Environmental Justice and Advocacy — 5 Questions for Phaedra C. Pezzullo

Prof. Pezzullo (left) fostering dialogue and supporting democratic community on her campus.

Prof. Pezzullo (left) fostering dialogue and supporting democratic community on her campus.

Professor Phaedra C. Pezzullo is a dedicated social and environmental justice advocate. Her areas of focus include the mobilization of resistance to toxic pollution, and the communication of resilience in what she calls “the late age of fossil fuels.”

She answered some of our questions about her work and environmental advocacy in the current age.

What got you interested in studying environmental communication?

I started off after high school earning a B.S. in Natural Resources, but quickly discovered that the sciences knew a lot with little success of convincing others to listen. So, then, I started a B.A. in Social Thought and Political Economy, which helped me understand historical and cultural contexts better. When I was 20, I met the person (Robbie Cox) who then was the president of the national Sierra Club and he convinced me to study with him, which was in Communication Studies. He had Al Gore’s phone number on speed dial and I thought that he was someone who could teach me more about how to try to build a more sustainable and just world.

Now, Robbie and I coauthor a textbook, *Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere.* There, we define “environmental communication” as “the pragmatic and constitutive modes of expression, naming, shaping, orienting, and negotiating our ecological relationships in the world, including nonhuman systems, elements, and species.”

What environmental injustices would you like to see get more attention? Why do you think these issues don’t get more, lasting attention?

All of them! Seriously, most now know of Standing Rock and Flint, but those struggles still are ongoing. There are many reasons they don’t get more, lasting attention because humans are complicated. One significant reason is that it’s easy to burn out on bad news or news that makes people feel bad.  We like quick fixes, which is why “-thons” and ice bucket challenges go viral so quickly. There is nothing wrong with them per se, but real change takes much longer. I spend most of my work listening to marginalized voices, because I think they are underheard and have a lot to teach us about resilience, resistance, and hope. Those are the stories I think we need to hear more about: stories of people who stand up for environmental justice and don’t burn out.

(Note: The environmental justice movement was formed to stop disproportionate burdens of the costs of environmentally harmful decisions, to foster more inclusive environmental decision-making, and to build a vision of an ecologically, socially, and economically more sustainable world.)

What is “The Late Age of Fossil Fuels”? How does the age of fossil fuels end and what does the next age look like?

The Late Age of Fossil Fuels is a phrase I use to talk about the time period we’re living in, a profound crossroads we face with a choice. Either we can remain on a road of carbon addiction and end up with a planet unwilling or unable to support the life of our species—or we may change course and we may choose to pursue new ways to energize the world. The answers to the latter are not easy, but I like the outcome better than the first choice. The next age either becomes incredibly hostile to human life, with increased droughts, forest fires, floods, and storms, or becomes an incredibly exciting time when we draw on the best of our ability to imagine new technologies, new ways of living, and new social relationships that sustain us.

How has the latest administration change affected your work? 

How much time do you have? My recent work already had been focused either globally at COP21 in dialogue with a climate justice organizer in the Philippines or locally, in Colorado. For those of us who understand climate science consensus (that is, that the vast majority of scientists and scientific institutions have found climate science predictions of warming to be accurate: NASA), the current U.S. administration means that we need to support and to become even more involved in our local and state initiatives to create a just transition.

For people who care about the environment, having an administration that is anti-government is really challenging. See, we care about the air, water, and land. I don’t perceive wanting my child to be able to breathe or me to be able to turn on the tap to cook with clean water as a democratic or republican position. When government works well, we can take it for granted. So, it will be telling when our first disaster hits and there is no money in FEMA to support a community after a flood, like we had in Boulder in 2013. Then, folks might realize that it’s better to have a not-for-profit institution helping them get back on their feet than a private one, looking to make more money when people are in their greatest time of need.

Do you have hope for the future of the planet given what you know about environmental degradation? What motivates you to keep pursuing your research?

I do the work I do because the people I meet on the frontlines of the environmental justice movement are the most resilient and creative people I have ever met. Quitting is a privilege. The stakes are too high to quit, because we all are interconnected. Folks that think they are untouchable by the fate of the air, water, and land have a lot to learn—and I hope they don’t take too long to stand on the right side of history.

The tipping point of climate is irreparable—it is a metaphor for when the climate will change so drastically that we don’t know that we can recover. No one alive today can say their life doesn’t matter—all of us matter right now and we have a choice about which world we want to build.


Phaedra Pezzullo is a communication professor at CU Boulder. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Thought and Political Economy before going on to obtain a master’s and a doctorate in communication studies. Learn more about her work here.

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