Educating global leaders for sustainability at Berkeley

In the beginning of May 2010, the MacArthur Foundation announced that UC Berkeley will receive a grant to establish a Master’s in Development Practice (MDP), or as it was referred to, a Master’s in Sustainability Studies. This grant is both a wish come true and the beginning of a new challenge.

I appreciate development. I grew up in Israel when it was a “developing country.” My father was chopping wood once a week so we could take a warm shower. We got our first radio when I was 10, but by the time I was 22 I was working in a very sophisticated computer company. During this period the country made a quantum leap and to me it was associated with the emergence of new generations of competent managers and experts, mostly locally trained by teachers who studied abroad (that’s where I first learned about Berkeley). I moved to Berkeley to do my Ph.D. in agricultural economics and I was assigned to a project on dairy waste. Studying cow manure wasn’t my dream when I applied to Berkeley, but actually it was my golden opportunity. I didn’t know it at the time, but research in animal waste is really “multi-disciplinary.” You need to know about cows and milk production, you need to understand waste generation and disposal, as well as water and hydrology, and you need to know the economics of agriculture and the complexity of environmental policy. I was able to write some papers that landed me a job at UC Berkeley and unintentionally I became an expert on economics, the environment, and agriculture.

Being a Ph.D. student Berkeley taught me much more than the intricacies of cow waste. In most people’s mind (including mine, since my official introduction to Berkeley was through The Graduate) Berkeley is about protests and hippies. But, what I realized was that beyond the protests and fun we had a university that emphasized rigor and diversity. Our professors were tough and uncompromising in their desire to be the best. But, most of my learning was from other students from all over the world. When I compared my experience with people who were educated elsewhere, I felt fortunate. I also felt that the world would be a better place if more people will be exposed to intellectual chaos and creativity that we have here. When I was appointed to run my college’s (CNR) Center for Sustainable Resource Development one of my priorities was to establish a training for environmental leaders to provide many with the flavor of Berkeley and to establish a network of virtual alumni. I was fortunate that one day an incredible benefactor, Dick Beahrs, provided us with the initial contribution to establish a summer program, the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) that I have been co-directing with Robin Marsh for the past 10 years.

The program has already more than 300 alumni from all over and it continues to grow and evolve. The participants were much more fantastic than I could have dreamed and we really learned a lot about what we can contribute. Future leaders need management skills that incorporate basic science with the practical reality of development, society, and the economy, which will lead to effective action. They appreciate being connected and being able to interact with collaborators all over the world. We are now living in a world where globalization is a personal experience and we depend upon mechanisms that connects the dots. As the program grew we realized its limitation. What was really needed is scaling up – a real professional master’s program that will combine the management training of an MBA with emphasis on environmental and development issues and will mix learning in the classroom and training in the field. During the last 10 years Berkeley established many other centers and activities that were geared towards solving problems of development and the environment.* When the MacArthur Foundation put a request for proposal for universities to develop a Master’s in Development Practice, we were ready to go.

Our proposal is for a campus-wide program centered in CNR. We will have about 50 students that will take two years of classes and two stints of about four months of internship in the field (or international organization). The classes will include training in environmental and development economics, decision theory, project management, basics in science and public health and will emphasize a lot of interaction between the students with a wide network of experts and activists that frequent Berkeley. The Berkeley program will be part of an emerging network of at least 20 universities that will have similar programs of Master’s in Development Practice all over the world and I expect that our program will be central in setting much of the direction of this emerging field. The world needs competent well-trained leaders that are driven by ambition and desire to solve environmental and complex societal problems globally, while at the same time are pragmatic and rigorous. The MDP will strive to help such leaders to emerge and grow. The diversity, excellence, and passion of Berkeley make it uniquely situated to house this effort.

* For example, the Berkeley Institute for the Environment, the Energy Biosciences Institute, Center of Evaluation for Global Action, the Claussen Center for International Business and Policy, the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and the program on Global Health and the Environment to name a few.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the economics of biofuel?

Biofuel policy must evaluate environmental, food security and energy goals to maximize net benefits

Model estimates food-versus-biofuel trade-off

The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Biofuel Future

The New Nobels: Small Steps Toward Integrated Social Science

I got a kick out of learning that Eleanor Ostrom and Berkeley’s Oliver Williamson won the Nobel in Economics. I had a similar response when the Psychologist, Dan Kahneman, won the prize. These are important steps in the expansion of economics and establishing an integrated social science based on rigorous logical thinking and empiricism.  This integrated new social science will provide insight on how people think and interact and how to improve the human condition.

It is useful to contrast the evolution of economics and biology. Research in the biological sciences first identifies and documents various organisms and only later develops a general theory, Darwinian evolution theory, that explains how species interact and evolve. In economics, Adam Smith developed a theory first. For years, economists considered only two institutions: the firm and the government. But, we know that not all firms are alike and that there are many other organizations that are neither government nor firms. Political scientists and sociologists are very good in identifying different types of organizations and Williamson and Ostrom marry the organizational complexity with basic behavioral principles that are emphasized in economics.

Williamson’s work is based on the realization that different firms have different types of physiology (structure) and transactions occur in many ways outside of the market. These organizational structures are reflective of diverse product characteristics, market situations, technologies, and consumer preference, etc. His work suggests that economic research shouldn’t strive only to explain choices of prices, quantity, and product quality, but more than that. It should aim to explain institutional design and evolution of different types of organizations.  Furthermore, good policymaking and effective legal structures require balancing the desire for simplicity with capacity to address the multitude of considerations that lead to the diverse institutional outcomes that we see in everyday life.

Ostrom’s work made the notion of governance operational. It doesn’t only apply to states, but also to communities, which are creative in their design of institutions to manage and sustainably utilize community assets. So, traditional organizations that have been sustained over time, managing water resources or forests, are not arbitrary, but reflect social optimization that has to be comprehended and any institutional reform has to be based on the understanding of why things are the way they are in the first place. Ostrom’s research suggests that reforms based on good intentions, but with ignorance of institutional setup may push things backwards. Policy makers need to understand not only natural forces, but also social processes in order to make changes that would be for the better.

Many of Williamson’s insights came from his understanding and appreciation of legal institutions. Ostrom is first and foremost a political scientist. But they established a two-way road, exporting economics to legal studies and political science. Coming back to Kahneman, his work started bridging economics and psychology, explaining some behavioral patterns that perplexed economists by developing behavioral rules that are more appropriate to bumbling human beings than to the uber-rational economic man and ushering in the new field of behavioral economics. Economics, as a result of these influences, has become richer and sometimes overwhelming, but more realistic. We realize that in spite of our scientific progress we are in the beginning and have a long way to go before we are able to explain effectively social systems. At the same time, we are encouraged that the vantage points of different disciplines start to converge and we may, one day, reach an integrated narrative that will allow us to make better sense of society and people.

Best wishes to Williamson and Ostrom. This selection of the Nobel committee was well deserved and by making this bold choice, the committee enriches economics and makes it more exciting and relevant.