Where the environment meets economics: An interview with Jetske Bouma

Jetske Bouma is a Dutch environmental economist working for PBL, the Environmental Assessment Agency the Netherlands (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving). With over twenty years of experience in research and policy evaluation in this field, Jetske has worked internationally on important environmental economic projects from Costa Rica to India.

As a teenager wanting to make a difference in a disparate world, Jetske felt the key to a sustainable future is in understanding the structures that underlie the unequal and unsustainable society we live in. Read on to discover the interface where the environment meets economics: what is environmental economics, and how can it contribute to a regenerative future?

Jetske explains her drive to contribute to creating a more sustainable world:

“When I was a teenager, in the 90s, a lot was going on to do with sustainable development, and I felt strongly that we have so much wealth and opportunities here in the Netherlands. Yet, there are so many parts of the world where people don’t have these advantages.”

“That felt so wrong to me, and I wanted to do something about it.”

“I felt that economics was one of the reasons we live in such an unfair and unsustainable world. Economics was alien to me, but I decided I better understand how it works in order to make a difference.”

“So, economics was never my passion, rather my route to uncovering how I could contribute to a more sustainable world and what my role could be.”

Jetske describes her journey from development economics to environmental economics:

“Initially I studied development economics which was more geared towards human development. It was the time of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank thinking with a top-down focus, in terms of: if we change inflation, everything will be okay.”

Jetske completed an internship at the Dutch Directorate of Development Cooperation and spent half a year in Costa Rica writing her thesis in a development cooperation project on sustainable land use. During this time, she realised she did not want to work in development cooperation. As her passion lay with sustainable development she decided to try applying for jobs as environmental economist.

“And things just happened! I worked as a water economist for the Dutch government for a few years and then ended up in India, with the International Water Management Institute but that’s another story.”

Environmental economics in a nutshell:   

Economics is really about the optimal allocation of scarce resources. Jetske explains,

“It’s about efficiency, and for many people, that has a very negative tone to it. But it can also have a positive one, because it means you have to think carefully about how you use the scarce resources we have as a society.”

Environmental economics applies that thinking to scarce natural resources. A lot of what environmental economists do is say: ‘Hey, wait a minute – we haven’t included the natural environment in our system of dealing with scarcity; our economic system. We really should include it, because, for example, now we are polluting. And why are we polluting? Because it costs less to pollute, it’s cheaper to pollute than take your garbage elsewhere and actually recycle it. And why are we overexploiting? Because we can do it for free and it doesn’t cost us anything.’

Jetske talks us through the valuation of our natural environment and decision-making

“Some years ago, when I worked at the Institute for Environmental Studies of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, we developed a course called ‘Governance of Ecosystem Services’. There, I wrote part of a book called ‘Ecosystem Services: From Concept to Practice’, which discusses the discourse of ecosystem services and why we started talking about the natural environment in this way.”

“I see the concept of ecosystem services as a communication tool, which can help us translate environmental values into policy. It allows us to share with society, the health of ecosystems and their societal importance, such as clean water or climate regulation.”

“This is important because it shows how our society is connected to the ecosystem. Otherwise, this remains rather abstract. By making the connection visible it becomes tangible – and ultimately valuable.

Clearly, there are many issues with monetary valuation of ecosystems. While some services are easier to value, like clean water (because we can calculate an economic value based on how expensive it would be to purify our water if it becomes polluted), other more complex services are more challenging.

Why do we still try valuing them? For the sad and simple reason that most decision makers only truly start listening when you talk money rather than values. After all, when the going gets tough, people look to their wallets.”

“Some people say we [economists] reduce everything to money, but I think we just try to make the value of natural resources tangible. To give an example of where this worked, consider the BP Deepwater horizon 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“When considering how much BP should pay to compensate society for this environmental disaster, environmental economists considered the value society attached to keeping the Gulf clean for their children and grandchildren. It wasn’t just about looking at the financial costs of the mess, but about the intrinsic value of having a healthy Gulf ecosystem.”

Environmental economics in action 

“So how does all of this translate to policy? Well, in different ways. By taxing, for example, activities that burden the environment, like for example the consumption of meat, the environmental costs are internalized, and the environmental impact reduced. Environmental economists often work on the design of policy instruments like taxes and subsidies, and public financing.”

Behavioral economists, also consider the more psychological factors that drive human behaviour. There are many things that can be done in terms of framing, nudging or information provision, that can help people make more sustainable choices and reconsider the use of scarce natural resources.

Jetske’s thoughts on finding one’s footing in a sustainability career

“It’s about finding your own way. After all, it is very difficult to follow anybody else’s footsteps. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, on the beach or in the snow, but it’s very uncomfortable to follow someone’s footsteps because they are often bigger, smaller, or just different.”

“My advice would be: Follow your own footsteps. That can feel insecure sometimes and sometimes you have to stand still for a while to find your way. I have stood still for the last half year, which was highly uncomfortable, very confronting, and not fun at all. But it is crucial because, if you don’t stand still, now and then, you don’t know where you’re going.”

“On a more practical level, my advice is to learn a trade. I started my career and after five years of work, I realised I needed more analytical skills to really be able to advise policymakers. I needed to invest in it, and that’s why I returned to education to complete my PhD. Every now and then, you have to retrace your footsteps and make adjustments. And enjoy the process on the way.”


Author Profile | Natalie Cru

Natalie Cru is a graduate student completing her MSc in Governance of Sustainability at Leiden University in the Netherlands. With a background in communication management, she writes in her free time to bridge the two disciplines and raise awareness about the vast possibilities for careers in sustainability. Connect with Natalie on LinkedIn.


Interviews, Senior Level, Economist, Sustainability