A lifelong activist, Dr. John Vandermeer has inspired hundreds of students to critically question the world around them. His empathy and solidarity with the oppressed has drawn him to work with groups such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Science for the People, and many other social justice organizations. In our interview, Dr. Vandermeer shares his passion for ecology and how his political outlook drives his science.
John Vandermeer | Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Where did you grow up? I grew up in a working class neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago.
What is your strongest food memory? Watching hundreds of hectares of tropical forest and small-scale agriculture being taken over by the industrial production of bananas. The image of bananas where there used to be rainforest is forever etched in my mind.
Have any particular authors, articles or documentaries had a significant impact on you? Which one(s)? Noam Chomsky’s books have profoundly affected my view of the world. His book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” has informed my teaching methodology. The book explains how the US propaganda system works and discusses how important it is to include a political analysis in your work.
“World Hunger: 10 Myths” by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins dispels common myths related to food security. When the book was first released in 1977, it was the first of its kind to introduce such radical ideas about the world food system.
What are you currently reading? “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt is about the 15th-century rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of Things.” I just finished reading Noam Chomsky’s new book “What Kind of Creatures Are We?” I always read his books as they come out.
What brought you to UM? I was teaching at The State University of New York at Stony Brook before I came to the University of Michigan. In the early 1970s, the biology department had one of the best groups of ecologists in the country and I came here to work with them.
Tell us about your current research interests. My research lab is affiliated with Dr. Ivette Perfecto’s lab at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Our labs look at the ecological complexity of the coffee agroecosystem—the largest ecosystem in the tropics. We study sustainability of production and the affect it has on the environment. Our graduate students and post-doctoral students work closely with us to study different components of this system. Our goal is to make coffee production more sustainable for small farmers and to lower coffee prices for consumers.
Do you have any advice for students interested in food systems careers? The biggest problems we face in the world today are food and energy—these systems go hand in hand. Between 17% and 30% of greenhouse gases are due to the industrial agriculture system, so part of solving the climate crisis is solving the agriculture crisis. Students should rethink traditional career pathways to include food and energy. If you want to go to law school, become an environmental lawyer. If you want to be a small business person, start a farm or a small grocery store. If you want to be a corporate executive, you’re on the wrong side of history.
Above all, students should follow their passions but continue the analysis of their guiding moral compass when deciding what career path to pursue.
What classes are you teaching in Fall 2016? Since 1980, I’ve been teaching ENVIRON/BIO 101: Food, Energy and the Environment. I also teach EEB 498: Ecology of Agroecosystems, an upper level course for students that want to do research in agroecology.