Archive for the ‘650’ Category

Alien species in your backyard

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

On Friday September 26, I attempted to the seminar “Global swarming” presented by Antonio Ricciardi. With various examples, Ricciardi demonstrated that species invasions are one of the most important global changes that we are experiencing at the moment. He also insisted on the fact that these modern invasions are happening at such a large scale and so rapidly that what happened in the past in nothing compared to the modern rates of biological invasions.

What really catches my attention is the choice of vocabulary that the speaker used during his presentation, starting with the title itself (global swarming). In his introduction, he used the terms “monsters” and “ecological terrorists” to designate the invaders he was going to talk about. Than, he mentioned that the example he was to give during the talk were not “insulated monster stories”, that alien species were present in almost all ecosystems worldwide. Some species like the pig were compared as “little engineer” transforming the habitat and at the end of the speech, he told us that those alien species were a “tax” on natural resources.

At the end of the presentation, in response to a question, Ricciardi made the strong assumption that the human kind is probably the worst invasive specie of the world. After all, we are all invaders outside of Africa! To support this idea, he brought up the fact that we are present in almost every ecosystem and that we are definitely the best when comes the time to transform our environment. This idea was, again, a very powerful way to insist on the role that human plays in spreading alien species all over the place.

All those superlatives were very catchy, and it surely was a great way to increase the auditor’s awareness of that special issue. I was wondering if this effort was necessary; do you need to sound alarmist to convince people? Perhaps! But it made a strong contrast with the more neutral tone used in the article Are Modern Biological Invasions an Unprecedented Form of Global Change?“.

CELDF, Environmental Law and Assigning Rights to Nature

Friday, September 26th, 2008

The seminar I attended was presented as part of the MSE Speaker Series; Legal Rights for Grassroots Environmentalism. Representatives from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) of Pennsylvania, USA gave a summary of their work and the capitalist government system which suppresses community level attempts at protecting natural resources. The CELDF mainly provided legal support to communities that want to protect some aspect of their natural environment (an aquifer, a forest, a population of wolves) or to keep their community free from projects that are potentially harmful for humans and environments (power plants, waste treatment plants, etc.).

One downfall of the CELDF’s early work is that it did not provide permanent results and/or conservation. The general pattern was this; A corporation submits a proposal to tap an aquifer that supports a community (its drinking water and agricultural irrigation) in order to sell the resource in the bottled water industry. The CELDF comes in, finds technical errors in the corporation’s proposal, thus having it be rejected. The community is extremely happy with their success until a few months later when the same corporation returns with a revised proposal that is not flawless (since the CELDF had edited it so thoroughly for them) and the aquifer is subsequently drained. I realize that the CELDF was simply working within the legal system towards a noble cause, which is all fine and good. The aspect I found highly questionable was the CELDF’s general reaction to this trend, which was more along the lines of, “that is awful and we feel really bad for that community,” rather than, “here is what we are doing to follow through with that community’s goal for environmental protection.” Currently, the CELDF has evolved and is working with communities to write and pass municipal laws that protect natural resources from overuse by large corporations. However, the same trend of success followed by immediate failure is very much possible, since the federal government has the power to preempt any municipal laws, and most certainly does when economic development is at stake. While I believe that the CELDF’s work is an important step in the fight to legalize the protection of nature and natural functions, it worries me that it will be the concerned communities, and nature itself, who will be the first and most numerous victims in this battle.

I strongly believe in the process of “bottom-up development” or grassroots movements that gain the power to influence policy and procedure at highly levels (be they legal, social, political or economic). The CELDF is an empowering body in this sense; CELDF has set up and run countless ‘Democracy Workshops’ throughout Pennsylvania, the USA and just recently at McGill University. These workshops are used to inform the general public of their rights within a democratic government, and to explain the obstacles to obtaining those rights in a country like the USA, where democracy is skewed and at the beck and call of the capitalist market economy. This is, I believe, an incredible tool, because the more informed a person, a community, a country is, the more policies, conventions and laws will be educated and representative. This relates to what we discussed in our last seminar meeting; how much do we need to know about any given subject? I would argue that when it comes to the political system governing your country, you ought to be well informed. Of course, you will not have the time and energy to become an expert about each issue (social, environmental, economic, etc) that arises, but when something you do care about and know about is at stake, you will be able to mobilize in an effective way to protect that something within your country’s political system.

Given the capitalist politics dominant in the world today, the question then arises, should we work within the current system or overhaul the whole thing in favor of a new, more social and environmental oriented system? Ecuador may make history on this account in the next few weeks; Ecuadorians will soon vote on a new Constitution that includes advanced human rights and rights to nature. Assigning rights to nature, as the CELDF members explained, is a natural progression from assigning rights to black persons and women, who were only ‘property’ before their rights were recognized, in the same way that the environment is today. However, this opens up an argument that assigning rights to nature devalues human life by placing the right and value of survival of a wildflower on par with the survival of a human being. I argue that that does not have to be the case, nor can it be as simple as an ‘eye for an eye.’ The right of nature and natural processes to survive can thrive alongside human rights; assigning rights to women did precede a devaluing or die-off of the male population. In fact, valuing nature and allowing it to survive will support human life by protecting the natural resources on which we survive.

This seminar, especially the focus on environmental ethics as they pertain to environmental law and conservation, reminded me Aldo Leopold’s, ‘Sand County Almanac.’ Leopold, an environmentalist and wildlife management professor at the University of Wisconsin (1933 until his death), wrote that, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The guiding ethic, and potential law, of the Ecuadorian Constitution bears a striking resemblance to Leopold’s ethic; nature has the right to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes of evolution.” I am interested to see what the actual policy implications of assigning right to nature will be. Especially in a development country like Ecuador, where there is vast biodiversity and vast socioeconomic divides, policy may be difficult to enforce across all levels of human and natural wealth. What would it mean if assigning rights to nature was successful? What would it means if was not, or if it was simply forgotten like so many other good policies? Would failure be drastically more damaging to the environment in a developing vs. developed country? These are questions that I am unsure of, but eager to see how their answers unfold; I hope we can discuss some of these in our seminar on Monday.

Building Activism, Stripping Corporate Power, Recognising the Rights of Nature

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

On September 15, Thomas Linzey gave a seminar on how communities are working to preserve their environment without being trumped by the government, or corporate rules and rights.  Communal and municipal actions and regulations can be overruled by the following; preemption from the federal and state government; Dillon’s rule, generally stating that the community or municipality is like a child which the state allows certain actions, and; corporate rights which lawfully personify company structures.  Problems would arise when a community would attempt to prevent structures such as a waste incinerator from being built in the area; the community was interfering with the corporate rights of the incinerator company from managing their business, and they were being preempted by the government’s issue of a permit to build.  Thus the pollution that such a structure might cause would impede the environment and the community.  The Community Environment Legal Defence Fund (CELDF) was created to give free legal services to communities with not enough lawyers to fight these trials.  In addition, one of their goals is to aid communities in making constitutional laws that would give nature the right to flourish.

The seminar may have been biased, under representing the balance between the needs of the community and corporations.  It was delivered enthusiastically and was not difficult to listen to.

I enjoyed the concept of the seminar, however I failed to grasp the effectiveness of the program to strip corporate power.  If communities create a constitution of environmental policy that the government is in disagreement with, what’s to stop the government from preempting the environmental legislation for what they consider more economically favorable?  The seminar gave me the impression that these civil changes are more effectively obtained through active protests, rioting and sometimes civil war.  The seminar gave examples of the protests of the suffragettes in the women’s rights movement or the civil war to abolish slavery.  Note this is not to say that CELDF advocates or opposes these tactics; their position was not mentioned, only the examples were given.  However, given the increasing popularity of environmental discussions, it may be in the interest of the government to consider their own policies to protect the government.  Still it appears they will have the final say.

While the concept of giving nature rights is brought up in the article Ecology in Ecuador, the question of whether assigning rights is the correct mode of action is brought up in The Return of Goodness by Skidelsky.  What I’ve obtained from Skidelsky’s article is that morality is not completely covered by a set of rights and rules.  If our actions interfere with the standards protecting others, this is immoral.  But if all we do is follow rules and regulations without having our own definition of virtue, do we lose our own innate ability to determine morality?  Skidelsky uses the example of the man watching porn:  He has the right to do so, and others may frown on his outlook, but he is not immoral (Skidelsky, 2008).  Take (for lack of a better one) the example of a river.  We have the right to use rivers for water (in general terms to use the river), but if we deplete the river are we immoral?  We are exercising our right to water (justified and positive) but we our using up our resource (a negative).  Our innate definition of morality would determine the balance.  It is society’s innate morality that makes our just laws.

Health and climate change

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

I attempted Dr Ebi presentation; “Healthy People 2100: Health Risks of Climate Change” on September 11th. As it was mention by supernova in a previous comment, I think the Dr. Ebi wanted to warn us about the possible impacts of not acting nor getting prepared to face climate change. We, as a society, are often acting like climate change impacts are something far away, as we were not going to deal with it during our lifetime. However, according to Tong (2008) 150 000 deaths, yearly, could already be possibly linked to climate changes. Isn’t it a proof that something has to be done ?

I do think it is far time that we stop debating about numbers (i.e. what will be the exact temperature rise, in how many years …) and that we start acting. The situation makes me think of those houses that are way to close to a river. Rivers overflow ; if it is not this year, it may be next year or in ten years, but it will overflow ! So why would you complain when there is water in your basement ? It had to happen ! It is the same thing about climate change ; we know it is going to happen, even though we are not quite sure of the exact scale of consequences. But it does not mean that we should wait to see what happens, and then try to deal with it. It is too late to think about how to protect old people health when a heatwave has already started, it is too late to think about an evacuation plan when the hurricane is there above our heads.

While concluding the seminar, Dr.Ebi mentioned that adaptation should be considered as important as mitigation. Policy makers have to think about all possible ways to reduce GHG emissions, but they also have to get prepare to face the future.

Healthy People 2100: Health Risks of Climate Change

Monday, September 15th, 2008

I attended Dr. Kristie Ebi’s seminar “Healthy People 2100: Health Risks of Climate Change” on Thursday, 11.09.2008. To me it was an impressive presentation and I’ll never forget some of the images she included, particularly the one showing the trucks used to deposit the victims of the 1995 Chicago heat wave. In the coming years we ought to expect even more extreme weather events, including severe droughts, heat waves, floods, hurricanes, the rising of sea water levels. The consequences on health would most certainly be a rise in the number of cases of malnutrition, diarrhea, infectious diseases – including those transmitted by vectors.

One of the most important points Dr. Ebi made was that the countries responsible for the global warming are not the ones suffering the worst consequences. She projected a map of the world which proportionately showed which areas are likely to suffer the most drastic consequences. The African continent and south-estern Asia were the areas that stood out by far. North America, one of the biggest source of greenhouse gas emmisions, was projected to suffer the least. This goes out to show a potential reason why it’s so hard to convince decision makers to take action: they don’t see poverty and illness first-hand. And they think that they can avoid being affected by the consequences of global warming. It is certainly much more financially profitable to go on a “business as usual” path than to change your ways, start thinking of the consequences and start taking action toward mitigation and sustainability.  Even the few actions that are being taken are done without thinking of the human health consequences, without asking for advice from the authorities in the field – the example of changing the course of a river in China.

In conclusion, Dr Ebi’s presentation was a picture of the present situation and a projection of what to expect in the future. If I were to criticize it, I’d say that knowing the topic of this presentation I expected it to be more focused on the health related issues and potential solutions for the future.

“The rate of change has never been that fast before” – Dr. Bell

Monday, September 15th, 2008

If you like listening seminars with funny but high-quality speakers in a little and pretty mysterious auditorium, September 11th 2008 at 6 pm in the Redpath museum auditorium was one of those nights.  Dr. Graham Bell is a world-renowned scientific experimental evolutionist and evolutionary ecologist at McGill University and his seminar was a really nice example of a combination of his scientific work and the new global issue; Climate change.  He made a funnel effect to his presentation by introducing large biological concepts and finishing with really precise questions related to his laboratory work.  Before letting people leaving the auditorium, he also clearly identified how this global event may alter biological communities.

In front of packed audience and after his introduction by the chairman, Dr Bell did not wait too much time and jumped feet first in the great word of biology by describing simple biological concepts.  The first one was how species reacts when facing to environmental stressors.  Some species migrate, some adapt and others.  A simple example of how science works.  Water fleas have been introduced as an example of species who adapt (change body shape) themselves in presence of predators.  The second response suggested was migration and explained that plant evidences are obtained through the pollen record.  The last type of response is extinction.  Dr. Bell gave all kinds of example.  He explained that fossil records are abundant and proved most of the extinction currently known.  Mammoths, Moa, Thyadacine, Giant Beaver, Giant Ground Sloth, River dolphin are all extinct species mostly gone by human pressure.  Suddenly, a huge and cold wave of exasperation has hit the auditorium and people have changed their smile to a much more exasperate face.  Dr. Bell tried to rescue the audience by throwing a life buoy called “rapid evolution”.  He has secured the crowd by suggesting famous evolutionary experiences like the two variations of moth type (black and white) in Great Britain and a weed (Vicia sativa) that has been continuously been harvested with regular crops and the plant has evolved in a way that its seeds is no longer identical to the wild type but resemble more to the seed of the crops.

Everyone was then ready to receive the second cold wave of the presentation.  Climate change is the biggest challenge of the human history because it does not affect one species at a time but the entire community.  This is the biggest change that human are facing today because it introduces three type of complications. 

1) How biodiversity will react?

2) How the complexity of an ecosystem will evolve?

3) What will be the species evolutionary change?  


After explaining global issues, he introduced his research to explain how CO2 can drive the evolutionary response to algae.  He found that algae can evolve rapidly.  At high CO2 level,  algea had higher rate of respiration and photosynthesis.  They had also an higher chlorophyll content but reduce in size.  However, these cells were not able to survive when CO2 level went back to normal concentration.  Even if some species are able of rapid evolution, Dr Bell insisted that most of the species are not able to evolve at a fast rate and concluded that the rate of change has never been that fast before.  

Finally Dr. Bell has clearly well identified the type of audience he had in front of him and has adjusted his presentation accordingly.  He had the ability to manipulate the emotions of his audience (like rollercoaster) even if the topic of his presentation does not announce “good news”.  He is not shy to say “we don’t know” as an answer which makes him opened minded (important in science).  This presentation finished with a small snack at the Redpath museum lobby.  This is a really nice idea because it allowed people to discuss of their impressions.  However, I was not able to make it since people at MAC were waiting for me for a soccer game!  Next time, I’ll be… Present!  🙂

Adaptation, Extinction and Global Change – Graham Bell

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Professor Bell’s seminar on the effects of climate change on species was intriguing.  It was presented both in scientific terms and after in common easily understood terms.  In addition the seminar was easy to listen to as it mixed scientific evidence with humor.

Bell began his talk with an explanation of variation of global conditions, and suggestions on how change begins slowly but becomes more extreme in the future.  Bell then describes the ways species may respond to such global changes.  They may alter certain traits or adapt, wait until conditions return to what the species is compatible with (dormancy), or they may migrate or change their area of accessible habitat.  If the species is unable to cope with these changes it will go extinct.

Finally the potential results of climate change are stated with regards to diversity complexity and evolutionary change.  The main possible affects appear to be changes in community structure and species adaptations.  Bell illustrates the potential adaptations of climate change using the example of an experiment with algae and their response to CO2 levels.  The article Phenotypic consequences of 1,000 generations of selection at elevated COin a green alga by Collins and Bell is related to this example.

Some of the final messages given by this seminar are the potential for species to adapt (which increases with more gradual change), and the possibility that for certain species, decline may reach a trough and return to normal through evolutionary rescue.  However the speed of global changes is occurring at a faster rate than before.

Bell’s seminar had me reflect on several things, mostly concerning what the species changes might mean for our future world.  Adaptation suggests a differing biological and ecological construct of the world as we know it.  Migration and habitat change may have implications concerning loss of diversity in certain areas (where species can no longer return to relatively hostile conditions) or increase in diversity with immigration of foreign species (provided that the invaders do not out compete the natives).  Dormancy would suggest a need for conditions to return to normal for us to recognize the world as we see today.  The ability to forsee the effects of climate change are further complicated by the relationships between communites and the species within them; a potential positive mutation for species A may negatively impact species B with returning negative impacts for species A.  The opposite may occur for a negative mutation.

Graham Bell- Climate Change and Evolution of Ecosystems and Species

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

On the 11 of September at the Redpath Museum, I attended an environmental seminar about climate change, evolution and ecosystems, given by Dr. Graham Bell, professor and researcher with the Department of Biology, McGill. In his seminar, Dr. Graham Bell explained the possible impacts of anthropogenic driven climate change –warmer temperatures, shifting biomes, increased precipitation, etc.- on the ability of species and ecosystem to adapt, evolve and/or become extinct. Species and ecosystems will, as Bell explains, cope with changes in climate in the following ways; plasticity, dormancy, migration, range shift, adaptation and extinction. I think Bell did a wonderful job at presenting not only the well know examples of species that have gone extinct due to human and climate related changes, but also gave examples of species being able to adapt to climate and anthropogenic stressors: certain plant species adapting to and living with heavy metals in the soils of a contaminated copper mine, moths changing color from mottled white to black to camouflage with black soot covered trees.

Another interesting focus of Bell’s seminar was the three major complications of CO2 for the global environment. 1. Biological diversity: Bell explained how this involves loss of diversity as well as ecological replacement of native species with alien species better suited to the changed climate and ecosystem. There was a point that Bell made here that I strongly liked and agreed with: Bell stated that the more species of any given living thing (butterflies, fish corn, etc.) the more likely it is that one or more species will be able to survive and adapt to climate changes, thus living to evolve into more diversified species once again. This implies the significance of preserving a diversity of species (not just one, mainline species of corn that we use to eat, for example) in order to raise chances of species survival. 2. Ecological complexity: Due to the high complexity and interconnectedness of ecosystems, climate could shift the whole structure of ecosystem community stability, productivity, etc. 3. Evolutionary change: Here, Dr. Graham Bell gave an example of Phytoplankton response to CO2 over many generations, the same research presented in the article we chose for ENVR 650 to read. I think an important point to come from this example, one that Bell mentioned as well- is that while the future impacts of climate change and increased levels of CO2 for ecosystems and species is largely unknown and there needs to need more field research looking into this, there is definitely going to be significant changes in climate and ecosystems that will surely effect the global environment as we know it.

This seminar was, in my opinion, wonderful. Bell has an ability to describe complex issues and environmental systems in a way that anyone can understand and relate to. He presented his arguments in a clear, rational way, always giving evidence for the effects of anthropogenic climate change, but at the same time leaving the audience with both sides of the story (ie. That warming could bring certain benefits, for example higher productivity in agriculture). Above this, he is a captivating speaker, funny and approachable despite his amazing breadth of knowledge. Bell ended with a strong point; that it is not a new phenomenon in the history of the planet for climate to change, but that it is the human driven rate of change that threatens the planet’s delicate ecosystems, ecological processes and species’ adaptability.

Health risks of climate change

Friday, September 12th, 2008

On Thursday the 11th of September at 3:30, in the Leacock building of McGill university, I attended a seminar on ” Health risks of climate change ” given by Dr. Kristie Ebi.

She drew a rather critical portrait of the earth situation. In her opinion, even if we stopped emitting greenhouses gases, we still could have 50 years of climates rising to come. Climate changes have many impacts on human health. One particular example she gave was the increasing number of catastrophes such as hurricanes (e.g., Katrina) and major heat waves (like the one that hit Europe in August). The problem also resides in the fact that the cities are not prepared to face such treats. During the major heatwave that hit Chicago, they stored the affected person in refrigerator vans because they had no where to put such a large amount of people. However, she explained that the required changes will not be easy to accomplish. For example, in prevision of sea level rise and future hurricanes, some flood lines have to be moved. This will not please the entrepreneurs nor the owner of the fields who suddenly would find themselves in a flooding zones. Insurance policies will increase.

An another important issue raised in this seminar was the fact the human health is never included in the planing for future development. As a matter of fact, rising temperature affect humans, animals but also pathogens. Epidemics of samonela, malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition and other wonderful infectious vectors will spread further with increased temperature. Furthermore, some solutions to the problem may enable those parasites to access new areas. For example, a plan in China will have a river from the south redirected toward a river in the north. The southern river is contaminated with a pathogen that is currently unable to reach the northern part of the country. For now, it is impossible for the pathogen to move because of the low temperature but with the climate change, it will have access and millions of new people will be subject to infection.

To conclude, it is crucial that the countries prepare for those catastrophes (it was done for the last el nino and the result were impressive) and health should considered when doing so.


Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

I’m new to the Computers, Society and Nature Blog.  My interests include (but are not restricted to) animals and conservation, as well as music.  I occasionally participate in activism petitions relating to social, environmental and animal concerns.  I will be posting for ENVR 650.

What underlies disastrous decisions?

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

On November 21st, I attended a talk by Dr. Robert McKleman from the University of Ottawa regarding human migration and settlement patterns in response to climate change. As Culture Kid points out below, McKleman studied Oklahomans’ adaptations to the American Dustbowl of the 1930’s. He found that migration and settlement patterns were largely dependent on one’s capital endowments. He used capital in a very broad sense, to include economic capital (money, and material capital like cars), social capital (social networks and connections) and cultural capital (ethnicity, heritage, labour characteristics). For example, McKleman found that an Oklahoman was likely to migrate to Northern California if he or she had enough money and a means of transportation, had friends or family en route to and in California, and if he or she had skills and characteristics compatible with Californian culture. McKleman concluded that future human adaptation to climate change would likewise be constrained or assisted by one’s capital endowments.
I found McKleman’s argument quite intuitive. For example, if I were to pick up and leave home I would obviously need money, a means of travel, a place to go, and cultural characteristics that would be accepted at my destination. I felt, however, that McKleman’s analysis begged an essential question concerning human (non)adaptation: why did the Oklahomans find themselves in a position where migration and settlement was their only means to survive? Why did they not adapt before crisis came? If we could determine the answers to this question then we might be able to understand our current situation regarding climate change. In all likelihood, we’re on a path that will end in the need for many people to migrate and settle elsewhere, to give up their homes and livelihoods, or risk death. Why, then, are we not able to change course now, preventing the harrowing outcome of our current actions?
Many people are currently trying to change the course we’re on. Many others, however (McKleman included), have already resigned themselves to the fact that crisis is now inevitable. Did Oklahomans, with the soil turning to desert under their feet, also recognize the consequences of their actions? And if so, why didn’t they prevent the Dust Bowl from occurring?
As Culture Kid states below, McKleman’s talk invoked strong parallels to Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Diamond also asks questions similar to mine. He proposed a framework that might prove useful in addressing these questions. In his chapter “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?”, Diamond first suggests that a society may fail to anticipate a problem (Oklahomans may have failed to anticipate that intense agriculture would deplete their soils of nutrients and water). Second, Diamond states that a society might fail to perceive a problem as it’s occurring (soil nutrients are invisible, thus early farmers would not know why their crops were failing). Third, a society might fail to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived (maybe change was not in the interest of the powerful elite). Fourth, perhaps a society has values that predispose it to disaster (Easter Islanders cutting down the last trees to build statues to the gods). Last, even after a problem is perceived and society is committed to solving it, solutions might be unsuccessful. An interesting study would be to apply this framework to the 1930’s Dustbowl disaster, in addition to more modern examples. Determining the barriers to change before one’s only options are migration or death would not only help us understand past disastrous outcomes, but help us understand our current situation.

Ecosystem Services and Agricultural Lands

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

On November 12th, I attended a talk by Dr. Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. She talked a little about a number of topics including resilience, the Earth’s water balance, the effects of agriculture on global water vapor flows, and the types of ecosystem services fulfilled by agricultural (domesticated) lands. The last topic in this list is the focus of this post.

The idea that domesticated lands can fulfill a number of ecosystem services intrigues me for a number of reasons. First, as Gordon notes on her blog, ecosystem services that are usually associated with forest ecosystems such as carbon sequestration, erosion control and evapotranspiration, can be fulfilled by properly managed domesticated lands. The idea here is that domesticated lands (such as pastures, croplands etc.) can be managed in such a way that vital services are rendered available. This idea leads to my second point of intrigue.

As the human population continues to increase, so too will its food demands. To meet these demands a number of ecosystems will have to be domesticated (e.g. as forests are razed and replaced by croplands). One can easily foresee in the near future a number of conflicts will arise between conservationists and preservationists seeking to protect ‘pristine’ ecosystems and those responsible for securing food for the world’s growing numbers. In all likelihood, the needs of the hungry will trump the goals of the environmentalist. If, however, the newly domesticated lands are correctly managed, then valuable ecosystem services can be retained. There is ample room for both sides to achieve its goals.

To me, there is little doubt that an increasing percentage of the Earth’s land will be domesticated in the years ahead. This increase in domestic lands will come at the expense of a number of terrestrial ecosystems. If we can manage the newly domesticated lands so that they replace the services lost during domestication (carbon sequestration, erosion control etc.), then one of the most important aspects of ‘natural’ ecosystems will not be lost at all.

Though I desire a world where these concepts would not be needed, and where ecosystems would not be under constant threat of domestication, reality demands a number of compromises and trade-offs. As conflicts between environmentalists and those responsible for food security increase, knowing where we can compromise and where we cannot is essential. Thus, more research should focus on the types of services that can and that cannot be fulfilled by domesticated lands, and how best to manage and design these lands to carry out those services.

Biodiversity Loss and Cascading Effects

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

On November 18, 2007 I attended a lecture by Dr. Ricciardi of the MSE entitled “The Future of Biodiversity: How biological invasions and extinctions, driven by human activities, are re-shaping biodiversity on a global scale.” Ricciardi’s talk was split into four parts: He first talked about how many species there are on the planet, then moved to discuss how fast we are losing species, what the causes of biodiversity loss are, and finished by talking about what the consequences of biodiversity loss are.

Most of the presentation was comprised of case studies of biodiversity loss both in Canada and abroad. The two main causes for biodiversity loss are invasive species introductions and land use change (although there are other causes): both driven by human actions. While none of the information was complicated to understand I found that the pace of the talk was a bit too fast and that there was not one clear story to tell, it was just a collection of evidence to support that biodiversity loss is a wide-spread problem. What I found to be the most important part of the talk were the consequences of biodiversity loss: 1) an increase of instability, and reduction in resilience, 2) Loss of ecosystem function and ecological processes. When biodiversity is lost, nutrient and energy transfer in the food chain is disrupted and much of these resources are processed inefficiently, or simply lost within the system. The loss of a or replacement of a species by an invasive can have impacts that cascade through the food web and not only impact the species itself, but every other biotic and abiotic form that it interacts with.

The article that we addressed last week by Finlay and Vredenburg (2007) observed these cascading effects by assessing how trout addition to lakes impacted the mountain yellow-legged frog. While I have always understood aquatic systems to be the ideal study area due to the clear boundaries of a lakeshore (you know what comes in and out), this study proved that the introduction of an aquatic species can have impacts that reach far beyond the shore. Here, the mountain yellow-legged tree frog, a terrestrial species, had fewer food resources (insects) from the pelagic zone of the stocked lakes. The reduced populations of the frogs due to the trout additions, no doubt has consequences for its predators. Many people study how land use impacts aquatic systems (e.x. damming, changing stream courses, pollution, erosion, etc), however perhaps we should start to look at the interactions that run in the opposite direction: how species invasions in aquatic systems can have serious impacts to terrestrial systems. I think that overall, knowing the interactions back and forth between systems (here, land and water) gives more insight to policy makers and managers. Further, understanding the linkages back and forth encourages people to look at systems from an ecosystem approach prior to making changes. The assessment of trade-offs, what you gain by changing the landscape/adding a species compared to what the larger costs are, is essential to balance biodiversity and ecosystem function with the services we want to get from ecosystems.

A Change is Gonna Come…

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

I attended two talks last week, both generally dealing with the same subject matter: mechanisms of cultural adaptation or change. One was Michael Bollig’s exploration of east African the disappearance and reemergence of pastoralism, and the other was presented by geographer Robert McLeman’s presentation, drawing on the use of the 1930’s Dust Bowl as a model for predicting human adaptations to future, more severe and/or extreme climate change.

McLeman is a geographer from the University of Ottawa, whose fieldwork looks at historical migration of farmers from Okalahoma to northern California during the worst drought years of the pre-war 30’s, and an exploration of why some families decided to stay and attempt to eke out a living on the plains, while others left for greener (literally) pastures the first chance they had. McLeman’s examples invoked strong parallels to Jared Diamond’s more pervasive ideas, as espoused in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. McLeman pointed to several other historical and contemporary examples of humans choosing to live in a place of recognized – and at times, incredibly conspicuous – environmental instability, not including an expected reference to Diamond’s outline of the Easter Islands, but rather the more local southern California coast hillsides (prone to erosion and wildfires) and New Orleans, where the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina aptly advertised potential effects of setting up residence below sea level. McLeman underlined the seeming irrationality of humans continually attempting to live in such areas, even after enduring disastrous effects in the past and knowing such calamities will inevitably happen again. I enjoyed his perfunctory attitude towards future climate change, in which he stated that extreme weather is going to happen, without a doubt; many people are reluctant to make such confident assertions. But the lecture concluded with a vague and markedly unassertive reiteration of the fact that humans are adaptable, and that environmental refugees will become a more and more commonplace factor of the twenty-first century world. I wondered his specific ideas for redress of or reaction to global climate change, as none were mentioned.

Bollig’s talk, as thoroughly outlined below by merle, focused on the changes in productive practices of a society in Kenya generally referred to as “pastoralist.” Bollig focused on the fact that anthropologists usually like to understand social change in a Darwinian time-frame – that is, the reconfiguration of cultural worldview (and the way this metamorphosis is manifested on the landscape) does not typically happen quickly. The Pokot, however, appear to exemplify rapid change, modifying their mode of production three times within a two-century period. What accounts for this change? Why the need to change? Someone in the audience suggested that all societies rely on more than one productive practice, so that for example, in times of drought, they have a back-up plan, thus perhaps the Pokot simply favoured one over the other at different times, but did not actually undergo any cultural change. Bollig, however, did not buy this as a strong enough reason for the Pokot’s alternating pastoralism/non-pastoralism history.

These two scholars’ area of inquiry is pertinent to today’s climate – literally and figuratively. Applied anthropology is one sub-field which draws on such fieldwork and research to work to enact change, or at least help in policy-making, development work, and so forth, but such work is obviously not limited to the one discipline. Nonetheless, such fields, no matter the specific categorization, are contentious; application seems to be equated with “intervention” and “fixing,” both dangerous words in the minds of most cultural relativists. But relativism, in some ways, becomes a term of moot significance in the era of global change. And application and advocacy go hand-in-hand with the precautionary principle here, as uncertainty is often presented as reasons for not acting. However, I will save that lengthy debate for another time. For now, in searching for answers and calls to action in McLeman’s and Bollig’s inevitably, necessarily inconclusive presentations, I reiterate merle slightly in declaring the need for further research on the mechanisms of cultural change and adaptation – in theory and practice alike.

Answering our Questions by Concrete Actions

Friday, November 30th, 2007

This week I attended M. Bollig talk titled “Rapid Social Ecological Change in an East African Pastoral Community: The History and Political Ecology of the Pokot Pastoralism”. In his talk, M. Bollig described in details the rapid and almost revolutionary transformation of the Pokot community from a non-pastoral lifestyle to a pastoral one and then back again after 200 years to more diversified livelihoods.
According to the oral tradition of the Pokot and corroborated by other evidences, the transition from one communal organization to the other happened in one or two decades and was carried on by the youths against the will of their elders. At least in the case of the first transition, M. Bollig convincingly argued that there had been a main driving factor that caused of the transition: a severe climatic variation. As indicated by the oral tradition, there has been a severe drought on their territory which lasted for about 80 years, between 1760 and 1840. This drought made the maize cultivation impossible and transformed the savannah by changing the previous grass to tree ratios. The Pokot rapidly adapted to their changing world by becoming highly specialized and very successful pastoralists.
Confronted by such a case of rapid cultural and social transformation in the face of a severe change in the natural environment, I think that the question that was on everyone’s mind was whether or not our own civilization could adapt so rapidly to the most likely upcoming climatic changes. And, pushing a step further, whether or not our civilization, which is responsible for most the drivers of climatic changes, could rapidly and preemptively alter some of its basic social patterns to avoid the worst case scenario in terms of climatic changes. Even if it wasn’t the subject of the talk, it did provide some hope on the possibility of adapting to a situation rapidly, but, unfortunately, not preemptively. The case suggests rather that people change their way of behavior only when they are under great pressure and that, even then, the process is not without its opposition, as the case of the protesting elderly suggests. However, one might ask with a bit of hope, is it different if you are confident that you can predict the coming of a catastrophic event? Can we escape the seemingly inescapable circle of collapses followed by reconstructions if we can foresee the factors that will most likely trigger a collapse? Can we then restructure not to have to reconstruct?
I guess that those questions don’t have answers until either the preemptive actions have successfully been taken or it is too late. Not being able to answer them from a purely theoretical perspective might not however be a bad thing, since it could mean that it is now the time for actions, the time to give to ourselves the answers that we want. As Marx said in another context: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Replace philosophers by scientists, if you prefer, it is still true today.

Should we always think global?

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Let’s face it: Global scale research seems sexy. Not only is it large in scale, making it seem more important and far reaching, but also may get more publication attention because of the broad focus. I do feel, however, that some topics do not require to be studied at the global scale to be important for understanding global issues.

Take for example a paper that we discussed last week, by Sieswerda et al. (2001). The authors tried to determine the relationship between ecosystem integrity and human health at the global scale. They performed regression analysis relating an index of ecosystem integrity to life expectancy for different countries. The two seemed to be related but when the authors controlled for GDP (a socio-economic component), the relationship between these two variables fell apart. This is not surprising. If two people (one rich, one poor) are placed in a degraded area, the richer person will be able to insulate her or himself from the potential impacts and therefore their health will be less affected than that of the poor person who must rely on their immediate surroundings. In this way it is no surprise that this relationship is not clear at the global level and that the question could have been better examined at a smaller scale.

When wanting to examine patterns at the global scale using large indexes and averages only mask trends at the smaller scale. I would like to suggest that global studies that compile and compare results from many smaller studies offer more useful information than scaling up. For example, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment tried to assess the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being at the local, regional, and global scale. They found that the link between ecosystem service provision and human well-being was evident at smaller scales (e.x. the fertility of the soil will impact the well-being of the farmers who rely on it for food provision and income), while the relationship was not clear when using global averages and indexes (most ecosystem services are degraded, while global human well being is increasing everywhere). This assessment is still useful however, because it examined the relationship between ecosystem services and well-being at many levels and found where the relationship held and where it did not, while if it had only looked at global averages this relationship would not be evident. Further, by focusing more locally you may be better able to address differences in climates, cultures, or policies.

I do not mean to minimize the importance of understanding global scale patterns, but I think that the scale of the relationship should drive the scale of the study. If we return to the study done by Sieswerda et al. (2001), it is intuitive to me that the integrity of a local ecosystem will impact one’s health more than that of an ecosystem on the other side of a country. In this way perhaps this relationship should be examined in a series of small studies all of which can be compared to form a global understanding, as opposed to using broad indexes.

Both global and local scale studies can be valid, however, I think that instead of being caught up in the move to think global, researchers need to be more critical about knowing at what scale the relationship they seek to understand acts. This will make the findings more relevant and useful for future study.

More reasons why we (tend to) destroy our planet

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

While reading old posts, I realized that we identified many reasons or incentives persons may have to harvest or let other harvest from the environment more than what it can sustainably give and to ‘give’ or let other ‘give’ in return more wastes than it can absorb sustainably. We talked about discounting, environmental justice, psychological factors in play when it comes to make some efforts to preserve some species but not others, and so forth. Not feeling very original, I will add two factors to this already long list.

The fist one, I think, is quite similar to the different emotional responses that most of us have toward a ‘cute’ mammal risking extinction or a clear-cut forest scene when compared to the emotional response we have toward a fish risking extinction or a bottom trawling scene. In her talk, Line J. Gordon said that in countries where people where over draining their underground water for agriculture, the general opinion was that water had never been so abundant and therefore that there was nothing to worry about or no planning necessary. As in the case of the line separating the visible above water world from the invisible underwater world, it seems very hard to overcome wide spread opinions or emotive responses which result from individuals own day-to-day experiences and observations. The obvious response is: more information, we need more information! The presupposition is that once people do know what is really happening behind what they can directly observe, their emotional responses and habits will automatically change and they will ask their politician to bring about general changes to redress the situation. I think that the presupposition reveal a certain naivety. I am wondering what kind of information would be required and delivered in what ways to counter the psychological reflexes that we seem to have. Doing some researches (or reading the results of past researches, if any) in psychology and in communication might be necessary to put all the data collecting and synthesis to efficient use when it comes to transforming mentalities.

The second one is tied to the idea that rich people can insulate themselves (at least better than the poor one) from the effects of environmental degradation. This idea, which I no doubt think is true, taken with the idea of discounting gives, I think, a very strong incentive to destroy our planet. Since depleting the environment now often means getting richer and richer through time thanks to our system of interest rates, one can ‘rationally’ think that it is in his/her own interest and in the interest of his/her own children that he/she deplete the environment now (since, anyway, on that line of reasoning, someone else will do it if he/she doesn’t do it), because not only that person is more likely to be able to protect himself or herself from the bad effects of his or her acts, but, through inheritance, to protect his or her children also. On that line of thinking, the “think about your children and grand-children” slogan would not induce an environmentally friendly behavior, but quite the opposite. And this, I think, is quite chilling.

When Business Avoids Environment (Again)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I attended the inaugural presentation of the Peter Brojde Leadership Lecture series last night, as I was interested in both the topic (“Business and the Poor”) and the primary speaker: Madeleine Albright. While I recognize that this was not explicitly an “environmental” lecture, I write about it on this blog post because any general lecture on business and poverty in the modern world must touch on environmental change and degradation, too; Dr. Albright did not fail me in this expectation.

The theme of her presentation was a legal one, in which she provided a rationale for why it should be every nation-state’s prerogative to bring their poorest citizens into the national and global legal realm, to officially recognize their human right to become part of a “formal legal economy.” She posited that we need to “make law smarter,” so that informal acceptance is formalized, so that those living outside the law are drawn into it. My problem with this idea is that Dr. Albright sees legalism as important only in relation to the world’s poor being able to use it as leverage for entrance into capitalist world markets.

She twice cited other elements which are closely associatied with ideas of law and poverty: “the environment,” and “the empowerment of women.” But categorical allusion was as far as she ventured. A woman who heads two companies that deal with ways to eradicate global poverty seemed to only want to pay lip-service to what she sees as entirely separate issues. But I think the missed – or at least failed to cover in her presentation – a crucial point: that poverty and environmental degradation tend to go hand-in-hand. I wrote about environmental justice in my last blog post, and think it directly applies here, as well.

Madeleine Albright is unabashed about her passion for epitomizing and spreading democratic principles; she is an academic, politician, and diplomat who spends most of her life espousing the ways in which the global order needs to change. But she disappointed me in her glossing over ideas of the environment, in her apparent divorcing of what are in reality closely entwined problems. We have engaged in extensive discussion in 650 about what exactly encompasses environmental policy and how it is created and effected. I would be curious to have further opportunities to ask Madeleine Albright, and other figureheads who seek to influence change and create policy, why the disjuncture between wealth – or lack thereof – and environmental degradation is not more conspicuously recognized in public forums.

Problems of Scale, Problems of Semantics

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Discussion in 650 last week following the usual seminars turned into an examination of what I see as two major problems with environmental research: size of scale, and the generalizing tendency of multi-disciplinary studies. The first was discussed in class; the second is my own addition. Discussion was based on two seminars and subsequent articles by the seminar speakers: Dr. Soskolne, an epidemiologist concerned with human health as a result of environmental degradation, and Dr. Line Gordon, a researcher from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, pursuing work on agriculture and hydrology. Both researchers are working on projects of global-scale, and this is problematic – namely because the sample population, community, ecosystem, or other unit of study is actually too big to measure with detail or precision; focusing on a small-scale area and expanding the data to reach global proportions is not effective, either. Dr. Soskolne’s article (with others), “Toward Measuring the Impact of Ecological Disintegrity on Human Health” (Epidemiology 12 (1) 2001) most effectively demonstrated the near-impossibility of such endeavours, as the authors’ hypothesis did not match quantitative results, but was assumed to be proven true anyway.
This problem of scale also rears its ugly head in my own field of study: cultural anthropology. In fact, it has become a critical point in the field, and the subject of constant discussion and publication. It stems out of the difficulties with defining the boundaries of a specific culture or cultural group in an era of globalizing modernity. Some anthropologists turn instead to words like “flows,” “hybrids,” and “cosmopolitanism,” in order to explain the changes facing minority groups as a result of the extensive reach of a global economy and its political and social effects. But such words are metaphorical, tentative notions, and in the long-run, ambiguous, and thus open to contestation equal to that of “scale.”
The environmental justice movement is an example of the problem of scale. This movement was borne out of the idea of “environmental racism,” as coined by Reverend Benjamin Chavis, of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1981. The term refers to the intentional or institutional racism expressed via the high tendency for toxic waste disposal sites and other polluting industries to be built in minority or coloured communities. The concept has expanded globally, but has taken on a different form, and more generally refers to the idea that neighbourhoods suffering the most intense pollution are the poorest areas. This now also includes the idea that countries of the global North frequently situate their industrial plants in the global South, thus forcing the developing world to bear the brunt of the developed world’s consumption. Concepts of environmental justice and injustice encompass different social processes, and can mean quite different things at different geographic scales. Such scalar ambiguity poses serious challenges for environmental justice theorists and activists working to solve social disparities which may be experienced in local pockets, small communities, but which may originate at larger scales of political and economic decision-making force.
The example of environmental justice plays aptly into the seminars which form the basis of this blog post, as both researchers were dealing directly with the effects of global issues on discrete communities and cities. But I pinpoint a second problem which is not as applicable: the problems with multi-disciplinary studies. This is a brief, albeit significant issue.
Advocates of multidisciplinary studies and collaborations argue that it is limiting to approach studies of global importance, such as environmental degradation, from only one perspective – that it is more productive and obviously beneficial to have anthropologists, ecologists, epidemiologists, and so on, to contribute to one body of knowledge; this ensures, supposedly, that no actors or factors are left out of an equation which could eventually equal formal and effective policy. I firmly believe that a number of varying voices can only lead to positive contributions to knowledge. But the problem I have noticed with this idea is that the people contributing to multi-disciplinary studies seem to possess a limited understanding of whatever field is not theirs; anthropologists tend to generalize about what ecology is, and epidemiologists tend not to understand the aims of anthropology. I realize this is a grandiose claim, but I am documenting a trend, not a rule. And indeed these are inevitable divisions and disparities, but important ones, as they can lead to erroneous research. Thus I posit that rather than encouraging multi-disciplinary studies, we should more actively promote trans-disciplinary studies – studies that supersede faculties, and therefore do away with the need to categorize specific departments or labeling contributors and risk classifying either incorrectly. Perhaps this boils down to a problem of semantics, but I think it a necessary distinction.

Fighting for the self: the advertising industry against the educational system

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

My colleagues did a good job at critically reviewing David Orr talk; I will therefore try not to repeat what they already said by following a thread that Prof. Orr mentioned without developing it further. Near the end of his presentation, he mentioned Edward Bernays’ influence on the American society (and by now, on the world) as a piece of the puzzle explaining the ‘failures’ of the educational system and the ongoing ecological crisis he depicted through his talk.
Edward Bernays, for those who might not know, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He introduced his thought in the U.S., not to treat patients psychoanalytically, but to control and influence the masses by calling upon their powerful unconscious drives. He called this molding of opinion “engineering of consent.” He is the father of what we now call ‘public relation’, which was a new name for ‘domestic propaganda’ after the First World War, and one of the pioneers of a new kind of advertisement, which aimed at associating an image to a product. From then on, the advertising industry was all about changing the consumer of useful goods into a consumer of symbolic status, into a citizen whose identity was dependent upon (and formed by) what and how much he consumed. Contrary to the consumption of useful and lasting products, the consumption of symbols (also known as ‘positional goods’) can be endless. Promoting products as symbols of identities and ‘life styles’ (another concept of Bernays) became the motor of the American industry and it insured that the demand would always be there for what the industry could offer. Slowly, being a good American citizen became being a good consumer, since consuming an endless number of rapidly changing symbolic goods insured the vitality of the American industry.(1)
With this background in mind, let’s return to what David Orr said about Bernays. He basically said two things: 1) the advertising industry in the U.S. is half a trillion dollar industry; 2) to mold the citizen into a good consumer, it is in the interest of the advertising industry to try to prevent the full development of the self of its consumers.
1) The never ending consumption of symbolic goods, which are already waste the next day, is an extremely environmentally unfriendly behavior. With such a financial power promoting this behavior through advertising, one can wonder what we could do about it (and what would be the cost of doing something, since this behavior is an important economic driver). To say but one thing, the Americans could ask their representatives to stop financing, with their own taxes, the advertising industry which makes them feel unsatisfied with what they already have, since companies in the U.S. can count the cost of their advertisements as an expense to reduce their taxable profits. In other words, this means that public funds pay a part of their advertisements – an example of what has been called a ‘perverse subsidy’.
2) The second point ties in with the question of education. If the powerful advertising industries strive to prevent the development of the self, to maintain it to the level of infantile self-gratification through immediate material consumption, to a level easily influenced through the basic wants and fears of the ‘id’ (to use Freud’s jargon), then the educational system is directly opposed in its aim (when it aims at forming whole persons) to the aim of the advertising industry. There is probably no way of knowing what chances the educational system have of resisting or fighting the opposite tendency, but what we do know, however, is that we must be vigilant to fight and resist the ‘subtle corruption’ of the universities (as Prof. Orr called it) by corporate funding in order to preserve this island of personal development, cultural resistance and critical thinking.

(1) On this, see the very good BBC documentary: The Century of the Self.