Book Review: “Trace” by Lauret Savoy

As I work on improving my essay writing skills, I’ve attempted to expand my horizons and read a wide variety of authors, including those with whom I’m not familiar. I recently came across Lauret Savoy, who in her new book, Trace, offers us a different perspective of nature, the environment, geography and American history, including its evolving race relations. She focuses on how people and communities interact with nature, which shouldn’t be viewed as some pristine thing that white people enjoy every once in a while.


Her writings dovetail with environmental justice, which is something I’ve been thinking about over the past few years. It refers to the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” (as the EPA defines it) with respect to environmental regulations and policies. In my opinion, people whose work or activism involves race, class, gender and other power relations often ignore environmental issues, while environmentalists are often white and operate in a vacuum as if those other divisions aren’t important.

But environmental justice brings these issues together. It grew out of the civil rights movement when people of color realized they were often suffering silently while disproportionately affected by toxic waste sites, power plants, landfills, and other environmental hazards. In one of my first guest blog posts (outside of this blog), for the Union of Concerned Scientists a couple years ago, I argued that climate change is an environmental justice issue, as the people most harmed by rising sea levels, floods, extreme droughts and heatwaves are those who did the least to contribute to the problem. Savoy considers these kinds of issues as she weaves in environmental justice in her new book, referring to “people of color and the economically poor [who] live, and die, next to degraded environments.” She argues that the concept of “ecological footprint” should account for dispossessed people and people’s labor.

In Trace, a slim yet powerful volume, Savoy invites us to accompany her as she traces through her travels, her past, and her family history, following the paths she and her predecessors have taken. She explores varied and uneven terrain through ever changing and troubled relations between race and the American landscape. The book is sort of a collection of interconnected essays, which fit together into a cohesive story. Each chapter searches a particular place, asks questions about its origins and names, and considers her and others’ experiences there. “The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches,” she said in an interview about the book.

Savoy is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She identifies as a woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage. During her childhood, she lived in California and journeyed to Arizona, through Mexican borderlands, and across the continental divide, and she takes us through each of these places. Early in the book, she tells a story about how as a 7-year-old girl at a gift shop at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, she tried to purchase some postcards displaying photos of places she liked. But the woman behind the counter wouldn’t sell them to her, and she runs off into the woods. It’s one of her first experiences of racism.

In another chapter, she analyzes a book she clearly loves, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Leopold enlarged the boundaries of “community” to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” but she fears that the “we” in his book excludes her. She then recalls a novel her father wrote as a young man, called Alien Land, and this leads her to consider the chasms evident in an “alien land ethic.”

Savoy’s extensive background in the earth sciences comes through in beautifully written passages such as this one about stones lying on an island beach: “…each cobble a relic of a remote past and a piece of and in this present. These fragments of placed-memory could trace, to the geologist’s eye, a continent’s coming of age as it shifted and rifted in a tectonic-plated world. They also pointed north toward ghosts of ice sheets grinding across the shield.”

While exploring Trace and Savoy’s other writings, I encountered an excellently written essay by Catherine Buni in the LA Review of Books, where she champions a wider view of nature writing. In a few sentences, she sums up Savoy’s book: “In blazing, beautiful prose, unblinkingly researched and reported, Savoy explores how the country’s still unfolding history, along with ideas of ‘race,’ have marked her and the land. She also traces, in a mosaic of journeys across a continent and time, her mixed-blood ancestry, carefully taking apart the frame at dovetail joints, curiously inspecting and turning over the smallest points of connection, omission, dislocation, and break.”

Throughout her work, Savoy advocates for a more diverse and nuanced view of nature and the environment, and she encourages us to remember that each place we visit has a complex history. I welcome and respect her voice. I found Trace to be fascinating and inspiring to read, and I think anyone who enjoys Leopold, Walt Whitman, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams would love this book too. Next time you go an a walk through your neighborhood park or on a road trip in the Southwest, bring it with you.

Will Climate Change Embolden the Environmental Justice Movement?

[I’m cross-posting this, which was originally posted on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog. Thanks to Melissa Varga for editing assistance.]

We are at an historic anniversary: the Civil Rights Act was enacted fifty years ago on the 2nd of July, 1964. According to the legislation, all persons “shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of…any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination” based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. (Another milestone, Brown v. Board of Education, occurred sixty years ago.) The Civil Rights Act was initially about the important symbolism of inclusion. But what does this have to do with climate change?


We still need to address what sociologists refer to as institutionalized inequality and injustice. Randall Kennedy in Harper’s magazine asks, why has the struggle against racism been more effective in public accommodations than in schooling, housing, employment, and the administration of criminal justice? “What is the value,” the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin once asked, “of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them?” To address structural injustices and inequities, more action is required.

“Environmental justice” is meant to address a critical area where such injustices remain. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “plant[ed] the seeds of the environmental justice movement” and that environmental justice is “a civil rights issue.” The EPA defines environmental justice (EJ) as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” EJ often refers to water and air pollution, soil contamination, toxic hazards, power plants, industrial facilities, and environmental degradation that preferentially affect residential areas and communities with people of a particular race, ethnicity, or economic status. It also refers to social movements that have, with some success, attempted to rectify this.

EJ is also particularly relevant to climate change. Issues of “equity, justice, and fairness” were referred to in the latest IPCC report, and as argued by Union of Concerned Scientists Senior Climate Economist Rachel Cleetus in an earlier post, EJ should be considered as a major factor in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. We are already seeing extreme climate events, including heat waves, floods, wildfires, and droughts, and poor coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, coastal flooding, and rising sea levels. Although dangerous weather events appear to occur randomly, some people are more vulnerable than others and some receive more effective aid during cleanup and recovery. (See the book “Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina”, edited by Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright.) Sometimes environmental laws are insufficient and federal agencies don’t take sufficient steps to protect workers and residents, and certainly there is room for improvement.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting on Climate Change Resilience and Governance in Washington, DC, which was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The speakers included Jalonne White-Newsome, a former UCS Kendall Science Fellow now a policy analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She talked about how currently EJ communities are not engaged in the process, and the failure to mobilize the majority of Americans who want action on climate change is partly due to the fact that not everyone is part of the conversation. Many black, Latino, and Native American communities, as well as working class white communities, live closer to various polluting industries, landfills, fracking infrastructure, etc. than others, but they don’t have enough information about what they can do about it, how they can communicate with the authorities, or how to receive the aid they need. (For more on this meeting, see my blog post on it).

Scientists, activists, and policy analysts are now thinking about and addressing the causes and effects of climate change. Although we want to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions and avoid the worst of global warming, climate change is already happening. Throughout different regions of the US, we can expect more frequent and extreme droughts, floods, and heatwaves in the future (see the overview of the National Climate Assessment.

This is where climate adaptation and resilience come in, and this is what people are actively working on these days. For example, people on the top floors of poorly cooled buildings in dense urban areas are among the most vulnerable to heat waves, and simple solutions like white-painted roofs (see below) can save many lives. Scientists and medical experts are also studying the cumulative impact to the health of vulnerable populations, for example following natural disasters (such as hurricanes or floods) that also damage the social and physical infrastructure necessary for resilience and emergency response. Afterward, federal agencies need to be ready to help local organizations and communities with reconstruction. To address future water shortages and drought impacts, Congress authorized the National Integrated Drought Information System in 2006, which identifies drought-sensitive regions and manages drought-related risks and which involves the coordination of federal, state, local, regional, and tribal partners.


There is certainly plenty more work to do on climate mitigation and adaptation, and environmental justice should be a key element of it. As we look back on all we’ve accomplished since the Civil Rights Act was passed fifty years ago, let’s keep working to eliminate injustice and inequality as we prepare for the great challenge of the 21st century—climate change.

Climate Change is an Environmental Justice issue

In a previous blog post, I introduced the concept of environmental justice (EJ), which refers to the fair treatment of people regardless of race or class with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. I’ve also previously written about climate change here and about some efforts to address it here. Now my point here that climate change is an EJ issue, especially because anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) have been primarily produced by people in wealthier countries, while people in poorer countries and regions will likely bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, drought, and access to food staples.

The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was just released a week ago, soon before Earth Day. (You can read news coverage of the report in the Guardian, NY Times, and Atlantic.) The IPCC report was produced by 1,250 international experts and approved by 194 governments, and it is the last of three reports to assess climate research conducted since 2007. The authors argue that only an intensive push in the immediate future can limit climate change to less than catastrophic levels, but lowering costs of alternative energies have made transitioning on a mass scale practical and affordable. Avoiding (the worst of) climate change will be less costly than attempting to adapt to it later with unpredictable geoengineering technologies. The report also discusses “co-benefits“: for example, efforts to reducing air pollution (including GHGs) would improve public health and save millions of lives, balancing the cost of reducing the emissions. The report states that putting a price on GHG emissions, such as through carbon taxes or emission permits (which I’ll write about in a later post), would help to redirect investment toward more climate-friendly technologies and away from fossil fuels.

It’s also interesting to see what was not included in the IPCC report. For example, rich countries (including the US) pushed to remove a proposed section that called for hundreds of billions of dollars of aid per year to be paid to developing countries. The report does refer to “issues of equity, justice, and fairness [that] arise with respect to mitigation and adaptation,” but these are issues that should be further discussed and addressed. For example, we are already seeing extreme climate events, including heat waves, floods, wildfires, and droughts, and poor countries and small island nations are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, coastal flooding, and rising sea levels.

In order to mitigate climate change, the report views favorably the cutting energy waste and improving efficiency and the shift toward renewable energies, especially the zero-emission sources like wind and solar, whose costs are dropping and becoming competitive. Wealthier countries can lead these efforts, and they could fund low-carbon growth in poorer countries, which are unfortunately expanding the use of coal-fired power plants. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has even advocated for an anti-apartheid style campaign against ­fossil fuel companies to respond to the “injustice of climate change.” On that note, I’ve noticed that the term “climate justice” has become increasingly common.

Many vulnerabilities to climate change are visible in the US as well (see this UCS blog), and much more can be done to work toward climate change mitigation and adaptation. In addition, unfortunately, climate change has not yet been connected to EJ in US policy, in spite of the Executive Order signed by Pres. Bill Clinton twenty years ago, which instructed all federal agencies to consider impacts on people of color, the elderly, and those of low-income when crafting new policies and rules. (See this post by post by Robert Bullard, one of the leaders of the EJ movement.) The Environmental Protection Agency’s new Plan EJ 2014 briefly mentions climate change, and at least this is a start.

In order to mobilize people, governments, and institutions to active address climate change, we should discuss how climate change issues are framed. A week ago, I attended an interesting political science talk by Sarah Anderson, professor of environmental politics at UC Santa Barbara. (By the way, I have to admit that the political scientists at UCSD have more comfy chairs than us astrophysicists. We’ll have to work on that!) She mentioned the “moral foundations theory” (proposed by Jonathan Haidt; and Lakoff & Wehling): political liberals construct their moral systems primarily upon two psychological foundations (fairness/justice and harm/care), while conservatives’ moral systems are also based on others (including ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/degradation). So if the goal is to address climate change–which may be one of the greatest environmental and socioeconomic problems of our generation–then we should try to appeal to everyone, not just those identified as liberals or leftists. To do so, maybe we need to use additional frames, such as by emphasizing the importance of avoiding environmental degradation and the potential economic benefits of mitigating climate change.

Finally, political scientists often focus on the workings of the state and on policies and regulations, but there are many important actors outside the state, especially among social movements and civil society. Fortunately, organized opposition to the Keystone pipelines and fracking, for example, have made these climate change issues more pressing for policy-makers.
Harvard poli sci professor Theda Skocpol (quoted in a New Yorker article) criticizes the tactic of mobilizing support exclusively through the media; instead, she argues, “reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats.” Perhaps what the environmental movement need are more “federated structures,” which have national leaders to interact with political officials in the White House and Congress as well as local chapters which regularly meet (and organize rallies or teach-ins) to develop their larger goals.

Environmental Justice

I’m a little late, but in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I want to write a short post on “environmental justice”.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “plant[ed] the seeds of the environmental justice movement” and that environmental justice is “a civil rights issue.”

If you haven’t heard of the term, the EPA defines environmental justice (EJ) as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” EJ often refers to the water and air pollution, landfills, toxic waste, power plants, industrial facilities, environmental degradation, etc. that preferentially affect people of a particular race or ethnicity. It also refers to social movements that have, with some success, attempted to rectify this.

Environmental justice (and injustice) is something that should be discussed and addressed more often in the media and in politics. If you’re interested, there are a few good books about EJ out there (such as Dumping in Dixie by Robert Bullard). EJ became an important issue during the heyday of the civil rights and environmental movements, and the most successful EJ lawsuits have been based on violations of civil rights laws.

EJ returned to the news in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in the New Orleans region. (For example, see these articles/programs in the Huffington Post and Democracy Now.) Katrina disproportionately affected communities of color (as well as poor whites), and some people argue that the reconstruction efforts should have better reflected and involved the needs and concerns of these communities. Some have made similar claims in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As we see new environmental problems and issues in the future, it’s very important for us to consider race and class when addressing them. Now we’re already seeing that climate change due to carbon emissions of people in wealthy nations appears to be preferentially affecting the poor and communities of color, especially those in coastal and island regions.