Find Mediators Near You:

Preparing the Next Generation of Professors of Environmental Studies

Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind

In a recent article, Benjamin Cashore and Stephen Bernstein argue that doctoral programs in environmental schools, like Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara are taking the wrong approach to preparing the next generation of environmental professors.

They identify four approaches to environmental policy-making or problem-solving: Type 1: win/win, or utility maximization assumes that rational choice theory will help to identify the best solutions to environmental problems. Type 2: win/lose optimization assumes that cost-benefit or other kinds of environmental analysis can identify effective environmental policies. Type 3: win/lose compromise achieves solutions through the application of multi-goal policy analysis. And Type 4: win/lose prioritization which they believe is “the most appropriate metaphor for a range of environmental problems especially those that risk irreversibility, such as species extinctions and climate change.” Type 4 challenges – which they label “super wicked” — are those where: time is running out, those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it, no central authority exits and public policy appear to be discounting environmental futures irrationally.

Cashore and Bernstein believe that universities training the next generation of college professors of environmental studies are emphasizing Type 1, 2 and 3 approaches at the expense of Type 4. Indeed, they argue that “almost all teaching fails to conceive of type 4 problems or develop research and training to address them.” On this last point, I would say they are not entirely correct. The PHD Program in Environmental Policy and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT is the exception.

The PhD Program in Environmental Policy and Planning offered by the DUSP definitely assumes a Type 4 orientation. While we expect our doctoral students to know how to assess the likely benefits and costs associated with environmental policy options, we don’t believe that environmental policies that produce greater economic benefits are necessarily the policies that ought to be adopted. In addition, we teach that most environmental decisions should not be left to expert policy analysts, or even the elected policymakers for whom they work. Rather, they should be the product of direct consultation and collaborative problem-solving that involve the relevant stakeholders directly. As difficult as it may be to reach agreement when a great many stakeholders are pursuing their own priorities (and have different levels of technical sophistication and political clout), we believe the goal of public policy-making should always be to seek informed agreement rather than splitting the difference or letting the politically powerful decide.

We teach our doctoral students the skills of consensus building so they can facilitate collaborative problem-solving. And, while we expect our doctoral students to be familiar with the technical dimensions of climate change, ecosystem management, renewable energy, pollution control, water allocation and other elements of sustainable development, we don’t assume that science or engineering hold the answers when there are political or ideological interests as stake. We also teach that sustainability ought to be the product of face-to-face negotiations among groups with contending interests, in which joint fact finding and systems modelling play an important part, although elected officials have the final say.

We teach a range of research methods, not just quantitative and qualitative analytical tools, but participatory action research (PAR) as well – an approach to research that assumes communities and stakeholders who are the subjects of research are co-owners of any findings and need to be involved in both research design and interpretation of the data collected.

We don’t teach Type I approaches at all. We introduce Type II and Type III, but only so our doctoral students are familiar with the assumptions and analytic tools on which they rely.

All of our environmental policy doctoral students are required to delve into a discipline like economic development, public policy, urban sociology, social anthropology, political science, or data science on which they are examined by a three-person faculty committee. (We call this a First Field). All doctoral students also have to construct a problem-focused Second Field (again, with advice from a three-member faculty advisory committee) on which they are also examined. As it turns out, no two doctoral students take the same general exam. Almost all of our doctoral students are admitted with a prior master’s degree, some in urban and regional planning, some in science or engineering and some in humanities and social science. Most also have professional experience through which they have participated in environmental problem-solving of one kind or another.

Almost all of our doctoral students complete at least two full time years of course work at MIT prior to taking their comprehensive exams. They also complete a qualifying research paper during their first year to demonstrate their research capabilities. Here are very brief descriptions of ten of the graduates of our EPP PHD program between 2010 and 2017.

I have included titles of their dissertations to highlight the scope of their interests. Also, nine of their dissertations have already been published by academic or commercial publishers.

Ella Jisun Kim
Disaster and Risk Management and Climate Change Specialist
Young Professionals Program at World Bank (Washington, DC)
Dissertation: Testing a Public Health Orientation to Climate Adaptation Planning
Climate Change and Public Health in Cities (2019, Anthem Press)

Kelly Heber-Dunning
Research Scientist and Coastal Training Program Manager
University of Texas at Austin Marine /Science Institute
Dissertation: Resilient Coasts, Resilient Communities: Grassrootes vs. Top-Down Management of Coral Reefs in South East Asia
Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosytstems Services in Southeast Asia (2018, Anthem Press)

Danya Rumore
Research Associate Professor in Quinney College of Law and Director
Of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Project at the Stegner Center at the University of Utah
Dissertation: Helping Coastal Communities Anticipate and Manage Climate Change Risks Using Role-Play Simulations
Managing Climate Risks in Coastal Communities: Strategies for Engagement, Readiness, and Adaptation (2015, Anthem Press)

Bruno Verdini Trejo
Lecturer of Urban Planning and Negotiation; Executive Director, MIT-Harvard Mexico Negotiation Program
Dissertation: Charting New Territories Together: Laying the Foundation for Mutual Gains in US-Mexico /Water and Energy Negotiations
Winning Together: The Natural Resource Negotiation Playbook (2017, MIT Press)

Leah Stokes
Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of California – Santa Barbara
Dissertation: Power Politics: Renewable Energy Policy Change in US States
Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States (2020, Oxford University Press)

Todd Schenk
Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech
Dissertation: Institutionalizing Uncertainty: Explaining How Infrastructure Stakeholders Can Collaboratively Prepare for Uncertain Climate Futures
Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change: Advancing Decision-making Under Conditions of Uncertainty (2017, Routledge)

Nick Marantz
Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at University of California-Irvine
Dissertation: Planning by Contract: Negotiated Regulations in Urban Development

Madhu Dutta-Kohler
Associate Professor of Practice and Director of the Program in City Planning and Urban Affairs at Boston University
Dissertation: Making Climate Adaptation Work: Strategies for Resource Constrained South Asian Mega-Cities

Tijs van Maasakkers
Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning, Ohio State University
Dissertation: Trading Places: The Development of Markets for Ecosystem Services in the United States
The Creation of Markets for Ecosystem Services in the United States: The Challenge of Trading Places (2016, Anthem Press)

Isabelle Anguelovski
Research Professor, Institute of Environment Science and Technology,
Autonomous University of Barcelona
Dissertation: Neighborhood and Refuge: Environmental Justice and Community Reconstruction in Boston, Barcelona and Havana
Neighborhood as Refuge: Community Reconstruction, Place Re-making, and Environmental Justice in the City (2014, MIT Press)

Kathy Araujo
Associate Professor of Energy Innovation Systems and Policy,
Director, Energy Policy Institute at Boise State University
Dissertation: Decarbonizing Shifts: Dynamic Conversations in the Energy Balances of Four Prime Mover Energy Countries
Low Carbon Energy Transitions: Turning Points in National Policy and Innovation (2017, Oxford University Press)

All of these individuals found full time teaching or consulting positions in their field when they graduated. They are currently employed (full time, many on a tenure track) by a wide range of universities in a wide variety of departments/fields. While we only admit 2 or 3 EPP PHDs a year, they almost all graduate in five years or less. Over the past 20 years, we have graduated almost 50 PHDs in EPP. They have all pursued either research or teaching careers in the environmental field.

As far as tackling “super-wicked” challenges in the environmental realm, our doctoral students can be counted on to (1) advocate collaborative approaches to environmental decision-making; (2) commit to harmonizing values, policy and politics, especially in place-based decision-making; (3) draw on a wide range of mixed analytical methods, and (4) prioritize contextual concerns rather than depending on general theories. Those who are teaching in universities work in multi-disciplinary ways, regardless of the department or school within which they are located. And, finally, they will be inclined to explain to their students and clients that certain environmental and natural resource management problems cannot be solved by putting a price on ecosystem services or environmental quality.


Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Singer, Linda: Dissatisfaction with Litigation – Video

Linda Singer describes how she became interested in mediation: her observance of the court and litigation system led to her dissatisfaction with how problems were being solved.

By Linda Singer

The 40-Hour Mediation Training: A Good Argument For Regulating The Private Practice Of Mediation

Regular readers know that for some time now I have not supported the movement favoring formal licensing or credentialing for mediators in private practice. I have remained unpersuaded by most...

By Diane J. Levin

Stepping on Someone’s Toes

Cinergy Coaching by Cinnie NobleHere’s another interesting metaphor to do with body parts and conflict. The visual here of ‘stepping on someone’s toes’ is, as with many idiomatic images, quite...

By Cinnie Noble