Unity over Discipline

I was honored this week to be a plenary speaker at the Innovations in Collaborative Modeling conference at Michigan State University. The title of my talk was “Unity over Discipline: Tales from the Borderlands of Two Cultures,” making the case that C.P. Snow’s infamous lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” is as relevant today as when first delivered in Cambridge in 1959.

Snow argued that the two competing cultures of the sciences and humanities, pervasive at universities and society at large, were hindering solutions to the world’s major problems.  Today the rift between humanistic theories of the emancipated self and scientific claims of a materially-based human animal continue to be at odds over central questions of ethics, law, and economics.  Economics, in particular, as currently taught and practiced throughout the world is un-tethered from scientific fact and standards of evidentiary proof.  In a word, economics is “dangerous”, threatening the habitability of our planet and stability of our societies.

Deliberative discourse, empirical fact checks, and collaborative modeling are helping to bridge the divide, where disciplinary assumptions must be vetted, tested, and defended.  In this lecture, I shared stories from “the borderlands” between economics and the sciences to help construct tentative footbridges that our students, scholars, and decision-makers may cross to reveal an emergent unity of knowledge to confront the most challenging problems of our species.

Op Ed: Divestment makes economic sense

[Cross-posted from Erickson, Jon D., “Opinion: Divestment Makes Economics Sense,” Burlington Free Press,  May 1, 2016.]

Gov. Peter Shumlin and a majority in Vermont’s House and Senate have called for divestment of state pension funds from coal and ExxonMobil.

The environment and economy are so often seen in conflict, that it may be shocking for many to learn that on divestment, our ecological and economic bottom lines are in full alignment. Coal becomes a worse investment every day.

The environmental case for divestment, we all know, is clear. It becomes even stronger with recent revelations that ExxonMobil executives knew the human causes and consequences of climate change for decades.

But for many, divestment is an economic issue. If we want to talk about the risk of fossil fuel stocks losing value as the global community moves away from burning carbon, coal is exhibit A.

President Obama has halted new coal mining on federal lands, and coal’s share of electric generation nationwide has plummeted. Many large coal companies have gone belly up, and this week the world’s largest, Peabody, filed for bankruptcy. The Dow Jones Coal Index has free-fallen from nearly 750 eight years ago to the low 30’s today. Even China is closing thousands of coal mines.

Chiza Vitta, a metals and mining analyst with the credit rating firm Standard & Poor’s, noted in a March 20 New York Times article that, “There are always going to be periods of boom and bust. But what is happening in coal is a downward shift that is permanent.”

Some members of Vermont’s Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) have raised fears that investment managers will charge exorbitant fees to sell our few coal stocks. Our experience at the University of Vermont tells a different story. In recent years, some generous UVM donors have made their support conditional on investing in a portfolio without fossil fuel or nuclear power corporations. Not only did fund managers create a Green Fund at normal costs, but it has far outperformed the university’s broader portfolio.

The good news is that following action in the Legislature, VPIC and state Treasurer Beth Pearce have agreed to revisit these issues since rejecting earlier appeals for broad divestment. At the University of Vermont, we had a similar movement for broad fossil fuel divestment that was ultimately rejected. Perhaps this new leadership at the state level will encourage UVM’s Board of Trustees to take another look.

As someone who works with students daily, I fear they see our leaders speak to the crisis of climate change in one breath, but delay taking action in the next. We have the opportunity to show our children, the nation – and indeed the world – that Vermont takes climate change seriously by putting our money where our mouth is. This targeted divestment is a modest step in the right direction.

The eyes of many will be on the Statehouse on May 3. I trust that Vermont’s Pension Investment Committee will rise to the occasion and protect the value of public pension funds, uphold our commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, and send a message to other states and nations that its high time to divest.

Green’s Give Mixed Reviews on VT’s E-cars

[Excerpt from Burlington Free Press]

Consider the fossil-fuel impacts of our broader automotive lifestyle, and you’ll find that electric cars fall short of the ideal, suggests Jon Erickson, a professor of ecological economics at University of Vermont.

Costs to society (and the planet) of metal extraction, manufacturing and road maintenance don’t appear in brochures for a Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf, noted Erickson, who took a few minutes out of his sabbatical to talk shop.

If combating global warming is a priority, he said, the decision to buy an electric car “is a measure of last resort.”

Overall, Erickson said, the new vehicles fit into an urgent campaign to wean society away from fossil fuels.

But electric cars have so far done nothing to disabuse Americans of a cherished notion of personal freedom that relies on “being able to jump into a car and going where we want,” he added.


Vermont Education Goes Global at Paris Climate Talks

[From Vermont Public Radio]

As leaders in more than 150 countries prepare to meet in Paris with an eye toward forming a landmark climate agreement, some students at both Vermont Law School and the University of Vermont are preparing to make contributions of their own to the international effort to address climate change.

UVM sophomore Gina Fiorile plans to showcase a climate education model based on “youth climate summits.” The model was adopted from a program run by the Wild Center in the Adirondacks, where Fiorile grew up. This year, there were youth climate summits across the U.S. and internationally; Fiorile is going to Paris with the Wild Center in an effort to spread the idea even more.


Could a Carbon Tax Work for Vermont?

[From Vermont Public Radio]

At the moment there are a few proposals in the Vermont Legislature that would tax carbon. Dr. Jon Erickson, a professor at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, says they work by encouraging certain types of consumption, and discouraging others.

“The idea would be to place a tax on things that we don’t like, that we don’t want, so in this case, carbon pollution. And move the tax off of things that we do, so other forms of consumption income or employment.”


UVM Honorary Degree to Crea Lintilhac

Each year the University of Vermont recognizes outstanding individuals with honorary degrees at the main commencement ceremony.  Criteria for selection is sustained & dedicated commitment to public life & service, significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge, OR significant contribution to the University’s ability to achieve its mission.  The Rubenstein School was honored this morning to have President Sullivan recognize one of our very own for meeting ALL of these criteria many times over.

Crea Lintilhac, graduate class of 1978, founding member of our School’s Board of Advisers, tireless environmental advocate, and a trusted mentor and dear friend … thank you for all that you do for our School, University, State, and future generations that benefit from your hard work, dogged determination, and unparalleled generosity.

There was one particular quote from a letter supporting her nomination that comes closest to summarizing Crea’s decades of work on behalf of Vermont citizens.  Stuart Comstock, President of The Vermont Community Foundation, said: “there is something of a soup-to-nuts approach to Crea’s philanthropy — identify the problem, research its root causes, and support the advocacy needed to bring about lasting change.  This type of philanthropy is worth doing.  It is worth emulating. And it is worth recognizing.”

It is difficult to imagine the State of Vermont or the University of Vermont without Crea’s impact through both her personal effort on boards, committees, and the halls of the State House, and the extraordinary generosity through grants and gifts of the Lintilhac Foundation. Please join me in thanking and congratulating Crea Lintilhac for this well deserved honor.

Jon D. Erickson
Interim Dean
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

The Environmental University

The study of environment at UVM has long been a collaborative, comprehensive, and campus-wide endeavor.  Cross-college degree programs in environmental studies and environmental sciences have decades of experience in bridging broad student interests. Transdisciplinary hubs in ecological economics, transportation, food systems, and climate change have distinguished UVM among our peers.  Campus sustainability initiatives ranging from learning coops and leadership training, to green buildings and clean energy investment, place UVM in the top 10% of universities in the national Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.   And state and federal partnerships on sustainable agriculture, fish and wildlife, environmental monitoring, and watershed management represent the very essence of our university’s land grant mission and our state’s environmental heritage.

Collaborative, comprehensive, and campus-wide.  These are the cornerstones from which to build an environmental university.  An environmental university actively pursuing climate neutrality, a comprehensive goal set for 2025. One with new collaborative degree programs in sustainable entrepreneurship and environmental public health, areas of research and professional training that the world desperately needs.  An academic leader poised to establish proficiency in sustainability as a condition of graduating from college.

These ongoing initiatives and a full course of next steps were laid out in last year’s report on Envisioning Environment at UVM.  The study group called for “a comprehensive advising ‘map’ for prospective and current students,” which has formed the basis of a new “study environment @ UVM” web portal under development.  They called for better coordination among environmental majors, a charge to a new campus-wide committee that is exploring curricular synergies and enhancements such as gateway courses shared between majors and annual ‘grand challenges’ to encourage interdisciplinary teaching.  The study also proposed an Institute for Environment to elevate environmental scholarship and graduate education, the early stages of which are under development in a proposal due to the Provost this fall.

UVM is making great strides to be the environmental university, but with new leadership in place there’s a feeling we’re just getting warmed up. Our President brings rich experience in establishing an Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota; new Deans in the School of Business Administration and College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences are international leaders in environmental entrepreneurship and engineering; and now the icing on the cake is our new Dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.  Dr. Nancy Mathews joins us this July from the University of Wisconsin where she is director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and professor of environmental studies at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.  She brings to UVM a wealth of experience in leading institution-wide change and a track record of impeccable scholarship, visionary collaboration, inspirational public service, and a commitment to high-impact learning second to none.

The stars are aligned.  Our ducks are in a row.  We’re pushing the envelope.  Whatever your metaphor, it’s clear that the environmental university has arrived.  However, to be the environmental university is a never-ending journey.  It’s been a privilege to lead the School and take part in these larger conversations over the past two years. I look forward to working with our new Dean, talented faculty, dedicated staff, passionate partners, and incredible students to push our School, University, and State to even greater heights.

Jon D. Erickson
Interim Dean
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

Here Comes the Class of 2018

During the spring semester I have the privilege of talking to prospective students and their families during Admitted Student Days.  After reflecting on how it seems like yesterday when I was in their seats (with Van Halen loaded in my Walkman and an 80s mullet to match), I provide a brief sketch of their future studies at the Rubenstein School.  Ten minutes to highlight the big takeaways of our School’s content and character.  Why join the Rubenstein School?  What makes the Rubenstein experience distinctive and compelling?  What is the return on investing four years at UVM to their future careers and ecological citizenship?

I stress that we are a School without departments, bridging the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities through a core curriculum, experiential learning, and interdisciplinary research.  We challenge our students to develop deep expertise in an area of study, but also the skills to navigate and integrate across disciplines to tackle complex problems.  I emphasize that we are a community built on partnerships with other colleges and schools through cross-campus majors and interdisciplinary research; with state and national government agencies through cooperative research and extension programs; and with private companies and non-governmental organizations through student projects and action research.  And I underscore our commitment to learning by direct experience through service-learning classes, internships, diversity training, undergraduate research, and senior capstone projects.

Thankfully, we also invite current students to talk to their peers.  Their first-hand experiences bring my assertions to life and always make me want to go back to school! To name a few: student research projects at the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory on Lake Champlain; internships with one of our many perennial partners; service-learning projects with over one hundred community partners to choose from; and co-curricular activities in the new Ecological Design Collaboratory.  Our undergraduates participate in evaluating and evolving their own curriculum through the Student Advisory Board; benefit from study and career advice with graduate student mentors; and build environmental leadership skills as Rubenstein School Stewards, members of the student-run chapter of the Wildlife Society, and Eco-Reps with UVM’s Office of Sustainability.

It may feel like my own school years were just yesterday, but today’s education is certainly worlds away from my own.  Today’s students take ownership of their education like never before.  They expect a lot from our faculty and staff, and we in turn expect the world from them.  There is a lot of pride on display at our Admitted Student Days, and a lot at stake in a Rubenstein School education.  As the Class of 2018 makes their big decision to join our community, let’s welcome them with an unwavering commitment to their success and to make the world a better place for each new class to follow.

Jon D. Erickson
Interim Dean
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources

Strategic Action Plan

The New Year brings an abundance of top 10 lists.  From songs and movies, to news stories and technology, Google “2013 top 10” and you’ll be inundated with one reflection after another of this past year.  There are even “not top 10” lists, cataloging the worse moments in sports, politics, or fashion.  Don’t worry, I’ll resist the cultural pressure to suggest a list for the Rubenstein School.  However, I won’t be bashful about listing my #1:  We have a strategic action plan!

This past year was filled with meetings, brainstorms, hallway chats, drafting, and re-drafting.  What began with a charge from our Board of Advisors and a kick-start from Dean Mary Watzin and the Regenesis Group, has been forged into a three-tier strategy and action steps to help guide our School in the years to come.  The first tier is wrapped around our education mission – strategies to advance our curriculum, evolve our programs to meet societal needs and expectations, and ultimately prepare our students for successful careers and life paths.  Advancing integrated research frames the next tier of strategies, where sharpening focus through capitalizing on synergies and partnerships is the overarching theme.  And foundational to both teaching and research excellence is a third tier of strategies on community engagement, maximizing the relevance and impact of our work.

The commitment and courage to ask tough questions and pose paths forward wasn’t easy, and certainly isn’t finished.  Strategic planning has brought needed focus to our collective efforts in a time of transition for our University and School.  Implementation of core strategies is already underway, including curriculum reform for both our undergraduate and graduate programs, design of a new online masters program in sustainability leadership, advancing integrated research in our McIntire-Stennis Forestry Research program, and building new partnerships through student internships with state agencies, non-profits, and the private sector.

Writing a strategic plan isn’t an ending, it’s a beginning.  We’re treating this as a living document, so please send comments to me at jon.erickson@uvm.edu.  Our next dean will most certainly put their stamp on our course, as will new faculty and staff, and an ever-changing cast of students, partners, and alumni.  Implementation will involve testing these ideas, keeping what works, and re-working what doesn’t.

The New Year will certainly bring new challenges and opportunities for our School and University.  I look forward to facing them together with bent knees, open mind, and strategies in place to carry us forward.

Jon D. Erickson
Interim Dean
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources