Summer 2021 Sustainability Champion: Ravi Rajan

June 23, 2021

By Alessandra Bicudo Álvares 

Dr. Ravi Rajan is our Summer Sustainability Champion, being recognized by his continuous efforts toward social and environmental justice on our campus and around the world.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how your path led to where you are today.
I got interested in issues about wildlife and animals in general when I was very young, and in my teens I was fortunate to meet other like minded people around my age. We ended up forming India's first ever environmental action group that continues to date. At 14, I was doing radio programs on the environment, interviewing all kinds of people; I edited newsletters and magazines and journals. But in those days, there was no field called environmental studies so I did mathematics. 

Soon after I graduated, the biggest industrial disaster happened (in Bhopal), in which more than 6000 people died. I quit to volunteer there. It was a life changing experience, and I decided I needed to understand bigger issues. I went back to college to study philosophy. I got my masters degree and then ended up for a doctoral program at the University of Oxford, and was part of a group of scholars who curated a seminar, the first ever in the UK, on the topic of imperialism, ecology, politics, which, looking back, was the birth of environmental history in that country. 


2. As an affiliated professor of both the Anthropology Department and the Digital Arts and New Media Department, can you talk about how these three areas intersect through your work and research?
I was naturally drawn to Anthropology because so much of my work is really about observing and being a participant in various contexts and cultures. Over the years, I have been a keen part of both academic as well as activist and advocacy cultures. I served as president of The Pesticide Action Network, North America. I was also on the board of the International Media Project, which produces the radio program Making Contact. Currently, I'm on the board of Greenpeace International. So these impulses basically meant that it's not just enough to do research with a social conscience, but also to find ways of communicating (and I love collaborating).

3. What are the most rewarding parts of your roles at UCSC?
Two things, really. One was the six year stint as provost of College 8 which is now Rachel Carlson College. It was basically a bit of a shell when I joined it and it took me six years to build an academic curriculum, build coalitions and create, for the first time, a freshmen experience centered around one theme. There were a lot of people who supported me on this, notably Jaye Padget without whom the concept of an Interdisciplinary Topical Cluster would never have taken off. But then I had several other colleagues who worked with me, from three academic divisions and departments.

The second, probably the most important, is collaborating with some amazing colleagues, especially professor Flora Lu, now provost of colleges nine and 10, building a new concentration on global environmental justice. Flora, being an extraordinary force of nature, helped me realize that I'm not alone, and that sort of gave me fresh sails. We built a new journal, a new website on global environmental justice, and we have a student journal. We also have a new podcast which now has nine episodes long, with more coming in the Fall Quarter. 

It's exciting, and the most rewarding part of it is that I've managed to find and recruit and work with some really amazing young people with extremely great levels of talent and skill. The journals, the website we produce are high quality based on serious research, and the ability to work with, mentor and train them has been quite exciting, really, really exciting for me.

4. You are on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace International. What does your role include and how do you incorporate it into your everyday teaching?
Yes, it's a big international role. Greenpeace is one of the biggest, probably the biggest environmental organization globally, with a very hands-on board by the constitution of the organization. 

Being very hands-on it requires a lot of work, an enormous amount of work. And it's deeply challenging. I've learned a lot and hopefully contributed too, in all kinds of areas, including the way in which we think about change making in the world, how we deploy resources. We are also one of the few global advocacy organizations that have the capacity to engage with the marine environment.

We've been at the forefront of so many critical litigations, so there's a degree of risk taking there as well. There are also personnel management  and process management issues. There are all kinds of things involving just the day to day transactions of running a big organization.

How does this work and combine the teaching? I have a very strict firewall. I'm a classically trained academic, and I don't let the world of advocacy and academic work mix. My academic research, my advocacy and teaching have their own place. I don’t let one interfere with the other.  It is up to the students to take those concepts and go and apply their social conscience for the outside world. That said, a number of our students, not just mine, but a lot of our students, have gone into advocacy roles, but not because I've taught them that.

My teaching is about skills and critical thinking. I think my role as an academic is to teach students rigorous social science --  how to think, how to think well, use concepts as a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, and how to do the basics right; such as how to construct a good and coherent argument, how to appreciate multiple sides, and learn to write and communicate so that they can render complex ideas legible and easy to understand. Most importantly, the goal in all my teaching is to help students think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.

5. You’ve been featured on quite a few podcasts, and even have your own! What is the main focus of your podcast, and how did that come about?
I have been fortunate to know many of the major change makers around the world. I am grateful that all of them have happily agreed to come on and respond to my often probing questions.

The goal of the podcast, Global Environmental Justice Observatory, is to give our students access to these great minds and people, and to appreciate the complexity of the ideas they bring. And so what I try to do with the podcast is to create an artifact that enables our students to understand that great action and great change requires great discipline, which is what these people bring.

My podcasts are aimed at showing the complexity of ideas and action. My questions are based on research and the interviews are often an hour long or longer. The idea is to deeply interrogate leading thinkers and practitioners in the area of environmental justice, human rights, and so forth. In the long run, the hope is to be able to integrate these interviews into classroom conversations.

Such an integration has already been planned, in the next version of my introduction to Global Environmental Justice course next winter. 

The next phase of this is going to be to create an encyclopedia on environmental justice as a component of a website, in addition to the student-led journals (that's starting in the fall). We're also building two advisory boards. The first one involves UCSC academics and staff and so forth, who could find ways of using the material and developing the materials to be used in our pedagogy. The second will be UCwide initially, but ultimately it's going to be wider. We already assembled some really amazing people who we will introduce down the line, with whom we will collaborate and as we develop and build on the journal in the years to come. The ambition of the journal is to be much more global. Although it is an UCSC publication, it will have contributions by students from around the world. We've also been able to attract a number of students from other universities, at least two in the last year. We are building these kinds of very diverse teams from around the world that our students can hopefully interact with. It is exciting to be able to build these synergies among young people around the world.  

6. What does sustainability mean for you?
Well, it means three things. First, to not live beyond our means; to understand that there are finite resources and limits in our beautiful planet.

ravi-rajan-4-1-1.jpgWe need to live respecting the natural processes and systems that make up the bounty that we have been given. Second, to live in a way that is just fair and compassionate, to respect other people, communities. The  justice and human rights components, with all their manifestations, race, gender, etc, become very, very critical. Third, increasingly, is the idea of the sacred. I like to ask myself not just what can we do with the world, but what should we not do? Are there things that we shouldn't be doing just because we have the technologies? Just because we can make interventions in nature, should we? Just because of the ability to mess with human cultures, should we? Are there limits to what we can and should not do? How do we begin to ask questions about the sublime and the sacred in an academic enterprise, which is by definition secular? In saying all this, I do stand by and affirm the separation of the civic domain on the one hand, and the religious.

I am not particularly religious in that regard. But it is possible, is it not, to be spiritual and to respect the sacred without necessarily espousing an ideology or a culture or religion? It could just be an ethic of justice and an ethic of respect and compassion. 

So to me, essentially, these are the three elements: that sort of deep sense of introspection about the notion of the sacred, the idea of justice and fairness, and thirdly, of course, living within our means.

7. You’ve mentioned focusing on a “green curriculum” aimed at nurturing future sustainability entrepreneurs. Can you tell us a little bit about this goal?
This is from my Provost days, and goal then was to build a new collegiate identity around people who are change makers, people who can think in terms of not just being afraid of problems, but saying, ‘I've got the solution to that or I'm going to mobilize solutions to that, I'm going to be a part of the solution.’ 

I found, teaching here for 20 years or more that many of our students leave being pessimistic, as we hammer them often with our curriculum that shows them all the bad things in the world. On the other hand, there are so many great things about the world, and those great things happen because people have stood up and said:  “I don't have time for this. I'm going to sit down and do what I can modestly, but I'm going to make an attempt”. Small little pebbles make up the ocean. We must  have the humility to understand that our approach is just one among many. And we just need to show up and do our own job while at the same time appreciating and enjoying and being grateful for everything we have been given: a beautiful earth, a lovely place to live in, friends, families, et cetera.

So my point about entrepreneurship is really the embracing of everything that's good in the world, being grateful for it. We aimed to nurture changemakers with the overall sense of optimism, fun and the zest to live life fully. And I wanted to teach students that there is a great thing they've been given and endowed with. Amongst them was the ability to go into a library once and read a book. That gift is a gift that a lot of people don't have and it is to be really appreciated, as indeed is the ability to live among trees, to meet, look at deer on a daily basis, to embrace, to make friends that are deep and last a lifetime. So all of this is what should guide one and make one be appreciative and drive one's ability to make a modest change, to make a difference without feeling guilty or upset or anything of that kind.

8. What is the most interesting part of your research for you, and can you speak a little bit about the environmental basis of poverty.
Two things: I just finished a book called Impurity and Danger that looks at risks of disasters and vulnerability and how we think about them theoretically, philosophically. I have also been working a great deal on the relationship between environmental inequality in general. I plan to bring that work into fruition soon with my next book, called Sustenance, Security and Suffrage.

The drift of this simply is that I think that there are three defining aspects of environmental politics today. One is the problem of sustenance, which is the problem of the absence of environmental goods –  in that lots of people in the world get impoverished because resources they had, fresh water, green pastures, etc., are taken away from them, for a host of reasons – such as the building of a dam, the creation of an industrial agricultural firm that takes over their farms, etc. 
The second is the presence of violent environments,  pollution, toxics and things like that. And once again, the ability to live a free life is constrained by refinery pollution, and industrial disasters such as Bhopal and Chernobyl, which largely diminish life. And third is the absence of any ability to have a say in what we do and decisions that are made on our behalf. And that's the problem of suffrage.

So when I talk about environmental basis of poverty, my argument is if one looks at poverty simply as a means and allocation of material resources, but don't realize that even with the same levels of physical poverty, the ability to have sustaining environments, (not sustainability necessarily I don’t use that word even once), secure environments and a sense of true democracy participation, means they can live richer lives. And richer lives, in this sense are, in some respects, tangential to the discussion about poverty alleviation.

This isn't really about GNP or GDP and so on. It's about the quality of life. Environmental theory has, particularly in the global south, articulated over many years now and across many interlocked areas, a very very forceful and compelling theory about the relation between environment, human rights and poverty.

9. Lastly, what do you do for fun?
Well, I do a lot of things for fun. I have two lovely cats and a great family. We hike and we love music, I am into too many things analog. So I learned the art of nib-manship (for fountain pens), and the wider arts associated with writing by hand, make inks, play and write longhand with pens. I have also spent a lot of time, more time than anybody should, mastering the art of analog audio production and reproduction.

I spend a lot of time collecting vinyl records from thrift shops and junk places and so on, restoring them. I enjoy listening to them and discovering genres of music and people that will never get a chance to otherwise. This enables a discovery of how people evolve how ideas evolve, how languages and genres evolve.  Listening to these distant records show me how an artist, or even a genre, evolve over many years and multiple influences. Time spent listening and copying mastering instruments and tunes is very humbling. To see that even the greatest musicians started somewhere, and to discover, through music, how global we all are. And that's what in a way, the antithesis of going to streaming music services and their curated lists. To me, it is a different way of discovery and appreciation, and a way of celebrating the human spirit, of appreciating authorial intent;  of freely discovering and exploring, without the music being rendered into playlists mediated by other people.