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Understanding people

Group photo
Ferguson, on right, takes a group photo with fishers and their families in Palau. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Ferguson)

Caroline Ferguson

Human biology ’14, Earth systems ’15, PhD student
Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources

“Environmental problems are fundamentally human problems,” said Stanford graduate Caroline Ferguson, now an E-IPER PhD student. “We can't talk about sustainability without talking about people, and social science is a set of tools to understand people.”

Social disciplines have traditionally been overshadowed by natural sciences research in Earth and environmental subjects. Ferguson is on a mission to change that, from her exploration and teaching to the NGO she co-founded to help amplify the voices of Pacific Islanders on environmental justice issues. Her research centers on how fishers within local communities are affected differently by fisheries policies based on local power dynamics, for example, how Palauan women can be marginalized by gender-blind trade policies.

“I think we're only just awakening to this idea that gender matters and that intersectionality matters, that all people in a community don't experience policies in the same way and don't use resources in the same way,” she said. “When we use these really coarse instruments, it leaves the most vulnerable people out of the conversation, who are generally the people we’re trying to help.”

As an undergraduate, Ferguson was drawn to environmental justice issues, which at the time consisted of ad hoc conversations and scarce learning opportunities. In recent years, she has seen the EJ community at Stanford mobilize – a crucial part of incorporating social sciences into environmental thinking.

“We’ve had this sort of impoverished idea of justice, I think, in environmental science,” Ferguson said. “When I think of justice, that encompasses so much more than how we interact with one another or how we interact with institutions – it's also how we interact with the environment.”

Tying together her passion for the social side of environmental research and her exploration of international fisheries practices, Ferguson helped to start a new course, ENVRES 215A: Topics in International Justice, Rights, and the Environment, which she is co-teaching Spring quarter.

“Young people have always advanced progressive ideas,” she said. “Students at Stanford have created their own spaces to talk about environmental justice – this class is one step in that direction.”

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