Ponytails for Climate Change: Professor John Foran’s Climate Justice Work

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Written by Kate Columbus, Outreach Intern, UCSB Sustainability

One aspect you notice right away about Sociology Professor John Foran is his hair. Always tied up in a ponytail, Foran jokingly said in November of 2015 that he would not cut his hair until we got a “FAB” (fair, ambitious, and binding) climate treaty. He’s true to his word so far as his ponytail keeps growing longer and longer.

Foran didn’t start off as a climate justice advocate: he actually studied a range of different subjects before focusing on climate issues. Studying French and German literature and philosophy as an undergraduate at Amherst College, Foran planned to practice law after graduation. However, as he got further into his senior year, he discovered he enjoyed being a student. “And it hit me,” Foran explained. “I could do more school and I could maybe become a professor.”

Interested in how people tried to change the world in very radical and courageous ways, Foran applied to sociology master’s degree programs eventually choosing UC Santa Barbara. With the Iranian Revolution happening during 1978 and 1979, Foran began studying Iranian politics and history. After receiving his Master’s degree, he continued his studies at UC Berkeley in a PhD program focusing on Persian history. Foran wrote an 800 page dissertation about 500 years of Iranian history. Soon after, Foran took a job as a comparative historical sociologist at UCSB. With a focus on Latin American history, he began to study and compare Third World revolutions in the 20th century.

After 15 years of research, Foran published a book called, “Taking Power” that looked at 30 revolutions across the 20th century. However, 21st century revolutions such as the Global Justice, Occupy, and Arab Spring movement intrigued Foran. “Now we come into the 21st century, we start to have different kinds of movements for radical social change that didn’t look like the classic guerrilla organized army led by a hierarchical male leadership,” Foran said. Foran began looking at these radical social change movements and noted that people were trying something different compared to the 20th century: whether it’s being organized horizontally rather than hierarchically or using nonviolent methods to confront dictators, these movements had the possibility to transform societies.

Foran got his first taste of climate justice activism when he went to the 2009 United Nations Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark. He participated in a summit that was organized by activists from all around the world and heard many speakers talk such as Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives who had hosted a cabinet meeting underwater to bring attention to rising sea levels. Although the negotiations did not result in a viable agreement, the experience gave Foran “a lot to think about.”

After living in London for two years, Foran came back to UCSB in 2010 and was stumped on what direction to go in. “I had been really most impressed by the climate justice movement for a variety of reasons,” Foran said. “It finally hit me after many years of teaching that environment was a crucial category alongside politics, economics, and culture. The climate crisis was an unprecedented environmental crisis that touched us all and threatened our futures. Its impact is felt most on small island nations, rural agricultural communities, and big coastal cities — often by people with fewest resources for survival and the least responsibility for the fossil-fueled overconsumption that has produced it in the first place.”

Coinciding with his original motivation of studying revolutions and how they transform the world, Foran’s research and political activism started to feel very together as he was able to participate in the climate movement. Because of this, Foran changed his curriculum plans to focus more of his courses on the climate movement; in fact, all but one course he teaches has something to do with the climate crisis. These courses, cross-listed in Sociology and Environmental Studies, include “Earth in Crisis”, “Climate Justice”, and “The World in 2050: Sustainable Development and Its Alternatives.”

Along with teaching classes, Foran keeps busy with advising students on multiple projects related to the climate justice movement. One of these projects is “Eco-Vista”, which draws on the history of Isla Vista as an ecologically aware place and tests ideas to transform it into a sustainable eco-village. He hopes students will check it out and get involved: “Changing the world is fun and being with other people is fun. It’s challenging, but it makes you open your imagination and think,” Foran said.

Foran is also participates in the Climate Justice Project, a small, informal group of UCSB-affiliated people who do research and write blog posts on climatejusticeproject.org. When Foran was chosen to be UCSB’s Sustainability Champion in 2013, he took five students to a United Nations Climate Summit for two weeks in Warsaw, Poland. The students and Foran were able to witness the process and filmed interviews with climate activists. “We made such strong connections to the subject and to each other that we continued afterwards,” Foran commented on the creation of the Climate Justice Project on the UCSB campus. This project has expanded to include more undergraduates, and may have contributed to the formation of the Climate Justice Hub. This student organization works on local campaigns geared towards addressing climate change issues and social impacts. Membership in this organization overlaps with Fossil Free UCSB, another student-led movement that is “wonderful to see” in Foran’s eyes. “I think UCSB is really an exciting place for anybody,” he said. “There’s enough time to have this sense of purpose, empowerment, and direction and to see this horizon of opportunity open up very widely in which what you do has an impact and makes a difference.”

Another project Foran is involved with is the creation of the Environmental Justice and Climate Justice (EJCJ) Studies Research Hub’s and its digital platform. Formed a couple of years ago by eight faculty members from the Departments of English, Sociology, Political Science, Film Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies, and Environmental Studies, this website is a space for all the faculty’s projects. Two constituent projects Foran is working on are the UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network (KAN) and the Climate Justice Press (CJ Press).

KAN is a group of University of California and California State University faculty across all disciplines that have come together to develop best practices in teaching on these issues. Foran explained that this group had an entire conference online, which produced a website that has an archive of their presentations. These presentations are great resources for how to teach on sustainability or climate justice.

CJ Press is a new venture which will publish e-books on climate related issues. “It gives us the opportunity to publish material that might not find its way in a more scholarly outlet and to present it to the world for free as an e-book,” explained Foran. “You hear about these great new books on environmental justice and you go look them up on Amazon and they’re $285! That’s not walking the walk.” This process excites Foran because scholars can get their articles and shorter pieces published in an open, accessible way. To Foran, the dream is that if “eventually if people take note of what we’re doing, we’ll become the place for scholars that want to reach a broader audience, a world audience.”

“It seems irrational that human beings with our superior intelligence, our technology, our philosophy, have ended up creating systems that are so far from ideal,” Foran said.

Foran views humanity’s real window for confronting the climate crisis lies on a “tight timeline of a generation or so.” “It’s not like we can do our best and at the end of our lives, pass it on to another generation,” Foran explained. “It’s now or never. It’s now… or else.”

From French and German literature to studying revolutions across the world to advocating for climate justice, Foran sees all his past endeavors as connected. “The climate crisis has given me energizing purpose. You can see that teaching, research, activism and understanding things globally can all come together. For some reason, these things fall out of the sky and I feel lucky to be here at this time.” And if that fair, ambitious, and binding climate treaty ever comes? “I wonder what I’d look like with no hair on my head?”

Foran’s work can be found at these websites:

www.iicat.org/john-forans-iicat-research-portal/

www.climatejusticeproject.org

http://www.resilience.org/?type=Filter+by&s=Foran

http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/john-foran