Environmental conservation, justice, and gender

Through her Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring summer internship, Mia McElhatton explores how efforts to save the planet may disproportionately burden women.

What happens when our moral commitments to non-human nature conflict with our commitments to social justice? How can we integrate our obligations to animals and fellow human beings? These research questions, posed in the description for philosophy professor Kok-Chor Tan’s Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) project, grabbed the attention of School of Arts & Sciences undergraduate Mia McElhatton.

Mia McElhatton at an outdoor table with a laptop and books.
McElhatton not only learned from a leading philosophical scholar about the how a book project works, but also familiarized herself with the philosophical literature on animal ethics, politics, and social justice. (Image: Ta'Liyah Thomas)

McElhatton is intrigued by political philosophy and ideas around personhood—who is considered a “person,” including whether and when this designation applies to animals and the environment. Those interests dovetail with a curiosity about environmental equity and feminist theory she developed in high school.

So, when Tan’s PURM project—an opportunity to assist with research on his current book, “Justice in Conservation: The Ethics and Politics of Wildlife Conservation”—married so many of McElhatton’s interests, it seemed almost too good to be true. She applied for and got the internship, offered through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF). The program provides rising second- or third-years at Penn a chance to spend 10 weeks working with Penn faculty, along with a $5,000 award for the summer.

Through her PURM experience, McElhatton is learning from a leading philosophical scholar about how a book project in the field is conceived, framed, and carried out, and familiarizing herself with the philosophical literature on animal ethics, politics, and social justice. Tan has also encouraged her to develop her own research questions about how environmentalism can better align with human interests and social justice. For her project, she’s homing in on how conservationists respond to women and those who identify as women.

“I’ve been doing preliminary research on the specific impact of conservation efforts on women or people who are gendered as women, looking at motherhood, reproduction, and sex as overlapping but somewhat unique categories,” explains McElhatton, who cites a few examples, including the death of a child by a chimpanzee in Tanzania.

She explains that in response to the child’s death, which happened in the presence of the child’s mother, the larger environmental movement rallied behind protecting the life of the animal, while the environmental community criticized the mother, placing blame for the child’s death at her feet.

“For me, that’s an interesting instance where conservation imposes disproportionately more risks on some people, in particular women,” says McElhatton. Acknowledging and addressing tensions of this sort—human-wildlife conflict in local communities—is one challenge of conservation justice, says Tan. But he says that McElhatton adds a new perspective, “which she’s arrived at on her own.”

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA.