Studio IX: Good morning, you two. So let's start with the basics. Who are you?
Spencer Phillips: I'm Spencer Phillips.
Anna Perry: And I'm Anna Perry.
Studio IX: And what do you do?
SP: We're half of Key-Log Economics, which is a small consulting firm that does economic analysis for environmental organizations, conservation organizations, a couple of government agencies, throughout the US.
Studio IX: So this is a unique interview because typically I talk to one member each month, and Spencer you had asked that Anna join us. Could you tell us a little bit about why?
SP: Well, I am leaving Studio IX at the end of April, and leaving the country in early July to open a branch office of the company in Hanoi, Vietnam. With that transition, Anna will continue our association with Studio IX and will be the local face of Key-Log Economics.
Studio IX: That's exciting, for the both of you, I'm sure.
Studio IX: What do you guys enjoy most about the work that you do?
AP: I just feel this overwhelming gratitude every day based on knowing how many people in my niche aren't able to do the job that they love, and it's such a privilege to be able to do that, right out of college. And I enjoy that it's a constant challenge. It makes me feel like I'm, to quote Thomas Jefferson, a life long learner. I'm able to apply what I've learned in classes, while learning new things, and produce these tangible results for clients that are doing good things in the world. I feel like I'm not just a cog in the wheel, but actually helping.
SP: I've been an outdoor recreationist, conservationist, environmentalist for as long as I can remember, but it has been really gratifying over the course of, now going on 30 years of professional work, to help people make the case that environmental protection is also good for the economy. That is usually glossed over in the debate of jobs versus spotted owls, or jobs versus The Chesapeake Bay. That's often not true, and it's always just a portion of the story, even if there is a grain of truth to it.
The other thing I like about what we're doing now is that with Key-Log Economics, which I've only been doing since 2013, I have the chance to work with folks like Anna. I've been a part-time professor at UVA and online at two other colleges. So far, I've been able to work with almost a dozen former students as contractors, as interns, or in the case of Anna, our colleague Sonia Wang in Chicago and our former colleague Cara Bottorff (now with the Sierra Club in DC), as employees and co-owners. It's a real privilege for me to be able to play a part in the launch of their professional careers. And as a life long learner myself, I get to hear about all the stuff that is new since I was in school.
Studio IX:. This is a two part question. What are you passionate about? Individually. And does that play a part in the work that you do?
AP: Well definitely the outdoors. Protecting and enjoying the environment, and seeing the decisions affecting it being governed as much as possible by facts and science--including economic science. But, really the motivation for me comes with the desire to see things in good shape. To be good stewards of the earth, and to help other people find practical and useful ways of doing that.
Studio IX: What was the formative moment? What brought you both to a place of such connection, concern and care for the natural world?
SP: It has been there for me for a long time. My favorite childhood memories are from goofing around in lakes, and streams, and going fishing, and going hiking. I was a Boy Scout and all that. My seventh grade Geography teacher was a great aging hippie named Mr. Neder, and he would take us on the field trips to do stream clean-ups and the like. I still I remember his lecture on global population growth and how he dramatized how incomprehensibly large the number four billion was (That was the then looming world population number, which tells you how old I am.)
The reconnection to the environment and the connection between the environment and what I was doing academically as an undergrad Econ major at UVA canud during Spring Break of my second year. I hadn't been backpacking in several years. I went with a buddy of mine up to Mt. Rogers in what's now the Lewis Fork Wilderness in the Jefferson National Forest. Being away from school, away from the usual shenanigans of second years at UVA, I had this awakening--a spiritual epiphany and a moment of insight that what I was learning about in school, possibly, could have something to do with what I was experiencing, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “our lives in nature, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The actual world! The common sense!”
After that was grad school then work at the White House (briefly) and in NGOs (20 years) trying to help people understand that “our lives in nature” are also economically important.
AP: I'd say, the origin of my passion probably came from visiting my families little lake cabin in Maine every summer. And, similar to Spencer, being able to get away and escape the humdrum of society every day. And I also was consumed by this morbidity when I was a child and just thinking the world's ending, man is destroying nature, and I'd be obsessed with watching news about climate change and just felt overwhelmed by it, even at age five. I tried to grow out of that a little bit and recognize the optimism in it - how I can help a person connect with the natural world. Not just people who are passionate about the outdoors, but I noticed that even being able to take some friends up to Maine every summer who wouldn't otherwise necessarily be outdoors people, or be passionate about the environment, they just kept reminding me what an invaluable experience it was for them. And so to be able to do that for other people and communicate that kind of value, what it can mean to them, even if it's in a small way, is really important.
Studio IX: Can you share a memorable story with us? A moment that stands out to you from your work experience?
SP: One that stands out is one of the first projects I did since hanging out my shingle. Our client was for The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and they were facing, kind of what I was describing earlier: an argument against cleaning up The Chesapeake Bay, because it was going to be really expensive for farmers and local municipalities. Even here in Charlottesville, the complaints were here about the rain water tax, or the rain tax. Those policies come from, in part, the need to keep stuff from flowing into The Chesapeake Bay. So, everybody had a pretty good handle on what it would cost to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean up goals, but nobody was talking about what the benefits would be.
So The CBF came to me and said, "Hey, we're interested in trying to put a value on the cleanup." Through a lot of hard work and research, we figured out a way to do that and combine satellite imagery with literature review and put those together. It turns out that over a 10-year period, while it will cost about 50 billion dollars to clean up The Chesapeake Bay. However, by our estimates--which were conservative--once that clean up is in place or once those measures are in place, you're going to be getting $22 billion a year, which is a two-and-a-half-year pay back on the investment, which is fantastic. Any private company would be delighted to get that kind of return on investment.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation had fantastic media people working on the rollout. We did a press conference at their facility up on The Bay in Annapolis, and I later went back and did testimony for a couple of Maryland legislative committees, as well as in the Virginia and Pennsylvania state houses, plus scientific and policy conferences around the region.We still hear back from CBP that the report has given them more mileage than anything else in their existence. Now, that was possibly being kind, but we do think we put solid information together for them, and combined with their savvy media communications, political strategy, and membership engagement, it's really had an effect on the debate and, most importantly, on the prospects for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay.
It’s an example of how what we do can fundamentally, change the debate about what's going in the environment. One bonus from that project has been that a current client has told us on a couple of occasions that they wanted to work with us because of what they had heard about the Chesapeake Bay work
Studio IX: That's great!
AP: I'd have to say mine has to do with the very first project that I did with Key-Log about the economics of drilling in the Arctic Refuge. It was this day, I guess when I was watching the Senate Hearing Committee on actually opening The Arctic Refuge to drill, there had been this 50 year long plus debate over it. And at this point we'd already delivered the report and The Wilderness Society was going to use it to testify in the hearing. It was like a culmination of everything, watching these Senators and stakeholders from Alaska describe all these facts and I'd be listening to them and get frustrated because I knew some of them were quoting old stuff or those lobbying to protect the Refuge wouldn’t utilize really important stats I knew existed..
And it was, I guess in a good way and a bad way, helping me realize that there's a lot of outdated information and certain focus on finding aspects of debates that are just completely ignoring any economic argument when it comes to opening conservation lands to national resource or fossil fuel companies. But then, I heard one Senator, Heinrich, I think, from New Mexico, and he didn't even mention Key-Log Economics, but... It was very clear that he had gotten some bullets from the report because I distinctly remember the information and it was a very humbling moment because I was just so happy that even one Senator’s assistant read it, and brought it up. I was so thankful because no one had been making an economic argument the entire six hour long hearing, and yeah, to hear it come up in the discussion even a little bit. It was rewarding.
Studio IX: Yeah. The work that no one sees that has such an impact.
SP: It's kind of like that movie, Broadcast News, with Holly Hunter and William Hurt, where the guy who's the smart reporter says, "This is amazing. I write it here and it comes out there." It's a fun experience, even if the proposal being debated is a little horrifying.
Studio IX: What's an aspect of your work which might surprise people to know?
SP: In general, I often get the reaction from people when I say I'm an environmental economist, or an ecological economist, they say, "What on Earth does economics have to do with the environment?"
SP: It's probably is just that. That because of the dominant mental model of the environment with regard to the economy is that they are inherently in opposition. But our work starts from a mental model that says "No, there is a positive relationship between the two, which means that when the environment does poorly, the economy does poorly, and where the environment does well, the economy can do well." They move in the same directions, typically. And so, our work is to overcome that perception and to put the data/information behind that idea. We give them the intellectual backup to do the right thing when somebody's screaming in their ear, "No, no. You can't do that because it's going to kill jobs." Or, "It's going to cause factories to move overseas." Or something like that. We try to be the still small voice in the other ear that says, "Actually, we can do both." I guess it’s such a big part of my life, it doesn't seem like it should be surprising.
AP: Yeah, I think for me, what I've heard, just when I briefly describe the scope of our work, people are surprised at the range of projects we do. I think people just assume that we would do similar kind of project or approach for all of our clients, so they’re impressed to hear we do econometric modeling, comment reviews, technical reports and communication pieces.
SP: That's true. And while all of our projects are bespoke, there are some common themes. We have a body of work around estimating ecosystem service values. We have a body of work around inserting economic arguments into the National Environmental Policy Act process--the Arctic work that Anna came on board to do and these comment reviews are examples of that. But every particular policy issue and every set of data is unique in a way, and I have more fun when I’m doing something new with each project rather than another iteration of something we’ve done before.
Studio IX: Where do you see yourselves and your field of work going in the next five to ten years?
SP: Well, personally for me, for the next five years I'd like to be continuing to do this work in Hanoi and at the end of those five years, which is the time frame that Missy and have set for ourselves, I'd like to see that office be self-sustaining as well as this one.
Studio IX: Can you tell us a bit more about the new office.
SP: Yeah. There's a couple of differences about what's happening there and why there. The 'why there' goes back a long way to our first exchange student, who got us in contact with the people and culture, and kind of fell in love with the whole deal. And for me as an environmental economist, it's a really interesting setting because of very challenging environmental issues ranging from climate change and sea level (Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world) to the lingering effects of Agent Orange and other environmental consequences of what the Vietnamese call the American War. There's also, just garden variety environmental issues that come along with rapid economic development. Air pollution, water pollution, solid waste management concerns.
I spent some time there with my wife several years ago, and five years ago I did a sabbatical with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and at that point really cemented the thought that there's work to be done there in my field. The goal is to fill a niche in Vietnam that we have been able to do here, which is to provide services for small to medium size NGOs who might not otherwise be able to hire economic expertise in support of their conservation work. There are certainly other small shops that do what we do, so in terms of where the industry might be going, I hope that we'll continue to hold our own in that. We compliment what people can find in other kinds of consultancies, whether on the biological side, or legal, or other things that plug in and help NGOs, the ones that don't have capacity to hire their own scientific technical staff. You have to be pretty big before you start seeing an organization have scientists and economists, or other experts in-house.
Beyond those five years, I would be delighted to see a set of colleagues in Hanoi, who can go forth and continue what we’re doing. At that point, we may return to the states and continue to consult, or head to Panama where my daughter lives and she can finish teaching me to surf. I don't know. Anything can happen.
Studio IX: That sounds miserable. (laughter)
SP: Yeah, it's pretty rough.
AP: I can't think beyond five years, that's just way too long. I've always been wrong, I've tried in the past.
AP: As for five years, I'd love to see Key-Log's client base grow up and be a part of that. I didn't imagine myself being very entrepreneurial or business-y when I was in High School or even in college, but now I feel really invested in being able to go out and get new clients, and projects going, and develop different skills along the way. Both on my own time, and when it comes to Key-Log as well. At some point, I guess I'd get a graduate degree while still working for Key-Log. Probably within five years. I’d love to get a degree in energy and resources, or statistics, environmental management, somewhere in that realm. That's really my basis. I used to try to plan out really far in advance, and it was way too anxiety inducing, so I've started just not thinking more than three months ahead, which has served very well to do that.
Studio IX: What do you guys enjoy about being here at Studio IX?
AP. I still live kind of near UVA, and so and a lot of my association with Charlottesville before this year has been UVA related or High School related. So, this has been illuminating to be able to get to know people in Charlottesville who are not connected necessarily to any of my past life. And be able to work around people who are just doing really fascinating things. People who love Charlottesville, who have just moved here, or have been here forever, but it's just another side of the city that I feel like I wouldn't have been able to necessarily access.
SP: Well, as you might know, I started my membership at Studio IX because I needed a physical address within the city limits. But, I also thought, "This will get me out of the home office, too." A good piece of advice I read early on when I started the company was get out every day, even if it's just to get take-out or go to the post office, or walk the dog or something. This is a more productive way for me to do that. I also love the fact that even though it's beehive of activity, it's much more conducive for me to get intensive work done. It's a lot easier for me to tune out the buzz around me and code, or do GIS, or do a piece of writing than it is for me to tune out the dog laying on my feet. That's really good.
It's also a great way to rub elbows with all the cool kids in town, and that has created some opportunities for us. Anna mentioned earlier, these public comment reviews we've done, and for some of those, in an over-coffee conversation with Oliver Beavers and said, "Hey, here's this thing we'd like to do. Is it possible to train a machine to read text and tell us the nature of it? Tell us what the sentiment is in the text?" And Oliver said, "Well, yeah, that's possible. I could probably do that." And then from that, it has become two, and going on hopefully three efforts where he and we have teamed up. He's got amazing technical skills and awareness of how to do that machine learning part, and we've got the policy side of thing tied up.
Another instance is with my transition out of the country, we're hiring a new senior person who can do analytical work and some of the business development work. We’ve gotten some great advice and help from Robin Macklin on that. And those are just two associations I wouldn't have had if I were just sitting in my office back at my house. So, good. It's fun, too, to see and hear about the diversity of little businesses that are happening here, living here, or being spawned from here.
Studio IX: It is indeed.
Studio IX: Thank you guys, so much!
SP&AP: You bet!!