Log Lunch: Mustafa Saifuddin Discusses Intersections of Soils, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice

Pictured: Mustafa Saifuddin (left) with Professor Allison Gill at The Log

Students, faculty, and community members gathered for Friday Log Lunch on September 23 to hear from Mustafa Saifuddin. Williams biology Professor Allison Gill and Saifuddin attended the same graduate program and have kept in touch ever since. Gill introduced Saifuddin as a staff scientist at the environmental non-profit Earthjustice in New York City and also a visiting assistant professor at New York University. Lawyers, policy experts, and scientists such as Saifuddin work together at Earthjustice to provide communities with equal protection from environmental pollution and climate change impacts. For Saifuddin, this work requires an acknowledgment of the fact that marginalized communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change. Throughout their talk Saifuddin emphasized the importance of collaborating with members of these communities and to work towards environmental solutions both scientific, political, and social.

Saifuddin used two examples of their work at Earthjustice to highlight the intersections of soil biogeochemistry with environmental justice. The first example was the impact of manure production in animal agriculture on surrounding communities. Given the vast number of animals in CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations) throughout the nation, animal waste is produced in staggering amounts and leads to the pollution of nearby water and air sources. Importantly, Saifuddin noted that these CAFO’s are disproportionately placed in communities of color and low-income communities. For example, in North Carolina the percentage of people of color within three miles of the largest CAFOs in North Carolina is several fold greater than the percentage of white residents. As Saifuddin pointed out, these community members haven’t remained silent about these impacts, but have actually been speaking up against them for decades. For Saifuddin this underlines the importance of collaboration with these communities in order to address the environmental impacts they have faced for generations as a result of systemic injustice.  

Saifuddin also presented their study of anthropogenic activities intersecting with the carbon cycle. Human activity has contributed to an unnatural increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, a relation between humans and the carbon cycle that we are familiar with as a narrative of climate change and environmentalism. What Saifuddin pointed out in addition to this relationship is the creation of a carbon debt through agricultural practices, which effectively strips soils of their carbon. This has also created a carbon opportunity cost, wherein we have lost the opportunity to allow soils to naturally draw carbon out of the atmosphere by instead using soils for animal agriculture—a cost that is comparable in order of magnitude to the past decade of global fossil fuel emissions. Soil’s importance in the conversation of natural solutions to climate change has gained popularity and enthusiasm in recent years, but Saifuddin also offered critiques of these natural solutions as essential to the conversation. These critiques primarily included the impermanence of soils, the problematic nature of carbon offsets as justification for pollution, and the exclusive focus on carbon sequestration in soils as a reductive and incomplete view of soils as multi-functional systems.

Saifuddin finished their talk with a quote from Fathana Sultana: “There are no easy or quick fixes in pursuing critical climate justice. It is imperative to reimagine and configure pathways forward. Systems change needed for critical climate justice entails confronting capitalist extractivism and climate colonialism, whereby collaboration becomes vital.” The message in the quote underscores Saifuddin’s central thread throughout their talk: approaching climate change solutions from solely a scientific perspective is insufficient; we have to address it form multiple angles and in collaboration as scientists, lawyers, policy makers, and community members. Finally, Saifuddin noted that we have to accept that in order to enact large-scale change we have to aim for systemic shifts in our cultures and societies. For Saifuddin, working in the non-profit world allows them to apply scientific ways of knowing and problem-solving to communities, witnessing firsthand how cooperation and intersection of perspectives leads to real change.

This week’s Log Lunch menu included a tomato galette, a caramelized fennel and white bean soup, and a salad with mint/honey/lemon dressing, goat cheese, and pumpkin seeds. For dessert, the Log Lunch team prepared a chocolate bark with dried cherries and nuts. The tomatoes in the galette and lettuce for the salad came from Peace Valley Farm and the fennel, garlic, thyme, and oregano are from Big Foot Farm.

Log Lunch cooks

Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.