Professor Alec Gates

New Textbook By Professor Alec Gates Examines Pollution Through an Environmental Justice Lens

Ask any undergraduate taking an introductory course in any subject, and they'll tell you that in addition to the physical exertion required to tote textbooks, most are dry affairs. The worst can turn an interesting topic into mild drudgery, while the best play visually and thematically with the timeworn format and blend seamlessly with exciting course content to create a richer learning experience. 

Into this realm has stepped geologist Alec Gates, Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who arrived at Rutgers University–Newark in 1987 and has served in many roles during his stellar career, including department Chair, Director of the Graduate Program, Vice Chancellor for Research, and Executive Director of the Garden State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (GS-LSAMP), which recruits, mentors and supports under-represented minority college students in pursuit of careers in STEM fields.  

Last year Gates published Earth's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters (Wiley-Blackwell, 2022), a in-depth scientific look at tornadoes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, avalanches, volcanoes and similar catastrophic events, which combines striking visuals and case studies to engage science and non-science majors alike.   

This year Gates is back at it again, recently releasing Polluted Earth: The Science of the Earth's Environment (Wiley-Blackwell, 2023), a magisterial tome that combines the best features of a textbook and popular science book to tackle the growing number of environmental issues challenging current and future generations. 

“I started writing textbooks during Covid because I had so much more time,” said Gates. “Each one took about a year to write and produce and has been very gratifying.”  

Polluted Earth retains the highly visual style and case-study approach of Earth's Fury, absorbing students in 60 nail-biting stories of well-known pollution disasters, from the historic Black Sunday dust storm in the midwestern United States to the more recent Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, from Love Canal to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., from the Great London smog and the Pacific Gas and Electric case (made famous by Erin Brockovitch) to the Exxon Valdez and more.  

This textbook offers a completely new approach to teaching environmental science and geology that fits in with Rutgers-Newark's mission.

Within this easily accessible format, the book explores pollution related to climate change, population growth and industrial production and features detailed illustrations showing the spatial and temporal relations of various pollution sources. It also covers modern technological solutions already in use by environmental industries and includes an appendix with all of the pollutants mentioned in the book, their health and environmental impacts, and their legal (regulated) exposure limits. 

“This textbook offers a completely new approach to teaching environmental science and geology that fits in with Rutgers-Newark's mission,” said Gates. “The use of case studies, with the science embedded in these stories, helps students learn and remember the science, and there are YouTube videos for all of the case studies so that students can have audio-visual reinforcement of the examples. Most of these show the human element of the disaster as well.” 

In addition, Gates devotes the second chapter to environmental justice, diversity and inclusion, using these as the lens through which the case studies can be viewed. This makes the book especially appealing to undergraduates at RU-N and other schools who see environmental degradation as not just a science and health issue but also a socio-political one.  

“Incorporating diversity and inclusion into science courses is difficult because it doesn’t fit into most. But the study of pollution provides a great opportunity because pollutants are dumped wherever companies can get away with it, especially in poor neighborhoods and in areas with large minority populations,” said Gates. “I wanted to write a science textbook that students could be interested in and even impassioned about. The environmental justice chapter evolves directly from the type of environmental racism I’m referring to.” 

The inclusion of an environmental justice lens also has one other benefit, according to Gates: It allows advanced teaching methods like small-group discussions and in-class presentations, which are typically not included in introductory science courses and which greatly increases students’ learning and enhances their overall undergraduate experience. 

In the final section of the book, Gates devotes three chapters to crucial topics like waste disposal, environmental remediation and cleanup, asking whether, with the cumulative effect of pollution and the visible onset of climate change, are we too late? 

Gates is cautiously optimistic. 

In Polluted Earth, he cites several examples where humans facing dire environmental threats came together to address them in the best possible way. These include DDT, lead, the hole in the ozone layer and others. 

“The current challenges are in the same category,” said Gates. “If we address them in the most judicious manner, we can overcome all of them. That means we need to prioritize healing the planet, not making money.” 

Gates sounded an alarm as well. 

“We can defeat climate change in about 40-50 years if we put our efforts to it,” he said. “If not, most of life on the planet is doomed. A huge extinction happened in the past as the result of climate change (natural, not human induced), so there is precedent."