Archives—June 2012

Loss

Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., is developing a lovely and moving web memorial to global biodiversity loss. Moving your mouse to click different dots, you can see single stories of species that have already disappeared, or click yourself into a “wormhole” with a story about once-abundant species now drastically reduced (and – too rarely – on their way back from the brink).

I suspect that for most people, staring at the possible loss of majestic species such as Siberian tigers helps to drive the point home. Stories of flocks of billions of passenger pigeons darkening the North American skies for days succinctly captures the destruction that a million guns can do to even the most abundant of species. But for ecologists, it is the smaller, less grandiose species we have studied that pull on our heart strings. I’ve worked on two species close to the edge (the California gnatcatcher and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow), and if and when they disappear it will be forever (as the failed attempts at saving the Dusky seaside sparrow illustrate). For ecologists, the loss of “our” species inspires a unique feeling of failure among us.


Keeping up with the Jones’

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Easterlin et al. have published a study on changes in “life satisfaction” (a.k.a. happiness) in Chinese villages during their economic transition over the past several decades. One might predict that as the Chinese have increased their incomes, they would become happier.

But as this study and a growing body of research demonstrates, money really can’t buy happiness. Prior to the conversion of a state economy to something resembling a market economy, Chinese life satisfaction was highest. As the country began its economic transition in the mid-1990’s, life satisfaction declined, possibly due to the increased level of uncertainty in many people’s lives. After 2000-2005 life satisfaction began to increase, but only for those in the upper income brackets. Even for those in the highest income brackets, life satisfaction has not yet approached what it was before the transition.

Over the transition, China had moved from one of the most egalitarian societies in terms of wealth distribution to one of the least. Although it is possible that the poor were left even poorer by the transition (or at least their economic stability declined), the results suggest that it is relative wealth that creates a decrease in life satisfaction. When you are surrounded by individuals as poor as you, the poverty doesn’t sting quite as bad. This phenomenon has been found often in past studies, suggesting that we humans can be a ferociously jealous lot.

This study (and others like it) has two implications for sustainability.

1. For a majority of people, “life satisfaction” is at the top of their list of characteristics of a sustainable life, right up there with adequate food and water, shelter and clothing, family and friends. Therefore, if researchers in sustainability science can figure out a way to accurately measure this characteristic, they can then use it to measure the current sustainability of a community, region, or nation, and help inform policies, programs and activities that might help a community move towards sustainability by increasing their general life satisfaction. For a long time, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was used as a proxy for this characteristic, but now a measure of income or wealth inequality called the Gini index has also been added to better capture this notion of happiness, mainly due to studies like Easterlin et al.’s.

2. Since excess consumption in luxury items (i.e., those things we want but don’t need) is one of the main drivers of resource depletion, studies like this one reinforce the lesson that happiness (and therefore sustainability) is unlikely to reside in things but rather in community and one’s place in it. The applied side of sustainability efforts often focus on replacing luxury consumption with activity and community work (e.g., volunteering, local governance, etc.). Indeed it was not long ago when this idea was prevalent in America; Victory Gardens (and war rations), the Peace Corps, and other activities that emphasized community contributions over consumption received popular support. Many of these new sustainability movements (e.g., Transition Towns, the Slow Movement) are actually repurposed efforts from previous eras to increase the life satisfaction component of our lives.


Ostrom (1933-2012): Beyond the Commons

Indiana University announced today that Prof. Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, died today of pancreatic cancer.

Ostrom was a textbook example of why diversity in perspectives and ideas always benefits any profession. At a time when Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (when commonly owned resources are unsustainably exploited) was the ruling paradigm of resource management, Ostrom’s studies of resources managed sustainably by local communities pointed out the limitations of the Tragedy paradigm. As stated by the Royal Swedish Academy’s announcement at the time of her award:

“Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”

I have been reading the “Northwoods Reader” series by Cully Gage (a.k.a. Charles Van Riper), describing life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the turn of the last century. At that time, land and waterways in the UP were a patchwork of large land holdings by industry and government (federal, state, and local), and small holdings by private individuals and families. However, no individuals would have been able to survive the long UP winters without subsistence hunting and fishing, which often took place locally on lands other than those owned by the individual. There was a well-developed system of socially acceptable behaviors related to hunting and fishing, regarding the time of year, sex, size, and number of individuals harvested. The irrelevance of land ownership with respect to subsistence-level resource use seemed similar to Finland and Sweden’s “Everyman’s Rights”, where the concept of “trespassing” is not directly translatable. (No surprise that this system migrated with the many Finns who settled in the UP). I often can’t help but reflect upon Ostrom’s work when I read passages about the local hunting and fishing practices that the “Lansing bureaucrats” called poaching, a concept derided as naïve at best by the locals.


Green Film Series: “Into Eternity”

Green Film Series Addresses Nuclear Waste
The Green Film Series presents “Into Eternity” from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, June 21, in Forestry G002.

Admission is free; a $3 donation is suggested. There will be coffee, dessert and a discussion.

The one-hour film explores what the long-term storage of nuclear waste poses for human civilization.

The discussion facilitator will be Wayne Pennington, chair, Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences.

For more information, see Into Eternity.

The Green Film Series is partially funded with a grant from the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country, Friends of the Land of Keweenaw and the UP Environmental Coalition.

Sponsors are Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, the Keweenaw Land Trust, the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society and the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

For the schedule of upcoming films, see Green Film Series.


Nasty cow pasties

Every Saturday my four-year-old son and I start our errands by going to a local dairy farm (Hidden Acres Farm) to get a gallon of milk. Since moving to the UP, I’ve been trying to localize our food supply, mainly by gardening in our backyard, joining Wintergreen Farm (Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA)), buying eggs from a friend and now our milk.

Aside from sustainability concerns (e.g., carbon footprints, food miles, local jobs, slow food/money/life, and the like), I garden with my son and bring him to these places so that he understands not only where food comes from but also how it comes to be food. He knows that beans and seeds must be planted, fed, and watered to get plants that produce fruits and vegetables, he knows that chickens love worms (above all else), and now he knows how cows eat grass, how they keep flies off of them (ears and tail), and today what a cowpie looks like.

I was stunned at first when he pointed one out and asked what it was. I then realized that he hasn’t been around pastured cows before (just those at the zoo) and therefore has never had the opportunity to see a cowpie. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but I had nearby opportunities to be exposed to nature (in the Forest Preserves) and agriculture (such as Wagner Farm in Glenview) where I was able to figure out things like cowpies. We are only now understanding how critical this exposure to the natural world is for young children and their development. I suppose I have taken my early exposure for granted up until now.

On the way back to our car, one of the farm owners greeted us and I told her that my son had seen his first cowpie today. I’m sure on the inside she was rolling her eyes at such a bizarre and slightly pathetic revelation, but she smiled and said, “My son calls those ‘nasty cow pasties'”. Very fitting!