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"Never alone in making the world"

Paul Robbins brings unique view of people and environment

June 27, 2012

When Paul Robbins becomes Nelson Institute director on August 1, he'll hit the ground running. With a few worn-down pencils.

Armed with a long list of ideas, he's been fine-tuning his immediate and long-term plans -- putting pencil to paper when a thought emerges, scratching out items that no longer make the cut, and continuously reordering the list.

Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins, who will begin as director August 1.

He keeps 25 freshly sharpened pencils on standby at his desk, ready to capture the next big idea.

Robbins comes to the institute from the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, where he's served for two years as director. A UW-Madison alumnus, he holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology, along with a master's degree and doctorate in geography, both from Clark University.

Robbins brings years of experience as a researcher, studying human interactions with nature and the politics of natural resource management, and he has taught a range of topics at both the University of Arizona and Ohio State University (where he also sang lead vocals for a local band, "The Distants").

He recently shared his first impressions of the institute, what he's been jotting down on that list of priorities, and what he sees as paths to success for an environmental studies program.

What drew you to seek the Nelson Institute directorship?

Robbins: The interdisciplinary spaces for students and research. Universities around the country are trying to invent places where you can shove people who do literature together with people who do biology and something magical is supposed to happen. It's my impression those are interesting experiments, but they haven't been fully successful.

The Nelson Institute, on the other hand, is ready made and it's been here a long time. Working at a large interdisciplinary school, I'm used to having colleagues who study dirt and who deconstruct policy documents -- you don't get that very often; you can't invent that. Nelson is that, so that was really attractive. The students and the constituencies outside the university are well matched and so is the state of Wisconsin -- it's a perfect match for a tradition in humanities, social science, natural science and public service.

Now that you've had the chance to meet with some of our faculty, staff and students and learn more about the institute, what are some of your first impressions?

What is not immediately apparent from outside is how deep the research center roots are within the institute. The centers are dug deep in the soil in a good way; they touch across campus. The level of talent in the centers is enormous, and the level of enthusiasm for the centers -- for the institute as a whole, by people in the centers and across campus -- is really high. People like Nelson.

Also, maybe the thing that's hard to know if you're from outside Wisconsin, is how well connected the institute is to issues in the state like lakes, water quality and climate change. There are people in Nelson who work in the community, and that's nice in a university that already has a rich tradition of extension. To have Nelson be out in the public in a way that is above and beyond the outreach mission of the university is really cool.

What would you like to see the institute build upon for the future?

As hugely successful as the Nelson Institute is, it's still not interdisciplinary enough. I would like to see more knitting of other disciplines and groups.

The second thing is a much stronger role for international initiatives. If you think about the University of Wisconsin's international traditions -- its language and literature programs across the curriculum, its international opportunities for undergraduates (that's how I started working in India, I was brought there by a UW-Madison professor) -- the Nelson Institute isn't fully integrated into those initiatives and it could be, without sacrificing anything.

Almost anything people are working on here has international potential. And with the Land Tenure Center, there is already a tradition within Nelson of international activities and initiatives, but that could be across the board.

What immediate plans do you have when you begin as director?

This is a huge community and I want to get to know it really, really well. And I want to get to know people who aren't connected to the institute, because there are untapped constituencies of students, faculty and publics.

"The Nelson Institute
for Environmental Studies
is the Nelson Institute for
food, for community, for
health, for energy, for lakes,
for fishing and hunting --
it's the Nelson Institute
for everything that's on
people's minds."

Two, I'm going to take a rambling road tour of Wisconsin. I drove around Wisconsin as a college student in my VW bug (I lived on Mifflin Street, so I had to own a VW bug). I would like to see the state a bit more, and if there are alumni who'd like to host me, I would look forward to that.

Longer-term plans?

One thing I'd really like to see on campus, maybe working with other campuses in the region, is to open the lens of our environmental concerns to urban areas and urban constituencies. Many of the area urban centers are lively environmental spaces and complicated ecosystems.

There is a habituated way of thinking of nature as outside or external, and we've learned from Bill Cronon [Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of history, geography and environmental studies at UW-Madison] and others that the environment's everywhere. I think a center for urban environmental initiatives that would work with communities and connect into the university as a research resource is a Nelson-worthy enterprise over the long term.

More broadly, Nelson could be a part of more global health initiatives. Environmental health is a way of connecting constituencies around the world. I've just finished some work with mosquitoes (I could talk about mosquitoes a lot; I'm obsessed with them, so I've moved to the right place), and what I learned is the diseases people are facing in Phoenix are diseases people are facing in Mexico City. They're very different places, but not from the mosquito's point of view. A mosquito has no respect for the border fence.

What role do you think alumni can play in advancing the institute?

It would be great to get the alumni in touch with students if for no other reason than to reassure them. Students love science or literature or the environment, but they have a legitimate concern, which is, they don't know what they're going to do with the degree. They don't know who to go to; they're not quite sure where those connections are, and our alumni are those people.

The alumni also know how the program works and what it did and didn't do for them. What other kind of experiences in an undergraduate or graduate degree program could have been enhanced to prepare them better? The alumni are our experts.

I'd also ask what we could be doing for alumni who are out there developing programs, projects or companies. If they could tell us, that would help.

Tell us a bit more about your research.

The overarching theme of my research is anthropogenesis -- how people make the world. But they're never alone in making their world; they're in the world with all these animals, plants and fungi. The idea that you preserve the world by not being a part of it -- by not being a part of the environment -- to me is the problem. People are always coproducing nature.

Paul Robbins in India
Robbins discusses a vegetation survey with foresters
in India, where much of his research has focused.

To give you an example, in south India, you can see dozens of endangered and threatened species, particularly bird species. They're living in coffee plantations, rubber plantations, tea plantations -- they're living where people work. Are people saving these animals because they want to? No, they're saving these animals because there's something about the crop pricing and the productivity which configures the coffee plantation and the particular mix of trees.

So how do you save dozens or hundreds of species in India? You can throw everybody off the land and build a big fortress. Or, you can take a look at the price of coffee, which will determine how many species you have. If the price of coffee goes into the toilet, they're going to mow down that forest overnight and put in something that pays. My research is about how many animals plantations can produce, and how can we help producers stay on the land. There's an ethic that underlies that: everyone eats. The birds eat, the farmers eat and you get your coffee.

Another project, on mosquitoes, is the reverse of that same problem -- that anthropogenesis produces hazards, not just benefits. The city is built perfectly for mosquitoes. So how do you remap the city from the point of view of bugs, so you're not exposed to hazards that deal very serious diseases, especially for people who work outside and the global poor. Malaria, dengue, hemorrhagic fever -- this is visited upon millions of people around the world.

You traveled to India as an undergraduate student?

I was studying anthropology and history here at UW-Madison. My connection was through archeology, in particular the Harappan civilization. There's a fellow here, Mark Kenoyer [professor of anthropology], who's the foremost expert in this area. I begged to come along to India and he put me on the ground, where we did ethno-archeology work -- basically the opportunity of a lifetime.

"The overarching
theme of my research
is anthropogenesis --
how people make
the world."

But despite all the good efforts by my brothers and sisters in archeology, I just could not get interested in it. The living people interested me much more, particularly migratory herders. They herd hundreds and thousands of sheep back and forth, on migration for nine months. They have to negotiate along the way and manage their pastures, and it's an interesting social science problem. I fell in love with this problem and the landscapes of India, and not so much the objects and artifacts. I think Mark forgives me, because I was probably a really crappy archeologist, but it changed my life.

What do you see as challenges faced by an environmental studies program, especially in a public university?

If you're a faculty member, you've got scarce resources, very little time and you want to do what you're interested in. That's the challenge to interdisciplinarity -- if one area is where your passion is, why should you throw away time in a meeting, trying to dream up some new language, or trying to understand what a sociologist is saying and vice versa? The biggest challenge is showing people that if they engage in those conversations, they get more out of them than they put into them.

The way to overcome that is to not force everybody to ask the same questions. If there is an object these researchers share -- a material object like mosquitoes, wolves or water quality -- you can engage in interdisciplinary conversation over time. You have to make a space that is interesting, so people can bring their own individual research, knowledge and passions.

What an interdisciplinary institute has to be is an empty space like a theatre. The Nelson Institute should be like a repertory theatre, so that the space is inviting and has lots of smart people around it. People come in and put on a show -- what I mean is bring the community in and say, "What's on your mind? Well, we've got a climate scientist who works on that, and here's someone who's worked in that community for 25 years and they're in anthropology..." You do something effective that helps people and that advances science. And then people can go elsewhere and do their own thing, and you rotate in another repertory performance.

What do you see as the most pressing environmental issues, and what role can the Nelson Institute play in addressing them?

Number one for me: global biodiversity decline. You have to think about biodiversity in a lot of different ways -- not just more or less diversity of life, but different kinds of diversity.

The second problem related to that is global climate change. The directionality and rate of climate change is a core driver of other changes. Not the only one, and sometimes not even the most important. But it's certainly something that needs to galvanize cooperative action, which makes it an enormous challenge.

Photo taken in India by Paul Robbins
Photo courtesy Paul Robbins, taken in India.

I'm very interested in global health and particularly disease ecology. The changing nature of diseases; how they vector and move as a kind of environmental problem; how we harbor and transport them; how we think about prevention instead of an entirely curative approach, and about biomedicine versus traditional knowledge of healing.

How can the Nelson Institute fit in? Well, Nelson does all this stuff; it has Nelson written all over it.

On biodiversity -- at a global, regional and local level -- there's 150 years of UW research. Starting with the wildlife sciences, extending to people doing land use and land cover change research at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), connecting to the climate drivers in the Center for Climatic Research (CCR) -- our own centers are already working on this. The Land Tenure Center has this hugely rich tradition working on how land is managed and the diversity of life on the surface of the earth.

Climate change more generally, you've got social scientists who work at different scales. You have CCR -- some of the best climate and atmospheric scientists in the world already at your disposal. You've got people at SAGE looking at landscape-scale transformations and how much carbon is in the ground, trees and atmosphere -- these can be connected seamlessly with a little bit of coordination.

And health: here you've got a School of Medicine and Public Health -- one of the great medical schools in the world and at the same time people who are working in communities on questions about people's livelihood and health. Nelson can continue to help advance the new Global Health Institute on campus, for example, to coordinate those activities so there'd be more mutual learning.

Recent polls show the environment is far down on people's list of priorities. Do you see that affecting how we go about our work in the institute?

The first thing you have to be willing to give up as someone who teaches the environment, researches the environment or loves the environment is the word environment. Environment doesn't mean anything, it's the context within which everything happens -- that's not very useful.

"The first thing you
have to be willing to
give up as someone
who teaches the
environment, researches
the environment or
loves the environment
is the word environment."

People shouldn't be concerned about the environment; they've got gas prices to worry about, groceries, child care, health care. All those problems were environmental problems before they were economic problems and, in that sense, everybody actually is worrying about the environment. That's why global climate change is a loser politically -- people think of it as something far away. But people are worried about what their agricultural returns are from year to year; about their water; about the scarcity of things in their household. Those are all things linked to the climate.

The environment is translated through lenses far more urgent in people's day-to-day, immediate lives. So the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is the Nelson Institute for food, for community, for health, for energy, for lakes, for fishing and hunting -- it's the Nelson Institute for everything that's on people's minds.

Given that, how could the institute better engage and communicate with the public?

Communication is part of it. But it is also about listening. What do we know about what is on people's minds?

One of my research projects was on lawns. I did a national study, and what it showed is quite simple: people who use lawn chemicals are much more worried about what those chemicals will do to the environment, their children and their health than people who don't use chemicals. What that means is people are reading the bags and it's on their minds; it's keeping them awake.

Environmentalism, when it's most effective, addresses people's anxieties. Telling people what they should be worried about is a nonstarter. Asking people what they're worried about and then thinking about how environmental science and environmental studies connect to those anxieties -- that's a much smarter thing to do.

See video excerpts of Robbins' remarks »