The deeper you look into how the functioning of natural systems affects us, the more likely the better decision is to conserve nature.

Brendan Fisher '98

Brendan Fisher '98 is the kind of economist who looks at potential deforestation in the tropics and wonders how it will affect the number of children who will die from diarrhea.

Wiping out the trees, he notes, produces more flooding in areas with little or no sanitation, which spreads human waste, causing more disease that will kill vulnerable children. He says documenting how the unlogged forest protects the health of children downstream helps make a stronger case for leaving the forest intact.

It's one example of the way Fisher, associate professor at the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, brings together ecological thinking and economics to help promote stronger conservation policies.

"The deeper you look into how the functioning of natural systems affects us," Fisher says, "the more likely the better decision is to conserve nature."

Fisher came to this view through his work in some of the world's poorest countries. As a graduate student in Cambodia, he saw how the short-term fix — cutting all the trees for money or firewood — leaves starving people even worse off.

When he was a senior scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, he helped coastal residents in Mozambique evaluate more effective, ecologically sustainable farming and fishing techniques in an area struggling with hunger and malnutrition.

He's learned it's important to look deeply at all benefits delivered by intact ecosystems, not just those measured in dollars.

At Bucknell, Fisher studied civil engineering rather than economics because it allowed him to focus on environmental sustainability. "I was always keen on environmental issues when I was at Bucknell," he says.

Fisher is mindful of how conservation policies affect people's lives, especially those who are barely surviving. He notes that, sometimes, doing the ecologically protective thing inflicts short-term harm on impoverished locals, while many of the benefits accrue to those leading comfortable lives far away.

If there's a common theme in his life's work, he says, it's exploring "how to meet the needs of people while still conserving ecosystems."

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