Brown scholar will use Carnegie fellowship to explore nature, politics in the Yukon

The fellowship will allow Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian, to use the Yukon watershed as a case study for how different societies manage, protect and plunder their natural resources.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Bathsheba Demuth, an assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University, has received a $200,000 fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to support an original research project that explores the intersection of nature and politics.

Demuth is one of 27 Andrew Carnegie Fellows from across the nation selected this year. The fellowships are awarded to scholars annually to support high-caliber research in the humanities and social sciences that addresses important and enduring issues confronting society. Research topics typically focus on a broad range of complex political, economic, technological, humanistic and sociological matters.

For Demuth, the fellowship will fund a research trip down the Yukon River, which stretches from Northern Canada to the southwestern coast of Alaska. Demuth said the Yukon watershed is an ideal place to study how societies have historically included — or excluded — nature and the environment in their political decisions: The region holds the histories of multiple ways of governance; indigenous nations, European empires and contemporary democracies had, and in some cases still have, different ideas about how or even whether to protect and steward the land.

“So many political traditions overlap there — indigenous nations, the Russian and British empires, the United States and Canada,” Demuth said. “All have or had ideas about how water or land, moose or geese, air or gold, should be stewarded and distributed and related to. How do we treat entities that are not people in our political decision-making? I think this question is particularly important now, as people around the globe deal with massive and continuing environmental change.”

The environmental history scholar said her research will result in a book, tentatively titled “The Yukon Watershed,” aimed at both researchers and the general public. She also has plans to collaborate with news publications to document the research process, and she will work with two Alaska Native podcasters — including Deenaalee Hodgdon, a Class of 2019 Brown graduate with Deg Xit'an Dene and Supiaq ancestry — to share indigenous residents’ stories about their relationships with the land.

How do we treat entities that are not people in our political decision-making? I think this question is particularly important now, as people around the globe deal with massive and continuing environmental change.

Bathsheba Demuth Assistant Professor of History and Environment and Society

The 27 Carnegie fellows were selected from more than 330 nominations. According to Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation and president emeritus of Brown, fellows were selected in part because their research proposals addressed societal issues that have become even more pressing in light of the current novel coronavirus pandemic.

“The pursuit of knowledge and the generation of ideas were critically important to the corporation’s founder, Andrew Carnegie, whose mission is especially relevant today as our society confronts problems that have been greatly exacerbated by COVID-19,” Gregorian said. “Fellows from earlier classes are actively addressing the coronavirus through their research on topics such as its impact on rural America, government authority during a pandemic, and ways in which different countries address infectious diseases. The work of this exemplary Class of 2020 will also be of service across a range of other crucial issues.”

Demuth will begin her research at a potentially crucial juncture for environmental policy. The pandemic has halted car traffic, curbed air pollution and reduced chemical leaks and spills in oceans and rivers, opening many people’s eyes to the strain that everyday habits place on the natural world. Demuth hopes her fieldwork and publications will build on that momentum and inspire further discussions on how cities and countries can rethink their relationships with their natural surroundings.

“How do we bring ‘the environment’ or ‘nature’ into the decisions we make about how we live in the world?” Demuth asked. “This research is a way to explore those questions with communities already experiencing climate change and to reflect on how the past informs how we imagine what is possible in the future.”