Amazon Rainforest Nearing a Tipping Point, Researchers Warn

The collapse of the Amazon rainforest’s ecosystem, home to a tenth of Earth’s land species, could collapse much more quickly than earlier estimated, according to an international team of prominent researchers including UCLA’s Susanna Hecht. Their peer-reviewed paper, the first major study to focus on the cumulative effects of a range of variables including temperature, drought, deforestation and legal protections, appeared in the journal Nature and has been covered by news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC and the Guardian. A forest-wide collapse is “happening much faster than we thought, and in multiple ways,” the researchers said. The study called on governments to halt carbon emissions and deforestation and restore at least 5% of the rainforest. Hecht, professor at UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is director of the university’s Center for Brazilian Studies.


Essays Capture Legacy of L.A. Historian Mike Davis

The journal Human Geography published a collection of essays curated by UCLA Luskin Urban Planning to honor author, activist and Los Angeles historian Mike Davis. Ananya Roy, the professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography who directs the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, wrote an introduction to the collection, which arose from a convening of L.A. scholars at the Luskin School a few months after Davis’ death in October 2022. As Roy writes, “the gathering continued late into the evening as scholars of different generations, from distinguished professors to undergraduate students, celebrated all that we have each, and collectively, learned from Mike Davis.” The essay collection emphasizes that while Davis “saw and found struggle in the many terrains of catastrophe that he analyzed so prophetically,” he was neither a pessimist nor a defeatist. Roy’s essay “A political autopsy of Liberal Los Angeles” also appears in the collection, along with “Planetarity and environmentalisms: the invention of new environmental histories from the Ecology of Fear to Victorian Holocausts” by urban planning professor Susanna Hecht; “The poet of L.A.’s urban” by urban planning professor Michael Storper; “Old school socialist” by UCLA history professor Robin D.G. Kelley; “To Los Angeles: United in Grief, United in Struggle” by post-doctoral scholar Deshonay Dozier; and “Lessons in accumulated rage and rebellious scholarship” by USC professor Juan De Lara.


In Memoriam: Margaret I. FitzSimmons, Former UCLA Urban Planning Scholar She was a respected UC geographer and professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz who focused on water and the environment in California

By Stan Paul

Margaret I. FitzSimmons, former UCLA Urban Planning faculty member and professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, died April 3, 2023, in Santa Cruz surrounded by family and friends. She was 76.

FitzSimmons was an award-winning scholar known to colleagues and students at UCLA and UCSC for her outstanding research, teaching and mentorship.

In 1980, she was appointed assistant professor in urban planning at a time when the program was part of UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. At UCLA, she was a leader in founding the Environmental Analysis and Policy (EAP) concentration within the urban planning graduate degree program.

FitzSimmons joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1994, retiring in 2015 from the Environmental Studies Department of UC Santa Cruz’s Rachel Carson College.

She was born in Berkeley in 1947, the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth (Sauer) FitzSimmons. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Stanford University in 1969, then turned to geography for her graduate work. She completed a master’s degree at California State University Northridge in 1975 and a Ph.D. at UCLA in 1983.

Her connection to geography at the University of California goes back to the field’s early days in the golden state. Carl Sauer, her grandfather, was an eminent scholar and longtime head of UC Berkeley’s geography department from 1923 to 1954 — the “Sauer years,” according to UC Berkeley Geography, and it later became known as the “Berkeley School.” He is described in the institution’s history as one of “the century’s most important geographers.”

FitzSimmons would go on to make her own name in the field.

As a doctoral student, she examined the interaction of nature, labor and capital in the agricultural industrialization of California’s Salinas Valley, as well as the region’s political ecologies and environmental history.  She was later recognized by the American Association of Geographers (AAG) for the best paper based on a dissertation. Her work also received attention in prestigious publications such as the journal Economic Geography.

Her 1989 article, “The Matter of Nature,” published in the journal Antipode, has been widely cited.

Collaboration with colleagues also was a hallmark of FitzSimmons’ work and career.

Former UCLA Urban Planning colleague Robert Gottlieb, professor of urban and environmental policy, emeritus, at Occidental College, co-wrote with FitzSimmons “Thirst for Growth: Water Agencies as Hidden Government in California,” which was published in 1991.

In writing the book, FitzSimmons and Gottlieb focused on issues of public accountability and water policy innovation, specifically in California. The authors created case studies based on their research of a number of water agencies throughout Southern California.

Their book received enthusiastic praise. One reviewer described the publication as “a luminescent addition to the rapidly growing literature on the history of water policy and management.” The Journal of the American Planning Association credited the book in a review with making “an excellent case for recognizing the role of local water agencies as de facto land use planners due to the social nature of their water policy choices.”

Gottlieb said, “It was a wonderful time we had together working, both the book and the articles we wrote together and in the work we did in helping establish the environmental program.” Despite being “quite different, in terms of background and training,” he said, “we just ended up being wonderfully complementary to each other.”

Gottlieb, who came from a journalism background, said, “I always considered Margaret to be kind of a pure academic in the sense of she was so alive with ideas. And so connected to people she was engaging with, whether they were fellow faculty, staff or students.”

Gottlieb also noted her work with students. “One of the quite wonderful things about Margaret was her role as mentor and nurturer and connector — the interaction she had with students.”

He recalled when FitzSimmons’ former Ph.D. students organized a gathering and dinner at the 2016 AAG annual conference as a tribute to their mentor.

“That gathering was just a wonderful example of what people had to say that really stuck in my mind, of what a wonderful way to honor Margaret.”

When UCLA Urban Planning alumna Laura Pulido Ph.D. ’91 was contemplating where to do her doctoral studies, FitzSimmons was suggested to her as an ideal advisor. Pulido said that although she wanted to stay in geography — and was hesitant at first to apply to UCLA Urban Planning — once she met FitzSimmons, she knew it was the right decision.

“Going to UCLA and studying with Margaret was a transformative experience for me. She was a great source of knowledge, wisdom, generosity and love — I am deeply thankful for Margaret’s role in my life,” said Pulido, now professor of indigenous, race and ethnic studies and geography at the University of Oregon.

Pulido added that at that time there were no geographers working in Chicana/o/x studies and very few planners.

“Margaret and I shared deep interests in the environment, agriculture and Mexican labor. Most importantly, she offered me a supportive environment to develop my research in Chicana/o/x studies, race and social movements,” Pulido said.

Her work and rapport with students — and dedicated support of them — did not go unnoticed at UCLA.

In 1991, FitzSimmons received UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award, in part for her work in developing the Environmental Analysis and Policy concentration, where she “exceeded all expectations,” according to the award citation.

“Margaret had an important role in infusing planning with an environmental sensibility, which had largely been lost from the ’50s to the ’80s when planning became enchanted with suburbs and freeways,” said UCLA Urban Planning colleague Susanna Hecht. “She pointed to a future in which environmental concerns would have to move more centrally into the profession, as it was moving dramatically into American and global politics.”

Hecht said FitzSimmons’ work aligned with her own interest in large-scale politics and transformation.

“Her concerns were often in advance of the times, but harkened to a more holistic type of understanding,” Hecht said. “She rejected the kind of reductionism that later became popular in policy in planning, and insisted always on the broader view.”

After FitzSimmons joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz, she remained engaged in questions of sustainability in agricultural production, as well as in the complexity of California’s ecological systems, Hecht said. “This is a complex legacy, but one in which she played a vital, if perhaps unrecognized, role.”

For former UCLA colleague Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture, urbanism and American studies emerita at Yale, FitzSimmons’ work extends far beyond UCLA and the UC system. “She will be missed by her colleagues and students in the United States and around the world.”

No formal memorial services have yet been announced. More information is available via the family obituary and tribute wall online.

Hecht Honored by American Association of Geographers

Susanna Hecht, professor of urban planning and director of the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies, received the Stanley Brunn Award for Creativity in Geography from the American Association of Geographers in Denver on March 24. The award is given annually to an individual geographer or team that has demonstrated originality, creativity and significant intellectual breakthroughs in geography. Hecht, who also has an appointment at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is one of the founding thinkers of political ecology. She has published research on anthropogenic soils, agroforestry and the land management practices of indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples in Brazil; how cattle farming, soy production and mining in the rainforest drive unsustainable land use, deforestation and climate change; and how forests have been shaped by human engagement throughout history. Hecht’s publications include “Fate of the Forest: Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon,” co-authored with Alexander Cockburn, and “Scramble for the Amazon and the Lost Paradise of Euclides da Cunha,” which won the Melville Prize for best book in Latin American environmental history, awarded by the Conference in Latin American History, in 2014. She also co-edited “The Social Life of Forests: The Past, Present and Futures of Wooded Landscapes.” Hecht has been actively involved in social movements in Amazonia, including the Forest Peoples Alliance in Brazil, and is a member of the Science Panel for the Amazon.

Read a Q&A with Hecht about the state of the Amazon rainforest on the UCLA Latin American Institute website.


Seeing the Forest and Filling in the Blanks

By Stan Paul

For Susanna Hecht, the story of Amazonia is just that — mostly a story.

The popular notion of Amazonia as a void, or blank spot, on the map contrasts starkly with what has been the real story of the region unfolding over several centuries: extraction, depletion and destruction of its natural resources with very real global consequences from external and internal forces, according to the urban planning professor.

Hecht, who is director of UCLA’s Center for Brazilian Studies, has been working to fill that blank for more than five decades. Her efforts are being recognized this year as “one of the most influential figures in the disciplines of geography” by the American Association of Geographers.

“The Amazon is not for beginners. It’s complicated, it’s difficult, and it has a really rich history,” Hecht said about the region’s complex web of history and politics.

Currently completing her trilogy on Amazonia, Hecht’s next book has a foreboding working title, “This side of Paradise: From Arcadia to Apocalypse.”

The 1988 ratification of Brazil’s new constitution and the emergence and consolidation of a variety of new environmental laws and territorial rights in the region are a current focus. The constitution was developed with the active participation of Indigenous, afro-descendent and other traditional peoples. “It rewrote Amazonia’s conservation map through a complex of social movements (including rubber tappers and Indigenous populations) and the emergence of many new forms of tropical governance and allies at multiple levels,” she said.

“In many ways, it elaborated the idea of protected areas that could be inhabited by people,” said Hecht, noting that the so-called socio-environmental period produced a drop in deforestation by 80% in just over a decade.

But tragically, powerful counterforces were also on the move reflecting new market geopolitics, including foreign demand for soy, beef, timber and minerals. Amid economic decline and the rise of clandestine economies throughout the Amazon biome, “failed and flailing states lost interest in Amazon governance by political default, incompetence or corruption.”

Today, planetary scientists consider Amazonia as perhaps the only place where human action to protect forests could have a significant benefit.

“We know from past geoclimatic studies that Amazonia is one of the great planetary levers —that’s why it’s one of the five key tipping points in global climate,” she explained.

“An Amazonia that flips from a forest to a savanna would not only be devastating for the Amazon and its adjacent bioclimatic systems, but it would also be a carbon bomb, and dramatically affect teetering global climates.”

Hecht hopes that worst-case scenario never comes to pass, but “I am writing this book with a great sense of urgency. Euclides da Cunha called Amazonia ‘the last unfinished page of Genesis.’ I’m leaving the last page of the book intentionally blank.”

Hecht on 50 Years of Engagement with Amazonia

Susanna Hecht, professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin and director of the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies, was a recent guest on the 74 Podcast series “Urban Nature.” Hecht, who holds appointments in geography and UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, discussed her five decades of research and engagement with the Amazon as well as changes in the region over the past century. Topics of the program, recorded in July, included the ideological view of the Amazon as a frontier. “It was not actually ever a frontier,” said Hecht, arguing “that ideology of frontier is the ideology of conquest. It doesn’t reflect a reality.” Hecht, an authority on forest transitions and sustainable agriculture, as well as a founding thinker in the field of political ecology, described the Amazon as a “major center of civilizations … a major area with large-scale urban structures with linkages between those structures,” as opposed to a void that is subject to what she calls a “development tsunami.”


Faculty Also Lead Research Centers Across Campus

Several research centers based outside of UCLA Luskin are led by one of our faculty. Here are two examples, both of which changed directors in the summer of 2021. The first involves a newly hired faculty member, and the other is a longtime professor who has taken on a new responsibility. 

Veronica Terriquez Ph.D. sociology ’09, hired into the position of director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center and as an associate professor of urban planning and Chicana/o Studies

Tell us about yourself, the center and your first year as its director. 

I’m a proud daughter of Mexican immigrants with 100-year roots in the L.A. area. I really believe that higher education is an important tool for addressing issues of equity and inclusion. 

We are doing a lot that is addressing the needs of young people as they seek to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial injustices that they have experienced in recent years. I’m leading some projects that focus on that, take a participatory action research approach to understanding the needs of young people, which includes meetings with adolescents and young adults — high school through their 20s. 

A lot of people have suffered during this pandemic, but young people, particularly those in low-income communities, have encountered multiple setbacks to their healthy and successful transitions to adulthood. And part of what I want to do is figure out exactly what is going on so the research can inform local and state investments in young people. 

I’m also developing work to support ethnic studies implementation at the high school level. I’m hoping that the Chicano Studies Research Center could serve as an additional resource for supporting efforts by educators across the state to bring quality ethnic studies to the classroom and to train the next generation of teachers. 

What lies ahead?

I hope that there will be more targeted and quality investments in the lives of young people who are most impacted by social inequalities. And, if those investments are made in the long term, we will see reduced economic and social inequalities in the state of California and beyond.

Professor Susanna Hecht is director of the Center for Brazilian Studies at UCLA.

Susanna Hecht, professor of urban planning, a specialist on tropical development in Latin America who has affiliations in Geography and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA

Please talk about your new role.

I am delighted to be the director of the Center for Brazilian Studies. First, because Brazil is so amazing, and it has been a major site of rethinking so many paradigms about development. Brazil has been an engine of products, concepts and practices that have really changed how people look at things. 

It’s reshaped how we think about conservation. 

Now everyone listens to Brazilian music, has seen Brazilian movies, likes to eat açai bowls and other Brazilian food, and has at least heard of Amazonia. It’s not quite as exotic, although it still maintains the allure of the beaches — its beauty and its beauties! 

When and why was this center created?

Area studies, in general, are an outcome of the Cold War. The isolation of different forms of knowledge across academia made it difficult for understanding of localities through a number of dimensions, including their languages and literatures, their histories, their anthropologies, and their sociology, politics and geography. The geopolitics of the time and the extensive intervention of the U.S. as a novel political power brought a need for consolidation of forms of knowledge in the training of students and fostering interaction between scholars of different kinds. 

These sites also became important areas of critique of American policy and politics in the developing areas that they encompassed. 

Brazil’s new constitution was written in 1988 and it became a template for constitutions in Latin America. It recognized indigenous rights and Afro-descendent land rights, and it paid attention to the new array of environmental questions. 

So much of Latin America is in the tropics, which are seeing deforestation and many extraordinarily important consequences of climate change, including species extinction and changes to livelihoods, both urban and rural. 

Area studies, generally, are useful venues for thinking globally. And in places like Los Angeles, which has become more international in its population — and its arts, music, foods and livelihoods —  area studies centers have been venues for rethinking the relationship of Los Angeles and the world. 

As time went on, large centers like the Latin American Institute realized that its regions were very distinctive, and each needed its own arena of study. This was certainly true of the Brazil Center.

UCLA Luskin Scholars on Strengthening Democracy in the Americas

A June 8 conference on how to strengthen the collective defense of democracy in the Americas featured several scholars from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The hybrid in-person discussion and webinar was a companion event to the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The webinar focused on strengthening the Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted in 2001 by 34 countries of the Organization of American States. The goal is to generate and advance realistic policy recommendations to improve the charter’s application by OAS member states. President Gabriel Boric of Chile offered the keynote address . In addition to Dean Gary Segura, participating UCLA Luskin faculty included Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Helmut Anheier, Professor of Urban Planning Susanna Hecht, Associate Professor of Urban Planning Veronica Herrera and Associate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Planning Paavo Monkkonen. The webinar is sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International RelationsUCLA Latin American Institute and UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-sponsored by the Latin American Program at the Wilson CenterThe Carter Center and the Community of Democracies


View photos from the event on Flickr:

Defense of Democracy


Connecting the Dots on Climate Change Environmental scholar Robert Bullard charts a path to a more equitable future — if America can avoid repeating past mistakes  

By Les Dunseith

Robert Bullard has been called professor, dean, author, policy influencer, important thinker, movement starter and the father of environmental justice. But that’s not how he chose to describe himself during a May 12 talk at UCLA.

“I do what’s scientifically called kick-ass sociology,” Bullard said playfully in his opening remarks to a roomful of students, faculty, staff and other interested parties, plus an online audience. “And what I’ve tried to do is to make it simple, make it plain, make it real and connect the dots.”

The renowned scholar from Texas Southern University has written 17 books. “But it’s really just one book — don’t tell anybody,” Bullard said slyly. “The central glue that connects all of those volumes? Fairness, justice and equity.”

He often blended humor into his discussion of serious topics such as America’s history of racial discrimination and the growing global climate crisis. Titled “The Quest for Environmental and Climate Justice,” Bullard spoke and took audience questions for more than an hour in the Bruin Viewpoint Room of Ackerman Union as part of the UCLA Luskin Lecture series. It was presented in conjunction with the Harvey S. Perloff Environmental Thinkers Series and UCLA Urban Planning’s 50th anniversary celebration.

In his introductory remarks, Dean Gary Segura of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs said, “At the Luskin School, we try to have conversations about things that actually matter — climate degradation, environmental degradation and its impact on working class and poor people of color — and for which there is a desperate need for solutions.”

Bullard is known for his courage and “his insights into how questions of race figure into environmental justice,” said the evening’s emcee, Susanna Hecht, a geographer and professor of urban planning who also serves as director of the Brazilian Studies Center at UCLA.

“He is a person who has a broad perspective and broad horizons,” Hecht said. “His work has expanded to embrace a range of topics that evolved at the center of environmental, civil rights, human rights and the question of race and vulnerability under climate change, as well as patterns of pollution in both urban and industrial landscapes.”

So, what is environmental justice?

Bullard sees it as an essential notion that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection to ensure they have adequate housing, quality health care, and access to the energy and transportation they need in their daily lives. Civil rights and human rights.

The reality rarely matches the ideal, however. He cited as an example a study that showed government relief after a natural disaster going primarily to wealthier, predominantly white communities rather than to poorer, predominantly Black areas.

“We know that all communities are not created equal,” Bullard said. “There are some that are more equal than others.”

Without action, disparities are likely to grow as industrial pollution further degrades our planet, he said.

“Climate change will make it worse on the populations that are already suffering,” Bullard said. “Those who have contributed the least to the problem will suffer the most. That’s the inequity that we’re talking about. You can’t have your basic human rights if even the right to breathe has been taken away from you.”

Despite decades of experience documenting human nature at its worst, Bullard has not given in to despair.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can get this right. I’ve been working on this for 40 years, but we don’t have another 40 years. We only have, maybe, a dozen to get this right,” Bullard said.

He cited California as a leader in environmental equity and climate change responses and noted the state’s history of finding out-of-the-box solutions in technology and government, as well as its highly regarded universities.

“Let California be California. That’s my answer. Push the envelope as far as you can,” Bullard said.

“And so, I’m looking to young people. I’m looking at your faces,” he told his audience of mostly young scholars. “You are the majority now. I’m a boomer and proud of it. But millennials, zoomers, Gen X, Y and Z — you outnumber my generation. Take the power.”

View photos from the event on Flickr.

Robert Bullard Luskin Lecture

Hecht on Threats to the Vital Amazon Rainforest