Tag Archives: Garry Peterson

Political Ecology and Resilience

posterI will be participating in a public discussion Resilience and Political Ecology at Upssala University April 27th in a moderated discussion with Prof. Alf Hornborg a professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, which will be moderated by Eva Friman from the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University

The discussion will be Friday 27 April 2012, 14.15-17.00,  Hambergssalen, Geocentrum, Villavägen 16, Uppsala University. More information is on the DevNet website here and here.

Alf Hornburg and I previously had an online discussion on this blog where I tried to understand and respond to his critique of resilience, based on a review Victor Galaz had of a recent paper of his.  I expect that the discussion will be interesting and I hope that there will be some fruitful discussion.

While the discussion has been framed by the organizers as a debate, I do not see political ecology and resilience as opposed.  Indeed, I wrote a 1999 paper in Ecological Economics -Political ecology and ecological resilience: An integration of human and ecological dynamics - (doi:10.1016/S0921-8009(00)00217-2) that suggested some ways I thought ideas from political ecology could be included in resilience thinking.  While resilience researchers have long argued that issues of power need to be included in resilience thinking there hasn’t been a mass movement towards their integration, but there have been a fair number of researchers how have attempted to explicitly combine aspects of political ecology and resilience thinking.

For people that are interested in thinking I’ve stated a group on Mendeley to share papers that attempt to integrate resilience and political ecological theory and methods.  Right now there are about 30 papers in there, but I expect there are a number that have been missed, and I hope Resilience Science readers can add them to the group.

I haven’t carefully read all the papers in the Mendeley group, but three papers that I found particularly interesting are:

  • Karl S Zimmerer’s 2011 The landscape technology of spate irrigation amid development changes: Assembling the links to resources, livelihoods, and agrobiodiversity-food in the Bolivian Andes.  Global Environmental Change 21(3) 917-934. doi:  10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.04.002,
  • McSweeney and Coomes 2001 Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras<.  PNAS 108(13)  5203-5208.doi:  10.1073/pnas.1014123108
  • Turner and Robbins 2008 Land-Change Science and Political Ecology: Similarities, Differences, and Implications for Sustainability Science.  Annual Review of Environment and Resources 33(1) 295-316. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.environ.33.022207.104943

Conceptual diagram from Turner and Robbins

Is a Good Anthropocene Possible?

Will Steffen and I gave contrasting talks in a Mock Court on the meaning of the Anthropocene at the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability in Stockholm.  The talks are now online, along with other talks from the symposium (I recommend Frances Westley‘s on innovation).

Will and I were arguing about four charges (defined by the Symposium organizers):

  1. Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch.
  2. Humanity is at risk of pushing the planet across catastrophic tipping points.
  3. Incrementality is dead as a strategy for human development in an era of rapid global change
  4. Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries (within the intrinsic boundaries of the Earth System).

I accepted Will’s case on the first, but argued against 2&3 and for 4.  The jury of Nobel Laureate ruled.

  1. Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch. Yes
  2. Humanity is at risk of pushing the planet across catastrophic tipping points. Lack of evidence.  The key sticking point here was the word “catastrophic”.
  3. Incrementality is dead as a strategy for human development in an era of rapid global change.  No
  4. Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries (within the intrinsic boundaries of the Earth System). Yes (But the key word is can – there is no guarantee humanity will.)

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.

A history of Stommel diagrams

Tiffany Vance and Ronald Doel have traced the history of the Stommel diagram from physical oceanography into biology, in their 2010 paper Graphical Methods and Cold War Scientific Practice: The Stommel Diagram’s Intriguing Journey from the Physical to the Biological Environmental Sciences in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (DOI: 10.1525/hsns.2010.40.1.1.)

The paper provides an rich history of how the innovative oceanographer Henry Stommel created his diagrams to emphasize the cross-scale dynamics of the ocean (See figure below), and how his diagram was adapted by biological oceanographers. However, they miss how Stommel diagrrams moved into ecosystem ecology and sustainability science.

Below I present a series of Stommel diagrams.  The first three figures are reproduced in Vance and Doel’s paper, the later three are from sustainability science.

First, Stommel’s original figure, which was designed to show how oceanic processes varied across scales, and that sampling efforts had to be planned with a consideration of these.

Schematic diagram of the spectral distribution of sea level (From Stommel 1963. Varieties of Oceanographic Experience. Science)

Continue reading

We’re number 2!

Line Gordon tells me that our recent paper with Elena Bennett was the second most downloaded article from Ecology Letters in December:

  1. Biodiversity in a complex world: consolidation and progress in functional biodiversity research
    Helmut Hillebrand and Birte Matthiessen
  2. Understanding relationships among multiple ecosystem services
    Elena M. Bennett, Garry D. Peterson and Line J. Gordon
  3. The rise of research on futures in ecology: rebalancing scenarios and predictions
    Audrey Coreau, Gilles Pinay, John D. Thompson, Pierre-Olivier Cheptou and Laurent Mermet
  4. A general framework for neutral models of community dynamics
    Omri Allouche and Ronen Kadmon
  5. Leaf hydraulic evolution led a surge in leaf photosynthetic capacity during early angiosperm diversification
    Tim J. Brodribb and Taylor S. Feild

Intensive agriculture’s ecological surprises

regime shift cartoon from TREE paperRhitu Chatterjee has written a news article Intensive agriculture’s ecological surprises in Environ. Sci. Technol. (July 2, 2008) about a paper Agricultural modifications of hydrological flows create ecological surprises (doi:10.1016/j.tree.2007.11.011) that Line Gordon, Elena Bennett and I published in TREE earlier this year.  From the article:

Previous reports have outlined ways that agriculture alters ecosystems by changing hydrology. The new study, led by Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, classifies these changes, or “regime shifts”, from one ecological state to another into three categories: through agriculture’s interaction with aquatic systems, as in the case of nutrient runoff; in the interactions of plants and soil, as in Australia’s salinity issues; or by influencing atmospheric processes such as evaporation and loss of water by plants (transpiration), as in the rapid drying of the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa.

The authors “make it clear that agricultural practices result in these regime changes by altering water quality and available quantity,” says Deborah Bossio, a water expert at Sri Lanka’s International Water Management Institute.

“The increasing demand for food, feed, and fuel is placing enormous pressure on the world’s arable lands,” says ecologist Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia (Canada). Awareness of agriculture-related environmental problems has been growing in the past few years, says Bossio. But some of that awareness has been lost in the “current frenzy of global food crisis shifting the balance back toward increasing yield.”

Be it the desertification of the Sahel, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or the increasing salinity in Australia, countries all over the world are already trying to solve some of these problems. But the fixes are not quick, and the results of their efforts are often hard to predict.

Given the difficult-to-repair, or even irreparable, nature of the problems, agricultural systems must be made resilient to change, the authors argue. The new study adds to “the increasing chorus of voices” that emphasizes the need to avoid irreversible ecological damage, says Donner.

However, the science of understanding ecological regime shifts is still young, which makes it difficult to predict when the changes will manifest. “The tipping points aren’t very well understood at all,” says Bossio. Researchers first need to understand the various biophysical factors involved and how those factors interact with one another, the authors say.

For now, ecologists, agronomists, and regulators can acknowledge the problem and encourage certain practices to minimize the likelihood of some of these water-related changes. People should begin by viewing agriculture not simply as a source of food but also as a source of ecosystem services like water and biodiversity, says coauthor Garry Peterson of McGill University (Canada). For example, Australian farmers are adopting mosaic farming, which involves combining annual crops, pastures, and perennial trees into the same landscape. This restores biodiversity and hydrology and prevents the rise of salinity.

“If we don’t heed the management lessons from the past, many of which are listed in the paper, we are bound to face many more ecological surprises in the coming decades,” says Donner.