The COE shares faculty from across departments and programs at Wesleyan, including government, history, art, dance, computer science, English, philosophy, environmental science, biology, African American studies, physics, classical studies, chemistry, Science in Society, theater, religion, economics, archaeology, and more. Elan Abrell is currently a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Wesleyan. He will become a professor of the practice in environmental studies in fall 2022.
You’ve taught courses in both animal studies and environmental studies (ENVS) here at Wesleyan. How do the two areas intersect, in your experience?
In my experience, these two fields have myriad intersections. Animal (including human) and environmental health and wellbeing are deeply interdependent. And, of course, all living things are a part of the environment. But in my research and teaching, I also focus on specific ways that human activities and policies involving other animals have significant impacts on the environment. Industrial animal agriculture, for example, not only directly affects tens of billions of farmed animals every year, but is also a major driver of climate change, deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss.
Environmental studies is a true multidisciplinary program. How does your experience and research impact the program and what do you hope to learn from other COE faculty members?
I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of such a disciplinarily diverse program. My experience and interests will bring additional perspectives on the ways that culture and politics affect the environment, especially in the context of human-animal relations. I am interested in learning more about ecology, conservation science, and environmental histories from my fellow COE faculty members. I’m also particularly excited to learn more about environmental arts and humanities from my colleagues who work in fields such as dance, literature, and painting.
You are an anthropologist by trade and you also hold a JD. What sparked your interest in animal law and why is the topic an important one, in your opinion?
I’ve been concerned with animal protection issues since I was in my teens, but I earned my JD with the intention of working on social justice issues. It was only after I decided to get my PhD in anthropology and began my dissertation research on animal sanctuaries that I realized how much my legal background could inform my work on animals. In my next project focusing on cell-cultured meat, I also found the law to be an important factor shaping the potential futures of this new technology, especially regulatory food law. I think animal law is an important topic because it is the primary mechanism through which people can influence policies to improve the ways we treat other animals. At the same time, I think there are significant limits to the affordances it provides, and studying those limits can also inform our understanding of alternative methods for change. This is reflected in the critical approach Lori Gruen and I are taking in co-teaching Animal Law and Policy/PHIL283 this semester, as we encourage students to explore both the potential benefits and the inherent limitations of animal law.
This semester you’re also teaching a new course: Environmental Justice/ENVS350. Tell us about the course and what you hope students will gain from it!
I’m very excited to be teaching the new environmental justice course. [Director of the College of the Environment] Barry Chernoff identified the need for an environmental justice course and asked me if I could develop one, and I jumped at the opportunity! The course focuses on the history of environmental justice activism over the last several decades. It also specifically examines a range of contemporary environmental problems disproportionately impacting oppressed and marginalized communities, including climate change, air and water pollution, waste disposal, drought, wildfires, and famine. I hope students will gain a deeper understanding of the many factors that contribute to these environmental injustices, why and how they aggravate social inequities, and the innovative strategies and tactics employed by the vibrant activist coalitions fighting for environmental justice.