Published: April 30, 2021 By , ,

Shannon O'LearAfter completing my BA with a double major in Geography and Russian in 1990 and my MA in Geography in 1992, both at CU Boulder, I headed off to the Ph.D. program in Geography at Syracuse University. There, I studied what was then an extraordinarily weird topic for the early 1990s. My dissertation focused how environmental activists in Russia and Estonia were using e-mail to learn how to be activists and to create spaces of resistance. I traveled to those countries and met with activist groups who were way ahead of their time. As a doctoral student working with two faculty new to Ph.D. advising, I defied the Russian saying, “Пе́рвый блин всегда́ ко́мом”:  The first pancake is always a mess.

I returned to Boulder to write my dissertation. Initially, I worked at Boulder Bookstore, and later I taught geography and environmental conservation courses at Front Range Community College, CU Boulder Continuing Education, and Metropolitan State College. My first tenure track job at Illinois State University was an incredible luxury: I had an office with a desk and a phone! I lived outside of town in a tiny village called Carlock that boasted a gas station, a post office, and a cemetery with separate sections for Democrat and Republication affiliations. 

A few years later, I had an interview at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana just down the road from Bloomington-Normal. My interview was spectacular! A massive snow storm caused a historic power outage on campus, and I dropped my car keys in the toilet of the restroom where I had breakfast with the Department Chair, Bruce Rhoads. They hired me. I enjoyed three years of invaluable mentorship. With sanctions on Azerbaijan recently waived, I was able to get a National Science Foundation grant to study how oil wealth and conflict in Azerbaijan are (and are not) connected. I made several trips to Azerbaijan and worked with colleagues there to conduct interviews. 

At the University of Kansas, a joint position in Geography and Environmental Studies opened up. I made the move to Lawrence, Kansas in 2004. I finished my project in Azerbaijan and I returned a few times to the South Caucasus. I began teaching and writing about genocide, and I also returned to an earlier interest in climate issues, this time with a critical, social science perspective. 

By this time, I was navigating a path to tenure and the journey of motherhood with two young children. The tenure clock is not designed for a woman’s body, I’m just saying. 

My first book, Environmental Politics: Scale and Power, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010.  For that book, I approached some common, environmental topics such as climate change, oil and energy, food security, garbage and waste, toxins, etc. through a geographic lens to consider how these themes are shaped by different forms of power and how they involve multiple spatial scales. 

Simon Dalby and I edited a book, Reframing Climate Change: Constructing Ecological Geopolitics (Routledge 2015) in which we invited social scientists to offer critical insights into how we tend to misunderstand our changing environment. Contributing authors for that project wrote about environment-induced migration, how we mis-analyze connections between climate change and conflict, new ways to think about climate activism, and how geopolitics shape the IPCC’s presentation of scientific information. 

Book cover for "A Research Agenda for Environmental Geopolitics" by Shannon O'LearMore recently, Environmental Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) offers a framework of analysis to “decode” political claims about the environment. Human population growth, resource conflict, and climate security are some of the topics I use to demonstrate selective and persuasive uses of environmental data and spatial focus. Following on that project, I edited A Research Agenda for Environmental Geopolitics (Edward Elgar 2019) to showcase research that is doing this kind of work. You can read the first chapter of that book, and you can read a blog I wrote about it for the Environmental Change and Security Project. My next edited volume, A Research Agenda for Geographies of Slow Violence (Edward Elgar) will be published this summer. 

Meanwhile, I served as Director for KU’s Center for Global and International Studies for four years, and I am now serving as Director of KU’s Environmental Studies Program. Our program includes faculty from the physical and social sciences as well as the humanities, and we have over 200 undergraduate majors. This year is the 50th anniversary of Environmental Studies at KU; I am the first female Director. I am also the first female to achieve the rank of Full Professor in the history of the Geography and Atmospheric Sciences Department at KU. 

I am serving as the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Councilor for the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain Region and as a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the AAG. Both of these positions are great opportunities to promote new perspectives and voices in our professional organization. During the past year of pandemic circumstances, I have been working with Ken Foote and Mark Revell on two webinar series hosted by the AAG. One track focuses on early career development issues, and the other track considers leadership issues. The panels we have organized have brought together a lot of useful insights from thoughtful colleagues across the country -- just when we need them the most. 

Looking back at my time in the Geography Department at CU Boulder, I have fond memories of Gary Gaile’s lectures, his wall of exotic air sickness bags, and his shelf of international snow globes. I learned a lot from the legendary Jack (& Pauline) Ives. I hope Jim Westcoat has forgiven (or forgotten) our shenanigans as grad students. I am thankful I got to experience sledding the snow fields in Rocky Mountain National Park during field trips when I was a graduate teaching assistant for the intro physical geography class.