Zam... Pow... Environmental Justice!

By David Maddox

We don't seem to live in an age of reading. But we do live in an age of communication. Ideas, images, manifestos, advertisements, loud TV, tweets and all manner of media bombard us all on a minute-to-minute basis. Put that together with one thing we know from evolving educational theory: each person learns and perceives messages a little differently, and diverse modes of delivering the same information are more likely to reach a wider range of people. What we really want is to get our messages out, to inform, to educate, to create dialog — with whatever media reach people. And this probably means delivering messages and ideas in diverse media: Tweets at 140 characters; Facebook at a few sentences; essays and blogs, books, radio, exhibits, and so on.

And so it was that City University of New York Law Professor Rebecca Bratspies and artist Charlie LaGreca created a comic book around social and environmental justice: Mayah's Lot. Rebecca wrote about it in a recent Nature of Cities essay. You can read the book here, and listen to an audio version with pictures here.

Rebecca believes that environmental justice is a bridge between traditional environmentalism and an increasingly urban global population, but we have a lot of work to do to make environmental concerns relevant and accessible to a new, ever more urban generation. Mayah's Lot is a centerpiece for a broader environmental justice education program being implemented in New York City schools.

It is often the case that environmental issues are thought of as happening "somewhere else," or are dismissed as issues only middle class or rich people can afford to care about. Yet, many of the ills that plague poor neighborhoods around the world, including New York's communities of color, are directly related to toxic waste dumps, excessive truck traffic, bus depots, waste transfer stations and other "locally undesirable land-uses" (often called LULUs — hence Lulu, the villain in Mayah's Lot).

Comic books, of course, were once disparaged by the educated (and educating) class. Now they're called "Graphic Novels" and are even hip in formerly stuffy places like the United States Centers for Disease Control, which, for example, created a comic book presentation for emergency preparedness called "Preparation 101: Zombie Pandemic."

A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. And I think such comic book approaches could be used to great effect all over the world to extend messages about the environment, human health, justice, and many other issues to a broad range of people — from young students and busy, hip urban young people to people who are unable to read, but crave and deserve information about their own situation. Comics can also be relatively inexpensive to produce, making them effective for disseminating ideas cheaply. Organizations such as Comicbook Classroom are doing just that.

Ideas about the importance of the environment for human wellbeing need to be spread across political, social and economic classes. Why not make more use of such an effective, accessible, cheap, and broadly entertaining medium: the humble comic book. The information is there. The benefits are there to be harvested. What we need are some visionary collaborations between scientists, practitioners, and artists to make it happen in more places, addressing more social and environmental justice issues.

Photo 1: The cover of "Mayah's Lot", Book 1 of the Environmental Justice Chronicles, by Charlie La Greca and Rebecca Bratspies. Photo 2: Charlie LaGreca at work on "Mayah's Lot".

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