A Posthumous, Open Letter to Jay Harman
Dear Professor Harman (or Jay, if you will permit me),
I’m sorry it’s been so long since we’ve communicated; I’m still terrible at keeping in touch with old friends. However, I have thought of our conversations many times, and have been excited to update you on where I am and what I am doing. I have made several radical life changes that I wish to share with you, as you have been a major inspiration in the career choices I have made.
You will be proud to learn that I am now, of all things, a geographer (sort of)! I am an associate professor in a tenure-track position at the Center for Investigation in Environmental Geography at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I still find it hard to believe that I was fortunate enough to be offered such a position at such a prestigious institution. You may know the director of this institution, as he knows several geographers at Michigan State University. His name is Gerardo Bocco.
Two factors have completely transformed my religious beliefs from Christianity to something between an atheism and agnosticism. The first was my growing concern with issues of social justice. Particularly when I became more active in the movement for justice in Palestine, I came to know several Muslims who are as sincere in their beliefs as I was in Christianity, and could find no basis on which to claim that Christianity was the superior of the two religions. Moreover, with time I came to see that many (but certainly not all) of my Muslim friends were far more concerned with and involved in struggles for social justice than their Christian counterparts. In several issues, including Palestine, my Muslim friends were on the correct side of the issue while my church continued to remain silent or, worse, propagate falsehoods. This caused me to begin asking myself, “If the Christian church is indeed God’s physical presence on Earth, how could He have allowed it to deviate so far from the principles that Christ stood for?” The second issue dealt the death blow to my religious beliefs, and was a question that I believe even you had raised. The question was, “If God is all good, perfect, loving, and powerful, how did evil ever come into existence, and why would He have created us knowing that we would succumb to such evil and end up in a world full of suffering?” Only two possibilities presented themselves to account for this: (1) God created evil, in which case He isn’t very good and loving, or (2) evil created itself despite God, in which case He isn’t very powerful. Both options contradict the original claims regarding the nature of God, leading me to the conclusion that God is most likely a product of human imagination.
Another major factor in my religious conversion was my political conversion. For the past 6 or 7 years, I have been examining the works of Marx and other socialist and anarchist scholars and activists, and find myself in agreement with many of their ideas, theories, and conclusions. Politically, I now consider myself mostly on the side of the socialists, although I am also very sympathetic to the anarchists. This transformation was largely driven by the conviction that the global politico-economic order as it is presently constituted is incapable of resolving the social and ecological crises that our generations and their descendants face (climate change been an obvious and well-known example).
As my understanding of Marxist and other strains of socialist and anarchist theory has grown, I have slowly been incorporating them into my academic work. I have found the works of Harvey, Smith, Watts, Peet, and several others particularly interesting, and my primary research focus now seems to fall within the realm of political ecology and political geography. For the last few years, I have been working to situate the explicitly Marxist concept of “metabolic rift” in a geographic context, primarily by combining it with Harvey’s concept of “spatial fix,” to create an avenue for land-change science and other fields concerned with “sustainability” to move into a more critical and transformative position. The somewhat humorous aspect of this is that this academic endeavor was triggered by a minor conflict I had with my advisor regarding a single sentence in my doctoral dissertation. In an early draft of my dissertation, I had included a statement that associated the emergence of biodiversity loss and land change with the growth of global capitalism, and included a reference to one of Marx’s comments regarding the tendency of capitalism to treat nature as a “free gift.” My advisor, Bryan Pijanowski, originally said something to the effect of, “Are you nuts? You can’t include a reference to Marx in your dissertation!” Probably due more to personal arrogance and a lack of wisdom than to anything else, rather than just eliminating the reference, I responded to this by treating it as a challenge and developing an entire chapter describing the historical and potential contributions of Marxist theory to ecology, and making a case for why ecologists should at least consider Marx’s work as a critical analysis of the ecological dimensions of capitalism. Although I agreed in the end to leave this chapter out of my thesis (mainly because all of my committee members stated that they were insufficiently familiar with this line of inquiry to evaluate it, and asking a third party to do so would cost me personally between $500 and $1,000 USD), I consider it a victory that I managed to convince Bryan that critical perspectives such as Marx’s do indeed have much to offer to land-change science and other fields of landscape ecology, and that I was able to devote a portion of my dissertation defense to a discussion of Marxist theory in an institution as conservative as Purdue University without being dismissed outright (although at least one person did walk out during this part of my defense).
I was surprised to find that this critical and admittedly radical perspective was not just tolerated, but warmly welcomed, here at the UNAM, and have been working with two other professors here on a theoretical paper that we expect will shortly be accepted for publication in Capitalism Nature Socialism. If you would like, I would be glad to send you a copy of this paper, and I would greatly value any thoughts you may have on it.
Given this shift towards a more critical position on socio-environmental issues, my research focus has also changed considerably. Although I am still involved in the development of soundscape ecology, my primary research focus is on territorial conflicts between local communities and mining projects in the northern part of a state in central Mexico (la Sierra Norte de Puebla). For me, this has involved a radical shift from “quantitative” to entirely “qualitative” research and analysis methods, and I still feel way behind everyone else most of the time.
One of my greatest joys still comes from teaching, which is just as (or even more so) undervalued here as it was when I was in the USA. One notable difference here, however, is the attitude of many of the students. Here, higher education is much more difficult to obtain and therefore considered much more of a privilege, such that the students tend to be more engaged in the coursework. Moreover, the culture in general tends to be more rebellious, especially with the horrible government here, and so students tend to be more willing to engage critically with their professors. Finally, my personal status as a professor born and trained in the USA tends to make my students more curious about what I teach, to the extent that I often find myself speaking with a class where nobody is sleeping and everyone seems to be listening to everything that I have to say (a situtation that I frankly found rather unnerving initially). I have also found a way to use the fact that I have only been speaking Spanish for three years now as an advantage, as I can frequently check whether the students understand me by stopping and asking them to explain a concept I just described under the pretext that I don’t know whether I explained it properly in Spanish. That I am from the USA and critical of capitalism seems to be doubly fascinating to them, and a few students have already asked me if they can work with me or if I can be their advisor because of their interest in critical scholarship. As the majority of my critical-thinking education came from your classes and our conversations, I believe that you deserve the majority of the credit.
That said, I still feel like a novice in the field of critical studies, and am often intimidated by the responsibilities expected of me as a professor. As I may have mentioned to you previously, I am now divorced (my ex-wife would have never agreed to move to Mexico), and am still struggling to attain a level of maturity consistent with my responsibilities. The good news is that I have also found time to engage in various social movements for a more just world (including Occupy Detroit when I lived there), and have even written a handful of articles for various news media outlets, albeit mostly alternative and dissident media. One piece of advice that you gave me that has been a guiding factor in my decisions is when you told me something to the effect of, “Don’t do it for the money, do it because it’s important to you.” That advice was instrumental in my decision to come here to Mexico, were I earn far less than I would at a University in the USA, but feel that my ability to help change things is much greater. In short, I don’t know if I would consider me a “success story,” but I believe that we can honestly say that what you helped me learn has helped me to choose a course where I sincerely believe that what I do truly matters. In my opinion, that is one of the highest praises that a teacher can receive, and I hope that you can take pride in your efforts as an instructor, mentor, and friend.
I remain most sincerely yours,
Dr. Brian Michael Napoletano