Professor Philip Clayton delivered an unforgettable presentation entitled “Toward a sustainable civilization: New Directions in Environmental Philosophy” at the inaugural lecture event hosted by the Joseph Prabhu Fund for Interfaith Peace and Justice, College of Arts and Letters, and Cal State LA Philosophy Club on Thursday, April 21.
Professor Philip Clayton currently holds the Ingraham Chair at Claremont School of Theology. He works to formulate constructive responses to challenges of violence and injustice around the world. In this special lecture, he has brought to light the overlooked issues of eco-injustice in the modern world.
Clayton suggested that we have a gap nowadays between environmental concerns and actually evoked social change, with landfill being the most important, and yet overlooked environmental issue.
In one of his case studies, he mentioned the “toxic doughnut” in Altgeld Gardens, located in the South of Chicago, also known as the “ring of toxic.” It was originally established as a federal housing project for World War II African American veterans.
The community was surrounded by 50 landfills, 382 industrial facilities and it had 250 leaking underground storage tanks. The toxic living condition directly contributed to the excessive rates of prostates, bladder, and lung cancer of the residents. Since the community was mainly composed of African Americans and a large percentage were below the poverty level, the “toxic doughnut” case also became an example of environmental racism.
Other cases were also presented, such as Chester in Pennsylvania and Dickson in Tennessee. “We’d like to think that poor people had a rougher time maybe, or that folks in [these communities] are somehow responsible for this treatment, it’s not true,” Clayton said. “This is a case where those who are not able to speak up for their rights, who were less important about environmental conditions, or simply less powerful, became the dumping grounds for others who have the power, the money, and the know-hows.”
Clayton proposed to change our perspectives on the relationship between humans and nature. We should not view ourselves as conquerors of nature, instead, simply as members of nature; to teach each other to see earth as beautiful and aesthetic, which will motivate us to do good and just actions. He incorporated J. Baird Callicott’s quote to this idea, “We need a new narrative, to tell the story of nature.”
Kirianna Florez, Clayton’s research assistant, commented on the idea of creating new narratives.
“The community in Chester that was affected by [landfills] so badly fought back, but lost to the political government in the city. They used their ability to create narrative – a sense of community, to tell stories of their family members who were having issues such as cancer,” Florez said. “One of the difficulties of getting their narrative across was that they were minorities living in poverty and their voice was ignored by the larger communities. They were silenced unless they could grab the attention of media and its journalists.”
Environmental ethics is deeply connected with many other fields as well, such as religion. Among the respondents at the event, Professor John Cobb, Kayley Vernallis, Ruth Broyde Sharone, and Dr. Joseph Prabhu, Sharone is the co-chair of the Southern California Committee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (SCCPWR). She is a devoted supporter of the “Interfaith Movement.”
Many believe that the “Religion of the Earth” exists. Sharone and her colleagues work to find the similarities amongst different religions and promote environmental justice as well as its importance. However, according to Sharone, when it comes to college students, 40 percent of who identify with no of religion.
“[They might not be religious] but they do have spiritual concerns and yearnings,” Sharone said. “Many young people I’ve met definitely wouldn’t call themselves religious, but they are very caring and want to do something about this state of the world. So I want to take the opportunity and invite you to become a part [of the movement].”
The event sparked great discussions about environmental concerns and possible solutions among students, philosophy professors, members of SCCPWR, with honorary appearances of Dean Peter McAllister and Representative Daniel Tamm from the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti. Tamm also honored Dr. Prabhu the certificate of congratulations on behalf of the Mayor for his long-term engagement on issues of interfaith peace and justice.
The impact of inspirational lectures is significant and it is desperately needed throughout the world on environmental justice. College students are crucial in building a better place for future generations and you might ask what you can do. For starters, spread the words for the voiceless and unjustified.