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Five Questions for Jesse Ribot

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SIS professor Jesse Ribot at a pottery wheel.

SIS is fortunate to have a large and accomplished faculty working at the forefront of their fields. Here’s the latest in our getting-to-know-you series with new SIS faculty.

Q: What are your areas of expertise, and why are you interested in these topics?

My work has been focused on who has access to and control over natural resources, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. I'm especially interested in issues of equity and justice.

I break this down into two broad areas. One is representation, rights, and recourses—issues of how people have voices in and influence over the political economy that shapes their well-being in the context of access to natural resources. The other is in questions around vulnerability—hunger, famine, dislocation, or economic loss—in the face of environmental change, and in particular, in the face of climate variability and change.

My areas of expertise come out of a very interdisciplinary background. I earned an undergraduate degree in physics and linguistics, a master’s in energy and environmental policy and planning, followed by a PhD, which I pursued under a political economic geographer. I draw on a number of disciplines to pursue the problems that I want to understand.

Q: Where were you before coming to the School of International Service?

I worked in Washington for a decade at the World Resources Institute, and I learned a lot about doing applied work: how the findings of my research can be used in policy and practice and how to communicate that research to policymakers and practitioners. I then went to the University of Illinois’ Department of Geography & Geographic Information Science, with additional appointments in anthropology and natural sciences, where I taught and continued my research.

I taught courses on questions around democracy and the environment and on climate and social vulnerability. During those 10 years, I ran a large comparative research program on the effects of forest carbon sequestration programs in sub-Saharan Africa—where people are being paid to sequester carbon in their forests—and the effects of those programs on people’s livelihoods and institutions.

Q: Which courses are you teaching or planning to teach at SIS?

Currently, I'm teaching a course on global climate change and social vulnerability called Studies in Global Environmental Politics: Global Climate Change. This course is focused on understanding the causes of people's vulnerability in the face of climate variability and change. Rather than looking at climate as having an impact on the world, I want to examine why the same environmental event—such as a storm or drought—damages some people severely while other people find it a mere nuisance. It's not because of the climate event itself, but because of differences in people’s security and vulnerabilities, which need to be understood if we're going to make their lives more secure and less precarious.

In the spring, I will teach an undergraduate version of the climate course. I will also teach a course on democracy and the environment—which is a very different set of issues—looking at how rural people are represented in matters of forest management, pastureland management, and farm management. We’ll also look at how these rural populations are able to shape the institutions and policies that affect their livelihoods and the resources around them.

Q: What’s a fact about yourself that students might find surprising?

I am a glassblower and a potter. I started glassblowing because my aunt Rhoda had a Tiffany goblet, hand-blown by Louis Comfort Tiffany. I was doing pottery at the time, and, when I saw this glass in her cabinet, I told her “if you can make this out of glass, I must blow glass.” I started asking around, and it turned out my high school art teacher knew somebody who knew somebody that could teach me to blow glass.

I've also written a children's book that was never published called The Business of Sustainable Development: An African Forest Tale. It’s online and illustrated by a famous Senegalese artist, Mor Gueye. I've also made films about my research. To put it very simply, I think that the work I do is more easily communicated through humor and irony than through academic blather.

Q: What book(s) are you currently reading?

I'm reading an odd mix right now. First is by Nathan Englander—a friend gave it to me. Another friend of mine, Helen Epstein, wrote a book that I really want to read next called Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror. I also want to reread Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I just finished a book by Noam Chomsky—What Kind of Creatures Are We? I'm very interested in his linguistic philosophy, which I find seriously important.