My research and teaching interests come out of my broader life experience. I was concerned with social and economic injustice in the world from a young age. As I learned about climate change and the degradation of the natural world as a student, I came to appreciate that achieving environmental sustainability is central to building a just and thriving global human society. Over the course of my career I have worked on environmental issues as a research scientist, as an expert adviser to government officials, as a teacher, and as a policy advocate and community organizer.
Before joining Amherst College, I worked with The Field Museum of Natural History, based in Chicago, carrying out action research to support environmental conservation and improve peoples’ quality of life in the Peruvian Amazon. As an interdisciplinary team, we used scientific data to protect Amazonian forests while creating spaces for local communities to reflect critically on their values and priorities, and to find ways to shape their own futures. While I was living in Chicago and working at the Field, I also worked on local environmental issues, and spent time on advocacy around social, economic, racial and migrant justice issues.
Before joining The Field Museum, I worked for the Center for International Forestry Research based in Lima, Peru researching the politics of land use change, local peoples’ land rights, and how these issues relate to deforestation and climate change. This work took me to the Peruvian Amazon, the Mayan jungles of southern Mexico, Indonesia’s peat forests, Vietnam, and the coastal and interior forests of Tanzania.
As a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I studied community-based forest management in the Bolivian lowlands, and also did work on microfinance and renewable energy in rural South India. Locally in Boulder, I was a strong advocate for renewable energy and democratic control over electric utilities.
I am personally interested in and inspired by awesome natural beauty, compelling fiction, live music of many flavors, cutting comedy, mind-blowing new science, and people who fight against seemingly great odds for a more just future.
I am a political ecologist, which means that I see environmental questions as fundamentally political questions. My main focus in recent years has been on deforestation and land use change in the global South, especially in the Amazon rainforest. Tropical deforestation is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, so curtailing it is critical for mitigating climate change and protecting the livelihoods of millions of forest-dwelling and indigenous people. While there have been laudable efforts to slow deforestation in the tropics, forest loss has nevertheless continued to accelerate, threatening the planet and its people. In the face of this urgency around tropical deforestation, I have focused my research on several key questions:
- What are the underlying drivers of deforestation? Who holds power to make decisions about tropical forests, not just legally, but also in practice?
- Why do some strategies to reduce deforestation fail while others succeed?
- How do people build coalitions to confront powerful interests who promote deforestation while empowering local people that depend on forests?
By answering these questions, I aim to diagnose the political causes of environmental crises, locate the levers action for building a more sustainable and equitable world, and consolidate policy advocacy efforts around viable solutions to vital problems.
To teach environmental politics well, we must go beyond providing students with a basic knowledge of environmental policy. We must also equip students to analyze contemporary issues quickly and rigorously, with an eye towards finding ways to take action. While I am a scientist and researcher, I have also advised policy makers on environmental issues around the world and worked to mobilize communities around specific environmental issues. These diverse experiences inform my approach to teaching. In my courses, students will learn the nuts and bolts of the subject matter through reading, discussion, and writing; but they will also learn to evaluate new and old socio-environmental problems, make recommendations for action, and communicate their ideas to diverse audiences. In the “real world,” policy-makers, private firms, environmental non-profits, and community organizers use a variety of different products, ranging from scientific papers, to policy briefs, to blog posts and podcasts. From introductory freshman courses to capstone senior seminars, I encourage students to hone their critical thinking and writing skills by producing many of these diverse products. Becoming adept at different ways of thinking and talking about nuanced social, political, and environmental problems will serve students well in future jobs, in graduate school, as activists, as artists, and as concerned citizens of a complex society.