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Spring 2002


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by Tim Traver '78

Chesapeake Bay to Lake Champlain. A new landscape, a new university, a new home will await Professor Robert Costanza and colleagues when they pick up shop in Maryland and relocate to Vermont this summer. One constant amidst the change — The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont will carry forward this team of scientists’ innovative teaching and research focused on protecting the planet’s ecosystems.

Exploring the secret life of a Philippine mangrove forest may be the stuff of dreams for a student of tropical ecology, but what’s in it for an economist? Everything. Dense, low-lying coastal systems — mangrove forests are treasure troves of natural production and biodiversity. Home to crocodiles, herons, and egrets, they also are abundant with fish, shrimp, and wood for harvest. Factor in typhoon protection, erosion control, waste treatment, sources of medicines, and the flip side of the ecological coin rotates into view — organic currency.

Ecologist, economist, or interested bystander, we all should be concerned that mangrove forests, like many other highly beneficial ecosystems, are disappearing rapidly and with them the health and vitality of human communities. “Today, in our full world, it’s absolutely essential that people understand the value of healthy ecosystems and our fundamental reliance on natural capital,” says Professor Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “Ecosystems are being degraded throughout the world because the services they provide aren’t valued in the marketplace.”

The work of Costanza and his colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Ecological Economics has explored and quantified those values over the past eleven years. This summer, the team of eight faculty and research staff will relocate to the University of Vermont — an academic coup of sorts for UVM, built on the support of a $7.5 million gift from the Gund family

.“We’re tremendously excited to have them here,” says Don DeHayes, dean of the School of Natural Resources, the institute’s new home. “They provide a much-needed bridge between science and policy, systems ecology and economics. The School of Natural Resources is bringing an interdisciplinary approach to bear on real world problems. This is exactly the approach the institute takes.”

From Costanza’s perspective, UVM offered a good fit as well. He says that the institute was attracted by the prospect of a smaller university home and was especially drawn by the spirit of faculty collaboration at the university, as well as DeHayes’ and Interim Provost John Bramley’s vision of UVM as a world-class “green” university. “Our skills are complementary to the good work that’s already going on here,” says Costanza while visiting Burlington in January to begin preparations for the move and discuss potential projects with UVM faculty.

The institute’s reputation for environmental innovation was built from its original home in Maryland, but the ecological thinking it’s based on has deep roots in Vermont, going as far back, at least, to George Perkins Marsh, who published Man and Nature in 1864. Marsh’s influential work was the first integrated ecological look at humans’ global impact on nature. Since then, Vermont has spawned a wealth of progressive thinkers and institutions in that line.

“Those of us working in ecological economics are trying to understand the world in an integrated way,” says Costanza. To support his point, he notes that the words ecology and economy spring from the same Greek root — oikos, meaning household. If ecology is the study of home then economy is the management of home. “But the purpose of the institute,” says Costanza, “goes beyond the science of linking ecological and human socio-economic systems to putting in place policies and management that sustain our natural capital.”

From its beginnings, the institute has been a component of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, where it garnered an impressive track record in applied systems modeling research, and training focused in large measure on watersheds and aquatic ecosystems. The potential applications in Vermont are abundant, of course, particularly in conjunction with on-going UVM research focused on the health of Lake Champlain and the region’s watersheds. But the tools his team of scientists uses can be applied anywhere, Costanza says.

Consider the institute’s participation in a long-term study funded by the National Science Foundation that attempts to look at metropolitan Baltimore as an ecosystem. The Baltimore study integrates vast amounts of social science data with ecological data and makes it available to researchers, policy makers, managers, and even school children. The institute is part doctor, taking the pulse of ecosystem health in a city setting over a long period of time, and part accountant, determining the real values of ecosystem services. Healthy ecosystems beget healthier human populations.

According to Matt Wilson, an assistant professor with the Gund Institute, the Baltimore project has many kinds of outcomes including the revitalization of city neighborhoods; the improvement and expansion of public open spaces; water and air quality improvement; the creation of place-based science curricula in neighborhood schools; student mentoring; even field trips. Inspiring and training future generations for careers in ecological science and management may be the most important outcome of all.

The arrival of the Gund Institute is good news for UVM students as well. It will add to graduate and undergraduate opportunities for applied environmental research and student project involvement at the local on up to the international scale. Within three years, the Gund faculty and research staff expect to be at capacity with approximately thirty graduate students taking core courses in mathematical modeling and ecological economic theory, sociological research methods, and ecological design. And the institute’s trans-disciplinary approach promises to open doors to other areas in the university, including public health, medicine, business, and engineering.

Guided by the principle that students learn best by doing, field work is central to the teaching of these scientists. Assistant Professor Josh Farley coordinates the institute’s intensive, workshop-based short courses. Just back from one such course in Brazil, Farley describes in glowing detail the incredible biodiversity of the Mata Atlantica region. Though some 90 percent of this once enormous ecosystem has been destroyed, what remains still holds some of the greatest stores of tropical biodiversity in the world. The two-week collaboration immersed students and faculty in dialogues with the organizations, businesses, and municipal governments of the area. By course’s end, participants would fashion a blueprint for linking remaining forest fragments and create a variety of communications documents designed to move the project forward.

While work with the Gund Institute promises to inspire UVM students, many faculty also are intrigued by the opportunities their new colleagues will bring. John Todd, research professor in the School of Natural Resources and a pioneer in ecological design, praises the institute for leading the way in concepts of “natural capitalism.” Todd describes the institute’s type of accounting as a critical framework for building a sustainable society.

Moving that framework into public policy may be the toughest step yet, but the Gund scientists have proven they aren’t reluctant to venture into the fray. The institute is involved broadly in policy development: national energy policy; pollution tax policy; governance of the oceans; and Arctic oil drilling, to name a few.

Costanza, for instance, recently wrote a Washington Post opinion piece weighing in on the Arctic oil debate. His central point — if drilling were to be allowed, then it would be only fair that oil companies agree up front to bear the full environmental costs. He suggests that an assurance bond be posted, large enough to cover worst-case damages and refundable if the damage does not occur. The burden of proof then shifts from the public to the oil companies.
Tundra to mangrove forest, the places where man, nature, and money cross paths will be many in this century. Costanza thinks the biggest challenge may be envisioning together the world we want to live in and working from the discrete fragments of information that science has been so effectively collecting until we have a whole again. It’s a large challenge, to be sure, and one in which UVM’s Gund Institute promises to have both voice and hand.

“This is an investment in what the University of Vermont does well,” said Zachary Gund ’93 at the December press conference announcing the establishment of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “My brother and I know from personal experience that UVM is a great academic institution. We want to strengthen the academic mission and the reputation of the University of Vermont.”

Family spokesman at the campus event, Zachary Gund represented a commitment to UVM shared by his entire family — brother, Grant ’91, and parents, Lulie and Gordon Gund of Princeton, New Jersey.
The Gunds’ connection to UVM began in 1989, when both Zachary, as a first-year student, and Grant, transferring from Connecticut College, enrolled at the university. Grant earned his bachelor’s degree in history, and Zachary in English.

As the Gund family began to consider making their pledge of support to bring the Maryland environmental institute to UVM, primary goals included investing in a strategic priority at the university, and an initiative that would make a difference in undergraduate educational excellence and for the good of the broader community.

“After graduating from UVM and working as a teacher, in the aquaculture industry, and then in software, I was able to see the effects of the environment on not only our economy but our society as well,” Zachary Gund told the media assembled in Memorial Lounge. “I just want to say on behalf of my family how excited we are to see the opportunities that will come out of this for the state of Vermont, for the university, and, most importantly, for the students." VQ


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