Penn Graduate Student Selected as a St. Gallen ‘Leader of Tomorrow’

Katherine Unger Baillie | kbaillie@upenn.edu | 215-898-9194
Friday, May 13, 2016

Leaders of nations, businesses and academia gathered in a corner of Switzerland to meet promising young graduate students and foster dialogue on critical economic and political issues.

Among the hand-picked “Leaders of Tomorrow” at the St. Gallen Symposium, held May 11 to 13, was the University of Pennsylvania’s Joshua Powell, a Thouron Scholar and student in the Master of Environmental Studies program. He was selected to attend in part because of his contribution to the St. Gallan Wings of Excellence essay competition on the subject of proposing an alternative to economic growth.

Powell’s thoughts on an alternative — one that factors in social, environmental and development-oriented metrics in addition to economic ones — is reflective of his passion for both difference-making policy and the natural world. During his two years at Penn, he has been able to explore both in depth. And, while most of the other graduate students at the Symposium came from academic backgrounds in business, policy or economics, Powell holds his own as a biologist.

“Doing introductions, mine’s very much along the lines of, ‘I’m the odd one out,’” he says.

The natural world has always been a source of fascination for Powell, but that doesn’t strike him as unusual.

“I think that it’s something that almost everyone is interested in — when they’re young,” Powell says. “The question is not how did I become interested but how do other people lose their interest. I just never lost it.

“I can maybe blame David Attenborough for that,” he adds with a laugh.

As an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, Powell pursued a degree in geography, a field that includes the study of how people influence and are influenced by the natural world. There, influenced by prominent professors such as Nottingham’s Roy Haines Young, he began to learn about the concepts of ecosystem services and natural capital.

Ecosystem services, and the related concept of natural capital, can be thought of as “the value to human society that we get from the natural world.

“An example would be to say if you had a given forest,” he says, “it has very little conventional economic value. Maybe it has value in the land, and it may have value in the timber if you log it. But it might provide a whole range of other economically or societally or environmentally valuable processes. For example, it might regulate the hydrological system, which has benefits for downstream communities.”

Powell carried this line of thinking into his studies at Penn. He was selected as a British Thouron Scholar as part of an exchange program that supports students from the U.K. to pursue graduate work at Penn for as long as two years, and vice versa. In the MES program he has concentrated in environmental biology but selected coursework beyond the pure sciences, taking classes in the Political Science Department and in Organizational Dynamics. Within the MES program, he’s chosen offerings on a variety of subjects, from a field course in Puerto Rico to one that examined industrial ecology. He’s also had the opportunity to meet students from Penn’s Wharton School and Fels Institute of Government who have likewise informed his education.

Throughout almost all of his courses, he repeatedly encountered the notions of bringing society’s interests in line with the environment by making its value apparent. So, when he saw the Wings of Excellence Essay contest advertised with the prompt, “An alternative to economic growth,” he had an argument at the ready.

In his essay, he put forward an alternative metric by which to measure a nation’s “success.” Acknowledging that a zero-growth agenda could harm efforts to meet development goals, he instead advocates for an approach he deems “SEED growth,” which incorporates social, economic, ecological and development indices.

As Powell writes, “the metric devised shifts the focus from output to outcome.”

Such an index would make use of the concepts of natural capital, recent advances in the field of environmental economics, metrics such as the Human Development Index and even measurements of human happiness, such as that seen in Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” metric, to account for each of the SEED dimensions.

Powell’s essay was selected from a pool of nearly 1,000 as one of only 20 semi-finalists. As such, he was invited to the St. Gallen Symposium to mingle and share ideas with other top graduate students and notable leaders, identified by the symposium as “Leaders of Tomorrow” and “Leaders of Today,” respectively.

Following Commencement, Powell will be assisting with a research project on wolves and moose on Michigan’s Isle Royale with support from the Royal Society of Biology and in June will attend the Verge Hawaii Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit, with support from Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy in the School of Design

He hopes to devote a bit more time traveling the U.S. before returning to the U.K. in the fall, where he plans to put his environmental policy skills to work for the government, again reaching outside of what might be considered a traditional path for a biologist.

“In terms of trying to do something for the natural world, I think an area in which we’re lacking and most in need of people to be engaged is on the policy side,” he says. “I worked out that if I can do something on that side, however small a change one could make, it could have a tremendous effect. It’s really about an opportunity to make a difference.”

Joshua Powell

Joshua Powell