Episode 23: Social Justice and Sustainability - with Mary Annaïse Heglar - Transcript

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Dave Karlsgodt 0:00

Welcome to the campus energy and sustainability podcast. In each episode, we talk with leading campus professionals, thought leaders, engineers and innovators addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing higher ed, and corporate campuses. Our decisions range from energy conservation and efficiency, to planning and finance, from building science to social science, from energy systems to food systems. We hope you're ready to learn, share and ultimately accelerate your institution towards solutions. I'm your host, Dave Karlsgodt, I'm a principal at Fovea, an energy carbon and business planning firm.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 0:34

I'll just say way too often communities of color are approached as a we have to educate you or your so vulnerable, or maybe not even approach that all. And we need to be approaching communities of color as though they have a lot to teach because we do.

Dave Karlsgodt 0:53

Alright, so these episodes, we have a guest host, Nick McCreary from Indiana State University. Nick, this was great, you reached out to me, we were looking for somebody to fill our internship for the summer. And you reached out suggesting you didn't want the internship since you already actually worked at a university, which is great, but that you were interested in helping helping out with this podcast. So tell us a little bit about who you are, and why you wanted to get involved with this and a little bit about the show we're about to hear.

Nick McCreary 1:20

Yeah, well, first, thanks for giving me this opportunity. It's been a mostly a huge learning, a learning experience for me. But the main reason Well, I saw that I saw the post because I'm always scanning like job boards for students. And I actually sent the internship out to students to see if they wanted to apply. But then I thought to myself, like, well, I listened to a ton of podcasts. And I, I would love to learn how to do it. And and one of the questions that came to me was, every time I'm like educating students about sustainability, a lot of students understand the the environmental aspect of it like, yeah, recycling solar panel knows, you know, stuff like that waste diversion. But when we get into the social color of like, the triple bottom line, students just kind of have a blank stare and like, how does social justice or how does Why? Why are those two mixed? And so I've always wanted to just be able to hand a student something and back here, this is how, and so that's kind of what the idea of this podcast was, is to be able to hand students or I guess, in this case, send them a link to like, Hey, you know, what, how about you listen to this, and then we can have a conversation after and, and so that's that's was the idea, I guess, when I reached out to us to some sort of educational piece to allow students on our campus, but hopefully everywhere, and maybe even more than students learn about the social pillar sustainability. So we, we did an interview with Mary Annaise Heglar and it was amazing. I thought she's way more educated in the topic than I am. And I learned a lot just from talking to her.

Dave Karlsgodt 2:59

Yeah, it was fun to be be flying the wall this time, as opposed to being the one asking the questions. But yeah, we I first heard Mary at the California higher education sustainability conference earlier this summer, she had a full house and endless questions. It was great to hear her her speak. But yeah, I really appreciate it. This episode too, it was, you know, we talk a lot about the technical aspects of sustainability. That's a lot of the work that we're doing. But the more I've done this work, the more I realized that if we don't connect the dots to the social aspects of sustainability, it just doesn't really matter at the end of the day. And I think she really articulates that well in this interview. So yeah, anything else we need to know?

Nick McCreary 3:38

Yeah, I mean, I guess it's just maybe probably something a little bit different than than what you've heard in previous episodes from this from this podcast. And I hope people can use it as kind of like I'm going to and where I handed out to people who, who don't quite grasper didn't even know that, like, social sustainability was a thing. And I hope people listen to it, learn a lot and can maybe start thinking about the world differently. I know, for me, the social pillar sustainability is like the most driving force of why we should make a difference. Because I mean, like climate changes, and equitable and those who are causing it are not the ones who are going to necessarily feel the largest, like negative forces of climate change. And to me that feels wrong and an even more of a reason why we should try and combat it.

Dave Karlsgodt 4:29

Great. Well, let's, let's hear what Mary has to say.

Nick McCreary 4:32

Well, Mary, it's nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. Before we begin our conversation on those topics, why don't you take a minute to introduce yourself and your work.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 4:41

I am the director of publications at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I've worked for about five years in that position. So I started as a policy publications editor moved up to senior policy publications editor, and now director of publications. And that meant that I was editing and midwifing, for lack of a better term, a ton of really wonky publications about climate. I kind of came here like deliberately because I wanted to learn those things. I came here because I wanted to be part of telling what I believe then I'm really know now what's most important story of our time. In reading those, those reporters there, they're really alarming. They're really terrifying. I started writing within the past, like, little more than a year now, because I started to feel like, especially with the 2016 election, that the way that we were talking about climate change was inadequate. And I don't mean we as an NRDC, I mean, we isn't everyone, really. And definitely the broader environmental movement. We weren't telling the whole story. We were leaving people out, and definitely leave marginalized people out. And we were neutering the urgency. And so I just sort of I kept listening for other people to say these things. Like I knew there were things that needed to be said, and I kept listening for them and kept listening for them. And I never heard them. And so finally, I was like, well, I'll just say it.

Nick McCreary 6:19

Yeah. So it sounds like you went from you learned a lot by editing these policies and then realize it no one was really talking about what you see as a larger issue.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 6:32

Yeah, well, it's a policy reports are by their very nature, wonky their supposed to be a wonky record for wonky people, right. But so I was not expecting to see regular people stories and a policy report, it will be very out of place. You like you talk about people in the aggregate and those senses, you don't really bring home, the emotionality of it, you don't really talk about like how I feel really more focused on solutions than is the analysis like the deep analysis of problems that we go back to, you know, the 1500s and 1600s. Right. So I don't expect that in a policy report. So I started listening to, you know, different podcasts, I started reading, like more mainstream publications that were talking about climate and even there, I still didn't see it, I still didn't see people talking about the immediacy of it, I still saw people talking about it in terms of our children and grandchildren, I still was singing. I was still hearing people talk about it as statistics and degrees of Celsius and gigatons etc. It was very even in those contexts. It wasn't being brought home. And so I decided, well, I'm going to start writing and I honestly thought it would just live on my little blog, and nobody would ever read it. And now I'm here.

Nick McCreary 7:53

Well, yeah, your writing is really powerful. I want to get into the idea of like sustainability, right. It's a word that gets thrown around a ton lately, and sometimes it's in greenwashing. Sometimes it's used correctly. And it means different things to different people. One thing that I always hear, when I went or a lot of times I hear people talk about sustainability as the idea of a triple bottom line or that people planet and profit should be equally considered when making decisions. Could you talk a bit about what does the word sustainability mean to you? And do you ever think about the triple bottom line?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 8:27

I think sustainability is being about harmony, and being able to last and honestly, a lot of it just really comes down to common sense, right? Like, okay, something something using up a finite resource is just not a good idea. Yeah, so I wrote an essay on, you know, what do I think should be the motivator for the climate movement? Sure. Like a lot of people say it should be fear. Some people say hope some people say anger, I, myself have said anger. And I settle on love, because I feel like love is more sustainable. That love has room for all of those other emotions. So when I think of sustainability, honestly, the first word that comes to my mind is love.

Nick McCreary 9:15

Okay, yeah, that's, that's, that's a new definition. I really like it. It's something that everyone can rally around, right?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 9:23

Yeah, I think so. Right? You want to live? Right?

Nick McCreary 9:26

Yeah. You you've said that the burdens of climate change fall heaviest on the people already structurally situated, to be able to least carry that burden. What do you mean by that?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 9:39

Um, well, to be clear, I'm not the only one saying that last, right. Right, that right. So people on the front lines of climate change are generally the people who are in low lying communities, they are people who have been through structural racism, deliberately kept out of, or red zone into neighborhoods that are more vulnerable. They are people who have historically contributed at the least to climate change, like in the global south, and they are people of color they are the people with the least means to protect themselves.

Nick McCreary 10:17

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I, Could you expand a little bit about where you talked about, they've contributed the least to climate change?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 10:24

Well, if you look at the carbon footprint, the historical carbon footprint of a place like India, for example, where people are dying and scorching, like literally scorching heat wave, their carbon footprint is tiny. I know that we always talk about India, China and the United States with the top three and mentors. But first of all, India's carbon footprint today with more than a billion people is like 3.6, or something like that percent of the whole pie of carbon emissions, whereas the United States and China are both like above 20%. So they don't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as China and the United States today. But if you look at their historical footprint, right, like what India doing during the, the Industrial Revolution, they were not having an industrial revolution, they were being colonized and brutalized by by England. So they, they did nothing to create this mess that we're in. And the same goes for Africa and Latin America. And all of these countries in the global south, it was systematically kept from participating in that revolution. And also now like, if you look at the map of where the climate change impacts are going to be the worst is like a colonizers playground.

Nick McCreary 11:52

Yeah, to do talk a little bit on the responsibility of the industrialized countries are those countries, I'd have industrialized way earlier than others, on helping developing in mid level developing countries reach a level of comfort that we have without making the same mistakes that we did in terms of climate.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 12:15

I mean, I think you made a mess, you need to clean up. The industrialized revolutions absolutely made a mess.

Nick McCreary 12:23

Yeah, absolutely. In your piece, that you wrote, climate change ain't the first existential threat. You introduce the idea.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 12:31

I hate that title, by the way.

Nick McCreary 12:34

Well, it caught my eye, it was the first of your pieces in our head. So you introduce the idea of existential exceptionalism? I'd never heard of this. And you said, That's because this is your term. You call you call it a losing game? What is existential exceptionalism? And how does it relate to the social side of sustainability?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 12:55

Yeah, I totally made that term up. I think of existential exceptionalism and this idea that climate change was the first time that that our existence has been threatened. And it's a losing game, because it sort of situate climate change as this a historical thing. And I'll give you that it is absolutely unprecedented, right? Like we've never seen a threat to all of humankind before. But two different populations have absolutely had their lives on the line, right. And it's a losing game for a few reasons, the first of which is that by removing all precedent for existential threats, that means that we're not able to learn from history. And what I really wanted to say in that piece is that the climate movement because fans learn a lot from the civil rights movement. And we best get about the business of doing so right. Like I was reading Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the similarities and the parallels to the choir movement were just overwhelming. And I couldn't believe that everyone else was not seeing what I was seeing. And that was the motivation for writing that piece. The other reason why is a losing game is because it is alienating to people of color who come from these traditions and these histories of having their lives on the line and having to fight for their lives. And acts like that just didn't happen. It's the first time that white men as a group have been threatened like this.

Nick McCreary 14:32

Right? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, moving that idea into the white men being the first time that they've ever been threatened. I think we can both agree that there are people all over the world passionately fighting against climate changes in the forces that are causing it. But you like you've written and and climate marches that I've been to, and that you've said, you've been to climate activists groups are mainly white, why do you think this is the case? And is that related?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 15:00

Yeah, I think climate groups are largely white, because it comes from a conservationist history. And the conservation movement, the 1800s, and 1900s, was deeply, deeply deeply racist. The, their whole thing was conserving land, not for people, but from people. Right. So their, their idea was, we want to keep Native Americans also, you know, national parks, and that's why we have so many national parks. So for the express reason of stealing it from Native Americans, there's also really ugly history regarding overpopulation, which, unfortunately, is I don't think it ever went away. It definitely didn't go away. But now it's getting a resurgence, and people are taking action into their own hands, as we were seeing in El Paso is deeply distressing and terrifying. And I think it's also been really white because we framed the threat being to future generations, right, we framed as being farther and farther away, and therefore people don't pick up the urgency and when you have communities of color, who are fighting for us in our lives day in and day out, like not in the future, but right right now. If you tell me that threat is like generations away, it's like, Alright, great. Well, you have time to deal with that. I do not. Because police are shooting us today. And I might not make it to have children. So I don't have time to deal with that right now. And it doesn't really matter if I die by climate change. Or if I die because of a police state. I'm just as dead.

Nick McCreary 16:37

Right? That's interesting. to two different ideas that I heard there's one about how specifically white people and people have privileged this, would you say this is like the first time that they have ever faced something like this? And and since it's so far off in the future, it feels like something we don't need to address now. To that that class of people.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 16:59

I'm, you know, I that's my best guess.

Nick McCreary 17:03

Okay? And how, how can that group of people and the climate movement learn from marginalized groups and people of color?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 17:13

I mean, there's so many things, right. Like, the things that we've written, read Letter from, from a Birmingham Jail, like understand that this is not separate from all of those other fights for justice, I'm just saying, like, bottom line is about justice and not anything else. So I think they can read a lot of our texts. I mean, there's been so many books written about the civil rights movement, there's been so many books written about Black Power movements about all of these other. I mean, I speak to those because those are from my tradition, but there have been plenty of others from Latino communities from the indigenous rights struggle that like has never ended. So there's just so much wisdom that can be learned. But I think the biggest lessons to learn is probably how they approach these communities to get them to sign on, generally. Or I'll just say, way too often, communities of color are approached as a we have to educate you or your soul vulnerable, or maybe not even approach that all. And we need to be approaching communities of color as though they have a lot to teach, because we do have a lot to teach.

Nick McCreary 18:30

Yeah, so more like approaching these communities like we we seen that, that y'all have been fighting these kind of battles forever, what how, how have you done it? And how can we apply this to climate change and, and work together because it is a together goal, or problem.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 18:47

So seeing that climate change is not separate that it shares the same as all of those other problems that is fundamentally about justice, and not just about science for science sake, and therefore, is showing up for them as much as you want them to show up for you. Right? So it's not like we're only going to fight when white people's lives are threatened. You need to fight for communities of color too.

Nick McCreary 19:13

Right, yeah. Well, that's that makes sense. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by the same structure is in place that marginalizes communities is also is changing our climate?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 19:26

Well, I think when we talk about climate change, we don't do a deeper analysis. We're just like, Oh, this carpet in the air, and that's why the climate is changing, right? And we don't really go back to like, okay, where's this climate? Where does the carbon come from? And it comes from the fossil fuel industry. All right, well, where does particular industry come from? It came from the Industrial Revolution. All right, where did that come from? slavery. And therefore, when not draw the right, we're never going to solve a problem that we can't look at the whole.

Nick McCreary 19:58

Why do you? Why do you say it gets so difficult for people to make that connection? Is it because it's such a large, abstract idea? Or is it more about why people are afraid to admit, admit that we've caused all this or we've caused so much injustice?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 20:15

Yeah, I hadn't quite figured that out. I think it's probably a little column A little column B and all the other letters do? I think that people are not used to thinking about the climate period? Like, I don't think people think about we take the planet for granted. I think, as a society, we've come to see ourselves as separate from the planet, and not part of it. And therefore I like protecting the planet is seen as this altruistic thing without realizing like, Where else are you going to live? Right. So we're just not used to thinking about the climate at all, let alone the real roots of how we wound up here.

Nick McCreary 20:58

Yeah. Do you think framing climate change and climate action, as more of a justice, like a climate justice approach would help convince more people to start taking action immediately?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 21:15

Yes, absolutely. I don't think people understand science science. I know, I don't. I think people understand justice inherently. Right. Like you take a three year old, they can tell you when something's not fair. So it's a really simple concept is ingrained in us as human beings that when something is unjust, you need to do something about it.

Nick McCreary 21:36

Yeah, that that makes sense. So reframing the conversation around like ethics and justice, rather than saying, we need to stop emitting this amount of co2 to prevent warming of this level by this year, you think people are, it's easier to explain and convince their emotions,

Mary Annaïse Heglar 21:58

Through emotions, and also just like, reminding them that they live here, right? It's really practical to want to protect your home, right? Like, if your house was on fire, which you started talking about, like your literal house, would you start talking about all the different ways that fire works? Or would you put out the fire?

Nick McCreary 22:17

Yeah, that's, that's a great point. And our house is literally on fire right now. So

Mary Annaïse Heglar 22:22

Right. The arctic I think it's still on fire.

Nick McCreary 22:25

Yeah, yeah. Well, let's get into talking about what you wrote about, in I work in the environment, and I don't care if you recycle.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 22:36

Another title I hated.

Unknown Speaker 22:37

Well, I, I love that title. Because I, that happens with me all the time. People walking up to me saying like, Look, I recycle, like, I deserve to be like green ambassador to the year. And what? Why? Why don't you care if people recycle? And and what does this tell us about the real culprit behind this changing planet? and justice?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 23:00

I do care if people recycle. Because I think that is like a bit of a show of how much you care. And how engaged You're right. I think that people think of recycling as a stopping point and not as a starting point. And then we have a problem. And I don't care if you recycle in the sense that that is not the requirement. That is not the prerequisite for getting involved in climate change, or getting involved in climate justice. I don't need you to be super, super green. I like I don't care if you flew to the Climate March, right. Like, if you decided that you were going to get active on climate change on a plane, I don't care. I there's enough room in this movement for you. In fact, there's a gaping you sized hole in this movement. And so I don't, you don't need to purify yourself before you can participate.

Nick McCreary 23:59

Yeah, so how would you How would you tell someone to jump right in? And what would you tell them to do?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 24:06

It depends on that person circumstances, right? Like not everybody can do everything I would say to it like is absolutely a good exercise for you to shrink your carbon footprint, you should do that as a good thing. But at the same time, recognize that this is a problem bigger than yourself. And we need to get comfortable with complexity and get comfortable with collectivity. A great way to start is calling your senators all the time, call your representative, all the time, voting and making sure that you are putting climate on the agenda. And anytime that you can, donating to different climate action organizations, showing up at protest marches. And if that's not your thing, like I get it, I'm afraid of crowds too. You can also participate by organizing, you can donate some of your time to some of these organizations, you can also talk about it. That is honestly I think one of the biggest climate actions that you can can take is talking to people in your life, because most people are deeply concerned about climate change, but they don't talk about it. And they therefore feel more and more isolated. And we're all kind of suffering in silence. And not only is that not healthy, it is debilitating. And that sort of means that the conversation in our representatives have this foolish idea that it's not important to people, even though it's very much it. Right?

Nick McCreary 25:34

Yeah. So let's imagine we're back home or in a group with a with our friends. And we're all thinking about climate change. But like we talked about using stats and figures, and science just isn't a great way unless you're in a group of geologists to approach the topic. How would you start that conversation in a group of say, your friends that you've never talked to about climate change?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 25:58

Yeah, I don't have that friends there. Um, I think it relates to literally anything, and I have a hard time not talking about it, right. Like, are you eating food? Air, right, like, I hear this a lot of what would you say to somebody who's not engaged? And isn't really aware of this? Like, do they have a winning? I don't understand, like, how do you not know? It's all over all of the internet. So I mean, talk about the news. Talk about the fact that California has been on fire. Like it just the way you would talk to your friends about anything that you're afraid of.

Nick McCreary 26:43

Right. And but that's, that sounds like it, it would require someone to gain a little bit more knowledge themselves about the topic to be able to relate it to multiple different interests.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 26:55

I mean, I don't I don't think you need to be an expert on climate change. I'm certainly I was an English major. And I mean, I know a lot about climate change now from editing all of these reports and reading all these articles, but like, you know how gravity affects your life. But I couldn't explain it to you. And you don't need to write like, just like I was saying about your health being on fire. I don't know what causes fire, like, somehow, whether they do a little dance, like, Who cares? The fact is that California is on fire and you're scared. Like, I don't need you to explain all the particulars of how it works.

Nick McCreary 27:33

Right? What about this scenario? You are you're a person who receives all your information from a source that is blatantly lying about climate change, but says that climate change isn't real. How do you approach someone like that?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 27:49

You know, I haven't figured that out. I also think that we should wonder why we care so much about the people who deny climate change, right. So they I think I heard [] say this once, if they were poor, black people, nobody would care what they thought. Right? I don't I don't really believe that anybody doesn't believe is real. I think the best a bad faith argument. And that, again, is why existential exceptionalism is really problematic, right? Because the same bad faith arguments were are just kind of recycled from other movements. Like the you'll notice the same people who say blue Lives Matter is the same people saying climate change is not real.

Nick McCreary 28:26

And how do we how do we approach this people? Or do we need to?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 28:30

I think we need to take power away from them.

Nick McCreary 28:32

And do that through elections or movements, activism,

Mary Annaïse Heglar 28:36

all of it. All right, like we we never convinced Strom Thurmond desegregation wasn't real, get him out of office. Right? The segregation wasn't good.

Nick McCreary 28:46

Right. Got it. So this, this is going to be one of the last questions. Hopefully, people who are listening this podcast, have some sort of emotion about what we talked about whether it's anger or fear, inspiration, or just appointment? Could you guide them through the steps you outlined in your piece, feel something learned something, do something, something that a checklist for people who, who don't necessarily consider themselves climate activists to start doing today, when they when they press pause on this,

Mary Annaïse Heglar 29:16

the first thing I think to do is to process your feelings, like they are real, they are valid. And I think when you're living in a world where everybody else kind of seems like they're doing just fine, that you can start to feel like you're crazy, you're done. So one of the first things that you need to do is to seek out community. And that can be in the form of like I was saying, talk, talk to your friends about your probably find out that they're feeling kind of the same way. So breaking out of the isolation, you can do that through social media, you can do that through reading books, you can do that by reading articles, and just sort of building up your emotional resilience, and understand that some days are going to be worse and better than others, right? Like, sometimes I do fall right back into depression. Sometimes I am rife with anger. Sometimes I'm just straight up confused. Sometimes I'm numb, right? And those things are normal. You need to allow yourself to to feel those things. And then as soon as you're able, pick yourself back up and get involved, and that can be shrinking your carbon footprint. I mean, like that isn't an not an exercise in futility, by any measure. should absolutely do it. And I'm not going to prescribe how one should do that. Right? Like, right, I you can be a vegan who still flies, you can be someone who ever flies this, believe me, like, whatever works for your life, you can also like, eliminate your carbon footprint. And I don't know, I actually don't know how one would do that. But if you figure it out, let me know. Also, I think it's one educating yourself. So it would feel something, learn something, do something. So again, reading, reading books, and that doesn't need to be limited to non fiction, there are plenty of fiction books out there. And the climate fiction world there's also plenty of books about one of the books I recommend to people's called If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and it's about being loving and empathetic in the face of impending tragedy, and holding close to the people who are important to you and expanding your idea of family. So that's also in there. Another book I recommend is Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, or really anything by Octavia Butler. She rose, believe it or not, she wrote that book in the 1990s I think it was and it reads like a newsreel today. And it's a really beautiful book, you won't be able to put it down. I know I wasn't. And then by doing something, I think that goes back to getting involved in collective action that can be with your wallet that can be with your your body that can be with just even something so small as voting. And definitely vote. Yeah.

Nick McCreary 32:14

Cool. Well, thanks for having this conversation with me. If people who listen to this are really interested in you and your work, and I don't see why they wouldn't be after this. Where can they find what you write or where you're pretty active on social media?

Mary Annaïse Heglar 32:29

Yeah, I'm pretty active on Twitter, on Twitter, right? I have an Instagram page. I don't really update it that much. And that one is mary.heglar on Instagram, on Twitter it's Mary Heglar. And Medium is Mary Heglar, too.

Nick McCreary 32:45

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

Mary Annaïse Heglar 32:48

Thanks so much.

Dave Karlsgodt 32:49

That's it for this episode. I wanted to give a special thanks to Nick McCreary for all his work and making this episode happen. Part of the original concept for this podcast back in 2016, was to enlist the curiosity of sustainability professionals like Nick. I'm glad he reached out and grateful for all the research and preparation he put into making this episode happen. Also, a huge thanks to our guest, Mary Heglar. You can learn more about Mary through the show notes for Episode 23 on our website at campusenergypodcast.com. Finally, thanks to Kaia Findlay, who edited and produced this episode. If you'd like to follow us on Twitter, we are at energy podcast. This show is a free service, but if you'd like to support the show, please take a moment to write a short review on iTunes or just tell a friend about the show. As always, thanks for listening.