New Faculty Intro: Peter Kahn

Unlike our two other new faculty members, Professor Peter Kahn joins us from just up the road on campus in Guthrie Hall, where he continues to hold a joint appointment with the Department of Psychology—and where he is director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) Lab. Yet there is nothing short or linear about the path he followed to become a professor, and how his research has aligned with SEFS.

Peter KahnProfessor Kahn had what he calls a rather unusual childhood and professional trajectory, and he can trace many of his current research interests to his teenage years. At age 13, while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, he decided to drop out of his school to pursue carpentry for several years. Then, from ages 16 to 20, he ventured to a 670-acre community-run cattle ranch five hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Kahn lived communally on the ranch and guided people into the wilderness on horse trips. Sometimes he’d ride for a week at a time, unencumbered by property boundaries and fence lines. “I came of age with a lot of space, and that’s very deep within me,” he says.

At age 20, Kahn headed to Bozeman, Mont., to attend farrier school and become a specialist in equine hoof care, and then he used that trade to work his way through Santa Rosa Junior College in California. A few years later, he transferred to U.C. Berkeley and—having discovered a special fondness for Milton and Shakespeare—graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s in English.

He continued on to graduate school at U. C. Berkeley, as well, and shifted his studies to social and moral development for his master’s in 1984, and then earned his Ph.D. in 1988.

Since then, as his research interests have branched in a number of directions, Kahn says his experience on that communal ranch—which he remains a part of—continues to shape some of his intellectual activity. “In our community,” says Kahn, “the younger generation has shifted perspectives of what we think is big space and adequate space for healthy living. We adapt to more congested and degraded environments, but just because we adapt doesn’t mean we do well.”

Peter Kahn

Part of what drew Kahn to affiliate more closely with SEFS was an interest in exploring why conservation is not just important for ecosystems, but also for human beings.

Part of what drew him to affiliate more closely with SEFS was an interest in further exploring our connection to the outdoors, and how you can’t interact with something, like nature and open space, that isn’t there anymore—in other words, why conservation is not just important for ecosystems, but for human beings. Some of his research themes include environmental generational amnesia, and shifting baselines about what counts as an optimal environment; the loss of language to express the richness of our experiences in nature; and what he calls interaction pattern design, and how we can construct a building or urban space that doesn’t just incorporate visual or structural elements of nature, but actually facilitates closer interaction and engagement with it.

His recent books (with MIT Press) highlight some of his related interests: Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life (2011); The Rediscovery of the Wild (2012); and Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species (2013).

For now, you can reach him by email or at his office in Guthrie 308, and he will have an office in Anderson by the beginning of next quarter. He’s looking forward to collaborating with SEFS faculty, so start dreaming up research partnerships and welcome Professor Kahn to the SEFS community!

Photos © Peter Kahn.