RESEARCH

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated so:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges.
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

—Rudyard Kipling, "The Explorer"

As an environmental geographer, I research how people make healthy and sustainable use of natural resources in contexts characterized by societal and environmental change. I am involved in several concurrent research initiatives, all at various stages of progress. Each is described below and publications resulting from these projects are available on the CV and Publications page. 

Caribbean Whaling

This project is a study of the human and environmental implications of whaling in the Caribbean. A few countries in the region continue to host active and legal whaling operations to produce food for local consumption (as in the photograph above). Worldwide, whaling is not a common form of human-environment interaction, but—as evinced by the endurance of Moby-Dick among the canon of American literature—one that illuminates certain aspects of the human condition in a way that far exceeds the actual scope of the activity. My research has shown that whaling also amplifies specific issues of relevance to the environmental sciences, including adaptation to climate change (and other forms of environmental change), food security, international environmental conflict, and ecotoxicology. The current focus of my whaling research is environmental health. As apex predators in the marine food web, the whales taken in the Caribbean accumulate high concentrations of environmental contaminants, making the consumption of their tissues a risk to human health. My research methods involve both the laboratory analysis of tissue samples from landed whales and dolphins and the statistical analysis of data from more than a thousand interviews on people's dietary habits. The results, taken together, suggest that whale-based food products in the Caribbean are both highly popular and heavily contaminated, thus further complicating an already problematic socio-ecological system.

Renewable Energy on Caribbean Islands

Some of the most harmful pollutants my whaling research has uncovered in the marine food web are byproducts of the fossil fuel industry. As some Caribbean islands tentatively move beyond fossil fuels and explore energy systems more ideally suited to their small, remote, and insular geographies, I investigate their potential for, and barriers to, renewable energy development in the region. Although the fossil fuel footprint of the Caribbean region is small, comparatively, there is moral value in this transition as it eschews the very industries that compromise their food security and places these communities fully on the side of conservation. The turn to renewable energy in the Caribbean serves as a test case for larger continental power grids in their own quest for greater sustainability. I have begun to investigate renewable energy projects in St. Barthélemy and the US Virgin Islands and I foresee the expansion of this project to include more islands in the region in the future.

Breadfruit Agroforestry

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) has fueled two major human migrations: one across the Pacific and the other across the Atlantic; one of heroic exploration and the other of cruel enslavement. As the first proto-Polynesians set out from southeast Asia to embark upon their voyages of discovery that would eventually result in the finding and settlement of every major Pacific island group, they brought along familiar food crops to plant in their new island homes. One of these—probably called by a name like kuru, from which the Tahitian ‘uru and the Hawaiian ‘ulu derive—was a large, starchy tree-fruit, propagated not by seeds but by cuttings or saplings. This food saw the explorers through their long voyages and, owing to its preservability, kept their settler descendants alive through periods of island famine. Half a millennium later, as European colonial governments were busy cruelly engineering the large-scale forced movement of Africans to the Americas to work their newly established plantations, they sought a food source both cheap and nutritious to fuel their enslaved workforce. Captain Cook’s botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, recommended breadfruit and soon the British government was financing large-scale voyages to import the tree from Polynesia to the Caribbean, the most infamous of which was the mutinous voyage of the HMS Bounty. By and large, the enslaved workers detested breadfruit. Perhaps surprisingly, considering its vastly different histories in the two regions, breadfruit is very popular in both Polynesia and the insular Caribbean today. Recently, it has been promoted as a solution to food shortages in developing nations around the world and as the next great “superfood” in wealthy developed countries. This potential is complicated by the effects of climate change, owing to breadfruit’s specific needs for narrow temperature ranges and precipitation levels. At the same time, as the cultivation of traditional, staple crops in some parts of the world becomes untenable in the face of climate change, breadfruit may provide a viable alternative if issues of cultural/culinary acceptance and techniques of propagation and cultivation can be properly addressed.

Name Change for Health

Several years ago, as something of a curiosity, I began collecting examples of an interesting cultural phenomenon: the changing of one's given name in response to physical illness. The practice, overtly construed as an attempt to promote recovery from the illness, is surprisingly widespread, geographically. The examples I've collected come from cultures on all six of the world's inhabited continents but, to my knowledge, have never yet been systematically analyzed.

© 2020 by Russell Fielding