HomeNewsUMN Morris environmental justice educator Clement Loo is shaping our next generation of climate leaders

UMN Morris environmental justice educator Clement Loo is shaping our next generation of climate leaders

The Environmental Justice Storytelling Project is a series of stories that aims to spotlight the work of leaders in the environmental justice movement. From educators to owners of nationally recognized social justice organizations, these stories provide insight from innovators in the field of environmental equity. The stories are based on interviews with Eden Lim, the former Environmental Justice Storytelling Lead at the Institute on the Environment, which can be read in full on the University of Minnesota’s Digital Conservancy.

Clement Loo is an educator at the University of Minnesota, Morris, teaching Environmental Studies with an emphasis on Environmental Justice and Ethics, and also works in the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Intercultural Programs.

What inspired you to get involved in the EJ movement?

I grew up in a place with significant environmental justice challenges – Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, known for tar sands or oil sands (depending on where you’re from). That’s where most of Canada’s oil comes from, and when people talk about pipelines and concerns around them, those pipelines tend to run from where I grew up to refineries here in the Midwest; it’s a direct connection not only physically but personally.

Growing up, I was very aware of the impact of extractive industries on the environment and how Indigenous communities are often excluded from governance and treated poorly in favor of profit. However, as a young person, I didn’t see that this could be a potential career path. Originally, I majored in psychology with an emphasis on neuroscience as I was trying to go to med school. But after some anatomy classes and dissections, I realized I was too squeamish for that path. I then contemplated studying neuroscience, but after spending some time in a lab, I realized I didn’t enjoy that either. Reflecting on my classes, I realized that I enjoyed Intro to Philosophy. So, I picked up a second degree in philosophy. I then got a master’s and Ph.D. in philosophy but was still unsure what to do next. I was interested in studying how knowledge is gained and how the scientific method works. It wasn’t until my postdoc, where I worked with Lori Gruen, a notable eco-feminist at Wesleyan University, on a project about food access in light of climate change, which illuminated significant gaps in the scholarship around environmental justice and food justice, that I saw there was work to be done. The focus in the existing literature was more on distributing costs and benefits and less on how people could work towards environmental and food justice.

I have found in talking to colleagues that many of their entries into their careers also took a winding journey, perhaps because the field wasn’t established when we started our careers. In many ways, the field of sustainability is still rapidly emerging, even for younger folks considering their paths. Now it’s not always about having a traditional sustainability job but rather about integrating sustainability into whatever you do.

Could you tell us more about your work?

In my teaching role, I primarily focus on environmental studies, focusing on environmental justice and ethics, specifically how we might shape climate governance fairly and equitably. This involves the exploring disparities and challenges in climate change decision-making processes and addressing disparities in that participation. In addition to my teaching and administrative roles, I’m involved in several organizations. These include the Institute on the Environment, where I started as an Educator in 2019 and now am part of the Faculty Leadership Council, the Southwest Regional Sustainability Development partnerships, and the Advisory Council for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. These roles allow me to work on sustainability projects and initiatives, particularly those emphasizing equity. Lastly, I also research and write on food justice and food access.

What are some observations you made throughout the years of working in this field?

Over the years, it has brought me great joy to see the field of environmentalism grow from a niche area to one that is now receiving widespread attention and involvement as an urgent social justice issue. Sustainability is fundamentally about social change, re-examining how we relate with each other and the world. It’s about treating one another and the world better, not just through technology but also through our interactions, governance, and distribution of resources. It’s about sociology, politics, economics, philosophy, history, and the humanities. Everything needs to work together. Even when problems can be solved using technology, it doesn’t have to be implemented as a singular approach; it’s about how people use it and integrate it into their lives, extending beyond primary science into the social realm. For example, I see the democratization and dissemination of information through social media and its influence specifically for younger generations to create a heightened awareness, which has been instrumental in driving social movements. Although social media can sometimes also be a vehicle for misinformation, it has undeniably given a platform to issues and influencers whose identities may have been previously overlooked or suppressed by mainstream media. Youth have a clearer understanding of our problems and a lack of denial or delusion, which can sometimes be present among older people. A certain clear-eyedness in the youth comes from a deeper baseline of understanding, perhaps a greater self awareness.

I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and in the early days, I had to establish that environmental problems and equity issues even existed. I no longer need to do that. Youth leadership has shown us the importance of moving from merely understanding these problems to feeling them, a crucial shift necessary for acknowledging our humanity in this time. Older generations might see these problems as abstract the disparities and challenges in climate change decisionmaking processes and addressing disparities in that participation. On the administrative side, my work includes advising students, providing student support, and coordinating our summer program for incoming first-year students. This program, known as the Gateway program, is aimed at students
who belong to at least one identity historically underserved in higher education in the United States. It is a three-week-long program running from July into August. Where students get the chance to live together do some community building, hone their or cognitive, not part of their lived and felt experience. Young people, however, have that lived and felt experience, and they are articulating it through channels like social media. These create the potential for intergenerational conversations, which can be highly influential in driving the behavior changes necessary for solutions. I believe that harmful actions often arise not from bad intentions but from a lack of reflection on our impacts, responsibilities, and appreciation of one another and the world. As a result, much of my work highlights the importance of understanding and feeling the problems, can act as drivers of change.

Older generations might see these problems as abstract or cognitive, not part of their lived and felt experience. Young people, however, have that lived and felt experience. I believe this is what will drive the necessary changes. In intergenerational relationships when it comes to the movement, this difference in perspectives is key.

Could you share moments that made you particularly hopeful in your journey in this field?

Working on sustainability can feel daunting, especially considering the severity of our issues. I’m heartened to see the burgeoning solidarity, attentiveness to justice, and efforts to address these problems, despite the daunting realities of climate change and its potential disruptions to people’s lives and nature. Yes, the consequences of our actions are severe, and focusing on that could lead to despair, but human history shows us that when we have made big mistakes, we can work hard to fix them, especially when we create collective awareness and pressure to change. Many of our successful efforts in the environmental justice movement employ relational ways to address injustice, which were previously ignored in the mainstream. This exemplifies growth and an increasing effort to
face our challenges in ways that acknowledge our humanity.

What advice do you have for those in the field who might feel overwhelmed? Word of hope or advice?

While it’s natural to feel despondent about the state of affairs in the world, it’s important not to let these feelings paralyze you. It’s crucial to realize that feeling sad, hopeless, or overwhelmed about these problems is not a sign of pathology but a healthy and appropriate response. These emotions show that you’re aware of the problems and are responding accordingly. My advice would be to embrace these feelings rather than suppress them. It’s your body’s way of signaling that something needs to change. We will be losing a way of life, which is something that should be mourned. However, participating in this work can bring a strong sense of purpose, the feeling of living a life that matters, and the joy of contributing positively to the world.

For more insights, check out Clement’s podcast Just Sustainability

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