Tamma Carleton grew up gardening, fishing, foraging, and bartering for food with her neighbors. The daughter of two hand-weavers who raised their family in a unique artists' homesteading community in the redwoods of California, Carleton says the novelty of her upbringing didn't fully dawn on her until she was a research analyst working in Washington, D.C., after college. There, all of a sudden, she felt like an environmentalist.
"I began to realize that my version of America was very unusual, and in particular my connection to the natural world was incredibly rare," the 29-year-old Carleton says. "I had never felt like an environmentalist, but I was stunned and fascinated by how little my neighbors, co-workers, and friends thought about their interdependence with the climate, with water quality, or biodiversity."
To serve her community's immediate needs, she started a local farmers' market in her D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights. She was thrilled to see her community engaging in a local food system, with some food-stamp recipients gaining access to affordable fruit and vegetables for the first time. Still, she felt it wasn't enough.
"I was excited, but I also saw that this was a Band-Aid on a much larger, and global, set of challenges surrounding sustainable development," Carleton says. "I decided to go to graduate school to tackle these macro-scale challenges through training in both economics and environmental change."
Today, Carleton is a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and resource economics at the University of California–Berkeley. She's also been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and the recipient of the Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results Fellowship. In her research, Carleton combines social and physical data with statistical models to assess how issues such as climate change and freshwater scarcity affect poverty and economic growth.
Despite her ominous findings around adaptation gaps—that is, "the gap between what social and economic outcomes could look like if we completely adapted to the climate, and what we actually realize under our current variable climate"—Carleton tries to maintain a proactive, positive attitude in her research. She hopes to continue her work with interdisciplinary teams that are tackling environmental challenges in a policy-focused way.
"As the human environmental footprint takes on a global scale, I feel that each day I have two choices. One is to shrink back from this problem and decide that as an individual I cannot influence its evolution. The other is to do everything I can to try to inform solutions," Carleton says. "Most days, I choose the latter."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)