I am a trained historian with a deep commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. Although I have a PhD in history, my research interests range from science, technology, and society (STS) and environmental studies to cultural history, the philosophy of science, green business, and agroecology. Broadly, I am interested in the ways in which humans interact with the natural environment and how science and concepts of nature affect those interactions. On the level of values, I'm fascinated by efforts (in government, the self, academia, NGOs, and the private sector) to make positive transformational change.
To date, I have written and published on the following subjects: participation in the European Enlightenment, the political culture of Old Regime and Revolutionary France, the history of suicide, the history of deforestation, the Counter-Enlightenment, the concept of public opinion, and the origins and formation of sustainability and sustainable development, ecological economics, and degrowth, sustainable food systems, and the transition to organic production.
More precisely, my research projects and interests have revolved around three areas:
1. The first area is Early Modern European history, with an emphasis on the cultural, scientific, and environmental history of Enlightenment France. My first book--The Enlightenment in Practice--appeared in 2012 with Cornell University Press. It broadens our understanding of the nature and impact of the European Enlightenment via an analysis of public involvement in intellectual life and the use of 'crowd-sourcing' by the French state. It is based on archival research that I conducted in about 30 French towns.
2. The second area is the history and practice of sustainability. In the past couple of years I have organized new courses on sustainability and environmental consciousness and published a number of works related to the subject, most notable Sustainability: A History (OUP, 2014/2016). The book is being released as a second edition in 2022. I am interested in where the concept of sustainability comes from, how the sustainability movement took shape, and the impact that it has had on our society since the late 1970s. Sustainability is a meaningful way for me to come to terms with some of the more problematic developments that the planet has witnessed since the 18th century: growth-based economics, population, industrialism, deforestation, anthopogenic climate change, ecological destruction, and so on. Sustainability, as far as I'm concerned, represents a constructive response to the unsustainable world that we've created. It also provides methods, bodies of knowledge, and inspiration for positive societal change.
In 2014, I published a book-length history of sustainability that is geared toward both academics and a broad public readership. It addresses the central ideas, thinkers, writings, and institutions that have helped form the sustainability movement. An explicit sustainability movement took shape around 1980, but in a sense, sustainability had been "in the making" since about the year 1700, which is where the book begins. The movement might be of recent origin but the concepts that inform it go back a long way. The book also considers the challenges of sustainability in the future.
Sustainability: A History was re-released in 2016 as a revised paperback edition. The Spanish translation of the book appeared in 2018.
One of the great pleasures of publishing this book is that it has allowed to me to engage with the public in new and more direct ways. My writings, and interviews about my work, have run in The Atlantic, The History News Network, The Boston Globe, resilience.org, The Conversation Canada, and elsewhere. Tens of thousands of people read and/or shared my article in The Atlantic. I have been interviewed on the CBC, CFAX, NPR affiliates, Irish National Radio, etc. I have given lectures on this material in several cities in North America and Europe, and am often asked to run seminars and workshops on sustainability, organics, and/or green business. It is amazing to me how much interest there is in building a sustainable society, and I hope, in some small way, to make a contribution to that effort.
The history of sustainability is a growing field and I am excited to be a part of establishing it as its own historical discipline. It borrows from environmental history, social & cultural history, intellectual history, and economic history, but it is its own academic entity. I've written what is likely the first historiographical essay on sustainability, which appeared as an article in late 2015. I recently edited a volume for Rutledge, too, called the Handbook of the History of Sustainability, which appeared in 2018.
3. My third area of interest is food systems and the organic food industry. I learned a tremendous amount about organics as part of my research on sustainability, and learned even more as the owner of an organic food distribution business. I am now teaching courses on the organics industry and have begun a long-term research project on the social, ecological, and economic benefits of organic food. Using local and national farms as case studies, my research aims to demonstrate the complex value of organic food systems. True food security requires organic forms of production that restore fertility, biodiversity, and resilience to soils. Further, I am interested in permacultural techniques and indigenous ecologies (and especially soil-building) practices. I organized a study abroad program in 2016 that took students to High Amazon Peru in order to study sustainable, indigenous agricultural practices.
I am fascinated by the idea of transitioning from unsustainable to sustainable food-making practices, and I view organic transition as a concrete example of how systems can transform. In the spring of 2017, supported by the Canadian Organic Growers (COG), I traveled across Canada and interviewed vegetable farmers who had made the transition, and used this material, in addition to years' worth of research, to write a transition handbook. It will appear in May of 2018 under the title One Level at a Time: Transitioning to Organic Vegetable Production (COG, 2018). I'm interested in (and inspired by) the leadership that farms (as businesses) exhibit in completely overhauling operations and production systems. The transition to organic management requires leadership, knowledge, new marketing efforts, and a leap of faith.
As a researcher, citizen, and educator, I believe that active participation in public venues of intellectual and critical exchange is crucial to the well-being of a functional democracy. I strongly support the idea of deliberative democracy--that is, the idea that progressive change and a well-informed citizenry requires sites (physical, figurative, or digital) in which to exchange ideas and voice opinions. Moreover, I believe that cultural and environmental issues must be approached from an historical perspective; understanding how we've gotten to where we are helps us figure out the challenges of the present and our vision of the future. Finally, I believe in the importance of scholarship that is engaged with the local community and public concerns. My research, especially in book form, is meant to appeal to and inform the average educated person. I believe that the value of scholarship is to assist the public in tackling the pressing social, economic, and environmental problems of the day. And so I hope that, in some small way, my contributions to the world of knowledge can be of use to our society.