Contributed by Andrew Myers
On November 5, the ICN had the great pleasure of sitting down to lunch with Dr. Paul Robbins and discussing many of the issues facing academia, interdisciplinary research, and conservation, among many other topics. As the current director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, he works toward developing a program that prepares students to address global environmental issues in a rapidly changing climate. What makes this program unique is the emphasis upon interdisciplinary collaboration; graduate students are required to assemble a committee that includes professors from at least three different departments and must be balanced between the natural and social sciences.
Having spent his career investigating interactions between humans and the natural world and the politics of natural resources, Dr. Robbins’ work has sometimes been known as geography, political ecology, or environmental studies. Labels aside, his current work investigates how decisions made by rubber and coffee farmers in India impact ecological conditions. Increasing demands by laborers for better working and living conditions, such as better wages and television, coupled with the out-migrations of younger generations to cities, has meant that manual laborers are fewer in number and more expensive to hire. As a result, farmers are increasingly turning to chemicals for weed control and other functions that historically have been provided by laborers. In turn, this increased usage in chemicals has had a detrimental impact on local amphibians such as toads. The more startling point here is that this move from farms to cities is not endemic to India, it is a global pattern. For example, the agricultural heart of Montana has experienced rapid out-migration since the beginning of the 21st century. The major question here is: how are we going to feed ourselves if nobody is working the farms and can the environment sustain these practices?
Dr. Robbins’ work shows that there is much more to ecological systems than just biota, climate, minerals, and nutrients. This may seem like an obvious statement; however, human decision making and activities are still not a common aspect of ecological research. Additionally, there is more to global economies and markets than we typically think, they have ecological ramifications (e.g., how does ‘capitalism’ account for environmental impacts? Can it?). This notion places further imperative on the need for interdisciplinary research in addressing global issues in a shifting environment, not only within the natural sciences but across intellectual enterprises such as the social sciences and the humanities. The decisions we make at a local level are nested within larger global scales that have impacts upon a global environment. To truly address the complexity of our human and ecological systems, we must look across the aisle to our colleagues in other fields and investigate at all scales from the infinitesimal (e.g., atoms), to the invisible (e.g., nutrients), to the apparent (e.g., toads), to the gargantuan (e.g., globalization).
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