Eco-justice scholar Ashley Dawson named 2017 Barron Visiting Professor in environmental humanities

Ashley Dawson, an English professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, has been selected as the Princeton Environmental Institute’s 2017-18 Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities.

Ashley Dawson, 2017-18 Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities

Dawson focuses his work on cultural studies, post-colonialism, eco-criticism and activism, particularly how people have perceived, affected and defended nature through art, politics and economics. At Princeton, he will explore two key issues through the lens of environmental and social justice: urban environmental futures — including adaptation to climate change — and energy cultures, with a focus on global struggles against fossil fuels and for energy democracy.

In Fall 2017, Dawson will teach a new environmental studies course on urban ecology, “The Nature of the City.” The class will examine the material and social infrastructures through which nature is metabolized in cities, as well as how the way we imagine cities affects urban nature.

“Cities the world over are confronting environmental blowback from uncontained growth, and are contributing disproportionately to the very atmospheric pollution that imperils them,” Dawson said. “The fate of cities hangs on the struggle to develop a creative and socially just politics of urban nature.

“The flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey demonstrates the tragic implications of bad decisions about urban form,” he said. “With its petrodollar-fueled economy, Houston sprawled mightily in recent decades, sacrificing flood-absorbing wetlands for parking lots and housing developments. Yet, Houston is not alone in confronting the contradictions of urban growth.”

In Spring 2018, Dawson plans to teach a course on energy culture that will explore the ways in which different energy regimes are represented in literary and visual form. Dawson also plans to collaborate with the artist/activist group The Natural History Museum to bring to Princeton’s campus the Lummi Nation totem pole, which is touring sites of extreme extraction across the United States to raise awareness of environmental and indigenous rights.

As PEI’s Barron Visiting Professor, Dawson also will begin work on a new book, “The Resource Curse: Oil, World Literature and Maldevelopment.” This project will examine the rise of “petrofiction” in societies such as Nigeria where social, economic, political and imaginative structures are dominated by the oil industry.

Dawson has written extensively on issues of environmental justice and human-driven climate change. His forthcoming book, “Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change” (Verso, 2017), argues that urban areas are the defining ecological phenomenon of the 21st century — they house the majority of humanity, produce most of our carbon pollution, and are uniquely vulnerable to climate change.

Dawson’s previous book, “Extinction: A Radical History” (O/R Press, 2016), examined the accelerating loss of species and habitats worldwide in the context of global capitalism, which must consume — and thus deplete — resources in order to survive.

In addition to these works of ecocriticism, Dawson has written two other books, edited four essay collections, and published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in academic journals and essay collections. Dawson received his doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1997.

Established with support from Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron ’74, the Barron visiting professor program has hosted 12 accomplished humanists since 2007 with the intention of forging closer ties between the environmental sciences and the humanities and social sciences at Princeton. Visiting professors have explored issues such as environmental justice, eco-literature, environment and comedy, religion and ecology, and the imagery of climate change in art and architecture. They have added courses to PEI’s curriculum, advised students, presented public lectures, organized conferences and exhibitions, and created interdisciplinary approaches to the study of environmental topics.

A directory of past Barron visiting professors is available on PEI’s website.