Archive for the ‘650’ Category

“Environmentalism and the rethinking of intellectual property,” Prof. Mario Biagioli, 4 December 2009

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Prof. Biogioli began his lecture by describing the patenting of the oncomouse, a genetically modified mouse used as a “tool” in cancer research. Concerns over the ethics of patenting living things aside, this struck me as an interesting and disturbing trend in scientific discovery. Not only are the final products of the research patented, in this case anti-cancer drugs, but also the methods whereby these discoveries are made. In this age of increased concerns over environmental problems, such as climate change and fisheries which are by their nature collective action problems, we require scientists to work together as never before. A research environment in which scientists jealously guard the secrets of their methods is antithetical to this end.

In other cases, however, it appears that the method is not important. For example, in the US, when applying for a patent of a new plant line, the breeder does not need to specify the specific techniques used when he or she applies for a patent for a new line. This bypasses what would (could?) otherwise constitute a problem in the differentiation between “invention” and “discovery” – plant breeding depends in large part on natural processes of genetic mutation and recombination, and so in many cases these really are cases of discovery, not invention. Where then does the responsibility for these “inventions/discoveries” lie – is the inventor responsible for her own creation? And how do we consider the products of other human inventions? To take the question to an extreme, how then do we consider climate change, the product of many different human, and perhaps patented, inventions? Is the role of the patent only to protect those who hold it from having their work plagiarized? Where is the mechanism that protects the rest of us from the invention? Presumably, the patenting process is ultimately a tool for meeting the needs of society as a whole. Currently in Canada, there has been ongoing debate over copyright law, which is another, related form of intellectual property protection. Debate has raged because of this very question: ultimately, who is intellectual property law designed to protect, and what is its larger purpose within society? Should it be concerned with only the short term gains of those who hold the rights to intellectual property, or is there a larger, longer-term goal which it should be meeting? What is its ethical mandate, and what are the consequences for local, national and global society if it does not meet this mandate?

Emergent Diseases and Urbanized Environments

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Prof. Lea Berrang Ford’s seminar at the Institute for Health and Social Policy looked at the effects of climate change, present and predicted, on human health, in particular on the emergence of infectious diseases. Prof. Berrang Ford began her seminar by discussing McMichael’s four major historical transitions in human population dispersal which led to periods of high rates of emergence of new diseases. I found this to be a particularly interesting way to frame the problem of emergence diseases, because it places them firmly within the context of the environment. Often we only think about infectious diseases after their emergence, when our concerns are regarding cure and slowing of spread within a population. We forget the important relationship these diseases have with the environment, especially in their original emergence. The first of these historical phases was during the advent of local agrarian ecology, which coincided with a settling phase, leading to a concentration of people, their animals and their wastes. The second phase was characterized by an increase in multiregional overland trade and warfare (e.g., interactions between the ancient Greek and Roman empires). The third coincided with European transcontinental travel and colonial exploitation. McMichael hypothesizes that we are now into the fourth phase, which is characterized by air travel. This has changed the dynamics of the spread of disease, from continuous overland spread to “hopping” between cities, which act as “hubs” for further spread. This is due to an increase in human travel, but also in animal travel and “globalization” of food production. The importance of the movement of animals is of particular importance when we consider that more than 50% of emergent infectious diseases are zoonoses (i.e. diseases originating in domestic animals and wildlife).

This year marked a significant global demographic shift: for the first time more people are living in cities than in rural areas. From what we know about the environmental impacts of cities (e.g., they are heat islands, they are large concentrated sources of waste, and they require the burning of large amounts of fossil fuels to bring in sufficient supplies, etc.), this should already signal a necessary shift in how cities are planned and managed. From the perspective of emergent infectious diseases, we should be even more concerned. High density centres, paired with high travel between these centres, sets up super-highways along which diseases can spread. Paradoxically, it seems that now more than ever, when more and more people are living “away from nature,” we need to consider the place of cities within the environment when we are planning them.

The Nature/Society Divide

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Our society has developed by excluding ourselves from nature. Although we may not be conscious of it, we hold a deeply rooted belief that nature and society are distinct. Everyday, we affirm this separation through our resources extraction policies, bulging cities and increasing levels of pollution. Such a disconnection from the natural world can have negative impacts on the environment, which, to spite our conviction that we are exempt from nature, can lead to detrimental consequences for social systems.

Mario Biagoli, speaker at the D. Lorne Gales Lectures on December 4th, provides interesting insight on how the nature/society divide emerges in the debate over intellectual property rights. Copyright law supports the distinction between humans and nature, attributing intellectual property rights to human ideas and works, but not those of nature. However, through imagery of the commons as a natural and productive meadow, the opponents of intellectual property rights apply the same logic of the nature/society divide to express their opinion that information and ideas should remain in the public domain. Mario Biagoli suggests that we must alter our perceptions of humanity and nature in order to clearly address the issue of intellectual property rights. After all, “a person is original because a person is nature.”

Perhaps, then, it follows that the path to solving to our wide-ranging problems, from ecological degradation to intellectual property rights begins with dissolving the barrier between nature and society and envisioning ourselves within the realm of the natural world. 

Human intervention and species diversity

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Professor Andrew Hendry’s Cutting Edge Lecture series talk, entitled “Humans, evolution, and the future of biodiversity” discussed the possibility of rapid evolution “saving” species from extinction due to rapidly changing environments. When we talk about human impacts on biodiversity, we are nearly always talking about species losses, both extinction and extirpation, due to habitat loss, over harvesting and the like. However, as Prof. Hendry pointed out, human activity may also lead to speciation and hybridization, which can effectively lead to an increase in local biodiversity. This is not a change we commonly associate with disturbed environments. I find these phenomena intriguing because they force us to think in a more sophisticated way about human impacts on biotic communities. They force us to ask questions such as, what is “biodiversity”? Is more always better? What is the “goal” in species conservation?

At the end of his talk, after describing various mechanisms by which human activity can influence diversity, Prof. Hendry pointed out that the important question is not whether there is evidence of rapid evolution in nature (there is), or even whether these phenotypic changes influence populations (they can), but whether these changes influence population persistence. To date, there is virtually no data, and no field data at all, to answer this question. Unfortunately, with climate change, it appears we are on a global trajectory that will provide us with the answers, whether we want them or not.

Can evolution rescue species from rapid climate change?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Can evolution rescue species from rapid climate change? This was the question posed by Dr. Andrew Hendry, at the latest Cutting Edge Lecture Series, entitled Humans, Evolution and the Future of Biodiversity. While the seminar concluded without providing a definitive answer, it undeniably challenged traditional approaches to biodiversity conservation.

Dr. Hendry presented theoretical models, which, under scenarios of varying degrees environmental change, predict that a population will decline; however in some instances the population may recover and continue to grow, having evolved tolerances to the new environment. A similar response was observed in the laboratory for a species of yeast. Nevertheless, there have been no observations of such a phenomenon occurring in a natural population. Limitations in knowledge and logistics impede the implementation of such field experiments. However, Dr. Henry seems to think there is no reason that wild populations could not respond rapidly to environmental change, and if so, they could adapt to contemporary climate change by evolving.

Acceptance of this view of evolution as rapid, rather than a slow process operating over millennia, has implications for biodiversity conservation. Conservation is traditionally thought of as maintaining nature in a static state, by setting aside land in perpetuity or by protecting a specific habitat for a particular species of interest. Contemporary evolution forces conservation practitioners to embrace change and revise their objectives. In this light, conservation biologists must incorporate into conservation strategies, evolutionary concepts that were once overlooked. This involves understanding and managing the genetic variation of populations, ensuring the conservation of evolutionary processes and taking into consideration the biological interactions of mutualistic partners who are likely to co-evolve. Determining the extinction risk of a species due to rapid climate change therefore includes an understanding of the future patterns of suitable habitat patches for a particular species as well as the potential for that species to rapidly evolve to the changing environment. Within these contexts, the conservation of biodiversity becomes a tremendously complex, but nevertheless, imperative undertaking.

Saviour or Science Fiction?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

In his lecture: Get Real about Geo-Engineering speaker Nigel Roulet posed the question: what level of climate change are we willing to accept, and what feasible mitigation options exist for curbing these changes? He discussed an array of potential geo-engineering solutions that ranged from carbon capture and storage to pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to increase albedo and reduce incoming solar radiation. By no means lacking in imagination, such proposed schemes deserve some consideration, however they should be approached critically and with caution.

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the potential impacts of climate change, a number of geo-engineering designs have emerged as prospective methods for mitigating climate change. Scientists and economists, like Nicolas Stern, have predicted that costs of climate change will be high, increasing with the degree of climate change. These costs include both environmental and economic costs as well as consequences for human health and potential loss of life. Recent attempts to achieve a global policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been halfhearted and unsuccessful. The attitude of world leaders going into the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month is disconcerting, indicating there may be little progress made on the nearly defunct Kyoto Protocol. As efforts to reduce our impact on the environment falter, many member of our society turn to their blind faith in technology to lead to a solution; figuring that if technology has lead us to this hole, it can certainly dig us out again. Moreover, to some individuals, such technological endeavors as a massive sunshade orbiting the earth are simply money-making schemes to exploit a budding market.

But before we jump on board, we must take into consideration the risks and long-term effectiveness of these high-tech proposals. The risks associated with solving a problem of massive perturbation to the global climate system by massively perturbing the global climate system, are simply too large. Due to the sheer scale of some of the more drastic climate change remedies, the effects on other elements or processes in the earth system are unknown. It must be noted, however, that not all geo-engineering strategies for dealing with climate change are risky. In fact, some proposed ideas, such as painting roofs white to reflect solar radiation, or reforestation and afforestation activities to expand global carbon sinks are ecologically benign, if not beneficial, but have a relatively low impact in terms of mitigating climate change. The highly effective mitigation proposals are surrounded by the greatest amount of uncertainty, and decades worth of research are required before implementation can be considered. In addition to retarding progress on preventative policy, the geo-engineering solutions offer a short-term fix to the climate problem. These proposals fail to address mass consumption patterns, which are the underlying drivers of climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. If technological solutions are successful at diminishing the dangerous impacts of climate change with no changes to human behaviour, the crisis will manifest itself in some other form of environmental stress. If action continues to be delayed, perhaps we will reach a point when the impacts of climate change become a reality, and in such desperation, turn to technology for a quick fix. But until then, we continue to deliberate on the subject of climate change and the geo-engineering designs remain, for now, in the realm of science fiction.

Emergent diseases and multidisciplinarity (MSE Speaker Series, 11 November 15, 2009)

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

At the McGill School of Environment Speaker Series on November 11, Holly Dressel presented a hypothetical paper in which she argued the necessity of a multidisciplinary approach in detecting, responding to, and avoiding emergent diseases, using H1N1 as a case study. While I agree with her thesis, I wonder if perhaps those of us who work and study in the area of environment are so entrenched in this Paradigm of Multidisciplinarity that at times we fall into the trap of simply paying lip service to the approach without fully appreciating the power, and the challenges, that accompany it. Working with academics outside our fields, government and community members and experts in other sectors of society can be challenging: we speak different “languages,” come at the problem with different underlying assumptions, have different expectations for what a “good solution” is, and prefer different approaches to decision making and problem solving. And yet we continue to try to work collaboratively because it provides us with fresh perspectives and analytical tools outside our personal toolboxes. Ms. Dressel outlined a number of ways in which a multidisciplinary approach is important in dealing with the problem of an emergent disease. I would like to expand upon them here.

Detection of emergent diseases: In both H1N1 and BSE before it, Ms. Dressel pointed out that it was not the epidemiologists and virologists who first identified the emergence of these diseases and their sources, but rather frontline health workers and members of the communities themselves.

Responding to emergent diseases: In the crisis situations that emerge during a pandemic, frontline healthcare workers are again necessary in responding to emergent diseases. However, other disciplines and sectors of society play important roles in providing care, slowing spread of the disease and disseminating information to the public. Sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists can help us to understand the social dynamics during these periods, and can inform how and what information is given to the public. The media is important in disseminating this information and coordinating medical interventions through announcements of vaccination and quarantine programs. Religious leaders are also important sources of information for billions of people worldwide, particularly during times of distress and uncertainty like those seen during a pandemic. The role these community leaders play can be a positive one, as has been shown by the pandemic plans many church groups have developed, or a negative one, as seen in the response of many conservative Christian clergy to HIV/AIDS. The scientific community needs to take seriously the important role religious leaders play in the daily lives and information gathering of many people, and equip them with appropriate information.

Avoiding emergent diseases: Avoidance has been perhaps the most difficult step, and also perhaps the step most in need of a multidisciplinary approach. Ms. Dressel pointed to a number of disciplines with valuable tools to help society avoid the conditions in which viruses are able to jump the species barrier and cause pandemics in human populations, such as is the case with H1N1. She suggested that we need to engage political economists to help us understand the economies of scale and political pressures that make intensive industrialized meat production plants (the source of many of these diseases) so dominant in meat production. She also suggested that we consult with ethicists and philosophers to help us understand our relationship with and responsibility to the animals we eat, which will help us make better collective decisions about appropriate, ethical methods of producing meat products. I think we must also engage farmers themselves, and other agricultural experts, to find out what is feasible for farmers, and what kind of support (financial, legal, or otherwise) they need in order to make viable the methods of animal husbandry that will not lead to the emergence of new diseases. The government, business and banking sectors will then need to be engaged, to ensure these conditions are met.

A multidisciplinary approach will be necessary for avoiding and dealing with future emergent diseases. Currently, collaboration between experts in a variety of disciplines is a commonly accepted approach in addressing environmental problems. Viewing emergent diseases as environmental problems, rather than simply health problems for medical workers to address, may increase the extent to which experts outside the field of medicine engage in finding solutions to the conditions that lead to the emergence of new diseases.

Subsidiarity, science and the management of finfish aquaculture in British Columbia (MSE speaker series, 7 October 2009)

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

In the presentation of his paper, “Subsidiarity and environmental federalism: the emergence of ‘new governance’ in finfish aquaculture in Canada,” Prof Neil Craik discussed a number of issues around the legislation of finfish aquaculture in British Columbia. One aspect of particular importance was the question of subsidiarity. In his paper, he cites the Supreme Court of Canada’s definition of subsidiarity: “the proposition that law-making and implementation are often best achieved at a level of government that is not only effective, but also closest to the citizens affected and thus most responsive to their needs, to local distinctiveness, and to population diversity.” Prof Craik suggests that governance of resources and environmental management must be “democratic,” because there exists a diversity of values, and ultimately those affected by the regulations should be involved in the design of the regulations. This is in opposition to the British Columbia Supreme Court’s ruling that aquaculture should be federally regulated. At first glance, I agree with Prof Craik’s assessment: those best situated to protect a resource are those closest to it. This requires, however, some degree of alignment of values in regards to the management of the resource at hand. This lack of common values is quite apparent in the finfish aquaculture industry, which is, in Prof Craik’s words, “highly polarized,” with very little common ground between the advocates of the industry and its opponents. Subsidiarity also ignores non-verbal stakeholders, such as future generations. In addition, if salmon farms have an impact on wild salmon (which many argue they do), it seems appropriate that the federal government (DFO) have some say in their management, because management of wild salmon stocks happens at the federal level. In the case of wild salmon, the necessity of higher level management is brought about by the biology of the system itself; wild salmon know no borders, and therefore quotas must be streamlined with those of American fisheries agencies to achieve real, sustainable management.

My final concern is that current means of regulating the industry essentially eliminate the possibility of implementing adaptive management of salmon aquaculture off the BC coast. Adaptive management is difficult to incorporate into the current system because land leases are given out for 30 years at a time, to make development of aquaculture more economically viable. This seems to me to be a risky move in the management of a resource that is as notoriously complex as the west coast salmon fishery. Management needs to find ways of accommodating the science, not the other way around.

Taxation as a Replacement for the Failing Carbon Offset Market

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Recent emphasis on taking action against climate change and the demand for strong policy to reduce carbon emissions has lead many to question whether the efforts to develop a carbon market in recent years have been successful. Mark Purdon addressed this subject at the McGill School of the Environment Speaker Series, Is the Carbon Market Failing? The moral limits of climate change policy (October 23, 2009).  Two economic institutions have emerged from climate change policy, the cap and trade market and the carbon offset market. Mr. Purdon’s research focuses on the carbon offset market, and in particular clean development mechanisms (CDM); which are projects that are aimed to assist developed countries meet emissions reduction targets while facilitating the implementation of sustainable development strategies in developing countries. While his work is still in the preliminary stages of analysis, he found mixed results with regards to the success of the CDM projects; with the major uncertainty surrounding whether the carbon credits ascribed to the projects actually represent carbon emissions.

If the established carbon markets are indeed inefficient in achieving the objectives of reduced atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, we are in need of a much more stringent climate change mitigation policy. One such measure, which has been well discussed yet implemented by only a few governments, is a carbon tax. Policy-makers could set the level of acceptable green house gas emissions, based on the science of climate change, and adjust the price of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions accordingly. The tax should be designed to increase with time, to encourage companies to invest in renewable and other non-carbon energy sources. Governments must couple such a tax with investments in public transit and reductions in other forms of taxation, such as income tax and sales tax. Reforestation and land conservation could be rewarded by awarding tax credits to participants in these activities. The benefits of the carbon tax are clear, curbing behaviours away from the environmentally and socially damaging combustion of carbon-based fuels provide incentive for development and innovation in alternative and more fuel-efficient technologies. While perhaps less popular than the carbon offset markets from an industry perspective, I believe a strict taxation system is more likely to be effective mitigation strategy for climate change. 

Ecological degradation by Canadian-based mining companies violates human rights in developing countries…and in Canada

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

On October 9th 2009, the Social Justice Committee teamed up with the McGill Institute for the Study of International Development and the McGill School of the Environment to shine light on the human rights violations of Canadian-based mining companies in developing countries. The event, entitled Human Rights and Natural Resource Extraction in Guatemala: Canada’s Role, consisted of three guest speakers and a roundtable discussion.

Yuri Melini, a Guatemalan human rights and environmental activist, and director of the Center of Legal Action in Environment and Social Issues emphasized that all human beings have a vital natural right to a clean environment. The long time horizon of the environmental destruction caused by extractive industries compromises this right not only in the present, but also across generations, thereby denying children of basic amenities such as clean water and fertile soil. Because foreign investment creates jobs in developing countries, the governments of these countries are willing to weaken their mining laws to entice international extraction companies.  Since there are no laws that require site remediation after the mine has been exhausted of its valuable ore, the mining companies do not invest in restoration, leaving behind severe soil and water degradation.

Catherine Cumans of MiningWatch Canada and Catherine Duhamel of International Resource Centre discussed Canada’s role in regulating mining activities to prevent human rights infractions and ecological damage in developing nations. Seventy-five percent of the world’s mining companies are based out of Canada, and 48% of Canadian-based mining activities take place outside of Canada. While Canada is a leader in environmental destruction of foreign communities, the Canadian legal system does not allow cases of human rights violations overseas to be heard in courts in Canada. Currently, the Canadian government has virtually no power to control mining practices outside of Canada or to require compensation for the victims of environmental degradation.

Much of the roundtable discussion was centered on Bill C-300, a private members bill which provides a procedure for hearing complaints regarding Canadian mining firms and allows the Canadian government to deny financial and political support to such firms. While these initiatives are aimed to strengthen Canada’s governing role over minimizing ecological damage and upholding human rights during resource extraction in developing countries; what action is being taken at home? Given the reputation of the mining industry within Canada and the failure of the Canadian government to protect the environment and the rights of its own people living in remote communities, where toxic chemicals taint waterways and cancer rates are well above the national average, perhaps Bill C-300 ought to be amended to enforce ecologically sound mining practices and human rights protection in Canada as well.

Reflections on “Overfishing, free-riders and reinventing collective action” (September 25 2009): in defense of community-based fisheries management

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

The first of the 2009-10 MSE speakers series, September 25, explored problems and possible solutions in an open access fishery in eastern Africa. Profs Vaccaro, Chapman and Chapman have based their study around Nabugabo Lake, a satellite lake of Lake Victoria. The management problem at hand: how to regulate an inland fishery in which there are no clear boundaries of ownership, and “traditional” methods of enforcing fishing limits (such as quotas) do not appear to work. The tool already in place: beach management units (BMUs). This tool is designed to control access to fishing by controlling access to boat launching areas. It fails because it cannot control where boats go once they are in the water, and therefore cannot control where people are fishing. The aim of the presented project is to develop ecologically relevant, enforceable fishing boundaries within the lake which correspond with the BMUs already in place. In the best case scenario, they will find that there are discreet habitats within the lake that correspond with fish populations, which can then be divided into manageable units. This creates the necessary conditions for incentives to limit access to a particular part of the fishery, and to manage well that part, because these conditions of territoriality allow a link between management and benefits incurred by good management. This link is what is lacking when access is open.

This point about incentives is something that came up often during the talk and ensuing discussion period, as a key to the success or failure of the management program. There was debate from members of the audience over whether BMUs were the best way to manage this fishery. It was suggested that something simpler, such as limiting the number of boats on the lake, might be an easier way to manage it. However, a problem with this method of management is that it externalizes responsibility for enforcing the rules, rewarding those who break them by launching their boat from a hidden beach, or taking and hiding more than their share of the quota. In the worst case, it turns the fishery into a cat-and-mouse game between the people fishing and the people employed to enforce fisheries laws. Off the east coast of Canada, when the DFO tried to limit fish takes by limiting the length of fishing boats, people simply changed the design of their boats, building them deeper (in some cases resulting in maladaptive designs that led to accidents). When fisheries management depends solely on external enforcement, success depends on resources available (manpower and money) to enforce, resources that may not always be there. A community-based approach, on the other hand, seeks to internalize enforcement through creation of incentives for proper management within the management unit, elimination of free-riders, and enforcement of institutionalized boundaries. It links the task of managing a particular unit well with the benefits incurred by good management: ultimately, the users become the enforcers. 

Certainly, there are other aspects of community-based management that are necessary for success. Elinor Ostrom,  in “Designing complexity to govern complexity” (in Hanna and Munasinghe, Property Rights and the Environment, 1995), suggests that success depends also on methods of collective decision making, monitoring, graduated sanctions against members of the community who break the rules, mechanisms to resolve conflicts within the community of users, and recognition of the right of the community to manage the resource by the larger community (state), which is aided by a nesting of enterprises: management units within networks of management units, ultimately within the state or region.

The current study on Nabugabo Lake is intended as a case study. What is unclear to me is whether what is learned in this exercise can be scaled up to the much larger Lake Victoria, which is the ultimate ambition of this project. The question of scale is important in this case, because according to collective action theory, such management programs require that management units be small, and tend to fall apart when groups grow too large. And in the case of Lake Victoria, the problem is not simply that of size, but also international jurisdiction. The lake is shared by three countries, which may make enforcement of territories within the lake much more complex. However, success in managing Lake Nabugabo may go a long way toward building the case for international cooperation in implementing a similar management strategy in Lake Victoria.

Commentary on “Like herding fish: overfishing, free riders and reinventing collective action in Eastern Africa’s lakes” (Friday, September 25, 2009)

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

While representing the model of integrative research in both natural and social sciences, the McGill School of the Environment Speaker Series seminar : Like herding fish: overfishing, free riders and reinventing collective action in Eastern Africa’s lakes, raises questions regarding the implementation of foreign ideologies towards resource management.

The seminar focused on the complexity of the social and ecological crisis of overfishing in the lakes of East Africa. From a biological perspective, humans have a massive impact on fish species populations, and the health of the lake ecosystems. Socially, many drivers including the political structure of the region, the economically lucrative export market and the nutritional needs of the local populations affect overfishing. This complex relationship of biological and social processes is unique to human ecology, and merits a multidisciplinary study. The research methods described by the speakers, including the collection of biologically relevant data on fish species abundance, population structure and habitat use, as well as the analysis of trade networks and interviews of fishermen about the size of their catches and their knowledge of the lakes, provides a framework for other human ecological studies.

The researchers asserted that the depletion of fish stocks in East African Lakes is a result of an open access resource system, in which no property rights are assigned.  Because there is no harvest limit or territorial boundaries, these systems are susceptible to overuse, as in the classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons. The current inland fisheries management system in East Africa is organized into small Beach Management Units (BMUs), which regulate the number of fishermen and the type of gear, but possess little authoritative power.

The speakers assumed that assigning exclusive fishing rights on sections of the lake to the BMUs would promote conservation and diminish over exploitation of the resource. Their assumption, which is founded upon the economic theories on property rights and collective action, yields the conclusion that the introduction of legal jurisdiction over an area of the lake will provide the incentive for the BMUs to actively patrol their boundary and punish the offenders.

What concerns me about this approach is the lack of cultural sensitivity. The concept of property rights and exclusive use is imbedded in Western ideology and culture. The speakers were unconvincing with regards to whether such a system would be accepted by the people of the region. I also question whether the transfer of this ideology to regulate fishing could have cultural ramifications in other aspects of East African society. Introducing territoriality could disrupt the social, political and economic relationships beyond the realm of fishing. Instead of solutions to overfishing being developed by foreign researchers, who adhere to a particular ideology, perhaps they should evolve from community-based initiatives within the affected region, such as brainstorming sessions of possible solutions between the fishermen and policy-makers. Because it would be designed by the creativity and experiences of local people, this type of solution is may be more likely to produce a sustainable and achievable outcome. 


Monday, September 21st, 2009

Not the most inspiring title but this is just for you 650 students and all others interested to encourage you to get started with posting your comments about the seminars you attended.

Canada’s Forests and climate change

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Do forests contribute to Canada’s GHG emissions?

In Canada, the responsibility for forests is shared among federal, provincial and territorial governments. The forest sector needs to further transform, and the impacts of a changing climate have to be considered in every aspect of the management of Canada’s forests. Reports from the IPCC and the Canadian research community have clearly documented the potential effects of a warming climate on Canada’s forests: large-scale fires in western and northern forests are likely to increase, earlier snowmelt in western areas may also affect late-season stream flows, and forest insect populations that were limited in their distribution by cold winter temperatures now seem more likely to spread.

Forest ecosystems store large quantities of carbon in living trees (approximately 50% of wood weight is carbon), surface litter and soils, and because carbon is released when forests burn and when organic matter decomposes, forest ecosystems are an important factor when considering greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on the stage of development of its different stands of trees, a forest is either a net sink of carbon (it removes carbon from the atmosphere) or a net source of carbon. One of the key points W. Kurz made during his lecture was that Canada has now a mature forest, becoming more of a source of carbon than a carbon sink. So “conservation” as it is generally understood might even make things worse; logging, far from being the one thing to avoid, is the answer to both providing the timber and other products the market is in need for and also to allow afforestation in the logged areas in order to maintain the balance between carbon capturing and release.

So are Canada’s forests an advantage when it comes to climate change or an impediment in the mitigating actions? The answer relies heavily on what we intend to do with such a natural resource, and this is why forest management plays such a key role.

Reflection: Are We Seeing Green but Ending up in the Red

Friday, November 28th, 2008

November 24th, there was a discussion section on putting accountability into accounting.  As the discussion was commented on before by thecynicaloptimist, I will discuss the aspect of discussion that most struck me:  Greenwashing.  Greenwashing undermines actual attempts to save the environment.  The main issue I see is that greenwashing is turning environmental accountability into a trend.  Professor Cho talked about companies that were on the top 100 toxic companies list, yet who still had the support of their consumers because of the way they advertised their company.  Their websites were appealing and showed a positive face, but they are still the companies with the greatest negative impact, if they are on “the list”.  In addition there are the awards for best sustainability report, which are not always verified or audited.  Is awareness of this trend prevalent enough to the consumer?  Not for all consumers if they are attracted by the company advertising and not the company’s actions.  However it is the consumer’s duty to look into which companies truly merit our support.  Should these elaborate displays of environmental efforts truly be a facade, when the real situation comes to surface, we would be disinclined to believe environmental efforts are actually successful, thus shortening the lifespan of the “green trend”.

The question still remains how do you put accountability into accounting.  It appears to me that rules would need to be enforced.  A proposal was made for an environmental tax on what’s produced, like a Pigovian tax.  Perhaps an environmental tax may put it into the minds of producers that being efficient in reducing environmental impact is serious.  Another comment had been made that students in the school do have the idea that being green is just a business trend to get access to the market.  This further reinforces the idea that green is just a trend.  Educating the masses that greening products is more than another business ploy that will work better or worse than another method would help accountability.  If environmental accountability were a duty, and not a tool there would be fewer alternatives to this duty and it would be thought of in earnest.  I believe this educational process is already taken place just by the fact that this comment was brought up, and the fact that we are currently undertaking environmental courses now.

Canada’s a big country and we’ve hidden a third world community within our borders

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

I attended, along with Sophie and J.F., two OURANOS seminars 20 November 2008. Both seminars were focused on hydrology and climate change. The first, given by Hydro-Quebec, explained their research and modeling of future hydrology in Quebec under various climate change scenarios. The second was presented by two affiliated OURANOS scientists researching the impacts of climate change (especially rising water levels, changes in ice quantity and patterns, and erosion) on the St. Lawrence shoreline.

Related to these seminars was the OURANOS seminar and article about participatory climate monitoring in Nunavik communities along the Hudson Bay shoreline. When I thought about these Quebec-climatic themed topics together, especially with respect to Hydro-Quebec, I started wondering about the history and future of indigenous land rights in Quebec. Hydro-Quebec, with government support mind you, has displaced countless native communities through the building of hydroelectric dams and associated flooding of surrounding lowlands. While the Cree are likely the best recognized community in Quebec, there are many more, including Huron, Micmac, Abenaki, Algonquin, Mohawk, Montagnais, and Naskapi. Many of these communities have been displaced and neglected, and are now face a serious threat from northern climatic shifts (such as declining safe ice routes, as described in the circulated article).

It is commonly believed that the most marginalized people in the world will feel the affects of climatic changes first and most severely. This is in part due to higher reliance on natural services for substance living, but also because the wealth required for building and organizing environmental disaster relief systems (i.e. reinforcing coastline storm breakers, evacuation procedures, and backup sources of clean water if wells are flooded or contaminated) is concentrated outside of these communities and/or their respective countries. In the case of Canada, we are a wealthy country that fails to allocate equal rights and services to native communities. These communities live in the periphery zone; outside the privileges most people would associate with be Canadian. We live in the core, in Montreal, Ottawa, and smaller southern communities which are the core political, economic and social regions in Canada. The ridge between core and periphery is pronounced and an embarrassment to Canada. I attended a lecture given by Stephen Lewis two years ago at Dalhousie University, Halifax, during which Mr. Lewis explained an experience he had while discussing human rights violation at United Nations meeting. He recounted how, out of shear embarrassment over the way native peoples were treated in Canada, he eventually refused speaking out against other countries for human rights violations. Personally I think that is a huge statement, considering the conflicts, genocides, imprisonments and extreme poverty that exist in various countries. I point I am hoping to make is that many native communities in Quebec and Canada have and continue to be afflicted with human rights violations, some living in a third world situation within Canadian borders.

Climate change and all associated environmental shifts are predicted to increase and worsen worldwide, with northern areas being the hardest hit. It is my opinion that as climatic changes increasingly alter Northern environments (particularly temperature and hydrology) native human rights issues in Canada will be exacerbated. When researching and discussing climate change in Canada and Quebec, it will be important to assess the concerns, safety, and sustainability of northern native communities.

Traditional and scientific knowledge

Monday, November 24th, 2008

During the Symposium of OURANOS, many researchers demonstrated how models can help decision makers to develop mitigation and adaptation methods to face climate change. One of the lecturers briefly mentioned that researchers working on ice monitoring in Northern Quebec were providing formation to local communities, so that resident learn to collect data about the ice distribution and thickness themselves. Since we have been discussing a lot about scientists responsibilities to share their knowledge, I thought it would be interesting to push the discussion a bit further and that is why I sent you the article Climate Change in Northern Quebec : Adaptation strategies from Community based Research, which describes the integrated community-based monitoring program that was developed In Nunavik in order to study the variation of ice. By bridging scientific and traditional knowledge, the program aim to create a tool that will allow northern communities to get daily information on the ice state on which they depend for transportation purposes.

During our discussion session in ENVR 650, it has been argued that using multidisciplinary approach (this time meaning to gather together researchers that come from different disciplines on a specific topic) can represent an advantage in environmental studies. Thus, it seems that linking policy makers, scientists and local communities also represent a good way to improve both knowledge and policy making process.

What I really thought interesting about this program was the fact that the scientists involved had a real desire to make the information as accessible as possible. For instance, scientists collected comments from the users of the ice-monitoring tool to make it as user-friendly as possible.


As scientists working on a very specific topic, we, as a Prof. Sieber said, write papers that only 10 people or so can understand. Thus, I would really want to applause this initiative to share knowledge with people that have to deal with the issue that is studied. I also think it is a great idea to form these people so they can collect data by themselves. Even thought it may not be considered as being a specific responsibility of researchers, I think that the scientific communities should support and favour the democratisation of knowledge. After all, as Dr.Carpenter suggested it in his conference, education can be one of the more efficient tool to improve the condition of environment.


Please… Stop working and start conversing!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

(A reply to An environmentally friendly world, made possible with GIS)

You and I work very hard and we often do not take the time to chill out and talk… Conversation is one of the most important social activities but because of time, we forget how important this social act is for us! We are social animals…

Anyway, on a usual Friday diner, my dad, little brother and I opened a nice bottle of wine (I must say that it was a real discovery. For those of you interested Don Pascual reserve Shiraz Tannat 2007 produced in Uruguay available at SAQ). We were discussing about the week main news as we like to do when we get together. We discussed about the US government’s possibility of helping the car industry with $25 billion (owners went to Washington D.C. with private planes), economic crash, Québec election, etc. Later on, when my mother joined us, we opened a second bottle of wine and we did not leave the table at that time.  Haha! We kept discussing and the point that I want to go is the importance of discussing because we can share our opinions but also share news that hit home everyone single one of us (I do not know if his sentence make sense, hope you got it).

I am not telling new thing here but pay attention to this… My dad mentioned that Google continues of getting crazy. After revolutionized the World Wide Wed search engine by adding search options like scholar, images, news, Google Earth, etc, Google can now helps out epidemiologist predicting pandemic. How? Well, I will ask you a question… When people get sick, what do you think they are typing in Google search tool bar? Hahaha! Exactly! I was almost shocked when I heard that from my dad… I just looked online to prove if this is true and was again really surprised to notice that this information is even published in the NATURE website! Wow! Is it surprising or scary? It becomes really powerful and Google possibilities are unlimited as GIS is also. But if I think on that a little bit… in fact, I am not really surprised of this discovery. I am more surprised of the persons that made the link between flu fluctuation and the amount of Google searches over time. See the graph taken from the Nature website.

GIS, Google, … what’s next? This world becomes really crazy! These technologies performed really well but it is our obligation to use them in the right direction.

Cost/Benefit analysis, into a future of lower value

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Today, I attended both seminar given in the 3rd biannual OURANOS scientific symposium on climate changes on local climatology. These talks were focused on hydrological problems on solutions but the projects were highly condensed due to lack of time.

Nevertheless, I would like to address another subject then the main subject of those talks. During the second presentation, one of the speaker seemed to be convinced by the efficiency of cost/benefit analysis for solving environment problem. The person seemed to be a well know member of OURANOS, often dealing with municipalities and government. This method has some strong negative aspects, especially when few is known about the environmental problems. In this case, sandbank erosion in Sept-Iles region was in the line of fire. The actions have mostly been undertaken there without the scientific datas, which is great (as if the were precautionnarious), but now that some of these datas are available, they want to execute cost/benefit.

First of all, let’s all agree the cost/benefit analysis is based on a common value, which in this case is money. It enables us to compare cost and returning value of an investment. In a world where money is already use, no problem. Where it becomes difficult, is where we attempt to put a value on a natural system without completely understanding it. Furthermore, things likes species and beauty are hardly moneyable. Converting these value into money deprives the land of it’s original value, as it becomes another number on a listing.

Cost/benefit analysis also has a problem with time for two reasons. For one it is hard to predict what will happen in the future. Nothing protects an area from being blown away by a hurricane. Then it’s bad for the investor. Furthermore, it has problem defining for how long the land will benefit the owners and we hardly ever see a long term cost benefit analysis in environment preservation. Wouldn’t it be logical to apply those lasting benefit to a time period? After all, we do it when we plan on building a dam or a supermarket.

But even then, money has these weird proprieties which makes it hard for investments in the present. The principle of discounting cannot be negleted when applying a cost/benefit analysis. That is caused by the fact that we would rather like to have one dollar today then one + x in a certain amount of time. In the case of environment, it could be centuries or millenas, what man in his right mind would give a dollar to get 10 in an hundred years. Thus a dollar today is worth more then a dollar tomorrow. Therefore, we discount the future value of land to make up for that difference. In economy, this probably makes sense, but in ecology, this is a curse. The land can’t be discounted. Ecological damages functions neglect the fact the land is rare and that reversion the process may be impossible.

Therefore, applying cost/benefit analysis when presenting a protection program the gives me the chill. I do think that it’s important that the problem be acknowledge by the authorities so that they can invest. But cost/benefit has nothing to do with environment, it’s all about maximising benefits. Im not saying that cost efficient methods are exclude from environmental action, simply that we should think before preoritising only those that are economically friendly.

Cuban hurricane risk management; could Western countries learn a thing or two from socialist Cuba?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

On the topic of adaptive management for climate change, I came across an article about Cuba’s hurricane evacuation policy. This article highlights Cuban hurricane management procedures and frameworks, and compares them with those of the United States. I have sent the brief article to you via our McGill emails. The main point is that Cuba has adapted to the high threat of hurricanes and hurricane related disasters (flooding, heavy rains, high winds) in the Caribbean. The number of deaths/ hurricane in Cuba compared to the rest of the Caribbean countries and the United States in significantly lower (there is a chart in the article illustrating this fact with figures). These results are contributed to three major factors: 1. public awareness of hazard risk, 2. public policy commitment, and 3. applied scientific knowledge. Public awareness refers to the citizens’ knowledge of hurricane risk and how to act when a hurricane approaches. Moreover, it reflects the citizens’ personal response to hurricane warnings (i.e. heeding the warning rather than staying at home). Public policy is a unique quality to Cuba due to its long standing socialist government. Cuba;s political structure is relatively stable compared to democratic governments, in the sense that one party is long lived and there are few internal struggles. It is this institutional stability that allows for the implementation and evolution of long-term, practical plans, be they for hurricane risk management, education or health care (all of Cuba is far ahead of the United States). Lastly, applied scientific knowledge, refers to Cuba’s history of meteorological scientific research; during the 19th century the Spanish government and the Catholic Church developed in Havana the first meteorological service in the Caribbean region, around the same time as the Cold War, Cuba became self-sufficient in predicting hurricanes, with a network of hundreds of weather stations.
I will not go into detail about the chain that gets information about hurricane warnings to the Cuban citizens beyond mentioning that when there is a hurricane risk, the warming system is run by the National Defense Council and all media are fully subordinate to this council to broadcast the warnings an instruction to the public (there are no private networks).
I understand that Cuba operates under a system of social, economic and ideological frameworks unique from Western countries, and that these differences pose challenges for implementation of similar hurricane management plans. But, what is stopping Western countries from creating hurricane and other natural disaster adaptation plans that are efficient within their own frameworks? An interesting raised in this article was that Cuba developed such a strong plan out of necessity; Cuba has to be highly concerned about protecting its people due to severe economic constrains imposed by the US embargo. I found this interesting when compared to the damages and lives lost in Hurricane Katrina, where it seemed that human life, at least certain human life, was disposable in the United States (I am sure we are all aware of the demographics of New Orleans and wont dive into this as it is a whole other topic).
This example of hurricane management is the closest thing I have come across for actual policy implications for adapting to environmental disasters, which are set to increase in frequency and severity the world round. I wonder then, could ‘democratic’ developed countries learn a thing or two about environmental and social protection from socialist Cuba?