An ecologist climbing the mountain of resource economics

Derivatives, Integrals, Optimal Control Theory, Calculus… as an ecologist (and in particular an empirical ecologist) these terms can be frightening. However, we need to face our fears to take a step towards interdisciplinarity!

We are in southern France for our first MARmaED summer school. It is a warm day of May and we, a bunch of young marine ecologists and economists, are reading and discussing economics papers. Even though I can´t recall the dialogue in all details it went more or less like this:

Ecologist: “What is utility, how do you define it?”

Economist: “What do you mean? Utility is a measure of welfare, utility can be anything”

Ecologist: “What is the unit of utility?”

Economist: “….”.

This was the start of our interdisciplinary network... complete incomprehension! After this dialogue, I, as an ecologist, was determined to understand the principles of economics better and link these two disciplines in my PhD project. Therefore, when I was offered the opportunity to attend the course on “Economics and Management of Natural Resources” at Wageningen University, I immediately took it! This was my occasion to climb the unknown “Mount Economic”.

Economy and Ecology share the same root from Greek language, oikos environment, house. The difference is that economy is about norms, management (nomos), while ecology is about the word, the argumentation (logos). The subject is the same, the angles are different. The first days reading the materials at home and following the lectures were a nightmare. Calculus and maths that I did not see since my first year at University, terms and jargons very different from the ones I am used to, problems opposite from the ones that we tackle in ecology. What was I doing there? The mountain to climb was high and I was still at the base. However, as I have realized later, I was learning a new language and I needed time to grasp it. Quickly I understood that the main differences between the two disciplines was the role of humans. The field of resource economics is centred on how humans can optimize resource use, how they can maximize profits and how societal dynamics can affect resources. This is different from how I learned to study ecosystems, where humans are users or most commonly “stressors”.  Economists do not care whether the resource is a tree or a fish, they care about how to use it… impossible to even imagine for an ecologist. I was finally ready to get to the top…but how to do that?

Fig.1 The 7 stages of interdisciplinary work

Mindedness, and dialogue were the two means that helped me climb the mountain! Keeping an open mind helped me to understand, for instance, that fishes are not just animals that we want to study and preserve they are also the main income for many families or the main cultural group identity of many individuals. Furthermore, I would recommend every ecologist, or as such any one from outside economy, to enter into dialogue with colleagues from economics. Indeed, while discussing concepts (like utility) or papers, we always managed to find a common ground, which made it easier to understand each other (even without necessarily agreeing). Of course, better knowledge of math would have facilitated me to progress quicker at first, but I can assure that the confrontation with economists was the essential tool to help me climbing... and as they say “the view from the summit is spectacular” and… worth it!

Now, after the course, I have a broader perspective on marine ecosystems and a better knowledge on how to include humans in ecological considerations. Gaining an understanding in economics helped me to increase my awareness of the concept of interdisciplinarity and of the importance of a holistic understanding to solve applied problems, such as fisheries management. This is also why MARmaED, as a project for early career ecologist and economist, is innovative and exciting, and I think that more projects would benefit from working across disciplines. Luckily, this does not mean that every ecologist needs to study economics (or vice versa), but that we need to understand each other and communicate with each other! From MARmaED we can confirm that dialogue really helps, even better if combined with a glass of wine or a beer! And we can guarantee that interdisciplinarity can work…we are now in our third year of the project and everyone knows the meaning of utility!!!

Fig.2 Part of the MARmaED group during the 3rd training event in Helsinki (picture by Pierre Olivier)


By Camilla Sguotti, edited by Esther Schuch and Tom Langbehn
Published Mar. 27, 2018 2:26 PM - Last modified Mar. 27, 2018 2:26 PM