Live podcast from Woolsey Hall

Left to right: Laurie Santos, Elizabeth Dunn, Christine Cordero, and Louis Qaqish discuss the importance of finding joy in environmental work during a live podcast of “The Happiness Lab” at Woolsey Hall on October 27, 2023. Credit: Melanie Stengel

Find the Joy in Environmental Work; It’s There

Advocates, practitioners, and academic experts from around the world shared stories about the joy of environmental work at the 5th annual Global Environmental Justice Conference.


From keeping oil drilling sites away from neighborhoods and schools in Los Angeles to securing land rights for women in Sierra Leone, there is plenty of joy to be found in the trenches of environmental justice and climate work. Joy, itself, and its power to buoy up communities and individuals working on climate solutions was the theme of the 5th annual Global Environmental Justice Conference hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Justice (YCEJ),

“The future we want is in our hands, but it is not going to be done if we accept defeat or think we can’t make the change. We have the capacity to produce a joyous world,” Gerald Torres, professor of environmental justice, told participants, who included environmental advocates, practitioners, and academic experts from around the world.

The conference, held at the Yale School of the Environment on October 27-28, featured interactive workshops on how joy can inform and augment practice in policy, economics, governance, evaluation, and geography and a live podcast by Yale Professor Laurie Santos, who is doing a series about climate hope on her widely followed “The Happiness Lab.”

During the opening session, Nalleli Cobo, who led a coalition to permanently shut down a toxic oil-drilling site just 30 feet from her Los Angeles home while in her teens, described what it was like to engage in high-stakes advocacy as she battled severe health issues. Cobo suffered nose bleeds, stomach aches, and headaches from the age of nine and was later diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Her mother and grandmother also both developed asthma as adults. The family’s ongoing health issues prompted them to found People Not Pozos (wells), an advocacy group that led the fight to close the drilling site near their home, and that successfully lobbied for new legislation banning oil and gas drilling sites in populated areas.

“This started because a small community historically viewed as invisible led (a fight) to shut down the largest urban oil field in the nation. Are you going to raise your fist in the air and demand climate justice and action? This puzzle is incomplete without you,” she told participants.

The future we want is in our hands, but it is not going to be done if we accept defeat or think we can’t make the change. We have the capacity to produce a joyous world.”

Gerald Torres Professor of Environmental Justice.

Eleanor Thompson, a public interest lawyer and deputy director of Programmes at Namati in Sierra Leone, discussed her efforts to secure land rights for women and rural communities, an initiative that was opposed by mining and industrial development companies. Her efforts resulted in two new laws passed in 2022 that boosted the rights of rural landowners and guaranteed equal rights for women to own and use family land.

“The power came … from constructive engagement with (the opposition) who then felt like they had a place in the greater good,” Thompson said. “That brought out the joy in the process that initially came with much angst and tension and much consternation for many of us involved,” she said.

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In a live broadcast of “The Happiness Lab” podcast at Woolsey Hall, Santos, professor of psychology, discussed the issue of fear and anxiety about climate change and the need to focus on happiness and self-care. Her guests for the episode were Elizabeth Dunn, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia; Christine Cordero, co-director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an organization that advocates for healthy and sustainable neighborhoods in immigrant communities; and Louis Qaqish, senior projects management specialist at USAID.

Santos, who teaches “Psychology and the Good Life,” one of Yale’s most popular classes, urged listeners to cultivate positive emotions instead of focusing on apocalyptic “hell in a handbasket” news about climate change. While fear can activate people, Santos and her panelists said a sense of awe about the world and all those fighting for climate justice can be sustaining.

“If we concentrate on negative emotions, we won’t be able to stay in the fight. Create some space for positivity and joy. …When behavior makes us happy, we are more likely to stick with it,” Dunn said.

Cordero said she was feeling burnt out until she began focusing on self-care and on storytelling to help communities envision and create positive outcomes.

“Exercise that imagination muscle and imagine the future," she said.

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