Tag Archives: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Resilience Alliance & the Integration of Social and Natural Science in Global Change Research

In a new paper Evolution of natural and social science interactions in global change research programs in PNAS (doi:10.1073/pnas.1107484110), Harold A. Mooney, Anantha Duraiappah, & Anne Larigauderie look back on the history of the integration of Social and Natural Science in global change research and relate this history, the barriers overcome, and the lessons learned to the development of the new global research programme on sustainability science – Future Earth.

The paper places the Beijer Intitute of Ecological Economics efforts build communication between ecologists and economists as very import.  They write:

Much of the mistrust between the ecologists and economists was minimized, because cooperation between these groups was increased through a series of workshops organized by the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences under the leadership of Karl-Göran Mäler in 1993 on the Swedish island of Askö. Many seminal papers on the interface between the environment and economics were crafted at these meetings.

The also value the role of the Resilience Alliance, which was also highly connected to the Beijer Institute:

A somewhat parallel approach to sustainability science to integrating social and natural sciences is embodied in the Resilience Alliance that was established in 1999 (http://www.resalliance. org/). This alliance is a network of scientists and institutions that uses a conceptual framework that was first articulated by C. S. Holling in 1986 (42) and updated in 2001 (43). This frame- work is built on the nature of hierarchies and cyclic properties of both ecosystems and social–ecological systems and their adaptive nature. Concrete examples of resilience approaches for sustaining ecosystems and societies in the face of change were clearly articulated in a book published in 2006 by Walker and Salt (44), and the basic principles were described in a textbook by Chapin et al. (45) in 2009. An important component of this framework is developing resilience in systems to avoid crossing over irreversible thresholds (regime shifts) that move systems into a less favorable state for society. Thus, the resilience approach is an important approach to sustainability and has the same goal as sustainability science, but it is built on an overarching theory that sustainability science per se lacks.

The also place a high importance of the contribution of Elinor Ostrom whom, they write:

What About Progress at the International Science Program Level Within Social Sciences?
One of the important contributions from the IHDP community over the past 10 y has been on environmental governance. The first thrust began with the work by Elinor Ostrom and col- leagues under the LUCC. The governance of the commons and the role of local communities in overseeing the use of local resources in contrast to government regulations and private market instruments were a central contribution by the IHDP community over these years. Following the governance of land resources, Oran Young and others began a 10-y study on global governance, bridging the local to global spectrum.

The paper also discusses the key role of geographers and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in the integration of social and natural sciences, and assesses the post-normal, transdisciplinary research terrain that Future Earth must navigate.

Now the sustainability science community needs build on this success, but also better connect with communities of engineers, architects, planners, and designers so we can all figure out how to actually build a “Good” Anthropocene – or a future that is a good place for us all to live.

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.

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.