Although this site is about my professional life, I believe the intellectual work we choose to do is at least partially a product of our personal stories. So here’s mine…
My mother was born and raised in Los Angeles, making her a third generation Californian. Her father taught wood shop at Palisades High School, famously known as Pali High, when it was still part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. My grandfather’s mother was born in Los Angeles. As the family legend goes, her mother and father (who would have been my great-great grandparents) lived in the same small town in Italy without ever knowing one another when they left Italy on separate routes for the New World. My great-great grandmother traveled on a ship that sailed around Cape Horn and then up the Pacific coast of the America’s.
My great-great grandfather’s ship sailed to Panama, where in the days before the canal one had to cross the isthmus on foot and then board another ship to complete the journey. They both landed in San Francisco where, as these stories go, they met and fell in love. They would later move to Los Angeles where their daughter, my great-grandmother, married a French Canadian man whose family was quite successful in the bathrobe manufacturing business. The family also owned a ranch. My grandfather, who grew up on the ranch, recalled stories of deer hunting with his cousins in what is now, more or less, downtown Los Angeles. In fact, the family ranch was eventually sold, either to the City or the O’Malley family. Either way, if you stood today at about the location where the main drive to the ranch house would have been, you would be standing on home plate in Dodger Stadium.
My father grew up in Southampton, the son of a caretaker at one of the sprawling estates for which the Hamptons are known. My father graduated from Georgetown University in 1966, then entered Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. He figured this would be a safe route, given the escalating war in Vietnam, since he would be able to choose his branch of service and to serve as an officer instead of enlisting at a low rank. Although his anti-submarine aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Yorktown, was stationed off Vietnam from 1965-1968, he never saw combat.
He would later meet my mother, whose sister had been a classmate of my father’s at Georgetown, when the Yorktown was stationed in Long Beach. My mother and father were married aboard the aircraft carrier, shortly before my father’s last tour aboard the the ship in 1967. My sister was born the next year.
By the time I was born in 1971, my father had left the Navy and was working in the insurance industry in San Diego. Having loved San Francisco on his previous visits, my father took a job with an insurance company there, moving the family from San Diego to San Jose. In 1977 my father took another job, this time in Santa Monica, and we moved again. The backdrop of much of my childhood would be the Southern California of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the lessons I’ve carried into adulthood, and am trying to instill in my children, were learned at Roosevelt Elementary, skateboarding “the wave” on the school’s blacktop, cruising along San Vicente on banana-seat dirt bikes or skateboarding with friends, walking through Lincoln Park on the way to basketball practice at the Boys & Girls Club, or taking the bus into Westwood with my sister. The freedom my parents allowed me to explore the city was, to say the least, formative.
I was heavily involved youth sports during those years. My father coached my little league teams and was very active with the leagues, whether baseball, basketball or soccer. He became frustrated with the service that sporting goods stores provided youth sports leagues and decided to leave his job and start his own sporting goods store. My grandparents had left Los Angeles by this time and were living in rural northern San Diego County. On visits, my father would do market research in North County towns like Oceanside, Fallbrook, San Marcos, and Vista.
He settled on Vista for the location of his shop, called “Sport About,” and moved the family once again. Starting a small business was not easy. My mother had to find a job to help support the family. My sister, by now, was in high school and the expense of college was not far off. But after many loans and a rough first two years, Sport About had taken root. Vista was a growing community and the demographics skewed not just young, but sports-loving young. Sport About eventually supplied gear and uniforms to at least two little leagues, a Pop Warner league, basketball leagues, and four or even five soccer leagues. My next set of life lessons took place on the “shop floor.”
One service Sport About offered was personalized jerseys. Standing over a blazing hot heat press transfer machine, with a list of player names, numbers, and jersey sizes on one side and trays of letters and numbers in various fonts, colors and sizes on the other, I learned great attention to detail. Getting an incorrectly spelled name off the back of a shirt was a costly and time consuming mistake. I also watched my father compete against big box stores, like Sports Authority, that came into town and tried to undercut his prices. I also learned how unscrupulous people can be by watching customers trying to return as “defective” merchandise they had clearly damaged through misuse.
In the three years after my father opened Sport About, we lived first in Bonsall and then Fallbrook. The year I started at Fallbrook Union High School, my sister went off to college. A year later we moved back to Bonsall, where I lived for two more years until leaving for college, and where my parents lived for about eight more years. In addition to working at Sport About, I had a job at the nearby golf course washing golf carts and collecting driving range balls. These were also the years of Greg LeMond’s Tour de France victories, which inspired my entry into cycling. By sophomore year of high school, I had given up soccer and basketball to focus on baseball. I also ran cross country, despite being a mediocre runner. But the discipline I learned training for cross country would later serve me well when I began running marathons in college.
Having grown up in California I decided I wanted to leave the state to go to college. I entered the University of Notre Dame in 1990 and was the beneficiary of good fortune my sophomore year when I randomly drew Sociology Professor Andrew Weigert, or Andy as he preferred his students call him, as instructor for my section of a College-wide core course called “Self, Society and Values.” This was fortuitous in two ways. First, given a certain amount of leeway to select readings, Andy added to core texts like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Elie Wiesel’s Night, a relatively new book called The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. In addition to infusing his sociological perspective into a course ostensibly about great books, ethics, and the meaning of life, Andy also asked questions I had never contemplated, particularly about the human relationship to the natural world. So inspired, I took a second course with Andy, “Society and Environment,” and slowly began to consider the possibility of shifting my sights from a career in journalism to one in academia.
During this time, I was also a regular visitor to the periodicals section of the Hesburgh Library where I would read back issues and eagerly anticipate each new issue of a journal called Environmental Ethics. I was reading debates on the intrinsic vs. instrumental value of nature, strong vs. weak anthropocentrism, and deep ecology vs. ecofeminism. In the end, while these debates had a profound impact on me intellectually they nevertheless seemed just detached enough from the emerging reality of human-caused climate change that I followed what I believed to be a more practical path into Sociology.
Studying environmental sociology in graduate school seemed like a natural fit, even though Andy’s symbolic interactionist perspective on human-environment interaction, which had been my introduction to the subfield of the discipline, was rare among the more macro-theoretical orientations dominating the subfield. When I graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in sociology in December 1993, I stayed in South Bend through the spring to work and save money to travel in the summer before starting graduate school. As a point of reference, not that I was necessarily a fan, that was the spring that Kurt Cobain killed himself, which was followed by the summer of O.J.
In the fall my father drove with me from Southern California to Pullman, Washington where I would begin work towards my PhD at Washington State University. Originally drawn there by one of the “fathers” of environmental sociology, Riley Dunlap, his health and other factors conspired against Riley working closely with me. I was fortunate to work instead with three great sociologists: Viktor Gecas (a grad school friend of Andy’s), Eugene Rosa, and Loren Lutzenhiser. I was also fortunate enough to cross paths briefly with an extraordinary scholar and person, Rik Scarce, who completed his PhD the year I began at WSU. Rik gave me a very important piece of advice.
“There are a lot of hoops to jump through in graduate school,” Rik told me. “Don’t question the hoops, just jump through them and finish your degree.”
On this advice, I quickly identified a thesis topic–the “ecological self” as manifested in participants in the deep ecology movement–and advanced to PhD candidacy in 1996. At the beginning of 1997, I moved to Portland, Oregon to begin dissertation research on the ecological identities, or lack thereof, and environmental values of people who were exploring a renewal of the “voluntary simplicity” movement of 25 years earlier. I finished my dissertation in just over a year, and accepted a job offer at Providence College in Rhode Island.
I met my wife, Marion, who had recently graduated with a MFA in Ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design, while living in Providence. She lived in a loft in an old mill building on Branch Ave. Our first meeting was at a nearby park where she regularly walked her dog, Tausa.
I later learned that I had given so much attention to Tausa that Marion was almost put off. But Marion trusted Tausa, who was often standoffish or even defensive around men, so it was ultimately a good omen that Tausa and I bonded.
Another good omen was the lunch I had one day with Phil Brown at East Side Pockets on Thayer St. In 1999, while commencing research on dioxin contamination in a local river, I decided to ask for insight from Phil, who worked across town at Brown University. Phil’s work on the leukemia cluster in Woburn, Massachusetts, which was published in a book with Edwin Mikkelsen called No Safe Place, provided a groundbreaking look not just into community mobilization in response to contamination, but also into the struggles of laypeople to make empirical connections between health conditions and contamination.
During lunch that day, having met me only an hour earlier, Phil invited me to collaborate on a project he was just beginning on contested environmental illnesses. In particular, the project examined breast cancer, asthma, and Gulf War-related illnesses, and the forms of activism engaged in by individuals working to make connections between these conditions and environmental factors. For three years I worked with Phil and a number of his students in what came to be known as the Contested Illnesses Research Group.
Also while at Providence College, I began collaborating with Stuart Shulman, who was then an adjunct professor in the Political Science Department. Together with another political scientist, David Schlosberg, and a couple of computer and information scientists, we launched a couple of NSF-funded projects to study the use of the Internet to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making. The research experience I gained working on both of these projects helped me move out of the largely teaching-focused environment at Providence College and land my current job at the University of San Francisco.
I have been at USF since the Fall of 2002, receiving tenure and promotion to Associate Professor in the Spring of 2005 and then promotion to Full Professor in 2014. In my first three years at USF, I experienced the death of my father and the birth of both of my children, Claire in 2002 and Luc in 2004. Returning from a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award in India in the middle of 2006, I stepped into a three-year term as Chair of both the Sociology Department and the Environmental Studies Program. It was challenging during this time to stay engaged in my research, much less to find dedicated time to write. After stepping down from both Chair positions in 2009 (before resuming as Co-Chair of Environmental Studies from 2012-2015), it took me a couple more years to figure out which direction I would to take my work next.
My life story ends here for now. In the last five years I’ve been reenergized, in many ways, by finding a way to weave together my personal life, my teaching and my research so that now, whatever I’m engaged in, I feel like I am working “toward equitable and just sustainability transitions through insight from the social sciences.”