Anttila-Hughes—and the Columbia program in general—pride themselves on putting their theories through the same rigorous testing that an academic economics or physics department would demand. "A lot of stuff that gets done under the heading of 'sustainable development' is rather embarrassing," he says. But "there's a lot of data out there" that can be used to test hypotheses. For instance, he recently found evidence that, in Ghana, when farmers experience partial crop failures (due to bad weather and other climate issues), they tend to pull their boys out of school to work in the fields. That was surprising, because the world pays more attention to families that pull girls out of school when times are tight. It also "provides evidence that economic concerns may trump cultural ones," he says. "Thus, it may make more sense to provide indexed crop insurance or something similar to prevent economic hardship rather than focus directly on enrollment if our goal is to improve educational outcomes."
Anttila-Hughes, however, doesn't just confine his arguments to the written word. On December 3, he took to the stage in the monthly Debate at Lolita Bar series on Manhattan's Lower East Side, arguing in favor of "eating locally". (His libertarian opponent, Saife Ammous, a fellow Columbia PhD student, argued that the world is improved when people eat whatever they like.) Anttila-Hughes, notes series host Todd Seavey, has "a great combo of zealotry and civility that I love to see in these debates and that the whole world could probably do with more of—though I'll keep eating sushi."