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Faculty Insights

Connecting Ecology and Business: A Q&A with WSB’s Michael Hernke

By Clare Becker

August 13, 2019

Illustration of a house with a factory behind it

Your company’s open door policy might be benefiting your health as much as your career. A new article by Michael Hernke published in Nature Sustainability looks at how elevated carbon dioxide levels, particularly in enclosed spaces like our homes and offices, may be hazardous to human health.

Hernke, a lecturer in the Department of Operations and Information Management at the Wisconsin School of Business and an affiliate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and his co-authors synthesized numerous scientific studies on CO2 concentration and wellbeing. Co-authors include: Tyler Jacobson (BBA ’18), a medical student and research assistant at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University; Jasdeep Kler (BS ’18), now at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor; Rudolph Braun, Department of Pediatrics, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; Keith Meyer, Department of Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; and William Funk, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University.

WSB sat down with Hernke and Jacobson to discuss what the paper’s findings suggest and the relationships among ecology, environmental studies, and business.

WSB: Michael, when did you start bridging these two very different disciplines of ecology and business? At first glance, they seem like two separate worlds.

Hernke: I was a student in 1989 of Calvin DeWitt, a professor with the Nelson Institute. His introductory environmental studies course was life-changing for me, and shifted me toward the environmental concerns I have worked on ever since. He hosted coffee instead of office hours, and former students also dropped in. Sometimes Cal would be interrupted by a call from somebody like Al Gore who sought his advice—but he had coffee at the same time for 25 years while I was on campus. He is a longtime mentor and a big influence on how I have come to think about the world.

I did my doctoral work here at WSB with Mark Finster (professor emeritus, operations and information management), an excellent systems thinker and synthesizer. I stayed in graduate school to carry forward my intentions about integrating ecology and business thinking—that’s what my dissertation was about. We took things that were understood in ecology and gave them a coherent business logic.

WSB: What about the relationship with operations and information management (OIM)?

Hernke: Sustainability is a hot topic for OIM. Putting it within that context, we could say we want to manage the flows through our organizations and we’re sourcing from the earth, returning things back to the earth eventually. We want to do it in such a way that it maintains the possibilities, the parameters, for life on the planet to flourish.

WSB: Tyler, you were a double major in finance and neurobiology during your time at UW–Madison. Now you’re at Northwestern as a student in the MD/MPH program, working in an environmental health lab run by another of your co-authors, William Funk. What was this whole process like for you?

Jacobson: I was a student in Michael’s business analytics class. He knew I was interested in going to medical school, so he brought this [CO2] topic to my attention. I dug into the literature, wanting to know if there was enough to answer our questions. It turned out there was quite a bit, but there were gaps of knowledge. I approached Rudolph Braun (senior scientist, pediatrics) and asked for his thoughts.

The three of us started meeting weekly in the hospital’s cafeteria, looking for literature and discussing it one paper at a time. We did that for a year until we decided there was enough to write a paper.

WSB: Your study suggests that that there may be links between human health risks and presence of higher concentrations of CO2, and that some of these higher concentrations can occur in smaller, enclosed spaces.

Hernke: We are at 64% higher levels of CO2 than our species evolved in. Our findings suggest that there may be direct risks in particular for vulnerable populations like the elderly, infants, and individuals with chronic illnesses. Some of the effects include inflammation, reduced cognitive abilities, bone demineralization, and kidney calcification, to name a few we are aware of so far.

Jacobson: When you reduce the air exchange in an enclosed space with outdoor air, you’re increasing the concentrations of indoor-sourced pollutants like CO2, but also other ones like volatile organic compounds, including body odor. Certain trends in building designs, like increasing airtightness to be more energy efficient, can reduce the amount of CO2 that leaks through the walls and escapes to the outside.

In hot and humid climates, outdoor air exchange rates may be reduced to lessen the amount of energy required to cool buildings through air-conditioning. As the climate continues to warm and heat waves become more frequent, this could become an increasingly important consideration for many areas. Also, when indoor air isn’t moving—like in an office with no operating fans or poor ventilation, for example— local pockets of CO2 can build up around an individual’s nose and mouth, increasing an individual’s exposure. Lastly, as outdoor concentrations of CO2 continue to increase, especially in cities, this could increase the levels indoors as well.

WSB: Vallabh Sambamurthy, WSB’s Albert O. Nicholas Dean, says he is a “big believer that business can be a force for the good of society” that can tackle its “most pressing problems.” This seems reminiscent of your work.

Hernke: Yes, exactly. That’s why I don’t see any disconnect in how far I’ve gone into other disciplines. The whole point of an economy is to make life better for people, to deliver benefits, and to get rid of anything that might be a disbenefit.

We have the resources, the creativity, the nimbleness—all of those things. It’s a great reminder that yes, that’s why I’m at the business school.

Read more about WSB’s cross-disciplinary collaboration with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies: