Mission, Vision, & Values
From the Director
Every passing day seems to offer an alarming new report about the health of our planet. From endangered species and ecosystems, to wildfires and rising seas that are erasing landscapes as we know them, the message is clear: Our environment, the key to our wellbeing and survival, is in deep trouble.
Ironically, this is happening at a point in our collective history when it feels like our knowledge and ingenuity are boundless. We know, for example, how to manage a landscape so that species can thrive while fire risks are kept low. We know how to generate energy, and how to move ourselves from Point A to Point B, without emitting the greenhouse gasses that threaten our climate. We have at our fingertips the knowledge and the technology to make a more sustainable world.
And yet, for the most part, we fail to act.
It’s this irony that motivates the work of every single student, staff member, and scientist at the Wrigley Institute. And behind our interdisciplinary work is a mission that’s as bold as it is important: We strive each and every day to diagnose and understand the environmental challenges in front of us, to turn scientific discoveries into actionable solutions, and to account for the human factors that stand in the way of – or grease the rails toward – a more sustainable future.
Dr. Joe Árvai, Director
Environmental Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Environmental justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are central to our mission of inspiring global environmental solutions through frontier education and research. These values guide our work every day as educators, researchers, and staff to address existing and emerging inequities impacting our institution and communities. We pledge to provide a safe, inclusive, and responsive environment for members of our community to authentically engage in meaningful learning, research, and engagement opportunities; to create access to programs and resources for everyone; to uplift and give recognition to diverse voices; and to ensure that we remain accountable as an organization to prioritize equity in everything we do.
Equity-Focused Work at the Wrigley Institute
The tie of environmental and human histories in Owens Valley
Have you heard of Payahuunadü? What about the Owens Valley? Many people who live in Los Angeles are not familiar with the region, although Los Angeles receives about 38% of its water from this valley and historically Los Angeles has relied on it for up to almost 80% of its water. I have come across this lack of recognition countless times since launching my dissertation research this summer. This confusion creates a brief stumbling block in explaining my research, but, more importantly, it indicates a deeper issue. Many residents of L.A. do not know where their water comes from, or the rapacious and destructive history of how L.A. obtained water for its residents. The Owens Valley is a small valley in central eastern California. About three and a half hours northeast of L.A. by car, this valley is bordered by the Eastern Sierras to the west and the Inyo and White Mountains to the east. Its wealth of water comes largely from snowmelt in the Eastern Sierras that funnels down to the Owens River and the valley’s groundwater reserves. The recent human history of the valley is one of conquest and environmental damage. For most of the valley’s existence, the Owens Valley Paiute cultivated the land. They dug a complex set of irrigation ditches that watered their taboose and other key crops, and they migrated in seasonal rotations to different parts of the valley. View of the current dry Owens Lake, with dust mitigation efforts in place such as shallow flooding of certain areas. (Photo by Lauren Kelly) In the 1860s, however, white American settlers moved into the valley and began a war of conquest. After years of conflict, settlers wrestled control of the valley from the Owens Valley Paiute. The settlers established farms and ranches, and created a complicated system of water rights that did not acknowledge Indigenous prior knowledge or claims to the valley’s resources. In 1905, Los Angeles began the process of seizing power from both groups. The city began buying land and water rights in the valley, and they completed the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 to whisk its water down to rapidly-expanding L.A. Over the rest of the twentieth century, L.A. would buy 96% of the farmland in the Owens Valley. It built a second aqueduct in 1970, and increased groundwater pumping to unprecedented levels. Its water extraction not only severely altered the ecosystems of the valley, but it dried Owens Lake, leading to the largest source of dust pollution in the country. After about three decades of advocacy and litigation, L.A. began court-mandated efforts to mitigate the dust pollution, which has improved conditions in recent years. But even in the present day, L.A. is planning new infrastructure to grab water from the northern reaches of the valley. Owens Valley residents contend with L.A. as a dominating force in the region, but LA’s priorities don’t reflect the actual people living in the valley. Researching water politics of Owens Valley using the book Owens Valley Revisited by Gary D. Licap (Photo by Nick Neumann/USC Wrigley Institute) My dissertation seeks to tie these environmental and human histories together. As new people moved into the valley and fought for control over its resources, power dynamics grew more complex and uneven. I am studying this diverse constellation of historical actors and how they crafted their lives while dealing with the history and ongoing realities of conquest. I also examine the progression of environmental damage in the valley across the twentieth century and how residents responded to and fought against these intrusions. Throughout this story, I want to emphasize the voices of the Owens Valley Paiute. Many historians have not focused on their role in the water conflicts with L.A., but the Owens Valley Paiute in fact played a key role in negotiating over land, and have continued to advocate for their stewardship and land rights through the present day. In my work, I hope to uncover lessons relevant to our present-day confrontations over limited resources and degraded landscapes. Balancing the needs of Angelenos with those who live in the Owens Valley is a monumental challenge which will require an awareness of historical impacts of violence and multiple thefts of land and water. Conducting research by annotating and taking notes. (Photo by Nick Neumann/USC Wrigley Institute) This summer, entering my fourth year in the History department, I began my dissertation research. I dove into secondary source literature, with volumes such as The Spoils of Dust: Reinventing the Lake That Made Los Angeles by Alexander Robinson, a professor in USC School of Architecture. I also started work with primary source documents in the Huntington Library. I read settler accounts of life in the valley from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including diaries and ledgers written by subjects varying from seasoned farmers to teenage girls. I also began reading the papers of lawyers who helped an assortment of Owens Valley water and power companies fight for their place in the valley or negotiate the dissolution of their companies in the first decades of the twentieth century. I conducted online research into the many committees and advocating groups at work in the valley over the last century, such as the Owens Valley Irrigation District and the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission. Finally, I started reading and listening to oral histories taken from various Owens Valley Paiute tribal members, white ranchers, and LADWP workers in the late twentieth century. This work is still in preliminary stages, but I am starting to build familiarity with the clamor of voices and narratives coming from the valley throughout its history and into the present day. People who live in Los Angeles need to be aware of where their water comes from. In the coming decades, we will face even more limited resources in the face of a warming planet. We need to reckon with past environmental challenges and ask ourselves if those outcomes were just. I argue that Angelenos should take a larger role in advocating for fair treatment of the places that currently supply its water, and this history should inform how we deal with future questions of resource management. We need to strive for equitable and environmentally conscious solutions to water and drought crises that we will continue to face. I would like to give a huge thank-you to the Wrigley Institute and Wrigley donors for supporting my research this summer. The connections I have made through this program have inspired the direction of my research and shown me how uplifting an interdisciplinary research community can be.
Widening the Lens: International relations scholar Shannon Gibson joins Environmental Studies faculty
September 11, 2001, was a watershed moment for many Americans. The terrorist attacks of that day prompted people across the country to reassess their directions in life, and Shannon Gibson was one of those people. An associate professor (teaching) in USC Dornsife’s Department of Political Science and International Relations, she’ll join the Environmental Studies Program (ENST) faculty this fall. She traces her research interests–global environmental policy and activism–back to that day 21 years ago. “I started off as a journalism major, and I was a sophomore when 9/11 happened. As someone who had never traveled outside the U.S. and who’d had a very American-centric education, I suddenly felt like I knew very little about the actors and issues outside our borders,” she says. After switching her major to political science with a focus on international relations, she earned a master’s degree in international studies with a focus on global public health at the University of Miami. There, she experienced the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which together were responsible for several of the deadliest and most intense storms to hit U.S. soil. The aftereffects of those hurricanes showed her that natural disasters, like pandemics, could be devastating to national welfare and security–and that climate change was intensifying both threats. Shannon Gibson (back left) and four of her students at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. The group attended the 2021 session of the United Nations’ annual climate conference, COP26, from the island as a virtual delegation of accredited observers. Since then, Gibson has focused her research on climate policy and climate activism. She has attended five United Nations climate conferences (called Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) and two World Social Forums as both an observer, researcher, and scholar-activist. Through her work, she studies how climate activism takes shape, what activists are able to achieve, and the formation of public policies, international agreements, and legislation on climate change and the environment. Climate activism, Gibson has found, is far more varied and complex than many people realize. “One misconception is the stereotype of the eco-centric tree hugger,” she says. “In reality, the majority of youth are mobilizing around issues of politics, gender, race, labor, justice. It’s not just about saving the planet, it’s about doing so in a way that creates a just and equal system for everyone.” This focus is important, she says, because poorer countries experience the most intense climate impacts but are often left out of discussions about solutions. COP, for instance, is the world’s most influential climate conference. But it’s typically held in the wealthy cities of the global North, where immigration laws and the cost of travel create an insurmountably high barrier to entry for many delegates from poorer nations. When those delegates do attend the conference, they often find that interpreters for their native languages aren’t available, or that they literally don’t have a seat at the table when major agreements (such as the 2015 Paris Agreement) are being negotiated. In addition, the mitigation efforts outlined in climate agreements are often tailored to fit the economies and resources of wealthy nations. For instance, policymakers are already discussing carbon trading (also called “cap and trade” or “emissions trading”) and geoengineering as areas of focus for the next COP, which will be held in November 2022. Those solutions, however, are based on the kinds of market structures found in the wealthiest nations. Gibson believes that they simply recreate or reinforce existing economic and social hierarchies, leaving resource-poor nations and groups without fair or effective solutions to mitigate the disproportionate effects of climate change on their communities. As part of the ENST faculty, Gibson will work with students to study existing and emerging climate policies and modes of activism through an interdisciplinary lens. She intends to incorporate natural sciences, business, politics, and law into her courses as she shows students how to approach policies with a critical eye and think outside current norms to define equitable, effective, and research-based climate solutions. “It’s a topic you can’t address properly unless you have all those viewpoints. It’s also important to engage communal perspectives because it shouldn’t just be those of us who went to college or got elected to a political position who are making the decisions,” she says. “We need to ask questions of the people who are the stewards of resources, like First Peoples or those in front-line communities. From a civil society perspective, I hope we can get beyond the idea that there’s one right kind of activism because we need all of it.”