In the 2018 Spring Semester Nykia and Shannon sat down with Daniel Aldana Cohen to discuss his research, climate communities at Penn, and the importance of intersectional analysis when it comes to climate change.
Shannon: So we’ll start with a very broad question. What brought you to Penn?
Penn invited me. [Laughter]. It was exciting to come to Penn because Penn has a very long tradition of doing fantastic, cutting-edge work in Sociology and Demography. I am a Sociologist who does a lot of work in the global south, which intersects with many interests that Demographers have. Penn is also a rising star institution when it comes to thinking about climate change and environmental problems in new and interesting ways. The Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, Penn Design, the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and Perry World House all create a really exciting place where there's intersectional thinking on climate change that includes policy thinking, planning thinking, and social scientific thinking.
Nykia: It seems like your research crosses disciplinary lines of inquiry. How do you navigate research and networking situations with scholars from disparate fields of study?
I cross disciplinary boundaries enthusiastically. I had never taken a Sociology class before I started graduate school and my majors were in the History of Ideas and International Development Studies, which is already an interdisciplinary field. My work is like a mix of Political Sociology, Critical Urban Studies, and Social Science of Climate Change. Climate and Society is a totally interdisciplinary field of inquiry where people are tackling climate change based on problems that they see in the world and not based on gaps in the literatures. I get to seek out knowledge from psychologists about how people think about climate change, from political scientists about institutions and negotiations, and from economists about pricing. I think each of us feels that this is a desperate situation and there’s no time for institutional niceties.
I was the first sociologist to be on this blog called Forecast, which is run by the climate science editor of Nature, Michael White. There are people outside of Sociology, even outside of the Social Sciences, who want to understand what is happening with climate change and social forces. I'm someone who's trying to answer questions and not force people to talk to me about Weber or Marx or Durkheim for 10 hours. I just want to get to the point! I would encourage other people who are interested in interdisciplinary research to sometimes be a little more subtle in terms of the local conversations that they have within their field and just get to the point of what they're doing. Weirdly, a lot of graduate training doesn't emphasize that, but if you're involved in the public sphere or you go and meet people who are interested in interdisciplinary research, you pick up better habits of thought and communication than if you just stick to a small subfield. At the end of the day people in your discipline are always happy to see you representing it in other spaces.
"Demography is on the verge of contributing a huge amount to our understanding of migration and climate change."
Nykia: How did you discover your field of study? How does it relate to Demography or Population Studies? How did you come to be where you are in your research? And, how did you choose Sociology after not studying it in undergrad?
I became intensely interested in climate change thanks to The New Yorker magazine, as cliché as that sounds. I knew about it growing up in Canada, we learned about in school. I had studied a little bit of environmental politics as an undergrad. I learned this fundamental thing that a lot of people still haven't figured out, which is that inequality and climate change are the same problem.
I finished my undergrad degree and I had zero interest in going to graduate school. I became a magazine writer and I would go to magazine stores and flip through magazines and that's how I would learn what was going on and who I should pitch to. Around that time The New Yorker ran a beautiful series of articles that turned into a book, called Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. I now assign it to my students. Kolbert’s writing introduced the topic of climate change, its gravity, and its intersection with human affairs like no other piece of writing I had ever read. I think it's still a touchstone because she did such a great job. I was like climate change that's it, that's my life. Then Al Gore's movie came out, and I was like okay it's being taken care of and then nothing happened.
After that I started graduate school studying Latin American History and then I immediately switched to Sociology. Sociology gives you a huge amount of freedom if you can master some basic methods. It’s all about understanding the connection between social forces and global economic transformations. And that is exactly what climate change is about. Demography has a historically narrower interest, but one of the top questions of climate change is the question of how it will impact migration. We have seen more interest in this department, certainly in other departments, and in research centers around the world. That kind of hybridity yields these like fantastic insights, so I feel like Demography is on the verge of contributing a huge amount to our understanding of migration and climate change.
Shannon: How important have mentors been in your career trajectory?
I didn't really have a mentor until graduate school, but there have been professors who were great. There was an undergraduate professor, Karen Bauer, who taught me the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory—I will go to my grave feeling like I never thanked her enough. I’m still grappling with what I learned in her classes. I had some mentors as a PhD student at NYU who gave me freedom. They sort of looked at me and instead of making me into a more cookie cutter sociologist, they said we'll just call you a Sociologist and make sure the research is well done; do what you have to do. I wanted my research to be big and sprawling and tackle climate change, and they were like more power to you. I've had some really great mentorships since I've come to Penn. Emilio Parrado, the Sociology chair, has been great. Herb Smith and Irma Elo from the PSC have been very supportive. I told Herb about this crazy dream I had to start this climate initiative based on carbon footprinting and Herb was like, the PSC can support you getting started. Annette Lareau, Guobin Yang, and David Grazian have also been fantastic in terms of helping me understand what it is to be a professional sociologist, how to balance sociological and interdisciplinary research, and how to get my work out there. My junior colleagues have been incredibly helpful, especially Amada Armenta, Pilar Gonalons-Pons, Courtney Boen and Regina Baker. And I have had some wonderful mentors outside the department, like Bethany Wiggin from the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and Mark Alan Hughes from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
"We're going to be able to think about the intersection of the built environment and social inequalities in a way that has not yet been done."
Shannon: Can you talk a little bit more about like (SC)2?
(SC)2 is the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative. The idea is to bring attention to the emerging social science work being done at Penn around climate change. One discipline that I'm the closest to outside of Sociology is Geography and geographers have done incredible work around climate change. I want to put the question of space, whether it's an urban studies or landscape, at the center of the conversation about climate change. I think the intersection of social and spatial inequalities and the social and spatial forces in how life is patterned is really huge. There’s so much more that sociologists can do to take advantage of the insights of geographers. So (SC)2 is based at Penn, but building networks with a range of social scientists from other universities; we had a really successful and inspiring workshop in spring 2018 called “Unsettled Spaces” that brought in researchers from four continents—sociologists, geographers, and political scientists.
(SC)2 has one big research project called “Follow the Carbon.” It’s a carbon footprint study of U.S. household consumption of unprecedented spatial resolution; I’m collaborating with the environmental economist and data scientist Kevin Ummel. No one has ever traced carbon to household activities with remotely this much spatial resolution or geographical precision. We're going to be able to think about the intersection of the built environment and social inequalities in a way that has not yet been done. We'll be layering on top of that data on vulnerability to local toxins as well as climate dangers like heat and sea level rise and flooding. We're hoping to create accessible quantitative tools and maps that will ultimately be very visually interactive and allow people to really plunge into this world of social inequality, space, and climate change.
(SC)2 had a reading group last year and we’re going to get that going again this year. We’re trying to use a tiny bit of money and a lot of enthusiasm to build a network of social science researchers who care about climate change. There's a shocking absence of this type of network in the United States, so hopefully this will grow. It would also give more visibility to the social science research on climate change at Penn. And we’re starting a new project, called “Gramsci Landscapes”, which is looking at the politics of the energy transition in the US and elsewhere. I’m working with a great landscape architecture scholar at Penn, Nicholas Pevzner, and the political scientist Thea Riofrancos, who teaches at Providence College.
Nykia: What is your involvement with professional activities or organizations and how have they been valuable to you?
I found that being editorially with small magazines during my journalism days, and since, was really helpful. The non-academic editorial world imposes a discipline on you intellectually that’s very helpful, in terms of speaking to the public and getting to the point. These days, I often work out ideas for future projects via magazine articles because you don't have to do the epic reviews that are a part of academic publishing. And you reach more people, so you get way more feedback.
A lot of my research is about housing movements and other poor people's movements. Organizers in those movements have been extremely generous with their time. I'm always looking for ways to help them and that's also intellectually very productive because people who are fighting every day to improve their own lives from very bad conditions are obliged by their activity to know a lot about what's going on. I think ethically we are obliged to be in touch with that kind of group and to give back whenever we can.
There are many universities that have a public facing institutes. The one at NYU is called the Institute for Public Knowledge. That explicit orientation towards the public or even just other fields of study forces you to think in a sharper and more relevant way. Again you get feedback from people who really care and who don't want to sit down and talk to you about your tenure clock because they don't care about your tenure clock. They care about the research and ideas that you have that can be useful to the world or to them as thinkers.
"I think that climate change is by far the most important and the most interesting thing that is happening in the world. It implicates virtually every field of natural science, virtually every social science, and every field in the humanities."
Nykia: So you talked about the (SC)2 project, but what can you tell us about some of your other projects and what you might be looking forward to this year?
My main project actually is to turn my dissertation research into a book. The working title is Street Fight: Climate Change and Inequality in this 21st Century City. During the 2018-2019 academic year, I’ll be primarily working on this as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey. The book is largely based on research in New York and Sao Paulo, and to some extent London. I think it's the first attempt to really deeply integrate an analysis of the things people try to do to reduce carbon emissions, the way that cities have responded to extreme weather, and social conflicts over everyday life and housing. Most people look at the housing crisis and inequality in cities as one major crisis in the 21st century and climate and environmental issues as second and separate. What I show is that if you actually look on the ground at what is happening and why, it's the same issue because both of them are about housing, transit, land-use, and buildings—of which housing is the most important. Actually when you look at why a low-carbon policy succeeds or fails, it tends to have a lot to do with whether ordinary people and movements that represent ordinary people are on board politically. It's not just a question of saying theoretically everything is connected, but actually if you want to provide a satisfying explanation for why what's happened the last 15 years has happened, why all these amazing win-win policy ideas are mostly stagnating, then you have to go and look at the social side. There are not many people who are talking to both environmentalists and people in those housing movements at the same time.
Hopefully it'll be relevant to Philly. There's a lot happening in Philly that fits my analytic framework, but at the same time, people get mad when you compare Philly to New York because…anyway, they just do.
Shannon: What advice would you give someone who is training to be a
researcher or maybe a postdoc who finished their PhD?
To speak frankly, I think a lot of people are working on pretty narrow research questions. I think that for scientific reasons you have to have a very tightly focused question, but you can set it up in such a way that a tightly focused analysis of a problem speaks directly to a much larger problem or system in the world.
Undergraduate students pay like a shocking amount of money for scholars to have beautiful chairs and nice offices and the government spends lot of money on research, and I just think we are ethically obliged to try to contribute to solving the big problems of our times. I think that that's smart career advice and you know, again, if there’s something that’s going to keep you up at night, it should be a really big problem. And if you're an academic, you’re probably the kind of person who doesn't sleep well anyways, so take advantage of that staring at the ceiling time, wondering what the hell is it all about. And then ask, what are we going to do about it? That would be my advice.
Nykia: Do you have anything you want to add before we stop?
I think that climate change is by far the most important and the most interesting thing that is happening in the world. It implicates virtually every field of natural science, virtually every social science, and every field in the humanities. Intellectually, it is endlessly fulfilling to work on this topic. There are really bright people in all kinds of fields that work on climate change from all different academic traditions, so it's just so rewarding to be in that space intellectually.
Nykia: Maybe the more people that jump in, the sooner problems will get solved.
Daniel: Yeah, I mean…
Nykia: Solutions will happen.
Daniel: If we don’t believe that our work would make a difference, then what are we doing?
Special thanks to Anita Lai for her assistance with transcription!