During Earth Week, we celebrate our rare and precious planet and recommit to living in ways that care for, rather than extract from, it. If we are serious about shifting how humans live together on this planet, we must acknowledge and act to address the wide overlap between systemic harm against BIPOC communities and the Earth. On a special episode of Emergency to Emergence, Sterling alum and @suny.esf graduate student, Renee Barry, urges us to consider the complex interactions between environmental perception and privilege as part of our work to bring about environmental justice. For Renee, who is deeply committed to participating in intersectional, anti-racist, and inclusive environmental action, studying the ways in which advantaged groups intersect with their environment and with environmentalism is a key part of the equation for building power, shaping policy, and affecting change. Her fresh perspective and passionate pursuit are worth listening to, especially this week, when privileged performances of environmentalism abound.

[05:20]-where does nature end and my house begin, where does me end and nature begin, learning to talk about things in less rigid ways

[09:35]-discussing how human and non-human problems and solutions can be shaped by our privilege

[12:31]-studying environmental privilege, somewhat new development in the literature of environmental justice, disproportionate social, political, economic power in creating policy and social norms    

[16:39]-grief within an environmental context, emotions, feelings, reflecting on environmental problems, being brave and honor feelings 

[21:35]-anti-modernism, belief of romanticizing the past, the masculine, history came out of industrial revolution, rethinking mainstream environmentalism, that takes justice into account and is more inclusive for all

[25:07]-environmental justice, idea that people of color and economic status are disportionately affected and are often not contributing to the problem as much as the privileged

Transcript

RENEE BARRY TRANSCRIPT

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Welcome to emergency to Emergence. A podcast produced by Sterling college. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota La Croix. This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting, eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully engaging in ecological thinking and action while fostering active community engaged responses that offer hope.

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And today we are in conversation with Renee Barry, a Sterling alum and current environmental studies graduate student at the state university of New York college of environmental science and forestry Renee's graduate research, navigates the complex interactions between environmental perception and privilege. Renee, so nice of you to join us today.

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Yes. Thank you so much for being with us today, Renee.

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Thank you so much for having me. It's really exciting and fun for me to connect with Sterling and to talk with you both.

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Yeah. We are like fascinated by your graduate work. Um but before we get to that, can you tell us a little bit about your younger self and what made 13 year old and he wants to become an environmentalist?

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Well, I think like a lot of children, I've always been really interested in animals. And I'm curious about other non-human living things. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. So my, my playground was my backyard.

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You've traveled quite a bit, you know, in your life, how has that shaped or added to your perspectives on the environmental movement and environmental injustices?

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I grew up in New Jersey and then my family moved around a bit to these different suburbs. , so at first I was in a suburb of New York city and then we moved to a suburb of Philadelphia. And then to a suburb of Chicago, and then I went to Sterling and then now I'm here in Syracuse. But something that I noticed as we moved around was that strangely all of the suburbs were the same.

It's an odd experience when you're moving to these vastly different landscapes and there's this like monoculture of the way things are done and the way things look and the built environment. So that's something that seems curious to me. You would think if you moved around a lot, you would get to see a lot of different things.

And, um, in that way, I didn't.

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It's really fascinating to me how you have this awareness of perception and how that can shape our relationship to nature and spaces that we inhabit.

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Yes, I, I wonder how many people interested in the environment like me have lived in a lot of different suburbs and how that might have shaped their ideas about nature.

And, um, I think something that happens when you live in a suburb is that you glorify spaces like ah wilderness spaces, like in quotes, because I think wilderness is a very contested, uh, Idea. And think, oh, that's where nature is. So we're going to go on a family camping trip there for the weekend. And as if our home is not connected to nature. As a kid, I didn't buy into that.

Obviously. I don't, I still don't. Because I hadn't learned those boundaries yet of this is good nature. This is fake nature.

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And, and, you know, clearly right now you still don't, or at least don't recognize those boundaries that society has come up with about good nature and bad nature.

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I think talking about perception and environmental perception has so much to do with challenging the discreet categories that we talk about things.

And so then everything becomes so much more complicated when you, when you crack open those boundaries. But I do believe that it makes much more sense to crack open those boundaries because that's actually how the world seems to work ecologically, like a city pollution from a city doesn't stop when it reaches a boundary of a different town or, um, like where does nature end in my house begin? Um my own body is, has different things inside of it that aren't me like bacteria in my body. Where am I? Like where does me? And, so I think for me, it just makes sense and seems consistent with ecology that we, we don't talk about things in such rigid ways.

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But I think that, you know, you've broken a couple of ceilings and, you know, you're here today and doing really important research. That's gonna, you know, pave the way for our future generations. I really think that this is, this is important work that you're doing and necessary work. So, you know, kudos to you.

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I also think you're challenging the market-based mindset. That very much ties into the privilege you are studying now.

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Right? Yeah.

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And it appears as if you're living and leaning into many of the concerns you have. Can you tell us more about this?

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I think one of my main interests in studying privilege comes from the fact that I am shaped by privilege as a white woman. It's a privilege to be in graduate school and it has been a privilege throughout my life to live in clean environments and the number one indicator for living near environmental pollutants is race. And that is true where I grew up in New Jersey. So I think what I want to do is really examine these things that I personally took for granted, because I didn't need to think about it. And, I see that many other environments. Uh, mainstream environmental narratives don't think about the structural advantages...

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Yup.

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...of the powerful people who define environmental problems and solutions. And this is something that a lot of people study and talk about. Um, and it's called "the green ceiling", which can be explained as like the overwhelming whiteness of environmental groups.

So it's something that I want to challenge and to not be afraid of. Um, because I think it's the onus on people with privilege to talk about it.

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What for you has changed about how you interact with the natural world?

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Oh my gosh, so much. I think that being interested in nature has been a constant in my life, but my ideas about them have completely changed, um, pretty much informed by going to Sterling and, reading environmental texts, specifically people who talk about the intersection of the environment and social issues.

So when I was younger, I thought, like a lot of mainstream environmental, uh, rhetoric that like nature needed to be saved from humans. And that kind of made me pursue this, this education in environmental studies. And the more I learned about it, the more I realized how those ideas for me and for many others are shaped by privilege because there's a whole lot of environmental problems that have to do with human beings. And even though when we talk about the environment, we're opening up our empathy and our curiosity for the non-human, there's so many human problems that we need to talk about that are equally as important. And I, I get worried that we don't talk about them as much in mainstream environmental um, conversations.

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Tell us more about those intersections that you're focused on and feeling into if you would.

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Well, my research at ESF is about how privilege shapes our ideas about environmental solutions. And one example I can give, which is, I think pretty relevant in Vermont and Sterling is this idea of um, ,changing the way we eat to improve the planet and maybe in an over-simplistic way that local food will save the world. And I do really like local food and care about local food systems. Um, I think it's really complicated though That's something...

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Yup.

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I learned about at Sterling. I don't think anyone at Sterling doesn't think it's ah, complicated. But I guess how privilege connects to that? Is that a solution that has to do with individual change? Um, isn't accessible to everyone? And this is made known by the food justice movement, which connects issues of race and class to why certain people don't have access or don't eat more local food and I think there's a lot of judgment in the food movement about people who eat junk food or fast food.

And there's a whole thing we're not talking about, which is the structure, the structures in place, um, which make market based solutions only possible for certain people.

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Renee tell us, tell us about your graduate work, your graduate research, which just blows my mind. And, um, like I said before, so happy that you're there. This is the work that you're undertaking because it's necessary research that can lead to necessary conversations and, and hopefully some amount of dare I say policy changes along the way. So tell so tell us a little bit about, about the work that you're doing.

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Sure. I study environmental privilege, which is kind of a new development in the field of, or in the literature of environmental justice. Because environmental justice tends to focus on studying those who are structurally disadvantaged and I'm interested in contributing to the literature by studying people who have structural advantages, because as I'm exploring, it seems that it's this group of people who has disproportionate, social political and economic power in creating policies, in creating solutions to environmental problems and even in creating social norms that are just things even just invisible to us, like what does the word nature mean? I think maybe if I didn't study environmental studies, I never would have asked myself that question.

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It also sounds like it could feel dangerous to challenge the norm and our comfort zones. What are you discovering about these conversations you're having?

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They are definitely uncomfortable and I think that is very important.

One really uncomfortable thing that I really would like more environmentalist talk about and think about is this idea that nature is a space, um, that separate from humans, or more specifically that wilderness spaces are devoid of humans. I definitely thought this and it's, I think a lot of people think this is even written into, the wilderness act that nature is or wilderness is a place where man does not remain, but he visits. I think this is a narrative of environmental recreation that, um, someone like me who grew up in the suburbs in the summer, you go to a state park or a national park to see beautiful untouched nature, as, as pure as it can be, and there's a really dark.

There's a dark hidden aspect to that perception because of the fact that indigenous peoples have been, um, forced out of their land in order to create these spaces. And I had a hard time even just saying that because it's so. It's so destructive and so violent. And I think it's something that not many outdoor recreationist’s think about, um, how we perceive wilderness as a place where people don't live when people have lived in them.

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One of the things that I'm really happy that you mentioned was the fact that you are hoping to contribute to the research and to the conversation from a very different perspective and a perspective that we don't talk about, you know, because it's super uncomfortable and it's just easier to go through life as normal without facing these very glaring things that need, that need to be addressed. And so having this different spin on such a powerful topic, I think really opens the door for us to think more about it and, and talk more about it.

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Yes. I think I've experienced all these different levels of grief in my evolution as someone who's interested in the environment.

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Or, what does grief within an environmental context look like?

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I think a lot of environmental conversations are dominated by science, um there, so there's all these different things that we know about the environment, and we tend to privilege scientific aspects of that conversation. But as human beings who are addressing environmental problems, we have a lot of other things going on for us.

Involving our feelings and involving emotions and things that maybe don't fit into science as well. So a lot of different writers, one of my favorites is Terry Tempest Williams. She talks a lot about this feelings involved with reflecting on environmental problems. And they're huge feelings. I I'm actually amazed that my childhood self was able to reflect on them, cuz I think it's really scary even for adults. It's still scary for me every day. When you talk about a climate crisis that is globally scaled. How can we work on this? It's almost more comfortable to not think about it. So I think being brave and being open to feeling those feelings is really important. And I do think that it's the only way to move through them is by honoring them. So I'm a very emotional type of academic, maybe not the norm. But I would like to see more emotions being communicated. I actually don't even believe that emotions and science are separate anyway,

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Yeah.

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So we can start by connecting those things.

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You're really entering into deeply personal and ecologically minded issues and topics. What is the dialogue that you're having with yourself and others that keeps you grounded and purposeful and hopeful?

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That's a really good question. Um and for me that has looked like allowing myself to acknowledge all these different parts of me.

There is an anxious part of me, and there is a brave part of me, and there's a part of me that has benefited from privilege throughout my whole life. And there's a part of me. Is not invested in those structures and wants to change them. It challenges that monoculture because inside of me, there's all these different parts and they're all working together just like an ecosystem and giving them each space and water to grow and to value each of them has helped. To deal with some of these contradictions that I see in the environmental movement, and how we can work with them. I just think being comfortable with acknowledging contradictions and acknowledging ways we need to be better. Um, and the complexity of ourselves is the work that I think we need to do and so it really does start with me.

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Since your involvement within with doing, research on. On privilege and perception within, within the environmental field. What have you found was your greatest eyeopening moment?

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I think, I think, uh, eye opening moment for me and studying privilege and perception comes back to me and seeing how invested I have been in some of these ideas.

Perceptions about nature. And I think many people are, I have this really great book that I read called No place of Grace. By Jackson Lears it's about anti-modernism, which is not a term I had ever heard before I read the book. And it's this belief that I think is kind of rampant in environmentalism that the modern moment is wrong. We need to go back in time. Like we need to do things the old fashioned way. Um, that's when people were more authentic and that's when like life was more real and men were more masculine. And so this, this is kind of defined by scholars as the anti-modern urge. And, um it has a really interesting history.

It came out of the industrial revolution, from people, mostly wealthy urban folk who lived in the cities and who were financially benefiting from the industrial revolution. And they started to feel like the world was changing physically in ways that they didn't like. So I think a lot of, of mainstream environmental ideas about.

What is nature? What is natural? What is going to save the planet looks onto our past in an, a romanticized way. And I know I have believed that way too, but I think that it's troubling because if we're going to survive climate crisis, I don't think it's helpful to think that we're, ah, everything's wrong and that we need to look to the past.

I think we need to be open to learning from the past in a non romanticized way, but also be brave and accept the possibility that there's better things ahead that is actually inclusive of everyone and actually takes justice into environmental issues and cares about equality and is aware of power dynamics, which I don't think have been visible in the past or today.

I used to believe that things were better in the past was eyeopening. Um, because it hasn't been better in the past for many people. And my privilege obscured that from me.

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Yeah.

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I think we need to not romanticize the past because it hasn't been good for many people and we don't need to recreate that. We need to create something much, much better. And that's, that's what I feel kind of desperately called to do, um, as someone who has benefited from privilege and I want to use it in a constructive way.

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We've talked about, or it's come up a couple of times, you know, the, the phrase environmental justice. Can you just shed a light on what exactly environmental justice is?

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So environmental justice works around this knowledge base that environmental burdens disproportionately affect certain people. And those certain people are, um, people of color, and people with less income. So. The effects of climate change or the effects of pollution are not evenly spread. They are experienced disproportionately by certain people and the sad paradox is that those people are often contributing the least to environmental problems. And I think this is something that I didn't know about when I was younger, when I just thought, oh, environmental problems is talking about animals and talking about recycling. I wasn't thinking about issues of pollution because I was actually protected from seeing that I lived in a neighborhood in New Jersey that was predominantly white. And if you go on, there's a really great environmental justice interactive map on the epa.gov website. And you can see, anywhere in the United States, you can see where you grew up or where you live now, the exposure to different environmental contaminants, and then you can also see demographic information.

So what I learned on that website was that. I lived in a part of New Jersey that was predominantly white and had a pretty clean environment. But my neighbors of color that lived south of me did not have protection from pollution and from toxic waste. And that was invisible to me because privilege is invisible until we talk about it. Which is why I talk about it so much.

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Given this is such a potent and emotional topic. What are you doing to replenish yourself and sustain a sense of community?

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Yeah, that is so important. I don't think anyone who wants to devote their time to reading about environmental problems all day should do that without a plan of self-care and mine involves art and specifically some cool mediums that I learned while at Sterling, I learned at Sterling how to make wood block prints and linoleum cuts.

Um, those are my favorite. My favorite medium to work with right now, I also like to make improv quilts and it's you get to use fabric that are made from scraps that you have lying around. And this art form was created by women, um, black women in Alabama, and it's a beautiful and fun practice. So pretty much art and also just music. I think art and music are calming to my body, but I also, it connects me to other people and I always feel so comforted to think about my Sterling community and knowing how many people genuinely care so much about these issues.

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Yeah.

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Changed my life and not only environmental issues, but deeply social ones.

Sterling taught me about living in a community with other people, and those are skills that I really think, ah have helped me in graduate school. And then I'm always incorporating things I learned from Sterling. And to my, uh, to my. And that includes how to talk, how to talk in class and how to respect other voices and how to, um, Yeah. Yeah. How to relate with other people in a community.

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Well, Renee, thank you so much again, for taking time out of your day to join us. It was incredibly fulfilling and it's caused me to think about my own privilege, even as a person of color and how that shapes the way I move through the world and interact with, with both the living and non-living. Um, and you, you certainly didn't lie. You already emotional scientist.

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Very much so!

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And that's the good thing.

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Yeah, you wear your heart on your sleeve for sure.

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The world needs.

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Yeah.

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The world needs more of that. Um, so, so thank you so much for, for joining us and for sharing your knowledge and your research and, and the good work that you're doing.

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You really made me think about perception and my own privilege even more. And it's been a real pleasure to witness this place from which we can begin to live the questions more fully. And so I'm so thankful for that invitation and for your time today.

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Definitely. Thank you so much Dakota and Nakasi.

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You're very welcome.

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It was really nice.

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If you enjoy this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them. So you can route further, draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.

And before we come to a close Sterling, it acknowledges that the Land on which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky are the traditional and unseated territories of several indigenous peoples, the Abenaki in the north and the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage people to the South. We also learn in, and from a range of landscapes that belong to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin. As we seek deep reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention are just a first step, we must match them with acts of respect and repair.

Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to Emergency to Emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information and how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action. Visit www.sterlingcollege.edu. If listening has prompted something new to emerge in you.

We invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to [email protected]

Until next time, this is the Emergency to Emergence.


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