Dr Vanessa Burns

School of Geography and Planning

Leverhulme ECR Fellow

Vanessa Burns
Profile picture of Vanessa Burns

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Dr Vanessa Burns
School of Geography and Planning
Geography and Planning Building
Winter Street
S3 7ND

Vanessa joined The University of Sheffield in September 2021. She has a DPhil in Geography from the University of Oxford, a MA (research) from the University of New South Wales, and a BA (1st Class Hons and University Medal) from the University of Technology Sydney.  Before joining Sheffield, Vanessa held a position as Social Scientist in Governance at The James Hutton Institute where she collaborated on a number of Scottish government and European Commission funded environmental research projects. Prior to this, Vanessa held a position as Lecturer in human geography at Stanford University. Her independent research has been funded by the Australian Research Council and The Leverhulme Trust.

Research interests

Vanessa's work is broadly interested in how ontologies of nature inform the production of environmental knowledge, especially knowledge of environmental change.  She is interested in the project of reforming environmental law and governance frameworks, by asking how the ontological foundations of environmental law and governance frameworks obstruct good governance. She is especially interested in how European ontologies of nature produce international environmental frameworks that are maladapted to alternative (indigenous) land and sea management in postcolonial regions, and the problem of how to decolonise these frameworks.

Adaptation and Indigenous Labour: Colonial Extraction on the Climate Frontier (The Leverhulme Trust 2021-2024)

Vanessa’s current research is funded by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. The research examines how environmental law and governance frameworks extract local and traditional environmental knowledge produced through (climate change) adaptation labour in the Pacific region. The research uses historical, ethnographic, and collaborative qualitative methods to answers three questions: (1) How does environmental violence dictate the conditions of indigenous adaptation labour? (2) How do the conditions of violence affecting contemporary indigenous adaptation labour compare to the conditions of historical slave labour on the Pacific colonial frontier?; (3) How do minority world economies benefit from Indigenous Pacific adaptation labour in ways that may reproduce some of the advantages of natural and knowledge resource exploitation during the colonial period? The project establishes critical bases in geographical research for the decolonisation of environmental governance and will produce research papers, policy reports and other outputs and collaborations towards this aim. 


Journal articles


Teaching interests

Vanessa has developed and taught syllabi on the politics of environmental change, international environmental governance, geographies of the agricultural and industrial revolution, and research methods. Her broader teaching interests include human-environment relations in the Anthropocene, geographies of environmental change, ocean governance, Pacific geographies, and decolonial thought.