Category Archives: Ecosystem services

Coral Reef Futures and Resilience Economics

At Crooked Timber, Australian economist John Quiggin reflects on the recent Coral Reef Futures Forum, which was recently organized by Resilience Alliance member Terry Hughes group at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reefs Studies in Australia. The forum aimed to discus how global changes such as fishing, climate change, and ocean acidification are threatening coral reefs. John Quiggin writes:

I spent the last couple of days in Canberra at the Coral Reef Futures Forum, as part of my new Federation Fellowship is to look at economic approaches to management of the Great Barrier Reef. As one of the speakers said, a lot of the talks had people staring at their shoes in gloom, though the tone got a little more positive towards the end. …

The most hopeful view is that, if we can fix the local threats like overfishing and poor water quality, the resulting increase in resilience (part of my project is to develop a more rigorous understanding of this popular buzzword) will offset moderate global warming, so that if we can stabilise the climate (an increase of no more than 2 degrees) we might save at least some reef systems.

It will be interesting to see what type of resilience economics John Quiggin develops. Several other economists have been working on the economics of resilience, such as Wisconsin econmist Buz Brock, Charles Perrings at Arizona State U, as well as Anne Sophie Crepin and others at the Beijer Institute, but the there is a lot that needs to be done to create a broadly useful resilience economics.

Inequality and an ecosystem service transition

Privately owned forests in the US are being increasingly converted to housing for the wealthy as the demand for cultural ecosystem service, such as recreation and beauty, is out-competing demands for provisioning services such as timber and pulp. These changes are having extensive effects on conservation and forest management practices. They are also resulting in a loss of public access to private forests.

These changes are described in a Oct 13th NY Times article As Logging Fades, Rich Carve Up Open Land in West:

With the timber industry in steep decline, recreation is pushing aside logging as the biggest undertaking in the national forests and grasslands, making nearby private tracts more desirable — and valuable, in a sort of ratchet effect — to people who enjoy outdoor activities and ample elbow room and who have the means to take title to what they want.  Some old-line logging companies, including Plum Creek Timber, the country’s largest private landowner, are cashing in, putting tens of thousands of wooded acres on the market from Montana to Oregon. Plum Creek, which owns about 1.2 million acres here in Montana alone, is getting up to $29,000 an acre for land that was worth perhaps $500 an acre for timber cutting.

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Society and Environment (ENVR 201) reading list

This semester I am co-teaching the first year course Society and the Environment in the McGill School of Environment. I teach a diverse set of lectures that are mainly focussed on commons, urban ecosystems, and resilience, but also include cost-benefit analysis and ecological futures. My colleagues cover a whack of other topics. Below are the assinged readings for my sections of the course.

Making environmental decisions: Assessing costs & benefits (1)

  • Leung, B., Lodge, D.M., Finnoff, D., Shogren, J.F., Lewis, M, Lamberti, G. 2002. An ounce of prevention or a pound of cure: bioeconomic risk analysis of invasive species. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 269:2407-2413

Managing the Commons (3)

  • Hardin, G. 1968. Tragedy of the commons.. Science, 162(1968): 1243-1248.
  • Feeny, D, 1990. The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited: Twenty Years Later. Human Ecology. 18:1-19
  • Dietz, Thomas., Elinor Ostrom, Paul C. Stern. 2003. “The Struggle to Govern the Commons.” Science. 302(5652): 1907-1912.

Urban Ecosystems (3)

  • Davis, M.. 2004. Planet of slums. New Left Review 26, March-April.
  • Lee, K. N. 2006. Urban sustainability and the limits of classical environmentalism. Environment and Urbanization; 18(1) 9-22
  • Jannson et al 1999 Linking Freshwater Flows and Ecosystem Services Appropriated by People: The Case of the Baltic Sea Drainage Basin. Ecosystems 2(4) 351-366.
  • Colding, Johan, Jakob Lundberg, and Carl Folke. 2006 Incorporating Green-area User Groups in Urban Ecosystem Management AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment: 35(5) 237–244.

Resilience and Surprise (4)

Ecological Futures (1)

Eutrophication creates deformed frogs

Pieter T. J. Johnson et al have a new paper in PNAS Aquatic eutrophication promotes pathogenic infection in amphibians.

That shows how nutrient runoff from agriculture increase algal growth, which in turn leads to increases in snail populations that host parastites.  These parasites can then infect and deformed  frogs. What is particularly important is eutrophication, which is expected to increase with increased agricultural production, could enhance the spread of other diseases that harm people as well as wildlife.  The authors write:

Our results have broad applicability to other multihost parasites and their hosts. Recent increases in a variety of human and wildlife multihost parasites have been linked to eutrophication, including cholera, salmonid whirling disease, West Nile virus, coral diseases, and malaria.

Trematode parasites similar to Ribeiroia that use snails as intermediate hosts also infect humans, ranging from the nuisance, but relatively innocuous, cercarial dermatitis to the pathogenic schistosomiasis, which is estimated to afflict 200 million people across Africa and Asia.  If the life cycles of Schistosoma spp. are similarly affected by eutrophication, forecasted increases in agricultural nutrient applications in developing countries where schistosomiasis is endemic could hinder or inhibit efforts to control this disease.

For more see Wisconsin State Journal.

Moving ecosystem services from idea to practice: an interview

As part of a series on ecosystem services on WorldChanging, Hassan Masum, David Zaks, and Chad Monfreda, interview people in the People & Ecosystems program at WRI (Karen Bennett, Charles Iceland, Evan Branosky, and Stephen Adam) working on the application of ecosystem services ideas. The People & Ecosystems program recently published a report Restoring Nature’s Capital: An Action Agenda to Sustain Ecosystem Services based on the finding of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

In the interview – Moving Ecosystems Services from Theory to Reality – the WRI people describe some of their recent projects to establish markets for ecosystem services and the challenge of ecosystem service tradeoffs.

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Terroir in the USA: reinventing local food traditions

renewing america’s food traditionsThe Geography of Flavor a August 22, Washington Post article describes how the French concept of terroir – the idea that the social-ecological context of a food’s production shapes its character – is spreading to the USA.

This idea is being promoted to enhance the profitability of agriculture, the quality of food, and the ecology of food production regions. For example, ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan is part of this movement and worked with the US Slow Food movement to cofound the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Project.

Terroir has the potential to promote a variety of interests in ways that simple origin labeling, as with Vidalia onions, can’t. Farmers believe that the focus on growing conditions and production methods will make their products stand out in a market where low prices reign supreme. Economists see terroir as a device to help restore and protect rural communities; if farmers can earn more money, they’re more likely to stay on the land. Others believe that promoting terroir could help quell fears about food safety.

“We went to the Industrialized Age almost immediately,” Trubek said. “We never had cute little towns with wine-and-cheese traditions. The American experience is all about expansion, to make it bigger, to keep moving.”

Two hundred years later, an unlikely coalition is joining forces to invent American tradition by linking foods to the places they come from and, like American winemakers before them, to romance. Their hope is to offer a counterbalance to the commodity mentality that a strawberry from California is interchangeable with one grown in Florida.

Studies show that the strategy can be profitable. According to a May 2004 survey conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, 56 percent of respondents were willing to pay at least 10 percent more for a place-based food, or “produit du terroir.” The survey also revealed that 65 percent of respondents preferred products that would give farmers a higher percentage of profits than processors, distributors and retailers.

The theory has borne out for fishermen on Lummi Island. Five years ago, they formed a co-op and agreed to catch salmon with reef nets. The contraptions, a modernized version of a Native American invention, consist of an artificial underwater reef made of plastic ribbons. Fishermen stand on tall towers above the water and watch for salmon to swim into the reef, then pull up the nets, spilling the fish into an underwater pen in the boat’s center. The fish are then moved into a separate tank, where their gills are cut and they swim slowly to their deaths.

It sounds cruel, but Lummi Island fishermen claim it’s far less stressful than contemporary methods in which fish die full of adrenaline, struggling for breath on the deck of a commercial fishing vessel. “Reef-net fish have this amazing flavor,” co-op member Ian Kirouac said. “We wanted to identify ourselves with a strong sense of place. There’s a big difference between what we do and what other people do. ”

By advertising their technique and the place of origin, this Lummi Island co-op has been able to command a premium for its fish, both from retailers and restaurant clients. Commodity sockeye salmon sell for about $3.25 a pound wholesale, while Lummi Island’s fetch as much as $5.25 per pound.

via Agricultural biodiversity weblog

Enhancing ecosystem services in agricultural lands

Farmers are the stewards of a third of the world’s terrestrial surface, the amount of land covered by croplands and grazing areas. Although the land use in these areas might be the dominant driver behind loss of ecosystem services globally a change in focus and management here can provide enormous opportunity it terms of restoring some of the ecosystem services that have already been degraded (see e.g. The Science review by Foley et al. 2005, or the results from the MA 2005). Beside being economically very important for food production, agricultural systems like all other ecosystems, can also provide other services, including carbon sequestration, erosion control, habitat for pests or pollinators and water modification.

Peter Karieva and collaborators provide an argument in a review paper in this weeks Science for refocusing ecosystem management, from preserving natural areas to shaping the ecological processes in domesticated land for enhancing human well-being. The figure illustrate the human footprint on Earth. Human impact is expressed as the percentage of human influence relative to the maximum influence recorded for each biome.

The human footprint on Earth. Human impact is expressed as the percentage of human influence relative to the maximum influence recorded for each biome.

They argue that:

if one accepts that virtually all of nature is now domesticated, the key scientific and social questions concern future options for the type of domesticated nature humans impose upon the world

Last week, there was a different policy forum paper in the same journal by N. Jordan and colleagues called Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy. They argue that major gains may result from a “working landscape” approach in ecosystem management. This approach focuses on improving ecosystem processes of farmlands by rewarding farmers for delivering environmental benefits, as well as food and biomass. They particularly stress the potential of multifunctional agriculture to enhance the many synergies that actually can take place in systems that are managed for multiple services rather than optimized production of one thing. For example, inclusion of more perennial species in agricultural production have been found to reduce soil and nitrogen losses, to have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases than annual based systems; to increase species of concern for conservation.

Multifunctional production systems can be highly valuable. The 34-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been estimated to produce $500 million/year in benefits from reduced erosion and $737 million/year in wildlife viewing and hunting benefits at a cost of ~$1.8 billion. If benefits such as carbon sequestration are added, CRP likely produces a net gain in many areas, if not for the entire nation.

Karivera et al. caution against the romantic glorification of natural, or wild, ecosystems by stressing that

some paths of domestication will result in improved ecosystems both for people and for other species; other paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are clearly better for humans but not for other species; and some paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are too degraded to benefit people or other species. The key scientific goals for the study of domesticated nature are to understand what tradeoffs exist between the promotion or selection of different ecosystem services and to determine to what extent we can change a negative tradeoff to a positive one by altering the details of our domestication process

To be better at managing agriculture for multiple ecosystem services, they therefore argue that we need to become better at assessing trade-offs in these human dominated lands. The need for improving tools of trade-off analysis have also been emphasized by Elena Bennett and Patricia Balvanera in their recent paper in Frontiers in Ecology, as well as by Carpenter et al. in their analysis of research gaps from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Bennett, Balvanera and Carpenter et al. argue that while we are relatively good at assessing trade-offs between two or a few ecosystem services we need to develop tools to assess how whole sets of bundles of ecosystem services relates to one another. While this might seem relatively straight forward it is actually very complicated.

Figure shows a conceptual framework for analysing trade-offs among bundles of ecosystem services, from Foley et al. 2005.

One of the problems that Jordan et al. points to is that we need better experimental experience at scales that are of interest for the relevant ecosystem processes:

Multifunctional systems have been tested only at relatively small scales. We propose creation of a network of research and demonstration projects to establish and evaluate economic enterprises based on multifunctional production systems. … These projects must be sufficiently scaled to address the complexity inherent in landscape-scale multifunctionality and in the feedback loops connecting natural, human, and social resources. They should be established in medium-sized watersheds (~5000 km 2) and should be managed by groups that encompass multiple stakeholders and levels of government.

Additional aspects to the need for analysing trade-offs, some highlighted Bennett and Balvanera include:
• Increased understanding of how trade-offs are altered across spatial and temporal scales.
• Improved capacity to evaluate uncertainty in dealing with trade-offs. Several of the uncertainties are linked to non-linear ecological processes, thresholds and resilience of ecosystems.
• Just developing tools for trade-off analysis will not be enough, but is just when the hard part starts. We need better processes for, and understanding of multilevel negotiations among stakeholders, power plays, multi-stakeholder processes of learning, deliberation, negotiation, and experimentation.
• How do we deal with preferences for some of the ecosystem services that people have not yet developed preferences for, simply because we don’t understand how these contribute to enhancing our well-being? Here is a need for strongly emphasizing the ‘pre-analytic vision’ of assessments to ensure that we at least try to address issues that are important although we might not yet have realized that they are

Sandstorms and Land degradation in China

Gaoming Jiang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany, writes about China’s failure to restore degraded arid land in a China Dialogue article Stopping the Sandstorms:

In Beijing, the weather forecast says that more sandstorms are on the way. The capital was hit by four sandstorms in March, and even Shanghai was recently smothered by dust clouds from the north. Television reports now describe these events as “sandy weather”, rather than “sandstorms”. But whatever you call them, they are becoming ever more frequent visitors to Beijing in springtime.

While everyone is cursing the weather, I find myself worrying: how many tonnes of soil are being lost? And how long will it be before there is nowhere in China for plants to take root? Academics argue to what extent these sandstorms are “imports” from Mongolia and the former Soviet Republics, or whether they are the “domestic” products of the arid deserts and damaged grasslands of China’s west. But either way, there is no denying the degree of environmental degradation in western China over the last three decades. Regardless of whether the capital’s weather comes from beyond its borders, China needs to put measures in place to restore the grasslands and reduce the risk of sandstorms.

Sixty billion yuan has been invested in projects to control the sandstorms that are hitting northeastern China. Tree-planting projects have also been running for 30 years across north China. But why haven’t they worked? And more importantly – what will?
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Green Lands, Blue Waters

Chad Monfreda has an post on WorldChanging ‘Green Lands, Blue Waters’ and Nested Activism on the ecological problems produced by industrial agriculture in the Mississippi River Basin and an innovative project to try and transform the river basin Green Lands, Blue Waters.

a long-term comprehensive effort whose mission is to support development of and transition to a new generation of agricultural systems in the Mississippi River Basin that integrate more perennial plants and other continuous living cover into the agricultural landscape.

Chad’s describes how he thinks this project represents ‘nested activism.’ His description sounds a lot like how the case of Kristianstad Water Realm in Sweden has been analyzed by Per Olsson and other (see Olsson et al 2004). He writes:

I see four ways in which Green Lands, Blue Waters foreshadows a kind of “nested activism” that goes beyond network-centric advocacy by deliberately seeking synergistic connections between organizations working at different scales.

First, nested activism engages interests across multiple spatial scales and multiple political jurisdictions. It doesn’t recruit participants from a single spatial scale, like the watershed or basin. Nor does it look towards a single jurisdiction, like community activists, state scientists, or national NGOs. Instead nested activism blends the logic of bioregionalism with political realism by deliberately forging horizontal links within and vertical links across spatial scales and political jurisdictions. In the case of Green Lands, Blue Waters, a three-tiered network emerges: watershed-level learning committees, state-level coordinating committees, and a basin-level body with a national voice. Multiple scales and levels lend players secret allies who mount actions in places that those players can’t access themselves.

Second, it leverages mutualisms to create solutions. Nested activism is active, meaning it doesn’t just respond to problems but proactively creates solutions. It’s one thing to identifying win-win relationships; it’s quite another to make them happen. Synergies, however, are only possible if members are diverse. Getting together with people just like yourself too easily leads to monopoly, disenfranchisement, and battles over turf.

Third, what I’m calling “nested activism” aims for durability without ossification. One of the main problems with big non-profits is the tendency for funding cycles to freeze them into a risk-averse state. A lot of capital becomes tied up in slow-moving organizations, whose predictability opponents learn to outmaneuver. On the other hand, network-centric advocacy’s distributed capital is speedy but insufficiently coordinated to press for the kinds of structural changes so badly needed. By contrast, not-too-strong, not-too-weak links among diverse, nested actors encourage persistent alliances but also relinquish old ones that cease to serve their purpose.

Fourth, a flexible prolematique is essential for the first three points. In order to get initial buy-in from diverse interests, and to keep them involved over the long-haul, nested activism should encourage what in the lingo of science studies we might call the interpretive flexibility of a boundary object around which everybody can rally, even as they define it differently. In the case of Green Lands, Blue Waters, revenue-seeking investors, research-oriented academics, and election-minded politicians can gather around the object of Continuous Living Cover Systems for very different reasons. Nobody can define the solutions, or even the questions, from the outset; rather, they emerge from interactions within the network.

Green Lands, Blue Waters’ motto is to keep working lands working. What’s clearly not working is piecemeal thinking that sacrifices broadly optimal solutions for merely efficient ones. And master plans to deliver utopia hardly bear mentioning. Truly transformative solutions are harder, messier—nested, active, full of niches, and diverse. They balance compromise and collaboration. They are about creating a better world, rather than mending a broken one.

More on bee declines

There appears to have been a number surprising collapse of bee populations. These collapses are important because bees are key providers of pollination ecosystem services, which are important for agriculture. However, most of the suspected causes of this decline are due to agricultural practices. The Agricultural biodiversity weblog has been following this issue and have written a number of posts on the issue which they review in a recent post on the possible impact of GMO Bt Corn on bees:

… We pointed to a piece that said maybe the problems in the US weren’t any worse than they had been, just better reported. Maybe the problem is monoculture? Throughout the recent buzz of hive-related news, though, we’ve ignored a few items that laid the blame on GMO crops. Why? Because they seemed a bit shrill, maybe even a tad one-sided. But a long and apparently comprehensive piece in the German news magazine Der Spiegel is neither shrill nor one-sided. And it seems to adduce good evidence that bees who are suffering a parasite infestation are abnormally susceptible to pollen from maize engineered to express the Bt bacterial toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis.

The work Der Spiegel reports is a long way from conclusive. But it does give pause for thought, and it is causing huge excitement among opponents of GM in all its forms. At the very least, it deserves a closer look. But wouldn’t it be weird if it proved true? And how would industrial agriculture respond?