Posts Tagged ‘socioecological systems’

Happy new semester! Happy planet?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

As we move ever closer to the beginning of the fall semester, I am struck by something I read recently about how we think about – and measure – aggregated well-being. My hope is that all students can feel happy and secure in their experiences here at Tech, as I hope for happiness and security for all human beings. But how do we measure conceptions of well-being? At a national scale, “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP, for example US GPD) is a pretty typical measure, which considers the total sum of economic activity. But, as a recent article in US Today highlights, GDP is a measure of total economic activity. It doesn’t differentiate between wealth concentration and wealth distribution or “good” versus “bad” expenditures (such as the economic exchanges that happen in when we work to recover from national disasters). Furthermore, it by definition cannot consider any type of exchange that is non-economic, such as a mother’s care for her child,or the non-economic value that comes from growing vegetables in your yard, or myriad other things. GDP certainly can’t consider ecological impact, which others have attempted to capture in the ecological footprint measure.

The article presents an alternative means of measuring aggregated well-being, called the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The website for HPI says it’s about “measuring what matters” – “the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.” This measure includes life expectancy, as well as a nation’s ecological footprint, and the resulting data in terms of ‘who’s happy’ (i.e. which nation’s score best using this alternative measure) may surprise you.

I’m not ready to say the HPI captures everything that matters, and leaves out everything that doesn’t, when it comes to considering aggregated well-being. Yet I do think it’s important for us to ask ourselves, what does it mean to live well, at both a personal and a social scale? As we embark on a new semester, and for some an entirely new chapter in life, can we ask ourselves: what makes a happy student, a happy campus, a happy person, and a happy nation – and can we work toward promoting happiness and well-being in a way that is intentional and holistic, filled with purpose to promote everything that matters and forget everything that doesn’t?

For all of you: Happy new semester, and happy planet.

Sacrifice Zones

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Journalist Chris Hedges recently appeared on “Moyers & Company”, and was interviewed by Bill Moyers about the “sacrifice zones” across the United States where economic, social, and environmental injustice combine to destroy local communities. These are excellent examples of why all three dimensions must be analyzed simultaneously to understand sustainability, and to design effective sustainable development strategies.

See the full interview here.

All of this has happened before

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Although summers are quite busy, usually I try to find the time to read several books that have been occupying the corner of my desk during the academic year. I have finally read a book on my “meaning to get to” list for years: “Prehistoric Native Americans and Ecological Change,” (Cambridge University Press), by the professors who taught me landscape ecology, Paul and Hazel Delcourt.

Originally published in 2004, the book combines archaeology and paleoecology to describe how landscapes in North America were changed by human societies long before Europeans arrived. Ecologists especially have always believed that pre-European societies had little lasting impact on ecosystems in North America. This belief underpins many conservation biology targets for habitat and species restoration. However, the Delcourts describe thriving human societies in Ontario, southern Illinois and Eastern Tennessee that used fire and forest harvesting to support their agriculture-based societies, dramatically increasing nut-bearing trees and pioneer species (such as ragweed) at the expense of species adapted to mature forests. These changes, made at increasingly large scales, may have also increased herbivore species such as white-tailed deer that thrive in early-successional and edge woodland habitats.

The book is framed by Panarchy theory, and explains how these changes, when they reached a critical proportion of the surrounding landscape, created greater disturbances (such as floods) that likely led to the area being abandoned by these societies, long before Europeans arrived on the scene. These events are a reminder that humans, like all species, alter their environments. Sometimes these alterations are beneficial in the short term, but often they are detrimental in the long term. Even with small-scale disturbances (such as slash-and-burn agriculture), if the period allowed for ecosystem regeneration is too short, soil fertility can decline and ultimately the practice becomes unsustainable.

Of course, the lessons we gain from the distant past (14,000 to 500 years before present) are limited in their applicability. North America is now home to over 400 million people, almost two orders of magnitude larger than it has ever supported before. It may be that the agricultural and settlement practices of even the most sustainable of these early societies would be completely unsustainable today. But what we can learn is that our impacts will certainly be available for study for a long, long time.

(Time) frame of mind

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Last week I attended the 2012 Trans-Atlantic Research & Development Interchange on Sustainability (TARDIS) workshop, in lovely Seggauberg, Austria. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Time and time frames for sustainability”, and the attendees did not disappoint on the theme. Much of the discussion visited two main issues:

  1. How do we manage our systems for sustainability if we can’t predict the future?
  2. How do we identify and correct the mismatches between the rate at which catastrophes occur, and the rate at which humans and political entities can respond to them?

While we came a bit closer to understanding these two issues, sadly we did not solve them. While it was encouraging to see the diversity of approaches that have been attempted to arrive at a solution, we seemed to be constrained by solutions that wouldn’t feel like a “shock doctrine” approach to the status quo…. individuals to societies tend not to respond politely to this approach, even when it might be the fastest way to a better quality of life.

One interesting sidebar was the notion that while Western cultures tend to think of time linearly (it only flows in one direction, usually towards progress but occasionally over a cliff), Eastern cultures think of time as cyclical or circular. It occurred to me that this also may simply be a function of the time frame; if systems evolve as the Panarchy folks advocate, then a very short-term view of a system in the process of maturing or reorganizing may seem linear. Take a step back for a longer-term view, and you may see that the system does follow a cycle, with a systemic reset every so often to clear the system of dysfunction. However, step even further back, and a progressive system of cycles may emerge. Of course, there may be a step further back than that, as our five previous global mass extinctions remind us.

panarchy revolt remember color.gif

Save some for the birds

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

In last week’s Science, a group of researchers pooled data on marine ecosystems around the world to measure the impact of fisheries on marine birds. They found that once fish and krill populations dipped below 30% of their maximum, bird populations began to suffer. Said a different way: if we want penguins, puffins, terns and kittiwakes, we’re going to have to leave them something to eat.

The study reminds me of Peter Vitousek’s famous piece (BioScience 36:368) on “Human Appropriated Net Primary Productivity” in 1986. He estimated that humans use about 40% of all of the biomass produced by plants in a given year; this claim has been supported and refuted about a dozen times since then. Postel et al. have looked at  our appropriation of water as well (estimating that we use over half of the available runoff globally). Since everything needs to eat and drink, it then becomes less surprising that we are witness to such startling losses of biodiversity (well…. perhaps we are more than just “witnessing” it!).

The difference between the “one third for the birds” study and these predecessors is policy relevance: it is probably better to know how much we can take before we do irreparable damage, than to simply know how much we are taking. Let’s see if others can follow suit with biomass, water, and land area.

Happy New Year!

Great PNAS article this week for Collapse fans

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say Collapse “fans”, but rather scholars…. I would assume most people are not rooting for societal collapse!

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang et al. look at specific ecological, economic, and social variables that changed with the global cooling event from 1560 to 1660 AD, a period of widespread societal upheaval particularly in Europe. Previous studies have found that civilizations in the past have been severely disrupted by climate change, but generally there have been insufficient records of most of the social and economic characteristics of these civilizations to study their collapse in detail, other than what we can gather from abandoned settlements and human remains. For more recent preindustrial societies, records indicate that it is most likely the rapid decline in agricultural production that is a proximate cause of the unravelling of a civilization, with climate change implicated in widespread crop failures. Studies like this fill in many details of a general hypothesis of how and why societies collapse, started by Joseph Tainter in the 1980′s and popularized by Jared Diamond’s book Collapse in 2005.

In this PNAS article, the authors look at European societies during both peaceful times and times of upheaval, to determine if the “dark” ages were correlated with climate change and to identify which ecological (e.g., agricultural production), social (e.g., population size, average height), and economic (e.g., grain prices, real wages) characteristics are most vulnerable to this change. They paid particular attention to whether the presumed cause preceded the effect, a detail that has been missing from previous studies due to a lack of adequate resolution in temporal data. They found that variables associated with agricultural production and per capita food supply followed immediately after the start of the global cooling period, with later increases in war, famine, and migration that were a likely consequence of food shortages and spiraling food prices.

Here was one of the findings that jumped out at me: “Grain price could be taken as an indicator and direct cause of conditions of harmony or crisis in preindustrial Europe.” This is a very strong argument for the importance of local and robust agricultural systems to sustainability, and we have already seen riots over food prices in the past few years.

The authors conclude with a bold statement: “Our findings have important implications for industrial and postindustrial societies. Any natural or social factor that causes large resource (supply) depletion, such as climate and environmental change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or nonequitable distribution of resources, may lead to a general crisis, according to the set of causal linkages in Fig. 2. The scale of the crisis depends on the temporal and spatial extent of resource depletion.

Hmmm…. has anyone looked at the Gini Index lately?

Managed collapse

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Contributed by: Audrey Mayer

Ernest Callenbach has an interesting new article in the Solutions journal, entitled “Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a smaller, stronger economy“. He discusses the ways in which we can modify our existing systems to fit within natual resource limits and avoid collapse. These solutions rely heavily on new policies (to encourage different behaviors) and technologies, with considerable assumptions about population growth and reorganization at the local scale. It’s a good (if a bit superficial) read, with many good ideas that will not work at the scale he is envisioning, in my humble opinion.

A substantial part of my research program uses statistical theory to develop indicators for when complex systems (especially human-environment or “socioecological” systems) are about to collapse. In particular, my colleagues and I have tried to apply a statistic called Fisher Information, which is a measure of the predictability of a system over time; the more predictable the system, the higher Fisher Information is. Complex systems tend to have many negative (stabilizing) feedbacks that keep the system’s behavior relatively stable and predictable. As these stabilizing feedbacks deteriorate, the system’s behavior becomes more erratic and hence more difficult to predict. At the peak (or valley?) of collapse, that system could go in one of many typically unpredictable directions. As that system begins to reorganize, new stabilizing feedbacks develop and settle the system into a new operating state, becoming more predictable again. In our work, we have seen a drop in Fisher Information just prior to system collapse, and then Fisher Information increases as these systems reorganize.

The question Callenbach poses is this: can we somehow guide our systems through this collapse and reorganization process with a minimal loss of order? He is not the only one to ask this question. There is a growing literature* which provides ample evidence that large human-environment systems (such as nations or empires) can and do undergo collapse and reorganization regularly…. the current events in the Middle East illustrate this quite well. Typically the reorganization is slow, disorderly, and unpredictable.

My short, pessimistic answer to Callenbach’s question is no: we cannot manage our large, socioecological systems through a collapse and reorganization without substantial disorder. We cannot predict how any new, large system will function, nor when it will function with any predictability. I argue that the self-organizing dynamics at the scale of, say, the United States federal government, are far too large and powerful, and we understand them too poorly, to trust that federal policies and large technological solutions will help us glide to a smarter, more sustainable future. Instead, I think these changes must occur at smaller, more manageable scales: the individual, the family, the local community. At these scales, we can understand and influence the dynamics and feedbacks, and reorganize into functional units. This is not to say that all of Callenbach’s solutions are wishful thinking: creating more durable goods and stronger social ties (and reducing the consumption of cheap products made far away with cheap labor) are solutions that have been advanced from many corners. These are solutions that are more tenable at the small scale…. they will have to propogate up to the larger systems.

*These include books such as Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies“, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed“, Dmitry Orlov’s humorous “Reinventing collapse: The Soviet example and American prospects“, Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course: The unsustainable future of our economy, energy and environment,” among many others.

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