Michael Ellerbrock plays multiple roles: he is a professor of agricultural and applied economics, has served on the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute for 14 years and is an ordained minister at two local churches.
After years of service to Virginia Tech and actions toward environmental policy, this “renaissance thinker” was recently appointed to serve on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC).
Among his many experiences, he has worked with over 400 people in the commonwealth, spanning a wide range of environmental issues, and has been sharing those experiences with his students. The NEJAC will give Ellerbrock the opportunity to also share his ideas with the 26-person organization during public hearings and provide input at a federal level to Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
You’ve worked for Virginia Tech for 22 years. What experiences here have helped mold you?
Recognition of wisdom as a whole, being aware of the insights and experiences of other kinds of people and paying attention to voices that are not being heard.
How do those, along with your “renaissance thinking” play into your plans for the future?
I am an economist, but every person in every discipline needs to be able to listen and understand the perspectives of other schools of thought. That’s why they wanted me on the council, for my economic perspective, which they’ve never had. They want people who can understand other points of view and integrate those into a collective decision.
So when you found out you were appointed I’m guessing you were pretty excited.
Yes, very excited. I will be able to participate in public hearings all around the country on sites where there are environmental incidents of pollution. We will listen to the stories of the residents and the stakeholders from all sides of the picture and formulate an advisory recommendation to the director of EPA.
What are you most excited for?
Seeing real life case studies and hopefully being able to bring an economic perspective to the organization. Capitalism is not necessarily the enemy of the environment. Well designed environmental policies that use financial and economic incentives can promote green behavior in people that don’t even care about the environment.
Is there anything that you are nervous about, entering a position at this level?
Well my initial concern was that it would be a body of all like-minded people. But, we’ve had one meeting so far and it seems to be a pretty balanced, open-minded council.
With such a powerful position in the environmental policy world, do you have any specific ideas that you hope to initiate through this new role?
Yes, I can think of two really important things. First off, think about what Churchill said about democracy — it’s a horrible form of government, its only redeeming value is that it’s better than the rest. His point was that if we always vote on public issues, all that guarantees is that 51 percent of the population will be happy, and possibly 49 percent will not be. Consensus building approaches try to find win-win-win solutions that everyone can live with and support.
The second thing I can bring to the table is that even though in economics, it is clear that wealthy and middle class people can purchase more safety in life than poor people. It’s a cop out for people to say ‘Well poor people don’t like where they live, they should vote with their feet and move.’ There’s a cruel attitude that exists towards these issues.
Environmental policy and change is at the forefront of many current debates and conversations — what is your thought on the pace and nature of this topic for the future?
Some environmental issues attract a lot of attention from the media, and others do not. Our job is to uncover and be aware and sensitive to anyone who is being disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. We want their views represented.
Do you think that being a part of the NEJAC will affect your role as a professor?
Oh, I sure hope so! I am expecting that it may give me a lot of case studies to use within my classes.
What about vice-versa — utilizing what you know as a professor within the work of the NEJAC?
Hopefully my academic background will help to enable me to frame the questions about what the real issues are, rather than just the apparent issues.
Do you have any advice for the student body of Tech to move forward with environmental change and policy?
I am proud of students for getting involved in environmental policy, I just hope they will always consider the economic perspective and always look for opportunity cost and trade off. They need to question how much it might cost us to enable environmental regulations, and not just weigh the benefits. They must also question the long-term implications. It troubles me for people to doubt the scientific community.