Human of CADS Project
May 19, 2022
By Eva van der Boog
Feat. Andrew Littlejohn
For the second edition of our newly established HUMANS of CADS column, which debuted with an interview with second year student Boet, we decided to not solely focus on our fellow students, but rather get to know our teachers a bit better as well. In light of the past sustainability month in which we encouraged everyone to be more mindful of sustainability in their daily lives, who better to speak with than one of our well-known teachers Andrew Littlejohn. During our conversation he shared insights about his journey to becoming a professor at Leiden University, his developed interest in the field of sustainability and his ideas on the matter.
Most CADS students will know Andrew Littlejohn from his second year course Economy and Ecology, but he has also taught other courses at Leiden University such as research methods courses and an urban planning course, whilst also supervising student theses on different levels. Surprisingly, when talking about his meandering academic journey he revealed that he initially did not choose to get into anthropology, but rather did his bachelor’s in Japanese studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the United Kingdom, where he is from. This was followed by a Master’s in social anthropology at Oxford University, and a PHD of seven years at Harvard University in the United States. His plan for his PHD was to focus on issues of sustainability within the fishing industry in the Northeast of Japan, but when this area was hit by a tsunami and suffered from a nuclear meltdown as its consequence, his research pivoted to the aftermath of this disaster which was very much geared towards sustainability. To this he explained: “sustainability in the way I think we - anthropologists and sociologists - think about it in the sense that the ways in which the care for the environment becomes bound up with care for human beings, becomes bound up with care for cultures and livelihoods, and the ways in which we attempt to isolate out those things and protecting just one part of them can actually be unsustainable because of the externalities it has: the way it damages other interlinked aspects of human environmental relationships”.
While academically speaking his interest towards sustainability developed throughout his journey, being environmentally aware and involved has expressed itself early on in his life in different forms. While laughing Andrew reminisces on his younger years: “I remember as a teenager, it now seems kind of silly, I don’t even know if we knew what we were doing, but we were trying to persuade people to think about their carbon emissions from driving, so we would dress up in like hazmat suits and go up to roads and hand out leaflets to drivers”. Being active in environmental movements such as “Friends of the Earth” at age 14 and being a vegetarian from the age of 12 might have been an indication of his future interest in sustainability in his professional life.
“I have had this preexisting environmental concern for a long time, but it didn't initially affect my studies”
When I asked about his pre-existing environmental concern he clearly had based on all his stories, he remained modest stating that he did not necessarily have an amazing moral compass at that age, but rather that he just did not like the taste of meat and thus did not eat it. To that he adds that he has a lingering feeling that his interest in environmental issues was actually sparked by the videogames he used to play as a kid. A game like Final Fantasy 7 included, according to Andrew, unsubtle environmentalist narratives about how the world was going to be destroyed by polluting industries.
With an interest that only developed more and more over the years, there was no doubt that the job at Leiden University that became available in 2018 with the title “the anthropology of sustainability” fitted him like a glove. Especially seeing how Andrew explained that he wanted to move back to Europe after his PHD in the US anyhow, so he would be closer to his family and his spouse’s.
After discovering more about Andrew’s academic journey, we were curious to find out how his pre-existing environmental concern translates to considering sustainability in his daily life now. He explained how he tries to maintain a set of principles, which consists for example of not eating meat, minimizing the amount of clothes you buy, and being mindful of your carbon footprint. However, he also critically assesses how an individual’s practices of sustainability are always inherently limited: “the biggest problems are structural and exceed the reach of any individual”. He mentioned examples in which this problem arises: the laptops and phones we buy are made in a way that is not only socially unsustainable, due to terrible circumstances for the workers who assemble them, but also unsustainable in the sense that the way certain necessities such as minerals are acquired is extremely damaging to the environment. Yet you need these products in question when functioning in a bigger institution such as a university, company, or society in general. Recognizing this, and making students aware of this issue is one of his goals when teaching a class, and he concludes: “I do research, I write articles, but the most important thing to me is teaching: I always hope people come out of classes like Economy and Ecology with a sense that the way things are set-up isn’t the only way that they have to be, and that they will take those ideas into whichever sphere of employment, economy, society to work in, and maybe hopefully change in their own ways.”
We would like to thank Andrew for being the first teacher to participate in the Human of CADS project and we hope that you found some wisdom in his words. If you would like to share your story too, please feel free to contact us and we are more than happy to chat with you!
x The Mediacom