When you hear the word “environment,” what do you think of? For environmental studies scholars this question can get complicated, but many people picture beautiful green landscapes. Even a quick Google search for “environment” mostly turns up pictures of forests and fields. The only trace of human beings in these images comes from the occasional depiction of a shiny, modern city off in the distance. However, humans actually conceptualize, modify, and interact with their surroundings in many different ways. While progressing through Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Studies Program, a large number of students take an interest in human relationships with their environments, as well as the way these relationships are affected by social structures.
One student who has developed an interest in social structures is Kara Scherer, a junior who traveled to New Zealand this past fall to do ENVS Mellon grant-funded research. While in New Zealand, Kara wrote about her experiences working with Project Lyttleton, a unique community that uses social capital—the networks of relationships among people in a particular society—as a basis for various community projects. In Kara’s words, “Social capital makes use of the community’s existing skills and assets” to create positive change. One of Kara’s posts goes into fascinating detail about several of Project Lyttleton’s community programs, including a Timebank, which allows residents to trade their time and expertise rather than money. For example, if a resident with sewing skills helps another resident mend a shirt, they receive a time credit that they can later cash in for a service they need (such as childcare or transportation). For me the most interesting part of her research is the idea of tapping into a community’s pre-existing skill set. Plenty of communities have things they want to change, fix, or improve; for communities like Project Lyttleton, utilizing social capital presents a unique way to do this outside of the monetary system.
Another student exploring ideas of social capital is Jhana Valentine, who conducted research abroad in Guatemala in 2014. Like Kara, she used a Mellon grant to fund her research. A large part of Jhana’s time in Guatemala was spent looking at social entrepreneurship, or the use of entrepreneurial techniques to solve complex social and ecological problems. In her work, Jhana performed a social network analysis of entrepreneurs in Guatemala, analyzing the ways in which they form connections with one another. I particularly like this post, which goes into greater detail about the concept of social capital and her decision to research it; she explains, “In a world run by capitalism, where financial capital is a main driver and point of reference, the theory of social capital provides an entirely new way of thinking about the world.” It’s interesting to compare Jhana’s research with Kara’s, exploring the ways that structures of social capital in various locations differ from and resemble one another. For example, Project Lyttleton seems largely focused on the social capital of daily life, while the Guatemalan entrepreneurs Jhana studied emphasized social capital as a form of support for small businesses.
By and large, people generally agree that some kind of improvement needs to happen in their communities, whether it be ecological, economic, or physical. However, the best way to make these changes is often a source of contention. Studying the ways that people make change in their communities, using social capital and other methods, can help us better understand how we interact with our own environments. In this way, we reflect on how to capitalize upon our own strengths to achieve ecological and social goals.