Is justice a process or an outcome?

Black and white photo of Christopher J. Schell
Dr. Chris Schell is an urban ecologist whose research integrates evolutionary theory, ecological application, and social-ecological dynamics to disentangle the processes accentuating human-carnivore conflict. Chris’ empirical works intrinsically looks at organism by environment interactions in cities to understand how urban wildlife (specifically, coyotes and raccoons) adjust to life in urban environments. Specifically, he uses physiological, genomic, and behavioral perspectives to uncover the functional mechanisms facilitating behavioral adaptation to anthropogenic environments. Simultaneously, Chris’ work infuses the natural sciences with urban studies and critical race theory to uncover how racial and economic oppression contribute to biodiversity and ecosystem heterogeneity in cities. In doing so, his lab spotlights the need to promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in conservation and environmentalist movements, amplify environmental equity and civil rights, and directly address the need to lead climate crises and sustainability efforts with justice.

Ecosystems and energy lay bare the essence of justice

Achieving justice takes extraordinary energy, resolve, and determination. All those attributes seem in short supply given the current contexts. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has ravaged the globe, disrupting human societies worldwide. The United States federal response has been especially inadequate, as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the omnipresent cracks in America’s foundation. The undercurrent of systemic racism and economic inequality has again been laid bare. We have lost George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others to the enduring and insidious pandemic born before the ratification of our U.S. Constitution: racism.

I write this only a few weeks removed from justice being denied to Breonna Taylor, while the White House has simultaneously eliminated federal racial insensitivity training. The Black Lives Matter movement has gone global, initiating one of the largest demonstrations for civil rights ever witnessed. Still, the insidious manifestations of white supremacy have proliferated across many forms of governance, jeopardizing the centuries-old dream of a free and democratic society. The continual loss of leaders in the realm of justice – from John Lewis, to Chadwick Boseman, to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg – contribute to a deepening, collective sadness and existential dread that depletes our reserves and decimates hope.

In both the background and foreground, the continued march of our climate crisis, not unlike the army of the dead in Game of Thrones, dredges on while many still deny its existence. West coast wildfires blanketed Washington, Oregon, and California in smoke for weeks, while multiple southeastern hurricanes have inundated communities with water. History may record that the proverbial straw in the tumult of 2020 was the president of the United States contracting the COVID-19 illness, after repeatedly misleading and downplaying the severity of the disease and concealing relevant information, resources, and support for the people he was meant to protect. This Shakespearian crisis has all unfolded during a hypocritical rush to nominate a conservative-leaning Supreme Court judge before a consequential election just weeks into the future. Justice Ginsberg’s words have not been honored.

Given the current snapshot of our era, one may conclude that our world is absent of justice. This inherently assumes that justice is a static and bimodal state, in which it is either present or absent. However, despite our concomitant calamities, we the people still fight to actualize justice across multiple systems of governance. Indeed, the fight for an equitable and compassionate society itself emphasizes the underlying nature of justice: it requires consistent energy despite the inevitability of change.

The nature of ecosystems provides a compelling narrative and allegory for understanding the being of justice. As an ecologist, it is an occupational hazard for me to contemplate the complexities of relationships: how organisms relate to other organisms, as well as to their environment, especially in the lens of increasing urbanization. The fundamental tenet of ecology emphasizes interactions across space and time as the lifeblood of the science. Most profound is that such relationships are the currency by which life is brokered. Photosynthesis by plants transforms energy from the sun that provides sustenance for herbivores, which sustain secondary and tertiary predators, that ultimately through death nourish decomposers in the soil to provide nutrients for plant growth. Hence, ecosystems and life rely on a series of interconnected relationships that maintain dynamic balance in an ever-changing world. That balance is characterized by the constant exchange of energy, and without it the entire system collapses in on itself.

Snapshots of ecological relationships between predator and prey, plant and pollinator, or parent and child may lead to the conclusion of ecological imbalance. However, omitting the significance of energy through time overlooks the dynamism inherent in the system. In other words, a lack of understanding on the ebb and flow of energy in nature prevents us from understanding the processes by which the environment thrives. Therein lies a fundamental truth of justice – it requires active labor, compassion, and determination, especially considering the unjust practices that jeopardize the collective dream of an equitable society.

In this ecosystem allegory, justice represents the mechanisms that generate and sustain equity, striving for societal and ecosystem balance. By that same tenet, reduction in society’s capacity to fight for justice leads to the deterioration and corruption of ecological systems that maintain life, liberty, and freedom. This is crystallized by notes from civil rights leader John Lewis, who once famously stated that “Freedom is not a state but an act.” Just as conservation and environmentally stable solutions require diligence and resolve over time to protect ecosystem function, so too does justice serve to protect societal function. Only then, when we conceptualize justice as a process, may we begin to fully realize our shared energies and ecologies in this ecosystem.

Perhaps the most distilled argument for justice as a process comes from my own personal account of life as an urban gardener in the era of COVID. In the Pacific Northwest, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy are nonnative plants that are highly prolific at outcompeting native vegetation. As an urban gardener, I quickly learned that to effectively grow new plants, I would need to actively uproot these two species daily. However, my neighbor generally refused to acknowledge the plants as an issue, often stating “I don’t see them”, or “They aren’t that big of a deal”, and would proceed to let those plants grow in his yard. Eventually, overgrowth extending over and under his fence into our yard, had made nonnative plant removal exceedingly more difficult. Hence, my efforts as an individual were compromised by my neighbor’s unwillingness to acknowledge the problem, and work towards a solution. This urban conservation metaphor is not unlike anti-racist activism and the strive for justice. We ALL must be diligent in stamping out systemic racism and white supremacy wherever we see it and refusing to do so on a community-wide level severely compromises our ability for substantive change. Moreover, the work becomes increasingly harder, as the roots of systemic racism, like the blackberry and ivy, get larger, stronger, and harder to eradicate.

In sum, justice is the tool by which the urban gardener promotes equity, balance, and peace. Despite the current chaos our nation and globe are enduring, the process of justice must continue. The alternative is the loss and sacrifice of the dynamic equilibrium that sustains life.