Our Perspective on Sustainable Development, Racial Justice, and State Violence


We are deeply saddened by the persistence of racial injustice and state-sanctioned violence—forms of oppression to which we must repeatedly bear witness through the killings of Black people in the United States by police officers and white supremacists. We acknowledge the pain that these atrocities cause to those directly affected, our colleagues, our students, and the broader community. We condemn these forms of oppression in the strongest possible terms. Further, we commit to humbly working toward identifying and addressing our own roles in the reproduction of structural racism, acknowledging that silence represents tacit support for the status quo.


As scholars of sustainable development, we recognize deep, causal linkages between legacies of white supremacy and the problems we seek to address through our research. Racial injustice and state-sanctioned violence is not a uniquely American problem; it is global. The UN Secretary General’s 2014 Synthesis Report explains that  “no … target [of the Sustainable Development Goals] should be considered met unless it is met for all social and economic groups,” yet the lack of disaggregated indicators obscures continued inequities in many domains. For those of us working to understand and address climate change, it is evident that the same groups subject to violent racism are more likely to be harmed by global heating. Colonialism, among the most pernicious systems constructed under the auspices of white supremacy, has deprived countries in the Global South of resources with which they might adapt to climate change; the systematic discounting of humanity in these places is perpetuated by cost-benefit analyses—common in our field—that equate consumption with the value of life.[1] Within the Global North, racism undergirds a causal relationship between non-whiteness and poverty; this connection means that people of color are more vulnerable to climate-forced natural disasters, more exposed to ambient heat at work and at home, and must furthermore bear a disproportionate portion of the costs of many climate change mitigation policies. Those of us working to understand and address environmental quality know that this intersectionality means people of color are more exposed to air pollution, contaminated water, and toxins in their homes and neighborhoods. Those of us working on biodiversity see connections between poaching, clear-cutting, and a history of exploitation justified by fabricated racial hierarchies. Those of us working on global health are saddened but unsurprised by the fact that non-white people bear a disproportionate burden of most diseases and exhibit much poorer infant and maternal health outcomes, a fact underscored by the present unfolding of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and its outsized impact on Black Americans. Across domains of sustainable development, few patterns are as consistent as the connection between race and the harms we study, yet it remains an underfunded and underexplored area of research. Without racial justice, there can be no environmental justice. We commit to understanding this connection, interrogating it where possible in our own research, and centering the perspective of our peers who are engaged in this work.


In our role as educators, we are also cognizant that racism systematically deprives Black students and other minorities of educational opportunity. Most minority students in the United States attend primary and secondary schools that are largely segregated; local funding formulas mean that these schools, moreover, have significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students. Tracking systems and the technologization of education exacerbate these inequalities. The pipeline of students reaching universities wildly overrepresents those from more privileged backgrounds. Compounding this, many of the college programs that best prepare students for careers in sustainable development research—degrees in engineering, math, economics, or the natural sciences—are constructed in a way that promotes only the best-prepared students, a practice that in effect amplifies the earlier inequities faced by poorer, minority students.[2] Further, because dominant discourses align science with white, middle-class masculinity, many Black students (and especially Black women), despite liking science, do not consider a science career as something they can succeed in.[3] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white students earn bachelor’s degrees in natural resources and conservation at a rate 5.4 times higher than Black students—the single largest disparity by major classification. As a result, the environmental sciences are in a diversity death spiral, undermining the capacity of these disciplines to speak credibly about the world and to build coalitions that might better inform and implement sustainable development knowledge. We commit to building inclusivity in our teaching, especially through an awareness of representation in our syllabi and the literatures from which we draw. Wherever possible, we intend to expand our mentoring to underrepresented undergraduates and other students in underprivileged communities around us.


As participants in and members of academia, we acknowledge that it discriminates against people of color to its detriment. In STEM fields, for example, demographically underrepresented students innovate at higher rates, but their novel contributions are discounted and less likely to earn recognition or tenure-track academic positions.[4] Discrimination in the academic labor market does a disservice to the research enterprise, reducing the quality and scope of the knowledge we inherit, produce, maintain, and share. The homogeneity of university faculties means that they fail to represent the diversity of those we study. It also self-perpetuates, because we then fail to attract and advise precisely those scholars who can address the narrowness and shortcomings of our research.[5] We commit to building attention to our biases when reading our peers’ research and when engaged in hiring, promotion, and other administrative work.


For the more privileged among us, awareness of racism ebbs and flows; for others, it is a constant lived reality. All of us take to heart the lessons from the current historical moment. As students, alumni, and faculty of Columbia University, we all speak from positions of power, and this means we have an exceptional obligation to challenge systems of domination and promote much needed change, both within and beyond our professional lives. We unequivocally condemn the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and Dion Johnson, as well as the many other victims of racist violence. Their lives matter; Black Lives Matter. We take their deaths as a painful demand for introspection and critical examination of the institutions and structures in which we participate. We commit to steps that will help us to honor lives lost or forever impacted through acts of hate and violence.


­The Sustainable Development Doctoral Society
  of the School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA) and the Earth Institute
  at Columbia University in the City of New York


joined by alumni of the Sustainable Development program:

Belinda Archibong, Assistant Professor, Economics,
  Barnard College, Columbia University

Dr. Kayleigh B. Campbell, World Bank

Eugenie Dugoua, Assistant Professor in Environmental Economics,
  Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics

Pablo Egaña del Sol, Assistant Professor,
  School of Business, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez

Tim Foreman, Postdoc,
  RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment

Booyuel Kim, Associate Professor,
  Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University

Stephanie Lackner, Assistant Professor, IE University

Gordon McCord, Associate Dean and Associate Professor,
  School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego

Daiju Narita, Associate Professor,
  Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo

Nicole Ngo, Assistant Professor,
  School of Planning, Public Policy, and Management, University of Oregon

Mark S. Orrs, PhD

James Rising, Assistant Professorial Researcher,
  Grantham Research Institute, London School of Economics

Anna Tompsett, Assistant Professor,
  Department of Economics, Stockholm University


joined by affiliates of the program:

Tomara Aldrich, Program Coordinator for the PhD Program in Sustainable Development

Douglas Almond, Professor, SIPA and Economics

John C. Mutter, Professor, SIPA and Earth and Environmental Sciences

Jeffrey Shrader, Assistant Professor, SIPA



last updated: 10 July 2020


[1] https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-010-9967-6

[2] https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X19831006

[3] https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21146

[4] https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1915378117

[5] https://arxiv.org/abs/1610.02916