This 'Hippie' Does Economics


Emilia Tjernström's knowledge of the system may be a boon to the environment

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Fred Field

Photo by Fred Field
During the Friday afternoon session at the Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium in late April, a half-dozen students and four or five professors settle into the Hurd Room in Roberts to hear about an economics research project conducted in Morocco. Its title, "Satan Makes Me Spend My Money," is a quote from one of the subjects of the study, they learn. The paper's subtitle is "A Study of Street Children's Concept of Money and Economic Behavior, Tangiers, Morocco."

A couple of students in the audience wear neckties; one has on a blazer. Presenting, Emilia Tjernström '06 wears sandals and a floor-length skirt that could be North African. She launches into her PowerPoint presentation, which features photos of teenage boys at an educational farm as well as graphs that reflect the boys' attitudes toward money, resources, the future, notions of wealth, life in general"data that Tjernström collected in interviews in January.

It is evident from her talk that economics is just one lens through which Tjernström viewed the world when she studied in Morocco. And it's not surprising to learn, in an interview separate from the presentation, that the reason she chose an economics major isn't related to making a lot of money in finance when she graduates.

[It] usually surprises people," she admitted, "because hippies aren't supposed to do economics." But as a young woman earnestly committed to social justice, she decided that "Economics is the system," she said. "You can't do anything about it unless you know the system." She zeroed in on environmental economics after a course with Mitchell Family Professor of Economics Tom Tietenberg. When it comes to environmental concerns, she said, "Markets on their own don't necessarily produce the best outcomes." So now she is interested in how to use economic markets to control pollution, for example.

Tjernström worked as Tietenberg's research assistant for the last two years helping to prepare new editions of two books, including Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, the most widely used textbook in the field. His sabbatical this year, he said, "was much more productive for all the work she's done for me."

At a time when "all academic disciplines are becoming more specialized," Tietenberg said, "a lot of problems are beginning to overlap disciplines""climate change as a case in point.

Increasingly, leaders in solving societal or global problems will be people who have a deep understanding in a particular area and can bridge gaps among disciplines, he said. "I think Emilia is certainly on that track."

Bringing that interdisciplinary curiosity and an analytical intensity to her study in Morocco, she talked about choices she has that the street children she worked alongside never will have. She observed that she doesn't take running water for granted anymore. She was clearly touched when, following a call to prayer, the boys worried about her and wanted to teach her how to pray. And she spoke about her desire to wring every last drop of opportunity from her time at Colby. What the College offers is not something that, if not fully taken advantage of, can easily be transferred to someone else, she has come to understand. "There's no such thing as conservation of privilege."

With one more year to go at Colby, Tjernström is anxious about what she may have to miss. "There are so many amazing people here"I just wish I could take so many more classes, in so many departments," she said. "You just can't do it all in four years. . . . I can think of another dozen majors I'd like to do."

You might guess from the umlaut in her name"though not from her American-inflected English"that Tjernström is from Sweden. Harder to pinpoint is where she'll pop up on campus. This spring she competed as a member of the very successful women's woodsmen's team at the same time she was organizing Colby's first Dialogue House"the Green House that will take over the Goddard-Hodgkins dorm, on Roberts Row, in 2005-06 with a serious environmental agenda (see article). She also was the director of the 2005 International Extravaganza in April, managing 70 or 80 students who performed 21 acts.

She is president of the International Club, and since arriving at Colby, from Red Cross Nordic United World College, she has been an active member of the Movement for Social Justice, an issues-oriented umbrella for student activism. She was involved with the new Colby for Humanity group that sponsored a conference on genocide titled "Shadows of Rwanda" (see article) and was involved in efforts to draw attention to the genocide in Darfur.

Back at the research symposium, Tjernström said that her conclusions after her study of street children as economic agents turned out to be a series of paradoxes. Socially the boys are on the margins if not outside of Moroccan society, but she saw the ways in which they are part of the society and aspire to achieve certain social norms. While some of their attitudes are childlike, the boys are mature beyond their years in other ways, having been forced to grow up quickly and to fend for themselves, Tjernström observed. Though the boys are independent and resourceful, they exhibit powerful solidarity and are willing to share anything they have with almost anyone. Most puzzling, she said, is a dynamic whereby making money in the streets is sufficiently easy that the boys' marginal status can't be explained simply as a function of meager income.

"To get children off the street will require changing their attitudes toward the future," she said. Quoting the director of the pedagogical farm where she worked with the boys, she said, "You can get the kid off the street, but it's hard to get the street out of the kid."