencies (like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health). Government agencies are, in part, responding to recently issued federal guidance requiring enhanced research data sharing. They are also motivated by a deepening understanding of the need for research and knowledge integration across disciplines. A recent workshop EcoGovLab's Kim Fortun took part in is illustrative. Convened by the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA, the workshop brought together representatives from government agencies, social scientists and data infrastructure experts. The goal was to build capacity to use social science data in NOAA’s work (NOAA's mission is "to understand and predict our changing environment, from the deep sea to outer space, and to manage and conserve America's coastal and marine resources."). A first step is to grow available social science data resources. Developing study designs to leverage those resources will likely be even more challenging. Even harder, most agree, will be the cultural change in research communities needed to support not only research data sharing, but also investment in the slow, complicated work of deeply interdisciplinary research collaboration.

Santa Ana Stakeholder meeting,  January 2023.

Leonel Flores, an environmental justice community organizer that EcoGovLab works with in Santa Ana, California, has said it well: "every day, environmental injustice keeps getting bigger." Flores is pointing to what we have learned together about the tangle of factors producing environmental injustice in his community. He's also pointing to what we are learning through the Environmental Injustice Global Record project.

What we've learned is sobering. It also propels us forward, reaching for change. Earth Day is an opportunity to celebrate the effort.

pictured: Leonel Flores (standing left) facilitates a community stakeholder meeting in Santa Ana organized by EcoGovLab, Green-MPNA, and AirUCI. Veronica Garcia a member of GREEN-MPNA's Comité Comunidad Unida Aire Limpio (CUAL) asks a question to local officials (Tim Schütz/UCI). .