The next guest in our Garrison Institute Forum: Planetary Health Series is Gerald Torres. Professor Torres, an acclaimed global scholar of environmental law, critical race theory, and federal Indian law, is a Professor of Environmental Justice at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). As a pioneer in the field of environmental law, Torres has spent his career examining the intrinsic connections between the environment, agricultural and food systems, and social justice. Torres and Jonathan F.P. Rose, co-founder of the Garrison Institute, engaged in a discussion on how we can shift social and environmental systems towards healing and transformation.
Torres began by sharing about his Indian-Spanish family and heritage. He reflected on how cultures learn from one another, sharing values, art, beliefs, traditions, and more. “Trauma is part of this cultural heritage as well,” he added. Trauma can be “transmitted in ways that distort your relationship to the place you’re in and the people you’re encountering. I suspect some of that is reflected in the way the Spanish occupied Mexico and Latin America.”
Rose commented on how Europe was a brutal and traumatizing place to live, and Europeans brought that trauma with them to the United States. “Then with slavery, we traumatized people when we brought them to America. So actually, America has a deep history of [trauma] and I think that’s part of what we’re seeing being plaid out today.”
The epigenetic and generational nature of trauma helps explain how our personal, familial, and societal traumas shape the present. Torres elaborated:
“There is a desire amongst a lot of people to push aside those historic traumas as if they don’t have reverberations and expressions in contemporary society. Unless you understand those traumas, you’re going to think a particular activity is just a character flaw or bad behavior opposed to something that is reflected in the expression of culture through time and trauma. There is a lot of digging we need to do to truly understand where we are, and not just be reactive. In current events, there is an immense reactivity. When in fact, the necessity is to step back.”
Healing such embedded trauma is possible, but it is difficult, life-long work that requires us to have honest conversations with ourselves and others about how our trauma has been infused into society. Undergoing this healing work is vital for creating a more just world—the type of world Torres has been dreaming of and working towards for years. Growing up in California, he spent a lot of time outdoors, learned environmentalism from his grandmother on her farm, and was involved with racial and social justice efforts.
“It struck me early on that the insults to our environment were analogs of the cultural and social injustices that we see.”
Humans have historically served as the gardeners of the world, Torres shared, helping cultivate forests and other natural environments conducive to planetary and human flourishing. But this knowledge, often passed down in indigenous communities, is being lost. “There are things you can only learn from a teacher,” he said, like this “gardening the world,” the art of ballet, or spirituality.
“In some ways, it’s the cultural parallel to the loss of species we see in the natural world. You see this with plants. Plants are associated with language… as those things get lost, the referent gets lost. We are made poor by it, and in some ways, we are blinded by it because we see commodity richness, but it is not richness, it is excess. There is a not the deep richness you see with species.”
To prepare his students to be leaders who can effectively respond to the environmental and social crises our world is facing, Torres assigns literature in his classes. “You have to try to imagine yourself into the life of another. Literature is one way to do it,” he explains. “Unless you can imagine yourself into the life of another, it is impossible for you to be truly compassionate or to understand how that other person understands the world. If you can do that, you’re going to be a better lawyer.”
Torres also tries to instill in his students the importance of considering new evidence and being willing to change their minds: “Make your opinions strongly stated but loosely held.” Additionally, he encourages students to imagine themselves as agents of the future and to recognize how they are uniquely positioned to help make the future better. Rose remarked how Torres’ approach to teaching echoes the Bodhisattva Vow to benefit all sentient beings.
Torres and Rose discussed the opportunity for change that exists in this unprecedented moment. “I’m feeling a sea change,” Rose shared. “This is opening to completely reimagining and changing the world we are now in.” Torres agreed:
“Covid has been devastating… but it has forced people to wake up in a way and has revealed the fragility of the systems that we’ve created. This is the time when we’ve got to re-engineer our economy, our culture, our society. We don’t exactly know what it’s going to be yet, but we know it’s not going to be what it was.”
Torres’ recently told his daughter, who just graduated from college, “when you’re my age, you’re going to be glad that you were alive now. Because this is where the future can be born… the kernel of transformative change is here.”
Reimagining and rebuilding systems starts with thinking differently. Part of thinking differently includes recognizing there are planetary limitations to growth and committing to creating systems that don’t push against those limits. Torres also emphasized the importance of recognizing that the material decisions we make have ethical and spiritual dimensions.
“There is plenty, there is enough, but we need to make sure that that ‘enough’ doesn’t mean that the future is foreclosed,” he said. “My mother said, ‘strength and spiritual sustenance comes from the communities you construct,’ and the construction of those communities is in your power.’”
To go deeper in these topics, Torres recommends reading From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement by Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, the novel American War by Omar El Akkad, and The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres.
Gerald Torres, an acclaimed global scholar of environmental law, critical race theory, and federal Indian law is a Professor of Environmental Justice at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). As a pioneer in the field of environmental law, Torres has spent his career examining the intrinsic connections between the environment, agricultural and food systems, and social justice. His research into how race and ethnicity impact environmental policy has informed his teaching and practical experiences and has been influential in the emergence and evolution of the field of environmental justice.
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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