By Trevor Janes with the help of Laura Brown
People see sustainability and economic growth as opposites, but that's exactly wrong. So says Dr. Tomer Fishman, a lecturer in the School of Sustainability at IDC Herzliya since 2018. His research connects academic disciplines and finds win-win situations for the environment and the economy. He recently gave a lecture as part of the Sustainability and Energy Research Initiative (SAERI) seminar series at the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS), which your ESRA reporter attended. With his warm, thoughtful demeanor and calm low voice, Tomer, an industrial ecologist, impressed the room full of natural scientists. His research, carried out while pursuing a PhD in Japan and as a post-doctoral associate at Yale University, touched on the geopolitics of rare earth metal stocks. A long line of students stayed after the seminar, eager to talk to him.
We met up one afternoon in a coffee shop where I interviewed him about his experience as a young academic returning to Israel after years abroad (the interview has been edited for clarity).
You describe yourself as industrial ecologist, what does that mean?
TF: Industrial ecology is a systems approach to sustainability. It takes a step back from traditional academic disciplines and tries to connect the dots between them. Academic disciplines kind of work in silos, they tend to be inwardly focused on making improvements from their own perspective. There hasn't been anyone to communicate the solutions that the different disciplines had figured out and translate them to a more macro-scale. Industrial ecology tries to do just that by mixing economics and physical sciences, ecology, and engineering approaches together with sociology and even psychology. Industrial ecology tries to get the best out of all of these, to get everyone to communicate and combine approaches in order to achieve a more sustainable society.
Why change it? What's wrong with the status quo?
TF: The status quo is inefficient. Environmentalists who want to protect the planet are often portrayed as in conflict with economists who want to maximize wellbeing. But we find that if you take a step back and look at how things actually operate, you have the option to improve the environment and the economy at the same time, simply by improving efficiency and efficacy. Improving these in a factory means you use up less raw material, you waste less, you require less energy, enabling you to save money. It's a win-win situation. When you put it that way, I can't see how anyone would object to that, whether they prioritize the environment or the economy. There are plenty of unsustainable things we do these days because we don't have the right perspective.
What's an example of an unsustainable thing?
TF: The mining industry is a great example. We're really missing out on urban mining. The concentration of metals in the built environment (cities, neighbourhoods, buildings) is higher than the concentration of metals in viable mines nowadays. It makes more sense to prospect and mine the unused metals that are already in the cities. Urban mining reduces losses and inefficiencies on multiple levels. But it requires a change in approach from the way the mining industry traditionally operates. That's why it's so important for us to be able to communicate the advantages of urban mining. I'm giving a talk on urban mining to the construction industry to introduce them to this framework to see whether we can kick-start some collaboration. We need people from the mining industry to start mining our cities. We need their tools and their expertise. It's much more efficient to use professionals who already have experience in mining operations. We just need to show them the advantages of urban mining. We're at a stage in which people are siloed in their traditional ways of thinking and we need to pull them out of it. Industrial ecology is one of those disciplines that offer tools to identify win-win situations and pull people out of their silos.
You recently joined IDC Herzliya as a lecturer. What are some positives about your position there?
TF: There's a lot of academic independence. Being in the School of Sustainability is freeing; in other schools I need to explain all these multidisciplinary approaches, but here it's in the genome of the place. On top of that the IDC is a very big international school, and the program in English is identical to the program in Hebrew, so I get to teach in both languages. I love interacting with the undergraduates who come to the IDC to study sustainability. Teaching them, being in class with them, it's just fun! Many of them have this hunger to learn and to absorb, which is amazing. They know something is wrong with the way we do things as a society but their opinions aren't hardened yet about what the problems actually are and how to solve them.
When you were a student, you did your first degree in economics. Did you have a goal in mind about what you wanted for your career?
TF: No, not really. I just figured economics would open doors. The first day, Intro to Microeconomics, the professor said up front: "You guys don't know what you're getting in to, economics is not what you think it is. It's not about manipulating the stock market. We're not even going to teach you about the stock market. Half of you are probably not even going to be here by the beginning of the second year because you'll realize that this isn't what you wanted. Now let's start with supply and demand." It made a lasting impression. It was very interesting to learn what economics really is. I'm not sure I always agree with the majority outlook or priorities of mainstream economics, but it's a good framework. Especially the methodology and research tools, which have been more helpful to me than the hypotheses or economic theories. So the economics degree was a useful decision on my part.
However, around 2008 during the global economic crisis, when we students asked the professors to explain what was going on, they told us it was too advanced and not really relevant to what they wanted to teach us, which was disappointing. Especially since those were the guys rescuing Israel from the mess, helping Israel avoid the majority of the crisis, so it was disappointing that they didn't feel confident enough to really explain what was going on. It felt to me like a failure on their part to communicate these things to us, undergrads.
So I realized I didn't want to continue strictly in traditional economics and I wanted to do environmental economics, which sounded interesting to me, like the best of both worlds. Saving the world while helping improve welfare and quality of life at the same time.
You studied next in Japan: what made you apply for the scholarship to go there?
TF: In addition to economics, I also majored in East Asian studies. I'm very glad I took it because it ended up setting the stage for everything that came afterwards, including the scholarship to study in Japan. Studying the history, art and culture of somewhere else was amazing. Going to Japan was, of course, a big leap into the unknown. Studying a culture is not the same as moving there and living there.
I ended up in a city called Nagoya which is in some senses the equivalent of Haifa in Israel, the country's third biggest city. There were fewer foreigners, which was perfect for me. The locals were very helpful, and happy to have more foreigners around. Many of them did not speak English, which forced me to learn Japanese. It involved a lot of effort and struggling with the language, but it was really great to learn Japanese and to make friends with Japanese people and not just other foreigners in Japan.
How did your experience in Japan affect you: did it change your personality?
TF: I don't know if it's a real change in personality or just different aspects being emphasized. In my experience, to really get by you need to understand the unspoken messages that are part of communication in Japan, unlike Israel where saying everything out loud is the way to communicate. There, it's different, there's a lot of unspoken communication happening all the time. At first it went over my head. It was broadcast on a wavelength that I couldn't capture. So it took time and experience, before I eventually attuned to it. That was a useful tool to have, because it really expands your mind and makes you think in different ways than previously.
Can you give an example?
TF: In my second year in Japan, I took part in a meeting during which the Japanese and foreign students including myself took turns presenting our research to a professor. One of the foreign students was presenting and I was only half paying attention but I suddenly noticed that the atmosphere of the room had changed. I looked around and I realized that the professor was disappointed and angry with the student. He was smiling and talking in a very polite way and recommending things for the student to do, but I sensed that he was actually really angry. He asked, "Why didn't you do what I asked you to do in the previous week?" And the student said "Well I tried it out, but it didn't work so I gave up on it and worked on something different." Then the professor said: "Maybe you should try it again." Really polite, smiling, but he was extremely disappointed and angry. The student didn't realize it, and just took it at face value, that the professor was OK with that choice.
I can't really put my finger on what made me realize. But when I looked at the Japanese students they were all sitting there avoiding eye contact, heads down, trying to make themselves as small as possible. So I started paying more attention to the body language of my Japanese co-workers, especially in professional situations. See if they keep their heads down, that's when something is wrong. Who knows what I missed previously by not being attuned to this non-verbal communication? But my realization that day really helped. The next time I found myself in such a situation, I apologized— even if I didn't know why I was apologizing— and everything was OK after.
What did you miss about Israel?
TF: One thing that really surprised me was driving in Israel. When we got back, it suddenly clicked and I realized that all those years abroad I was never really comfortable driving anywhere except Israel. Even though people here drive like crazy! But at least here I understand what's going on. Coming back to Israel, all of a sudden everything was so smooth and natural: conversations, cultural and underlying fundamental stuff, it's coming back to something I'm used to, even though I had been away for eight years. It's nice to be able to do things without having to think so much.
But more than anything I missed the food. Even in the farthest places we lived in, there was supposedly Israeli food but it was never the same. They don't get it right; even when it's Israelis who own the shops and restaurants, it's really not the same. So I'm really glad I can eat Israeli food again. But now that we're here, I miss Japanese food. I guess you always miss what you can't have.
Trevor Janes is a Canadian chemist who conducted postdoctoral research at the Weizmann Institute of Science as an Azrieli Fellow. In his spare time he enjoyed sampling treats from Shuk HaCarmel, playing matkot at the beach, and watching movies at the Cinematheque. He lived in Rehovot and Tel Aviv for two and a half years before returning to Toronto, Canada where now he lives with his wife, Laura.