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Congratulating Our Colleague Nathan Ayer on His New Doctorate

We’re tremendously proud of Nathan and his accomplishment, and as part of our congratulations, asked him a few questions about his experience and how he sees it influencing his work going forward.

Nathan Ayer

Our Senior Sustainability Analyst and longtime colleague Nathan Ayer recently received his doctorate from the Interdisciplinary PhD Program at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, adding it to his Dalhousie master’s degree in Environmental Studies, and a bachelor’s degree in the same field from Mount Alison University.

We’re tremendously proud of Nathan and his accomplishment, and as part of our congratulations, asked him a few questions about his experience and how he sees it influencing his work going forward.

Your PhD thesis looks at how, over the last few decades, we’ve seen the introduction of a range of “green” technologies and products, on the premise that “substitution of eco-efficient technologies and products can solve global environmental challenges while fostering a new era of green economic growth.” You note that despite this, global environmental conditions have continued to decline, and use the thesis as a platform for "critical reflection….to reconcile the technological optimism of ecomodern policies with the reality of worsening global environmental challenges and to underscore the limitations of pursuing green technology as the sole solution.” How did you settle on that as your focus, and what prompted you to draw on the wood biomass energy sector for your analysis?

My academic and professional work over the last 20 years has largely revolved around this concept of sustainable development and the need to develop alternative technologies to reduce society’s environmental impacts. In the late 2000s I remember growing a bit frustrated that some efforts in this area seemed misguided, and that environmental impacts seemed to be continuing to increase in spite of what I and thousands of other people working in environmental management were trying to do.

Around then I read an article about the history of the Interstate highway system in the United States. It noted a number of unintended negative consequences that arose from this major infrastructure project and used it as an example of how major technological developments that can bring great benefit to many can also lead to negative outcomes for others. This prompted me to want to learn more about how technologies are designed, deployed, and taken up in society, and to see what I could learn that might shed light on my questions about green technology.

I had already been considering a study on the life cycle impacts of substituting wood biomass energy for fossil fuels because it was an emerging policy issue here in Nova Scotia. So, I developed an interdisciplinary research plan to do the practical LCA work on wood biomass energy systems while also considering some of these broader themes about technology.

Unifying these elements was tricky, but I had a turning point at a department workshop on the challenges of interdisciplinary research. The guest expert who watched our presentations suggested the idea of a critical reflection in which I would do the practical work and then reflect on it using insights from other disciplines. That was how I was ultimately able to integrate research in the philosophy of technology and ecological economics with the more-practical LCA case studies on wood biomass energy. I am very grateful for that and all the other guidance I had along the way, from my department and my PhD committee.

LCA is one of the primary analytical tools used in the sustainability community. How has your research changed your understanding of LCA’s applicability, and your use of it on behalf of EarthShift Global’s clients?

Perhaps because of its name, LCA tends to be viewed as an all-encompassing impact assessment tool. However, like any research method or analytical tool, LCA has limitations. Working through the wood biomass energy case studies made it clear to me that there can be policy and stakeholder issues and concerns that are not well-captured by LCA. To be sure, LCA research has provided valuable data and insights on the implications of using more wood-energy feedstocks, but those results should not be the sole factor in decision-making or policy development.

My favorite way of describing this is that LCA is one tool in our environmental management toolbox, and we should apply it alongside other tools like Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Sustainable Return on Investment (S-ROI), and others to develop a well-rounded understanding of a given situation.

More broadly, I reflect on our understanding of the environmental impacts and benefits of green technologies, and how the signals we get from LCA studies inform or, potentially, misinform them in some instances. We need to be aware of how the system boundaries and units of analysis typically used in LCAs of alternative technologies affect our understanding of the implications of how those technologies scale up, and how their introduction to the broader economy actually plays out.

In summary, we can gain valuable information and perspective from LCA. We just need to discuss the results and conclusions in light of its limitations and use it in conjunction with other tools as needed.

More broadly, how would you say your experience in advanced studies will affect your professional work going forward, on strategic and/or tactical levels?

I have definitely become a more capable and experienced LCA practitioner, even just in terms of how I approach and manage projects. Technologies are at the core of many of our clients’ efforts to improve their environmental performance, and the broader insights I’ve gained on technological development and deployment have proven to be of great value. And learning how to keep an LCA study in proper perspective and understanding how to leverage the results in a rigorous way will be of ongoing usefulness in all my professional work.

In the concluding part of my dissertation, I expressed how fortunate I am to have had this chance to step back and reflect critically on my professional work. I think it is important for all of us to detach from time to time and consider what we do in a broader context. Of course, a PhD program isn’t right for everyone, but there’s plenty of value in simply attending conferences and hearing different points of view, talking to people from other fields, or reading interesting journal articles.

You undertook the challenging task of earning a doctorate while also working at a high level at EarthShift Global. What was it like to work simultaneously in the academic and professional spheres?

There certainly were challenges juggling my academic and consulting work and my young family. Our second child was born 3 months after I started my PhD, and there were lots of late nights and working weekends. I was fortunate to have, at the outset, a scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) which allowed me to focus on getting much of the core research and classwork completed. The great support from my colleagues made it possible, and it all worked out, though there were some stressful and exhausting moments.

I also found many parallels between my work for EarthShift Global and my research, and the two worlds converged nicely on many occasions. A number of ideas and insights that came up during client projects added to and enriched my PhD work. And conversely, my experience applying Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in my PhD research translated well to my professional work for EarthShift Global.

I see in hindsight that, in addition to having made me much better at my craft (LCA), the process helped me cultivate more discipline and resourcefulness that will serve me well in all aspects of life.