Jason Shogren is a former adviser to President Clinton, birthday present to the King of Sweden and member of a Nobel Peace Prize winning team of scientists.
But none of that seems important now.
It is a Tuesday night at Thunderground Sound Studios in Laramie and Shogren is focused on perfecting a harmony. He and his band, J. Shogren and the Shainghai’d, have gathered here to run through their set list in preparations for the Snowy Range Music Festival this weekend.
Shogren, 55, is standing before a microphone clutching a mandolin. He looks relaxed, wearing a black army cap, plaid shirt, dark jeans and Birkenstocks, no socks. The music starts: a pulsating bass, wailing accordion and plunking mandolin set to a frenetic drum beat.
“I know what makes you happy,” the group sings. “I know what makes you move.”
There is a quick break in the music and they “huh, huh, huh,” in unison. It’s as if David Grisman met The Dropkick Murphy’s.
Shogren has become a staple of the Wyoming music scene in recent years. He is a common sight onstage at festivals like NoWoodstock, What Fest and Snowy Range. In 2012, the band won the Wyoming Blues Challenge, going on to represent the Cowboy State at the International Blue Challenge in Memphis. And earlier this year, Shogren and his band joined Jalan Crossland and Screen Door Porch on the three-state, 14-show WYOmericana tour.
“He has singular vision of what he’s doing musically. He sounds like Jay,” Crossland said. “It seems to be a mix of Zepplin-esque rock and old style blues and folk music.”
Shogren has an unorthodox background for a musician. He is an environmental economist. For more than two decades, he has taught at Appalachian State University and Iowa State University, Yale University and the University of Wyoming, where he has been a professor since 1995.
His recent success onstage is made more surprising by the fact that he had all but given up music in the early 1980s.
Then again, maybe Shogren is returning to his roots. Shogren, a Minnesota native, he has been playing music nearly his entire life. As a young man, he lived in Minneapolis when bands like The Replacements, The Jayhawks and Prince were putting the Twin Cities’ music scene on the national map. His music was markedly different from theirs. Shogren and his band, the Flyggapojkerna, (that’s fly boys in Swedish) played a blend of “punk polka.”
“Half the shows were punk, half the shows were polka,” Shogren said. “We appealed to the ladies with blue hair, whether they were 20 or 70.”
It is afternoon now. Band practice is several hours away. Shogren is seated in a plastic Adirondack chair in his backyard, the signs of fatherhood strewn about on the ground around him: A toy fire truck here, a rocking horse there. His young son is, for the moment, asleep inside.
Shogren’s journey from polka punk rocker to economist began in the small town of Cloquet, 20 miles southwest of Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior. He grew up camping, fishing and “drinking beers in the woods.”
Working on environmental issues, then, seemed like the natural thing to do. And so when it came time to pick a major in college, he chose economics. Philosophy seemed too abstract, accounting too cut and dry.
“Economics is easily defined as value created by trade. Basically a win-win for everyone. That’s the goal,” Shogren said. “Environmental economics studies when it all breaks down. Pollution, climate change, biodiversity, endangered species, water issues.”
Thomas D. Crocker, professor emeritus of energy and environmental at UW, was Shogren’s adviser when he was a doctoral student at UW in the 1980s. Shogren’s work is notable because it spans his field, he said. Generally speaking, there are three types of environmental economists: Those who study the source of environmental problems, those who study their costs and those who study the solutions.
Shogren has made contributions to each, Crocker said.
“There are very few environmental economists who have made contributions to all three areas,” Crocker said. “He certainly is one of the very best professors in resource economics. I was his chair, but it got to the point where I was learning from him.”
In 1997, Shogren was named to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. The appointment came as the Clinton administration was gearing up for the debate about the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement aimed at curbing carbon emissions. Shogren was focused on the protocol’s implementation, its timeline, enforcement mechanisms and potential participants.
A decade later he was named an advisor to the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf. The position was paid for by an endowment the King received for his 50th birthday. Each year Gustaf selects a scholar to advise him and, in 2007, he chose Shogren to counsel him on climate change and resource management. Shogren met his current wife, Linda Phunstrom, on the trip.
The same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for its research establishing a connection between human activity and global warming. Shogren was one of 2,000 scientists and researchers on the panel.
He is understated to the extreme when it comes to talking about those accomplishments.
“I just happened to be one of the worker bees,” is all he said about the Nobel. He was lead author of a chapter in the IPCC’s climate assessment analyzing the cost of inaction versus the cost of action.
Jascha Herdt, who has played drums in the Shainghai’d for three and a half years, recalls Shogren talking about such achievements only once. They were on a car ride and Herdt asked his band mate about the most influential paper he’d penned. Shogren named a paper, explained it briefly and left it at that.
“He’s not full of himself or stuck on those accolades or anything,” Herdt said. “That’s part of the joy of working with him. He’s very high up in this other world, but with music, he’s very enthusiastic about it, almost childlike about it.”
Shogren will expound on a variety of subjects if prompted. He believes Wyoming should be adding to its permanent mineral resource trust fund. “The resources will run out, but the people won’t.”
On politicians who deny climate change: “As an economist I’m worried about efficiency. As a politician I’m worried about transitions. I understand completely why they would take the position they take. I get it. Managing transition is what we’re talking about here with climate change. It’s going from how we got wealthy, from a fossil fuel based economy, to something different, to something unsure, something more risky given the way we developed our economy.”
And on what he thinks should be done about it: “If you really believe fossil fuels contribute to climate change then the transition towards renewable energy is where we’re headed. It’s inevitable… This transition is going to be made irrespective, given scarcity. The question is do we want to speed it up from its natural progression given climate change, and I would say yeah we do.”
Around a decade ago Shogren went through a familial crisis. He has two older children from a previous marriage and one of them was going through a difficult period. Shogren, consumed by his work at the time, felt like he missed the early warning signs that might have staved off a crisis.
It prompted a period of reflection. There is a tendency in economics to view people as “econo-bots,” individuals motivated purely by economic rationale. But people often don’t act in economically rational ways. It’s a quandary the profession struggles to answer, Shogren said.
He started reading poetry and Shakespeare in hopes they might provide some answers where economics did not. Then a funny thing happened. He started writing music again.
“In my mind missing something that big, suggested that I had a huge hole in my development,” he said. “I opened the door back up to music and it was like opening a lock at high water. It just filled up.”
He has since recorded four CDs and is working on a fifth.
Back at Thunderground Sound, Shogren and his band mates are making a second go at their harmony. The first attempt was a bit clunky.
The music starts again. The bass pulsates and the drum beat drives the song forward. The accordion and mandolin enter. They’re just a little tighter now, rising and falling with the rhythm set by the other instruments.
“I know what makes you happy,” they sing. “I know what makes you move.”
The music ends. Shogren nods his head up and down, signaling his approval. Then they move onto the next song.