Faculty Spotlight: Omolade Adunbi

Director of the African Studies Center, Professor of Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies, Professor of Law (courtesy), Faculty Associate, Program in the Environment

Spotlight on ANTHRCUL/AAS 458: Topics in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology: Energy Matters: Environment, Culture, Power, and the Oil State

To Professor Omolade Adunbi, topics in sustainability are inextricably linked to the issues of human and environmental rights. During his early career at Yale University, he studied post-authoritarian regimes and transitional justice, a method for holding leaders accountable for atrocities committed against the people. In his study, he realized that atrocities against the environment were often neglected in these discussions around injustice. He believes if “pollution, environmental degradation, and loss of livelihoods” are not taken into account, the research fails to provide a complete picture of the consequences of different policies on the lived environment. Professor Adunbi says he “took that up as a challenge, which is what led [him] to the kind of research that [he does] today, which is people-centered, community-centered, and helping to understand how vulnerable communities respond to environmental degradation caused by the state and its corporate allies.” 

His anthropological background also gives him a thoughtful perspective on resource conservation: while most of us think that sustainability is all about looking forward and designing technology for the future, Professor Adunbi posits that understanding how we got here enables us to critically think about problems we are faced with now and how we can build a sustainable future for all. His approach “has always been to take into account the particular history of environmental degradation and environmental pollution and use that as a way to think about sustainable futures.” One crucial issue that can benefit from hindsight is the global energy transition, so he designed a Winter 2024 course ANTHRCUL/AAS 458 titled Energy Matters: Environment, Culture, Power, Oil and the Oil State, a special topics class in Sociological and Linguistic Anthropology to help students think through these issues from an anthropological, justice-focused perspective. 

With an overarching theme of “reconfiguring an energy future,” Energy Matters: Environment, Culture, Power, and the Oil State comprised three major assignments. Professor Adunbi “wanted a class that would critically engage students and let them think about where we are coming from, where we are, and how we can project into the future,” so these assignments culminated in students writing a final paper on inclusive energy futures. First, students developed a thesis statement and chose two to three related questions to answer as they began their research. Starting with original questions allowed “students to take ownership of the ideas that are percolating in their mind…asking them to pick a research topic and develop a thesis around it help[ed] them begin to think about big ideas.” Next, students wrote a review essay on literature from assigned class readings and other literature they found related to their thesis statement. This review essay would guide their third assignment, the final paper. Professor Adunbi asked his students to think about how a possible energy future could be reconfigured to be inclusive and consider the groups most likely to be left behind: as he puts it, “What are the things that the world will contend with when there is a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy? Does energy transition foreclose the possibility of having a world where environmental injustice would no longer exist?” 

One student wrote a particularly fascinating paper about the possibility that a shift from combustion engines to electric vehicles could lead to a “new fossil industry” as demand for minerals like lithium and cobalt skyrocket; even as electric vehicles and batteries reduce carbon emissions, communities who live near mining operations could see their livelihoods destroyed, “just like communities are being left behind, polluted, and devastated by fossil fuels today.” Professor Adunbi was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the papers and saw that his students considered the process enriching, as well. 

Many students in the course were Anthropology students who found it very “eye-opening” to learn that anthropologists have been researching and discussing energy and its relationship to culture since the early 1940s with an emphasis on technology, solar, and energy transitions. There were also some students from PitE and the Ross School of Business who, according to Professor Adunbi, “were appreciative of the fact that they left their comfort zone of always talking about business without also talking about the impact of businesses on the environment and people.” Overall, students shared that ANTHRCUL 458 expanded their understanding of the full picture of energy systems at the global scale. They enjoyed learning about energy practices beyond just the technology and business of scaling up renewables. After all, Professor Adunbi explains, “energy is not just about technology – it’s also about ideas. It’s about infrastructure, environment, and people.” 

At a time when sustainability is entering the classroom in almost every department, Professor Adunbi welcomes this development and encourages faculty to “develop courses that are interdisciplinary in nature while still using their discipline as a backbone,” since “any course that is going to focus on sustainability will have to think through it using inter- and multidisciplinary methods of inquiry.” For those in the natural sciences and engineering, he believes that this approach is particularly important to ensure that students leave with the ability to understand sustainability not only from the purview of design technology but also have the ability to examine the human causes and consequences of the use of those technologies: “energy practices and sustainability are not just a science – they are also humanities and social science topics. And the best way for students to appreciate it is to also look at the ways in which other disciplines see it to broaden their perspectives.”

As Professor Adunbi considers the concepts and policies covered in ANTHRCUL 458, he sees several important examples of progress towards a just and renewable energy system, although much work is left to be done. He cites Norway as an example of a country that has successfully transformed its domestic energy system to run on renewables, though the country still makes revenue by exporting fossil fuels and therefore isn’t truly sustainable. Some African countries have passed The Climate Act, which Professor Adunbi calls “a bold step to even recognize the fact that there has to be action taken to mitigate climate change,” even though the quality of its implementation remains to be seen. Here in the United States, he notes that the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative is another “bold initiative” that will – if fully implemented – be very beneficial to the communities most affected by environmental injustice in the United States. 

For students interested in learning more about global environmental politics and justice, Professor Adunbi is teaching ENVIRON 335/AAS 322: Environmental Politics: Race, Class, and Gender in Fall 2024. He is also teaching section 007 of AAS 103: First Year Social Science Seminar, titled Social Media, and the Politics and Culture of Human Rights. In all of his teaching and research, Professor Adunbi is driven by the knowledge that “we cannot create a sustainable future without including all of those who have been left behind for several hundreds of years. A future is not sustainable if it is not inclusive.”

As a part of the Year of Sustainability, we are interested in sharing, uplifting, and highlighting stories about the people who make up LSA and have experience teaching about sustainability. We sat down with a series of LSA faculty to discuss their background and courses and will feature these conversations in our Faculty Spotlight series.

To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team, please contact sustainable-lsa@umich.edu . 

By Lauren May

Lauren is the Year of Sustainability Intern for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.