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"Never alone in making the world", continued

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 »

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