PRB Spotlight: Innovative Population and Environment Research

(April 2013) Lori Hunter is glad that population and environment research is becoming more sophisticated. As editor of the journal Population and Environment for the past five years, she said in a “PRB Spotlights” interview that she’s seen the theory behind research become stronger and the methods more creative.

Hunter said that innovation in environmental research can sometimes be accidental. She shared a story of colleagues who were studying causes of the AIDS epidemic in Africa’s Lake Victoria region. Fishermen had taken on new sexual partners, away from their native families, because they had to migrate in order to follow the fish. And the fish were migrating because of pollution in the water stemming from hyacinth infestations flowing from flower factories supplying the European market. So a public health story became an environmental one, where policy, pollution, and the AIDS pandemic were all connected.

Hunter said the relationship between fertility and the environment could be a new area of research for Population and Environment. She cited one recent piece by Karina Shreffler on fertility decline in Kenya over the last generation. Curious about the dramatic drop in total fertility, Shreffler went to the men and women who had completed their childbearing and asked why they had fewer kids. And this fertility story became one about land, Hunter said. The men and women told Shreffler that the reason they were having fewer children is because they didn’t have enough land to feed large families. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done along those lines, linking fertility and environmental scarcity,” Hunter said.

Hunter is also an associate professor of sociology and assistant director of the Population Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her own research is on environment and migration, but she said she doesn’t want to make specific policy recommendations from this developing body of literature just yet. She noted that current research, including her own, is showing that connections between migration and environment are very localized, varying across small geographic spaces. “To me, that message is the importance of making sure that livelihoods as a whole are sustainable—not vulnerable to environmental change.” That, she said, could be a general policy implication “you couldn’t go wrong with.”

Tyjen Tsai is an editor/social media manager at PRB.