Spencer Philips joined Global Studies as an assistant professor in Fall 2021. With his experience in NGO leadership, start up and applied research, Philips likes to teach concepts and methods in ways that are grounded in, and applied to, real-world challenges.
You’re an ecological economist. Can you tell us what that means and what are your key research areas?
PHILIPS: Ecological economics is a transdiscipline that emerged in the early 1990s while I was in graduate school. It expands upon the traditional focus of economics, which is allocative efficiency, to include both sustainable scale and just distribution.
My research in ecological economics is very much at the applied end of the spectrum, as I have been working for advocacy and public policy organizations to help develop evidence regarding the relationships between land use/land management decisions, environmental quality, and economic development.
Prior to joining the Global Studies faculty, you founded a company called Key-Log Economics. What was the focus of the company?
PHILIPS: Key-Log Economics was founded to serve the needs of (primarily) small to medium sized environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) who typically do not have in-house expertise in economics.
In the U.S., for example, our work has estimated the negative economic effects of proposed natural gas transmission pipelines while de-bunking claims that those pipelines would contribute significantly to local and regional economic development. We have also developed evidence of the economic benefit of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, of conserving public lands in North Carolina, Minnesota, Alaska, and other places. We also support these organizations in campaigns for environmental policy and natural resource management changes.
Our “sister” organization, Key-Log Economics Vietnam, works in a different policy setting and different ways of working for environmental change. Our projects here (as I am writing this from Hanoi) focus more on the research, or evidence-development phase. We are supporting organizations working to address solid waste management, agricultural sustainability, and climate resilience challenges, with land use change and land use planning being part of all of those.
In these projects, we often include estimates of the value of what are known as “ecosystem services” or the benefits that nature supplies to people. In our current work, and in my previous 20 years working for a national ENGO, we find that is It is often useful in policy discussions to be able to express the value of clean water, clean air aesthetic quality, recreational opportunity, etc. in terms of dollars and cents so that those values can compete on a level playing field with other concerns which are often economic or perhaps merely financial.
I said “we” in talking about Key-Log Economics because the company is now four employee-owners two of whom (plus one past co-owner) are also UVA graduates finishing grad school at Yale and Georgia, respectively (the third has gone onto a position as an energy analyst at the Sierra Club. I have regarded the company as a place for younger scholars to grow their applied skills and subject-matter expertise that they can use in the company or beyond.
You have taught some classes before, what made you decide to make public education a full-time position?
PHILIPS: Well, this could be a long answer, but for many years I had wondered what a change in career to part-time teaching and part-time consulting might look like. I was fortunate to be able to do that for several years while I taught in the Batten school, in the economics department at UVA leading an education-abroad program in Vietnam that we hope will resume for J-term 2023. I had also taught in two online grad programs and had the opportunity to teach microeconomics at the newly established VinUniversity in Hanoi.
And then I saw an announcement for this position that Professor Bill Shobe had posted to a listserv and that made me move back to Charlottesville. What was attractive is the focus on sustainability and the chance to share my applied experience with young scholars. The schedule also allows me to continue to work with the companies and be back in Vietnam each summer. This is doubly important because my wife is Vietnamese and has her own teaching and NGO leadership work in VIetnam.
And then there is “the Hook” factor: Charlottesville pulls you back in, as many alumni know! I loved Charlottesville as an undergraduate in the early 80s, as a resident and then part-time lecturer, and now again as a resident and faculty member.
You have also taught in Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and in the College of Arts and Sciences at UVA, how will your teaching in Global Studies build on those experiences?
PHILIPS: At a broader scale, I am building on those experiences by providing a focus on global sustainability and applied methods/techniques for developing evidence and on the ecological-economic outcomes one can achieve (or try to achieve) by bringing that evidence to bear on policy/development processes.
I have had a chance to expand on some material that I had developed as part of short courses in the Batten School of Public Policy and also pieces of curriculum from environmental economics and ecological economics from the college. For example, this past fall I expanded a course that had been as focused on domestic natural resource policy to include international/multinational and foreign national natural resource and environmental policy. I had also developed a course on “GIS for Policy”, and while I'm not teaching an entire GIS course those skills will pop up in different courses that I teach but at a lower level of intensity.
What courses are you offering this semester?
PHILIPS: This semester I am supervising capstone projects in global sustainability in the environments and sustainability track. I am also teaching a course on ecosystem services (GSVS 4559) where we will cover the concepts, methods, and applications of the idea that nature provides economic and other values to people. Finally, in my course on systems thinking/systems modeling (GSVS 3559), we will look at all manner of complex ecological-economic relationships build quantitative models to better understand them and to simulate outcomes that could result from different policy choices.
As an UVA alum, how did your UVA experience inspire you to think globally?
PHILIPS: There are two things that I can point to from my UVA experience that have informed my career trajectory. One was a combination of my studies in economics (plus some electives in philosophy) and a rekindled love of the outdoors (hiking, fishing, etc.) during college. I became more aware of and concerned with the effects of what we often consider to be economic “development” on the environment, the feedbacks on economic well-being from all that development, and the uneven and often unjust distribution of those impacts on different people around the world. (My undergrad days coincided with a major food security crisis in Africa, a campaign to get the University to divest from companies pushing infant formula on poor families overseas, and the Reagan administration’s efforts to subject more public land to industrial/extractive uses.
The second was part of Final Exercises, where the late senator John Warner gave the address at the baccalaureate ceremony. He really drove home the idea that our education at the University of Virginia could be put to its highest and best use if we were serving other people. It added fuel to my desire to work either in public sector directly or in the NGO world. I did go on to work for two federal agencies (Federal Trade Commission and White House Council on Environmental Quality), and in one large and one tiny NGO for a total of 21 years.