Archive for the ‘650’ Category

Indicators of regime shifts – potential uses in medicine

Monday, November 17th, 2008

I attended Steve Carpenter’s lecture on Indicators of regime shifts, and was intrigued by the possibility of using those same indicators in medicine. The lecture went to show that there are some indicators which can be used to predict a shift from one stable state (regime) to another. Prof. Carpenter commented on how a change in regimes can be predicted by observing how the indicator measurements change. For example, in the case of shallow waters regime shifts from the clear water state to the turbid state, there is an increase in variance just before the change, and at the critical point the variance would “explode” (calculated mathematically it would approach infinity). Spectra analysis would show the same by shifting to red noise.

The conclusion was that using these indicators for predicting regime shifts, we might stop the process of shifting to an unwanted regime before the point of no return. One of the questions after the lecture was: Can we use these indicators the other way around, predicting the change from an unwanted stable state to a new stable state that we would want? And that’s what got me thinking on some potential uses in medicine.

For example, could we be able to predict if a patient might respond to defibrilation or not? The undesired state in this case would be asystolia  (flat line, when there are no heart contractions) and the other state would obviously be rhythmic cardiac contractions. I think it would be great to be able to tell if the patient is responding or not, because in such cases defibrilation is used more than once (sometimes 3 or more times), while cardiac massage is performed and drugs are injected in an effort to jump-start the heart. If at least in some cases we will be able to see no increase in variance, this might bring the time of attempted ressuscitation down.
Another example I could think of is comatose patients. If we might be able to predict (using increase in variance), that the patient is close to coming out of the coma, it will definitely influence the decisions being taken (such as disconnecting the life-support equipment or allow more time to recovery).

Prof. Carpenter’s answer to this was: “The medical literature that I have read does not say much about potential applications. However I would think that the scientists doing all this sophisticated signal processing are thinking about how the patterns might be used to help people in cardiac arrest
or people at risk of a seizure.”

So things are moving in this direction too, after all. Well, than, this only goes to prove how the different fields come together in terms of using research in a field as a starting point for reasearch in a completely different field.

Differences Aside: Coming Together for a Common Good

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It has been said, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”; it is a quote that I understand to be an Arabian proverb (  I would argue our “enemy” is environmental degradation.

November 10, 2008, there was the talk given by Rabbi Michael Cohen explaining the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies program.  Here, students come together for the common goal of researching on the environment.  There are tensions in the Middle East, but these students are able to discuss the environment and cooperate together.  The program is a chance for the different nationalities to come together and dispel myths of each other.  Rabbi Cohen suggests the program can function because the students are able to meet fellow citizens, get past labels, build trust and cooperate as a community.  This is made easier by the fact that the students are not in deep city and that the environmental issues transcend any boundaries.

You could pose several questions on the subject of cooperation.  First of all, when working towards a common goal will you always get people who agree with you 100%?  I paraphrase that it was mentioned in the talk that to come about change, you won’t always meet up with people in complete accord.  In my opinion It wouldn’t be a discussion.  And dealing with people who have the same ideas makes the decision process easier, but I’d argue that this lessens the amount of solutions you come by, and increases the possibility you’ll run into an insurmountable brick wall.  What’s absolutely necessary is the ability to still listen to who you do not agree with.

This poses another question.  How do you talk about an issue when facing conflicting insights?  You don’t want to abruptly come across as “I’m right, you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it.”  Without giving up what you believe, you try to see these questions from the worldview of the person posing it.  Then you attempt to explain how you view the question from your worldview.  Either way you cannot be blinded in your own bubble.  You listen by seeing.

Is it possible to solve the global issue of environmental degradation on your own?  No.  Environmental degradation may have one impact on a certain area of the world and a different impact elsewhere.  Deforestation would increase runoff on hill tops and increase salinization in the valleys down below.  You need the consideration of all who are involved to reach a complete solution.

I’d finally like to comment on whether there are instances when people should not be included in a cooperative effort.  During the question period of the seminar, the issue was raised on receiving funding from an organization, certain members of the talk perceived as racist.  If you disagree with the views of one of your supporters would they be capable of making a decision requiring you to discontinue acceptance of any future funding?  Would this instability still be considered progressive?  Are there any conflicts of interest in cooperation?  Could you still “listen”?

From this blog I hope I have not succeeded in preaching to the choir.  I also hope I have not put words in anyone’s mouth.  What I do hope to achieve is the discussion of the issues of cooperation, especially on an issue as global as the environment.  To add one more cliché to this commentary, two heads are better than one, and working together to help the earth would be better than working alone.

Rabi Cohen and activism

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

I am one of those whom attended the discussion group, this monday. The talk was synthetised by others so i would like to discuss on another aspect.

These past few week, there has been a lot of discussion whether how activism should be defined and whom should fullfill this task. The question ; «Is an academic an activist» did not have a concrete answer. One of use suggested that the activism is more of a social implication activity rather then am obligation to inform. I believe that we have a perfect exemple of that theory applied in this group of discussion. The Rabi is a learned men, no doubt in my mind, but he is far from being an academic. Nevertheless, this men is the co-founder of an environmental institution and a passionnate fond raiser. The Rabi, du to his religious duties has a convincing voice when he defends his ideal. I doubt that any of his fellow scientist in the institute could have explained has simply why this institute is so great in views of futur politic and environmental action in the present. The gift of communication his giving to few and in my opinion of the, the Rabi definitly had it. Does that mean that somewhere along the line somebody is not fullfilling his duty but letting the Rabi speak in his place. I don’t think so. Even though it might not be the Rabi project, he knows the implication, impacts and needs and his able to move the crowd and convince then of the importance that institute.

This brings me to the motive of the speaker. Indeed, he was passionnante about environment and solving politic problem in that area of the world. But i think that his motives where elsewhere then to inform us of the problem and potential solution. The institute is a NGO and therefore needs outside funding to perform its tasks. Futhermore more, the institute’s wish is to grow in number, which means they will need more students. Since they mix palestinian with jordanian, jews (both from ME and North America) and north american, they need to recruit here as well. I think those were his personal two obje ctives.

Finally, i would like to bring emphasis on the discussion concerning the funding. The institute seems to get 10% of it’s funding from a Jew organism which as been labelled racist by a men in the discussion circle. The Rabi made two clear point on the subject, other then we need the money which obviously they do. He started by saying that the institute questionned the proposed money du to the groups intention. They finally accepted the money and they now have one member on the executive commity. This enable them to critic the work of the organisation, giving them a voice in issues they believe are unfaired judge. The Rabi used the terms fighting from the inside instead of fighting from the outside. The second argument was more related to the region of the world being in a bad state. Friends and enemies are not chosen, they are given. What you do with those relationships is up to you afterwards. But the facts still remains, the decision of accepting the money is conflictuing with ethics and thats why they feel compelled to act within this jewish group. Knowing that, it is clear to my mind the politics, ethics and activism are linked together. Sciences also have their own ethic which is probably the link beetween all those aspect. In respect to that, i believe that being an activist or have a personnal ethic as nothing to do with the person function (academic or Rabi) but as more to do with personnal choice. It is up to you to decide whether or not you feel the your personnal contribution could make things progress.

Bridging science and religion

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

On November 10th, I attempted Rabbi Michael Cohen’s lecture on the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. It was the first time this semester that we assist to a seminar that was not presented by a doctor or a researcher, which really made quite a change. The tone used during this conference was quite different from we had seen before. Rabbi Cohen didn’t use graphics or data to present us a certain situation, on the contrary, I felt like he was telling us a story.

But one of the more unusual aspect of this lecture was the fact that he it was given by a rabbi. All the lecturers that I have seen so far did show up wearing a scientist hat; I was not able to tell what their religious or political beliefs were. At the beginning of the presentation, Rabbi Cohen affirmed that he had just published a novel about bridging religion and environment, which I thought was a very interesting issue.

I found this great article about the controversial relation between science and religion on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article begins by defining science and religion. The author reports the definition given by Jacques Monod (a French biologist that worked at the Pasteur Institute): ” The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective…. In other words, the systematic denial that ‘true’ knowledge can be got by interpreting nature in terms of final causes …”. Further explanation given in the article includes that science is “the absence of moral judgement, or value judgement”. Thus, science seems to be diametrically opposite with the nature of religion, which is basically all about beliefs. In what we can call pure science, beliefs are not accepted; to be considered credible, a new theory has to be based on data and supported by the scientific community. Is it possible, than, to consort religious beliefs and pure science?

War and Peace (sorry Tolstoy, I have borrowed your title)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

The evening of 10 November 2008 a group of us attended Dialouge Group Montreal’s with guest speaker Rabi Michael Cohen. Rabi Cohen is co-founder and recruitment director of The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. Rather than discuss The Arava Institute I would like to focus on war, racism and peace as being interconnected with environment. Deterioration of environmental processes and services influence conflict between vying nations, just as states of war and/or peace influence environmental preservation or drive environmental destruction.

Environmental resources and deterioration have historically and will continue to be a source of conflict. After WWI, maps of Europe were re-drawn to compensate and punish ally or axis countries. Ocean ports for trade, agricultural land, culturally significant land and coal mines each had tremendous influence over establishing the new boundaries. In turn, the value and relative shortage of these environmental resources and services became a source conflict (driving economic depression, fear and/or revenge in various countries), and contributed to the beginning of WWII. Currently, wars and ‘peace keeping missions’ are fought over oil, a finite natural resource, but also over a plethora of other natural resource, ecosystem services and culturally/religiously significant land. The current water crisis is projected to worsen and quickly rise to the leading instigator of war around the world. As Rabi Cohen mentioned and I strongly agree; environment, (for example think of salt and fresh water systems and water cycling) knows no boundaries, does not discriminate and does not change course according to human ethics, law, politics or arbitrary borders.

War has devastating impacts on the war field; the natural environment. These impacts are not contained to the conflict zone but alter ecosystem functions on a wider scale and often trigger a cascading assault on environment in various locations. During WWI, for example, vast old growth forest were logged to construct mask and hulls of ships, and the shortage of food in France and England led to the conversion of North American prairie to wheat fields, eventually tipping the prairie ecosystem to collapse, otherwise known as the Dust Bowl. Looking back, we have been able to calculate the approximate damage of the WWI and WWII on the natural environment, but what will be the cost of current and future conflicts as warfare and weapons continue to evolve?

A prevalent and interrelated issue that was raised throughout The Arava Institute seminar was that of racism. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan all share a common land, contribute to the same environmental problems (significantly pollution of the Jordan River) and must work collectively to reverse these problems and preserve their shared remaining natural environment. However, racial and religious prejudice and stereotypes are conceptually rooted in religion-based worldviews that extend into far history, not in a modern environmental worldview.

Considering the detrimental environmental impacts of war and racism above and beyond human impacts, peace becomes crucial for a sustainable world. The influence of peace on the restoring and preserving and environment in the Middle East has huge potential. One example jumps to mind; Canada and the United States, living ad working in peace, have been able to jointly manage The Great Lakes ecosystem; working to reduce pollution, restore and preserve the lakes and their watersheds. Although The Great Lakes bi-national project has not been completely successful (The Great Lakes are still heavily polluted, support less diversity and perform fewer ecosystem services compared to their natural state) it has certainly benefited the lakes. It seems logical that a multinational approach to managing, restoring and protecting the Jordan River would increase the quality of water and than decrease tensions over water resources….but how can this begin without peace in the area? Peace is crucial for environmental restoration and preservation, but how and at what stage is it best incorporated into environmental management? Is peace required as a precursor to effective collaborative environmental preservation? Will peace arise while working across borders to preserve environment? Or is preserving the environment, thus reducing natural resource (especially water) scarcity, required first in order to achieve peace?

Science and politics; an unavoidable marriage ?

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

We have been talking a lot about whether or not scientists should be activists (even though our definitions of activism seemed to differ), but we didn’t talk about the role politics have to play in science, and the role science has to play … in politics.

It seems to me that those two spheres can hardly be separated. After all, the major part of funding that scientists receive comes directly from the government. The government itself make statements all the time by deciding to fund some specific researches over others. Thus, if we agree on the idea that science cannot happen without the financial input of politics, are we willing to consider that scientists should implicate themselves in public politic debates to ensure the viability of their funding ?

In September 2008, the journal Nature published an editorial where the total absence of science in the electoral campaign was deplored. In the article, the journal reports that “many Canadian scientists are seeing, and complaining about, an undue emphasis on commercially focused research over long-term basic research” (Nature, 2008). Isn’t it a good example of an appropriate moment for scientists to become activists ? Don’t you think scientists have to react when the quality of their research is jeopardised by bias in the way funds are attributed ? Obviously, some scientists thought it was a real problem cause they signed the petition i vote for science ( where a public statement about their views on environment, health, science and technology was required from politicians.

I personally assume that if scientist depend on the government’s funding, they have an obligation, both as citizens and as professionals, to implicate themselves in political debates.

On the other hand, I am wondering if politics need science. In march 2008, the Office of National Science Advisor, that was previously created during the last liberal mandate, has been abolished by the Conservative government. The role of the office was basically to advise the Prime minister on different issues concerning science and technology, and to counsel the government on how it can “better support and benefit from science conducted inside government” (Industry Canada, 2008). In my personal opinion, the Conservative party sent a message that it does not need science when it got rid of this office. I am asking you this question, colleagues, as researchers, are we willing to accept that science is push aside from politics ? Do you think that scientists should be more implicated on public debates ? Or do you think that science and politics should be completely separated ?

I won’t comment but … ;)

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

Never say Never, this is soooo classic… I put often myself in trouble when I am saying that. haha!  I sent an email to you guys last week mentioning that I would not comment on the seminar/debate that I went too (The Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium Series-Origin of Ethics given last Thursday, November 6th 2008).  I know… It will not count as an essay or comment for 650 because I was alone of our class. Anyway, this is not where I want to go.

This morning, I had suddenly inspiration and thought that it would be relatively important to share the stuff that I had in mind with you!  The inspiration came from the Today (Saturday November 8th 2008) Montreal Gazette’s front page where you can read an article on the ECO-SYSTEM ECOLOGY + ECONOMY.  Our professor at McGill, Dr. Peter G. Brown, is cited in many places in this article and he suggested that we should take advantage of the current financial crisis to change our current economic system to a more efficient one, the “environmental economics”.  Simply because our planet is finite and not infinite as most economists think.

The link that I would like to make here with the debate (Origin of Ethic) is the fact that one debater proposed a solution about a problem raised by Peter Brown in the Montreal Gazette’s article.  Dr. Brown explained that the failure of Dion’s Green Shift has been caused by the Free Rider problem “where people don’t want to pay for something that benefits everybody.   

The solution proposed by the debater was simple.  Professor Mafred Milinski (Executive Director, Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön, Germany) observed a similar phenomenon (Free Rider).  He suggested that this behaviour partially explained the Tragedy of the Common phenomenon (Hardin 1968) where free access to a public resource leads to overexploitation and therefore collapses.  Dr. Milinski’ words were “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”.  The solution came from one of his experiments (Milinski et al. 2006).  Dr. Milinski did an experiment about preserving the global climate as a public good.  His “game” was to compare who would cooperate and who will not (saving the public good).  He found that humans are prepared to give (e.g. money) to people as long as they have positive reputations of helping.  This is similar to the indirect reciprocity phenomenon which state that “Give and you shall receive” (Nowak and Sigmund 2005).  He also observed that people who gave money were people who were well informed in climate research.  He also mentioned that reliable expert information has an effect too.  This effect is even more important when the information is public (recognisable by everyone).  Investments or donations on the climate change problem can increase when people can see them, can recognise them.  Do not be an anonym person when you make donations!  Finally, he concluded by mentioning this: 

“Humans are prepared to behave altruistically when they know that it can be recognized and when they gained in other situation by this value that they can transfer from one situation to the next which is reputation.  As soon as the reputation comes in, in a moment, people switch from selfish behaviour to altruistic behaviour. ”

Interesting, don’t you think?



If you want to read the Montreal Gazette’s article (free = you need VPN connection), go… McGill Website/ clic Library and Collection tab/ clic Newspapers/ clic Pressdisplay/ Select Montreal Gazette and go to the article by knowing that it is published Saturday Nov 8th 2008.


Literature Cited


Hardin, G. 1968. Tragedy of Commons. Science 162:1243-&.

Milinski, M., D. Semmann, H. J. Krambeck, and J. Marotzke. 2006. Stabilizing the Earth’s climate is not a losing game: Supporting evidence from public goods experiments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103:3994-3998.

Nowak, M. A. and K. Sigmund. 2005. Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature 437:1291-1298.

Expanding your Mind: Dealing with the Uncertainty of the Future

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Carpenter’s seminar Imagination for Transformation provided another outlook on the future environmental problems of the world.  There was the address that what we are seeing now has not occurred before.  The human population is growing faster than we can provide resources for ourselves.  And while our use of environmental services are increasing, the conditions of the environment we are using are deteriorating.  But if these rates of deterioration and natural disasters can no longer be predicted, how do we prevent a catastrophe.  I believe this is where the role of imagination comes into play.  We cannot blindly propose a solution without some knowledge of the situation.  Thus we can create models of what we’ve already seen and attempt to apply them to the future.  Based on our current knowledge we make educated guesses based on what will happen in the future, and whether these future visions pose a problem or not.  It is however, difficult to foretell future events with a large degree of uncertainty.  It may then be necessary to stretch our minds eye and envision several possibilities, not just one.

One of the messages that struck me in Carpenter’s lecture was that our goal was not necessarily to stop these possible disasters from occurring but from increasing the resilience of our environment to these disasters.  This is relevant because you might consider that we don’t have the power to stop all the disasters that might plague the earth.  We might not be able to prevent a fleet of meteors from entering our atmosphere, but perhaps we can find ways to decrease the damage these meteors may cause.  A more relevant example is that we cannot stop the effects of climate change because they are already occurring, but we can reduce the impacts of climate change by controlling our emissions now.

I would suggest it is more important to reduce damages done than to prevent events from occurring on earth.  An event may have negative consequences at the beginning but turn out to have subsequent positive consequences.  Forest fires can be a damaging force, but they can also change the environment for new beings to grow and survive.  Who knows if there may be any benefits to climate change.

Carpenter also attempts to stress that positive change is not as hard as it looks.  Using the example of population, he showed that a difference of one child per woman can create a huge difference in population demographics.  Thus the “Imagination for Transformation” seminar wasn’t your usual doom and gloom “the world’s careening off a cliff and we have to change our ways now so its not a complete disaster”.  With a positive outlook, people will be more likely to seek change then giving into despair.

Finally the proposition is given for three tools that could assist us in the future.  These are education, innovation and imagination.  We would need to educate our children, who carry on a large legacy, especially with the trend of fewer children to inherit the world.  As mentioned previously, with education we may be able to estimate the events of the future.  Education itself is the greatest tool we have to our survival.  With regard to innovation we have the opportunity to change our environment and build it right the second time.  We can come up with technology that reduces our footprint on this earth.  Innovation would tie in with education.  By learning from our mistakes we can create a better future.  Finally concerning imagination, we can assess the possible scenarios, foresee a positive future and take heed of the warnings that we are faced with along the way.  In this way we can talk about what we should do without the panic of a need to act immediately.

A new face for America

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

As we speak, Barack Obama, 44th president of the United-States and first Afro-American ever elected as the head of the country is preparing his governement that will take over Bush’s on the 20th of January.

For those of you of understand french, i came across a nice statement reading the news on the net : «A l’heure où nous célébrons la victoire, nous savons que les défis de demain sont les plus importants de notre existence – deux guerres, une planète en péril, la plus grave crise financière depuis un siècle». It basically says that we are facing the greatess challenges of our existance, two wars, a planet in peril and an economic crisis.

Many obstacles are in lines for Obama. The economic recession is almost inevitable now and the Americans are asking for social changes in health care and education. If we look at the dominating issues of the last campain, economy ranks in first. With an unemployment rate around 6% and the annonced recession, jobs are needed and money needs to be put back in circulation. Yesterday, worldwide economy indicated that investors were not that trusting of Obama rise to presidency; Europeen, Canadian and American stock market taking a plunge. Only on the Asian market did we see a rise in the stocks. To reverse this tendency, a lot of work is to be done, knowing that most government welcomed warmly Obama as United-State next president. Obama might have won the confidence of his fellow countrymen and worldwide leaders, he still need to gain the support of the industries.

Obama promises to removes troops in Irak with a 16 month plan of action. A social movement for the good of his troops and the improvement in the political situation of that area of the globe? Maybe it is part of the answer. But I firmly believe that the real reason lies elsewhere. With a social deficit of 500 000 000 000$ (men, that’s a lot of zeros), the money to pay for that debt won’t come in waging war in some foreign country were victory seem virtually unachievable. Obama need that money to operate the social changes in health care (4th main concern in the campaign, after economy, Irak and terrorism) and education that he promised.

As for environment, no need to say that he can’t do worst than the business as usual enforced by the actual President. It’s hard to say if Obama will have either the time or the means to actually improve United-States standard in environment since he will be very busy elsewhere. Let’s hope that the slogan of his campaign «Yes we can» goes further than simply reorganising his own country. Let’s hope that it’s a new era were politic with United-States will be more fluent and that they assume their role as leader, especially in environment, and negotiate with the rising China for measures to mitigate their environment future impacts.

To the future President, all my wishes of good luck

Carpenter; the need to imagine a larger scale transformation

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

November 3, 2008, I attended the S.R. Carpenter seminar entitled, ‘Imagination for transformation.’ I have decided to focus on the article, ‘Uncertainty and the management of multistate ecosystems: an apparently ration route to collapse,’ written by S.R. Carpenter et al. Overall I enjoyed and learned from the article; I believe it is well written and gave a clear example of the detrimental cycle of collapse and renewal or recovery that human managed ecosystems are subject. The example of lakes switching between oligotrophic and eutrophic states as a result of Phosphorus loading, removing and recycling, and under the authority of the ‘lake manager’ gave an enclosed model of multistate ecosystem management failures. I especially liked the description of reactionary management (where policy and management approach changes is reaction to changes in lake state) opposed to informed management (policy and management developed according to scientific understanding of the multistate ecosystem). Carpenter et al. acknowledge that complete scientific understanding of environmental systems influenced by society is difficult to come by, but stresses how constant fluctuation in policy and management causes ecological instability as natural ecological functions are consistently undermined. Examples of socio-environmental systems that despite management have behaved stochastically are given and include the cod fishery collapse, AIDS in Africa and the ozone hole.

Carpenter et al. recommend that effective institutional designs (essentially a restructuring of modern social, economic and political frameworks) are needed for ecosystem management. This massive suggestion is reminiscent of that made by James Gustave Speth in his book, ‘The bridge at the end of the world,’ who claims that ‘working within the system will, in the end, not succeed when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself (86).’ Similarly, Speth’s book/traveling seminar and Carpenter’s article fail to suggest how we, citizens of the modern world, would go about effectively transforming the overarching system which we live under.

There is one significant aspect of Carpenter et al.’s article that, I believe, remains largely unexplained. The lake example given offers generalized lessons about ecosystem management on a relatively small spatial scale, and is circumstances where policy and management decisions are governed by not only a single country but by a single ‘lake manager.’ There exists too many assumptions (environmental, social, economic and political) in this model to apply it to a multinational scale ecosystem or environmental issue. Worldwide socio-environmental issue such as biological diversity loss, climate change, desertification, declining fish stokes, etc, are not governed by a single set of policies, decisions are not made by a single ‘lake or fish or climate manager’ and the cultural, social and economic costs and benefits of ecosystem management will be felt differentially across the countries. Therefore, while I think Carpenter et al. present an informative and well researched model that is important for understanding ecological collapse and recovery cycles on a small, single-country scale, this model does little to advance policy and management of the large, interacting environmental issues currently facing the entire world.

Do I really care about Activism?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

I was challenged during the last seminar class about the implications of a scientist society.  I am strongly opposed to being an activist because as you know, my personal definition of an activist is any person with strong beliefs that can be expressed in an intolerant manner.  This person or group of persons do not consider other opinions and are ready to do anything possible to make things change according their belief system.

Consider the definition from dictionaries:

English Oxford Dictionary of Politics proposed that an activist is

“any person who takes an active past, usually as a volunteer, in a political party or interest group. […] Either they enjoy political activity for its own sake, or they have off-median views which give them an incentive to pull the party or interest group towards the position they favour, rather than the position it would take to maximize its vote or influence. Hence some have argued for a ‘law of curvilinear disparity’ which holds that activists hold more extreme views than either the mass electorate or the party leadership. There is some empirical support for this ‘law’ but it has rarely been tested carefully.” 

I did not find a definition from a regular English dictionary.  However, here is the definition of Activism in the English Oxford Dictionary:  

Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”

In these definitions, there is nothing about radical point of views or intolerance.  However, I just noticed an interesting part of the “problem”.  I checked for a French definition and here is what I found. 

The office québécoise de la langue française states that Activist is:

Membre zélé d’un parti ou d’une faction de tendance extrémiste ou extrême qui s’infiltre partout, profite de toutes les occasions et ne répugne devant aucune méthode, même violente, pour assurer le triomphe de ses visées idéologiques ou politiques. 

A translation (a trial) would be: Dedicated member of a party of extremist tendency, who benefits from all the opportunities and by any means necessary, even violent, to ensure the triumph of the party’s ideological or political aspirations.

I am really surprised how these two “dictionaries” define Activist differently.  The English one is more about being active in making things change and the French definition is more about a radical view of how to make things change.  It might explain why in class, we were not in agreement on the definition of activist.  Is it the fact that we have different culture and history and therefore different definitions?  No, I don’t think so… I was the only one who believed that activist focuses more on extremism…  Anyway, it is quite useless to define Activist as long as we know that there is a wide range (different level) of “being active” (doing nothing to extremism).   The level varies among individuals according to the personal willingness to change the world.  Some might want a minimal social implication and others are passionate about it… However, I suggest that we should be aware that the more you get involved, the more you share the information with others and therefore your voice is more likely to be heard.

Even if I do not consider myself an activist, it does not necessarily suggest that I do not get involved.  I personally like to be involved in different public debates.  I have written letters (essays) in Le Devoir, Fédération Professionnel des Journalistes Québécoises website and I have my personal blog.  I hope to been able to publish in other Montreal newspapers soon.  They were not all published but I tried.  Does it make me an activist?  As mentioned, I do not really care about the word Activist itself… I care more about what I am really doing on this planet and do not pay attention to how people define me.  One thing is absolutely sure; I will never be “activist” as suggested by the Office québécoise de la langue française.  Can I do more?  For sure…  I would love to share my ideas and knowledge with kids.  I like challenging myself in order to assess my communication skills but also to see how the perception of environmental issues varies across the generational divide.   Why I am not giving seminars to little kids?  I hate to say that but time is unfortunately a limiting factor. 

This is my concept of been active; get involved in diffusing the “common knowledge” and play your social role if you want to be heard and make a real difference.

However, as opposed to my personal contributions, I also like to read blogs and literature from others with different backgrounds.  It, sometimes, keeps me grounded because I feel occasionally that “my head is in the clouds.  There are always people that challenge and force you to reflect on your true beliefs.  Even if it is very tough, it forces you to come up with stronger arguments.  For me, it is not important if your opponent drags you down with their arguments, I care more about how you bounce back.  Even if it seems impossible, I will always believe that things can change… even if it takes time.

For example, one thing that really impressed me during the last class is the fact that Mr Madhav Govind Badami has shifted from a pretty secured financial situation in India to a real insecure environment.  He did what I called “jumping head first and without a safety net” because when you make decisions driven by your feelings, you do not necessarily consider the consequences of your actions.  He did not turn down opportunities that were offered to him.  These “jumps” are often the best decisions that you have ever made.  He has even called this jump as “madness” but it reflects that everyone can switch and change at any moment of their life.

Anyway, the point that I wanted to go here is simply the fact that I do not really care about the usage of the word “Activist” as long as it does not mean extremist!  Then, get involved and change the world!

“The bridge at the end of the world”

Monday, October 20th, 2008

This year’s Beatty Memorial lecture brought up the key points in Professor Speth’s last published book: “The bridge at the end of the world; Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability”. And we all know by now at least some of the main causes of the crisis we’re soon about to face: capitalism and it’s drive for profit, lack of concern for the environmental costs of our activities and failing to make the transition to sustainability. The solution to all this? Well, that’s not just as simple. In Speth’s view, the way to succeed is to raise public awareness on the crisis and to push an enlightened government to act on the matter before we pass the point of no return. But how is that possible when decades after we came to learn about the extreme environmental changes we are inducing we’re continuing on the same path of destruction with unsurpassed speed? For sure public awareness has raised, but the effects are slow to show, and certainly can’t balance the damages being done.

Some argue that we’re going about it with the wrong approach. As Speth writes in his last chapter of his book, “Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus remind us, for example, that Martin Luther King Jr. did not proclaim, ‘I have a nightmare.’ My reply to them was that he did not need to say it – his people were living a nightmare. They needed a dream. But we, I fear, are living a dream. We need to be reminded of the nightmare ahead. Here is the truth as I see it: we will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.” I happen to agree. At the end of his lecture Speth called on the young generation and urged us to become activists. To disregard this wouldn’t be the same as continuing on the “business as usual” path?

Although he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, Speth shares with us his ideas on what could be done. First, making the market work for the environment by “getting the prices right”. For now “The environmental costs are normally external to the company – externalities, not paid by company – and thus not incorporated in the price.” Putting a price tag on the damage to the environment and reflecting it in every product we purchase might induce a change in the behavior of the common consumer.

Second, moving to a post-growth society, from an economical point of view, advancing beyond today’s capitalism: “Eventually, a society reaches a point where more growth is not worth it.” Herman Daly sais that “we have already reached or passed this point and are now experiencing ‘uneconomic growth’.” The “real growth” must be “promoting the well-being of people and nature”. A change in mentality is called for, so that we could become satisfied with “living with enough, not always more.”

As Speth said in conclusion to both his book and his lecture, we are approaching the critical point where we have to choose our future. And as he foresees it, “where the path forks there will be the site of … a struggle that must be won even though we cannot see clearly what lies beyond the bridge.” Are we up to the task?

Where environment, society and economy collide

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

The Beatty Memorial lecture provide the university and community with highly interesting and important issue seminar each year. This year, it was given by James Gustave Speth, professor of Yales university. A firm alarmist activist that ask for the younger one to get active as well. His lecture was presented to a multi-genarational crowd, faculty members of McGill university, students, and citizens as well. The composition of the crowd probably affected his speach as humor was used to carry out his message.

As Shorty already pointed out, there is a problem in our current economical system. It is draining both of our social and environemental strengh. Dr Speth believe that growth is the main problem of our capitalist system. The growing economy is a monster consuming the ressources, leaving no chance for regeneration. Solution were proposed but to get them working, three things are needed. There is a need for a crisis, more violent than any human kind as faced in the recent years. I personnaly believe that climatic changes could be that needed crisis. After the crisis, we need a public mobilisation. People with the knowledge must transfer that knowledge. The last step needed is an enlightened governement, receptive to the problem and ready to act.

Going against capitalism is going to be an hard journey. But Dr Speth presented the situation as follow. There are two roads human kind can follow. The first and easy one will bring us to an early end. The other one, far more difficult to travel, will eventually bring us to a new state were economy, environment and sociaty will be valued to their just level. The crossroad is now and we need to make our turn.

I think this situation is far from being unknowed to us. However, some people out there still believe that this as nothing to do with them. As I got out of the seminar, a passed a man of an advanced age. He turned at me and pointing at the conference room he told me «stupid idiota». My spanish is not perfect but i is good enough for me to understand that the man did not respect nor did he accept the ideas carried by Dr Speth. We had a discussion in class about being activist or not. I’m starting to believe that we carry a responsability, to defend those ideas if we want things to change.

Economics and Environmental Costs

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

I fear not doing justice to the seminar presented on October 18, however I can attempt to describe it.  October 18 was the day of the Beatty Memorial lecture given by James Gustave Speth.  He began the lecture with a discussion of the environmental problems that are taking place today.  Aside from global warming, there has been an increase in species extinctions, eutrophication and a higher occurrence of toxins within the body.  We are living in an age of spiritual and social deficit coupled with longer work hours and a crumbling family structure.  One of the major factors; our economy is not taking into account these environmental and social costs.

I was surprised that Speth included the social environment as part of his talk.  Normally the first thing one considers when thinking of the environment is the ecosystems along with its flora and fauna.  However our community is a part of who we are.  One might argue it is our immediate environment as it is where we connect with each other.  The statement was made that our progress is measured by the GDP.  Speth suggests that this is counterproductive as people who are earning more are not necessarily happier.  In addition along with the progress of our economy we are seeing greater disparities between the rich and the poor.  If we wish to decrease the amount of poverty in the world this cannot be seen as progress.

It is difficult to change the economy to suit our environmental needs.  Because it appears to be more costly to incorporate these new environmental policies we are faced with the dilemma of wishing to save our current environment but being fearful of damaging our economy.  In addition, because of the stronger influence the private sector is having over the government, it is harder to seek government support conflicting with the needs of the private sector.  This statement appears similar to that made in the Linzey Seminar, Building Activism Stripping Corporate Power and Recognizing the Rights of Nature.  Finally it is difficult to put forth an environmental agenda when people are currently struggling to support themselves.  Thus they’d prefer lower cost options.

If we are going to seek to change an economy that conflicts with our environments (ecological and social) we our going to have to make sacrifices.  It has been suggested we are currently living beyond our means.  It has therefore been proposed that we lower our consumption and (as put by Speth) consider the market of nothing.  Buying less, buying local, and buying “slow food” would have a decreased impact on the environment.

Concluding Speth’s lecture are many powerful statements.  He seems to aspire to a future where there is collaboration with the political, social and environmental aspects of life.  He also aspires to a future where we focus on “needs, rather than wants, dependence rather than transcendence, [seeking to be] a part of nature rather than apart from it, [and seeking to become] better, not richer” (Speth, 2008).  To us in particular Speth beseeches us to get off the sidelines and get active in our goal for improving this world.

Light green ? Dark green ?

Friday, October 17th, 2008

I attempted Christie Lovat’s presentation on ecologically managed golf courses.

As it was described in previous comments, Ms Lovat did demonstrate that golf courses owners can benefit from more ecological management.

The presentation reminds me a discussion we had in class about the role of humankind on the environment. Some of us agreed with the assumption that every action of a human will have an impact on the environment. We considered that every initiative taken to reduce this possible impact would be a good thing.

To confer ecological practices to golf courses is certainly an interesting project. However, those golf courses remain an important piece of land –where plants and trees are removed- devoted to a single sport. I think we should be careful about this “green labeling” tendency. Let’s look at those new carbon neutral events and conferences, where emissions of GHGs are compensate by funding a green project elsewhere in the world. The organization Planetair, for instance, proposes to fund projects for windmill development or electricity by biomass in India. I am afraid these initiatives will become a method to reduce our guilt without forcing us to make real efforts to change our lifestyles.

I am wondering where society will set the boundaries of greenwashing. Is every action taken to reduce our ecological footprint good? Can anything become green? If even golf courses can have a green label, then a lot of other things can!

Is there room for ecology and economics on the golf course?

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

October 7 2008 I attended Christie Lovat’s seminar, “Economic Benefits of Ecologically Managed Golf Courses.” This seminar contrasted the economic costs and environmental conditions of golf courses, providing relevant facts and figures to illustrate two varied business approaches. Traditional manicured golf courses with large greens require high cost maintenance (pesticides, irrigation, and mechanical upkeep) and seldom reflect a regions native environment. In contrast, ecologically managed golf courses preserve the native environment and habitat within the course, resulting in less disruptive and costly maintenance. The viability of both approaches was presented and discussed, showing that ecologically managed and environmentally marketed golf courses can be as or more successful than traditional course in the short and long terms. This seminar was interrelated with several environmental issues previously discussed in our seminar class; how environment factors into modern economics, value of nature, human impacts as positive or negative for environment, etc.

In addition, this seminar raised a new issue, that of environment and recreation. Outdoor recreation encourages humans to experience, enjoy, and connect with nature; a deeper appreciation and value for nature can be fostered in this way. Conversely, outdoor activities, such as golf or blazing trails through pristine rainforest, can be extremely damaging and disruptive to natural ecosystems. Furthermore, one person’s idea of ‘outdoor activity’ and ‘nature’ can greatly differ from the next person. Many urban dwellers consider golf an escape from city life where nature’s beauty and fresh air can be enjoyed. In reality, however, manicured golf courses seldom reflect a given region’s native environment, nor do they support a diversity of native wildlife. In this case, the costs and benefits of ‘enjoying nature’ must be contemplated; benefits of connecting with nature vs. damages imposed on nature by a given activity. These two factors are difficult to assign value. For example, benefits of connecting with nature may include increased awareness and environmental activism or policy-support. Costs of damaging outdoor activities may include loss of habitat and native biodiversity, decline or pollution of water tables, etc. In both cases, the costs and benefits are difficult to weigh; inherent value will be subjective while assigning monetary value is difficult and often obscure, neither are easily translatable into effective environmental policy. This limitation reflects those associated with applying cost-benefit analysis to environment and economy which we have spoken of in seminar.

The debate over environment and recreation, which is unavoidably linked with economy, raises the following question; with the amount and quality of natural, wild spaces worldwide dwindling, are outdoor activities such as golf a benevolent experience or abuse of the environment? I believe that outdoor recreation (including golf), wilderness excursions and eco-tourism are gaining popularity worldwide with largely unknown impacts on environments. I also believe, however, that when managed in a sustainable- ecosystem based manner, outdoor activities can help preserve the natural environment while promoting environmental awareness and education. In her seminar, Christie Lovat illustrated that golf can be managed ecologically, to preserve native habitat, flora and fauna (squirrels, birds, butterflies, etc.), reduce water waste and herbicide pollution, and offer a more authentic outdoor experience to ecologically minded and simply competitive minded golfers alike.

Does “Economy” really save the environment?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Christie Lovat, a third year undergraduate student in botanical science, did a seminar on the Economic Benefits of Ecologically Managed Golf Courses. Ms Lovat is interested in ethnobotanical science and did a wonderful presentation by demonstrating how things can change even at the “ECOnomic level”. As well said in our lab by supernova, this presentation was an example of how an organisation can adapt their practices to make the environment a better place to live… or to golf 😉

In Quebec, the use of pesticides is prohibited. However, there are few places where pesticides are tolerated. Golf course is one of those exemptions. The use of pesticides in golf course is widely used (39 382 kilograms annually including fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides). However, according to the Code de gestion des pesticides, every three year, golf courses have to submit to the government a plan of pesticides reduction. Those reductions range from 12% (fungicides) to 2% (rodenticides).

Ms Lovat has a well structured presentation and explained how golf courses are evaluated and how they make profit. The golf courses are evaluated for three different criteria: 1) its difficulty, 2) its beauty, and 3) its condition. The last two are costly options because, it costs a huge amount of dollars to make it beautiful (ornamental plants, watering, and other field maintenance) and to keep it in good condition (use of pesticides). Ms Lovat demonstrated that with more environmental friendly golf course, it is possible to reduce both maintenance and construction cost. The solutions were very simple. First, we should use native instead of ornamental plants. Native are already adapted to the environment and therefore demand less maintenance. This technique will therefore also reduce pesticides applications. Second, during the construction of new golf courses, instead of planting trees and cutting the native ones, an ecological golf course would keep native trees because they have the same advantage as the native plants have. According to Ms Lovat, an ecological golf course can reduce down to 70% of its construction cost.

The idea overall make sense. I am a golfer (pathetic golfer) myself and I went recently golfing with one of my friends in Saskatchewan and I was expecting to play in golf course with local attributes such as “grassland”. Naturally, Canadians prairies (biome) are a result of the type of climate (Briefly, more rain makes them a forest or less rain makes them a desert). The climate made them Prairies and it is not a result of extensive agriculture. Instead of golfing in surrounding grassland, we played in a typical North-Eastern American golf course with many trees and ornamental plants. It may be difficult to notice but both pictures are from Saskatoon. Weird, isn’t it or was I the only one to expect a golf courses with local attributes?  🙁

The presentation of economic benefits of ecologically managed golf courses was well demonstrated. But, are we at a point where we need economical explanation to protect our environment? It seems that we need to prove to the polluter that ecosystems have an economic value. Is it acceptable? Are arguments like “this landscape is beautiful and need to be preserve” and “we need unaffected habitat by direct economic human activity” not enough to make them protected? An economist response would be “no” because they are not rendering economical services to society.

We cannot attribute a value to any living organism. Even if they do all at a certain point, it will be too late when we will realize it.

Freaky Friday, Freaky problem

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Fourth in line to comment Dr Ricciardi’s presentation and still something to say. Perhaps this is a sign of the excellence of the presentation. His talks was energetic, passionate and fledged with he desire to inform his audience about one of the global problem of our modern world : Global swarming. He used metaphore and convincing and chocking vocabulary (some of my collegues already pointed it out) to deliever his message 

As the name implies, global swarming if affecting the entire planet. Dr Ricciardi made it quite clear the the once know boundaries were gone with the globalisation and the expension of transportation. Animals and plants are now found outside their resisding area. So far, no problem, since it happens naturally. Where the problem arise is in the number of invasion. In Hawaï for exemple, the ratio invasion\year went up a million times if you compare the pre-human ratio to the actual ratio.

Dr Ricciardi has also shown that there are many relation beetween species. Those relations are fragile and the introduction of a new specie may affect the entire ecosystem. For exemple, the waterfowl of the grand lake (i think it was Erie, sombody correct me if i’m wrong) are now dying of botulism. This is cause by an anaerobic bacteria, Clotridium botulism. Usually, there were no link beetween the to specie. But the introduction of a filtrating specie change it all. The bateria is now being filtrated by Zebra mussel, which in return are eaten by the Round gaby. Eventually, the waterfowl feed on Round gaby and are infected with the disease. Such an interaction did not exist in the past. N.B.: Botulism occurs in human as well. A source can be non-sterilised (or poorly sterilise) food caning.

As for economical consideration, Dr Ricciardi pointed out that the assessment were only partial and only on a regional level base. His solution implied better founding for the Canadien food inspection agency which he describe has the line of defence against invading species. But, the fact remains that the interaction between the species are very complexe thus hard to predict and assess. It will be a reel challenge to contain the invasive specie from doing harm to the native environnement especially if we can’t predict were they will be the most destructive.

Invasive species disrupt the fundamental rules of existence for everything’s else! Dr. Ricciardi

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Ok, now it’s Friday after-noon and instead of moving on for the weekend, we have attended to a seminar in the famous Redpath auditorium.  Hard Friday seminar??? Well, not that much since the guest speaker did a terrific job and also, we planned to move to the Thompson house after the seminar!  This Friday seminar was given by Dr. Anthony Ricciardi.  Dr. Riccardi is an associate professor at McGill University.  He wrote many scientific articles related to invasive species and does not hesitate to give his opinion (as an expect) in the community by collaborating in a wide range of medias (radio, newspaper, television).  This is a good way to reach different people with different background and also from different cities, regions, and countries.  The more you talk and write in the media, the more people know about invasive species and therefore, the level of knowledge should increases in the population.  This is a very good strategy to make people more sensitive to environmental issues.

Throughout his presentation, he showed enormous examples of world, continental, regional and local invasions and the impact they have in their new environment.  The reason why the researcher gave so many different examples can be the fact that he wanted to show that invasive species can have an effect on multiple domains and everyone can be affected.  This intention (called “passion”), however, turn me off in couple of times during the presentation because the speed of speaking was really too fast.  I’m sure this was not good to keep the audience’s interest.  However, in order to regain people’s attention, Dr. Ricciardi used several great words and expressions.  One of them has been used to demonstrate how invasive species are damaging.  According to Dr. Riccardi, “Invasive species (e.g. pigs) disrupt the fundamental rules of existence for everything’s else”.  The word “fundamental” and “disrupt” should bring bells and everyone must then pay attention to that because disrupting fundamental interacts will not only affect small little things that we do not really care about but will affect the roots of our own society.  For example, invasive species are capable to cause nuclear power plant breakdown (zebra mussels) and increase the risk of malaria outbreak (pigs dig holes that favour mosquitoes’ life cycle).  Finally, Dr. Ricciardi concluded by suggesting four mains Global Changes that favour the establishment of invasive species; the raising CO2, raising temperature, landscape alteration, and N-pollution. 

How much we need to know about invasive species?  Well, this is still a hard question to answer, but I think the level of knowledge will be determined when people will realize how drastic our environment is changing and how this change will affect us.  In order to realize this Global Change, information must be accessible, understandable and in high quality.  Dr. Ricciardi is a good example because he does not rely only on scientific journals.

Is global swarming worse then global warming?

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

I attended this week’s “Freaky Friday” seminar on Global Swarming, presented by Anthony Ricciardi. It was a wake up call to the effects that human activity and the global environmental changes it induces have on other species, effects that in most cases are harmful to us in the most unexpected ways: they are costly -from an economical point of view, and they are hazardous to our health. For example the Leafy spurge, an invasive specie that is taking over the farms in Manitoba, has both economical effects, resulting from loss of farmland and toxicity to cattle, as well as human health effects: it causes contact dermatitis. Another costly example is that of the Zebra Muscle, who spread from the Black Sea and is now found on the Eastern coast of North America and in the Great Lakes. It reduces the turbidity of water, thus creating a proper environment for the growth and spread of weeds, their decay causing anoxic zones favorable for the development and persistance of human pathogenic germs like Clostridium Botulinicum. The same Zebra Muscle was responsible for three emergency shut-downs of a US nuclear plant by multiplying in the water intake systems. And these are just two examples. But there are many more plants, insects and animals that with the “help” of humans are spreading faster and invading parts of the world that otherwise would have been impossible for them to reach.

One of the most important points of the seminar for me was the labeling of cargo ships as “floating syringes”. The cargo ships that we now use and depend on for transport of food and freight, are the most common means of spreading invasive and deadly species around the world. The water released from their tanks in different ports (on coasts or up rivers) contains enormous quantities of viruses, bacteria, plants and animals. In Mr. Ricciardi’s view, these are the true terrorists crossing our borders each day and causing the loss of billions of dollars worldwide.

So is global swarming worse then global warming? They’re both very serious threats, closely related, caused and sustained by the same thing: human activity. We seem to be the worst kind of invasive specie, the one causing unsurpassing environmental changes wherever we go. And as Mr. Ricciardi pointed out, there aren’t many places on Earth right now where humans can’t go. It’s high time we face the consequences.