Conservation Realist
Conservation Realist Podcast
Re-envisioning Research for the Real World

Re-envisioning Research for the Real World

Dr. Rishi Sugla on challenging & reshaping academia's role in climate justice

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  • How universities can (need to) work in solidarity with communities on environmental justice

  • Working with frontline communities on climate adaptation through true co-creation

  • Bringing community organizing expertise to academia’s approach to working with communities

  • Mutual aid versus charity

  • Again, because it’s so important: decolonizing conservation and research!

  • Basically: academia needs regular reality checks

  • Going from a mindset of separate lanes to a “dance party to make the world better”



Hello, all, and this is Conservation Realist, with your perennially delayed podcast poster and host, Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty. I am all fired up for this episode, fresh in my mind after editing and transcribing it, and I think it’ll get you fired up, too!

For Episode 16, I chatted with Dr. Rishi Sugla, a very admired peer who I met back at Scripps Institution of Oceanography several years ago. He’s now the Frontline Community Climate Resilience Scientist at the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, which is a truly exciting position – and he’s the perfect person for the job.

From his UW profile

He is, I’d say, maybe half a generation younger than me, which is reflected in our slightly overlapping yet significantly different experiences at Scripps. When I was a student there, I candidly had a hard time finding many peers there who had an active interest in social justice beyond the sort of removed, theoretical notions of vaguely needing to care about human communities in conservation. These students definitely existed, some of them doing great work for underserved communities, but it was rare to see folks there engaging in sustained volunteering with such communities. And it was extremely rare – was it even existent? – that social justice was ever integrated into someone’s research work, apart from showing underrepresented students that there are in fact BIPOC folks who are scientists.

Rishi’s experience shows an evolution, somehow, in the consciousness and proactive nature of students at Scripps regarding social justice. He and others were able to form a group, Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice or CIEJ, that facilitated the connection of social justice and community organizing principles with other students, and that engaged in active mutual aid – so, sharing the resources that they had the privilege of access to, such as scientific training and equipment – with indigenous communities experiencing negative impacts from environmental issues. So, when we met when I was a postdoc, I believe – I think someone had recommended he contact me, somehow? – and I learned about his work, I was immediately energized just learning about his work and sharing ideas that I’d pretty much never had a chance to talk about at Scripps before. Other forums, yes. But not Scripps, an institution famed for its long legacy of natural science research.

Rishi is a very intriguing, dynamic hybrid of social justice organizer plus academic researcher. Over the years, during our sporadic catch-up chats, we’ve commiserated about academia feeling so limiting for people who actually want to make a positive difference in a world where catastrophic environmental impacts and blatant environmental injustices make “ivory tower” mindsets seem beyond irrelevant – it’s unacceptable. Well, he found a position enticing and innovative enough to keep him in academia, and the University of Washington is lucky to have him.

And… the resident cat here makes a couple of uninvited appearances.

Wishing all of my listeners in the US a happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate, with the caveat that I hope you do spend some energy reflecting on the injustices carried out by US colonizers on Native Americans and thinking on what, beyond land acknowledgements, you and your institutions can do to be true allies in social justice alongside Native Americans today. And I’m also hoping that this episode inspires all of us to think deeply about how we can better integrate justice into our efforts in the world.

OK, now a clip from The Green Touch by Soe Moe Thwin, Zyan Htet, and Min Min from Myanmar, and then the chat!



T: All right, well, thank you, Rishi. I imagine you're busy with your job and I really appreciate you taking time to talk with me, because I've always appreciated your perspectives, especially being at Scripps [Institution of Oceanography]. The kind of people working and thinking about social justice seem kind of few and far between there, at least in a way that interacts with their professional lives.

Also selfishly, I just want to hear more about what you're doing. So it's like a catch-up for me, but also other people get to learn from it as well!

R: That sounds great. Yeah, I wish I had a chance to ask you about what you're up to and everything…

T: Mmm, you’ll have to do your own podcast! We should definitely catch up more at some point for sure. Yeah, so, I know it's a silly question to ask, but what do you do? I'm so curious about your current position. It sounds fantastic, but I'd love to hear more.

R: Yeah, thank you for the question. So my job is to help push the field of climate adaptation into a direction where it's working more closely with frontline communities, frontline communities being the communities that experience the most intense and severe and disproportionate impacts of environmental change and climate change in particular.

The field of climate adaptation in general has long focused on working with people in relative positions of power already, so decision makers, urban planners, engineers, and the list goes on. It hasn't really focused too much on working with frontline communities. And as a result, the why and how and the methods and the way of thinking about how does one help and support and being in solidarity with frontline communities to build a climate resilient future is sort of an expanding and burgeoning direction of the field of climate adaptation that I am pushing along at my current job.

And it's an interesting mix because I'm at a university but my job isn't to publish, which is sort of the mainstay of academic research. In fact, my group publishes very infrequently compared to most academic groups, but rather it's to build relationships in the “real world” outside of the ivory tower and use the resources that academia has to actually create and implement real change on the ground.

T: That's amazing. I feel like if that were more widespread, I might have stayed in academia.

R: I mean, I had left too. I had left. I was just like, peace out everyone. You know, the publish and perish thing, not for me. And then, yeah, this position opened up. And I agree, you know, we need a lot more positions like this in any major institution where they're trying to deviate away from the status quo and help support communities on the ground doing the work.

T: So, like on a day to day basis, what does that look like? Like, how do you how are you all identifying these communities? Are these communities near your university? Or do you have a wider reach?

R: So right now my group focuses pretty locally. And the idea there is that, you know, change on the ground happens from a relational standpoint, right? It happens from close connections built over time, trust built over time. And the best way, most effective way to do that is to work locally and regionally.

Now, I think that can be a complicated question and a complicated strategy in a lot of ways, because especially when you're working with communities that may include, for example, migrant communities, their community resilience is also deeply related to their families and different geographies and how their families are doing. So I think, working with frontline communities, the scope has to broaden in certain circumstances a little bit.

But for now, predominantly, we're working locally and regionally with communities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, for the most part.

And on a day to day basis for my job, it was interesting. It was sort of like, “we don't actually know how to do this work in a lot of ways, so we don't have a lot of direction to tell you in terms of what you should be doing on a day to day basis, but help us kind of figure it out.” And that's been its own interesting adventure to say the least.

But I think one of the things that I've noticed is that groups like this, even though they're not publishing, they still use a lot of the same research methodologies because they're all still academics who get these jobs, right? So they still use the same research methodology as an academic would use.

But, as you know, Tara, I have experience as a organizer and doing environmental justice and climate justice work outside of the academic context. So stepping into this role, I've kind of been like: yeah, we don't need to use these methods! Some of them are very onerous and time consuming. And the main reason that you use these methods is because you're trying to provide a “objective framing” for the work that you're doing that can then be published in an academic paper.

When you're not publishing in an academic journal, that goes out the window. It opens up a huge realm of possibilities of what sorts of work you can do, how you can build those relationships, how you create change on the ground. And we're at a moment in time where there's so many people who want to start working with communities now, that communities are rapidly – even more so than they already were – getting overtaxed by well-meaning academics, who are just like, “we want to work with you!”

You know, with the Justice40 Initiative, it's like academics are like, “we have to work with you - we have to have community partners now!” right? And we're using a bunch of research methods that are super time-consuming in the hope that, two or three years from now, we'll produce something of value for community organizations, right?

And the question that I would like to pose and the question that I'm trying to push along in this work, is like: How do we do things in a way that are regenerative? How do we create a set of methods, connections, relationships that are non-extractive? So we're not asking for hours and hours and hours of community members' time in the hopes that three years from now, our best intentions have led to a piece of work that is actually impactful on the ground.

I think it's really interesting, because I don't know about you, but there's been so many times where I've started a project, where I'm like this is totally what we need to do! And then, three years later, you're kind of just like: wow, that was totally not what we needed! Totally not what we needed to do, actually! Like the project pivoted in a completely different way.

And, you know, I think that is like another reason why we as a community need to think about like, how are we adding value along the way? Like, how are we creating points of impact along the way? So if and when we get it wrong – because like, you know, the road to hell is paved for best intentions and all that – we've still created something of value.

You know, so that's where my head's been at.

T: Oh my God, I wish I took like three hours to talk, Rishi. Like each point you're bringing, I'm like: I want to explore that, I want to explore that.

That's so cool though! And yes: first of all, the community organizing piece is something that – when I was a grad student or a postdoc, I went to a community organizing workshop held by a friend who is an amazing community organizer in the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) space. And it was personally interesting to me as someone who is of Asian ethnicity, but also it was just blew my mind how many things they had right about engaging with communities that made sense to me based on my experiences on the ground, but would never really even be touched on in a conservationist's conventional education or career. So it's really cool that you have that that side of things already.

Can you give an example of something from your community organizing background that you've brought or you think needs to be incorporated more into this work?

R: Sure! I guess one of the main projects that I'm trying to get off the ground right now is a project that uses oral histories and digital storytelling as a design methodology to create radical climate futurisms alongside frontline communities. So what I mean in practice by that is: a typical way of building consensus or gathering information from community organizations, if you're working with community members or community-based organizations, would be like: I'm going to go out and do interviews and have community members fill out surveys, and then I'm going to synthesize that information and hopefully create something of value at the end of the process using that information. Right?

And looking at that, and just imagining what that process would look like for my own family – like I'm half Puerto Rican, right? – so just imagining academics coming to my grandma who didn't have power for weeks after Hurricane Maria and being like, cool, we're going to have you fill out this survey. And then a few years from now, we're going to publish something. And then, you know, we're going to hope that publication enters the public zeitgeist in some way that actually like affects change to me. That just seems, to me, unacceptable as a former organizer.

I'm just like, wow, you're doing hopefully good work, but you're dealing with folks who aren't having their basic needs met at the moment, right? It seems paradoxical to me that we would say, okay, just wait a few years, you know, and something hopefully will emerge from it.

So I think a first step in working with all these communities is that I've experienced in my organizing work – and I just want to say that, like, this is not 100% of the time for every community, and I think it's important to acknowledge that nothing in doing community based work is universal. So this is just something that I hope will be useful a high amount of the time, but not every time. And it's important to keep that ear open and listen for that whenever we're entering a new space.

But I think a fundamental issue with a lot of folks in the struggle who are on the receiving end of disproportionate impacts is that they're intentionally or unintentionally silenced. So the question that I'm working on is how do we work with documentary film collectives to highlight what's going on in communities, what they're experiencing, what their visions for the future are, and along the way of gathering similar sets of information that would normally be taken through a survey or something like that, actually produce storytelling materials that they can use to amplify their voice, to reach policymakers, to reach decision makers, to reach other folks in their own community in the first place.

And that's something that's really hard to get if you're a community-based organization, because comms (communications) or storytelling work is very expensive. But as a line item in an academic budget it’s small potatoes, relatively speaking.

And then I think the value of doing this through oral histories that are captured on video or audio is, you know, oral histories are not just a deep dive into a person's past. An oral history is really about understanding how people make meaning in the world. It's a look at how their aspirations for the future came from the things that they, as an individual and as a community, have experienced in the past. And I think in addition to the material value of creating stories that can be shared by community, that can be owned by community, that can be dictated how to use by community, a lot of the communities that we end up working with, that we call frontline communities, are communities that in some way, shape or form have been severely impacted by colonization.

And colonization is in part the act of erasure of so many communities. It's the act of removing one's history from oneself and replacing it with a colonial way of being, with a colonial paradigm, with a colonial way of thinking, and saying that your ways of knowing are invalid, they are not allowed, they are punishable even, and removing them from the record.

So, so many communities that are qualified as frontline communities are communities that have been impacted by settler colonialism in some way, shape, or form, or through chattel slavery that was in many ways related to the project of settler colonialism.

So this act of creating oral histories, co-creating oral histories with communities is not just the act of, hey, we have an amazing transcript, an amazing set of storytelling products. It's the act of telling folks, reminding ourselves, reminding communities that we're part of that your histories are valid, that your histories are important, that your ways of knowing are important, and recreating archives of those histories that were systematically destroyed as part of a colonial project.

As an even more specific example, zooming in, there's a coalition of 80 organizations across the state of Washington, a frontline organization called Front and Centered, really amazing. They work within a Just Transition framework. They're trying to build a climate resilience program amongst this entire coalition, but again, are just like tapped out by the number of people who are just like, hey, can we have your time? Hey, can we have your time? Hey, can we have your time?

But when I'm working really closely with some folks there and when we talk about like what if we did this through storytelling and what if we use that storytelling to then bring folks together in design sessions where we can all like talk about what emerged in these oral histories and we can process them together as a collective and look at what are the meta themes that have come out from oral histories, from movement leaders across the state of Washington? What are group level strategies that are taking place or group level goals? What are individual narratives that don't fit the mold easily? And what do we do with all of that? What does that mean for how we understand what is the future collectively that we are trying to build? Where are there differences? How do we support?

And then here also at the end of this process, here are vignettes, like storytelling vignettes and maybe documentary film shorts that we can create. And relationships with film collectives, and so on and so forth. So that's one way that I'm trying to think about doing this work.

T: So that's so cool. And I'll admit that for a while I had a bit of a bias against the buzz term “storytelling” because for me, at a conference I attended a storytelling workshop, and it was everyone getting up and telling stories in these like artificial voices, you know, like “I'm very  in touch with my feelings, blah blah blah!” I was just like, No! I feel like maybe you can have gathered from our interactions that I have a very low tolerance for bullshit –

R: I have I love that!

T: I was like okay just because you're telling me in like this soft storyteller voice doesn't mean that I want to hear it. So that was my limited view.

But then, some years later, I actually was asked by my supervisor at IUCN, like, we want qualitative monitoring and evaluation. Can you look into different methods? And I ended up doing Most Significant Change, which is all about storytelling, like collecting people's stories about how a project has changed their lives, their experiences. And it was so powerful. I was already a fan of qualitative data, but like that it blew me away how much you could learn! And whether those stories are an accurate representation of fact, okay, whatever. But as you mentioned, like people act on what they believe and what they feel.

R: Exactly.

T: I'm such a convert of stories genuinely told in an authentic voice.

R: Exactly. And I think it's incredibly powerful to put it on camera, assuming that you're giving that fundamental ownership of the actual video to the communities that you're working with. Working with talented documentary filmmakers or  storytellers of other kinds, whether it's like an oral historian, so on and so forth, I think is so important for the reasons that you described, because there is this very artificial way of gathering and collecting stories that's can be like kind of navel gazey. It's like, let's all feel good about the process of we're doing storytelling work.

Or people say storytelling, but what they really mean is like comms, or marketing, right? That's not what we're talking about. We're not trying to do a nice marketing project to make us feel really great about the work that we're doing.

The art of storytelling is really about diving deep into what someone believes. And that's, as you said, that's what people act on. People don't act on facts most of the time, a lot of the time, right? Sometimes we do, but there's a lot of time we act on what we feel, what we think in that moment, the emotions that we're experiencing, the traumas that we've experienced as a community, as an individual.

And good storytelling is an art form that brings that to the surface and brings that to the light. So how do we systematically do that in a way that builds capacity, is regenerative, is useful for shifting power relations on the ground and also getting the information that us nerdy academics need to create pieces of work that we feel could be impactful on the ground.

You know, I think Cornel West once said, justice is what love looks like in public. And I think the second part for me is: love at its best is like a collaborative art. So, if we're working towards justice, how do we make that into a collaborative art? That is the heart and the ethos of what I think I'm trying to create

T: That's amazing! And I think that, going back to what you're saying about well-meaning projects coming in saying “let's let us help you, let us help you”: first of all, I've been like deep in that, like just being part of a project where we are working on livelihoods and governance and conservation and fisheries management and education… and these villages are like, “Ohhh… you know, this is amazing… but we have no time!”

That's a real concern for a lot of projects: you have all these interventions, they're important, they could even be useful. But the reality is like, how can people who have to work very hard for their basic needs, for their livelihoods, how are they going to have time to come to workshops and then how are they going to have time to spread those learnings to the rest of their community, right?

And this particular project I'm talking about was conceived of with the best intentions and there are lots of excellent parts to it, but lots of parts that had to pivot. It really got me thinking: how inclusive and collaborative can a project be if you're coming in with it already developed? And then you're like, hey, we designed a project for you. It's going to be community-based except for the whole structure of the project.

R: This like super hits home for me because I think the field of climate adaptation, broadly also climate services (which is like providing people, governments, organizations with climate data to inform their decision making), they have started collaborating with communities, but they're still operating under the central pretense that climate data and information is what's needed and useful.

And in my experience, that might be true like one out of 10 times or something like that. But if you go to someone and you're just like, hey, we have funding. We can pay you stipends for, you know, helping us figure out what types of climate information you need. And we think you need this information for X, Y, and Z reasons. A lot of the times people will be like, “cool, I need support, I guess, let's do it, let's try it.”

But the theory of change there is a little bit wonky because I think it's really important to consider under like, what context is Western scientific data actually impactful and important on the ground? And in some cases, it 100% is right. And in other cases, maybe someone needs, again, like storytelling support, maybe someone needs capacity building, maybe someone needs connections to people in positions of power. Maybe folks need to be heard. There's so many other things, if you're in a frontline community on the receiving end of disproportionate impacts, that one might need that isn't data, that isn't data.

And there's so much right now in this moment in time, especially with climate impacts, especially in the world of climate adaptation, doing these big research projects that tell communities broadly what they already know. Like, well, it turns out like wildfire is going to be a problem in your community and it's going to get way worse, right? And it's like, wow, like that was a $700,000 five-year grant. (I'm making this up).

I don't want to call anyone out in particular, but it's just like that maybe wasn’t what’s needed. But if you go to a community that’s struggling, and say “We have a $700,000 grant, and you can have a small slice of it to participate in our project and we’re going to ‘help’ you” – a lot of folks might think, “Well, maybe that will help,” and say yes.

Whereas if you're going into the situation (and I think this is also the importance of how you describe storytelling and how I'm thinking about it) like: how do we go in eyes wide open and just deeply listen to what's going on on the ground and act in a solidarity-based way? Where you and I and other folks are in relative positions of power, how do we act as a conduit for whatever emerges that's needed, whether that's through connecting with other researchers, connecting to  decision makers, like how do we do that? And I think that is the question in my field, at least for the next decade, as all this money starts coming through. How do we not just use it to support the research projects that we already want to do, but with just some community input?

T: I mean, I was on a review team looking at people and coastlines projects for grant proposals. And it was offensive to me how many projects were like, “Yeah, we're totally going to include people, just trust us on that.” And they had no element of their project that integrated a plan for how they're going to do that. There was just one, I think, of the whole pool of proposals where they actually had like, “We already have agreements with these tribes,” and they mapped out the process by which they would add that structure through the project, like “We’ll have consultations.”

But it’s just an example of a requirement that’s added for good reason, but it turns into a checkbox, that is then removed from the meaning of it. So just hearing about the work you’re doing, and the fact that it’s at a pretty big university, is amazing to me. It makes me very hopeful that this will become more and more common. I hope!

R: I hope so too. And I think it is changing.

And I think there are ways to be creative about how we create new research processes that are, you know, approved by the academic powers that be, but are actually in alignment with building community power, right? And being open to the possibility that maybe our technical expertise isn't actually the most important thing on the ground that is needed. And being like, “That's okay,” because in the one in ten times where it is the important thing, where you can really be like, “Ah, this is why more information is needed because we really don't know what's going to happen, and starting to collect time series data will actually help us understand this like critical part of an ecosystem that our community deeply relies on,” or if the powers that be, institutions and governments, literally require this data for us to get the resources we need, something like that, really being like open and available for when that is the case.

And when that's not the case, thinking what is it that we need to build at the university for when that isn't the case? Can we leverage the university comms department to go and help write op-eds for community partners? Can we connect with the government offices at the university that have connections, deep connections, to like state officials?

And you know, at Scripps: Scripps was sending people to, you know, the UN COP conferences every year. That is completely unattainable to 99.9% of communities in struggle, right? I made up that number, but like, could we work with community partners and bring some of them to spaces where interventions need to be made? There's like so many things that the university, if reoriented, could provide and if academics could have a little less self-importance about their work in the process.

T: So I have a little vignette related to that. So I used to date a hotshot firefighter, like wildfire firefighter. And it was so refreshing because he wasn't an academic, but he also was interested in filmmaking and photography. So there was a CMBC (Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation)… what was it, you know, they used to have those evening gatherings…

R: Like salty cinemas?

T: No, no, it was more informal than that.  It was like a meeting of CMBCers, and I think it was Cliff Kapono presenting a video he'd made. And there's all this discussion afterwards, like hand-wringing, like, “But what is the role of science and advocacy?” and blah, blah, blah kind of stuff. Like it's good for like students to talk about. But for me, this was my eighth year at Scripps, I was like, okay, like this conversation needs to progress. Like not everyone has to play the same role. I feel like if you're doing environmental work, there is kind of a moral obligation,  I mean, that's my personal…

Anyway, this discussion was going on and on. And then as we walked out, this guy turns to me, he's like, “You scientists think you're real special, don't you?”

Fair enough!

R: It’s so true!

T: I think that having that reality check, like we need to be interacting more with people who aren't so in this bubble and telling us like: You guys are being ridiculous right now. Like this is a real world problem.

And if you're one of those people whose friends are really like, oh, so-and-so does marine conservation, they're saving the world! If you are planting yourself in that realm, you have to actually have an eye toward how your work is actually being used. Someone could debate me on that.

But on that note, so when you and I first met, I think one of the things we talked about was your work with CIEJ at Scripps. And that was the first time I'd ever heard of mutual aid as applied to a research setting. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about that work and how it came about and what it was like bringing university resources to real world problems in marginalized communities.

R: Yeah, so shout out to the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice, also known as CIEJ. I was a co-founder of CIEJ and I've sort of stepped away, but they're still out there doing amazing work. So go check them out!

The idea of CIEJ was conceived of after some problematic incidents at Scripps, where there was profiling of people on campus that had happened. There were big email threads about it. And just realizing that there's a need for intervention and education on what, you know, this is way back when, when nobody at  a natural scientist-oriented institution would know what a microaggression is, right?

So it was an idea founded from a real-world incident where we were just like, wow, like there is an amazing set of like scholarship around racism and structural problems and inequity of all kinds and indigeneity and decolonization and, you know, the list goes on, that is alive and well and thriving here at the university (University of California San Diego). And how do we insert that into a place like Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where the closest you get to people caring about humans is, I guess, conservation work, which I'm sure you talk about a lot in this podcast, has not always been the paragon of not harming people on the ground.

But it started off with a class on the critical analysis of science and environmental justice. We were taking a critical lens on what environmental justice is, what science is, how does it emerge, the structural problems, but gearing the course towards folks who are in, I think, broadly speaking, STEM programs who have not been exposed to that sort of thinking at all.

And the class, especially in its first year, was a really great success. It was awesome. And from there, we started realizing, like, this sort of analysis on colonization, on structural racism, on anti-blackness, on historical and ongoing legacies of environmental justice and disproportionate impacts should all inform how we do our work. And at the time, especially, it was not in any way, shape, or form, for the most part.

And we just organized a collective, which became CIEJ, that really took this solidarity-based approach to working with communities. And by solidarity-based approach, what I really mean is understanding implicitly that we are not all free from these systems that harm us – like, I am not free unless we are all free from systems that harm us. Because if these systems exist and harm other people, they can be turned and oriented at other folks at some point. Even if it’s not you today, maybe tomorrow, it is.

So with that lens, I think, comes a very different mindset than what the traditional academic is used to. I think we’ve talked a little bit about it, which is like “Oh, my technical expertise isn’t useful…” [LOUD NOISE]

T: Oh, sorry! My cat started attacking my hand!

R: Hello! No worries at all. Someone wants a little attention!

Yeah, I think the difference there is really around what we already talked about, which is an academic who enters a situation where their technical expertise isn't useful will often be like, “Sorry, I can't do this work. Not my problem. You know, I don't have expertise. Good luck.”

And the solidarity based approach, I think at its core, is really about: this is not your struggle, this is our struggle, right? Because you very deeply believe, and I think it's hard to teach this, but you very deeply believe that this is our collective issue, right? Like, maybe it emerges in your home, in your community, in your place, very differently than it has in my place. Maybe I haven't experienced exactly what you're going through directly, but unless we all find a way through issues like this, then none of us do, because it'll come back to bite us in the ass in some way, shape, or form one day.

So with that comes an approach of just asking really openly: what is it that we need to do together collectively as co-conspirators to make change happen on the ground? Like any good co-conspirator, how do we take these billion dollar institutions that we're part of and redirect small fractions of resources towards communities where they can make so much difference on the ground.

And that emerged in a few different ways, but I think it emerged in like joint struggle projects with folks in Chile and Argentina - we've talked about this before offline, but - who are like the receiving end of lithium mining impacts and lithium mining that's being used for renewable energy projects. And well-meaning academics in the sort of like green tech, renewable energy space will gloss over reproducing harm, you know, on communities that are very similar to the communities that they've harmed in the past, right?

And, you know, thinking about what is it that's needed: Is it art? Is it movement building? Is it how do we movement build from our standpoint as people in the Global North, right? We have access to resources, connections, potentially to all kinds of big nonprofit organizations, how do we create an ecosystem of people that can support work that's happening on the ground?

And I think that's, broadly, the lens that we we took – a sort of social movement, solidarity based lens to being people who have academic expertise, who can use this academic expertise, but are now going into a situation being like, you know, we’ll help you produce the data that you definitely, totally, absolutely need to stop this pretty effed up issue that's happening on the ground.

And it's hard work to do that. It's really hard work, I think, to do that at institutions that don't have that epistemological framing of what it means to do this work. You get a lot of pushback, a lot of barriers.

T: Yeah. I mean, when I first was applying to Scripps. I was shocked they even had a Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC). And other people, like at other universities I was applying to, they were also kind of, they're like, oh, you're applying to Scripps with your interest in applied work? So even at that time, CMBC (which is an amazing program for teaching students, though I think their work in applied making a difference in an applied way was not quite as realized), but that was seen as revolutionary, you know.

So I'm really curious – we don't have time to get into it necessarily, but that's why I was so surprised to hear about your position, a university position. I'm so curious to know what went on behind the scenes to kind of create an openness to this kind of work.

So my question to you is (I've already made my opinion very clear on this), but there is always going to be, I think, a group of people who are like, we should have science for science's sake, right? And I appreciate the reasons they give, but what are your thoughts on kind of the ethical obligations of these academic institutions with regard to how their work serves others. What is owed? And what would you say to people who are like, we have to keep science pristine to have it be respectable?

R: I think this is really an interesting question because a lot of scientists don't do deep dives into why science looks the way it does, in the US at least.

And if you go hearken back to like the days of science in the United States before the National Science Foundation (NSF) was founded, you'll see that the NSF was basically founded because there was a bunch of folks that were wondering about what are the implications of their scientific research. And there was a bunch of old white scientists who were just like, well, “I want to be left alone because you know, you're bothering me and I don't want to be bothered.”

So they created this artificial paradigm, this thing called basic research. It didn't exist. It didn't emerge from some power that be into the universe. It was made up by a bunch of like, older white men who wanted the power and privilege to just like, do whatever they wanted, basically. And they created this idea of: this is basic science, and, if you try to look at what I'm doing, or tell me that it's not important, then you are sullying it in some way.

And it's just completely made up! It was just completely made up by a bunch of like older white men, and they were just like and we're going to create this thing called the National Science Foundation and we're going to make it so it's really hard for anyone to ask questions about how we're directing this research funding and so on and so forth. And that has like pluses and minuses.

But I think that the point here is just that the idea of like basic research is just a made-up concept. And the idea of like science informing policy, for that matter, is a made-up concept. If you look back into like the history of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), for example: before the IPCC was created there was a bunch of activist climate scientists basically who were just pointing out that this terrible thing is going to happen, there's this drastic global change that will manifest locally in all kinds of different ways that's occurring. And the governments said: you know what, this is actually really inconvenient – what we could use is more research, yeah, why don't you just go research it a little bit more and then come back to us later when you have things a little more figured out? So there's this legacy of the NCA (National Climat Assessment) and the IPCC and big intergovernmental reports like this, which do have a certain amount of value (I'm not like trying to toss away the whole thing), but at their origin was just a made-up concept to basically protect powerful people and institutions of government which were like, “We don't want to deal with this climate change thing right now, so what we'll do instead is give you money to research it more and produce these reports,” which are still ongoing. Every year, the amount that these reports change is gradually becoming like less and less and less and less. And the global level amount of resources towards climate adaptation has not necessarily followed suit with the information in these reports in the first place.

So you have this weird paradigm of science of: that's advocacy, that's applied research, and this is basic research. And that was all kind of made up in the first place, right? I think you can do “basic research” in an applied way. I think it's actually a little bit patronizing to say that if you're doing work with communities, you can't do basic research, right? Because I've been in situations where you're working with community members in some geography that are asking incredibly deep scientific questions that, framed in a slightly different way would be amazing, “basic research” questions, right?

So I reject the premise. The idea that because this involves people or involves community means that it is not going to create incredible scientific information that we now consider “basic research” is just like a false premise.

And there are cases where maybe you have a lone person in a lab somewhere studying something that nobody else on the planet really cares about. And as you said, I think we can appreciate the value of just interested, passionate people pursuing something that they care about.

But I don't think we need this like basic research/applied research - I think we can question that framing a little bit more. We can dig into it and wonder and really think deeply about all the places that...

T: [Exasperated at the cat] He's trying to unplug my camera, so I have to hold the USB from him, and now he’s clawing at my hand. I'm so sorry, you're making such a good point!

R: It's really no problem. It adds levity!

T: Yeah, I'm glad to hear you elucidate these points. And I think that at this point in time, just knowing what we know about the state that the planet's in, to be an institution that receives like so much funding and prestige and to not use that power in a meaningful way is irresponsible almost. [Oh my gosh, Kit, stop it – such a monster!]

R: He just does not want you to do a podcast, really truly!

T: But yeah, I think that it's definitely something people hide behind, right? And also for those who are in academia, even if they're doing applied work, like doing surveys on such and such conservation issue, it almost becomes like their panic response. Like the situation's worse! Umm, what do I know how to do? I know how to do surveys. I'm going to do surveys.

And you're just like, we don't really need more information in that way.

And so many papers or, you know, like conference plenaries will be like, we know that this is a human issue! And we know that leadership is important and communication is important.

But then there's this huge time lag on okay, we know those things are important - why are we not shifting more of our attention there? And I think there's a lot of kind of shifting that responsibility, like, “Oh, we're scientists, so that doesn't fall under our purview”. But then no one's making sure that that that kind of gap is being filled by anyone. So you're just kind of leaving information out into the ether and being like, “Someone else will pick it up, right?”

And so I think that's a kind of laziness – at the same time, everyone's busy – but I think that it's a kind of complacency that's, I think, unacceptable in the current climate.

R: Absolutely.

And you asked about mutual aid before and I realized I didn't really talk about what mutual aid is. Mutual aid is just an ethos of working in close conjunction and solidarity and collaboration with other folks who are going through something, who are struggling in some way and providing support through a network of people who also have agreed to provide support.

And it's different than the ethos of charity, which I think often comes laden with the idea that you are like moralizing a little bit, you are doing good for the world, you are in a position of relative power, you're not going to give up that power, but you can give a little bit of money, which can be really important, right?

But it's different than mutual aid, which is just actualizing a horizontal network of people who are not acting in positions of superiority, but in a position of solidarity with one another to give support when support is needed, and do that in a network.

And I think that is like, something that can fill the gap in academic spaces where: what would a mutual aid network of academic researchers look like (or like other people at the university as well, not just like researchers) where someone or community comes to someone in California for research expertise that doesn't necessarily exist in the University of California system, so why don't we develop a network of people, where you can be like “Do you know who can? My colleague in Michigan.” And help engage with that work. And how do we build resources around that to support that work if needed? So maybe a grants program or a rapid funding option for things that are happening on the ground.

There’s so many different possibilities to re-envision how we collaborate in this work, so we're not isolated as researchers feeling overwhelmed when someone comes to us also, because that is real, right? Like, we're taught as academics, like, this is your lane, stay in your lane. That is antithetical to what it takes to do this work, where you have to be like, there are no lanes, there is a really big field that we are all dancing in. And, you know, like, maybe I'm not the right social dancing partner for you. But like, you can go dance with this person over here instead. And trading off that way to support people in the way that is needed and meets the moment of what is happening, I think is, you know, at its best, what an engaged university system could look like.

We have a long way to go, though.

T: Yeah, I love that, though. A dance party. A dance party to make the world better!

Oh my gosh, thank you so much, Rishi. This was amazing. This was very invigorating for me.

R: Yeah, likewise. Thank you so much for thinking of me.

T: Yeah, of course. Thanks for the time. I definitely would love to keep catching up at some point. Just because I'm so interested in the work you all are doing up there in your, what do you call it, department, program, lab?

R: Group, yeah. My department is oriented around this too.

T: I'm just really eager to learn more, but I'll let you go for now. Thank you so much - I really enjoyed this.

R: So nice talking. Let's catch up soon!


Whew! That was a CHAT! I hope you found it invigorating, too. Wow.

Perhaps you found it interesting enough to motivate a like, subscribe, share, comment, review (depending on how you’re listening to this)? Perhaps? There is also a “donate” button on the Substack page if you’d like to show some appreciation of this work monetarily.

Many thanks again to Dr. Rishi Sugla, and thank you for listening! I am grateful for you being here. Next episode coming up in some to-be-determined amount of time. Take care!

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Realities in Environmental Conservation - Newsletter & Podcast by Dr. Tara Sayuri Whitty. Featuring diverse voices & meaningful, pragmatic ideas for actually making a difference.