Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in Mexico then came to school in the US, to Grinnell college. I actually started as a biology major with an environmental studies concentration, which was sort of new at the time. One of the neat things about going to a small liberal arts school is that students start doing fieldwork very early on. I got to work with my professor, who still runs the Environmental Studies Department at Grinnell, and we were doing tropical ecology research in the tropics. But, I realized that as we were doing ecological research on the dynamics of this forest, we were working with local people, and we realized that often these people knew a lot more about these forests than we did.
I think it had a lot to do with personality, but I started getting really interested in the “people” side of things. And when I went to apply to grad school, I, of course, applied to mostly biology graduate schools, but they were not really interested in looking at human interactions unless it was monitoring negative impacts. I was interested in looking at situations where humans have a built body of knowledge that is not necessarily negative and a way to learn from it, and my adviser mentioned that there was an entire field, called environmental anthropology, that I might find interesting. He brought it up to me a month before I graduated, so I read this book, looked at the intricacies of resource management, applied to a few more grad programs that were for anthropology, and ended up getting into the Stanford Environmental Anthropology program with only ever taking Intro to Anthropology!
What have been your favorite classes to teach?
I really like all my classes! The environmental anthropology class I teach is very based in theory and understanding what we mean when we say that we want to “analyze the relationship between humans and nature.” How do you classify humans? what do we mean by nature? Students who take that class really open up their minds to understanding this dichotomy that we might not understand as well as we think.
The other class is the anthropology of good intentions, which critiques a lot of projects like fair trade coffee or other sustainable development initiatives, but even though you want to engage, are we really making a dent? and what are some of the problems we make in the process,? Often there are more problems created than solutions. It is an interesting class because although I do get a lot of anthropology majors, there are also a lot of ENTS and other very activist students. It is a hard class because I think students come in looking for solutions, but you really find more complexity and more problems that you have to push through.
The anthropology of food class that I’m teaching right now is a lot of fun because we get to try all sorts of crazy things! Its fun because food is one of those things where people can immediately have a cultural connection with the environment. So when we talk about how people relate to the environment, it’s easy to project culture, but it is hard to internalize it and recognize our own understanding. With food, you either like it or you don’t! There is nothing really biological about it, well, except for a couple of genes here or there, so (our taste preference) is learned, it’s cultural, I would say about 90% and it is an interesting tool in evaluating human-nature relationships. It is not a foodie course, its really about exploring humans and the environment in these intricate ways. It is really interesting because you taste it. You know what’s right, and what’s not.
I also teach a class called Mother Earth, which talks a lot about women and the environment. Is there something that makes women love nature more than others? It’s always a complicated question. My big message is, anything that you do in terms of conservation, it doesn’t matter how endangered a particular animal or ecosystem is, if you don’t know the social context, its not going to work. You need to spend time thinking about conservation as a social problem. That’s what I love about the ENTS department, you need all of these different angles in order to make it work. My angle is the social angle.
How does Anthropology fit in with the ENTS curriculum?
Well, nature is conceived of differently by different people. It can be radically different! Something that we consider majestic, beautiful and super worthy of conservation could be a real nuisance for somebody who has to live off of it. That can really put a hinge on any type of conservation project we want to do. You can even see it here in the US where we have a very multicultural setting, and not everyone has the same motivations for engaging (in conservation). There was recently an interesting comps talk on Urban gardening in hmong communities.
When we think of urban gardening we think that it’s great because it gets you outside, connects you with fresh foods, etc. but when you interview a Latino or Hmong family, you can see that their motivations are very different. So, if you want to make conservation a democratic process, you need everyone to engage. But we can’t expect that everyone loves nature in the same way because we don’t. Not everyone thinks a polar bear is so fantastic, and not everyone thinks that macaws are majestic!
I have been lucky to live in societies that conceive of nature so differently and that I could see how this works . That people can wind up having these very intricate relationships with nature that don’t necessarily look like what we think they look like or what we want it to look like. We have a lot of preconceived notions on what “indigenous people” are supposed to do. That’s where anthropology really has something to contribute. Also, anthro can help prevent bad situations where we are imposing our way of “nature conservation.” The balance we need is that on the one hand we have a crisis going on environmentally, but on the other hand, if you don’t consider social context, it doesn’t matter how “right” you might be, it’s just not going to flush out. This cultural context is very important.
What do you think of the ENTS department?
I love that there is so much coming from so many different places; history, ecology, geography… anthropology! I wish I could have been in the program when I was an undergrad!