Monday, April 14, 2008

Planet + people + profit + God = teaching the economics of going green

Associate Professor of Chemistry Doug Schirch and Associate Professor of Economics Jerrell Richer talk about and look at an oncampus biodiesel project that four students built.

Related links:

GOSHEN, Ind. – The environmental movement and the business community haven’t always been great friends. But new Associate Professor of Economics Jerrell Ross Richer is finding that his expertise on sustainability and business is the perfect fit at Goshen College as the campus and students work to be greener to save the planet, to save money and to practice Christian faith.

As an academic, Richer defines sustainability like many experts do. “It usually involves three objectives, what many refer to as the ‘three-legged stool’: protect the planet; provide for the needs of people; and produce the goods and services that bring comfort and joy to our lives.”

But, as a Christian, he also adds a fourth element: faith. “The environmental movement is often motivated by fear. I believe their cause has been weakened by a misplaced spirituality and a failure to embrace people of faith,” he said. “If all we had to rely on is the oneness we feel with nature or our own capacity to reason, feel and act, then I would be pessimistic about our collective ability to bring about change.”

Richer is, to the contrary, full of hope as he begins his new position. He believes that Mennonites, in particular, “can help transform society into a more sustainable and just reflection of God’s Kingdom by letting their thoughts, feelings and actions emerge from the beliefs they hold deep.”

Richer started learning about climate change as a graduate student 20 years ago and it led him to commit to studying sustainability. For the last 10 years, he conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service and taught in the Department of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University and in the Green MBA program, the first master’s of business administration in sustainable enterprise.

By hiring Richer last year, the college’s business department pushed its curriculum in a new direction that is critical to where the field needs to go. “This is a good fit for Goshen College. I bring a new focus on sustainability to the department. My colleagues really support it and see that it is a natural extension of the focus on business ethics which we always have had,” Richer said. “Goshen College is a place where students can learn about sustainable business, where they can help turn our French fry grease into biodiesel fuel, where they can offer their ideas to make the campus green and be taken seriously.”

Richer’s expertise has enhanced the college’s overall approach to environmental initiatives. He is on the campus’ new Ecological Stewardship Committee, which developed out of President Jim Brenneman signing onto the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment last year. The first step the committee took was to approve a student proposal of biodiesel conversion from the campus’ food grease, and his economic perspective was critical. “That was a really fun process,” Richer said. “Chemistry majors presented their idea based on science and we helped them develop a detailed financial plan. When we ran the numbers, we realized it was a good investment in many ways: financial, environmental and educational.”

Richer’s passion for economics and the environment are what distinguishes his approach in the classroom, in his consulting and in his research. In his “Environmental Economics” class last semester, students worked on projects that examined the costs and benefits of various environmental initiatives, including: analyzing the economics of the wind turbine at the college’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center; recommending types of mowing and prairie plants for campus; and generating biomass from local waste saw dust.

And during May term this year, his class “Management Policy and Social Responsibility” for graduating seniors will partner with a local commercial truck dealership to determine the environmental benefits and financial payback on an investment of wind turbines on the company building.

Richer took this same class as a senior at the college. “Goshen College was ahead of its time when it required all seniors to take this course back in 1985,” he said. “Nowadays, most colleges offer something like this in the wake of Enron, Tyco and other corporate ethics scandals. I feel called to help the college build on this legacy by integrating the concept of sustainability into our business curriculum.”

Retired Professor of Economics Del Good is pleased with how Richer’s focus will enhance the department. “Jerrell brings an environmentalist’s perspective – the big picture of how business is part of a whole system – and a pragmatic bent,” he said. “The social environmental issues facing us are daunting. Jerrell is especially well suited to help prepare scholars to wrestle with these issues.”

In contrast to his observations of the secular environmental movement, Richer appreciates the college’s starting point for working at sustainability. “Goshen offers a more integrated approach,” he said. “If we believe sustainability is a calling from God – that God wants us to protect creation, people and the economy – then we can be successful.”

He anticipates teaching courses at Rieth Village, Indiana’s first LEED platinum-certified facility at the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College. “It is one thing to talk about sustainability. It’s another to teach in a place that actually embodies these principles.”

A commitment to sustainability is personal for Richer as well. In California, he was only able to bike several days a week because of a 12-mile commute. Now, Richer makes the three-mile trek to campus every day on his bike. “I had forgotten how fun biking is. I feel more alive and awake when I’m in the classroom,” he said. “I don’t have control over the oil companies, but I do have control over my commute to work. I started this because I wanted to help save the planet, but now I realize it’s also my ticket to health and a tangible way I can exercise my faith.”

To contact Richer for more information, e-mail him at

– by Jodi H. Beyeler

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S.News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit

E-mail this story

Goshen College
1700 S Main St
Goshen, Indiana 46526
phone: +1 (574) 535-7569
fax: 535-7660