Fellows' Spotlight: Olivia Smith

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Wed, 03/25/2020 - 14:43
Portrait of Olivia Smith
Olivia Smith

Olivia Smith is a fourth-year undergraduate student pursuing a double major in Philosophy and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies, and one of the JHI’s 2019-2020 Undergraduate Fellows. Her research as an Undergraduate Fellow at JHI concerns the nexus between the climate crisis, environmental ethics, and the notion of state sovereignty.

Specifically, Olivia critically investigates the connection between traditional ways in which sovereignty has been conceived and: (1) the ethical, and environmental ethical, failings of the sovereign state system, and (2) certain dominant ways in which contemporary human societies have tended to think about nature and our relations to it. Given that the sovereign state system remains one of the dominant paradigms for global political (inter)action, the aim of this work, beyond its nature as a critique, is to provide a morally and politically ameliorative sketch of what a reformed, environmentally ethically informed sovereignty might look like.

JHI: Why did you apply for a JHI Fellowship?

OS: I applied for a fellowship at JHI because I was in search of an opportunity to work meaningfully at the intersection of my two areas of study—Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies and Philosophy—and because I  was craving  exposure to a diverse set  of disciplines and research agendas. JHI is an interdisciplinary institution, and my research, which occupies an interesting and at times vexing space between Ethics, Critical Environmental Theory, International Relations, History, and Political Science, has managed to fit in quite well.

JHI: What experiences were you hoping for?

OS: I was hoping for an opportunity to be genuinely intellectually ambitious. Of course, I’d been very lucky in my education so far to have had the opportunity to work with Professors and instructors who encouraged me to explore my interests and push back against the status quo—but I was craving something bigger, a project that would allow me to write and think beyond the limits of traditional undergraduate coursework. I was also hoping to have the opportunity to spend time with and learn from scholars at all stages of their academic careers, and to feel a bit more connected to the Academy. As an undergraduate at such a large institution, it is easy to feel anonymous and, more to the point, quite divorced from the broader academic project and community.

JHI: How has being at the JHI added to your research?

OS: Through this Fellowship, I’ve been exposed to ideas and perspectives that I might not have otherwise encountered. All the Fellows this year have brought their expertise and prior knowledge to the area of Environmental Humanities. For example, in my research, I outline a normative framework for a revised notion of state sovereignty intended to reflect environmental ethical principles and the political demands of the climate crisis. As more and more conversations were had that critically analyzed the ways we think, in an ideological manner, about nature and our relations to it, I was encouraged to include in my framework a normative section on the ‘worldview’ (similar to the concepts of episteme or Weltanshauung) of the environmental ethical sovereign. In this, I expanded on my prior intention to delineate this revised sovereignty strictly in terms of rights and duties.

JHI: Has the interaction with other Fellows informed your research and if so, how?

It has been a true pleasure—not to mention a privilege—to spend the last academic year attending weekly Fellows Lunches (which, by the way, have been invariably delicious), hearing about the research everyone is doing, and engaging in discussions with the other Fellows. Each week, I’ve walked away with something new to think about. And not only that: I have been exposed to many new and fruitful modes of interpreting, knowing, and reasoning. More than shaping the content of my research per se, interaction with the other Fellows has directly influenced the way I  have conducted my research on all levels, from the questions I ask to the ways I write and reason.

JHI: Any final general comments about your experience at the JHI so far?

OS: I strongly encourage any interested undergraduate students to apply. I don’t know of any other program at this University that allows undergraduate students to pursue their interests in such a supportive, engaged, and intellectually engaged environment. And, finally, I’d really like to thank the JHI for awarding me this Fellowship and for enabling all the good things that have come with it. This has been a wonderful way to wrap up my undergraduate “career.” In conclusion: I have had so much fun!

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