A group of 15 students stood around a deep pile of cow manure and, between the cackles of roaming chickens and grunts of pigs in nearby pens, listened to Guy Choiniere describe the benefits of organic compost in nourishing the fields of his Highgate, Vt. farm.

Applying dry compost built from manure to his fields does double duty, Choiniere explained. It replenishes soil nutrients better than spraying liquid manure or off-farm fertilizer, and it stays put in the field rather than running off into brooks, streams and lakes, as conventional fertilizer does. 

It was appetizing information for these graduate students, who are pursuing solutions to cut phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain -- largely the result of runoff from surrounding agricultural land.

The woes of water quality are the first-year focus of Economics for the Anthropocene, an international partnership that brings together master’s and doctoral students from the University of Vermont, McGill University in Montreal and York University in Toronto to explore ways to calculate and alleviate mankind’s toll on the environment.

The three schools received a $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to develop curriculum and joint research for E4A, as the partnership is known. Each raised additional funds, totaling another $2.5 million from internal and external sources including private donors, non-profit groups and state agencies.

The program, overlaid on their master's or doctoral coursework, focuses students on redefining and broadening traditional disciplines like economics and finance so they incorporate knowledge of earth systems derived from contemporary science, which they are largely divorced from now. The students then use the more environmentally grounded disciplinary tools in a research program targeting real world challenges.

The age of humans

Anthropocene refers to a proposed geological age of humans -- acknowledging our species' global impact on planetary systems. This first group of E4A students, including two community scholars from outside the universities, started last fall with a series of teleconferenced courses connecting their home campuses in real time discussions, work groups and lectures.

At the end of May, students came together in Vermont to cap the year-long work with a field course that brought them in contact with Vermonters on the front lines of the management and policy decisions surrounding the health of Lake Champlain.

"We heard from a full range of perspectives on how to meet water quality standards for Lake Champlain," said Jon Erickson, professor of ecological economics at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the E4A coordinator for UVM.

Choiniere, whose farm sits on the Rock River, one of Lake Champlain’s most impaired tributaries, has taken other water-minded steps in addition to transitioning from conventional dairy farming to managing a pasture-raised herd with organic methods. 

He added buffers around the streams, installed drainage systems to stem erosion, controlled roof runoff, built a tented barn for proper manure storage and limited tillage so as not to disrupt too much soil.

During a walk alongside the stream on Choiniere’s property, UVM doctoral student Michael Wironen admired the farmer’s work to shore up the banks against erosion, allowing them to grow wild. Choiniere could have added that acreage to his productive pasture land but decided to protect the waterway, preserving the natural beauty in the process, Wironen said.

“What would it look like if all farmers in Vermont switched to a landscape like this?” asked Wironen, who incorporated the E4A curriculum into his doctoral coursework in Natural Resources to delve deeper into the political, economic and land-use challenges affecting Lake Champlain.

Courtney Hammond Wagner, a fellow student at the Rubenstein School and Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, is focused on agricultural decision-making on water quality practices. She said Choiniere’s operation and perspective fascinated her.

“It really does seem like it’s a passion of his to see these practices become part of the farm system, part of the farm lifestyle,” she said.

Huge step

A few days after the farm visit, the E4A students heard Chuck Ross, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, explain the challenges of trying to shift farmers to more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices. Ross called H.35, a bill recently passed by the Vermont legislature that adds new regulations to reduce phosphorus and other lake contamination, a “huge” step forward -- though it doesn’t include all the resources he would have liked.

“A lot of people want to see the revolution,” he said. “I want to see the evolution.”

Lake Champlain pollution is a complex problem and demands that the students consider diverse perspectives, cross disciplines of expertise -- from environmental advocacy to politics -- and embrace a whole-systems point of view, Erickson said after Ross’s talk. The field visits give them an idea of “what a clean-water economy would look like in Vermont,” Erickson said.

And the problem-solving doesn’t end with Lake Champlain’s phosphorus levels. The next group of E4A students will delve into energy politics, regional supply issues and managing the transition to renewables, and a third group will examine climate justice and more global questions of power and privledge. Beyond those focal points, the program pushes the students to raise larger philosophical questions about the relationship between humanity and our supporting ecological systems. 

An “out of the box” mindset is an even greater goal of E4A than day-to-day environmental management, Erickson said. “The solution part is a happy, almost unintended consequence of changing our thinking and creating a right relationship with all life on earth.”

See more photos of the students' time in Vermont -- and learn more about each photo by viewing the album on Flickr:



Carolyn Shapiro