January 27, 2011

Students challenge popular environmental assumptions with unique research model

Students challenge popular environmental assumptions with unique research model
  • Kat Fiedler '11
  • Ben Mitzner '11
  • Emily Nguyen '11

Ask a Lewis & Clark environmental studies major what they think we should do to address climate change, and there is a good chance you won’t hear standard-issue responses about carbon offsets or organic food systems. What you might hear is, “It depends.”

The environmental studies program at Lewis & Clark offers a degree that requires students to take classes in a wide range of academic fields and ground their research projects in a pedagogical framework called situated research. The program is designed to teach students to consider the context of environmental problems as part of their research and problem-solving endeavors—what works well in Boulder may not work at all in Botswana.

“For me, situated research means that we consider environmental theory and frameworks and apply these to a specific issue with its own complicated biological realities and economic, political, and social stakeholders,” said senior Kat Fiedler. “It is through this that we see there is no formula for environmental solutions, but simply an approach to considering the crossroads of all involved and to be able to move beyond these complications toward action.”

Fiedler, Ben Mitzner, and Emily Nguyen, all seniors majoring in environmental studies, have used the site-based approach in their senior theses. They are excited for students following behind them who will have an opportunity to take advantage of new international research opportunities being supported by a $600,000 grant recently awarded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

In this interview, the three students talk about situated research and how it has helped shape their thinking about environmental challenges facing the planet.

How would you define situated research?

Mitzner: Situated research provides a context in which direct, on-the-ground relationships in a location provide a connection with real-world problems, and the student has an opportunity to “situate” their interdisciplinary education in tangible firsthand experiences.

Nguyen: Situated research is holistic in the sense that it allows us to consider various perspectives and forces. It acknowledges (rather than reduces) the tensions between subjective and objective accounts of environmental problems and solutions, nature and culture, or the local and the global.


How do you think your liberal arts education has prepared you for situated research?

Fiedler: Situated research requires you to look beyond one academic field. You must consider natural systems, as well as human systems. A liberal arts education provides you with the academic training to be able to deeply understand and challenge ideas coming from a wide range of fields. Conservation efforts will remain fruitless unless they can fully acknowledge the political, social, and economic implications that are inevitably connected. The environmental studies major at Lewis & Clark requires that you take classes in nearly every department, which I think has proved extremely valuable in realizing the web of actors in environmental issues.

Nguyen: If situated research is a way of contextualizing environmental problems and solutions, then my liberal arts education has provided me with the ability to look at these issues through differently situated lenses. My liberal arts education at Lewis & Clark has equipped me with interdisciplinary knowledge and sets of skills. Due to the great breadth of my undergraduate courses, I have been able to make connections between different disciplines, which ultimately enrich my situated analyses of environmental problems and solutions.


Some would argue that environmentalism has failed because it hasn’t been contextualized enough to fit different social, cultural, and economic needs. Do you think situated research helps us get closer to better environmental policies?

Fiedler: Many environmental problems reach far beyond the local scale, however the stakeholders at the local level can vary greatly. The same issue may need to be addressed a number of different ways within different contexts in order to act appropriately in each context. Situated research can look at larger environmental problems in context and realize that a certain action in one place is not appropriate for another place. We must always consider the context of a problem, as natural systems are inextricably linked to social, political, and economic systems. However, we must be careful not to focus in too small either, as this can blind us from connections to broader stakeholders.

Mitzner: I think situated research absolutely fosters a more productive approach to developing and implementing environmental policies. Although broader platforms of environmentalism tend to reach more people, it is becoming increasingly obvious that a one-size-fits-all approach to environmental policy is not effective or sustainable. I think the future of successful environmental policy lies in decentralized, location-tailored regulation that allows unique places and spaces to implement their own methods of reaching broader standards.


Could you describe your research and how you think it relates to larger environmental, social, or scientific questions?

Mitzner: For my thesis, I am increasingly interested in the way urban agriculture can be incorporated into existing city dynamics, and how city policy will have to change to support the movement. I will be doing a comparative study of the urban agriculture movements in Portland and Detroit. These two movements, while part of a broader national (and even international) surge in urban food production, have arisen out of unique contexts—contexts for which I will develop an understanding by conducting situated research. I will be looking at the recent social, spatial, and economic histories of each city in order to investigate the forces that have provided the space urban agriculture has filled. Then, I will conduct extensive qualitative situated research on the ground, with individuals involved in the two cities’ movements, in order to understand their motivations in dedicating themselves to furthering the movement.

Fiedler: In my senior thesis, I will be considering how different environmental theories describe the way we consider a system’s response to disturbance, and how this shapes our ideas of conservation and restoration work. I will be describing the arachnid recovery following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens through three environmental theories—succession, alternative stable states, and panarchy—that exemplify the evolution of our environmental thought. Arachnids will serve as my finest focal point from which I will consider the process of ecosystem recovery over time. A comparison of these environmental theories within this context will show what each theory illuminates, and what each theory ignores.

Most of our ecological theories remain irrelevant and useless until they are considered within the context of an issue. We must see how each variable is described and accounted for in order to transform theory into action.

Nguyen: My thesis is an analysis of environmental problems and solutions in the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh in northern India. Ladakh is generally regarded as the last “Shangri-La,” a region that consists of several self-sufficient farming communities, which are rapidly disappearing under the pressures of corporate development. This past summer, I received a Lewis & Clark SAAB grant to participate in a homestay program, founded by the International Society for Ecology and Culture, called “Learning from Ladakh.” My thesis examines how variously situated individuals perceive environmental problems and solutions in Ladakh. I am interested in understanding the interactions between the “global” and the “local” perspectives toward environmental problems and solutions in Ladakh and the narratives that each view presents. Most visitors of Ladakh are modern pilgrims, reacting to the homogenizing and isolating effects of modernity by searching for some sort of “reconnection to the Earth.” My main interest is in how these pilgrims have influenced both the type of environmental solutions that take place in Ladakh as well as the perspectives of the Ladakhis toward environmental problems. My research is an attempt to tackle a larger question in Environmental Studies of how we understand environmental problems and solutions.


What do you think the fun, unique, or complex challenges will be for Lewis & Clark students who will have the chance to do environmental research in other parts of the world?

Fiedler: While my thesis work is on a system quite close to home, I spent a semester studying conservation issues in New Zealand. Our coursework focused on not only the unique biota of the island country, but also on the social and economic systems that impacted conservation efforts. The very nature of how conservation work is carried out in New Zealand is vastly different than in the United States and came as quite a shock to us. While we were at first quite hesitant, it quickly became clear that we must look at these conservation issues with new eyes in order to understand that the reality in New Zealand requires these sorts of conservation efforts. Situated research, whether in an international locale, or simply in a different neighborhood of your city, forces you to reevaluate your truths and see the novelties of this new context.

Mitzner: I am extremely excited (and a bit jealous) that the ENVS program is going to be able to support international situated research. I think it is the perfect complement to the program’s structure—we spend the first two years developing a toolbox of technical analysis skills and theoretical understandings, and now students will have a chance to take these to new, foreign locations and find out how they play out in context.


Learn more about the next generation of environmental leaders in this video.