“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – Introducing Ecological Economist Klaus Hubacek

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad
By Magdalena Pierer

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Climate change is one of the most pressing environmental challenges we face today. In order to deal with its complexity, we need to better understand the intertwining between production and consumption of food and commodities, and the use of resources such as energy, water, and land. These areas must be examined from different angles and academic disciplines, and at different levels of scale and geography. Interdisciplinary research can facilitate this process, reducing the risk of becoming fixated on just one perspective or just one tool to analyze a complex challenge like climate change.

Klaus HubacekKlaus HubacekKlaus Hubacek, an Austrian-born ecological economist, compares the complexity of climate change research to the many different tasks involved in building a house: “Each question, or task, asks for a different approach or set of tools to do a proper job. When building a house, you will quickly realize that the hammer that worked so well to put the nails into the wooden frame won’t do you much good when working on the glass windows – you better use a different set of tools for the window task. In climate change research, the interdisciplinary approach theoretically equips scientists with such different tools, which are the different methodologies to address specific research questions. However, the risk (climate) researchers – who are often only trained in a single discipline – face, is that once they get used to a certain hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.”

Having worked on a variety of issues using a whole toolbox of methods, such as quantitative economic modeling (e.g., integrated input-output models, or the IPAT framework mentioned below), and more qualitative approaches like stakeholder analysis or social network analysis, Hubacek knows what he is talking about. Originally from Burgenland, he studied business administration in the 1980’s at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), focusing on group behavior and psychology. Later, he turned towards development studies and environmental economics, and became the first assistant at the WU Interdisciplinary Institute for Environmental Economics and Management, which was founded in a time of rising awareness about environmental challenges. He participated in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, as a member of the Austrian delegation; and when, in 1996, a visiting Fulbright professor at WU offered him the opportunity to pursue his Ph.D. in ecological economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, Hubacek accepted and continued his research abroad. After stints at the University of Leeds and IIASA in Austria, Hubacek has been in the Department of Geography at the University of Maryland (UMD) since 2010, endeavoring to raise awareness of the challenges of sustainable development and to contribute to their improvement.

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