Q&A with Steve Polasky

What did you study?

This particular study was the result of a several year process of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to assemble and synthesize the status and trends of nature and nature’s contributions to people as well as projecting scenarios of what the future might look like. My particular portion of this study focused on nature’s contributions to people. In general, I study the intersection of ecology and economics, everything from how to influence human decisions, how human decisions affect ecosystems, how changes in ecosystems affect human well-being through changes in ecosystem services, to the value or importance of ecosystem services.

If you were a plant, what species would you be and why?

Douglas fir. They live in one of my favorite places in the world (Cascade and Coast Ranges in Oregon). They grow with many buddies (i.e., a forest). They are always tall and always green. They are the dominant tree in the forest in a place where forests define the region.

Why do you work on environmental problems?

I have been interested in environmental issues since I was in elementary school. I grew during the time of the first Earth Day, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the start of all the modern environmental laws in the U.S. (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act…). Resolving environmental problems always seemed important because of the impact that human actions had on other species with whom we share the planet as well as having fundamental impacts on human well-being.

How did you come to contemplate decision analysis and why?

Economics is fundamentally decision analysis. In its normative form, a typical economics problem will study what an individual or firm should decide to in order to maximize their payoffs. In its positive form, economics studies the decisions the people make and how decisions are influenced by incentives, financial or otherwise.

What did your career pathway to where you are now look like?

My first job out of graduate school was in a typical economics department where the faculty focused on traditional economic topics. They hired me because I understood game theory, industrial organization, public finance and other topics in applied microeconomics. The environment was not important for them. However, I was more interested in the environment than economic per se. I viewed economics as a set of good tools with which to tackle environmental problems. While on the East Coast I had the good fortune to spend part of my time at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where I started working on a project on biodiversity. I soon left for the West Coast (a job at Oregon State) and found myself immersed in all kinds of environmental issues – spotted owl, salmon, land use, water use. I was in my element. I have stayed working on these types of issues ever since.    

What is the hardest career decision you have made, would you change it if you could?

I have not really had hard choices to make. I guess the hardest choice was whether to stay at Oregon State University or move to University of Minnesota, where I was offered an interdisciplinary position between the Applied Economics Department and the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Department. I chose to go to Minnesota for the great opportunity despite my love for Oregon.

What is your best piece of advice for an early career researcher in the environmental sphere?

Learn useful tools early in your career (it is harder to do so later) but keep your eyes on the big environmental issues and be persistent. Making progress on environmental issues requires tenacity, as does making a good professional career. 

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

I would solve the sustainable production/consumption challenge of figuring out how to supply the needed food, water, energy and material goods for society so that we don’t degrade our own life-support system. Doing this would aid in solving a good many environmental problems.