Community Psychology and Environmental Justice: an Interview with Dr. Manuel Riemer

by Julie Rempel

RiemerFrom your own perspective, what is the specialty of your research? 

As a community psychologist my research focuses on the intricate interactions between community, the environment and justice. These issues cannot be examined independently as they are intimately connected and psychology, especially community psychology, can help to understand these connections.

Traditionally, community psychology includes topics such as oppression, promoting diversity, citizen participation, and striving for social justice. But the current environmental crisis illuminates with unforgiving clarity how closely linked these issues are to the environment and further emphasizes a sense of urgency for the need to act.

Social justice is one of the core values for community psychology and in order to adequately address inequality, it is essential that environmental issues are an integral part of the discussion.  While affecting all of us, the impact of these environmental threats to our health and well-being are not evenly distributed. For example, as identified with my work and that completed by others, homeless individuals and those living below the poverty line in big cities are most vulnerable to the extreme weather in North-Western countries like Canada. It’s apparent beyond our countries borders that within developing countries, the poor have the least means to fight vector-borne diseases and that natural disaster like floods and hurricanes are much more likely to occur in developing countries that have fewer means to protect themselves.

I continually use the framework of environmental justice to address the key issues within my research. I call myself a ‘researcher with an agenda’. I try to ensure any project I accept is relevant for the people on the ground trying to create change to maximize the amount of individuals that can be assisted. That is why it is so important to have constant contact with people within the communities that are being affected by the issues, and the faithful leaders who are dedicated to the cause. They are the ones who are able to transform the goals of my research into reality on the ground.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have identified from your work in respect to improving the environmental health inequalities that exist within communities?

We have become accustom to a certain life and having our needs and desires specifically met. The current lifestyle in North America and parts of Europe are not sustainable and directly contribute to conditions of inequality and misery. Yet we see developing nations working tirelessly to catch up in hopes of achieving a lifestyle that we have already identified as being unrealistic.

Within a psychological perspective the existing mentally of the current efforts to mitigate the problem doesn’t require people to make many drastic changes. People may choose more environmentally green products, but that does not in turn deeply affect their unsustainable commercialization habits. If the goal is to close the existing gaps of environmental and health inequalities, this current process won’t work. The changes that are required will inevitably make people uncomfortable and will involve leading a simpler life. Individuals will have to give up some of the comforts like constant air conditioner and driving vehicles anywhere and everywhere. What is needed is a cultural revolution in order to motivate a movement in which justice quality life and a healthy environment is possible for all, not just a few privileged ones. Presently, significant steps are not being taken, and fundamental questions are not being asked. The focus must be on a culture that encompasses strong values and standards for the environment that support development and sustainability of communities all over the world. I believe that young people are the key to creating that kind of cultural revolution, which is reflected in my research, currently focusing primarily on engaging young people in environmental activism.

We are fast approaching a tipping point. Awareness regarding these issues among the broader population is vital. As long as this remains an unimportant value, it will never gain the political support that is needed to change the policies and priorities that govern our country and are necessary in advancing equality for all.

What kind of innovative projects and/or programs have you been involved in that are helping create positive improvements within communities?

The level of grassroots movements that are taking off is remarkable. Local community efforts, governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations, researchers, activists and individuals being affected themselves are all enthusiastically contributing to positive progress.

Sustainable Waterloo is an example of a grassroots project that is creating huge momentum. Their mission: to advance the environmental sustainability of organizations across Waterloo Region through collaboration. Their research focused on the business implications of imminent carbon pricing mechanisms and the viability of establishing a not-for-profit in Waterloo Region that would help organizations achieve carbon reductions through collaboration and education. The organization believes strongly in local, community-based leadership and  is a means for change and a critical driver in the shift towards increased global environmental sustainability. Sustainable Waterloo supports local businesses work towards more sustainable operations with a focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions.  The collaboration is referred to as the Regional Carbon Initiative which has united many local Waterloo Region organizations. The success of Sustainable Waterloo has stimulated similar start-up organizations in other regions, including Hamilton, Niagara, Toronto in Canada, and Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States of America. This is just one of many examples of encouraging grass-roots efforts that make me believe that the needed cultural shift may be possible.

How has your expertise and style of research contributed to advancing the framework of environmental justice within the greater population?

By using psychological knowledge it is possible to challenge the existing beliefs and achieve a sustainable community that is self-sufficient and provides an atmosphere that is equal and accepting to all. The problems of inequality are all linked to achieving justice. By developing a more sustainable society, it will ultimately lead to justice by creating conditions that are supportive to all members within any given community.

Thus, the root causes of the current environmental crisis are to a large degree structural and closely linked to issues of power and oppression and the solutions, therefore, need to include structural changes as well. Instead of focusing solely on individuals and their behaviors, as is commonly done, consciousness needs to be raised about these root causes of the problem. Raising awareness about the interconnectedness of structural and contextual factors to individual cognitions, emotions, and actions is a critical process used by community psychologists to create transformative change.

It is not enough to simply use manipulative marketing strategies to convince individuals to get on board with the fluctuating popular trends. Consciousness needs to be raised among the greater society to empower the population to actively think about social and environmental justice in their everyday lives. The existing structures that are present in societies that breed inequalities among populations need to be challenged.

Only if Western societies can move beyond the restrictions of their currently dominating ideologies, will we be able to create the transformative change that is needed to save the planet that is our home.

What are some of your hobbies and extracurricular activities that you’re involved in beyond your research?

My main hobby is cooking. I love trying dishes from around the world and share them with my partner and my friends. My favourite cuisine is Indian. I love how intelligently they use spices to create the most amazing meals. And, many of their dishes are meatless, which is good for the environment. In the summer I spent a lot of time processing vegetables from our local farmers and canning food for the winter. For example, my partner and I just finished canning 24 litres of Putanesca tomato sauce. Many of these jars will go to our friends.

Besides this, I also work together with a friend in running the Sustainable Societies Consulting Group, which is a social enterprise helping governmental organizations and NGOs to develop effective and collaborative environmental change initiatives.

Contact Dr. Riemer, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Wilfrid Laurier University


Homelessness and Global Climate Change In Waterloo Region: Are we Ready? A Report from the Study on the Vulnerability to Global Climate Change of People Experiencing Homelessness in Waterloo Region by Dr. Johanna Wandel, University of Waterloo, Dr. Manuel Riemer, Wilfrid Laurier Universityand Region of Waterloo, Social Planning, Policy and Program Administration Division (2010).

Report  Delivered to Counsel for the Applicants in Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge v Director, Ministry of the Environment et al., Court File No. 528/10 Ontario Superior Court of Justice (Divisional Court) by Dr. Manuel Riemer, (2010).