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Faculty Spotlight Interview: Pierre Desrochers

  • pierre_desrochers
December 17, 2010

Pierre Desrochers is a professor of geography at University of Toronto. His research interests are economic development, technological innovation, business-environment interactions, energy policy and food policy.

 

What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
I swim and I hit the gym as regularly as I can. I’m also something of a radio and TV pundit, a “hobby” that typically requires me to perform additional research on a range of subjects that fall outside the purview of my academic work. Other than that, I do little things, but nothing that really involves a routine.

What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
I developed an interest in economic development before entering the university system, but my original encounter with mainstream economics was not very compelling. I guess I could never get over the gut feeling that you’re solving the wrong problem if you assume away reality. Besides, I distinctly remember the Marxist professor from whom I took the Quebec equivalent of Econ 101 saying in his last lecture that he could easily debunk all the material he had been mandated to teach us. My political sensibilities were strongly to the left at the time, so I ended up majoring in political science in order to do old-fashioned political economy.

In time, however, personal experiences with labor unions and public bureaucracies (among other things, I paid for my undergraduate education by “working” as a part-time customs officer…) increasingly convinced me of the value of political and economic freedom. As a young Québécois in the pre-internet age, however, I was never going to be introduced to the Austrian school in a formal academic context or through then non-existing policy think tanks, websites and blogs (things are now much better with well-established institutions such as the Montreal Economic Institute http://www.iedm.org/e and Le Québécois Libre http://quebecoislibre.org/, two intellectual ventures to which I contributed a little a while back). If I remember correctly, my big intellectual break was reading “Les vrais penseurs de notre temps” (The True Thinkers of our Time), a book by French intellectual Guy Sorman http://gsorman.typepad.com/guy_sorman/ which featured short intellectual portraits of academicians and writers he found fascinating. It so happens that the two economists he discussed were Hayek and Rothbard. My recollection of the book is that Sorman used Rothbard as a foil to make Hayek look reasonable, so I began reading Hayek and never really thought of looking up Rothbard’s work.

A few years later, I found my way to a Mises Institute conference after co-writing an essay on political secession with my friend Éric Duhaime http://blogues.canoe.ca/ericduhaime/ who is now arguably Quebec’s most prominent free-market pundit. I still remember Éric and I wondering what we had gotten ourselves into when we saw a picture of Rothbard on the wall (this was just after he had passed away). I later had the opportunity to attend Mises University a few times. I had already begun a PhD in economic geography, but in the end my dissertation incorporated a lot of material learned at Mises U. I didn’t realize it then, but I was enrolled in one of the few geography programs where I could get away with doing something like this. I will be eternally grateful to my advisor and PhD committee at the Université de Montréal for putting
up with me (and for probably having to apologize to the rest of the profession about this a few times since then…).

Who is your greatest inspiration?
As far as my research interests and style go, the late urban theorist Jane Jacobs. She was the antithesis of the type of professional intellectual I was once planning to become: highly specialized and writing only for a small audience of similarly trained individuals. Because she had no professional credentials, Jacobs had no compunction to borrow, break down and recombine ideas and insights from a wide array of individuals, perspectives, and disciplines in order to understand why some cities grow while others stagnate and decay. While her lack of expertise did lead her astray on a number of issues, she was able to shed new light on old problems and suggest highly original departures from the then conventional wisdom among experts. It is because of her that I became a geographer in the first place. Of course, I eventually learned and borrowed much from Austrian economists and contributed a little to the tradition, but most of what I still do at this point in time in terms of research and teaching owes more to Jacobs than to Austrian economists.

One of your works in QJAE concerns geography and economic development, can you tell us what kind of Austrian insights can be brought to your field of geography or vice versa?
The branch of economic geography that attracted me specializes in understanding regional economic development. Contributors to this literature took entrepreneurship, technological change and social networks much more seriously than mainstream economists did. Another appealing characteristic of the field was the widespread assumption that the way to learn about these things was to get out of the ivory tower and go talk to people. Like most non-economists, however, economic geographers are typically averse to methodological individualism and somewhat lacking in their overall appreciation of market processes. I have tried to blend the best and most relevant aspects of both intellectual worlds and apply them to a rather broad range of topics. For instance, I’m currently putting the final touch to a piece on a 19th century industrial waste recycling exhibit to be published by a journal edited by the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) that pretty much debunks the standard history of industry-environment interactions. I’m revising the proofs of a piece that explains how a diversified economy makes people more creative and researching the history of the American environmental movement between the end of the Second World War and the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the early 1960s. I’m also completing with my wife (an economist…) a book against the “locavore” fad (i.e., the idea that increasing purchases of locally produced food beyond its economic rationale will be good for the environment, the economy and overall food security) that gave me the opportunity to borrow much from the work of anthropologists, public health specialists, nutritionists, geographers, economists, business historians and a few other academics, along with the opportunity to revisit a number of classics from Plato to John Locke (everybody has had an opinion on food policy it seems). Believe it or not, Austrian insights and things I learned at Mises U. proved valuable in all projects.

What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work?
I’m naturally attracted to the grey areas between academic disciplines where I think the most interesting problems are. Although this is presumptuous on my part, I like to think of myself as something of a “bridge builder” between different intellectual communities (of course, the bridge might be not very pretty or impressive, but it does connect people who otherwise would interact even less with each other). Beyond that, another concern of mine is that, by and large, the new generation of human geographers is much more radical and less open to intellectual dissent than the previous one and that irrelevant work written in unreadable jargon is now much closer to being the norm than the exception. I want to believe that by writing policy relevant things that appeal to a broad audience I will lead by example and help reverse this tide somewhat.
(By the way, if readers want to a glimpse of my research, they can look up my webpage http://
epsem.erin.utoronto.ca/desrochers/research.htm
)

Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
My career path was somewhat unusual and I am not sure what conclusions can be drawn from it, at least inasmuch as I believe that the department where I got my PhD and the one where I am currently employed are much more tolerant of an oddball like me than most other places in my discipline. Maybe I was just lucky. But then again, I never pretended to be something I was not. I worked hard, tried to be creative and be the best colleague I could be, so it was perhaps normal that I would end up in places where I feel comfortable intellectually and socially despite my heterodox leanings. Truth be told, being employed as a geographer gave me complete freedom to pursue whatever topic I found interesting and, perhaps unwisely, I never really cared about academic fads or where I would end up publishing my research. I probably shouldn’t recommend that kind of reckless approach to young people. On the other hand, to students who would rather dare being different than play it safe, I would suggest finding topics that are of interest to both you and other people outside of your own intellectual choir and be the best you can be. With a little luck, you will find your niche and most certainly be professionally happier that way.

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