We introduce you to:
Justin Page, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia
How did you become interested in environmental sociology?
I have always tried to understand the ‘deep’, rather than technical, causes of environmental problems. My Masters work on the phenomenological basis of ecological identity extended and challenged my undergraduate education in psychology, leading me to question individualistic approaches to environmental behaviour. Through this work, I came to see environmental problems as inherently social: the consequence of social forms of organization, definition and power. While researching potential doctoral programs, I happily discovered that my burgeoning interest in the co-construction of nature, knowledge and environmental problems had a home in environmental sociology.
What are your research interests?
I am interested in projects that hold the potential to reassemble relations among people, environments and ecologies while bypassing counterproductive assumptions about nature and society. For me, nature and society are not separate, nor are they connected, nor one part of the other. I agree with actor-network theorists that the constructs of nature and society must be abandoned in favour of detailed analyses of the ways in which humans and nonhumans become associated in particular cases, whether that is in a transition town, a conservation economy, or a green technology. Such an approach allows the researcher to understand how environmental problems and solutions are produced, to examine the role of nonhumans in determining their own fates, and to bring to light how actors are included, excluded, shaped and transformed within the politics of nature.
I used this approach in my doctoral study the Great Bear Rainforest in coastal British Columbia. My interviews with environmentalists, forestry companies, First Nations and local and provincial government, as well as analyses of textual and visual material, allowed me to trace the development of this particular hybrid conservation/development/justice space. I showed how environmentalists worked across scientific, cultural, and economic domains to develop a new understanding of BC’s coastal forests, and how they assembled a network of grizzly bears, building supply companies, philanthropic foundations, forestry companies, and First Nations to hold this definition in place. I will soon publish this study as a book with UBC Press.
What research are you currently working on?
I recently completed a postdoctoral research project at UBC’s Centre for Applied Ethics on ecogenomics-enhanced bioremediation, a novel technology designed to treat polluted mine drainage. Working in an interdisciplinary team of biological engineers, microbiologists, remediation companies, mining companies and sociologists, I examined the development and social acceptability of this new and potentially controversial technology.
I am currently working with data derived from Dr. Ralph Matthews’ Resilient Communities Project. This project collected a wealth of quantitative survey data and qualitative interview data with rural, resource-dependent coastal communities facing economic decline in British Columbia. Resilient communities draw on socially-embedded resources to buffer and adapt to external shocks; in this case, the shocks have to do with instable relationships to forestry, fishery and mineral resources. The goal of the project is to determine if and how communities draw on social capital to mobilize adaptive capacity. I am conducting statistical and qualitative analysis to derive insights into social capital structure, use and community resilience.
What are some of your more interesting findings that you would like to share with us?
On the Great Bear Rainforest project, I learned that non-governmental actors can develop substantial power to make decisions over public resources by developing a wide and heterogeneous network in support of their cause. I also learned that once the network is in place, the actors who convened it no longer have control over its shape and goals.
On the ecogenomics project, I learned that acceptability of new environmental technologies must be differentiated from acceptance. While acceptance refers to a technology and is determinate and final, acceptability applies to a socio-technical network and is nuanced and conditional. For example, our participants’ concerns about the ability of industry and government to deal with unintended consequences translated into a desire for local monitoring and oversight as a condition of acceptability.
On the Resilient Communities Project, I have learned that attachment to place and commitment to community are connected to social capital, but not necessarily to features that would enable the mobilization of resources to respond to changing resource economies. I have also learned that high levels of social capital do not necessarily indicate community resilience, as social capital is not often recognized as an economic asset by community leaders.
What would you like to pursue with your research in the future?
The concept of sustainability has historically formed the touchstone of the environmental movement; however, the drive to keep things the same is being replaced with the need to design for change. Increasing disturbances, disruptions and disasters associated with climate change, economic meltdown and transition away from oil-dependent forms of social organization highlight the pressing need for resilience.
Ecologists have been at the forefront of the resilience concept, pointing to inevitable disturbance in ecosystems and the capacity of such systems to buffer, adapt to or transform as a consequence of change.Increasingly, resilience researchers focus on the linkages between social and ecological systems, but the nature and role of agency within these ‘systems’ remains largely under-theorized.
How are these systems designed? By whom? For whom? To what end? With what degree of coercion? How do nonhumans participate? My future research will explore how ecological approaches to resilience and complex adaptive systems can be enhanced by an actor-network theory approach, particularly on the issue of agency.
What is your favourite place in Canada to spend time?
Scrambling up a peak in the BC’s coast range, sailing up the Sunshine Coast, biking along 10th Ave. in Vancouver.
Page, Justin and Janet Atkinson-Grossjean. 2013. “Mines and Microbes: Public Responses to Biological Treatment of Toxic Discharge.” Society and Natural Resources 26 (3): 270-284.