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Sangwon Suh returns to Leiden University as Professor

The Institute of Environmental Sciences has a brand-new professor: Sangwon Suh. As of 1 August, he is Professor Environmental Systems Analysis. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure and honour to rejoin Leiden University,’ he says.

In 2004, Suh earned his PhD cum laude in industrial ecology at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML). After that, he worked at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Minnesota in the US. He assumed an Associate Professor position at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California in 2010. He was promoted to a full Professor in 2016 and will stay active in California for most of his time. At the CML he has an appointment of 4 months per year. 

liveable planet
Read all about the Liveable Planet programme

Same colleagues, new opportunities

‘During my PhD, I really enjoyed the culture at the CML and in the Netherlands in general. I also loved working with my colleagues, some of them are still here. With my return, I aim for new opportunities.’

Suh wants to explore new topics at the CML. ‘Sustainability is a multifaceted challenge that we face. That’s why we need multiple approaches, multiple disciplines. And the CML has the playground where multiple scientists can get together to face problems.’ He names the multidisciplinary Liveable Planet programme as an example. ‘It’s very interesting that anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists and industrial ecologists join together to tackle global sustainability issues.’  

‘We need to work together with other disciplines and incorporate our best understanding of human nature into the equation’  

Understanding the human nature

‘In part, human nature drives how our economy and society operate,’ Suh continues. ‘This is also true for sustainability challenges. That’s why I am intrigued by the fact that anthropologists and social scientists at Leiden University are working together with natural scientists and industrial ecologists to solve this problem. After spending 20 years, I realised that studying technologies alone is not enough. We need to work together with other disciplines and incorporate our best understanding of human nature into the equation.’ 

Rapid growth is often followed by collapse

In one of his projects, Suh is looking at biological systems. ‘In ecosystems, we often see a brief moment of exuberant growth, followed by a sudden collapse. I want to find out what the drivers are for this phenomenon.’  

According to Suh, collapsing ecosystems show surprising parallels with infamous worldwide crises: The Great Depression in the 1930s and the financial crisis in 2008. ‘There were of course many triggers for the Great Depression, but a major one was the newly instituted “margin trading”. This allowed traders to buy stocks multiple times of the cash at their hands, causing massive volatility and appreciation of stock prices. This exuberance in the stock market eventually led to its collapse.’ 

The Great Depression, 1931, Chicago: Unemployed men waiting in line for free soup and coffee. © U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Are we facing a massive collapse? 

Suh hopes to learn valuable lessons from collapsing ecosystems, lessons that might help us solve current sustainability issues. ‘An important question is: are we now in an exuberance phase poised to an imminent collapse? There are plenty of signs that point to that direction, even though the fact that humanity also witnessed huge progresses in many areas, including poverty, disease prevention, and human rights. Nonetheless, think of the growing world population, climate change, and the rapid loss of biodiversity. Are we driving ourselves into a collapse? If so, I want to find out what we can do to avoid this.’   

If it is up to Suh, he will succeed in his efforts. ‘All the researchers working in the Liveable Planet programme are really motivated to work together. So I’m looking forward to joining forces!’

Arnold Tukker: ‘Wonderful person to have on the team’

Arnold Tukker, Scientific Director of the CML: ‘We are absolutely thrilled to have Sangwon back, if for now only parttime. Already during his PhD he managed to set himself firmly on the scientific map, and continued to do that later in the US. Already in his mid-thirties he was invited to be part of the renowned UN International Resources Panel. He is one of the brightest minds in Industrial Ecology, reflected by various impressive awards he won in the field. A wonderful person to have on the team, and someone who can move the institute to great things in the future.’

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