Vermont Press Releases

UVM, McGill, York partner on graduate program to address ‘anthropocene’

News Release — Jeff Wakefield
Sept. 3, 2014

Jeff Wakefield
[email protected]

Human beings have had such a powerful impact on planetary environmental systems since the Industrial Revolution that scientists say Earth has entered a new geologic epoch: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

The University of Vermont and two Canadian institutions, McGill University and York University, have received a six-year, $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to develop a graduate curriculum designed to produce leaders who can help reverse recent trends and lighten humanity’s footprint on the planet’s fragile ecosystems.

The three institutions matched the grant with a total of $2.5 million raised internally at each school and through private philanthropy.

The new program, called Economics for the Anthropocene, will focus graduate students on redefining and broadening traditional social science disciplines so they take account of knowledge of earth systems derived from contemporary science, which they are largely divorced from now. The students will then use the more environmentally grounded disciplinary tools in a research program targeting real world challenges.

“A complete rethink of economics, which begins with how our planet supports life, is urgent and essential to enable a dignified human future on a flourishing Earth,” said Peter Brown, professor in the McGill University’s School of the Environment and principal investigator on the grant. “Our goal with this program is to produce a new generation of leaders who not only understand that basic truth but can act on it and motivate others to do so.”

“Disciplines like finance, economics, governance and law are driving the perception of how we can manage critical natural resources and the environment, but are disconnected from their impact on the natural world,” said Jon Erickson, professor of ecological economics at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and co-investigator on the grant.

“Students in the program will learn to retool, rebuild and reconnect these traditional disciplines to the realities of the world we live in.”

The core of the program, which will begin in the fall of 2014, is a three-year course of study overlaid on existing graduate programs at each of the three universities. Students will graduate with a master’s or doctorate in the field they are pursuing — natural resources or public policy, for instance — and with published research arising out the Economics for the Anthropocene coursework.

The program will be delivered to three groups of up to 20 students beginning in consecutive years starting in fall 2014. Each cohort will focus on what program developers describe as three particularly challenging issues facing humanity: water, energy and climate justice, the notion that the burdens of climate change often fall disproportionately on the poor and politically powerless.

The first cohort will address the issue of transboundary water quality and management, with a field course that will take place at UVM in the summer of 2015 and focus on the Lake Champlain watershed. The second cohort will look at regional energy supply and production impact issues, with a field course at McGill. The third will target climate justice, with York and the city of Toronto as the setting for its field course.

A key element of the program is its alliance with a group of non-profit and governmental partners in the U.S. and Canada, who will play a vital role in students’ education by providing real world challenges for them to address. Examples of Vermont partners include the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).

“We want students’ research to be informed by action,” Erickson said. “Throughout the three years, they’ll work closely with one of our partner organizations on issues like nutrient management on dairy farms or full cost accounting of regional energy supply choices.”

The program’s principal goal is to produce a group of leaders with the holistic skills needed to address complex and interrelated environmental, social and economic problems.

“When we’ve launched these new professionals into the world,” Erickson said, “we want them to be the future heads of academic departments, the future executive directors of NGOs, and the future secretaries of natural resources, environmental and finance agencies. Through their influence, we can create the enlightened policies needed to reverse the course we’re on now.”

Other goals are to create an international transdisciplinary research network beginning with the U.S. and Canada, but expanding globally in the future; to create solutions for the transnational challenges of water, energy and climate justice; and to impact and expand the focus of the social sciences to include bio-physical considerations.

The program will also create a stockpile of teaching materials, lesson plans, and modules that will be posted on the project’s website,, for anyone to access and use.

In addition to Brown and Erickson, the grant’s other investigators include Taylor Rickets, director of UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, Nicolas Kosoy at McGill, and Ellie Perkins and Peter Victor at York.

UVM funding came from the Lintilhac Foundation; Peter Rose, UVM class of 1955; the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources; the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics; and the Graduate College.

In addition to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and VPIRG, Vermont partners include the Conservation Law Foundation, Lake Champlain Basin Program, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Energy Action Network and Vermont Law School.

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