[#FutureGenerations series] Researcher Lan Nguyen: Environmental activism starts with being at peace with oneself 

— Ngoc DINH

#FutureGenerations is a series of interviews in which we talk to individuals from different fields about their visions of the world we will leave for our future generations.
These individuals are selected among our network of colleagues and friends, who are experts and specialists in their field. 

***

Lan Nguyen used to sit next to me in high school, where we ran student projects, studied and took the first steps into activism together before pursuing different career paths. She has been advocating for environmental conservation, and her research interests encompass natural resource management, non-market valuation, sustainability, coastal resiliency, and climate change impacts. Lan also writes about the environmental history of nature conservancy in her personal blog

Lan is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, Evolution, Ecosystems, and Society (EEES) at Dartmouth College, USA. 

Ngoc (N): First of all, let’s talk about what you do and what you are currently working on? 

Lan (L): Sure, broadly speaking, I am doing research in the field of ecological economics, which basically investigates how we can better design environmental policies that can create incentives to motivate behavioral changes and, hopefully, result in better environmental outcomes. 

Currently, I have been working on a project concerning how to best protect mangrove forests in the Mekong Delta. All over the world, especially in Southeast Asia, mangrove forests have been replaced by industrial intensive shrimp farms in the last 50 years. Shrimp farmers often need to cut down mangrove forests to clear land for constructing ponds, and they often use feeds and chemicals that deteriorate water quality… 

However, an innovative farming system emerged in the Mekong Delta system: the integrated mangrove shrimp system. This model has been practiced in some countries in Southeast Asia and is most prevalent in Cà Mau province (***Author’s note: the southernmost province of Vietnam). 

Under this model, shrimp farming households are required to preserve 50-70% of mangrove forests and not use industrial feeds. This model can deliver a lot of direct and indirect (non-market values) benefits to households practicing this aquaculture system, and in the long run, it is way more economically and environmentally sustainable. My dissertation is focused on estimating one of the indirect benefits that this system provides.  

(N): I see, you are doing a research project which deals with the relationship between short-term monetary profits and long-term nature preservation. This has always been a struggle, isn’t it? Do you think this will continue to be a problem to be solved for future generations? And besides this, what are the other challenges for them?

(L): Yes. I think the root cause of the majority of environmental problems is the misalignment in the incentive structure that the current institutional arrangements (current policies) create. And to address this misalignment, we need radical changes in our society, from social to economic to political systems, and move away from the current systems. 

Unfortunately, these massive changes cannot happen overnight. Effective changes often occur incrementally and require massive civil movements. And right now resistance to radical changes are strong due to strong economic and political interests falling into the hands of a few, who are trying to shift the blame or the shame onto individuals. 

(N): Can you give an example? 

(L): For example, carbon footprints and environmental movements such as “you should eat less meat”, “you should recycle” emerged and were actually spread by big oil companies aka the biggest emitters, to shift the public attention away from their enormous carbon emissions. That’s not to say adopting environmentally friendly behavior is meaningless. It’s just that climate risks are unavoidably intensifying and we need collective action and undertake massive system changes to mitigate those impacts. 

It means that for future generations, the major challenge, I think, is not to lose hope in pursuing their dreams of making changes. It’s easy to lose hope, seeing how little and how slow positive outcomes may occur, especially no matter what individual changes we take, we no longer can reduce or reverse the impacts of climate change. Thus, recently a lot of young people have started to stay indifferent and apolitical. They feel like they are not able to change anything as individuals. The question now is how we can keep motivating each other to work together and change the system.

(N): In your opinion, how can we keep our hopes up? 

(L): I think building a community plays an important part. It’s easy to say that different political stands can make people step away from each other and pitch group interests against individual benefits. But it doesn’t have to be that way if we figure out how to accept our differences through effective communication and mutual understanding to build collective action.

(***Author’s note: This reminds me of Bain & Company advisor Olivier Dubray’s thought in our previous interview: “There isn’t enough cooperation across these different levels of operation vertically and across nations horizontally.” From her personal point of view, Lan calls for building communities of individuals who can influence policies, while Olivier stressed the importance of designing a new system that favors cooperation and well-being.)

(N): What types of communities do you mean and how exactly can they make an influence? 

(L): Any type of community – as long as it can help bring people across the political spectrum and draft climate solutions together. It would be difficult for that to happen if we continue advocating for an isolated interest, while ignoring the position of others.

For example, we cannot go into a town where the majority of people work for a big coal company and tell them that we need to get rid of coal. By not providing accessible alternatives to jobs in the fossil fuel industry, we risk creating tensions and slowing down the transition towards a neutral carbon and greener economy. 

(N): I totally resonate with that. It is true that if we only talk to people who already share our views, the community will not expand. Now that we have been discussing climate change, how do you feel when being told that climate change and biodiversity loss are the two biggest existential crises of humanity?

(L): When you word it like that, climate change and biodiversity seem like external problems, which happen to humans. Throughout the entire earth’s history, homo sapiens are the only species on earth so far to have altered major earth processes and climate systems that currently result in climate and weather-related disasters and the extinction of many species. We have created these problems ourselves. And the inability to listen and mobilise for climate collective action is our main existential crisis, I think. 

(N): What do you think would be the main concerns for the academics working with climate change in the future, specifically for young researchers like you?

(L): It is probably understanding the impact of your work and communicating your work to the public. Mastering that skill can be difficult. It is also difficult to connect different disciplines, as the academic system can sometimes be rigid. Some even consider their disciplines to be more “prestigious” than others, and that can hinder interdisciplinary research. 

The main challenge for me personally is, first, how to be at peace with myself – knowing that my research won’t deliver the immediate expected policy changes, outcomes, or social impacts that I hope.

Another is to be more intersectional and intentional about educating myself about other social issues that interact directly and indirectly with climate change and other environmental issues, and understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

For example, removing indigenous communities in the Amazon from their land to build national parks for forest restoration and biodiversity conservation is neither good for the people nor for the environment. Indigenous communities who live in harmony with the forests for many generations are actually the protectors of the forests, as their livelihoods depend upon the products that forests provide to them. At the same time, most national parks in Brazil are built only on paper: there is no strong enforcement coming from the Brazilian government. Hence, it doesn’t stop big businesses (the main forest destructors) from bribing to illegally grab and clear forested land for cattle ranching in Brazil, the world’s second-largest producer of beef.

(N): It’s lovely to have this talk with you. Thank you and good luck with your project! 

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