Social Justice in Conservation Science: Why We Need Your Voice

I grew up in the heart of one of the largest and most culturally diverse cities in the world - Los Angeles. In L.A. County, nearly half of all residents are Latino or Hispanic, 10% are African American, 15% are of Asian descent, and almost a quarter are non-white or of mixed race (U.S. Census Bureau 2018). And this is just the broader level of diversity. I was surrounded by people from South Korea, Guatemala, China, Japan, El Salvador, Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, and Thailand, to name a few. Economically, the area I grew up in was also relatively poor. I was bussed to my high school in the Van Nuys neighborhood within “the Valley” of L.A. where the income levels could be three times as high as my childhood neighborhood.

Photo by Joel Mott

Now fast forward 5 or 6 years - I go through high school, study wildlife conservation biology in college, and eventually start working as a field biologist an hour away from San Francisco. As a young professional I was excited to attend my first scientific conference. It was a relatively small one, but still had around 200 attendees. The buzz of science and conservation work at the meeting was thrilling, but I felt a bit out of place. As I looked around I began to understand why. I was one of perhaps 2 other Asians in the crowd. I’m mixed race/ethnicity and I was also one of maybe 5 Latinos who were largely scientists visiting from outside the U.S. As the years ticked by I placed more conferences under my belt, some with only a few dozen attendees and some with several hundred. But without fail I saw the same pattern repeat over and over - almost all attendees were white. Thinking back now, this is not surprising. As a scientific community, conservation biology and environmental organizations are severely lacking in the diversity of their participant makeup (Gould et al. 2014). While the U.S. population comprises nearly 40% ethnic minorities and mixed race people, they make up less than 16% of the staff of environmental organizations, less than 12% in leadership positions, and are almost non-existent in the top leadership position of larger organizations (Taylor 2014).

You may ask why this matters? The answer is straightforward. It is an issue of environmental injustice. Environmental injustice broadly relates to the "inequitable distributions of environmental health risks from exposure to pollution and environmental hazards" (Ramirez-Andreotta 2019). There is abundant evidence that people of color and those from lower income communities living in urban areas are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards such as climate change, pollution, severe storms and floods, and heat waves (reviewed in Wilson et al. 2010, Cuomo 2011, Shonkoff et al. 2011, Colten et al. 2018). Environmental injustice is particularly insidious because it can manifest not only in the way direct environmental burdens are distributed, but in how policy decisions are made, how the impacts are passed along generationally, and in the lack of recognition for past injustices (Thaler et al. 2018). Moreover, these same communities are also the most vulnerable as determined by the “ability of a community or household to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the direct and indirect impacts” of climate change (Shonkoff et al 2011). In other words, we suffer the most and have the least means to cope with these hazards. We are caught between a rock and a hard place.

These communities also have less access to natural areas and green spaces (Figure 1) which are known to provide various health benefits (Shanahan et al. 2016). I experienced this lack of access myself as I wandered through my neighborhood where most of the green space I saw consisted of the palm trees that epitomize the L.A. scene. My parents, both first generation immigrants sometimes working two jobs at once, had little time, resources, or the wherewithal to take me and my brothers to “the great outdoors”.

Figure 1. Graph showing the negative correlation between the percentage of people of color (x-axis) and percent tree canopy cover (y-axis; green bars) or human-made surfaces (y-axis; red bars) in different urban centers of California (from Shonkoff et al. 2011).

To say that these communities are more susceptible or more vulnerable is not to say that they are powerless. In fact, there has been a strong environmental justice movement in the United States for several decades (Schlosberg and Collins 2014). But the proverbial rock and a hard place we find ourselves in still continues to this day, highlighting the enormous obstacles and injustices we face. How can this be remedied? The striking lack of diversity in the conservation field is certainly one place to start. Diversity in conservation could lead to better and more creative solutions to the justice issue (Gould et al. 2018). Who better understands the problems, dangers, and complexities of environmental injustice than those who grew up within the areas that experience it most strikingly? To borrow a phrase from Cuomo (2011), we’ve lived within the climate change “crucible of inequality” and so could provide unique perspectives and scientific insights that no one else can. In many ways we’ve lived a fundamentally different life than what is currently represented in the conservation community and this can arguably lead to fundamentally different ways we approach science. What’s more, by becoming conservationists we could then bring what we learn back to our communities and families, empowering them to speak out as well.

Conservationists are some of the most dedicated humans I’ve ever met. This is because, I believe, nature draws you in. If you immerse yourself in the non-human natural world you invariably gain an appreciation for its beauty, its remarkable complexity, and its ability to relieve all the stresses associated with modern urban life. The problems of environmental injustice are highly complex and tied to a long history of racism (Gould et al. 2018). But this should motivate us to help push things in a better direction. If you grew up socially and economically disadvantaged or are a person of color, you should seriously consider taking up conservation as a career path. Yes, there are extra obstacles and hurdles we have to deal with to take that path, but conservation science needs your voice.


Colten, C. E., Simms, J. R., Grismore, A. A., & Hemmerling, S. A. (2018). Social justice and mobility in coastal Louisiana, USA. Regional environmental change, 18(2), 371-383.

Cuomo, C. J. (2011). Climate change, vulnerability, and responsibility. Hypatia, 26(4), 690-714.

Gould, R. K., Phukan, I., Mendoza, M. E., Ardoin, N. M., & Panikkar, B. (2018). Seizing opportunities to diversify conservation. Conservation Letters, 11(4), e12431.

Ramirez-Andreotta, M. (2019). Environmental Justice. In Environmental and Pollution Science (pp. 573-583). Academic Press.

Schlosberg, D., & Collins, L. B. (2014). From environmental to climate justice: climate change and the discourse of environmental justice. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5(3), 359-374.

Shanahan, D. F., Bush, R., Gaston, K. J., Lin, B. B., Dean, J., Barber, E., & Fuller, R. A. (2016). Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Scientific reports, 6, 28551.

Shonkoff, S. B., Morello-Frosch, R., Pastor, M., & Sadd, J. (2011). The climate gap: environmental health and equity implications of climate change and mitigation policies in California—a review of the literature. Climatic Change, 109(1), 485-503.

Taylor, D. E. The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations and Government Agencies (Green 2.0, 2014).

Thaler, T., Fuchs, S., Priest, S., & Doorn, N. (2018). Social justice in the context of adaptation to climate change—reflecting on different policy approaches to distribute and allocate flood risk management.

U.S. Census Bureau, 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.

Wilson, S. M., Richard, R., Joseph, L., & Williams, E. (2010). Climate change, environmental justice, and vulnerability: an exploratory spatial analysis. Environmental Justice, 3(1), 13-19.