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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 45 - May 2005   
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 The logic of the ‘leap forward’
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PORTRAIT
Title  Charles Perrings, out of Africa

A professor at the University of York who has worked in New Zealand and the United States, Charles Perrings is an expert on Africa who has been studying sustainable development for decades. To his mind, economics and ecology form a single interdisciplinary field, the global and the local require responses that take into account their double dimension, and global problems require a global analysis. RTD info meets a tenacious and committed scientist. 

Professor at the University of York (Department of the Environment), Charles Perrings.
Professor at the University of York (Department of the Environment), Charles Perrings is Vice- President of the Scientific Committee of the Diversitas, an international scientific programme devoted to biodiversity, and President of the International Society for Ecological Economics. He is also an advisor to many governments, non-government organisations and research-funding bodies, and editor of several scientific journals on ecological economics. His works include Economics of Ecological Resources : Selected Essays, published in London by Edward Elgar, in 1997.
At the age of 55, Charles Perrings has an impressive academic record. Born in Zimbabwe – or Southern Rhodesia as it was at the time – he spent his childhood and youth in the African bush. His father, who worked in the gold mines, took his family to some of Africa’s most remote regions. Then, at the age of 19, it was finally time for the big trip to London. The young Charles had a very precise idea of what he planned to do there: study economics while exploring in particular the mining industry and copper extraction. With his doctorate behind him, he returned to Africa to take up a first teaching post at Lesotho University.

“The mining industry was my gateway to economic questions linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether renewable or otherwise,” he explains. Perrings then spent 12 years at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) punctuated by a number of missions in Australia. He also took a two-year ‘break’ to help reorganise the Department of Economic Sciences at the University of Gaborone (Botswana). 

Ecology-economics, Africa-USA
This experience sparked his interest as a researcher in the problems faced by semi-arid regions, looking in particular at the links between economics, development, natural resources and the environment. Charles Perrings decided to investigate a field in which he would draw on all his expertise: the unexplored territory where ecology and economics merge in a common cause.

In the late 1980s his inquiries brought him to the United States. Appointed Professor at the University of California, in Riverside, Charles Perrings worked with an international and interdisciplinary group of researchers with a passionate interest in this new field of study known as ecological economics. The scientific journal Ecological Economics, launched in 1989, published the results of this research. At this time Charles Perrings also contributed to the research work of the Beijer Institute, part of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences that, among other things, encourages the developing countries to develop their own research capacity in the field of ecological economics.

"Since that time the implications of biodiversity has been my favourite field of research, in terms of theory and modelling as well as in applied fields relating to semi-arid or humid zones. The links between ecology, economics and development are clear. It is principally poor and rural countries that suffer from the loss of biodiversity as they are highly dependent on the quality of their natural environment. Rich and urban countries are much less dependent on the services rendered by ecosystems.” 

This intellectual cross-fertilization between the natural and social sciences produced a number of concepts that transcend disciplinary barriers. “Our discussions with ecologists enabled us to identify the concept of resilience, which is a means of expressing a system’s stability. Resilience gives the degree of disturbance ‘needed’ for a system to become unbalanced and evolve towards a new field of stability. This is a very useful notion when thinking in terms of the sustainability of systems, both natural and economic.”

A new science of globality
"The links between ecology, economics and development are clear. It is principally poor and rural countries that suffer from the loss of biodiversity as they are highly dependent on the quality of their natural environment.” Above, an attempt to preserve biodiversity in Tanzania. © CE/F.Jacobs
"The links between ecology, economics and development are clear. It is principally poor and rural countries that suffer from the loss of biodiversity as they are highly dependent on the quality of their natural environment.” Above, an attempt to preserve biodiversity in Tanzania.
© CE/F.Jacobs
Thirteen years ago, Charles Perrings took up residence at the University of York, where he founded the Environment Department. The studies at all levels (degree, master’s degree, doctorate) are aimed at combining the economic and ecological approaches to the environment and its management. “These interdisciplinary studies are not easy. The conceptual approach and methodologies of economists and ecologists are still marked by very different scientific traditions. To draw maximum benefit from this interdisciplinarity, you need to be able to integrate these differences and change the frames of reference during your work.” 

Charles Perrings stresses the difficulty of such a marriage. It is always difficult to overcome the barriers between disciplines, but there is so much at stake in the field of sustainable development that this kind of ‘crossed’ approach is essential. This new interdisciplinarity is at present being developed – with Charles Perrings’ assistance – at Arizona State University (USA).

“I am calling for the creation of a new science… That is what is needed to tackle the global problems that pay scant regard to our dividing lines – geographical, intellectual, political, institutional or whatever. We must find the best local responses and the best combination of them to influence the course of events at global level. All of this also requires a real application of international conventions and of the rules of world trade.”

But how can the policy-makers be made to understand this? It is difficult to persuade providers of funds who often focus on national or regional interests to support research on a large scale. Some scientists are nevertheless managing to have their message heard in political circles without sacrificing their independence. “This credibility is based on honesty. There is nothing worse than experts who exaggerate their case in order to be sure of making their point.” 

Public goods, global users
The problems studied by Charles Perrings all concern the global public goods, but expressed at different levels. Biodiversity is one example of this. The diversity of genes is a global good while the diversity of pollinating insects and the impact of this biodiversity on agriculture brings much more local benefits. “Investments for its preservation are always under-valued. The way in which local responses interact with the international nature of the public good should be the subject of a whole field of inquiry.” 

But how should the global community be represented in terms of governance? It is this that must encourage research leading to the drafting and application of international agreements. Perrings, who has held posts with a number of institutions, is familiar with the subject. “The problems have evolved much faster than the institutions that are supposed to deal with them. Most of the time they have a national vision, one with its origins in the 19th century. Such a collective, global decision-making body does not exist, at least not yet, but it seems to me that the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) should take on this role. There are enough qualified individuals with good intentions to work on these questions. The real problem is more the political agenda of countries that are genuinely able to stimulate this international co-operation.” So is he an optimistic despite it all? “Where there’s a will there’s a way…".


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