Renowned U-C scholar talks environmental justice

Originally published: 
February, 2017

In his presentation, "Race, Gender, Nation, and Species: Breaking New Ground in Environmental Justice Studies,” University of California, Santa Barbara Professor and author David N. Pellow drew from decades of research to explore the central themes of environmental justice, “from the toxic shop floors of global electronics firms in Silicon Valley to the outdoor enthusiasts’ haven of Aspen, Colorado.”

Dorceta Taylor, James E. Crowfoot Collegiate Professor and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is a longtime friend and colleague of Pellow. She introduced him to the packed lecture hall as a “man who turns stereotypes on his head,” and,“my brother in spirit and in the movement.”

Silicon Valley of Dreams

Pellow opened with sobering data from Silicon Valley of Dreams, a book he co-authored with Lisa Parks that portrays the regional history and modern reality of California’s famed electronics manufacturing hub.

“While making the semiconductor chips, printed wire, circuit boards, printers, cables, and other components of the electronics revolution – the hardware that millions of us, myself included, clearly depend upon,” Pellow explained, “workers have been exposed to upwards of sometimes as many as 1,000 different chemicals on a given workstation.”

That exposure has devastating consequences. Epidemiological studies found alarmingly high rates of occupational illness among Silicon Valley production workers, more than three times those of any other basic industry. Incidences of miscarriage, birth defects, tumors, and brain, lung, breast and stomach cancers are exceptionally high for these workers.

At the time of their research, Pellow noted, the authors found that 70 to 80 percent of the Silicon Valley production workforce was composed of Asian and Latino immigrants, 60 percent or more of whom were women.

“Silicon Valley toxic industries illustrated, in my view,” said Pellow, “the troubling links between workplace and community-level environmental justice concerns. “

The Slums of Aspen

From those “toxic shop floors of Silicon Valley,” Pellow transported the audience 8,000 feet above sea level to the glistening ski mecca of Aspen, Colorado.

“Aspen’s stunning landscape of pristine mountains is configured to welcome wealthy skiers in the winter months and well-heeled nature lovers in the summer,” said Pellow. “And like many communities in this country of ours, Aspen depends on low-wage immigrant labor to fuel its service economy.”

Hotel and restaurant staff, maintenance crews, groundskeepers, and a host of other workers form the backbone of that service economy. But in a city where the average home is now priced at $6 million—and $500,000 is the starting price at a trailer park—most service workers live in substandard housing at great distances from their place of employment.

Pellow notes that despite the city’s dependence on ill-paid immigrant labor, the Aspen City Council passed a resolution in 1999 that declared its exalted status as a “City Beautiful” and a model “Green City” – while simultaneously petitioning the US Congress to severely curtail immigration across the Mexican border.

“They basically wanted to keep the riff-raff out,” said Pellow. “They saw population control of brown bodies as the solution to their socio-ecological crises—even though the Mexican border is, in fact, more than 700 miles to the south.”

Pellow once again teamed up with colleague Lisa Parks to investigate. 

“We were curious that what we call ‘nativist environmentalism’ would take hold in such a wealthy, traditionally liberal, politically liberal enclave,” said Pellow. “So we began our research by asking, 'How the heck did this happen, and what might have been the historical forces that produced this outcome?’”

In their book, The Slums of Aspen, Pellow and Parks make one of their arguments by drawing directly from Dorceta Taylor’s work on the concept of “environmental privilege.”

“Environmental injustice has been defined almost entirely through the lens of environmental ‘bads,’ or disadvantages, while environmental privilege and white supremacy go largely unexamined,” said Pellow.

“In our view,” he said, speaking for himself and Parks, “it is the quest for, and the production of, environmental privilege that is the flipside—if not the source—of environmental injustice and inequality facing immigrant communities and communities of color.”

Total Liberation

In his book, Total Liberation, Pellow reflected that he had pushed the “environmental justice envelope” in an even more unconventional direction.

Throughout the course of his research, Pellow interviewed more than one hundred radical earth and animal liberation activists. The activists, Pellow related, largely articulated a vision of “total liberation” – a view that defines all forms of hierarchy as “threats to life itself for oppressed peoples, species, and ecosystems.”

Pellow noted that the emergence of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front in the early 1980s into the ’90s, in his view, marked a new stage in the evolution of ecological politics.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pellow continued, movements were converging around ideas and tactics that were accompanied by radical action—which sometimes included arson, property destruction, and sabotage. The government and corporate institutions responded, said Pellow, with surveillance, infiltration, wiretapping, intimidation, harassment, prison, and jail time—a forceful response labeled by some as the “Green Scare.”

Pellow remarked that while radical earth and animal liberation movements were made up primarily of white middle class activists, they found their racial and class privilege revoked when they refused to conform to the cultural, political, social, and disciplinary norms of society. Many of them, Pellow noted, soon joined the “enormous ranks of people of color, immigrants, and religious minorities languishing in our jail and prison systems.” 

Black Lives Matter

In the remainder of his presentation, Pellow addressed a number of complexities within the Black Lives Matter movement.

“If studies find that people of color are viewed as threatening,” he said, “then our presence is perceived to be much larger in the social cognitive terrain of many white folks…So when black people respond to racism, whether it's from police brutality or environmental racism, our actions may be viewed as a threat that is disproportionate and outsized.”

Pellow noted that awareness of the interrelationship of social and environmental justice has increased. He quoted an op-ed written by Congressman Keith Ellison and Van Jones that links the fight for black lives to disproportionate air pollution in black communities: “Our kids are being poisoned by the air they breathe,” wrote Ellison and Jones. “Environmental injustice is taking black lives, and that's why our fight for equality has to include climate and environmental justice, too.”

Before opening the floor to audience responses, Pellow concluded by saying, “We can draw on ideas from environmental justice studies… to think more rigorously and expansively about the ways in which race, gender, nationality, and species may intersect, collaborate, and sometimes collide, to produce environmental inequalities, as well as the possibility—and I would say the necessity—for environmental and ecological justice.”


David N. Pellow’s lecture on February 20 was presented as part of SNRE's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiative. For a link to the full talk, email Sonia Joshi (

Professor David N. Pellow is the Dehlsen Chair and Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches courses on environmental and social justice, race/class/gender and environmental conflict, human-animal conflicts, sustainability, and social change movements that confront our socio-environmental crises and social inequality.