The Big Picture

My research examines the intersection of environmental governance, human security, and environmental justice across diverse landscapes and national contexts. I employ theories of institutional change to explain 1) why certain norms, practices, and policies are accepted as international standards of “best practice” and 2) how these global models affect social and environmental outcomes as they are implemented across various domestic contexts. My goal is to understand whether globally-accepted models of environmental governance can actually enhance human security and environmental sustainability.

1. Contesting Carbon Democracy: The Politics of the Bakken Pipeline System (PI)

Montgomery County, IL

This project seeks to understand how landowners in Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Louisiana experienced the siting and construction of the Bakken Pipeline System (Dakota Access Pipeline, Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline, and Bayou Bridge Pipeline).

The Dakota Access Pipeline made global headlines in 2016 when a group affiliated with the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota began a protest to oppose the siting of the pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Since then, Standing Rock has featured widely in debates about oil and gas pipelines specifically and US energy policy broadly. The experiences of landowners in areas impacted by the pipeline outside North Dakota, specifically Illinois, Iowa, and South Dakota have been largely left out of this conversation. Given that agriculture is central to any discussion on US energy policy, this research aims to ensure that Midwestern perspectives are accounted for in ongoing policy debates. The research team is particularly interested in the following questions:

  • How did landowners experience the siting and construction of DAPL?
  • What are the benefits and risks of DAPL? Who receives the benefits and who is responsible for the risk?
  • What do landowners think is missing from the national conversation about pipelines? What could be added to help build consensus?
  • How do landowners impacted by DAPL perceive the conflict in North Dakota?
  • How do the benefits and risks of a pipeline like DAPL compare to other ongoing energy initiatives – especially wind and solar?


Jennifer Orgill Meyer, Franklin and Marshall College

Heather Cann, Franklin and Marshall College

2. Environmental Peacebuilding in Colombia (Co-PI)

Jesus Abad Colorado: ‘The Witness’ at the Claustro de San Agustin Museum in Bogota,

This project is a joint collaboration between McKenzie Johnson at the University of Illinois and Luz Rodriguez’ research group at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia. In 2016, Colombia signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to bring an end to the long-running Colombian conflict. The cessation of hostilities and the onset of the peacebuilding process has generated important questions about how natural resources and the environment will be governed in the post-conflict period.

The goal of the proposed project is two-fold: 1) determine how the implementation of the Peace Agreement will impact local institutional capacity to govern common-pool resources and 2) examine to what extent a focus on natural resource governance in Colombia can contribute to building a stable and lasting peace.


Past Research Projects

Mineral Extraction in Ghana and Sierra Leone

Informal Artisanal Mining, Ghana

Areas of Study: mineral extraction, land use change, Environmental Impact Assessments, participatory governance, deforestation

Related Publications:
​Johnson, M.F. 2017. Strong Institutions in Weak States: Institution Building, Natural Resource Governance, and Peacebuilding in Ghana and Sierra Leone. Doctoral Dissertation. Durham: Duke University. 
2. Johnson, M.F. 2019. Strong (Green) Institutions in Weak States: Environmental Governance and Human (in)Security in the Global South.World Development 122: 433-445.
3.Johnson, M.F. 2019. Who Governs Here? Informal Resource Extraction, State Enforcement, and Conflict in Ghana.  Global Environmental Change 58: 1-11.

​4. Johnson, M.F. In Press. Fighting for Black Stone: Extractive Conflict, Institutional Change, and Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone.  International Affairs.

5. Johnson M.F., R. Laurent*, and B. Kwao. In Press. Constructing a Crisis: The Effect of Resource Curse Discourse on Extractive Governance in Ghana. The Extractive Industries & Society

Environmental Peacebuilding in Afghanistan 

Kabul, Afghanistan

Areas of Study: environmental security and peacebuilding, institutional change, natural resource governance, and biodiversity conservation in conflict settings

Related Publications:
1. Weinthal, E. and M.F. Johnson. 2018. Post-War Environmental Peacebuilding: Navigating Renewable and Non-Renewable Resources. In Routledge Handbook of Environmental Conflict and Peacebuilding, ed. Ashok Swain and Joakim Öjendal: Routledge.
2. Johnson, M.F. 2017. Institutional Change in a Conflict Setting: Afghanistan’s Environment Law. European Journal of International Relations, 23(1): 168-191.
Johnson, M.F., N. Kanderian, C. Shank, H. Rahmani, D. Lawson and P. Smallwood. 2012. Setting Priorities for Protected Area Planning in a Conflict Zone – Afghanistan’s National Protected Area System Plan. Biological Conservation148(1): 146-155.
4. Kretser, H., M.F. Johnson, L. Hickey, P. Zahler, E. Bennett. 2012. Wildlife Trade Products Available to U.S. Military Personnel Serving AbroadBiodiversity and Conservation21(4): 967-980.

Human-Wildlife Conflict in India

Household Surveys in Rajasthan, India

Areas of Study: biodiversity conservation and development, human-wildlife conflict, environmental justice and inequality ​

Related Publications: 
1. Johnson, M.F., K. Karanth, and E. Weinthal. 2018. Compensation as a Policy for Mitigating Human-Wildlife Conflict Around Four Protected Areas in Rajasthan, India. ​Conservation & Society 16(3): 305-319.
2. Johnson, M.F., C. Hannah, L. Acton, R. Popovici, K.K. Karanth, E. Weinthal. 2014. Network Environmentalism: Citizen Scientists as Agents for Environmental AdvocacyGlobal Environmental Change 29: 235-245.