Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Rooting research on society and environment

William R. Burnside

The universal feeling of being a stranger in a strange land helped motivate this book. When I first moved to the Maryland coast to start a postdoc, I was stunned by its varied beauty and, coming from the high desert, its difference. On walks, I was missing familiar landmarks and often got lost. My first view of the shore, at one of many small water-access points, revealed waves lapping around marsh grass and an old, algae-covered pier, a swaying crab carapace, and the musky, saline smell of the Chesapeake Bay. As the months went by, I saw hints of the sculptural legacy of humans on this land-and-waterscape–the modifications of the coastline, the contoured farmlands, the pilings struggling against the surf.  Although I could sense my surroundings and crowdsource context from Marylanders I met, there was much I was missing. The Bay’s oyster fishery alone has a tortured and debated narrative, I learned, as an overexploited commons, a case of nature mismanaged as agriculture, and a tug-of-war between industry, conservation, and livelihoods. 

Discerning the terrain around my work there was challenging for related reasons. I had moved to Maryland to be part of the first cohort of postdoctoral fellows at the National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), which convenes people, ideas, and information from the natural and social sciences to address “problems at the human-environment interface”. As an ecologist interested in social science, I had a faint and incomplete sense of what socio-environmental research entailed. The Center convened a diverse, dynamic community and launched a continuing education program for postdocs, the Socio-Environmental Immersion Program, to immerse us in different research traditions and mindsets. Yet the more I saw of projects, presentations, and papers, the more I knew and, as often happens, realized I didn’t know. What is the basis here?  What is the legacy on which we are building or to which we are reacting?  Each scholar I talked to mentioned a few key works, people, and ideas, but despite overlaps it was clear each person knew best one or two disciplines. Wouldn’t a canon, however imperfect, help?  In ecology we have one, Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries, co-edited by my PhD advisor, James H. Brown, and every graduate student and most practicing ecologists have a well-thumbed copy. In socio-environmental research, I was missing this legacy. 

As the 2016 SESYNC Immersion Program concluded, a small group of participants–my coeditors Simone Pulver, Kathryn Fiorella, Meghan Avolio, and Steven Alexander–and I gathered around a mutual interest in digging deeper. We proposed an anthology and set to work reading, meeting, and canvassing colleagues for ideas. In this book, we humbly suggest a group of legacy readings and contextualize them with the insights of senior scholars Richard York, Emilio Moran, Richard B. Norgaard, Patricia Balvanera, J. Baird Callicott, and Marina Fischer-Kowalski. We define socio-environmental research as structured inquiry about the reciprocal relationships between society and environment. Timely examples include how wildlife consumption affects disease transfer to people and, in turn, how we have changed our consumption of wildlife. Another is how our use of energy resources affects society, as by the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuel use, and, in turn, society’s future energy options. Each reading emphasizes such structured inquiry about society-environment relationships, and each has left a legacy on research done today. We suggest a few early readings and then more within large domains, such as geography and anthropology; social sciences; ethics, history, and religious studies; and ecology. Imagine considering together the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt, Amartya Sen, and Rachel Carson. How would reading Thomas Malthus and Esther Boserup together and with expert commentary enrich your understanding of the still ongoing debate about whether technology can overcome the challenges of a growing human population? We link such pieces forward to today, to the diverse and diversifying terrain of socio-environmental research. Convening and contextualizing these voices puts them in conversation.

That conversation is essential given the balkanization of relevant research. Early scholars, such as Hong Liangji, Karl Marx, and Ellen Semple, may have considered issues more holistically, but the growth of knowledge and the nature of academia, among other institutions, favored division in the decades that followed. Sociologists, geographers, economists, and ecologists rarely collaborated or read one another’s work, which, given the volumes and incentives involved, was understandable. Clearly that is changing. Interdisciplinary training is growing, and researchers often collaborate across disciplines, methods, and more. Pulling together the historic strands is still a serious challenge, including given the difficulty of being well informed in even a single discipline. I struggled to master the legacy of research in ecology. How could I hope to expand? Working at SESYNC and on this anthology with co-editors and contributors from a range of disciplines was so enriching, helping me connect familiar strands and to see some of the many I didn’t know. 

An anthology is a proposal and a starting point. It represents the editors’ attempt to make sense of something complex and messy, to find a way through. Avoiding the effort may sacrifice broader understanding and coherence. It also risks avoiding the discussion. In the case of socio-environmental research, the stakes are staggeringly high in a practical sense as well. So many of our most challenging issues, from the many dimensions of climate change and pandemics to the erosion of biocultural diversity to the growing shocks to our food systems, are socio-environmental. Today’s associated research, like any landscape, is diverse and complex. It is easy to get turned around and to miss patterns and connections. Landmarks help. History and context helps. We hope this book will highlight some and inspire you to join the conversation slowly knitting together this varied tapestry. You will still wander in your own reading and work–that is, in part, the point–but perhaps you will feel less lost than energized. 

Foundations of Socio-Environmental Research by William R. Burnside, Simone Pulver, Kathryn J. Fiorella, Meghan L. Avolio and Steven M. Alexander

Title: Foundations of Socio-Environmental Research

Edited by: William R. Burnside, Simone Pulver, Kathryn J. Fiorella, Meghan L. Avolio and Steven M. Alexander

ISBN: 9781009177849

About The Author

William R. Burnside

William R. Burnside is a Senior Editor at Nature Sustainability. Previously, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at SESYNC and an editor of environmental science textbooks. As an independ...

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