Peggy Barlett

Goodrich C White Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Emory College of Arts and Sciences


Photo of Peggy BarlettMy current interests focus on sustainability in higher education as a tangible arena in which to understand and enact sustainable development more generally. Living in Atlanta, until recently one of America's "most livable cities," I have watched it become the poster child for sprawl.  Like many U.S. cities, Atlanta struggles to achieve clean air, clean water, affordable housing, good public transportation, and a way of life that supports a flourishing society while recognizing the earth’s finite living systems of which we are a part. Sustainability—what Aldo Leopold called a land ethic—is a complex paradigm shift emerging in many parts of the world, envisioning a different future for agrarian and industrial society.  Sustainable approaches work to reverse damage to biological life support systems, to sustain healthy livelihoods, and to increase social equity and participation in decision making. I particularly enjoy the ways that, sometimes quite invisibly, today’s sustainability movement builds on several generations of anthropological work on viable lifeways in human history and around the world.

Emory University has now made sustainability a core commitment of the university, and I am working with the Office of Sustainability Initiatives to bring that vision to reality, engaging sustainability in the activities of all Emory’s schools.  I serve as Faculty Liaison, with particular responsibilities for curricular innovation, the Piedmont Project faculty development program, and the Sustainable Food Initiative.  My research is connected to this work, as we learn what kinds of experiences change individuals and what social mechanisms support institutional change as well.  

My interests in sustainability began with a focus on the grassroots efforts that provided leadership and tested new alternatives, often addressing global problems (such as deforestation, water contamination, climate change, or the volatility of global commodity prices) with local solutions such as sustainable, local agriculture, socially responsible consumption (simple living), and fair trade cooperatives.  These local solutions, in turn, sometimes inspire and support national and international movements.  A graduate class explored these expressions of local/global action and their contributions to an emerging future.  See our website of grassroots groups with English-language websites:

In 1999, my focus turned to Emory as a hands-on arena of cultural transformation.  Several “communities of practice” emerged, such as the Piedmont Project, which infuses sustainability across the curriculum (, the faculty Green Lunch Group, and the Ad Hoc Committee for Environmental Stewardship, and they contributed to the establishment of Emory’s Office of Sustainability Initiatives, begun in 2006 ( 

As we leaned heavily on other schools’ experiences in our early years, I experienced first hand the importance of narrative to provide guidance and inspiration.  I joined with Geoffrey Chase of San Diego State University to edit Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (MIT Press, 2004).  Later, listening to and observing my faculty colleagues in the Piedmont Project develop a deeper connection to place led me to understand the importance of building a sensory, embodied relationship with the natural world that surrounds us.  Place-based engagement can provide a positive river of energy for the difficult work of moving toward sustainability, and Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World (MIT Press, 2005) presents studies from social science, psychology, and medicine to explore this emerging place component of the sustainability movement.

As Emory has become an environmental leader in the city and region—through our green building program, ambitious goals for sustainable food, award-winning recycling and alternative transportation, forest preservation, energy conservation, and the emerging “Emory as Place” program—the university is a fascinating panorama of cultural change, resistances, and creativity.  Recently, my scholarly work has turned to the role of campus sustainable food projects in rebuilding a healthier global agro-food system.  I am also deeply interested in the process of personal and institutional transformation, and the variety of paths and languages that support the paradigm shifts necessary to rebuild a viable relationship with the earth.

My previous research focused on agricultural development in Latin America and the United States, and I continue to work with students on those issues. In the 1970s, I carried out economic anthropological research among peasant farmers in a mountainous village in Costa Rica. I was interested to explore the impact of Green Revolution agricultural technologies and small farmer credit.  My work addressed the intersections of ecological and demographic change, emerging stratification, penetration of global markets, and household economic decisions and linked these local changes to larger international processes. In the 1980s, I extended these interests to industrial societies and explored the U.S. farm crisis through an in-depth study of one south Georgia county.  I focused on the challenges to family farms in the commercial agriculture heartland of America and combined political economy with an understanding of men's and women's visions of personal success, consumption, and values.  I have also carried out research in highland Ecuador among Quicha-speaking farmers and weavers and was honored to join a Central American human rights delegation. My interest in household economies in diverse countries was broadened by a four-year association with the Arkleton Trust research program on part-time farming in 13 European countries and by serving as a consultant with AID on poverty in Costa Rica.  These anthropological contexts support my understanding of sustainable development today.