Interview with Dr. Brian Czech: Education and Career Guidance in Ecological Economics

Interview with Dr. Brian Czech: Education and Career Guidance in Ecological Economics

Dr. Brian Czech is an author, teacher, full-time conservation biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a recognized authority on Ecological Economics. Described by Publisher's Weekly as "as good at popularizing economics as Carl Sagan was science," Dr. Czech argues that mainstream economics is based on a dangerously flawed theory of economic growth, which can be dismantled through ecological principles.

Dr. Czech has authored and edited dozens scientific publications; organized and appeared as a guest speaker at symposiums, seminars, and conferences; received many awards for his work in the field; and serves on several national roundtables pertaining to ecological, economic, and social sustainability. His first book Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train has become a popular manifesto for Ecological Economists as a roadmap to a sustainable future, and he has also produced a video, The Steady State Revolution: Uniting Scientists and Citizens for a Sustainable Society.

Dr. Czech has a B.S. in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an M.S. in wildlife science from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources from the University of Arizona. He is currently an adjunct professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where he teaches ecological economics and endangered species policy and management.

He is an active member of The Wildlife Society, Society for Conservation Biology, International Society for Ecological Economics, American Economic Association, and Ecological Society of America. In July 2003, Dr. Czech attended the Green Party National Convention and has since been listed by Politics1.com as a potential Green Party 2004 presidential candidate, a distinction which says he would consider.

About Dr. Czech & His Career

Tell us about your environmental background. How did you develop your interest in Ecological Economics?

My environmental background began as a child in northeastern Wisconsin and included a lot of time in the great outdoors. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I worked in a variety of jobs such as firefighter, wilderness ranger, and thinning crew foreman with the U.S. Forest Service. I also spent two months on the Bering Sea, monitoring Japanese fishing ships for the National Marine Fisheries Service, and, after completing my Masters at the University of Washington, I worked in the Teton Wilderness Area, mapping grizzly bear habitat for the Forest Service.

Next, I took a job developing a wildlife management program for the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona. I did this for three years, then for two years served as director of the Tribe's Recreation and Wildlife Department and entered the policy world via tribal government.

When working on my Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, I conducted a policy analysis of the Endangered Species Act for my dissertation. As part of this analysis, I looked at the causes of species endangerment in the United States. These causes were like a "Who's Who" of the American economy, so I developed an interest in ecological economics.

In 1999, I took a job as a conservation biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at National Wildlife Refuge System Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Apparently, this was the first position with the name "conservation biologist" in the history of the Fish and Wildlife Service, although there were and are many fine conservation biologists in the Service with different titles (usually "fish and wildlife biologist"). A conservation biologist is a type of wildlife biologist who emphasizes biodiversity conservation and takes an interdisciplinary approach to conservation.

You've become a vocal proponent of Ecological Economics in the US, although your educational background and job history are in conservation biology. How did you carve out this niche?

When I noticed that the causes of species endangerment were a "Who's Who" of the economy, I began to investigate the relationship of economic growth to biodiversity conservation. I found a fundamental conflict between the two, but also found that many economists and natural resources professionals denied such a conflict existed. Usually, this denial resulted from a lack of knowledge, but in some cases from political expediency.

I have done a lot of my ecological economics work, such as writing books and journal articles, on my own time. However, I have also incorporated basic principles of ecological economics into my job as a conservation biologist. With economic growth as the limiting factor for biodiversity conservation, I have taken a particular interest in educating fellow natural resources professionals, the public, and policy makers on the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. I have also applied basic principles of ecological economics in some of my other duties, such as the strategic growth of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

You've written books, papers and articles about Ecological Economics. Tell us about this aspect of your work, and why you have devoted this kind of time and thought to the field.

I have spent so much time promoting ecological economics because I think the wildlife conservation profession has become an exercise in futility until the national goal of economic growth is replaced with the goal of a steady state economy. Furthermore, in a technical sense, a theory of economic growth that incorporates ecological principles is much more valid than the standard, "neoclassical" theory of economic growth.

When I completed my Ph.D. program, I authored Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop Them All. This was my first significant contribution to the ecological economics literature. Shortly afterward, a version of my dissertation was published as The Endangered Species Act: History, Conservation Biology, and Public Policy, with Paul R. Krausman as my co-author. This book interprets the Endangered Species Act as an implicit prescription for a steady state economy. I am working on a third book which will be a more thorough critique of economic growth as a national goal with a more thorough approach to establishing a steady state economy.

What would you consider your proudest accomplishments in the field of ecological economics? Have you had any major setbacks along the road?

My proudest accomplishment is my book, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. The book established a precedent for biologists and other natural resources professionals to venture far into the wilderness of economic growth theory, policy, and politics. More importantly, Shoveling Fuel illuminates at least one potential pathway to a sustainable future. I have received tremendous feedback from readers who have garnered hope and inspiration from Shoveling Fuel.

I have had major setbacks along the way, but I prefer to view them as water under the bridge. I think the prudent advice is to learn what you can from a setback and move on. The learning process is very personal, but humility is always a good attitude when sorting out the lessons in a setback.

You also teach at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Are you still teaching there and how important is this aspect of your career?

I teach endangered species policy and management one semester per year and ecological economics another semester per year. I also fill in as a guest lecturer for courses such as ecosystem conservation and global change. This is an important aspect of my career because it allows me to inform students of some extremely important principles of long-term ecological and economic security. Students, by definition, are there to learn, so they often make more productive contacts than bureaucrats or politicians. I have also learned a lot from students over the years.

What are your personal and professional goals for the next five years?

My career goal is to maximize my contribution to the ecological sustainability, economic welfare, and social stability of human society. At this point in my career, I do not have any specific objectives in terms of particular agencies, positions, etc. Instead, I constantly keep an eye out for where I may be able to maximize my contribution. The basic choices, however, are government, academia, and non-governmental organizations. To make the right choice, one must assess his or her background and skills as well as the opportunities provided by the position in question.

Earlier in my career, I found it appropriate to set career objectives, especially short-term objectives such as "firefighter this year, thinning crew foreman next year". For a while, I also had a long-term goal of becoming Secretary of the Interior, but have concluded that too much is beyond control to reasonably set goals involving political appointments. Furthermore, I have observed a great deal of highly effective "behind-the-scenes" work.

For now, I find my position with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to be a good fit. I am able to use my education and field experience in helping the Service plan for long-term conservation. I also have some freedom to incorporate the principles of ecological economics and other social sciences into my job. Finally, I am "in the beltway" of Washington, D.C. with its networks of conservationists, sustainability scientists, and policy makers.

About Ecological Economics

Please offer us your own definition of Ecological Economics, including its importance in the world today.

I like the definition of Costanza et al. (1991:3): "a transdisciplinary field of study that addresses the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense". The major distinction of ecological economics relative to mainstream or "neoclassical" economics is the incorporation of ecological principles. In my opinion, the ecological economics movement is the most important movement in the world today because it encompasses the most promising approach to ecological sustainability, economic welfare, and social stability.

How much time do you spend working on this aspect of your career? How often do you have the opportunity to integrate it into your position with Fish and Wildlife?

I spend approximately 40 hours per week on issues of ecological economics, including about 10 hours per week in my position as conservation biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and another 30 hours per week off the job. This includes reading, writing, speaking, and networking. I integrate the principles of ecological economics into my job with U.S. Fish and Wildlife in activities such as land acquisition planning, biodiversity conservation assessment, and participating in interagency sustainability efforts such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests.

What is the difference between ecological economics and environmental economics?

Environmental economics is a subset of neoclassical economics that focuses on environmental issues. As a subset, it adheres to the basic assumptions of neoclassical economics, including the microeconomic construction of the consumer as a rational, utility-maximizing "Homo economicus" for whom "utility" is gauged by the consumption of goods and services. Environmental economics also tends to subscribe to the neoclassical theory of perpetual economic growth based upon perpetually increasing productive efficiency. In practice, however, its practitioners are largely mute on the subject of limits to growth. They focus instead (as do neoclassical economists at large) on the efficient allocation of resources at any size of an economy.

Ecological economics is founded upon different assumptions, micro and macro, which lead to distinct conclusions and policy implications. These assumptions incorporate principles from the natural sciences (physical and biological) that are largely ignored in neoclassical economics. For example, humans are viewed as having evolved in a variety of ecosystems posing unique constraints on economic behavior and resulting in unique cultural norms. As such, humans are subject to diverse motives not conducive to simple assessments of utility maximization via consumption of goods and services. In ecological macroeconomics, the economy is viewed as a subset of the ecosystem and subject to limits imposed by the laws of thermodynamics and principles of ecology. Ecological economists (especially those specializing in steady state economics) therefore focus on the size of an economy relative to the ecosystem; efficient allocation of resources is also a concern but not the primary concern as it is in neoclassical economics.

Who are some of the most important figures in the field of Ecological Economics today?

In my opinion, the most important figure in ecological economics is Herman Daly. He has done more than any other to develop the ecological macroeconomics of a sustainable society and has communicated his findings to a wide array of publics and polities. His critique of neoclassical economic growth theory and his alternative of steady state economics should become required reading for natural resources and other environmental professionals. Some of the up-and-coming "Dalyists" include Joshua Farley and David Batker. I classify myself as a subscriber to Daly's macroeconomics, too.

It is always a gamble to name names, because it is too easy to unintentionally omit an important figure. However, other leading Americans in the ecological economics movement certainly include Cutler Cleveland, Robert Costanza, Jon Erickson, Robert Goodland, John Gowdy, Charles Hall, Jonathan Harris, Richard Howarth, Richard Norgaard, and the late Harold Odum.

Leading international scholars in the ecological economics movement include Bina Agarwal, Mauricio Amazonas, Stefan Baumgärtner, the late Kenneth Boulding (who spent much of his career in the United States), Clovis Cavalcanti, Kanchan Chopra, Malte Faber, Sylvie Faucheaux, Carl Folke, Sylvio Funtowicz, the late Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Ann-Mari Jansson, Joan Martinez-Alier, Manfred Max-Neef, Peter May, Frank Muller, Martin O'Connor, René Passet, Charles Perrings, John Proops, Jerry Ravetz, Matthias Ruth, Paul Safonov, Clive Spash, Enzo Tiezzi, and Alexey Voinov.

You are very active member of the United States Society for Ecological Economics. Tell us about this organization and some of the other prominent professional organizations for the field?

The United States Society for Ecological Economics (USSEE) is one of eight regional chapters of the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), which also includes Argentinean, Australian, Brazilian, Canadian, European, Indian, and Russian chapters. The ISEE was formed in 1988 and the USSEE in 2000. Both societies have excellent websites.

Education in the Field: What to Expect

What is right and wrong with environmental education in America today?

From what I've heard, environmental education at the K-12 level suffers from a lack of knowledgeable instructors. Most K-12 teachers can't get around to every specialty, and environmental education is still classified as a specialty. With the mounting importance of environmental health to human society, I think environmental education should become part of the core curriculum for education majors.

In the biological departments of American colleges and universities, there seems to be a shift toward the laboratory and molecular-level studies. I think this is a worrisome trend for the sake of ecological sustainability, which in my opinion requires more ecological prudence and less molecular mastery. The colleges and universities do appear strong, however, in technologies relevant to ecosystem management such as GIS, GPS, and remote sensing.

Returning to the theme of ecological economics, I think the biggest weakness in American environmental education is its lack of connection with economic policy implications. Every study that identifies an environmental problem should point to the relevant economic sectors that cause the problem. Most importantly, the impotent rhetoric about "human activities" causing macro problems such as global warming should be replaced with the more explanatory "human economic activities". Then, environmental educators should proceed to discuss the implications to economic growth policy. In other words, environmental education should become more economically sophisticated to become more relevant to 21st century American society.

Tell us about your education, including degrees, certificates or any other training. What formal education do you have in Ecological Economics?

I went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison for my B.S. in wildlife ecology in the department founded by Aldo Leopold. After four years in the field, I returned to school and received an M.S. in wildlife science from the University of Washington. My research was on elk at Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Then, after five years with the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, I went to the University of Arizona for a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources, with a minor in political science.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an environmental program? Is there anything, in particular, to look for if they know (or suspect) that they would like to pursue Ecological Economics?

If the student has a passion for a certain cause, then he or she should seek an environmental program that will facilitate the pursuit of that cause. This almost sounds simplistic, but I think there are students who let the job market steer them rather than vice versa, and that is unfortunate.

In my case, I had a passion for the outdoors and, especially, wildlife ecology and management. Eventually, that passion was transformed into an equally strong passion for ecological sustainability, and it was only another short step to long-term economic welfare and national security. I have found the ecological economics movement to be populated by people with closely related causes.

In seeking an ecological economics program, or an environmental program with a strong component of ecological economics, I would advise students to consider which aspect of ecological economics they are really passionate about. The three basic choices are economic scale (economic growth and limits to growth), valuation of natural capital, and equity issues. In my opinion, the economic scale issue is most related to sustainability and most in need of more work. The valuation of natural capital is most related to an economically efficient allocation of natural resources, which of course is also important for sustainability purposes. Economic equity is also a prerequisite for sustainability, but focuses more on social justice issues.

Students should simply ask their prospective program advisors and faculty which issue areas they tend to focus on, who would be available for consulting and collaboration, and how their programs may fit with the student's passions. After that, other factors such as background and abilities may be considered to fine-tune decisions and programs.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs that offer Ecological Economics?

As of fall 2002, the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics became the undisputable leader among ecological economics institutions in the United States, and probably the world.

Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York also has a strong tradition (though all traditions are relatively young in ecological economics).

The University of Maryland at College Park qualifies as a leading ecological economics institution due to the mere presence of Herman Daly, but there is also a well-established group of ecological economics students at College Park who tend to network with the conservation biology students there.

The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University has an interesting program that offers a mix of neoclassical and ecological economics.

The University of California at Berkeley offers a transdisciplinary economics program with an ecological economics bent.

I am not very familiar with ecological economics programs outside of the United States, but as of June 2003, the International Society for Ecological Economics was developing a list of ecological economics programs at their website.

There aren't many programs offering degrees in Ecological Economics. What other educational path would you suggest that could lead students to successful careers in the field?

I wouldn't give up on ecological economics just because there don't appear to be many programs established in ecological economics yet. In addition to the schools offering formal degrees or programs in ecological economics per se, there are many other programs conducive to studies in ecological economics. Many of these programs will go by the name "environmental economics".

Environmental economics is really a subset of neoclassical (mainstream) economics, but some of those programs have faculty with background and interest in ecological economics. Tufts University is an example and there are many more. The list is growing, too, with universities like the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, and Purdue University recently announcing faculty positions in which the faculty member would have an emphasis on ecological economics. Also, one periodically sees positions in natural science programs (for example, wildlife management) that require expertise in ecological economics, and the number of these positions is also growing.

Jobs in the Field: What to Expect

What kinds of jobs are available for those wanting to break into the field of Ecological Economics? What are some of the job responsibilities?

Most of the jobs in ecological economics per se, where "ecological economics" is included in the job title, are in academia. The Gund Institute is one of the best examples with over a dozen professors and research associates. By its nature, however, ecological economics is a transdisciplinary endeavor and occasionally positions are announced in other fields in which a specialty in ecological economics is listed among the hiring criteria. I have seen this occur, for example, with tenure-track positions as diverse as wildlife science, political science, and geography.

A small but growing number of non-governmental organizations also hire ecological economists or other individuals with a background in ecological economics. An example is the Center for Applied Ecological Economics of the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange. The duties of these ecological economists typically include economic consulting work with rural communities, regional commissions, and developing nations. The ecological economist in this context is expected to provide recommendations for economic development options that are more sustainable than options recommended by neoclassical development economists.

Finally, there are government positions like mine, "regular" environmental positions in which one finds it useful and important to incorporate ecological economics. These include virtually all positions currently expected to be involved in sustainable development issues. Seldom do these positions explicitly call for a background in ecological economics, however. Typical employers include federal, state, and tribal natural resources or environmental agencies. For example, I serve on the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests and have found myself as the lead (and often lone) protagonist in reporting the fundamental conflict between economic growth and sustainability. The neoclassical economists on the Roundtable have been opposed to acknowledging this principle of ecological economics. (I have experienced a nearly-identical phenomenon on the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable.) More employees with a background in ecological economics are needed to overcome the academic and political legacies of neoclassical economic growth theory in government efforts toward "sustainable development".

What's the pay scale for someone just starting a career? How about for those at the senior level?

The pay for a starting field biologist is typically in the 20's (thousands of dollars). For an assistant professor in natural resources or in ecological economics, starting pay is often in the 40's (for a 9-month tenure-track position). The GS-13 level in federal government is the highest level at which an employee can expect to avoid heavy involvement in administrative activities such as budgeting and personnel management: starting salary for a GS-13 is about $65,000 and increases in "steps" to approximately $80,000. Full professors in natural resources or ecological economics typically have salaries ranging from the 60's to about $100,000.

Do you have any advice regarding how graduating students can land that first great job?

The willingness to travel and move around is essential early in a natural resources or ecological economics career. Even then, competition is tough. It helps, especially in natural resources, to volunteer or intern at first. It is difficult financially, but often not as bad as it may sound because virtually all of your expenses are covered under many volunteer programs. In fact, it is more like working for a subsistence wage. The Student Conservation Association is a good place to start looking for a career in natural resources. To go straight into ecological economics, graduate school is probably the best route.

How is the job market right now? How do you think it will be in the next 5-10 years?

The general job market was great through most of the 1990's and is declining in the early 2000's. Theoretically, conservation biologists and ecological economists should be in higher demand as biodiversity loss and economic unsustainability become more problematic. However, the prominence of both fields will depend a great deal upon social and political developments in the United States and world.

The Industry

What are some trends that you see in the field of Ecological Economics that might help prospective students plan for the future?

To me, the biggest challenge is not so much technical, but political. I think there is an "iron triangle" of economic, political, and professional interests that, for the most part, do not understand the ecological and economic problems posed by perpetual economic growth. Worse, I fear that, even when some of these parties do recognize the problem, they would prefer that the public not recognize it for the sake of maximizing short-term profits, votes, or research dollars, respectively. This iron triangle, which I do not think is conspiratorial but has simply evolved as part of American political economy, is nevertheless extremely powerful and will make it difficult for scholars (and students cum scholars) to educate the public on the perils of economic growth.

A closely related challenge is to increase the prominence of the ecological economics movement. This will not be easy because, by its nature, ecological economics does not attract support from the corporate community (and its tremendous public relations resources), which tends instead to support mainstream economics and fund mainstream research. As more students express an interest in ecological economics, however, more colleges and universities will develop ecological economics programs and more future research will be based upon principles of ecological economics. Student demand, in other words, will help to steer the development of curricula and research.

A third big challenge is a fairly technical one, and that is to develop in the literature and the public mind a tight linkage between GDP and the use of natural resources. We have many citizens and scholars who realize that increasing population and use of natural resources are problems, but also think that GDP (in real dollars) can rise without the additional use of resources. I believe this is a fallacious and dangerous argument and have sought to refute it in the literature, but it will take much more work by future colleagues. Until the linkage is widely accepted, meaningful macroeconomic reforms will evade us because we will be setting goals based on GDP growth which will undermine our other goals of environmental protection.

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

That is hard to say because, while the information pertaining to ecological economics is more accessible with the internet, so is all the other information out in the world. Perhaps the effect has been positive, however, because there is probably a lower "cost threshold" to make the information available at all. For example, publication and distribution of hardcopy literature is sometimes infeasible for movements such as ecological economics due to financial constraints, whereas industry groups will typically have the resources to supersede the cost threshold.

A Final Word

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter the field of Ecological Economics?

Yes. I think the ecological economics movement is the most inspiring and important intellectual movement today. I think it is bound to survive and eventually permeate the economics discipline, reforming core principles and providing more prudent policy implications. Those of us in the trenches, working to bring the principles of ecological economics into public policy, are making progress, and it is exciting. Please join us!

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Ecological and Environmental Economics majors, click here.

Related Articles