Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.
Claudia Leal is an associate professor in the department of history at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. Her research has focused on both the formation and the present state of peasant societies in rainforest environments, and on the role of racial categorization in shaping Latin American societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?
I don’t think it does. Solutions to environmental challenges have to be concrete and I do not offer any. More than solving environmental problems, my research helps build consciousness that human history (and present) is intertwined with the environment. In doing so, I stand with all environmental historians. My current work is both environmental history and what some call post-emancipation studies, which refers to the fate of societies and Afro-descendant people after slavery. So I hope that those in the latter field will get the message that the environment matters.
What is one change you would like to see happen to achieve a sustainable future?
My main concern is with poverty. And I don’t think addressing poverty always goes hand-in-hand with making the world more sustainable. Yet, one utopian wish would be to end the compulsion for consumption that guides our society. I find most environmentalists to be quite contradictory. Like me, they deeply enjoy the privileged way of life some of us have, which are based on levels of consumption well above those of most people in the world.
What is your favorite piece of environmental literature?
I have a favorite author more than a favorite piece of literature, and that’s William Cronon. When I was in grad school, I read Changes in the Land, Nature’s Metropolis and several of Cronon’s articles. I love how his work helps us understand key elements of the relationship between societies and the environment, while also being so nicely written. More than any other author, he is the one who really drew me to environmental history.
Who has been a big influence on your work and life, and why?
My dad. He and my mom took me and my sister around Colombia when we were kids. In those car trips I learned to love landscapes. He also taught me to love animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian as a kid, and then a biologist, but I ended up in the social sciences. For people who love and enjoy the environment, it comes from very deep inside. And the home strongly shapes who you are.
Where is your favorite place to spend time with nature?
The mountains. Since we’re here now in Munich, of course the Alps. But also the Sierra Nevada in California and the Andes in Colombia, especially the páramos.