Alumnus Profile: Joshua Berkowitz | WSSS | Tufts University

Glass Half Full

Alumnus Profile: Joshua Berkowitz

Joshua Berkowitz, G08, discusses how his activities at Tufts have impacted the way he approaches environmental policy and planning, and talks about the challenges - and promise – that he sees in current environmental policy dialogues.

by Caroline Incledon

Joshua Berkowitz holds an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University and a B.A. in Earth and Environmental Science from Wesleyan University. Berkowitz also completed Tufts University’s Water: Systems, Science, and Society (WSSS) graduate educational and research certificate program, with a focus on water resources management and policy, and collaborative decision making and dispute resolution. Most recently he served as Director of the California Environmental Dialogue, a non-profit organization facilitating on-going dialogue among California business, environmental, and government leaders about critical current environmental policy issues and long-term environmental strategies for the State. In addition to his ongoing professional work in environmental policy and planning, Berkowitz is a writer, photographer, naturalist, and mindfulness meditation teacher. He can be reached at

Learn more about Joshua here.

Caroline Incledon: While at Tufts, you were on the Steering Committee of Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) and a Program Coordinator at Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE). How did working with these groups supplement your academic experience?
Joshua Berkowitz: I had the unique experience to be both a student and work behind the scenes at the university, so I saw the overlap between my academic studies and the professional experiences going on at Tufts. Working at those organizations also broke down the barriers between the administration, faculty and students. I think that says a lot about how Tufts functions, and how the administration tries to work with students and faculty on environmental initiatives and sustainability efforts. Being directly involved in programming at the university and getting such a close look at Tufts’ commitment to environmental education, initiatives, and sustainability was a great adjunct to my education.

You were a member of WSSS. How has that impacted your work in the field?
WSSS definitely had a big impact on my professional training. My time in WSSS taught me how to successfully work across disciplines (technical, political, economic, etc.) and across sectors (governmental, NGO, private sector, community groups, and academia) to achieve real world results. WSSS took education to a very practical and applied level, where students learned from their own successes and failures on real projects. Teachers and students had to collaborate with experts from all fields—an approach that is also critical to getting anything done in the working world, particularly in the environmental arena. As Director of California Environmental Dialogue, I convened multi-sector and multi-stakeholder policy negotiations, and found that the ability to effectively work with professionals from very diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and areas of expertise was incredibly important. Although the technical and analytical skills that I cultivated at WSSS and at UEP have been very important to my work, I would say far more important have been the less tangible skills I developed—for example, how to successfully work with a diverse group of stakeholders.

What did you see as the most ubiquitous, difficult environmental problems facing developing nations?
I would say the most critical issue is water, as health, well-being, development, education, and environmental stewardship all in some way depend on access to clean sources of water and adequate sanitation. According to the World Health Organization, about 37% of the developing world’s population —2.5 billion people—lack improved sanitation facilities, while over 780 million people still use unsafe drinking water sources – and I certainly saw the impacts of this first hand during my work in developing countries. I think the combination of water issues will be the biggest problem the developing world faces moving forward, particularly as climate change further stresses already overburdened , inadequate, and poorly managed water systems.

In your past job as Director of the California Environmental Dialogue, you facilitated multi-sector stakeholder dialogue and negotiation around the setting of environmental policies for the state of California. What are some of the challenges of achieving compromise in environmental policy work, and in reconciling the interests of business, environmental, and government leaders?
For all kinds of collaborations, it really comes down to making people feel like they’re being heard. If they feel heard, they’re more likely to listen deeply to the other stakeholders and truly consider their perspectives, rather than just formulating a rebuttal. And then they will almost always buy in to the process, because it feels fair to them, and it feels personal, which makes them genuinely vested in the outcome. With any kind of multiparty contentious process—especially dialogue or negotiations—it is critical to get and maintain stakeholder buy-in. Additionally, in order for an outcome to be implemented by all the parties, everyone has to feel that the process was fair and that their interests were genuinely represented.

Along similar lines, one of the biggest challenges to achieving consensus or compromise among parties is a perception that the other stakeholders are somehow fundamentally different from themselves, when in reality, they share far more in common than that which separates them. My experience has been that facilitating ways for people to connect with one another on a pretty basic human level—outside of their fixed, postured positions—and getting them to focus on shared common ground will vastly improve the likelihood for success. What it really comes down to is developing a sense of trust between stakeholders, which tends to have a snowballing effect. It’s pretty amazing how willing people can become to compromise after they’ve shared a drink or a meal with another person, who they can now think of as a peer, instead of as an adversary.

Do you think policy dialogue discussions are becoming easier or more difficult as the environmental situation worsens?
That’s a tough question. It’s a perspective—is the glass half empty or half full? It can be easy to get pessimistic, particularly with how ineffectual international policy has been around climate change. But there are rays of hope, and there is always vast potential for political and economic transformation. I have seen a great amount of progress at the subnational level – that is states, cities, or other local or regional jurisdictions – successfully developing policies that respond to the challenge of climate change. It is clear that states and. Municipalities have grown tired of waiting for effective national or international action and so are implementing their own aggressive climate goals. It is my hope that state and local environmental initiatives will drive national and eventually international action, as well as that some of the world’s emerging economies will take a different development track than have been historically adopted by the western nations. I see lots of reasons for hope as our awareness, technology and resource management improve; the challenge will be balancing sustainable resource use with a rapidly expanding human population and consumer class.

Do you have any advice for current Tufts/WSSS students wanting to enter the professional world?
Get direct experience! Through jobs, internships, or volunteerism—just get real world experience. As valuable as academic study is, real world work experience lets you see where the rubber meets the road, and teaches you a very different way to conceptualize the things that you are learning in the classroom. Tufts in general—and UEP and WSSS in particular—do a really great job of facilitating real world experience for students, so take full advantage of those opportunities.

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The Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program is a graduate research and education program that provides Tufts students with interdisciplinary perspectives and tools to manage water-related problems around the world.

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