Nathan Young – Feature Profile

We introduce you to:

Dr. Nathan Young, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Ottawa, Ontario Personal Webpage

How did you become interested in environmental sociology?

As an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo I took Dr. Keith Warriner’s course, Sociology of the Environment.  One of the things that struck me in that course was the astonishing range of interpretation that both experts and everyday people could have of the natural world.  As a young person with a casual concern for the environment, I had always assumed that the solutions to environmental problems were relatively clear cut and involved the application of some of the pretty self-evident lessons of the past few hundred years to reform how things were done. I became fascinated with counter-environmentalist arguments and narratives, such as the (by no means consensual) economistic view that the Earth has no inherent limits and that scarcity is an overstated problem.  This then led me to graduate studies at UBC in Vancouver, and a long collaboration with my doctoral supervisor, Dr. Ralph Matthews.  To this day I’m deeply interested in different understandings of the natural world.

What are your research interests?

In a word, they are varied.  While I do call myself an environmental sociologist, I’ve never thought that you can place the environment in a box.  For me, the environment is a thing that we engage with, and in order to understand nature, we have to look at how that engagement happens.  This view has led me to do research on a broad range of topics, including rural sociology, natural resources, environmental governance, media sociology, social networks, and the sociology of science and knowledge.  While these areas seem disparate, they share the common thread of trying to understanding the processes and practices involved in human-environment relations.  This approach is probably best exemplified in my recent book (co-authored with Ralph Matthews) The Aquaculture Controversy in Canada: Activism, policy and contested science (UBC Press, 2010), which analyzes an environmental issue by broadening the lens and locating it in deeper cultural and economic questions.

What research are you currently working on?

For the past few years, I’ve been researching issues of climate change governance and communication in Canada.  Our federal government has adopted a series of unusual and complex positions on climate change over the years and my goal has been to understand how these relate to public understanding of the issues, political strategy, and various forms of activism. Two papers have been published out of this study (in Canadian Review of Sociology and Public Understanding of Science, with at least three more forthcoming).  I’ve also recently begun a study on the role of scientific knowledge in shaping public and private interests in the context of PrioNet, a Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence that was formed to deal with the BSE crisis but is branching out into new areas of health and environmental research.  Last but not least, I’ve begun a comparative study of recent environmental governance reforms in greater- and lesser-developed countries with a specific eye on the dynamic (or lack thereof) between politics and science and expertise in framing these changes.

What are some of your more interesting findings that you would like to share with us?

Findings are difficult to summarize, so I’ll be philosophical instead.  What I’ve learned from my research over the years is that complexity is both the friend and the enemy of environmental sociologists.  I’m pretty sure it was John Dryzek who said that environmental sociologists have the toughest job in the whole discipline – not only is the human world outrageously complicated but so too is the natural world, and we have to deal with both.  That complexity though is what makes environmental sociology so inexhaustibly fascinating.  I am convinced that we can read the story and even the future of modernity through the environment, particularly in how it intersects with politics, culture, and economy, not to mention social problems such as inequality, rights, and justice.  So much to do!

What would you like to pursue with your research in the future?

I hope to be able to further develop the international angle of my research.  The problem is that Canada is such a great place to do this work that I need to make more time for the rest of the world.

What is your favourite place in Canada to spend time?

Without question, that would be the Bella  Coola Valley in Central Coast region of British Columbia.  I had the privilege of doing research there  several years ago, and I’ve gone back as a tourist as well.  There is no more spectacular place that I’ve  seen in the world.  A green, fertile,  luscious valley on the Pacific Ocean packed in by snowy mountain peaks and  filled with wonderful people.  Paradise.

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