The Human Environmental Geographer


Jack Shea
Staff Writer

University of California, Santa Barbara geography professor David López-Carr received the research excellence award at the American Association of Geography’s April 2017 meeting in Boston for his research on human influence on the environment and population health.  

The American Association of Geographers works to connect geographers in private, academic, and nonprofit sectors to help specialized professors meet other researchers in their same areas of study. Lopez-Carr’s award comes directly from the American Association of Geographers’ population specialty group.

With a particular interest in human and ecosystem welfare, Professor David López-Carr dedicated his life’s work to researching the global population issues.

In an interview at UCSB’s Ellison Hall last Thursday, he said, “By the time I was in college I wanted to do something where I was trying to make a difference, being a part of learning solutions for human suffering [where] environmental degradation is most acute and dynamic and unfolding together.”

Graduate school opened up his eyes to his crucial areas of interest. After examining deforestation in the Maya, professor López-Carr concentrated his dissertation on the function of human activity in deforestation. Professor López-Carr’s research improves the scholarly community’s understandings of deforestation and increases the awareness of major climate change drivers.

“Less than one percent of the earth’s surface is occupied directly by humans or human infrastructure. The remaining portion of the globe that humans use is virtually all for agriculture, and most of that land is for livestock,” said professor López-Carr. Humans consuming more dairy and meat products creates more deforestation and significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Westerners continue to overeat; hence, the issue is more apparent in wealthy nations.

These eating habits cause well-forested lands to be turned into agricultural hubs, leaving “the greatest imprint of human occupation of the earth’s surface,” according to professor López-Carr.

His research has followed these issues around the globe in various environments.

“I think the research studies that stand out to me were ones that we did in the Amazon jungle, Ecuador, and in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. We showed in both instances that the larger family size does relate to more deforestation among subsistence households. [Although] it’s very intuitive to many people, there isn’t much research showing that.” He continued, “Following up on that, we’ve done research that has shown a very small proportion of the world that moves to these forest frontiers, yet they have this huge impact.”

The scientific research community has expressed major concerns with the new administration in the White House and the Senate’s party change. Professor López-Carr weighed in: “One fear I have that does relate to my research, so much of humanity, and the environment is the trust in government and institutions. This is a real problem globally. The United States has been a beacon of functioning government. Our questioning of that is increasingly detrimental to fair use of human agency, allocation of resources, and [the] general function of society. If people do not trust institutions, those institutions will not be functional. They will increasingly operate outside of government.”

Undergraduates have a lot to learn from this veteran geographer. Professor López-Carr encourages interdisciplinary approaches to studies, getting a strong foundation of liberal arts, hard sciences, and mathematics. He believes this “because what we really need are people who are well-rounded and can really get their heads around these very complex problems for which there is no disciplinary solution.”

June 2, 4:47p.m. 
A previous version of this article stated, “I think the research studies that stand out to me were ones that we did in the Amazon jungle, Ecuador, and in my reserve in Guatemala.” The studies were done in “the Amazon jungle, Ecuador, and in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.”