On Friday I spoke at a workshop at MSU that examined a subject I’m not particularly well acquainted with. Participants in Pharmaceuticals in the Environment: Current Trends and Research Priorities convened to consider the natural, physical, social, and behavioral dimensions regarding the fate and impact of pharmaceutical products in the natural environment. The primary environmental focus of this issue is the presence of toxins in our water supply as a result of the disposal of human or veterinary medicines. I was particularly interested in what Dr. Shane Synder had to say about water issues facing Las Vegas, Nevada.
So what did I have to do with all this? Well the organisers wanted someone from our research group at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability to present some thoughts on how modelling of coupled human and natural systems might contribute to the study of this issue. The audience contained experts from a variety of disciplines (including toxicologists, chemists, sociologists, political scientists) and given my limited knowledge about the subject matter I decided I would keep my presentation rather broad in message and content. I drew on several of the topics I have discussed previously on this blog: the nature of coupled human-natural systems, reasons we might model, and potential risks we face when modelling CHANS.
In particular, I suggested that if prediction of a future system state is our goal we will be best served focusing our modelling efforts on the natural system and then using that model with scenarios of future human behaviour to examine the plausible range of states the natural system might take. Alternatively, if we view modelling as an exclusively heuristic tool we might better envisage the modeling process as a means to facilitate communication between disparate groups of experts or publics and explore what different conceptualisations allow and prevent from happening with regards our stewardship or management of the system. Importantly, in both cases the act of making our implicitly held models of how the world works explicit by laying down a formal model structure is the primary value of modelling CHANS.
There was brief talk towards the end of the meeting about setting up a workshop website that might even contain audio/video recordings of presentations and discussions that took place. If such a website appears I’ll link to it here. In the meantime, the next meeting I’ll be attending on campus is likely to be the overview of Coupled Human-Natural Systems discussion in the Networking for Environmental Researchers program.