Tag Archives: sustainability indicators

Goodbye glaciers

The US-IALE conference in Anchorage was short but sweet — great science, wonderful colleagues, and new ideas.

However, as picturesque as the setting was, it was deeply unnerving. This winter was one of the warmest on record for Alaska, and indeed for much of the past winter, Alaska was warmer than much of the eastern US. When I arrived in Anchorage, it was at least 20 degrees (F) warmer than Houghton had been, and the trees were already fully leafed-out and blooming. Several wildfires contributed to a haze around the city that marred views and made our clothes smell like a campfire; the fire season started early and is expected to be a severe one, thanks to warm weather and dry conditions in the forests.

My son and I went on a glacier tour…. truly impressive! The blue hues and striations of black sediment made them far more beautiful than I had imagined. As we watched one of the glaciers calving, I wondered if any of those glaciers would be around for my son to show his children; odds are against it. Many speakers at the conference spoke of the difficulty that our “no analog” future presents us when we try to develop management plans for our ecosystems more than a few decades out. While they were talking about the vast reorganization of species and ecosystems that we are likely to see, I thought about how I might describe things like glaciers and tundra to my grandkids….. I am certain that my words, and even my photos, won’t do them justice.


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.

Walking is so pedestrian

This recent article in Slate on the amount of walking that Americans do relative to those in other countries could not have been more timely for me (and thanks to Grist.com for bringing it to my attention!). I read it while in Newport, Rhode Island at a professional meeting (the US-International Association for Landscape Ecology, of all things) and it really struck a chord.

Always the cheapskate, I found a hotel that was almost one-third of the price of the hotel where the meeting was held, and it was only about a mile away: an easily walkable distance. I like to build these sorts of walks into my day, especially when I’m at a conference that involves a lot of sitting in dark rooms for hours on end. The morning walk ensures that I am awake for the presentations, and the evening walk allows me to reflect back on what I’ve learned.

However, although the walk looked straightforward and perfectly safe on the web, it was considerably less so in reality. At least a third of it involved walking in a grassy/sandy ditch while cars sped past on a two-lane road (and I was not the only walker using this route), and the rest of the way included narrow sidewalks littered with street signs, fire hydrants, and other impediments (I suppose I should include dog poop here as well). Marked and posted pedestrian crossings across two busy county roads were few and far between.

It seemed odd to me that a tourist-based town was so difficult for pedestrians, especially given that the town was settled far before automobiles were invented (some of the old houses in the historic district dated back to the 1700’s). Most likely, the space once devoted to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages was given over to automobiles, with not much thought given to their inherent incompatibilities. Walkability is often emphasized in conversations regarding sustainable cities, and now I have a very personal understanding of this issue.

Losing a global carbon sponge

A paper published last week in Nature reviewed a growing body of evidence that suggests that a profound loss of forest cover in the Amazaon would have worrying consequences for the rest of the planet.

In “The Amazon basin in transition“, Davidson et al. describe how the impacts of agricultural expansion and climate events such as El Niño can conspire to destroy even more forest through drought- and fire-induced deforestation. When trees die or burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere. If more trees are destroyed than grow to replace them, more carbon is released than is absorbed; the Amazon sink becomes a source. According to the article, the Amazon rainforst currently sequesters roughly 100 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the carbon release from a decade’s worth of fossil fuel use.

Currently forest cover has been reduced to about 80% of its original area; the article suggests that if forest cover approaches 40%, a critical transition from forest to savanna may occur, given feedbacks between tree cover and precipition (see our summary in Science). If this occurs, we might witness what happens with the lost of “the lungs of the planet“.

The Economics of Happiness

Green Film Series Thursday Night
“The Economics of Happiness” will be shown at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 19, in G002 Hesterberg Hall in the Forestry Building. Part of the Green Film Series, the film will be followed by a discussion led by Assistant Professor Daya Muralidharan (School of Business and Economics). The series is free, but a $3 donation is requested.

Save some for the birds

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!

Managed collapse

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.