Saturday, January 3, 2015

Political Economy: Questions for Spring

This spring begins my third semester in the PhD program in Environmental Studies at AUNE. Here I am sharing my first assignment for Political Economy, an introductory presentation based on two questions:

1. Today, what are a few words that reflect your research interests? Can you share why this area is of interest to you?

I am interested in the intersection of higher education and local food systems, and how institutions of learning can use their intellectual, capital, and material resources to mutually nourish the communities to which they belong in ways that are culturally appropriate, ecologically sound, and economically feasible. I want to know how communities that are building resilient local food systems are working with their member institutions, and what leadership roles, methods, and measures are of most benefit. From this knowledge I hope to develop a model for communities that want to build resilient local food systems in conjunction with colleges/universities, with the end goal of improving opportunities for all stakeholders to learn collaboratively through meaningful and just work.

This challenge combines two areas in which I have professional experience, higher education and local food systems, along with an area in which I want grow, social justice. On a personal level, I have also experienced food insecurity; I am a parent of three people who are certain to face challenges related to unsustainable food systems; and, I have a low tolerance for apathy. Also, the cost vs. value of higher education has been called into question in recent years, and since the International Association of Universities’ conference I attended in March 2014, I find myself asking, if higher education’s promise does not align with the goals of sustainable development (ensuring the present generation’s ability to meet its needs without hindering future generations’ ability to do so), then who does higher education serve? How can institutions of learning best model stewardship in the world, beginning at a local scale? I believe food systems, being inextricably linked with other natural and human systems like energy, water and commerce, and being a vital and direct part of the human experience, are an ideal place to implement immediate change.

2. Do you see any potential relationship of Political Economy to your area of interests?

Dartmouth’s Political Economy Project says that political economy addresses these questions:

“Is capitalism a system of injustice and exploitation, or a system that allows for individual freedom and prosperity? What does it mean to have a fair and just society, the equality of legal rights or equality in the distribution of resources? What system of values is most conducive to prosperity, dignity, and happiness? How do different political and economic systems differ in their ability to achieve these objectives?”

Relating these questions to my research interests, I might use political economy to ask: What happens when local food systems are viewed through the lens of individual freedom and prosperity? What roles can higher education play in sustaining a fair and just society? What measures or models of university-community collaboration are most conducive to building resilient food systems? How do different political and economic systems differ in their ability to deliver accessible, quality education that enhances local food resilience?

In sustainability, we often refer to the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and prosperity. I think political economy is a thread that connects these imperatives into one workable goal, or maybe a tool that can carve a path to it. I also wonder whether there is a better term than “political economy” that can be used, since both “policy” and “economy” trigger negative attitudes for many people whose experience is the failure of both to ensure social and environmental justice.

As always, I invite your questions and critiques.