Teaching Environmental Inequality: Watching “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek”

This is the second in a series of blog posts about the Environmental Inequality class I taught this fall. The first post shared the class syllabus and research project. This post covers a movie I’ve enjoyed using the last two times I taught the class, Leah Mahan’s Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek.  Here’s the film description:

Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek  follows the painful but inspiring journey of Derrick Evans, a Boston teacher who moves home to coastal Mississippi when the graves of his ancestors are bulldozed to make way for the sprawling city of Gulfport. Over the course of a decade, Derrick and his neighbors stand up to powerful corporate interests and politicians and face Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster in their struggle for self-determination and environmental justice.


I’ve shown the film in my Environmental Inequality class twice now, and it has been helpful both times. In 2015, we learned about Turkey Creek at multiple points throughout the class. I showed the 2011 Daily Show clip about Turkey Creek early in the semester. My previous descriptions of using this clip are available here, here (at Jan. 13), and here. This time around I showed the clip on the day we were learning about the distinction between the environmental movement and the environmental justice movement. I emphasized that while it is wise to take the the specifics of the Daily Show’s coverage of Turkey Creek with a grain of salt, the clip speaks to real tensions between environmental efforts that focus on habitat preservation and environmental efforts that focus on human wellbeing and cultural preservation. This clip unfailingly generates incredulous responses and good discussion.

A bit later in the class, we returned to Turkey Creek on the day set aside for natural disasters. I used the following two readings that day – the second discusses Turkey Creek:

Finally, I screened Leah Mahan’s documentary toward the end of the class. Returning repeatedly to Turkey Creek in our class gave the students a real-life story to think through as they learned new facets of environmental inequality and the activism that responds to it. Using the film at the end of the class provided a way to tie together and bring alive many of the threads about which we had been learning. Indeed, one of the students was so enthusiastic about the film that she helped me launch an annual environmental justice film screening for Earth Day. The inaugural film featured was, you guessed it, Come Hell or High Water.

Several aspects of the film make it great to show as part of environmental justice education efforts. First, it shows how environmental destruction has impacted human life (most memorably through increases in flooding due to paving over wetlands that previously absorbed heavy rains). Second, it clearly depicts how racism and classism influence development in ways that produce environmental and human harm.

Third, the film addresses the pleasures and cultural significance of the outdoors to the historically black town of Turkey Creek. This is a great antidote to the Daily Show clip, which features a more disdainful view of of the potential pleasures of outdoor activities, even as one of the interviewees appears to be enjoying herself while birding, and another talks about birds’ revered local status. The film’s inclusion of the potential pleasures of the outdoors helps me to correct for the environmental justice literature’s sometimes overly simplistic portrayal of people of color environmentalism as focused exclusively on urban areas and industrial pollution, and white environmentalism as focusing exclusively on habitat preservation and outdoor leisure activities. While racial divisions and tensions between these two approaches are real, it certainly isn’t true that people of color have no relationship to the environment outside of the health impacts of pollution.

Finally, while the film focuses on a central character who leads the charge to protect Turkey Creek, it does not portray him through the usual “great man” narrative. We see clearly that Derrick Evans, the protagonist, is doing important work in his home town. But we also see how difficult the journey is, and how much it costs him. I appreciated that the director resisted the temptation to simplify the problems he faced and depict them as solvable through a single person’s heroic actions. The results is a film that dovetails with my efforts to encourage my students to analyze the complexity of environmental inequality, and the scale of the change necessary to address it.

So, that was what I did with the film in 2015. In the fall of 2016, I showed Come Hell or High Water at the beginning of the semester instead.  I paired the movie with our early coverage of disasters and climate change (see the readings I used this time here). My thinking was that just as the film could be used at the end of the course to help tie everything together, so too it could be used at the beginning to help introduce the course content. This approach also seemed to work well, but I think I prefer the end-of-the-semester screening for the richer, better informed discussion that it generated.

All in all, I recommend the movie! If you use it in your own classes or at a campus screening, I’d love to hear how it goes. I’m sure director Leah Mahan would too.

Valentine’s Day and Fossil Fuels

If you’ve ever been to a workshop on how to write an op-ed, you’ll know that the leaders spend a lot of time talking about the need for your piece to have a “hook.” This usually means finding a way to link what you want to say to some kind of timely news event. Most of these are fairly straightforward. On Mother’s Day, you publish your op-ed about the need for state-sponsored maternity leave. On Valentine’s Day, you write about worker abuses and pesticide poisoning in the international cut-flower industry. Or, for another Valentine’s Day idea, you write about fossil fuels.

Wait, what? How do fossil fuels go together with Valentine’s Day? Well, watch “Breaking Up With Fossil Fuels is Hard to Do” for an example of a masterful, if somewhat unexpected, media “hook.”



Then, use it in your classrooms!

  • For media studies classes, use it as an example of a media “hook,” as described above. Or use it after showing this video first. Then use both videos to analyze framing, strategic political communication, and how political actors respond to the messages of their opponents.
  • For environmental studies, social movements, or politics classes, use the video above and this video as a way to get students interested in the politics of climate change. Both videos tell simplified, politicized stories. What truth is there in both videos? What are the the different plans that already exist for lowering our use of fossil fuels? What political forces oppose these plans? How likely are the plans to succeed in the contemporary political moment? What would it take for them to succeed?
  • For gender classes, watch the first video and ask students, “How is gender being used in this vide? What does it mean that the “fossil fuels” character is female? That the narrator is female? That the story is tied to Valentine’s Day and breaking up? What stereotypes about women are being used to help make the point that we shouldn’t “Break up with fossil fuels?”

Thank you to Jean Boucher and Milton Takei for sharing these videos on the environmental sociology listserve of the American Sociological Association. Happy teaching!

Slideshow: Happy People’s Earth Day!

Today I celebrated People’s Earth Day in good Bay Area fashion, with a protest! After environmental justice leaders met inside with officials to present these demands, I joined 65 environmental and social justice groups at the regional EPA headquarters for a rally.  Then everyone marched to the State Department offices on Market Street for the last day of public comment on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

For a taste of the event, check out this clip of Dr. Henry Clark from West County Toxics Coalition, who spoke after EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld.

Or, take a look at my photos! (There’s a lot of them – put your mouse over the slideshow and use the buttons that appear to advance through it at your own pace. Be in touch if you’d like copies.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Press Advisory

The week that was

This week I:

– saw a banana slug on my way to class – the first one I’ve seen since I’ve been able to call the banana slug my school mascot!

– made a loaf of rye buttermilk bread from this newly released cookbook.  Yum!

– took advantage of an office-mate’s recommendation to back up my computer with Carbonite.  Besides backing up your files, it also lets you access everything on your computer anywhere you have an internet connection. Awesome!

– after two and a half years of revisions, submitted an article based on my master’s research findings to its first academic journal.  I felt proud and productive for about 45 minutes, and then fell into a sad, empty kind of state.  My writer and researcher friends tell me this is common.  : (

– guided my students into the murky waters of writing a literature review. So far so good.

– had some of my photos published as an accompaniment to an article on the recent agreement to allow California industries to offset their pollution by purchasing pollution credits in Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil. Check out the backstory in my post.

– read the following in preparation for the Supreme Court case on climate change that was heard on Tuesday. (Now I need to find out what the actual verdict was, and how it impacts the case in Alaska I described in a recent post)

– got a phone call from the post office saying that my new bees had arrived in the mail!  They are now settled safely into their new diggs, and being, well, busy little bees.

– indulged my fantasy of being a scholar-farmer by doing some grading at 5th Crow Farm.  The fantasy part, however, doesn’t involve my car smelling like PSG after lending a hand with errands (that’s Peruvian Seagull Guano for those of you not in the know). It also doesn’t involve the earth trying to eat my shoes as I navigate the mud in my “stylish and inappropriate” footwear of choice: clogs.

– realized, again, that nothing makes me feel incompetent faster than trying to hang out with farmers while they are working.

Bees at the post office – in the box they were shipped in

What do people from California have in common with people from Chiapas?

What do people from California have in common with people from Chiapas?  Read Jeff Conant’s latest article on AlterNet today to find out!  Be sure to check out the slideshow that accompanies it too – it includes some of my photos from the San Joaquin Valley.  Some of them have already been published elsewhere and some are new (like the one below).  All were chosen by the author to help readers visualize some of the toxicity problems in the San Joaquin Valley so they might better understand why some Valley residents participated in the recent lawsuit against California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.  See my other post on this topic here.

Jeff used to be my boss at the Hesperian Foundation when we worked on this book together (Spanish translation coming soon!).  He came to Hesperian after getting booted out of Mexico for, as I understand it, the crime of volunteering on small scale water distribution systems in Zapatista communities in Chiapas.  I left Hesperian to get a master’s degree at UC Davis, where I researched the Central Valley environmental justice movement.  Through the twists and turns of current events, our working lives have crossed paths again, this time through concerns about how a policy designed to slow climate change might negatively impact poor people in both California and Chiapas.

In our past life together, Jeff’s job was to write a book and mine was to get it illustrated, so providing photos for his article this week was a fun twist on an old theme.

power lines

What does the tobacco industry have in common with greenhouse gas polluters?

What does the tobacco industry have in common with greenhouse gas polluters? According to lawyer Brent Newell, the answer is conspiracy.  Newell is one of the lawyers involved in the case of Native Village of Kivalina and City of Kivalina vs. ExxonMobile Corporation, et al.  The “et al” part of this case is no small thing: the village is suing ExxonMobile and the other 23 largest greenhouse gas polluters in the country over their contributions to climate change, which they claim is damaging the village’s property and way of life.

During a talk and reception at my university earlier this week, Newell gave us an overview of the case.  One thing that caught my attention was the case’s unexpected link to the tobacco industry.  Newell’s legal team at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment has teamed up with private sector lawyers experienced in the tobacco wars, who won their charge that the tobacco industry had conspired to prevent the public from knowing about the risks of smoking.  One of the legal strategies in the Kivalina case draws on that example by claiming that the top 24 greenhouse gas polluters in the country have conspired to mislead the public about climate change.  Yikes!

The case was dismissed and is now awaiting a hearing in the 9th circuit court of appeals.  The judge has delayed hearing the case until the outcome of a similar case (Connecticut vs. American Electric Power) is heard by the Supreme Court on April 19th. The American Electric Power case does not contain a charge of conspiracy.  What the cases have in common is a claim that greenhouse gas polluters are a public nuisance that damages the property of others.

Stay tuned!

Find out more: For some of the legal documents from the case, including the original complaint and its dismissal, see the Climate Justice page from the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment’s website.

Does containing climate change come at the expense of California’s most vulnerable?

Does containing climate change come at the expense of poor people and people of color in California?  According to a statewide coalition of environmental justice advocates, the answer is yes.  Therefore, they have sued the the California Air Resources Board over the way the state proposes to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental justice advocates were involved in the creation of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which was passed through the California legislature in 2006.  Advocates were involved in the legislative process not just to help create a solution to climate change, but also to make sure that reducing greenhouse gases at the statewide level would not increase them unfairly at local levels.  But since the Global Warming Solutions Act was passed, they argue that the plan developed by the California Air Resources Board to actually carry out the legislation has moved in a different direction.

The implementation plan proposes a number of different tools to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California. Although they support many of these tools, environmental justice advocates are worried about one of the biggest hitters on the list: a market-based approach to containing greenhouse gas emissions called “cap-and-trade.” As I understand it, using cap-and-trade is like giving all the polluters a deck of cards in which each card enables its bearer to emit a certain amount of pollution.  Then they can trade the cards among themselves to their satisfaction.  But in a twist to how most games work, players can also buy more pollution cards from people not part of the game at all.  For example, a California polluter could continue to pollute by paying people in Mexico to plant trees, or by paying a lumber company in Canada for the tree-planting they routinely do after a clear-cut operation.  This means business as usual, and continued high air pollution levels, for the people who live closest to polluters here in California.  Local air pollution levels could get even worse over time under cap-and-trade policies in the likely event that polluting facilities decide to expand, and make up for their increased emissions by purchasing more pollution cards, or “offsets,” from elsewhere. This would exacerbate the existing distribution of pollution, which poor people and people of color get the worst of.  On the other hand, directly regulating polluters could mean local reductions in greenhouse gas emissions AND the associated air pollutants. (My recent article mentions another way that the Global Warming Solutions Act could worsen air pollution locally, though not through the cap-and-trade policy.)

Environmental justice groups eventually sued the California Air Resources Board over the implementation plan.  The motivation for the case is based partly on the fact that there is a significant overlap between greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change for everyone, and  air pollution, which causes health problems for the people who live closest to it. The effort by the Environmental Defense Fund to intervene in the suit on behalf of the state reveals the continuing tensions in the environmental movement about how to respond to climate change.  Should we compromise with industry to get solutions that prioritize countering global warming at the planetary level?  Or should we champion more politically challenging solutions that include the poor and people of color as immediate beneficiaries in any solution to climate change?  In this case, the Environmental Defense Fund’s petition was thrown out, and last week the environmental justice advocates won part of their case.  The judge’s decision found that the California Air Resources Board emphasized the cap-and-trade plan without adequately adhering to the law, which required the Air Resources Board to considering an array of possible solutions beyond just cap and trade, and to allow for public comment and deliberation on the various options available.

UCSC alum and lawyer Brent Newell will be visiting my university next week to give us his insider’s perspective.  His organization is one of two representing the plaintiffs in this case.  The title of his talk is “Climate Justice:  Global Climate Disruption and the Struggle for Environmental Justice.” He’ll be talking about the case above, as well as another climate justice case in Alaska.  Those of you who are local can come hear him speak at the Environmental Studies Department’s weekly seminar: April 4th, from 12:30-2:00 at the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, room 221.


Scholarly studies:

The plaintiffs:

The lawyers:


And here’s a copy of the judge’s 35 page decision, as shared by the LA times