Dr. Meredith Welch-Devine: Communities, Collaboration, & Climate Change

November 20, 2022

Q&A by David Hecht

Meredith Welch-Devine, PhD, is the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School and an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Georgia. In addition to serving as the chief of staff for the Dean’s Office and coordinating wide-ranging initiatives across campus, Dr. Welch-Devine teaches and conducts research at the intersections of environment, culture, conservation, climate change, interdisciplinary pedagogy, and scientific communication.  We asked her about her on-going work and foundational legacy of involvement with the Center for Integrative Conservation (CICR).

Tell us a bit about your current work and involvement with the Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR).

When the Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR) was established back in 2007, I served as the Associate Director and was part of the team that sparked the creation of the Integrative Conservation (ICON) PhD program. Since then, I have remained involved in development of the center and program, co-designing guidance documents, long-term strategic plans, and curriculum development as a member of the ICON program committee. There are numerous synergies between my portfolio of work with the Graduate School, where I support interdisciplinary programs across campus, and development of the ICON program and CICR. In addition to teaching & research, I serve on numerous student advisory committees, helping them to navigate challenges & opportunities in interdisciplinary and integrative research.

What drew you to the Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR) as an anthropologist?

My involvement with CICR can be traced back to a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project called Advancing Conservation in a Social Context (ACSC). Pete Brosius was one of the lead PIs on the project and hired me on as a graduate student to help support it. ACSC was an initiative of the MacArthur Foundation and proposed engaging with multiple perspectives and integrative lenses to better understand the trade-offs & complexities inherent in addressing conservation challenges.

At the moment, I am most excited and inspired by CICR’s Catalytic Conversations initiative. For me, creating these dynamic spaces for creative discussions to happen is where truly innovative and fascinating work is often born. Fostering opportunities for communication, creativity, and a little bit of dreaming can do wonders. In some ways, ACSC emerged from similar creative circumstances and set several compelling research initiatives into motion. Catalytic Conversations will generate more opportunities for faculty to interact with each other and with students with wide-ranging interests and expertise, constantly pushing faculty to be better, to go further, and think beyond our disciplinary silos, which is what we endeavor to do through CICR, ICON, & other campus-wide interdisciplinary programs.

How do you see graduate programs like the Integrative Conservation (ICON) PhD program & the Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR) contributing to efforts that address our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges?

That is a big question! For the sake of time and space, I would simply say that some of our world’s most pressing conservation challenges will require greater attention to pluralism & integrative thinking. I have seen firsthand the opportunities that are created when we aspire to train future scientists, researchers, and decision-makers for scientific agility by actively creating spaces for diverse perspectives to take hold. We discuss the broader implications, merits, and challenges of this model in an article published in Ecology and Society (here).

Your research explores some of the socio-cultural realities of environmental change and community adaptation in Europe & North America. Why is local knowledge worthy of study in the context of climate change?  

Farmers, shepherds, and pastoralists have intimate knowledge of the landscape. They have deeply rooted understandings of different types of land management tools, as well as inter-generational knowledge and experience with past extreme climate-related events. Not only do they see and understand where and how change is occurring, but they are uniquely well-positioned to understand how to prepare for and respond to these emerging challenges.

It is also important to note that many of these communities may only be obliquely touched by top-down climate change adaptation strategies and programs. In fact, we find it is the small-scale adaptations and experiences managing their family farms and homes that hold the most relevance to them and that practically contribute to their ability to thrive in a changing climate. In that way, I think local knowledge is critically important for understanding the many dimensions of climate change, and we would do well to learn from that and to facilitate knowledge sharing.

I had the great pleasure of editing a book with Drs. Anne Sourdril and Brian Burke entitled “Changing Climate, Changing Worlds: Local Knowledge and the Challenges of Social and Ecological Change,” in which we have a chapter that discusses how this local-level resolution of experiencing climate can reveal more lived, relational dimensions of climate change in a way that is often overlooked but that can lead to more inclusivity and collaborative action.

What is next for you?

Well, there are a lot of exciting things happening!

First, let me quickly mention a chapter I am working on with Dr. Heather Lazrus, in the 3rd Edition of the Anthropology and Climate Change book edited by Susie Crate and Mark Nuttall. In it, we take stock of several of the most recent overviews of climate anthropology, many of which make recommendations for what anthropologists need to tackle next to address the climate crisis and how to do it. We distill the most common recommendations – for example, to do community-engaged and interdisciplinary work – and then try to give really concrete examples and how to actually do these things. We hope it will be helpful, particularly for students.

Second, our team recently received funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems (DISES) program to examine the sustainability of pastoral systems in a changing climate. This five-year project will give us an understanding of the current pastoral socio-environmental system (SES) in the Basque area of southwestern France, how it’s likely to change under different climate and policy scenarios, and what can be done to support and maintain these systems across the globe.

What’s most exciting to me about the DISES project is that it was co-conceived with Basque shepherds. Anne Sourdril and I received funding from the NSF Cultural Anthropology Program and the FACE Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting French-American relations through innovative cultural and educational projects, several years ago to kickstart this project. This funding supported collaborative workshops, both in France and the Southern Appalachian Mountains, with farmers and researchers from both countries to discuss climate, agricultural and environmental change, and opportunities for adaptation.

As a collective, we crafted a research program that advances generalizable knowledge while also addressing specific research questions important to our collaborators. The result is a much more holistic research focus on farm continuity and transmission, as well as climate change. While climate-related insecurities are a massively important challenge that communities around the world are facing, it is not the only one. In fact, many of these dynamic challenges intersect and amplify each other, necessitating the integration of multiple perspectives & contributions in addressing climate change. Framing the problem together through these workshops has directly impacted not only how we will approach our research questions but also what the questions themselves will be. I think that this initiative speaks to the power and importance of collaboration, at all levels, from the very beginning of a project rather than after the academics have already decided on the research framework and priorities.

I have worked in southwestern France since 2006, and I’m just so pleased to have this opportunity to co-create this project with partners whom I have known for so long. It’s really special to be able to build a collaboration like this on the foundation of such deep mutual trust and respect, and I can’t wait to see what the next few years hold.