Climate Crisis, Utopian Practice, and the Elemental City

Richard Widick, Noa Cykman and Somak Mukherjee speak on the work of the Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Studies research cluster

Richard Widick Speaks at the EJ/CJ Orfalea Research Cluster Presentation

On April 14th, the Orfalea Center hosted its second research cluster gathering, featuring presentations from our  Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Studies research cluster. As our website says,  the EJ/CJ cluster  brings together scholars to engage with global drivers of environmental and climate crises and investigate their deep structures and histories. It produces critical knowledge at the intersection of the Humanities and Social Sciences, builds transformative knowledge networks that bridge academic, social movement, and policy domains, and actively intervenes publicly in each of these crucial zones of conflict.

The research produced by our clusters is supported through funding from the Ford Foundation and our collaborations with the Security in Context network, in addition to the the Paul Orfalea Endowment itself.

Speaking at this event was Dr. Richard Widick, visiting scholar at the Orfalea Center and visionary of the EJ/CJ research Hub and cluster; Noa Cykman (PhD student in Sociology) and Somal Mukherjee, (PhD student in the Department of English).

Climate Crisis

Richard started the event, delivering a powerful and electrifying presentation on the state of the climate crisis and the resistance, instilling a very real hope and urgency in the audience. One of the core parts of the presentation was his discussion on his 2021 ethnographic film, The Edmund Pettus Bridge to Climate Justice — which he filmed over ten years in eight on five continents while representing the University of California at the United Nations climate talks. The film is currently available to view on

A key component to his film and analysis is that today, “the lives of Black American voters, Black Lives Matter movements, poor peoples everywhere and Indigenous Peoples around the world are increasingly inextricably interwoven in the figure of the unfolding climate crisis.”In his own words, Richard explains “I filmed The Edmund Pettus Bridge to Climate Justice inside the UN climate talks over ten years, across 5 continents and inside 8 countries as I struggled to encounter, document and explain the collective human failure to confront the excesses of unfettered, fossil-fueled industrial globalization — and with each passing year of increasingly dire ecological indications it became more clear that each nation must confront its own greater and lesser internal tendencies toward authoritarian government, corporate and electoral responses to social and ecological crises and reactionary movements.”1

According to Richard in the talking about the film on FilmFreeway, entering the United Nations and conducting ethnographic filmmaking as a research method involved facing the limits of his capacity to make sense of intricate and frequently conflicting international relations, carrying the burden of growing knowledge allowing him to anticipate catastrophic outcomes, and upholding productive dialogue, particularly in the presence of viewpoints derived from repulsive and malicious corporate malpractice.

For these reasons and more, Richard says, in talking about the film on FilmFreeway, “ the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Climate Justice brings together and celebrates the global diversity of peoples, their perspectives and music, and the sights and the sounds from inside this world of trouble that is the multi-racial and pan-gendered global movement for racial, gender, indigenous, environmental, economic and otherwise Social Justice.”1

Richard also showcased the EJ/CJ (Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Studies) Digital Hub, a separate websiteoperated by Richard himself designed to focus the work of our Orfalea Center research hub into a useful tool for anyone seeking to better understand and participate in knowledge production that promotes the achievement of environmental and climate justice.

The Orfalea Center is also the official host of NXTerra. The NXTerra Digital Platform (DP) is an archive of educational resources for educators and students seeking to enrich their courses and educations with an infusion of critical climate change, sustainability, and climate justice materials.

Teachers and educators can use NXTerra for ideas and materials from experts in their own disciplines. They may also browse and search the site for materials from other disciplines to enrich and broaden their own courses through creative synergies.

Undergraduate or graduate students may use NXTerra as a tool by browsing resources by theme, topic, or campus — and see how they can get involved locally with climate change science, communication, education, policy initiatives, and social movements already happening at UC and CSU campuses.

Terra Vista

Noa Cykman Speaks at the EJ/CJ Orfalea Research Cluster Presentation

Noa Cykman shared with us her trajectory as a researcher of utopia and utopian practice and approached it from a decolonial and ecological perspective. She discussed her research plans in conjunction with the Orfalea Center, and how her perspectives have led to her current project with Terra Vista, a settlement of the landless rural workers’ movement in Brazil (MST), her Orfalea global south partner.

According to Noa, Movements such as the MST are adopting practices of agroecology and agroforestry, linking their struggles for human liberation to the regeneration of agroecosystems. In her publication The Forest Society: A Food Forest of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil on the Orfalea Center site, Noa says that familiarity with the connections between social and ecological aspects of regenerative agriculture is essential in order to advance the necessary transition from modern industrial agriculture towards more localized, culturally-relevant, sustainable, and equitable food systems.

Her piece sets out the research agenda, attempting to answer the questions, “How does Terra Vista see their ecosystem and the relationships they establish with it through agricultural practices? She wants to look at how collaborations are arranged between the social movement and the forest, and what they look like. Additionally, she asks, what are the implications of these collaborations for the community and for the local ecosystem?

To answer these questions, Noa has come up with a truly novel approach. She states in her piece that she will “follow a cacao bean.” to answer these questions. “From seed, to tree, to fruit, to chocolate (made and commercialized by the settlement’s youth), to commodity, the biography of a cacao bean will allow mapping all the human and more-than-human relationships imbricated in its journey,” explains Noa. The research method is a multispecies ethnography. The challenge, then, “ is to study an ecosystem as a society—a more-than-human society upon which human societies depend.”

Elemental City

Somak Mukherjee Speaks at the EJ/CJ Orfalea Research Cluster Presentation

Somak Mukherjee talked about his doctoral research, done with support from the Orfalea Center, on the elemental imagination of urban spaces in culture. His project looks at a few different things. He asks how the environment’s ecological and organic elements such as earth, air, water, fire, and blood function as figurative tropes, and how their hybrid and interstitial nature influence the way stories on city life are told and situated. Somak uses Calcutta as a case study, and asks “how does Calcutta’s narrative of being an ‘elemental city’ make us rethink the narrative problem of crisis in Particular?” 

Somak ended with the benefits of working through the EJ/CJ Orfalea Cluster by linking his work to the mission of the cluster, “Produce critical knowledge at the intersection of the Humanities and Social Sciences, build transformative knowledge networks that bridge academic, social movement, and policy domains, and actively intervene publicly in each of these crucial zones of conflict.”

What new knowledge did Somak develop, he says? In his presentation he stated that he learned how to develop a more interdisciplinary understanding of environmental criticism. It became abundantly clear that the Future of Cities is inseparably linked to examples of community resistance against environmental destruction: in urban, suburban, and rural areas around the globe. Finally, he learned the benefits of developing a Practice-oriented pedagogy that has an impact on your local community.


Our presenters showcased the linkages of scholarship and activism; a notion proudly embodied by the Orfalea Center. The future infrastructures research cluster presentations showed our audience just a few of the ways in which notions of energy and climate justice can be  critically engaged with, and he breadth and scale at which this engagement can take shape.

From the up-front visual documentation of a climate justice activist struggle and the linkages it shares with numerous local and global struggles; to looking beneath the surface at the smallest bean; to the methodological and pedagogical lessons learned which will inform future work. The linkages between scholarship and global activism are in full view here. Our Environmental Justice and Climate Justice Studies research cluster. is hard at work in continuing these works and collaborations, and we are very excited to show you what comes next. 

This work has been funded by a generous grant by the Ford Foundation. This work has been supported by our strong collaboration and shared thematic vision with the Security in Context network. 


Page Editor

Omar Mansour
Omar Mansour
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