Category Archives: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Ecosystem services and poverty alleviation

Ecosystem services for poverty alleviation (ESPA) is an exciting new research programme funded by a consortium of development and science agencies in the UK. I’m on ESPA’s international advisory board and they asked me for some thoughts on the ecosystem service science. Below is what I wrote:

The concept of “Ecosystem services” is a powerful idea that bridges the conceptual separation of the ecological and the social, to connect ecosystems to human well-being. The success of this idea has lead to many “payment for ecosystem service” schemes, which are now being implemented or are being discussed. These plans have the potential to channel substantial amounts of money into the enhancement of the natural capital, which produces ecosystem services, in ways that improve the livelihoods of the world’s poorest.

The challenge of ecosystem service research is that the policy success of the idea of ecosystem services has rapidly outstripped its scientific basis. This situation presents many risks that efforts may be wasted on activities that actively damage natural capital or reduce the livelihoods of the poor. More specifically in terms of poverty alleviation, ecosystem service research has sometimes merely  biological research coated with a veneer of social relevance, rather than using social needs to focus ecological research. Achieving positive outcomes, and avoiding negative ones requires a much richer understanding of ecosystem services than now exists. Below I suggest some ecosystem service research challenges that it would be useful for ESPA research to address.

Research Challenges
Effective ecosystem services assessment: Scientists and practitioners need to develop faster, cheaper ways of assessing the state of multiple ecosystem services, especially in data sparse regions. A better understanding of the following points would help design more effective assessments.
Bundles of ecosystem services: We need to better understand how multiple ecosystem services interact with one another over time. Are they tightly or weakly integrated? Over what scales? What are the social and ecological processes that connect them? In particular what are the trade-offs or synergisms between multiple ecosystem services? This issue is particularly import if we are to avoid situations where investment in specific ecosystem services (e.g. food production or carbon sequestration) results in reducing in other ecosystem services whose losses outweighs the benefits obtained for the increases. This is particularly important to ensure that increases in agricultural production actually increase human well-being.

Dynamics of ecosystem services: Most analyses of ecosystems services have been static, and there has been too much focus on species role in producing ecosystem services and too little on either social or spatial processes shape the supply of ecosystem services. We need to develop better ways to assess how multiple ecosystem services vary and change over time, and understand what are the key social, ecological and geographic factors that drive these changes. In particular it is important to understand what internal and external social and ecological dynamics can produce abrupt changes in ecosystem services (or alternatively what processes can produce resilience). Understanding these factors is important to know when are where abrupt changes are likely to occur, what can be done to avoid unwanted abrupt changes, or alternatively what can be done to promote desired abrupt changes.

Enhancing ecosystem services: Poverty reduction requires enhancing the supply of ecosystem services in degraded ecosystems, but other than agricultural research on provisioning services there has been relatively little work on how to effectively increase ecosystem services. Much environmental research assumes people have a negative impact on ecosystems, but people can improve ecosystem functioning (e.g. Terra Preta – the high productivity soil produced by pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations). Social, ecological and technological processes can be used separately or in combination to improve ecosystem services, but while there has been a lot of research on the built environment, there has been little research on how ecological infrastructures can be built, enhanced and maintained. We need to better understand how to do enhance ecosystem services, especially how poor people can do it in degraded ecosystems, in wild and human dominated ecosystems, as well as in rural and urban locations.

Governing ecosystem services: It is currently unclear what are effective ways to govern ecosystem services. Today there is often a haphazard assignment of property rights to ecosystem services without analysis or research on the ecological and social consequences, or resilience of these strategies. Ecosystem services present multiple challenges in that their consumption, production and management occur at different scales making it difficult to connect ecosystem system services to existing property or land management. Furthermore, research has shown that not only can payment for ecosystem service schemes have negative impacts on other ecosystem services, but also that payments can erode the social norms and practices that are producing ecosystem services. These problems suggest that institutional innovation and experimentation is needed to develop effective institutions to govern ecosystem services – especially to enhance the wellbeing of the poor, and that the design of such programmes should not be done from a narrow economic perspective.

Human well-being and ecosystem services: How do changes in the supply of ecosystem services alter human wellbeing? People depend on ecosystem services, but we know little about how much benefit different people receive from different ecosystem services. What we do know is largely about either multiple benefits of food production or the economic benefits of tourism. We know little about how either regulating ecosystem services relate to human wellbeing, or how ecosystem services contribute to multiple aspects of human wellbeing. Addressing this issue in multiple ways is critical to understanding the connection between ecosystem services and poverty reduction. In particular better understanding how to develop agricultural landscapes that provide a diverse set of ecosystem services to the poor. Contributing to clarifying these relationships would be a major benefit of ESPA. In particular a richer understanding of how ecosystem services contribute to diverse aspects of human wellbeing, such as health, security, and good social relations, is important to be able to accurately value ecosystem services.

The above research challenges are written in a telegraphic form that is relatively unsupported. Some of these issues are raised and discussed in greater length in three recent papers I co-authored:

Steve Carpenter wins Stockholm Water Prize

Big congratulations to my former post-doc advisor Steve Carpenter on winning the 2011  Stockholm Water Prize.  It is well deserved as Steve has done a huge amount of really innovative work on ecosystem dynamics, ecological economics, large scale ecosystem experiments,  and environmental management.

The prize citation writes:

Professor Carpenter’s groundbreaking research has shown how lake ecosystems are affected by the surrounding landscape and by human activities. His findings have formed the basis for concrete solutions on how to manage lakes.

Professor Carpenter, 59, is recognised as one of the world’s most influential environmental scientists in the field of ecology. By combining theoretical models and large-scale lake experiments he has reframed our understanding of freshwater environments and how lake ecosystems are impacted by humans and the surrounding landscape.

The Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee emphasises the importance of Professor Carpenter’s contributions in helping us understand how we affect lakes through nutrient loading, fishing, and introduction of exotic species.

“Professor Carpenter has shown outstanding leadership in setting the ecological research agenda, integrating it into a socio-ecological context, and in providing guidance for the management of aquatic resources,” noted the Stockholm Water Prize Nominating Committee.

The Stockholm Water Prize is a global award founded in 1991 and presented annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute to an individual, organisation or institution for outstanding water-related activities. The Stockholm Water Prize Laureate receives USD 150,000 and a crystal sculpture specially designed and created by Orrefors.

H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, who is the patron of the Prize, will formally present Professor Carpenter with the 2011 Stockholm Water Prize at a Royal Award Ceremony in Stockholm City Hall on August 25 during the 2011 World Water Week in Stockholm.

SIWI, who gives the water prize have also posted an interview with Steve about his work on trophic cascades and resilience:

Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox

My colleagues are I recently published a paper in BioScience, Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade?

The paper originated from the involvement of the first four authors, my former PhD student Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, my colleague at McGill Elena Bennett, and my former post-doc Maria Tengö and I, in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  While we were all happy with our work on the MA, we felt that the MA had not had enough time to digest its findings.  I was particularly interested in the apparent contradiction between the MA’s assumption that ecosystem services are essential to human wellbeing and the observation that human wellbeing has been increasing as ecosystem services decline.

Our paper compares four alternative explanations of this apparent contradiction.  Our abstract outlines the paper:

Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services. We assess four explanations of these divergent trends: (1) We have measured well-being incorrectly; (2) well-being is dependent on food services, which are increasing, and not on other services that are declining; (3) technology has decoupled well-being from nature; (4) time lags may lead to future declines in well-being. Our findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. Although ecologists have convincingly documented ecological decline, science does not adequately understand the implications of this decline for human well-being. Untangling how human well-being has increased as ecosystem conditions decline is critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services; we propose four research areas to help achieve this goal.

BioScience has highlighted the article by writing a press releaseproviding a set of teaching resources, and featuring the article in the issue’s editorial.  BioScience’s editor-in-chief Timothy M. Beardsley writes:

BioScience will publish commentary on aspects of their analysis in a future issue. Yet the article clearly strengthens the case for research that integrates human well-being, agriculture, technology, and time lags affecting ecosystem services. Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues urge more attention to how ecosystem services affect multiple aspects of well-being, ecosystem service synergies and trade-offs, technology for enhancing ecosystem services, and better forecasting of the provision of and demand for ecosystem services.

The recent oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, the biological impacts of which will take years to fully manifest and will persist for decades, should be reminder enough that although technology can insulate us from degrading ecosystem services locally, it often does so by creating problems elsewhere. As the human population grows, fewer places remain where the impacts can be absorbed without adversely affecting somebody. Aggregate global human well-being is, apparently, growing—though it is obviously declining in some places. Extending and defending the gains, particularly as the quest for energy becomes more intense, will require policymakers to understand the complicated relationship between ecosystem services and the humans who use them.

I’ll summarize our paper and respond to some of the media coverage of our paper in followup posts.

The paper is:

  • Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, and Laura Pfeifer.  2010. Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade? BioScience. 60(8) 576-589.

Thanks to BioScience an open access version is temporarily available here.

The “Ctrl+Alt+Del” of Global Change Sciences

Twitter|@vgalaz
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This is one of those important things that seldom make the headlines. While climate change science has received considerable public attention, especially since the controversies around the IPCC scientific assessments, another fact is seldom, if ever, acknowledged – that  a number of international global change programmes are reorganizing to better match the increasing need for policy-relevant, integrated sustainability science.

The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) as an example, has been reorganizing its work the last years, to better integrate the natural and social sciences and acknowledge the non-linear features of global change. This integration is to be developed by a range of ESSP associated research programmes and projects, including (prepare for an alphabet soup….) DIVERSITAS, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, GWSP , GECHH, START and MAIRS. This paper lays out the thinking behind the ongoing reorganization.

One important change under the ESSP, and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, is the reorganization of the previous programme Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC, lead by the international institutions legend Oran Young), into a new initiative: the Earth System Governance Project (ESG). The ESG, lead by Frank Biermann in Amsterdam, aims to study the role of multilevel governance, institutions and actor-networks in dealing with global environmental change, and includes several international research centres.

In addition, the International Council for Science (ICSU), in partnership with UNESCO and the United Nations University, is launching a new international initiative based on the insights and framework provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS). PECS ambition is to address the following question: ‘how do policies and practices affect resilience of the portfolio of ecosystem services that support human well-being and allow for adaptation to a changing environment?’. PECS will provide scientific knowledge to the newly launched “IPCC-like” Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). An article published in PNAS in 2009, lays out the thinking behind the PECS programme.

So, if you ever get the question “where are the scientists that will help save the world”, the answer is easy: it’s ESSP, PECS, DIVERSITAS, ICSU, IPBES, ESG, IHDP, IGBP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, ….

IPBES – a new assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Five years after the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the first assessment of the Earth’s ecosystem services, was released the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been proposed to carry out regular scientific assessments of the what science knows about biodiversity and ecosystem services.

While there has been substantial agreement that a followup to the MA was needed there has not been agreement on how to do it.  Like the MA, this new panel will be modelled on the IPCC and it will probably meet in 2011.   It is supposed to conduct periodic assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services at global, regional and sub-regional scales that address policy relevant questions, identify research gaps, and build capacity to address these issues.

The MA had a huge impact on the research community, changing the questions that many scientists, including myself decided to address.  Hopefully, this new panel will provide a useful focus for ecosystem service research, however I worry a bit about an over focus on biodiversity, and a lack of attention to agriculture, soils, water, and social change all of which are essential to understand ecosystem services.

Also while there has been ongoing concern about how to create and fund an ecosystem service assessment, and has also been a lot of concern over who would operate it (i.e. that it have a strong scientific foundation), as well as how it will fit with ongoing global change research programs such as IHDP and PECS, as well as DIVERSITAS. These things remain unclear for IPBES.

Nature reports:

In Busan, negotiations stretched late into the night as delegates debated the scope of the proposed IPBES, including the specifics of how it will be funded. “There was concern among the developed countries that this not become a huge bureaucracy,” says Nuttall. “Governments wanted to be reassured that it would be lean and mean and streamlined.”

Another bone of contention was to what extent IPBES would tackle emerging issues or areas of contested science. In the end, it was agreed that the body will draw attention to “new topics” in biodiversity and ecosystem science. “If there had been something like this before, then new results on issues such as ocean acidification, dead zones in the ocean and the biodiversity impacts of biofuels would have been rushed to the inboxes of policymakers, instead of coming to their attention by osmosis,” says Nuttall.

Among the governments who assented to the IPBES’s creation were the European Union, the United States, and Brazil. The plan will come before the general assembly of the United Nations, slated to meet in September, for official approval. Those involved with the process say that that the UN creation of the new body is a virtual certainty.

It will be interesting to see how IPBES evolves. I think it is very important that an excellent team of broad thinking scientists with experience in large scientific assessment are chosen to lead this project.

Four short links to new papers

Four interesting new papers – Parks & Poverty, Pleistocene extinctions, Evosystem services, and making better assessments

1) Parks can help local people.  Protected areas reduced poverty in surrounding areas in Costa Rica and Thailand by K.S. Andam and other in PNAS (doi:/10.1073/pnas.0914177107)

2) Evidence for a long Anthropocene.   Pleistocene extinctions of mega-herbivores may have lead to global cooling due to reduction on methane.  Methane emissions from extinct megafauna by Felisa A. Smith and others in Nature Geoscience(doi:/10.1038/ngeo877)

3) Evosystem services, the services of evolution.  By Daniel Faith and others.  Evosystem services: an evolutionary perspective on the links between biodiversity and human well-being (doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2010.04.002).  Evosystem services seem fall into the category of regulating and supporting services to me.  However, an interesting idea.  It would be nice to see it further developed.

4)  A bit older, Reflections on how to make global scientific assessments better. From new journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability How to make global assessments more effective: lessons from the assessment community by Dale Rothman and others. (doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2009.09.002)

Agro-colonialism and/or Agricultural development?

The New York Times Magazine has an article by Andrew Rice Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism? on new mega-investments in agricultural land in Africa.

This type of activity featured in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment‘s TechnoGarden scenario as something that can have complicated ecological and social consequences. These investments often displace small scale farmers, but can greatly increase yields.  Indirectly they can benefit local people enhancing local agricultural infrastructure, skills, and economic opportunities – or they can just degrade local ecosystems for external benefit.  The article sets the stage and provides some examples from Ethiopia:

Investors who are taking part in the land rush say they are confronting a primal fear, a situation in which food is unavailable at any price. Over the 30 years between the mid-1970s and the middle of this decade, grain supplies soared and prices fell by about half, a steady trend that led many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself. But in 2006, the situation reversed, in concert with a wider commodities boom. Food prices increased slightly that year, rose by a quarter in 2007 and skyrocketed in 2008. Surplus-producing countries like Argentina and Vietnam, worried about feeding their own populations, placed restrictions on exports. American consumers, if they noticed the food crisis at all, saw it in modestly inflated supermarket bills, especially for meat and dairy products. But to many countries — not just in the Middle East but also import-dependent nations like South Korea and Japan — the specter of hyperinflation and hoarding presented an existential threat.

“When some governments stop exporting rice or wheat, it becomes a real, serious problem for people that don’t have full self-sufficiency,” said Al Arabi Mohammed Hamdi, an economic adviser to the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development. Sitting in his office in Dubai, overlooking the cargo-laden wooden boats moored along the city’s creek, Hamdi told me his view, that the only way to assure food security is to control the means of production.

Hamdi’s agency, which coordinates investments on behalf of 20 member states, has recently announced several projects, including a tentative $250 million joint venture with two private companies, which is slated to receive heavy subsidies from a Saudi program called the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad. He said the main fields of investment for the project would most likely be Sudan and Ethiopia, countries with favorable climates that are situated just across the Red Sea. Hamdi waved a sheaf of memos that had just arrived on his desk, which he said were from another partner, Sheik Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a billionaire member of the royal family of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, who has shown interest in acquiring land in Sudan and Eritrea. “There is no problem about money,” Hamdi said. “It’s about where and how.”

All through the Rift Valley region, my travel companion, an Ethiopian economist, had taken to pointing out all the new fence posts, standing naked and knobby like freshly cut saplings — mundane signifiers, he said, of the recent rush for Ethiopian land. … Behind it, we could glimpse a vast expanse of dark volcanic soil, recently turned over by tractors. “So,” said my guide, “this belongs to the sheik.”

He meant Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, a Saudi Arabia-based oil-and-construction billionaire who was born in Ethiopia and maintains a close relationship with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s autocratic regime. (Fear of both men led my guide to say he didn’t want to be identified by name.) Over time, Al Amoudi, one of the world’s 50 richest people, according to Forbes, has used his fortune and political ties to amass control over large portions of Ethiopia’s private sector, including mines, hotels and plantations on which he grows tea, coffee, rubber and japtropha, a plant that has enormous promise as a biofuel. Since the global price spike, he has been getting into the newly lucrative world food trade.

Ethiopia might seem an unlikely hotbed of agricultural investment. To most of the world, the country is defined by images of famine: about a million people died there during the drought of the mid-1980s, and today about four times that many depend on emergency food aid. But according to the World Bank, as much as three-quarters of Ethiopia’s arable land is not under cultivation, and agronomists say that with substantial capital expenditure, much of it could become bountiful. Since the world food crisis, Zenawi, a former Marxist rebel who has turned into a champion of private capital, has publicly said he is “very eager” to attract foreign farm investors by offering them what the government describes as “virgin land.” …

By far the most powerful opposition, however, surrounds the issue of land rights — a problem of historic proportions in Ethiopia. Just down the road from the farm on Lake Ziway, I caught sight of a gray-bearded man wearing a weathered pinstripe blazer, who was crouched over a ditch, washing his shoes. I stopped to ask him about the fence, and before long, a large group of villagers gathered around to tell me a resentful story. Decades ago, they said, during the rule of a Communist dictatorship in Ethiopia, the land was confiscated from them. After that dictatorship was overthrown, Al Amoudi took over the farm in a government privatization deal, over the futile objections of the displaced locals. The billionaire might consider the land his, but the villagers had long memories, and they angrily maintained that they were its rightful owners.

For more see Food Crisis and the Global Land Gra which is a website run by GRAIN an NGO supporting small-scale farmers.

Resilience Assessment in Roghun, Tajikistan

kukobulokhEarlier this month Christo Fabricius and I were in Tajikistan to conduct participatory workshops with Mountain Societies Development Support Program (MSDSP) staff and community members from two rural villages in the District of Roghun as part of a resilience assessment that began with an initial visit to the area last October. Tajikistan is a fascinating place for a resilience assessment for many reasons. The first being that it is relatively under-studied in the context of applying emerging theories and tools for examining the biophysical and human dimensions of environmental change. The second reason is that the country and region in general is experiencing rapid change across a range of sectors.

Climate change impacts will vary across Tajikistan but the average annual temperature in the region is expected to increase greater than the predicted global average. Evidence of receding glaciers and land degradation are coupled with the start of a mass-migration of workers returning home from Russia, episodic energy crises, and large-scale industrial development. These current dynamics are layered upon its relatively recent independence from Russia, Civil war in the 1990’s, and longstanding cultural traditions.

While the challenges to resilience can be readily apparent, there are also opportunities to draw upon the many forms of natural, social, and human capital in the region to build adaptive capacity. The resilience assessment process helps us to identify these opportunities and consider them in the context of existing constraints and the need to address imminent and expected system shocks alongside long-term uncertainty.

The resilience assessment in Tajikistan is focused on two rural villages (Kalay Nav and Kukobolukh) in the Roghun District east of the capital Dushanbe, in the Vakhsh River Basin. The foothills of the low mountainous area offer unstable slopes for crops and landslides occur regularly. Unreliable water and electricity supplies in the villages along with the poor condition of infrastructure and ecosystem degradation contribute to the village’s vulnerability. A steadily growing population is stressing the natural resource system and a shock looms with the potential sudden return of more than half of Tajikistan’s workforce over the coming months in response to Russia’s declining economy.

Part of the resilience assessment process involved participatory workshops with village members. The workshop activities stimulated thinking about water availability issues in the villages in the context of dynamic change, taking into account past adaptations, and considering ways to increase their capacity and options for coping with future uncertainty. Village members who participated in these workshops were really engaged and the workshops yielded valuable insights. More information about the assessment will be available in the coming weeks on the RA website.

Legacy Futures: how past concepts of the future constrain current thinking

Futurist Jamais Cascio writes on his site Open the Future about how past thinking about the future constraints current thinking.  I saw this first hand when I was working on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment scenarios.

Jamais writes:

… we all have this kind of cognitive “legacy code” in our thinking about the future, not just science fiction writers, and it comes from more than just pop-culture media. We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.

… Just like legacy code makes life difficult for programmers, legacy futures can make life difficult or futures thinkers. Not only do we have to describe a plausibly surreal future that fits with current thinking, we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds. …

We can see it in both visions of a sustainable future reminiscent of 1970s commune life, and visions of a viable future that don’t include dealing with massive environmental disruption.

All of these were once legitimate scenarios for what tomorrow might hold — not predictions, but challenges to how we think and plan. For a variety of reasons, their legitimacy has faded, but their hold on many of us remains.

This leaves us with two big questions:

  • How do we deal with legacy futures without discouraging people from thinking about the future at all?
  • What scenarios considered legitimate today will be the legacy futures of tomorrow?

Steve Carpenter on Black Swans

Ecologist Steve Carpenter follows up on Don Ludwig’s comments on Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s book The Black Swan:

Both of Taleb’s books are highly entertaining. But he over-reaches. There are some odd mistakes. For example, he makes much of a supposed kink in the integral of the Student-t distribution, (where tail probability declines linearly with deviation from the mean) but if you compute the integral using R software there is no kink — so Taleb evidently made a mistake.

Based on web sites, Taleb made his fortune using a kind of option trade. He purchases only options to buy securities at a certain price during a specified time window in the future. So if the security is trading above Taleb’s price, he buys it and then immediately sells at the market price, thereby making a profit. He says that his life involves long periods of time watching while nothing happens and his options to buy expire. But once in a great while he makes a killing. This is exactly like predators who specialize on very large prey, or fishing for big game fish, or hunting for rare but big game animals.

His writings have done a lot to publicize the importance of huge rare events. I think this is a good thing. But also he over-reaches. In some recent interviews he seems to be gloating over the current economic collapse. And (according to economist colleagues) some economists see his ideas as rather routine. Yet he is a provocative and entertaining writer; if sales measure impact he has made a difference.

To me, the most novel feature of the current ongoing collapse is the coincidence of huge shocks with apparently different triggers. Who would have thought that an epidemic of bad loans in America, steep ramp of energy prices, and biofuels tightening the link of energy to food prices would coincide, against a backdrop of lower economic firewalls between countries and increasingly intense food limitation of the human population, with almost no scope for growth of the food supply. It’s a wonderland for testing resilience ideas and a global tragedy, all at the same time.

For a recent talk I re-analyzed a bunch of information from the Millennium Assessment, to try to figure out if humanity had any chance at all for making it through the next few decades.

If everyone shifts trophic status to roughly herbivore level, and we educate all the world’s women to secondary level, we have a chance.

The difference between 12 billion and 9 billion people in 2050 is one child per woman. If all the world’s women were educated to secondary level, fertility would drop by about 1.7 children per woman. And we can probably feed 9 billion herbivorous people, if we can maintain the crop diversity of the major grain crops high enough to avoid catastrophic disease outbreaks.

Energy needs for agriculture and climate change could make it pretty hard to achieve the rosy scenario; climate heating, more variable precipitation and sea level rise have bad implications for agriculture. So the rosy scenario itself may be way out on the tail of the distribution. And what will happen to relations among people as the going gets rough? Human conflict can wreck agriculture. What are the chances that no one will use nuclear weapons? Even a few nukes would take out huge areas of arable land for millennia. And, as Will Rogers said about land, they ain’t makin’ any more of it. A Taleb-like fat tail breakdown seems not so implausible.