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On Earth Day, talking ‘sustainable development’ with Alex Pfaff

Tiffany Goetzinger interviews Dr. Pfaff about his research and teaching



TG: As a professor, and economist, your research is focused on the environment, economic development, and related public policies. What experiences brought you to this particular intersection?

AP: While my initial major as an undergrad was economics, I actually dropped it because I did not have the life experience or the guidance to see the links between the classroom and the real world. Lucky for me, during my senior year a professor encouraged me to apply to Washington DC ‘thinktanks’ (I’d never heard the term but it sounded very thoughtful) – and I was fortunate enough to get a research assistant position at the Institute for International Economics. Sitting in that analytic and policy oriented setting, I came to see the value of not only care with numbers but also good communication.

I then had the further good luck to be a research assistant at the World Bank at a time when leaders within the Bank were starting to talk more about the environment. I also came across work by environmental economists, for example from the World Resources Institute. I came to believe that we were lacking the institutions and policies to allow poor people to live better yet still, as a society, take care of the planet.  Unfortunately, while awareness of the challenges has risen, we still haven’t solved those issues.


TG: Deforestation and protection of the Amazon was part of my generation’s environmental education.  I remember learning about it in elementary school, it was a symbol and a call to action (in our case, posters for our parents and teachers, and the occasional petition). You recently published a paper on sustainable development in the context of roads in the Amazon. Can you talk about what you were studying?

AP: Often I consider whether environmentally oriented policies achieve their stated goals as well as how they might affect people in surrounding communities. In that recent paper, however, I was asking how a leading economic development policy affected not only individuals’ economic choices but also the environment. In particular, I studied  whether roads led to more deforestation within some settings than within others. Knowing that can provide policy makers options to consider in terms of where to put roads. (I ask the same for environmental policies: where would new protected areas conserve more forest? For instance, close to or far away from roads?) The results in that recent paper on roads suggest that one way to lose less forest, for a given level of economic development, is to construct good connections between big cities to allow for concentrated economic development plus the protection of large chunks of forest.


TG: How has the discussion about development and deforestation, especially in that region, changed over the last twenty years since I was making posters about it?

AP: While many more people have been in the Brazilian Amazon and for far longer than perhaps is widely recognized, still it is the case that the outputs in markets (for cattle, soy, etc.) from the region, as well as its level of urbanization, have risen over the last two decades. Global attention to the needs of the people and the fragility and value of the environment and natural resources there also has risen, though, yielding a region where, just as in many other regions, to improve environmental outcomes we are going to have to engage with people to understand what they need. That way policy options will consider both global public goods and the lives of local stakeholders. I hope we can do that.


TG: You taught a course this semester on collective action. For many people around the world, indigenous rights to land vs. development interests have become flashpoints for collective action.  Do you draw on examples of your own experience at the intersection of economics and environment for case studies in the course? What lessons do you hope students, some of whom will go on to shape public policy, take away from your course?

AP: I do. For instance, I am working on a joint paper with colleagues who know various settings around the world far better than I do. We suggest that indigenous people and local communities could form coalitions with governments that could benefit both smallholders’ lives and environmental goals. Part of the story is that those people and their communities can act collectively to help monitor locally. Those individuals and groups are out there on the frontier, where governments mostly are not. I believe that the right agreements, monitoring and enforcement really could benefit many people.

As to what I hope students take away from that or any other course, it is always a set of principles that could apply to many situations – if likely requiring local knowledge to be applied well. That includes principles of microeconomics, collective action and other courses, each applicable to a huge set of economic development and environmental contexts, even if none dominates in all contexts.


TG: April 22nd was Earth Day, first celebrated almost 50 years ago. Thinking ambitiously, what environmental milestone would you hope to see at the 100 year anniversary?  

AP: I will blend people and nature again and go with all of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Too ambitious? I really hope not.



You can learn more about Dr. Pfaff’s development and environment research at