I love the moment when students begin learning because they are compelled to know more. You can see the sparks flying.
When Professor Peter Wilshusen, environmental studies, discusses environmental protection, he frequently mentions a crucial, but often overlooked, part of the world's ecosystems: people.
"Nature is not just something detached from us that we protect," says Wilshusen, a social scientist. "If policymakers establish too many restrictions, that can create hardships for the people living in an environment. We need to think more critically about protecting nature and biodiversity, and the rationales behind certain policies."
Wilshusen's long-standing interest in environmental issues and their human component was cemented during his Peace Corps service in the 1990s. He was first posted in Morocco, where he helped to establish management guidelines for a national park. Later, he was transferred to Uruguay, where he developed an environmental-education curriculum for primary schools.
"Both of those experiences were rich and foundational," Wilshusen says. "I realized I'm interested in people as much as I am nature, because those two things are not as separate as we tend to believe."
Wilshusen notes that the scope of his research has expanded from an examination of the state and national land-use policies governing Mexico's tropical forests to studies on a global scale.
Working with Bucknell students and scholars from around the world, Wilshusen attends international gatherings such as the World Forum on Natural Capital, the World Conservation Congress and the World Parks Congress to analyze overarching shifts in biodiversity and conservation policies, programs and even language.
For example, Wilshusen says, the increasing use of the term "natural capital" to describe the environment can change the way people think about nature.
"In mainstream economics, nature is often invisible on the balance sheets," he explains. "As a result, the environment isn't valued the way other assets are, so the environment gets degraded." Identifying nature as a form of capital can give the environment more perceived value — but the shift may also have repercussions. "I want to understand how this changes things politically," he says.
Wilshusen adds that he strives to provide students with opportunities to collaborate on research and challenges them to approach topics with open, curious minds, in the liberal arts tradition.
"Students who come to Bucknell for environmental studies have great opportunities for field-based research," he says. "Undergraduates can have direct, challenging experiences with faculty. And in those situations, learning becomes contagious. I love the moment when students begin learning because they are compelled to know more. You can see the sparks flying."
Posted February 2018
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