Wednesday, 19 August 2015

How I became an environmental economic geographer

By Julia Affolderbach

When asked professionally, I will say I am an economic geographer. Yet, this doesn’t feel right as I don’t specialize in the central topics of the discipline. Supply chains, international division of labour, clusters, innovations, and the quantitative analysis of these trends are not my domains. When attending economic geography conferences, I sometimes struggle to find sessions relevant to my work. This is why after stating that I am an economic geographer, I usually specify that I am interested in how the natural environment and environmental values impact and change economic development. Since childhood, I have identified as being an environmentalist. I grew up worrying about and criticising nuclear power plants, acid rain, deforestation in the Amazon, pollution levels in Germany’s river Rhine and other environmental problems driven by economic activity. This is why I would never have expected to go from environmentalist to anything related to economics.

When I started my studies in Germany at the University of Cologne in 1995, the only degree programs offered were combined undergraduate and postgraduate programs through which you would gain a degree comparable to a British MA or MSc degree. Although I enrolled in Geography, Geology and Botany, I also took courses in Zoology and Spanish. I enjoyed learning and was thirsty for diverse experiences. This exploration led me to an introductory economic geography course. I struggled to wrap my head around the concepts but I enjoyed it. Despite getting by far the lowest mark I ever received during my studies, I caught the attention of my economic geography professor who would later become my mentor, as I was one of only three students who passed the course.
Half way through my degree program, I won a scholarship to study at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (Canada) for one year. During my two semesters there, I mapped and analysed geological landforms along the coast and within the Rocky Mountains and in Washington State in the US. I learned to identify 300 of British Columbia’s endemic plant species and their ecosystems, saw black bears, moose and the famous salmon runs. It was fantastic!

Upon my return to Cologne, I had to take one last course before I was able to move on to my dissertation – a two-week field school. The field schools on offer varied from year to year. I had originally signed up for a hiking trip through central Sweden but wasn’t able to attend due to my studies in Canada. Left with very few options, I signed up for an economic geography fieldtrip to the old-industrial district at the German-French-Luxembourg border. The economic geography professor who had supported my studies since the economic geography course was running the fieldtrip. During the trip my mentor convinced me that studying the environment was fine but that environmental issues could not be fully understood without considering the role of humans. He argued that I would never be fully satisfied focusing simply on geomorphology or plant ecology.
Following field school, my mentor introduced me to a colleague at Yale School of Forestry who was conducting a comparative case study on forest certification schemes. He was looking for a collaborator to conduct a survey on the German wood and paper industry – my MSc dissertation topic. While working on my dissertation, my mentor also introduced me to a Canadian visiting professor named Roger Hayter, who had a similar interest in environmental economic geography. At the time, environmental aspects were rarely taken into consideration within economic geography. Prof. Hayter asked me whether I would be interested in joining a research project on the restructuring of the forest industry and, as I had been considering doing a PhD, I accepted.

Logging operations at Arve Loop, Tasmania, Feb. 2006.
I finished my German degree, spent half a year in South America practicing my Spanish, passed my English language certificate at 4000m in elevation at the British consulate in La Paz, and then left for Vancouver to start a PhD on forest conflicts and the role of environmental activism in the restructuring of the forest industry in Canada and Australia. My PhD research led me to Tasmania where I spent three months in and around the native forests interviewing environmental activists, logging contractors, saw millers and other forest workers, tourism operators, politicians, policy makers, Indigenous representatives and many more to better understand the nature of the forest conflict.  

I have worked on a number of different research projects since, all focused in one way or another on environmental aspects linked to the economy. I have also broadened my interests to aspects of urban and social sustainability. For example, I spent two months in 2013 in Massachusetts studying environmental justice organisations and their campaigns to address environmental, social, and economic inequalities in urban settings. Currently, I am working on a project that explores the role of green building in urban strategies to reduce carbon emissions. The GreenRegio project ( includes not only technological aspects of green building but also policy, institutional and other changes based on case studies in Brisbane, Freiburg, Luxembourg, and Vancouver.

I am an environmental economic geographer.

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