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"Never alone in making the world"

Paul Robbins brings unique view of people and environment

Spring/Summer 2012 | By Meghan Lepisto

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?

See video excerpts
of Robbins' remarks »

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.


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