My recent research can be divided into three projects. First, “Plastic Nature” explores questions about the normative dimensions of nature and the natural. Second, “Parts per Billion” addresses questions about collective responsibility in the context of climate change. I am beginning a third project tentatively titled “Sustainable Power,” which focuses on ethical questions raised by renewable energy.
I remain committed to adopting multidisciplinary perspectives and presenting my work to a wide range of audiences. I strongly believe that environmental philosophers must think broadly and engage a large audience. As a scholar I aim to encourage both thinking and action that will meaningfully mitigate environmental injustices.
In this project, my work explores questions about the normative dimensions of nature. Nature is a slippery concept; it can mean everything (all physical reality) and nothing (the wilderness now vanished from earth) (Vogel). Nature is also valued differently across time, place, and social positions. I examine multiple sites where nature’s contested value is evident. I use political ecology, ecofeminism, and critical theory to trace the political backdrop and power relations underwriting nature’s contested value. This value is plastic; it can take many shapes. By imposing ways of valuing nature over others, or by fixing its value, the powerful inflict a type of environmental injustice; such valuing often constitutes a kind of violence or other forms of domination. My project exposes and critiques this domination. In doing so, I also contribute to debates over realism and post-naturalism.
In a book chapter, I argue the Jurassic Park films, when taken as a series, revise their definition of “natural” by exploiting the conceptual ambiguities of the term. Tracking this revision reveals power relations that disguise nature’s normative meanings (The Horror of Relations).
In “Sympathy for Cecil” I draw from three areas – animal ethics, political ecology, and ecofeminism – to understand not only why Cecil the Lion’s death elicited an outpouring of sympathy, but how sympathy for predator animals (translated into record-breaking financial donations) functions on the international scene to protect dangerous animals at the expense of people who live alongside them.
Another manuscript in progress engages directly with the “wilderness debate.” I transpose debates in the literature to examine the simulated nature of American landscape architect Frederick Olmsted. His works include over 100 parks and recreation grounds (including New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park), many private estates, university campuses, and more. Olmsted was inspired by Romantic and transcendentalist thinkers, though his work developed its own distinct style, what Dorceta Taylor calls “transcendental pastoralism.” His designs intentionally mimicked the natural, without appearing too natural. Drawing from Olmsted’s writings, I argue that this choice was not merely practical, but also disclosive of his axiology of nature. Olmsted helps us reflect on the contested value of park space, wilderness, and other constructed natures. I examine an area of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY, known as the Vale of Cashmere. The Vale is another location which reveals nature’s plasticity. The site has undergone transformation since the park’s inception. Its value has been contested by various park-goers from the affluent, black, and the queer communities.
A final piece in progress looks at prairie restoration. Since moving to the Midwest, I met many scholars, ecologists, and activists working on this issue. Illinois once contained nearly 60 million acres of prairieland, but far less than 1 percent of that remains today. While natural fires helped form some prairies, archaeological and environmental histories show that indigenous agricultural practices help create and sustain our state’s pre-Columbian Grand Prairie. This evidence raises questions about the ontological and moral status of restored prairies as “natural landscapes.” Weren’t indigenous practices also “artificial”? How does prairie restoration rehearse a nostalgia for a fictional “depopulated” landscape? And how does this fiction bolster questionable standards about how humans should (morally) interact with and repair damaged landscapes? These questions fold neatly into Plastic Nature– such as, who has the power to define nature and why it is good? – but they also intersect with recent debates in environmental ethics regarding the tensions between restoration and rewilding.
Parts per Billion
This project involves ethics, social-political philosophy and environmental politics. I consider questions about collective responsibility for climate change. I am primarily interested in the limits of individual responsibility to address climate change, the possibility of collective responsibility (especially for governments and institutes of higher learning), and how to identify collectives that bear such responsibility. I am especially interested in the evolving fossil fuel divestment movement. I intentionally published my work in different venues to reach a wide range of audiences: students, philosophers, and academics generally concerned with environmental issues.
Some of my published work on this project explores arguments against direct duties to address climate change, ways of thinking about shared responsibility, and the barriers and potential for climate change research at universities and colleges. I have also published work relevant to this project in the NY Times (with Aaron Jaffe) and in a forthcoming textbook chapter in College Ethics (2nd Ed. OUP).
Papers in progress for this project include questions about climate hypocrisy and structural injustice, the privatization of responsibility and the enclosure of environmental commons.
Over the past year, a team of ISU scholars I am part of has been developing a rubric to evaluate the sustainability of renewable energy projects. We recently received a grant to further pursue these questions. I am working on the social sustainability dimension of this evaluation. Recent literature on energy ethics – both in philosophical journals and beyond – is rich with questions about energy democracy, environmental politics, fair burdens, participatory justice, and more. I am particularly interested in energy democracy. I believe that by considering climate change a problem with energy systems rather than merely with emissions (Shaw), we can better understand some of the justice concerns that arise from environmental enclosure and displacement.