Q&A with Justin Johnson

What are you currently doing in your career?

Currently, I co-lead the Natural Capital Project team of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. We work to understand how ecosystem services affect human well-being and how we can meet other human development goals, such as food security, without undermining the natural systems necessary for their operation. In particular, this is leading me to research better predictive models of land-use change that integrate with equilibrium economic models to predict land-use change globally at high resolutions (300m).

If you could meet one scientist past or present who would it be and why?

Paul Samuelson. His use of mathematics to describe economic systems was beautiful and powerful (albeit missing key factors relevant to today’s challenges).

If you could tell them one thing about your work what would it be?

I would suggest he spend much more time focusing on where the simple versions of economic analysis leads to faulty conclusions. His actual work contained many of these nuances already, though later adaptations of his work focused more heavily on an extremely limited model with strong assumptions on how humans act. Including more on commons dilemmas, public goods and the neurological basis of human behavior (rather than assuming a perfectly rational agent) would have propelled modern economics to be better-suited to answer current sustainability challenges.

What would be your ultimate next career move?

Long term, I would like to launch a research center that hosted a new generation of Integrated Assessment Models that could combine economic equilibrium analysis with environmental dynamics and climate change to better inform sustainability planning.

If you had one wish, what environmental issue would you solve and why? 

I would wish to solve the tragedy of the commons, or at least find a way to create institutions that get closer to this solution.