A call for action: It’s time to integrate environmental justice into applied ecology research

by Gillian Bowser and Carmen R. Cid

The Somebody Else’s Problem field…relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

-Douglas Adams, 1982[1]

When is the right time to act on environmental justice, diversity and inclusion?  For the last three decades, the Ecological Society of America membership has elevated the human dimension in its discussion of research and education initiatives. Yet, even though the ecological processes that contributed to social injustices have been documented in papers within the ESA journals; the co-production of knowledge between the affected human community and researchers to generate targeted environmental actions and solutions to issues like environmental justice, diversity and inclusion has not been widely addressed.

As part of an exploration of the incorporation of human dimensions and justice issues into ecological research, we assembled a 15-year collection of relevant papers from Wiley’s ESA journals, focusing specifically on environmental justice research, and examined the gaps and opportunities for future ecological scholarship. Our goal was to facilitate current engagement of environmental professionals in integrating societal issues into their scholarship. Is the ecological literature, as represented within the journals published by ESA, reflective of human diversity, inclusion and environmental justice issues within the broader ecology discipline?

A “perfect storm” is approaching for the sustainability of our environment and the human right for equity. This storm exploded on the day of Chris and George–May 25, 2020. Previous to the day of Chris Cooper and George Floyd, environmental racism was a topic of conversation in academic circles disconnected from the focused ecological scholarship on extreme environmental events and climate change.

The dominant view among environmental scholars appears to remain fixed, void of consideration of human dimensions and diversity: environmental degradation is a product of bad management; the lack of demographic diversity within environmental organizations is a lack of will; and the persistent low numbers of people from different racial and ethnic minorities within the environmental disciplines is a recruitment problem. In short, environmental racism in all of its complex manifestations, has been seen as a problem of U.S. society and not of an academic scholarship associated directly with environmental disciplines. Since many ecology academics don’t appear to accept the issue of environmental racism within their discipline to begin with, nor its existence worthy of inquiry outside of the social science disciplines, this leaves the problem as invisible and unnoticed in ecological literature. The issues of Chris and George are “somebody else’s problem”. [1]

ESA has recently appointed a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice task force to explore these issues (https://www.esa.org/esablog/ecology-in-the-news/news-events/diversity-equity-inclusion-and-justice-lets-get-to-work/; October 9, 2020; Ecotone Blog). Such internal self-reflection by a professional society is critical as an action step to encourage the wider adoption of environmental justice issues within the scholarship of ecological research. In addition, the co-creation of environmental justice questions with the affected demographic groups and with diverse future scholars and students, fundamentally shifts the types of questions to be poised in the ecological fields.

These questions include addressing environmental racism and injustices within the discipline that are often of interest to diverse communities and the current youth population, especially in light of the racial protests of 2020. As a professional society, as well as individual ecologists, the time to act on diversity, inclusion and environmental justice is now and solutions are needed to address these challenges and educate the future environmental workforce.

ESA’s new collection on fifteen years of environmental justice research in the Ecological Society of America’s family of journals is just the start of an “action ecology” path, first proposed by ESA’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Development and Sustainability (SEEDS) students and alumni a decade ago[2]. The collection was gathered to provide insights into the research gaps and showcase opportunities for ESA to broaden its societal impact on scholarship and diversity in the discipline (including more diverse authorship within ESA journals).

Exploring the ecological parameters that connect to social inequities as well as environmental injustices opens opportunities for innovative scholarship, expanding audiences and welcoming new diverse participants to our ecological sciences. The time to act is now.

Gillian Bowser Carmen R. Cid
Associate Professor, Colorado State University Professor and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences



[1] Adams, D. 1982. Life, The Universe and Everything: Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy Book 3. Harmony Books.

[2] White, R. L., A. E. Sutton, R. Salguero-Gómez, T. C. Bray, H. Campbell, E. Cieraad, N. Geekiyanage, L. Gherardi, A. C. Hughes, P. Søgaard Jørgensen, T. Poisot, Lucía DeSoto, and N. Zimmerman. 2015. The next generation of action ecology: novel approaches towards global ecological research. Ecosphere 6(8):134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES14-00485.1