Professor LaRocco, my first question is, one of the best parts about being at Columbia and in SUMA, is that our professors are also practitioners. So would you tell us what you practice and what elements you bring to the classroom from there?
From 1990 until now, I’ve focused exclusively on developing countries and energy access and other energy issues in developing countries. I founded a nonprofit investment company that invested in over 150 small and medium sized enterprises, and have probably looked at 1000 or 2000 business plans, investment proposals and both of my classes, one here in SIPA and one in SUMA program are focused on that practical experience.
As a sustainability practitioner, what would you say your biggest frustration is, and how do you overcome that frustration?
The biggest frustration for me is our inability to distinguish solvable problems from much more difficult problems and conflating things that we can fix, like bringing clean cooking to rural settings with things that we really cannot fix fully, such as climate change. I think it’s really important, especially for students, not just practitioners, to distinguish what they can fix and what they can approach in a methodical fashion versus the things that are probably outside their reach and grasp.
For the things we can’t fix, is there like a suggestion you might have, whether that’s a way to communicate to your client or your stakeholder that it can’t be fixed, or maybe to whom you might delegate to escalate the problem?
Well, when I say it can’t be fixed that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress in making things better. So very specifically, what I try to encourage clients and students to do is if you’re working on a fixable problem for example, energy access again or clean cooking in rural areas, as you’re doing so, attach to your effort impacts and other qualities that could then improve such things as climate or gender equality. And, I don’t mean that you simply have a project that has these things as impacts, I mean, much more proactively attach, or as I call it, bolt on to what you’re doing incremental steps, incremental resources, incremental improvements that will start to chip away at the more intractable problems.
What or who inspires you to act on sustainability?
Well the what is fairly clear. We put ourselves in a terrible fix, and we as humans seem to have an infinite capacity to attack immediate problems or respond to emergencies and crises. And we seem to have an equally infinite capacity to ignore long-term, insidious change. We hope and rely on something that we don’t know about happening tomorrow that’s going to somehow make things better, and probably no more evidence thing that exists in our constant reliance on technology innovation to solve our problems with concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.
And what made you want to participate in Net Impact?
I actually met Net Impact many years ago on the campus of University of Michigan. I was doing some work at the William Davidson Institute out there, and that was the first time I encountered the group. It was quite fascinating to see that students could mobilize themselves a whole lot better than faculty administrators and governing officials could organize themselves to address specific issues, so I became a fan.
Did you advise when you encounter Net Impact at Michigan?
No, it was just getting to know each other and looking at the projects they were doing. At that point in time, I was very engaged in just a rural electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa and there were a number of overlaps, so it was kind of great fun to work together. But this will be a new adventure for me here at Columbia.
So if you were speaking to a student on Columbia’s campus who was considering joining our club, what would you tell them?
Find a problem you can work on and make a significant change in that. At the same time, don’t exceed your reach or grasp in terms of what you can accomplish. Solving smaller problems can be a better learning experience and more satisfying experience than trying to solve global warming.
The reason why we employ very experienced professors like yourself is because we want the students to be guided on what might be their first foray into consulting. So I’m curious what advice you might want to pass on to someone for whom this is their first project and their first experience consulting.
Previously noted, that you want to do something that you can actually affect change. The second thing is that always if you’re going into a project, and I don’t care whether it’s a consulting projects, or Net Impact, or it’s a capstone project or your first for-profit consulting job, make sure that you satisfy three different needs, not just one. Obviously, number one is you want to satisfy the needs of the client that is engaged, and in that way help them advance whatever it is they’re doing. But secondly, you want to satisfy yourself that you’re learning something or using a tool or a skill that you haven’t had a chance to use before. And third, and this generally gets forgotten, try to pick assignments and clients and adventures that add to the status quo or state of the art, so that if you could satisfy client, satisfy yourself and push the space just a tiny, tiny bit further, you’re going to have a much more satisfactory experience than just one of those three things.
I’m curious about a change you might have recently made to your everyday life, based on an environmental or a social issue that’s important to you.
I’m making a much larger point of my individual behaviors on a day in and day out basis. Let’s use electricity as an example. Monitoring your own consumption of electric usage is something that’s not easy to do, but it’s also not difficult to do, so I’ve begun to kind of look at how I use electricity. I know where it comes from, I know the gross quantities, but what I don’t know on a day to day basis is the individual applications of how much goes to my refrigerator and how much goes to my computer. I’m fond of teaching something I learned years ago, which is called ‘the plateau of indifference,’ that as we grow richer, we spend less and less of our time and attention on how we consume things. We have more and more money, they become a smaller percentage of our income and we become indifferent to whether our electric bill is $90 or $100. Conversely, the poor pay a great amount of attention to that because things like energy are a substantial portion of their income. So I have finally most recently taken a look at all of my micro-expenditures… The other thing I’ve done is that I am focusing on all the pieces that make up this sustainability puzzle and my view is not a happy one. My view is a dark one at this point in time. So I’m keeping tabs, if you will, on each one of the indicators that tell us whether we’re making progress or incurring setbacks.
Tell me about social or sustainability related or environmental victory that you would like to see in your lifetime.
There is no need for us to have energy poverty in the world… Energy poverty is a problem that can be solved, should be solved, and the resources exist to eliminate it, even in my lifetime. There is absolutely no reason that two billion people in the world should be living in nineteenth century energy conditions. They already spent the monies, the time, they have the budget for modern energy. Problem is we’ve not focused enough on bringing those improved energy resources to the households that are more difficult to aid.
Finally, since you’ve traveled all over, do you have a favorite place on earth?
Impossible to say. I had I’ve had the chance to work in varying environments in forty to fifty different countries and there’s so many of them that you would consider to be a favorite. But I think the thing that distinguishes this particular field, energy access, in a great way is the type of people you encounter. They may have worked in two countries, you may work in twenty countries, but you’re going to find a certain common interest and set of approaches. As to what country is the best, that depends whether you’re a foodie, whether you like landscape, or otherwise. It’s a great place out there, so I wouldn’t recommend one over another: I’d recommend all of them!
As a follow up to that, I think many of us at Columbia are wondering what we can do right here in New York. So I’m curious what you would tell a student who’s looking for how they can affect change right here near our campus.
Well, our behavior is the number one thing. It’s fascinating to think that people still might think it’s okay to leave the light on. Well, it’s not, that’s not how it works. Particularly here at Columbia University, you should not follow the urban myth that, you know, it doesn’t use any electricity. Yes, it does. Urban issues particularly in rich, metropolitan areas like New York City are different from issues in Zambia or Zimbabwe or Uganda but the basic management of the resources in front of you is not a different issue. The one thing I really recommend– obviously by my accent, I am a born and bred New Yorker– is pay attention to folks that you might otherwise think are invisible and make sure they’re not invisible.
– Interviewed by Lizzie Siboni on Wednesday October 17, 2018