Author: almayer

Sacrifice Zones

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

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.


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!


Teeth from every angle

Ann Gibbons penned an interesting News Focus article in this week’s Science, reviewing research presented at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center on two Mayan communities on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; one that was relatively wealthy and could afford soda and processed foods with refined sugar and flour, and one that was poorer and subsisted on more traditional maize-based foods. Residents of the wealthier village not only suffered more cavities (as one might expect), but far more problems with overbites, teeth overcrowding, impacted wisdom teeth, and other dental issues that often require the services of an orthodontist. It turns out that having lots of food in the diet that is coarse or difficult to chew (read: unprocessed) is important (especially for children) to help the lower jaw grow larger (allowing all those teeth to come in straight and uncrowded), and for adults to scrape harmful bacteria and plaque off of the surface of the teeth.

This special meeting focused on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws”, and was very diverse in disciplines represented: paleoarchaeologists, anthropologists, dentists, and food scientists. This area is a bit outside of my expertise, but I enjoyed reading about the findings because these interesting questions, and fascinating answers, really do require a multidisciplinary team looking at the issue from many angles. Indeed, it is not only exciting to work in these kinds of teams, but just as exciting to read about the results of others.


Food (Green Film Series) – May 17th

Green Film Series Issues & Dialogue:
Food
Date/Time:  7:00-8:30 pm, Thursday, May 17
 Location:  135 Fisher Hall, MTU
Cost:   FREE; $3 suggested donation.  Coffee, dessert, and facilitated discussion with Sarah Salo
 
May 17 Food – Food is a local and a global issue. The film explores whether it is possible to design a food system that ensures health, accessibility and affordability for everyone? (49 min.)

Discussion facilitator:  Sara Salo, School Food Tour. Meet Sara Salo, Founder & Executive Director of the School Food Bicycle Tour. Join us as we welcome Sara back to Houghton (she’s a Houghton HS graduate) after her epic 6,000-mile solo ride with the goal of empowering students, schools and communities to advocate for equitable access to wholesome food. She earned a M.S. in Public Health from Oregon State University. Sara is fascinated with examining and strategizing how the roles of place, community and individual come together to create and maintain sustainable food systems.  School Food Tour http://schoolfoodtour.org/about/
 
The Green Film program is partially funded with a grant from:
♦ League of Women Voters of the Copper Country ♦ Friends of the Land of Keweenaw ♦ U.P. Environmental Coalition
 
Green Film Series is cosponsored by:
Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative   http://lakesuperiorstewardship.org/
Keweenaw Land Trust   http://www.keweenawlandtrust.org/
Michigan Tech Center for Water & Society   http://www.mtcws.mtu.edu/
Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship   http://www.kuuf.net/
 
2012 Green Film Series schedule posted at: http://wupcenter.mtu.edu/news/2012/2012GreenFilmSeries.html