Dr. Lauret Savoy delivers "Restor[y]ing America's Environmental Past and Present": Environmental Studies Keynote Address given by prestigious Mount Holyoke scholar

Posted by Elizabeth Hopkins

On Sept. 27 Dr. Lauret Savoy, professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College, made this year's Environmental Studies Keynote Address at the college, entitled "Restor(y)ing America's Environmental Past and Present." The event was a memorable and enlightening experience for listeners in Gannett Auditorium.

Dr. Savoy, a "lover of the environment and a sensitive reader of landscapes," can be described as something of a renaissance woman, immersing herself in disciplines as varied as writing, photography and earth science.

Drawing upon her childhood experience as a young woman of African-American, Native American and European heritage, Savoy recalled the injustice she experienced as a child growing up in the 1960s. As a young girl, Savoy encountered so much racial discrimination in school that she began to avoid mirrors just to avoid seeing her own reflection.

One question burned into fourteen-year-old Savoy's mind: "Why [is] it that human relations [can] be so cruel?" An answer to this question can be found in the connections Savoy drew between heritage, history and environment. When we think about land preservation, rarely do we consider social justice as a related subject.

Aldo Leopold, an ecologist and author of the early twentieth century, described land as encompassing far more than just the physical elements of which it is comprised.
Savoy echoed this idea, calling for the audience to "imagine environment... not just as [our] surroundings, but as a set of circumstances, conditions and contexts in which we live and die." With this definition in mind, the concept of environmental conservation can include the culture of a place, and how that culture leaves its marks on the land. Preserving land not only means preserving its physical ecology, but also maintaining its history and the rights and heritage of its people.

Savoy cited historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Sarah Winnemucca as individuals who united social justice and environmental justice as a universal cause, as they fought for nature conservation alongside the preservation of civil rights.

According to Savoy, the connection between social and environmental justice has remained primarily "invisible" throughout American history, just as the most obvious signs of racism in American culture have increasingly become since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (just two months before the signing of the Wilderness Act-no coincidence, as Savoy notes). The most blatant divisions between white people and people of color have vanished, but racial discrimination subtly persists in the American mindset.

"The hard thing is to cultivate a capacity to ask about lives that are not our own," Savoy said. She posited that nature does not lend itself easily to understanding the perspectives and experiences of others, and it is for the same reason that environmental conservation presents a difficult task, particularly in America where the nation's ecological footprint far "exceeds Earth's ecological limits."

Savoy's recent book The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World, co-edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming, presents a series of essays written by an ethnically diverse group of nature writers. The book addresses the key question that her lecture explored: Why have we not heard a more ethnically diverse group speak out about environmental issues? The proposed answer is that these voices are out there, but perhaps we just haven't chosen to hear them.

Savoy will continue to explore the topic of race and environment in her upcoming book, which she is currently writing and hopes to have completed by this summer.

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