Creating a Genuine Science of Sustainability

Previously, I wrote about Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis’ book, Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future. In a recent issue of the journal Futures, Jerome Ravetz reviews their book alongside David Waltner-Toews’ The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases That Jump From Animals to Humans. Ravetz himself points out that the subject matter and approaches of the books are rather different, but suggests that “Read together, they provide insights about what needs to be done for the creation of a genuine science of sustainability”.

Ravetz (along with Silvio Funtowicz) has developed the idea of ‘post-normal’ science – a new approach to replace the reductionist, analytic worldview of ‘normal’ science. Post-normal science is a “systemic, synthetic and humanistic” approach, useful in cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. I used some of these ideas to experiment with some alternative model assessment criteria for the socio-ecological simulation model I developed during my PhD studies. Ravetz’s perspectives toward modelling, and science in general, shone through quite clearly in his review:

“On the philosophical side, the corruption of computer models can be understood as the consequence of a false metaphysics. Following on from the prophetic teachings of Galileo and Descartes, we have been taught to believe that Science is the sole and certain path to truth. And this Science is mathematical, using quantitative data and abstract reasonings. Such a science is not merely necessary for achieving genuine knowledge (an arguable position) but is also sufficient. We are all victims of the fantasy that once we have numerical data and mathematical argument (or computer programs), truth will inevitably follow. The evil consequences of this philosophy are quite familiar in neo-classical economics where partly true banalities about markets are dressed up in the language of the differential calculus to produce justifications for every sort of expropriation of the weak and vulnerable. ‘What you can’t count, doesn’t count’ sums it all up neatly. In the present case, the rule of models extends over nearly all the policy-relevant sciences, including those ostensibly devoted to the protection of the health of people and the environment.

We badly need an effective critical philosophy of mathematical science. … Now science has replaced religion as the foundation of our established order, and in it mathematical science reigns supreme. Systematic philosophical criticism is hard to find. (The late Imre Lakatos did pioneering work in the criticism of the dogmatism of ‘modern’ abstract mathematics but did not focus on the obscurities at the foundations of mathematical thinking.) Up to now, mathematical freethinking is mainly confined to the craftsmen, with their jokes of the ‘Murphy’s Law’ sort, best expressed in the acronym GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). And where criticism is absent, corruption of all sorts, both deliberate and unaware, is bound to follow. Pseudo-mathematical reasonings about the unthinkable helped to bring us to the brink of nuclear annihilation a half-century ago. The GIGO sciences of computer models may well distract us now from a sane approach to coping with the many environmental problems we now face. The Pilkeys have done us a great service in providing cogent examples of the situation, and indicating some practical ways forward.”

Thus, Ravetz finds a little more value in the Useless Arithmetic book than I did. But equally, he highlights that the Pilkeys offer few, rather vague, solutions and instead turns to Waltner-Toews’ book for inspiration for the future:

Pilkey’s analysis of the corruptions of misconceived reductionist science shows us the depth of the problem. Waltner-Toews’ narrative about ourselves in our natural context (not always benign!) indicates the way to a solution.”

Using the outbreak of avian flu as an example of how to tackle complex environmental in the ‘risk society’ in which we now live, Waltner-Toews:

“… makes it very plain that we will never ‘conquer’ disease. Considering just a single sort of disease, the ‘zoonoses’ (deriving from animals), he becomes a raconteur of bio-social-cultural medicine …

What everyone learned, or should have learned, from the avian flu episode is that disease is a very complex entity. Judging from TV adverts for antiseptics, we still believe that the natural state of things is to be germ-free, and all we need to do is to find the germs and kill them. In certain limiting cases, this is a useful approximation to the truth, as in the case of infections of hospitals. But even there complexity intrudes … “

Complexity which demands an alternative perspective that moves beyond the next stage of ‘normal’ science to a post-normal science (to play on Kuhn’s vocabulary of paradigm shifts):

“That old simple ‘kill the germ’ theory may now be derided by medical authorities as something for the uneducated public and their media. But the practice of environmental medicine has not caught up with these new insights.

The complexity of zoonoses reflects the character of our interaction with all those myriads of other species. … the creatures putting us at risk are not always large enough to be fenced off and kept at a safe distance. … We can do all sorts of things to control our interactions with them, but one thing is impossible: to stamp them out, or even to kill the bad ones and keep the good ones.

Waltner-Toews is quite clear about the message, and about the sort of science that will be required, not merely for coexisting with zoonoses but also for sustainable living in general. Playing the philological game, he reminds us that the ancient Indo-European world for earth, dgghem, gave us, along with ‘humus’, all of ‘human’, ‘humane’ and ‘humble’. As he says, community by community, there is a new global vision emerging whose beauty and complexity and mystery we can now explore thanks to all our scientific tools.”

This global vision is a post-normal vision. It applies to far more than just avian flu – from coastal erosion and the disposal of toxic or radioactive waste (as the Pilekys discuss for example) to climate change. This post-normal vision focuses on uncertainty, value loading, and a plurality of legitimate perspectives that demands an “extended peer community” to evaluate the knowledge generated and decisions proposed.

In all fairness, it would not be easy to devise a conventional science-based curriculum in which Waltner-Toews’ insights could be effectively conveyed. For his vision of zoonoses is one of complexity, intimacy and contingency. To grasp it, one needs to have imagination, breadth of vision and humility, not qualities fostered in standard academic training. … “

This post-normal science won’t be easy and won’t be learned or fostered entirely within the esoteric confines of an ivory tower. Science, with its logical rigour, is important. It is still the best game in town. But the knowledge produced by ‘normal’ science is provisional and its march toward truth is seemingly Sisyphean when confronted faced with the immediacy of complex contemporary environmental problems. To contribute to the production a sustainable future, a genuine science of sustainability would do well to adopt a more post-normal stance toward its subject.

Aldo Leopold Legacy Center – The ‘Greenest Building in the US’

One of the fieldtrips we took during the US-IALE conference in Madison was to Aldo Leopold’s shack and the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. Aldo Leopold is considered by many to be the ‘father’ of wildlife management. His significant and lasting mark is his book, A Sand County Almanac. I’ll look at the book in later post, but here I’ll talk briefly about what we saw on our excursion from Madison.

After graduating from the Yale Forest School in 1909, Aldo Leopold spent time working in Arizona and New Mexico before moving to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924. In 1933 he published the first wildlife management textbook and accepted a new chair in game management at the University of Wisconsin – a first for both the university and the nation.

In 1935, Leopold and his family initiated their own ecological restoration experiment on a washed-out sand farm of 120 acres along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Planting thousands of pine trees, restoring prairies, and documenting the ensuing changes in the flora and fauna informed and inspired Leopold. Many of his writings in the initial parts of A Sand County Almanac – the history of the local region as told through the rings of an oak tree, evening shows of sky dancing woodcock, fishing the Alder Fork, hunting ruffled-grouse in smoky gold tamarack – were penned in ‘the shack’ (above) on his farm which we stopped by at on a wet, grey day after visiting The Aldo Leopold Legacy Center (below).

In sharp contrast to ‘the shack’ the Legacy Center feels solid and dry. But consistent with the Land Ethic message of the writing that was done in the old dilapidated building, the new building ‘sustains the health, wildness, and productivity of the land, locally and globally‘. The Legacy Center has received Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and is currently the ‘greenest building in the U.S.’.

The Legacy Center is an example of how we can use energy more efficiently and construct building with a limited impact on our environment. Through energy efficiency, renewable energy, the Legacy Center is the first carbon neutral building certified by LEED — annual operations account for no net gain in carbon dioxide emissions.

The Legacy Center is also a net zero energy building, using 70 percent less energy than a building built just to code and meeting all of its energy needs on site using tools like a roof-mounted solar array and a ‘thermal flux zone’ to reduce heat flow between interior rooms and the outdoors. Many of the structural columns, beams, and trusses, as well as interior panelling and finish work, are from the pine trees Leopold planted himself on his farm between 1935-1948.

This really is a building that embodies Leopold’s Land Ethic – both conceptually through the principles used when designing the building, and physically by using material from Leopold’s own ecological restoration experiment. The Legacy Center contains the offices of the Leopold Foundation, has a small shop and ‘museum’ about Leopold, and can be hired for meetings. The building itself is what is really the attraction – and hopeully there will be more like this appearing more frequently elsewhere. Unless you’re passing by or really want to make a pilgrimage to gain an insight into the area where Leopold’s vision unfolded, there’s really no need to go out of your way to visit. Take a virtual tour instead to save energy and carbon and make the building even greener.

Tackling Amazonian Rainforest Deforestation

This week’s edition of Nature devotes an editorial, a special report and an interview to the subject of tropical rainforests and their deforestation. The articles highlight both the proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation, and the importance of human activity as an agent of change (via fire for example), in these socio-ecological systems.

The editorial considers the economics of rainforest destruction, with regards to global carbon emissions. It suggests that deforestation must be integrated into international carbon markets, to reward those countries that have been able to control the removal of forest land (such as India and Costa Rica). Appropriate accounting of tropical rainforest carbon budgets is required however, and the authors point to the importance of carbon budget modelling and the monitoring of (via satellite imagery for example) change in rainforest areas over large spatial extents. Putting an economic price on ‘ecosystem services’ is key to this issue, and the editorial concludes:

One of the oddly positive effects of global warming is that it has given the world the opportunity to build a more comprehensive and inclusive economic model by forcing all of us to grapple with our impact on the natural environment. We are entering a phase in which new ideas can be developed, tested, refined and rejected as necessary. If we find just one that can beat the conventional economic measure of gross domestic product, and can quantify some of the basic services provided by rainforests and other natural ecosystems, it will more than pay for itself.

The special report focuses on the efforts of the Brazilian government to curb the rate of deforestation in the their Amazonian forests. The Brazilian police force is blockading roads, conducting aerial surveys and inspecting agricultural and logging operations, to monitor human activities on the ground. Brazilian scientists meanwhile are monitoring the situation from space, and have developed methodologies and techniques that are leading the way globally in the remote monitoring of forests. The Brazilian government is a keen advocate of the sort of economic approaches to the issues of rainforest destruction highlighted in the editorial outlined above, and sees this rigorous monitoring as key to be able to show how much carbon they can save by preventing deforestation.

Halting the removal of forest cannot simply be left to carbon trading alone, however, and local initiatives need to be pursued. To ensure the forest’s existence is sustainable, local communities need to be able make money for themselves without chopping down the trees – if they can do this it will be their in their interests NOT to remove forest. But developing this incentive has not been straightforward. For example, some researchers have have suggested that as commodity prices for crops such as soya beans have increased (possibly due to increased demand for corn-based ethanol in the US) deforestation has increased as a result. Although the price of soya beans may be a contributing factor to rainforest removal, Ruth DeFries (who will be visiting CSIS and MSU next week as part of the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture Series) suggests that it is not the main driver. Morton et al. found that during for the period 2001-04, conversion of forest to agriculture peaked in 2003. This situation makes it clear that there are both proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation. The Nature special report suggests:

If the international community is serious about tackling deforestation, it will probably need to use a hybrid approach: helping national governments such as Brazil to fund traditional policies for enforcement and monitoring and enabling communities to experiment with a market-based approach.

But how long do policy-makers have to discuss this and get these measures in place? One set of research suggests 55% of the Amazon rainforest could be removed over the next two decades, and the complexity of the rainforest system means that a ‘tipping point’ (i.e., an abrupt transition) beyond which the system might not recover (i.e., reforestation would not be possible). The Nature interview with Carlos Nobre highlights this issue – the interactions of climate change with soil moisture and the potential for fire indicate that the there is risk of rapid ‘savannization’ in the eastern to southeastern Amazon as the regional climate changes. When asked what the next big question scientists need to address in the Amazon is, Nobre replies that the role of human-caused fire will be key:

Fire is such a radical transformation in a tropical forest ecosystem that biodiversity loss is accelerated tremendously — by orders of magnitude. If you just do selective logging and let the area recover naturally, perhaps in 20–30 years only a botanist will be able to tell that a forest has been logged. If you have a sequence of vegetation fires going through that area, forget it. It won’t recover any more.

As I’ve previously discussed, considering the feedbacks and interactions between systems is important when examining landscape vulnerabilities to fire. Along with colleagues I have examined the potential effects of changing human activity on wildfire regimes in Spain (recently we had this paper published in Ecosystems and you can see more wildfire work here). However, the integrated study of socio-economic and ecological systems is still very much in its infancy. And the processes of landscape change in the northern Mediterranean Basin and the Amazonian rainforest are very different; practically inverse (increases in forest in the former and decreases in the latter). As always, plenty more work needs to be done on these subjects, and with the potential presence of ‘tipping points’, now is an important time to be doing it.

Sustainability Science: An Emerging Interdisciplinary Frontier

Sustainability. Integration. Interdisciplinary. These are the three words that stood out from Prof William C. Clark’s Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture at MSU on Thursday and reflect the research we do at the the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

Prof Clark discussed the recent emergence of ‘Sustainability Science’ as a field that is use-inspired (like health science or agricultural science), that is defined by the practical problems it addresses, that is focused on the scientific understanding of coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), and that integrates knowledge and research from multiple disciplines.

The definition of ‘sustainability’ has always been a tricky one – in part Clark suggested because it is a concept that is as broad as concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. What sustainability means depends on who is using the word and the context of the problem in which it is being used. Because sustainability science is use-inspired, what is to be sustained is defined by the the problem or issue being addressed. In one situation the objective might be examine how best to sustain a community’s cultural and social well-being, in another it might be the continuation of the life-supporting functions of an ecosystem, and in yet another it might the continued growth of the economy and the material well-being that affords. An idealist might argue that the objective should be to sustain all three examples, but in reality priorities will often need to be drawn up.

Clark used Stoke’s (1997) presentation of the four quadrants of the reasons to undertake research, highlighting that sustainability science falls into Pasteur’s Quadrant. Research in sustainability science is driven by both a quest for fundamental understanding and the consideration of the use to which the research will be put in the real world. Research with the goal of the former alone might be termed ‘Basic Research’ (e.g. physics – Bohr’s Quadrant), whereas the latter might be termed ‘Applied Research’ (e.g. engineering – Edison’s Quadrant). Through time, research in Pasteur’s Quadrant often results in a dialogue between the basic and the applied sciences, as demonstrated below.

The characterisation of sustainability science highlights that the domain of sustainability science is geo-historical. Place and history are important in defining both the problem to be examined and the solutions we might suggest. Prof Clark highlighted this, noting that a good knowledge of the environmental history of the location under study is important, and that such a history can be used in some ways as a laboratory provides data. But equally we need to remember that this history can be framed or contextualised itself – the narrative of an environmental history is unlikely to provide data that is as ‘objective’ as would be produced in a biology lab say.

Furthermore, the nature of geo-historical systems highlights the problems associated with a science that tries to be both applied and basic. How do we take use the knowledge gained from a given study to inform wider policy and decision making? Critics can argue that ‘it only happens in this particular place’, whereas advocates can argue that ‘it happens like this everywhere’. A balance between these stances will need to be struck. Multiple examples of processes, treatments, and outcomes in different places might be one way to approach this balance. Given that real-world systems are context-dependent, and that the problems sustainability science will study are value-laden, a certain level of subjectivity probably isn’t such a big deal anyway. The development of nomothetic generalizations in the same vein as the hard sciences may not be possible. However this situation, which implies uncertainty, will need to be acknowledged and understood by decision-makers.

Clark also discussed the ‘lessons for designing university-based knowledge systems for sustainability’. An article in the current issue of Futures highlights the issues faced by university departments and researchers wishing to perform sustainability science:

“The art of problem-based interdisciplinarity lies in the choice of problems that will be both academically and socially fruitful. Too heavy emphasis on the former leads to research that may successfully address problems within a particular field of study and make a contribution to the literature but that are of limited value or interest beyond the academy. Too much emphasis on the latter leads to work that is indistinguishable from consulting or pure advocacy work. Being problem-driven means starting from a problem or concern in society, but, in order to create the hybrid activity described above, this problem must be translated into a form that is amenable to issue-driven interdisciplinary research. Such translation is an indispensable prerequisite to obtaining funding from academic funding agencies and buy-in from academic collaborators, who have to be able to undertake research that will lead to publications in the outlets in which they need to publish in order to further their career prospects.”

To develop successfully Prof Clark suggested that the academy will need to maintain and engage strength in the foundation disciplines, support focused programs of ‘use-inspired basic research’ on core questions of sustainability science, build collaborative problem-solving programs, and create recognition and reward systems for those who develop and participate in such programs. The ‘publish or perish’ mantra also demands that there be suitable outlets for sustainability science research – the creation of the Sustainability Science section in PNAS is an indication that the importance, and uniqueness, of this emerging interdisciplinary field of study is becoming increasingly recognised.

There was so much more said and discussed during Prof Clark’s visit to MSU but that’s enough here for now. A copy of the powerpoint presentation used during the lecture can be downloaded from the CSIS website.

Staying Together… for the Sake of the Environment?

I may be a little behind the times but I have finally begun to digg stuff. From now on if I digg something that I really like or think it is relevant to what I talk about on this blog I’ll post it directly from digg. Given the media interest in the most recent paper to come out of CSIS it seems appropriate that this be the first blog from digg:

“A married household actually uses resources more efficiently than a divorced household,” said Jianguo Liu, a sustainability expert with Michigan State University. He and fellow researcher Eunice Yu concluded that in 2005, in the United States alone, divorced households could have saved 38 million rooms, 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water if their “resource-use efficiency” had been comparable to that of married households. Liu’s analysis of the environmental impact of divorce appears in this week’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Besides the United States, Liu looked at 11 other countries, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa between 1998 and 2002. In the 11, if divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been a million fewer households using energy and water in these countries. “People have been talking about how to protect the environment and combat climate change, but divorce is an overlooked factor that needs to be considered,” Liu said.

read more | digg story

Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture by William C. Clark

Professor William C. Clark, of Harvard University, will be giving the forthcoming Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture “Sustainability Science: An Emerging Interdisciplinary Frontier”. The lecture is on Thursday December 6 2007 at 3:30 PM (with a reception to follow) in the Radiology Auditorium (on Service Road) at Michigan State University (for directions, visit the CSIS home page). The lecture is free and open to the public.

I’ll be there and will try to write something about it here in the future…

Dr. William C. Clark is the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is an international leader in Sustainability Sciences, co-chaired the National Research Council’s study “Our Common Journey: A Transition toward Sustainability”, and is editor of the Section on Sustainability Science for the Proceedings of U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His exceptional interdisciplinary research and other activities have been recognized by many prestigious honors and awards, such as membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the MacArthur Prize. Additional information about Dr. Clark, including representative publications, can be found at the CSIS home page.

Presented by the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife with support from the Office of the President; Office of the Provost; Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies; Graduate School; Environmental Science and Policy Program; College of Agricultural and Natural Resources; Michigan Agricultural Experimental Station; Center for Water Sciences; Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project; Science, Technology, Environment, and Public Policy Specialization; and Elton R. Smith Endowment.

Useless Arithmetic?

Can we predict the future? Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis say we can’t. They blame the complexity of the real world alongside a political preference to rely on the predictive results of models. I’m largely in agreement with them on many of their points but their popular science book doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining why.

The book is introduced with an example of the failure of mathematical models to predict the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fisheries. The second chapter tries to lay the basis of their argument, providing an outline of underlying philosophy and approaches of environmental modelling. This is then followed by six case studies of the difficulties of using models and modelling in the real world: the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository, climate change and sea-level rise, beach erosion, open-cast pit mining, and invasive plant species. Their conclusion is entitled ‘A Promise Unfulfilled’ – those promises having been made by engineers attempting to apply methods developed in simple, closed systems to those of complex, open systems.

Unfortunately the authors don’t describe this conclusion in such terms. The main problems here are the authors’ rather vague distinction between quantitative and qualitative models and their inadequate examination of ‘complexity’. In the authors’ own words;

“The distinction between quantitative and qualitative models is a critical one. The principle message in this volume is that quantitative models predicting the outcome of natural processes on the surface of the earth don’t work. On the other hand, qualitative models, when applied correctly, can be valuable tools for understanding these processes.” p.24

This sounds fine, but it’s hard to discern, from their descriptions, exactly what the difference between quantitative and qualitative models is. In their words again,

Quantitative Models:

  • “are predictive models that answer the questions ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how much'” p.24
  • “if the answer [a model provides] is a single number the model is quantitative” p.25

Qualitative Models:

  • “predict directions and magnitudes” p.24
  • do not provide a single number but consider relative measures, e.g “the temperature will continue to increase over the next century” p.24

So they both predict, just one produces absolute values and the other relative values. Essentially what the authors are saying is that both types of models predict and both produce some form of quantitative output – just one tries to be more accurate than another. That’s a pretty subtle difference.

Further on they try to clarify the definition of a qualitative model by appealing to concepts;

“a conceptual model is a qualitative one in which the description or prediction can be expressed as written or spoken word or by technical drawings or even cartoons. The model provides an explanation for how something works – the rules behind some process” p.27.

But all environmental models considering process (i.e. that are not empirical/statistical) are conceptual, regardless of whether they produce absolute or relative answers! Whether the model is Arrhenius’ back of the envelope model of how the greenhouse effect works, or a Global Circulation Model (GCM) running on a Cray Supercomputer and considering multiple variables, they are both built on conceptual foundations. We could write down the structure of the GCM, it would just take a long time. So again, their distinction between quantitative and qualitative models doesn’t really make things much clearer.

With this sandy foundation the authors examine suggest that the problem is that the real world is just too complex for the quantitative models to be able to predict anything. So what is this ‘complexity’? According to Pilkey and Pilkey-Jarvis;

“Interactions among the numerous components of a complex system occur in unpredictable and unexpected sequences.” p.32

So, models can’t predict complex systems because they’re unpredictable. hmm… A tautology no? The next sentence;

“In a complex natural process, the various parameters that run it may kick in at various times, intensities, and directions, or they may operate for various time spans”.

Okay, now were getting somewhere – a complex system is one that has many components in which the system processes might change in time. But that’s it, that’s our lot. That’s what complexity is. That’s why environmental scientists can’t predict the future using quantitative models – because there are too many components or parameters that may change at any time to keep track of such that we couls calculate an absolute numerical result. A relative result maybe, but not an absolute value. I don’t think this analysis quite lives up to it’s billing as a sub-title. Sure, the case-studies are good, informative and interesting but I think this conceptual foundation is pretty loose.

I think the authors’ would have been better off making more use of Naomi Oreskes’ work (which they themselves cite) by talking about the difference between logical and temporal prediction, and the associated difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ systems. Briefly, closed systems are those in which the intrinsic and extrinsic conditions remain constant – the structure of the system, the processes operating it, and the context within which the system sits do no change. Thus the system – and predictions about it – are outside history and geography. Think gas particles bouncing around in a sealed box. If we know the volume of the box and the pressure of the gas, assuming nothing else changes we can predict the temperature.

Contrast this with an ‘open’ system in which the intrinsic and extrinsic conditions are open to change. Here, the structure of the system and the processes operating the system might change as a result of the influence of processes or events outside the system of study. In turn, where the system is situated in time and space becomes important (i.e. these are geohistorical systems), and prediction becomes temporal in nature. All environmental systems are open. Think the global atmosphere. What do we need to know in order to predict the temperature in the future in this particular atmosphere? Many processes and events influencing this particular system (the atmosphere) are clearly not constant and are open to change.

As such, I am in general agreement with Pilkey and Pilkey-Jarvis’ message, but I don’t think they do the sub-title of their book justice. They show plenty of cases in where quantitative predictive models of environmental and earth systems haven’t worked, and highlight many of the political reasons why this approach has been taken, but they don’t quite get to the guts of why environmental models will never be able to accurately make predictions about specific places at specific times in the future. The book Prediction: Science, Decisions Making, and the Future of Nature provides a much more comprehensive consideration of these issues and, if you can get your hands on it, is much better.

I guess that’s the point though isn’t it – this is a popular science book that is widely available. So I shouldn’t moan too much about this book as I think it’s important that non-modellers be aware of the deficiencies of environmental models and modelling and how they are used to make decisions about, and manage, environmental systems. These include:

  • the inherent unpredictability of ‘open’ systems (regardless of their complexity)
  • the over-emphasis of environmental models’ predictive capabilities and expectations (as a result of positivist philosophies of science that have been successful in ‘closed’ and controlled conditions)
  • the politics of modelling and management
  • the need to publish (or at least make available) model source code and conceptual structure
  • an emphasis on models to understand rather than predict environmental systems
  • any conclusions based on experimentation with the model are conclusions about the structure of the model not the structure of nature

I’ve come to these conclusions over the last couple of years during the development of a socio-ecological model, in which I’ve been confronted by differing modelling philosophies. As such, I think the adoption of something more akin to ‘Post-Normal’ Science, and greater involvement of the local publics in the environments under study is required for better management. The understanding of the interactions of social, economic and ecological systems poses challenges, but is one that I am sure environmental modelling can contribute. However, given the open nature of these systems this modelling will be more useful in the ‘qualitative’ sense as Pilkey and Pilkey-Jarvis suggest.

Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis (2007)
Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 978-0-231-13212-1

Buy at

[June 3rd 2007: I just noticed Roger Pielke reviewed Useless Arithmetic for Nature the same day as this original post. Read the review here.]

‘What I Want’ versus ‘What Is Best’

When ‘what is best’ doesn’t align with ‘what I want’, making the right decision is hard. We need to find ways of working out how make these options align as closely as possible.

Jared Diamond’s point in Collapse is that the fate of contemporary society is in our own hands. I read and wrote about the introductory chapter to a while ago. Eventually I did read the whole book, though as Michael Kavanagh points out;

“You could read the introduction and the last few chapters and get the point. But then you’d miss out on what Jared Diamond does best: tell stories.”

Kavanagh is right; as I’ve talked about before here storytelling is an important way of understanding the world. William Cronon has suggested narratives of global change that offer hope are needed for us to tackle the (potential) problems that contemporary society faces. Most of Diamond’s stories about the fate of previous societies don’t offer much hope however – most collapsed and the only modern example of positive action on the environment is Iceland. Diamond’s identifies five contributing factors to societal collapse:

“… climate change, hostile neighbours, trade partners (that is, alternative sources of essential goods), environmental problems, and, finally, a society’s response to its environmental problems. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can “choose to fail.”

Diamond emphasises the need for individual action – for a bottom-up approach to make sure that we choose not to fail. Kavanagh suggests the implications is that

“in a world where public companies are legally required to maximize their profits, the burden is on citizens to make it unprofitable to ruin the environment — for an individual, a company, or a society as a whole.”

Others suggest more dramatic action is needed however. Richard Smith suggests that this ‘market meliorist strategy’ won’t be enough. Smith contrasts the bottom-up decision-making of the New Guinea villages that Diamond uses as a potential model for contemporary decision-making with that of contemporary capitalist society. Whereas the New Guinea villages’ decision-making process takes into account everyone’s input:

“…we do not live in such a ‘bottom-up’ democratic society. We live in a capitalist society in which ownership and control of the economy is largely in the hands of private corporations who do not answer to society. In this system, democracy is limited to the political sphere. …under capitalism, economic power is effectively monopolized by corporate boards whose day-to-day requirements for reproduction compel their officers to systematically make ‘wrong’ decisions, to favour the particular interests of shareholders against the general interests of society.”

Smith’s solution? As the global issues contemporary society faces are so interconnected and international, international governance by a “global citizenry” is required. Critics to this approach are likely to be many, but whether it will be enough for individual consumers to “make it unprofitable to ruin the environment”, or whether the we develop a “global citizenry”, the ultimate question here seems to be ‘Are we prepared to change our lifestyles to ensure the survival of our contemporary (global) society’?

With the “End of Tradition” in western societies (i.e. life is no longer lived as fate in these societies) maybe the future of society really is in our hands as Diamond suggests. On the other hand, as Beck points out, as contemporary problems are due to dispersed causes (e.g. individuals driving their car to work everyday) responsibility is rather easily evaded and some form of global decision-making would be useful. To me the latter seems unlikely – those with power are unlikely to give it up easily. The ‘global’ institutions we currently have are frequently undermined by the actions of individual states and leaders. The power to change society and lifestyles (in the west at least) now lies with individuals. But with power comes a responsibly which, on the whole, currently we individuals are shirking.

The changes my and the next generation will need to make will have to go further than simply throwing our glass, paper and plastic in different boxes. There are small ways in which we can save ourselves money whilst helping the environment and they all add up. But sea changes in lifestyle are likely to be required. Governments will not make people do that, and have no right in a democracy. They can cajole via taxation (if they do it right) but they can’t force people to change their lifestyles. People must make those changes themselves because they want to make it profitable to sustain contemporary society. The problem is it’s very difficult to do what’s best when it doesn’t align with what you want. It can hurt. Findings ways of making the two align will become increasingly important. Often the two will not align and it will be necessary to take individual responsibility by accepting there will be a degree of pain. But once this responsibility has been accepted, the next step can be taken – working to minimise the pain whilst ensuring people get as close to what they want as possible.

Inevitably, I think modelling may have something to offer here. Just as Diamond uses evidence of historical environmental, technological and social change to discuss and tell stories about past problems we might use models to discuss and tell stories about potential problems we might face in the future. Simulation models, if appropriately constructed, offer us a tool to reconstruct and examine uncertain landscape change due to environmental, technological and social change in the future. Further, simulation models offer the opportunity to examine alternative futures, to investigate traps that might lie in wait. Just as we should learn from past histories of landscape change (as Diamond suggests), we should be able to use simulation models to construct future histories of change in our contemporary landscapes.

These alternative ‘model futures’ are unlikely to be realised exactly as the model says (that’s the nature of modelling complex open systems), and may not contain the details some people might like, but if they are useful to get people around a table discussing the most sustainable ways of managing their consumption of natural resources then they can’t be a bad thing. Modelling offers insight into states of potential future environmental systems given different scenarios of human activity. At the very least, models will provide a common focus for debate on, and offer a muse to inspire reflection about, how to align ‘what I want’ with ,‘what is best’.

Ironies of the Flat World

Something very ironic just happened in my email inbox, a symptom of the Flat World if you like.

Date: 05 Jan 07
Time: 17.29
Sender: Snowmail – Channel 4 News
Subject: Air rage
Jon Snow here with the newsroom latest

Air rage

The irresponsible face of capitalism? This damning indictment of the airline industry came from the normally exceptionally mild mannered Ian Pearson, an environment minister.

Something undoubtedly got into his tea because he didn’t give up at that, his target specifically was the short-haul cheap flight carrier Ryanair, though he wasn’t very complimentary about British Airways either.

It’s a rare glimpse of antagonism between government and big business, and suggests that despite the appearance of a cozy consensus over climate change, real tensions are starting to emerge over who should pay the price of carbon emissions.

Yes it’s true that carbon emissions from the airline industry are set to triple in the next 20 years, and for every two per cent of efficiency and saving they make through updating planes and engines, the sheer growth of the business is double that, so their carbon footprint is getting worse by the day.

On the other hand, the government is rushing ahead with plans to increase airport capacity so that all these flights can land and take off. If they didn’t build the airports, the flights wouldn’t be able to happen, and carbon emissions – well, Britain’s anyway — wouldn’t increase by as much.

Cathy Newman is on the case but the minister is strangely shy again tonight and his government very far from excited from saying anything at all. Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary is voluble, describing the minister as a dead sheep.

Next email
Date: 05 Jan 07
Time: 17.31
Sender: easyJet Newsletter
Subject: New Year Sale on flights, hotels and car rental!
Over 500,000 seats at under £21.99

Thanks to easyJet’s New Year Sale, you can now do more for less in 2007! Why not treat yourself to some winter sun, some ski slope fun or visit a new city with all the family?

We’ve got over 500,000 seats for sale at under £21.99 – but you need to be quick! This fantastic offer must end at midnight on Wednesday 10 January 2007.

These amazing discounts are on flights for travel between 24 January and 24 March 2007.

So don’t delay, book now at…

I shouldn’t laugh but it’s a case in point. Globalization in action in a Flat World. Something that Thomas Friedman would laud – but he doesn’t spare much time in his book to discuss the impacts of globalization on the environment. He does briefly discuss how certain organisations such as Conservation International are beginning to work ‘in partner’ with companies such as McDonalds to reduce environmental impacts (in ways that don’t negatively impact profits), but otherwise there’s nothing. I like the book; its a good, motivating read. I like and agree with the message – get innovating in the developed world or lose out to those who will in the developing world. But it seems to assume that whatever environmental problems we encounter, our innate creativity will be able to solve.

Fair enough, Friedman does suggests at one point that “While many of the old corporate and government safety nets will vanish under global competition in the flat world, some fat still needs to be maintained, and even added. As everyone who worries about his or her health knows, there is “good fat” and “bad fat” – but everybody needs some fat. And that is true of every country in the flat world. Social security is good fat. We need to keep it. A welfare system that discourages people from working is bad fat.” What about the good fat of our valuable and vital environmental resources upon which we base our economies? Our Natural Environment Security? Does that get a look in? It should do but it at the moment when the points are raised we just end up with laughable ironies like that illustrated from my inbox above. Nowhere in his book does he explicitly address this issue.

In his summary, Friedman quotes a business consultant speaking of companies’ demise; “When memories exceed dreams, the end is near”. True maybe, but when all we have are memories of a life-supporting natural environment our end will be upon us. We need to dream and innovate in the flat world, but we also need to remember where we came from and the environment in which we live and require to survive.

Friedman, T.L. (2006) The World is Flat (2nd Ed.) London: Penguin ISBN: 0-141-02272-8

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Gidden’s Risk and Responsibility

A good story is one that grips you; it’s hard to guess what is coming next but once it has been told, the outcome seemed inevitable. The same could be said for theories about how the world is — sometimes you read something that just makes sense. You knew that’s how the world was before you read about it, but couldn’t put it into words quite so eloquently. That’s how I felt when I was reading Giddens’ ‘Risk and Responsibility’.

The story goes that we have reached the End of Nature and the End of Tradition, and we are no longer in a time of External Risk but now live in a time of Manufactured Risk. Essentially Giddens‘ piece is a discussion of the about how the threats to contemporary society are a product of science and technology, and in this sense is based within the notion of the Risk Society.

To be more specific, the advances of science and technology and the ‘domination’ over nature it allows us, means that our environmental worries are no longer about what nature might do to us, but what we are doing to nature. This may be true in the majority of developed societies, but there are still plenty of developing areas in the world for which this does not apply (and natural hazards still pose a major threat to some areas of the developed world). But let’s leave that point aside and remember the problems of anthropogenically caused climate change, pollution of the worlds water-ways, deforestation of tropical rainforest, the problem of radioactive waste, and all the other protection-of-the-global-commons-type issues. In many ways, we humans have more of an influence over our environment than it has over us. This is the End of Nature.

The End of Tradition, in Gidden’s own words, “is essentially to be in a world where life is no longer lived as fate.” Previously in industrial society, the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home with the kids. But all this has changed; we are more socially mobile and we live in a world where information (via the internet), freedom (via democracy) and opportunities (via strong economies) abound. We can do what we want to do and take control of our own lives. Again, there is a limit to this and it applies mainly to developed areas of the world, but it sounds about right doesn’t it?

Risk as a concept only originated as humans began to think they might be able to take control of their environment. Whilst nature and tradition had not yet ended their demise was on the horizon. Prior to this dangers were ‘taken as given’, as ‘acts of god’ that humans could not control. Humans had little control over external risk, but they could take steps to reduce their losses in the face of frequent hazards. External Risk originated in early industrial societies with the advent of public and private insurance — we couldn’t do much about the risk (because it was external) but we could at least mitigate against our losses.

And now, finally, we have Manufactured Risk, a symptom of the risk society. Manufactured risk is the very risk caused by our own human progress and development, primarily because of the fantastic recent advances of scientific knowledge and technological innovation. Although manufactured risk is caused by human activity, because it is new and we have little experience of it we cannot calculate any probabilities associated with it. Although created by science and technology, science and technology cannot solve the problems they’ve caused — they produce uncertainty as fast as they destruct it. And besides, problem-solving is not the goal of science, science is for generating knowledge (via puzzle-solving).

Thus, whilst science and technology have reduced the problems of external risk, they have also brought the end of nature and manufactured risk with it. The threats and risks produced in our risk society are dispersed in nature and origin. Beck suggests that from this situation emerges ‘organised irresponsibility’; whilst anthropic in nature, no individual actor(s) can be held responsible. This also seems to resonate with the idea of The Tyranny of Small Decisions that I was describing just a few days ago. Scientific knowledge and technological innovation developed in an accumulative fashion, and are used by everyone that has access to it. Who can you blame?

So this is all very gloomy isn’t it? The End of Tradition. The End of Nature. The End of the Story? What can we do about this?

Seemingly the tools we used to get us to this point won’t work to help us move on and deal with the pressing environmental problems facing contemporary society; global warming, pollution, radiation, deforestation, carcinogens… To continue the story and solve these problems it’s been suggested we need a new kind of science. Not a ‘normal’, universal, value-free, distant science, but a situated, value-laden, engaged science. It’s time science stopped sticking it’s head in the sand saying “we just produce the knowledge, it’s up to society to decide what to do with it”. This ‘new’ science been named post-normal science and will be the subject (maybe hero?) as the the story continues another time. Gripping eh?

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