Circling the economics of sustainability

Yansong Li (Master of Environmental Studies `22)

Environmental studies were part of childhood education for Yansong Li (Master of Environmental Studies `22); his primary school was designated the best environmental education in Shenzhen, China, a city that pursued green innovations as the country moved toward environmental sustainability. Yansong brought his environmental interests to his undergraduate career at the University of Connecticut, where a study abroad program in Amsterdam introduced him to the concept of the circular economy as an alternative to consumer culture. “Economics is one of those subjects that lets you analyze the world in different, much more complex ways,” says Yansong, “I wanted to go into graduate school particularly to learn more about it.” Inspired to turn his passion for sustainability into an international career, Yansong pursued Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program.

With the flexibility to customize his environmental curriculum in the MES, says Yansong, “it was really about taking what I think is interesting.” That included classes in lifecycle assessment, industrial ecology, risk assessment, and corporate sustainability—“my first taste of what the business world looks like,” he comments. He also took courses outside of his department, such as a course on metropolitan food systems at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

During his time in the program, Penn’s Grad Talks gave Yansong the opportunity to package his circular economy research as an accessible public presentation; his talk “Witnessing Circularity: Circular Economy Lessons from Amsterdam” was voted winner of the Professional Master’s section. “Recycling is important, but reducing consumption is the first step in reducing environmental impact,” he explains. Yansong also joined a podcast called The Creative Process as an intern; now an interviewer and associate environmental podcast producer, he interviews leaders in environmental science and sustainability—including fellow MES graduates.

At Penn, Yansong had opportunities to practice leadership and community engagement in campus groups. He was motivated to join the Earth and Environmental Science Department’s Climate, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (CDEIC) in 2020, as hate crimes against Asian communities were on the rise and demonstrations for racial justice intensified. “It was one of the first times when I was not the only Chinese student in the department, and one of the first times I felt I could make a difference,” he explains. Yansong connected the group with Penn’s Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH); the groups surveyed students about their sense of safety and experiences with discrimination, and made sure the students knew what resources were available to them through the University. “How our governments and countries act can impact our lives and upset personal relationships, but I still think it’s very important to communicate with people from different cultures,” reflects Yansong. “And there’s an opportunity for Chinese and American students because both countries have a huge influence on the global sustainability sphere. The climate change measures taken by these two countries are absolutely essential if we want to get through this century.”

After exploring topics that piqued his curiosity and extracurriculars that expanded his network, Yansong ultimately decided to pursue graduate studies that add depth and complexity to his circular economy research. “The circular economy is not the perfect world that I imagine it to be. It has its flaws,” says Yansong. “If we implement circularity without noticing its drawbacks or unintended consequences, we are most likely to fail.” As a PhD candidate in the Geography Graduate Group of University of California, Davis, Yansong studies how human societies interact with environments. In particular, he has shifted his focus from the mechanics of reducing, reusing, and recycling inorganic materials like plastics to the production and circulation of living matter in sustainable food systems. “I want to research how to build sustainable food systems, particularly through the lens of sustainable cities in developing countries,” he says, “and I also want to see how those critical aspects of the circular economy may be applied to identifying the aforementioned unforeseen consequences in a circular food system.”

For Yansong, communication is key to environmental education. “If we can’t talk about science in a way people can understand, this endeavor can be an elitist and authoritarian process,” he says. “Education for kids is incredibly important because my generation and the generation that comes after me are going to live through the climate change century. But education for adults—who are currently in the workforce and make up the majority of society—is also very important, because they can help. We are all in this together,” he concludes.