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A paradox of agriculture and greenhouse gases

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 4:27pm

Written by Paul Brewer, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

I never thought I would be doing research on soil - though I was wildly curious in high school and college it did not even cross my mind to read about it, soil science sounded like the dullest discipline imaginable. But after learning about biotic soil crusts during a spring in the Mojave desert I realized soils are not just inert matter we walk around on but are alive, and I started to get curious. I wanted to work on solutions to major environmental problems and the more I read the more I saw that soils and the living organisms within them have immense impacts on the world around us. One of these impacts is the role soils play in carbon cycling – carbon resides in soils in a vast array of forms and is slowly eaten and turned into CO2 by microorganisms and bugs. Because of how slowly soil carbon can decompose, soils are an excellent place to store carbon to reduce the severity of climate change. We often think of planting a tree to reduce CO2 concentrations, but, surprisingly, the amount of carbon currently in soils is four times greater than the carbon in all the trees and plants put together and three times greater than all the CO2 in the atmosphere (Ontl & Schulte, 2012).

(Caption for the above photo: Slow decomposition in soil: Plant material in the center of this soil core still looked like fresh wheat straw even though the surrounding material has decomposed and darkened in the 14 week study.)

Soils each have a different capacity for the amount of carbon they can hold and most cropland soils can store much more. These soils are also very accessible to us – already farmers make massive alterations to cropland soils every year through specific plowing, cultivation, and harvest techniques. In the United States alone this affects over 430 million tons of soil (or 300 million acres). There is enormous opportunity for changes in farming techniques to cause rapid, large increases in carbon stored in these agricultural soils. Ending the plowing of a field, that is moving to no-tillage techniques, is the most common approach used to store more carbon. When a field is no longer plowed dead roots and other pieces of the plant are left in the soil, slowly decomposing and storing that year’s plant carbon in the meantime.

Caption for this image: 100-year global warming potential of the three primary greenhouse gases, bars not to scale (IPCC 2013).

However, even though the dead plant material helps prevent that carbon from becoming CO2 quickly it also allows stronger greenhouse gases, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), to be produced (Johnson et al.,  2007). This paradoxical effect, that avoiding CO2 emissions can lead to greater emission of other greenhouse gases, could mean that farmers and governments won’t try to increase soil carbon if there is not a good understanding of how or why this can happen. Over the past two years I have found that buried plant material can create significant quantities of CH4 and N2O, but that the amount of those strong greenhouse gases produced depends on soil moisture, available nutrients, and the size of plant pieces. This means that when farmers stop plowing and plant material is left in the ground production of the strong greenhouse gases could be avoided by choosing a particular timing of fertilizer application and irrigation. The specific situations that create greenhouse gases vary by soil and crop type, so continued studies will give us the knowledge necessary to minimize climate change by nudging cropping practices one way or another. This topic is a good example of how more abstract ecological research can be combined with applied agricultural work to help solve a global problem.


Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. 2012. Soil Carbon Storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35

Johnson, J. M.-F., A. J. Franzluebbers, S. L. Weyers, and D. C. Reicosky. 2007. Agricultural opportunities to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental Pollution 150:107–124

Climate, air quality, and particles

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 8:00am

Written by Shunsuke Nakao, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Atmospheric Science.

Particulates in the atmosphere (aerosol) are everywhere, although they are too small to be seen with the naked eye (from nano-meter to micron scale). If you take one mL of air from outside, the chances are that there are thousands of liquid or solid suspended particles. Some are emitted from sources as is (e.g., soil dust); some are produced in the atmosphere through chemical reactions; some are alive or once alive (bioaerosol).

Do aerosol help us or harm us? – It’s complicated. They are air pollutant (e.g., PM2.5); however, without aerosol, there will be no clouds (water needs something to condense onto). They act as a sunshade by reflecting some sunlight back into space, as well as seeding clouds. The "cooling effect" by aerosol is estimated to mask approximately half of the warming effect by green house gases (with a large uncertainty) (IPCC 2007, 2014). The important role of the scientific community is to improve the understanding of the link between emissions and their impacts (air quality and climate change). My research focus has been on the fundamental interaction between gas, particle, and cloud.

One of the research topics I am interested in is the role of water in the atmosphere. Importance of cloud chemistry has been recognized for decades (e.g., sulfate formation); some gaseous compounds dissolve into water and react within water, leaving behind aerosols after evaporation of clouds. Similar processes may also occur in wet aerosols. Recently, another potentially important process emerged. To explain this, let me ask you a simple question - What happens if you dilute peanut butter with water? It gets soft. Something like this may be occurring in the atmosphere. Historically, aerosol particles are treated either as liquid or solid. However, recent studies suggest something in between may be important (Virtanen et al., Nature, 2010). Water may be helping softening the peanut-butter-like material in the atmosphere, impacting their physics (e.g., diffusion within gooey particles) and chemistry.

Next time you see clouds, I hope you can imagine tiny particles that formed each cloud droplet. Are they really like peanut butter? We will figure it out.

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Fun reads:

Link to my website:

Weird Dramas and Peace Studies

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 12:15pm

Written by William Timpson, SoGES 2013-2014 Global Challenges Research Team member for Biodiversity Case Studies, and Fullbright Senior Specialist, Peace and Reconciliation Studies, School of Education, CSU

Just 31 miles north of Seoul is the site for high stakes dramas that periodically crescendo. This week had one such moment. As reported in The Korea Herald (Tue. Mar. 4, 2014): “North Korea on Monday (March 3) fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea in its latest saber-rattling apparently to protest the South Korean-U.S. military drills, Seoul’s Military Defense Minister said. Seoul called the move a ‘provocative action’ that further raised military tensions on the peninsula and violated a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting any launch using ballistic missile technologies. The North fired four ballistic missiles last Thursday and four ‘KN-09” rockets into the East Sea about a week earlier (1).”

High drama indeed. I am serving this semester as a Fulbright Scholar at Kyung Hee University’s Graduate Institute of Peace Studies (GIP) and teaching a class on peacemaking. GIP has its own campus in north Seoul with a dormitory, cafeteria, gym, library, and administration building with a separate mediation hall, all on meticulously manicured grounds. Every morning we gather for a brief student-lead talk, meditation, walk and/or exercises.

Despite this “saber rattling” from the north, most here do not seem that worried. They do not believe the North Koreans have the capacity to defeat the South and their American allies although they admit that, if it came to war, Seoul would be vulnerable. These threats from North Korea have been repeated so often that they have lost much of their ability to frighten anyone here.

One of my students is new to GIP. He has been in the army for ten years and has achieved the rank of captain. Like others, he is not that worried about the North but is very appreciative of American sacrifices in fighting the Korean War and then providing troops—now at nearly 30,000—ever since to help secure the peace.

A question I have is this: To what extent do North Korean “hawks” use the presence of these U.S. troops in South Korea to reinforce the iron grip they maintain on their politics, budgets and people? This is the kind of issue they explore at GIP.

Another of my students has completed his required military service and sees a real “weirdness” here. He remembers visiting China and being at the Beijing airport, waiting in line to board a flight to another city in China, when he noticed another line nearby for North Koreans on that same flight. Here in China they could stand next to each other but never back home.

Given that, another question I have is this: What will normalization, reconciliation or reunification require, especially in the absence of ongoing communication at every level? Again, this is the kind of issue they study at GIP.

I feel very fortunate to have landed at GIP. Because my students here come from so many different countries and discussions are very rich. For its contributions, the GIP was honored with the 1993 UNESCO Prize for Peace Education. Provost Gi Bung Kwon says that he welcomes any student who has the ambition to make the world a better place and he can offer a full scholarship for the two years of required study.

Final question: How do we get this kind of investment in peace studies in the U.S.?

Bill Timpson is a professor at Colorado State University.

Bringing indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation planning

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 11:52am

Written by Matt Luizza, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Since my early childhood I have been fascinated with rural indigenous cultures from across the globe. The romantic notion of seemingly forgotten places, inhabited by people existing in primal harmony with the natural world was the most exciting thing I could imagine. My mind ran wild as I envisioned living with each and every group I learned about, from the feared Comanche horse culture of the historical U.S. Great Plains, to newly discovered tribes hidden in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. Out of all of my childhood friends, I was the only kid, that if the culturally insensitive game of “Cowboys and Indians” were to arise, would gladly and emphatically choose to be in the latter group of wild west combatants. Now, well into my mid-to-late childhood, my naïve understanding of local indigenous communities has advanced beyond a narrow view of simple cultures frozen in time, but this formative curiosity and reverence has stuck with me and turned into the underlying passion fueling my doctoral research.

My PhD work is driven by a conviction which I, and a number of other scholars and practitioners share. It is a belief that indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are predominately tied to their local landscapes, harbor a vast wealth of important intergenerational knowledge, including empirical observations, cultural values and spiritual practices; and this knowledge is critical to conservation planning. I believe that acknowledgement and inclusion of such knowledge, values and perceptions, and meaningful consultation and collaboration throughout all stages of research and planning with indigenous communities, is necessary for local empowerment and effective conservation.

At a recent lunch meeting with renowned ecosystem ecologist and social-ecological systems scholar F. Stuart Chapin III (see Chapin III et al. 2000 and 2010), Dr. Chapin poignantly voiced a supporting sentiment when discussing the idea of “ecological integrity”. Ecological integrity can be defined broadly as a given ecosystem's structure and function, operating in a manner that fits a natural/historic range of variation. Noting first that most systems are so heavily influenced by humans that pristine places with intact ecological integrity are rare, he went on to point out the importance of knowing a system very well, as this “sense of place” affords a better intuition about the processes related to ecosystem structure and function, facilitating the ability to pick up on even the most subtle changes. This observation nicely encapsulates one of the many important contributions of indigenous knowledge, which is comprised of the same in-depth understanding of place, and further affords a better view of the intimately linked nature of social and ecological systems. An understanding that is needed to ensure the longevity of both through conservation practices which protect ecological integrity but also human livelihoods.

Indigenous knowledge is an increasingly popular topic in both the scientific and philanthropic worlds, with two key terms, “traditional ecological knowledge” and “local ecological knowledge” alone producing over 17,000 results in Google Scholar and 657 peer-reviewed manuscripts in Web of Science. Despite this, in the rapidly growing fields of risk assessment studies (see Buckley 2008 and Lindgren 2012) and ecological modeling (see Elith et al. 2010 and Evangelista et al. 2012), indigenous knowledge has yet to be adequately acknowledged. This is troubling as such powerful risk management and vulnerability assessment approaches are often the driving force behind conservation planning and resource management decision making. Many land managers and local communities have limited resources (especially geospatial) for assessing the risk posed by linked disturbance drivers like invasive species and climate change. Working in Alaska and Ethiopia provides an opportunity to employ novel approaches and engage very distinct ecologies and cultures, facing similar acute environmental changes.

My research specifically seeks collaboration with rural indigenous communities in Alaska and Ethiopia, to integrate their knowledge with geospatial applications, and better understand the vulnerability of ecosystem services (i.e. the benefits that humans receive from the environment) (see MA 2005), which they rely on for their livelihoods, to problematic invasive species and changing climate at the local and landscape scale. This spatial understanding can then hopefully promote dialogue about conservation strategies linked with local community needs and values. Alaska is one the fastest warming places on the planet (Rupp & Springsteen, 2009). Disruption of environmental processes are known to negatively affect biodiversity and overall ecosystem resilience, in addition to impacting local Alaskan communities whose livelihoods are dependent on the landscape (McNeeley & Shulski 2011). Located in eastern interior Alaska is one of my research sites, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which is the third largest conservation area in the national wildlife refuge system. It is comprised of a mosaic of critical subarctic habitat and one of the greatest waterfowl breeding areas in North America. Additionally, seven Gwich'in Athabascan indigenous communities live within or adjacent to the Refuge and are heavily reliant on the local landscape. The ecological, cultural and economic importance of this site cannot be overstated, and currently a number of highly aggressive invasive species are noted to be present, and of growing concern for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the villages, including aquatic species like western waterweed (Elodea nuttallii and Elodea canadensis), and terrestrial species including Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), White sweet clover (Melilotus albus), and Bird vetch (Vicia cracca). Both the tribes and USFWS have an especially vested interest in understanding and managing aquatic invasive Elodea, as it negatively impacts Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) spawning habitat, becoming an impenetrable mass of tangled plant matter that clogs lakes and slow-moving creek and stream tributaries, thus holding major implications for a region that houses the longest Pacific salmon run in the world. As noted by a Native Alaskan Chief at a recent inter-tribal summit in the Yukon Territory, “water is our life. It sustains us...We define ourselves as being part of the land [and] King salmon was and is the life line on the Yukon”.

Over 7,000 miles away, across the Pacific Ocean, is my other research site, Ethiopia. Like Alaska, the wonders of Ethiopia cannot be overstated. As the headwaters of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia provides the majority of water for both tributaries of the longest and most recognizable river in the world. The lush, forested southern reaches of the country are captivating and home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity in the world. The Bale Mountains National Park, located adjacent to one of my project sites, is noted to be among the world's most irreplaceable Protected Areas for conservation of amphibian, bird and mammal species (LeSaout et al. 2013). The flora is equally impressive with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) noting that “...the conditions and the isolation of these areas have led to the evolution of unique plant communities that are found nowhere else” (UNEP 2008). Preliminary results of my current work in Ethiopia reveal important gender distinctions of plant knowledge and valuation of plant-derived ecosystem services (Luizza et al. 2013). For more on this project, please visit my blog post on NREL's EcoPress site, and see  what other projects are occurring in Ethiopia through the recently announced strategic alliance between the Warner College of Natural Resources and Ethiopia.

In both Alaska and Ethiopia there is a need to include indigenous communities in conservation planning, through novel, interdisciplinary approaches, which are above all community-driven. Indigenous communities in both places (and around the globe) are facing an array of challenges fueled by a number of environmental and anthropogenic disturbances. As I prepare for the next round of field work in Ethiopia in April 2014 and Alaska in August 2014, I am aware of the vast amount of work that lies ahead, but excited to see the growing number of scholars, land managers and local practitioners seeking collectively to bring indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation planning.


Buckley, Y.M. 2008. The role of research for integrated management of invasive species, invaded landscapes and communities. Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 397-402.

Chapin III., F.S., Zavaleta, E.S., Eviner, V.T., Naylor, R.L., Vitousek, P.M., Reynolds, H.L., Hooper, D.U., Lavorel, S., Sala, O.E., Hobbie, S.E., Mack, M.C., and Díaz, S. 2000. Consequences of changing   biodiversity. Nature 405: 234-242.

Chapin III., F.S., Carpenter, S.R., Kofinas, G.P., Folke, C., Abel, N., Clark, W.C., Olsson, P., Stafford Smith, D.M., Walker, B., Young, O.R., Berkes, F., Biggs, R., Grove, J.M., Naylor, R.L., Pinkerton, E., Steffen, W., and Swanson, F.J. 2010. Ecosystem stewardship: Sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25(4): 241-249.

Elith, J., Kearney, M., and Phillips, S. 2010. The art of modelling range-shifting species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 1: 330-342.

Evangelista, P., Norman III, J., Swartzinki, P., and Young, N. 2012. Assessing habitat quality of the mountain nyala Tragelaphus buxtoni in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Current Zoology 58(4): 525-535.

Le Saout, S., Hoffman, M., Shi, Y., Hughes, A., Bernard, C., Brooks, T.M., Bertzky, B., Butchart, S.H.M., Stuart, S.N., Badman, T., & Rodrigues, A.S.L. 2013. Protected areas and effective biodiversity conservation. Science, 342(15): 803-805.    

Lindgren, C.J. 2012. Biosecurity policy and the use of geospatial predictive tools to address invasive plants: Updating the risk analysis toolbox. Risk Analysis 32(1): 9-15.

Luizza, M.W., Young, H., Kuroiwa, C., Evangelista, P., Worede, A., Bussmann, R.W., and Weimer, A. 2013. Local knowledge of plants and their uses among women in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Ethnobotany Research and Applications 11: 315-339.

McNeeley, S.M., and Shulski, M.D. 2011. Anatomy of a closing window: Vulnerability to changing seasonality in Interior Alaska. Global Environmental Change 21: 464-473.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). 2005. Ecosystems and human well-being: a framework for assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Rupp, T.S., and Springsteen, A. 2009. Projected Climate Change Scenarios for the Bureau of Land Management Eastern Interior Management Area, Alaska, 2001-2099. University of Alaska Fairbanks Report. Prepared for U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. 10pp.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2008. Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA). Nairobi: Kenya.

Knowing what fish eat can help us make smarter choices about the fish we eat

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 10:31am

Written by Clint Leach, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

It is sometimes startling for me to think how many fish interiors I have seen. Summing over three tours on the annual Gulf of Alaska/Aleutian Islands survey run by NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC), the number is surely in the thousands. For someone with no fewer than three blood-induced fainting incidents on his resume, there has to be a pretty compelling reason to willfully look at the insides of that many fish. Fortunately, there is – to find out what they eat. Though I was only a small cog in a much larger data-collecting machine, I was out there because I am fascinated by food webs – networks that map who eats whom in an ecosystem. Assembling these food webs means identifying what all the species are eating, and in the case of marine fish, this means identifying what's in their stomachs. Collecting these data requires a great deal of effort – AFSC scientists have peered into hundreds of thousands of stomachs over the last thirty years – but offers powerful insights in return.

Despite the visual tangle of an assembled food web (network diagrams like the one shown here are sometimes unaffectionately referred to as hairballs), there are patterns – nonrandom structures – that can be extracted. For instance, many food webs, like the Chesapeake Bay marine food web, can be broken into a few tightly knit groups that only loosely interact with one-another (Krause et al. 2003)⁠. In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, this means that the food web separates into two groups: a benthic group (bottom-dwelling species), and a pelagic group (water-column species), with a few key species connecting the two. 

Identifying such structures in the tangle of a food web can tell us a great deal about how energy moves through an ecosystem (flowing from plants on up) and how it might respond if one or more species are lost. When a species is removed, or its abundance substantially reduced, the effects can cascade through the food web, affecting many other species.  Knowing the structure of the food web allows us to predict what other species will be affected and how severely. In the case of the Chesapeake Bay food web, the effects of the loss of a benthic species are more likely to be contained within the benthic group, without affecting the pelagic species.  Knowing how species break into groups allows us to identify the major avenues through which energy flows and how the loss of different species will disrupt that flow.

Such tools are especially useful in fisheries management (hence the interest from AFSC) as they allow us to explore how the harvest of a particular species of fish will affect all of the others in a community.  For instance, the collapse of the Atlantic cod population on the Scotian Shelf in the early 1990's created a cascade that affected the whole community (Frank et al., 2011)⁠. Without the cod there to eat them, the fish that had previously been the cod's prey – herring, capelin, and sandlance – exploded in population. Because of this boom, they in turn drove down the populations of their prey, and so on through the food chain.  Understanding such chains of events, and how they are governed by the layout of the food web, can help us to better manage how we harvest fish so that we can keep the whole community stable.

Acknowledging and studying such interconnections highlights the fact that we participate in, and exert a large influence over, these marine food webs. Before it made it to your plate, that fish was part of a community, part of a food web, where it acquired its own dinners and might have provided dinner for something else had it not made it to you first. The energy that reaches our plate must first pass through the complex interactions between myriad organisms, and understanding how and where exactly that energy flows is of critical importance if we are to continue to safely and sustainably enjoy the products of the sea. 


Frank, K. T., Petrie, B., Fisher, J. a D., & Leggett, W. C. (2011). Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem. Nature, 477(7362), 86–9.

Krause, A. E., Frank, K. a, Mason, D. M., Ulanowicz, R. E., & Taylor, W. W. (2003). Compartments revealed in food-web structure. Nature, 426(6964), 282–5.

Species extinction is a great moral wrong

Fri, 02/14/2014 - 11:16am

By Philip Cafaro, PhD and Professor of Philosophy and affiliated faculty member with the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, United States, and Richard B. Primack, PhD and Professor of Biology, Boston University, United States

Posted on 12 February 2014

Nearly three decades ago, Michael Soulé published an article titled ‘‘What is Conservation Biology?’’ (1985). Its strong and enduring influence stemmed partly from Soulé’s success in articulating an appealing ethical vision for this rapidly developing field. At its heart was the belief that the anthropogenic extinction of species is a great moral wrong. ‘‘The diversity of organisms is good,’’ Soulé wrote, and ‘‘the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad.’’ Other species have ‘‘value in themselves,’’ he asserted: an ‘‘intrinsic value,’’ which should motivate appreciation, respect, and restraint in our dealings with them.

In ‘‘What is Conservation Science?’’ (2012), a recent attempt to update Soulé, Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier lose sight of this moral commitment. Specifying the practical principles that they believe should guide conservationists, they give prominent place to increasing human wealth (‘‘economic development’’) and ‘‘working with corporations,’’ while recognition of the right of other species to continue to flourish is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the article’s rhetoric serves to normalize anthropogenic extinctions and make readers more comfortable with them. For example, it describes concern for the extirpation of wolves and grizzly bears in the United States as ‘‘nostalgia’’ for ‘‘the world as it once was,’’ and states that ‘‘some realism is in order’’ regarding whether or not people should be required to keep other species on the landscape when their continued presence is incompatible with our economic goals.

Unfortunately this position does not appear to be an aberration of this one article, but an essential part of Karieva and Marvier’s brief for conservationists to accommodate ourselves to the new realities of the Anthropocene Epoch. An earlier piece that they published with Robert Lalasz, ‘‘Conservation in the Anthropocene’’ (2011), also contemplates mass extinction with equanimity, in part, apparently, because such extinctions will not necessarily inconvenience human beings.

‘‘Ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature,’’ they argue there. ‘‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The American chestnut, once a dominant tree in eastern North America, has been extinguished by a foreign disease, yet the forest ecosystem is surprisingly unaffected. The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’’

Presumably these extinction events were indeed catastrophic for the species in question, and perhaps too for other species that preyed on or parasitized them, or depended on them in other ways. But such catastrophes do not appear to count morally for the authors—they are not real catastrophes—as long as the ‘‘ecosystem functions’’ that benefit people remain intact. (Regarding the near-extinction of the American chestnut and the demise of the passenger pigeon, among the most abundant tree and bird species in temperate eastern North American forests five hundred years ago, if they had no ‘‘measurable effects,’’ we may assume that was because no one bothered to measure them at the time.)

According to recent studies, humanity could extinguish one out of every three species on Earth during the next several centuries, if we continue on our current habitat-destroying, resource-monopolizing path (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010). In one sign of the times, in 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened with extinction due to current and potential future effects of global climate change. Those of us who love wild nature receive such news with lumps in our throats. Yet about the polar bear Kareiva et al. (2011) have this to say:

‘‘Even that classic symbol of fragility—the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block—may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals. Polar bears evolved from brown bears 200,000 years ago during a cooling period in Earth’s history, developing a highly specialized carnivorous diet focused on seals. Thus, the fate of polar bears depends on two opposing trends—the decline of sea ice and the potential increase of energy-rich prey. The history of life on Earth is of species evolving to take advantage of new environments only to be at risk when the environment changes again.’’ 

Note the way this account equates past extinctions due to natural causes with the possible extinction of the polar bear due to human-caused climate change. That’s just ‘‘the history of life,’’ adapting or failing to adapt to changing conditions. Note the disappearance of any sense of human agency for the threat to the polar bear: Ursus maritimus’ fate depends on ‘‘two opposing trends’’ as ‘‘the environment changes’’—not on whether or not humanity ratchets back greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, note the glibness with which the authors talk about the extinction of this magnificent beast (‘‘seemingly stranded on a melting ice block’’).

Extinguishing species through the continued expansion of human economic activities appears to be morally acceptable to Kareiva, Marvier and some other Anthropocene proponents (e.g. Bradbury, 2012), as long as this destruction does not rebound and harm people themselves. But this view is selfish and unjust. Human beings already control more than our fair share of Earth’s resources. If increased human numbers and economic demands threaten to extinguish the polar bear and many other species, then we need to limit our numbers and economic demands (Cincotta and Gorenflo, 2011; Noss et al., 2013). Exactly how to curb human demands or reform dysfunctional economic institutions that endanger wild nature may be open questions, but they are not optional questions for conservationists, nor can we ignore moral issues in answering them (Rolston, 1994).

Conservation biologists, with our knowledge and appreciation of other species, are the last people who should be making excuses for their displacement, or making light of their extinction. It is particularly inappropriate for Peter Kareiva to do so, given his position as chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving biodiversity. TNC’s fundraising rests in part on appeals to a strong and widely shared moral sense that other species have a right to continued existence. Much of the conservation value of TNC’s easements and land purchases depends on societywide moral and legal commitments to preserve threatened and endangered species. Kareiva and Marvier (2012) state that they ‘‘do not wish to undermine the ethical motivations for conservation action,’’ or presumably, conservation law. Yet their articles do precisely that, with potentially disastrous implications for practical conservation efforts, particularly in the long-term.

To be clear: we do not think there is anything wrong with people looking after our own legitimate needs. This is an important component of conservation, as conservation biologists have long recognized (Greenwald et al., 2013). Kareiva and Marvier are right to remind us that protecting ecosystem services for human beings is important. They are right, too, that concern for our own wellbeing can sometimes motivate significant biodiversity preservation. We believe that people should preserve other species both for their sakes and for ours (see Primack, 2010, chapter 6, for a fuller treatment of these ethical claims).

However, it is a mistake to reduce conservation solely to a selfconcerned prudence, or to anthropocentrically assume that it is acceptable to extinguish those species that do not provide us with important ecosystem services. As with marriage, education, or any other important human institution or activity, an overly economistic approach to conservation leads us astray morally. It makes us selfish, and that is the last thing we want when the very existence of so many other life forms is at stake. Fairly sharing the lands and waters of Earth with other species is most importantly a matter of justice, not economic convenience (Staples and Cafaro, 2012).

Natural species are the primary expressions and repositories of organic nature’s order, creativity, and diversity. They represent thousands of millions of years of evolution and achievement. They show incredible functional, organizational, and behavioral complexity. Every species, like every person, is unique, with its own history and destiny. When people take so many resources or degrade so much habitat that another species is driven extinct, we have taken or damaged too much, and brought a valuable and meaningful story to an untimely end.

At its core, conservation biology affirms that knowledge about the living world should go hand in hand with love and respect for it. Colin Tudge puts it well, writing in The Variety of Life (2000):

‘‘The prime motive of science is not to control the Universe but to appreciate it more fully. It is a huge privilege to live on Earth and to share it with so many goodly and fantastical creatures.’’ 

From this perspective, even one anthropogenic extinction is one too many. From this perspective, the goodness of the human career on Earth depends as much on how well we appreciate and get along with other species, as on how well we do so with other people.

Michael Soulé (1985, 2013) is right: other species have value in themselves and a right to continued existence free from anthropogenic extinction, whether or not we find them beautiful, useful, profitable, or interesting, and whether or not preserving them is convenient or economically beneficial for people.


Bradbury, R., 2012. A World Without Corals. New York Times, op-ed pages, July 13, 2012. 

Cincotta, R.P., Gorenflo, L.J., 2011. Human Population: Its Influences on Biological Diversity. Springer. 

Greenwald, N., Dellasala, D., Terborgh, J., 2013. Nothing new in Kareiva and Marvier. BioScience 63, 241. 

Kareiva, P., Marvier, M., 2012. What is conservation science? BioScience 62, 962– 969. 

Kareiva, P., Lalasz, R., Marvier, M., 2011. Conservation in the Anthropocene: beyond solitude and fragility. Breakthrough J., 29–37 (Fall). 

Noss, R., Nash, R., Paquet, P., Soulé, M., 2013. Humanity’s domination of nature is part of the problem: a response to Kareiva and Marvier. BioScience 63, 241–242. 

Primack, R., 2010. Essentials of Conservation Biology, fifth ed. Sinauer Associates. 

Rolston, H., 1994. Conserving Natural Value. Columbia University Press. 

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010. Global Biodiversity Outlook 3. Montréal. 

Soulé, M.E., 1985. What is conservation biology? BioScience 35, 727–734. 

Soulé, M.E., 2013. The ‘‘New Conservation’’. Conservation Biol. 27, 897–899. 

Staples, W., Cafaro, P., 2012. For a species right to exist. In: Cafaro, P., Crist, E. (Eds.), Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation. University of Georgia Press, pp. 283–300. 

Tudge, C., 2000. The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of all the Creatures that Have Ever Lived. Oxford University Press.

To comment on this blog post, visit the ElsevierConnect website with the original article HERE.


Climate Change and Tropical Rainfall

Thu, 02/06/2014 - 9:31am

Written by Matthew R. Igel, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Atmospheric Science

One of the most incredible aspects of life in the tropics is the shear force with which raindrops seem to fall. As if shot out of a cannon with the specific aim of teaching a painful lesson that won’t soon be forgotten to silly humans attempting to feebly take shelter under a palm tree, raindrops from tropical thunderstorms are quite impressive already. But what will happen to these raindrops, or more precisely their number, with a warming climate?

This question is one that has been on the minds of atmospheric scientists in the last decade. I am just now sitting down to write this blog entry after attending a colloquium during which the idea that tropical rainfall might be responsible for events occurring in the Arctic was discussed, and, as so often occurs, the subsequent discussion became one on trends in tropical rainfall. And the reason this question is so common a refrain is that understanding how and why precipitation might change under climate change scenarios is crucial to the lives and livelihoods of populations living in the tropics. Local populations in the tropics have developed a dependence on frequent, but not too frequent, heavy, but not too heavy, rainfall. There are two ways in which this balance could be broken. Either the frequency or intensity of rainfall could change.  And, unfortunately, climate change is expected to change both.

As the climate warms, a myriad of changes will probably occur to the tropical atmosphere. The warmer atmosphere will be able to “hold” higher amounts of water vapor than it can today. So, the same storm in a warmer climate would rain more than it would in a cooler one. Also where it rains is expected to change. Today, much of the rain in the tropics is confined to narrow bands around the equator. Due to a variety of influences, these bands are expected to shrink in a warmer climate. Since the atmosphere has to rain a certain amount each day to maintain a constant water cycle, and because this rain will be confined to a smaller area, that effect too will create stronger rain rates.  Combined, these predicted changes portend bad news for many vulnerable populations in the tropics. “Extreme” rainfall will get heavier and “normal” rainfall will become less frequent. The situation is often referred to as the “Rich-get-Richer” response.  This name reflects the nature of regions receiving an abundance of precipitation being predicted to get more.

Traditional global circulation models (GCMs) that climate scientists use to make predictions about climate change have been predicting a “Rich-get-Richer” response to global climate change for some time.  However, these models lack the ability to simulate individual thunderstorms. Recently, work with special, high-resolution models has been conducted to understand how individual thunderstorms will respond to climate change. These simulations have revealed an even grimmer picture of changes to rainfall.  What they have shown is that groups of thunderstorm conspire to exacerbate the problem. It seems that clouds will group together in new ways to pour down rain on rainy areas at the expense of the drier ones. The strongest thunderstorms appear to get even stronger. Together with the results of the large-scale weather well simulated by the GCMs, there is reason for concern.

The “Rich-get-Richer” and thunderstorm difference mechanisms only account for the daily variations in rainfall. Tropical rainfall is also influenced by longer time scale phenomena. Both monthly and yearly time scales see broad changes in rainfall. On monthly scales the so-called Madden-Julian Oscillation (the MJO), a broad region of storminess that slowly moves eastward along the equator, can enhance or deter rainfall. Very recent work has suggested that MJOs may become harder to predict with greater time between rain events.  The events that do occur might result in heavier rainfall. On yearly timescales, hurricanes come and go. But with climate warming, the hurricanes that come will likely be less frequent and more intense than those we see today.

Anecdotally, some of these changes have already been seen. Regions like Australia and the Indian subcontinent have seen changes in the frequency and intensity of their rainfall. The Indian monsoon, a seasonal rain pattern, used to be amazingly consistent year-to-year, and therefore, predictable. Now monsoon onset occurs at a more variable time and monsoon rains are often heavy enough to flood. Australia too has seen drought and flooding with unfamiliar regularity.

Climate warming will likely require adaptation to new weather. While those in the tropics are generally spared the worst effects, they will have to adapt to rising sea levels and, unfortunately, it seems, changes in the rainfall that is so vital to their everyday life.

Of molecules and mosquitoes: molecular biology techniques underlie our efforts to sustainably eradicate mosquito-borne viruses

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 3:55pm

Written by Stephanie Moon, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology

Not so very long ago, the prevailing belief was that mosquitoes were not capable of transmitting such devastating agents of disease as malaria, Yellow fever virus (YFV) and West Nile virus (WNV). It was believed that YFV was transmitted through mysterious fogs or general filth, and it wasn’t until early in the twentieth century that scientific investigation by the U.S. Army in Cuba uncovered the role of mosquitoes in virus transmission (1). Despite the prevailing public sentiment that it was ridiculous to consider that mosquitoes carried human pathogens, experiments by the U.S. Army led by Dr. Walter Reed in Cuba in the early 1900’s revealed that humans can transmit YFV to mosquitoes and mosquitoes can in turn consistently pass the virus back to humans. Shockingly, these experiments would not have been possible without the help of human volunteers willing to be infected with YFV, and some died as a result of their participation (1). However, the eventual eradication of YFV from Central and North America during the twentieth century would not have taken place without these key experiments defining the transmission cycle and a rigorous multi-pronged approach that aimed to destroy mosquito populations, discover a vaccine, and prevent mosquito-human contact through quarantine efforts, screens and mosquito nets (1).

Laboratory-based research efforts were successful in eradicating YFV from the U.S., but surveillance efforts to detect YFV or research into finding a cure for the disease are still important goals. Aside from contributing to sickness and death in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South America, there is still a risk of YFV and other mosquito-borne viruses once again gaining a foothold in the U.S. It was also recently reported that the main vector for YFV and the related Dengue virus, Aedes aegypti, has been found in California, and 22 patients have been identified so far as having acquired Dengue virus in Key West, Florida (2).

Today in the U.S., West Nile virus is rapidly becoming a major concern as human and animal cases have burgeoned since the virus was introduced in New York in 1999. Yellow fever virus and its mosquito vector Aedes aegypti were also imported to the New World (thought to derive from West Africa and spread to the Americas as a consequence of the African slave trade) and we know now that the way we changed the landscape during the European expansion into the Americas contributed to the expanding region in which YFV was found (1). For example, razing the forest to create sugar cane plantations in the islands of the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century promoted the formation of new favorable habitats for Aedes aegypti, facilitating the spread of YFV (1). Similarly, the incidence of WNV in the northeastern U.S. has been shown to be higher in urban areas, and our agricultural practices have also contributed to WNV disease incidence in the western U.S. (3, 4).

Because West Nile virus normally exists in a transmission cycle between birds and mosquitoes (with humans and horses acquiring WNV incidentally), the ecology of this virus-host-vector system is in some ways more complex than that of YFV, which is maintained in humans and tree-dwelling monkeys (in the Americas). Eradicating WNV therefore presents a particularly complex challenge, especially as WNV, unlike YFV, has no vaccine. It follows that mitigation efforts will focus on mosquito control rather than disease prevention, which can negatively affect ecosystems by harming other insects and the animals that depend on insects as a food source (5). Coming up with new ways to treat patients infected with WNV and other mosquito-borne pathogens or prevent infection in the first place through vaccinations will permit a more sustainable approach to eradicating these diseases. Therefore, molecular biology research into the underlying molecular mechanisms of virus infection and transmission will be essential for our future efforts if we want a more environmentally friendly, sustainable solution to the problem of mosquito-transmitted viruses.

How do we manage the risk of WNV transmission locally? The city of Fort Collins provides a wealth of information to the public about this process. Data you can access online includes how many patients have been diagnosed with WNV, the severity of their disease symptoms, and fatalities in Larimer County. You can also easily find how many mosquitoes were trapped in certain areas in Larimer County and whether or not they tested positive for WNV online (6). These data are used to determine what actions the city should take to prevent a WNV outbreak. Part of the city’s response to a predicted outbreak is the use of insecticides that kill larval or adult mosquitoes, but they are applied in small areas and only used when the risk of WNV transmission is high. Despite the efforts of the city of Fort Collins to make data and information available to the public about WNV transmission risk and insecticide application, there is controversy surrounding the use of insecticides. A fairly recent article in the Coloradoan ( discusses some the pitfalls of the current system the city uses to decide when and where to spray insecticides (7). One major problem with our current system is the way that we decide when to spray (7). Because the city won’t spray insecticides until several human cases are reported, there is a delay of almost a month between when people are getting infected with WNV and when they come down with symptoms and therefore when the city may take action (7). We could potentially stop this delay by relying more on mosquito surveillance efforts (7) and by developing improved diagnostics that will detect infection in people who are at risk of infection before the onset of symptoms.

The way that we currently evaluate and abrogate the risk of WNV transmission locally is rooted in molecular biology techniques, as both surveillance and (some) diagnostic tests rely on a method called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect viral genetic material. Unfortunately, our current repertoire of diagnostic tests are not useful until the patient has symptoms of the disease, so there is a need for more rapid, reliable diagnostic tests to detect WNV before the onset of illness. Surprisingly, there are no specific treatments or human vaccines for many important mosquito-borne viral diseases, including WNV. Research aimed at developing new vaccines, diagnostic tests and exposing new viral (or host) drug targets to mitigate the onset of disease symptoms will be a crucial component of a sustainable strategy for disease control. Laboratory-based research efforts can potentially also pinpoint why certain viruses cause disease or spread across the globe.

My research is focused on how a large group of arthropod-borne viruses including Dengue virus and WNV cause disease at the cellular and molecular level. If we can determine what factors are required for viruses to replicate in human cells, then we can potentially develop novel treatments to reduce the symptoms of the disease. Furthermore, by studying the common mechanisms that many different viruses use to cause disease, we could ultimately derive a common treatment. Many viruses that aren’t transmitted by mosquitoes (including Hepatitis C virus and Bovine viral diarrhea virus- a common ailment of cattle) are close relatives of YFV, Dengue virus, and WNV. Our work has uncovered some exciting mechanisms that these related viruses share to potentially cause disease in humans and animals that you can read about here: (8). Ultimately, research efforts should contribute to the production of treatments, vaccines, and sustainable methods of implementing both to supplement or replace our current approaches that rely heavily on mosquito control to mitigate disease risk in humans and animals.

Works cited and suggested reading:

(1) McNeill, JR. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Press.

(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- Dengue Homepage. 27 Sept. 2012. Accessed 8 Jan 2014.

(3) Brown HE, Childs JE, Diuk-Wasser MA, Fish D. Ecologic factors associated with West Nile virus transmission, northeastern USA. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2008 Oct [8 Jan. 2014]. Available from

(4) Kilpatrick AM. “Globalization, land use, and the invasion of West Nile virus” Science. 2011 Oct 21; 334(6054):323-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1201010.

(5) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, Appendix K4, Environmental Effects of Mosquito Control 2004. Accessed 1 Jan. 2014.

(6) Colorado Mosquito Control, Inc. 2010. Accessed 8 Jan. 2014.

(7) Duggan, Kevin. “Fort Collins’ West Nile spraying could fly in new directions” The Coloradoan, 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 6 Jan. 2013.        

(8) Moon, SL and Wilusz, J. Rage against the (cellular RNA decay) machine. PloS Pathog. 2013 Dec 9 (12):e1003762. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003762.


Will 9 billion humans put us in Mordor or the Shire?

Wed, 01/08/2014 - 9:54am

Written by Jillian Lang, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program and lab manager of The Jan E. Leach Lab

Plenty of scientists, economists and think tankers are talking about the 9 billion people question, or the ‘9BPQ’. Our population is predicted to plateau in 2050 with 9 billion humans. That is a lot of bodies to provide water, food, shelter and clean air for. Is it possible? I’m not sure.

Dr. H.C.J. Godfray, University of Oxford professor, and his coauthors (2010) say it is possible, with a multifaceted and linked global strategy that can ensure sustainable and equitable food security. My favorite component of their optimism is reducing waste. Dr. John Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, another prolific writer on food security, agrees. In this blog post, he talks not only of changing diets to increase our food supply by 28%, but also about reducing food wasted. Think about it, if you collected all the mashed potatoes people didn’t finish on Thanksgiving, you could feed several villages in Africa the mountains of nutritious mash. After working in agriculture and studying plant pathology for many years, I’ve become fascinated by the disparity we humans have about understanding the sources of what sustain us and the dire threats to these sources we face and will leave for our children to tackle in the years to come.

Dr. Foley spoke about sustainability at an event hosted by the School of Global and Environmental Sustainability here at Colorado State University last month. While sitting in the audience too shy to ask my question, I began to consider local versus global food movements and how that relates to food security. It’s an intricate balance. What can we do today? How? If I don’t order a steak at this restaurant am I really making a difference? If I choose to buy this locally grown lettuce over that shipped from Mexico, am I contributing to global sustainability and securing our food supply? It feels like the answer is no, but really it is yes. If we consider all the small decisions made worldwide, the collective impact is ultimately a comprehensive change.

My research group works with Oryza sativa, known commonly as rice. This is a power house staple crop that feeds half of our world and an ancient, global food religion. Rice is intensively grown with several cropping cycles per year and it produces a significant amount of agricultural waste. A giant focus in our research is sustainably managing the pests and pathogens that threaten this simple, yet life sustaining plant. Tapping into the inherent tolerance to disease available in diverse wild varieties for introduction into those that are grown year after year is a sustainable approach to combating evolving microbes, and it will lessen the need for chemical applications for management, but more importantly, yield losses. Essentially, breeders can take advantage of what these plants already have to offer.

Growers are and will continually be faced with decisions to change their cropping systems, their seeds, their management strategies and their resource allocations. Our research involves molecular diagnostics, microbiology, molecular biology, plant physiology, genetics, genomics and transcriptomics to help understand from the smallest to the largest level how these different kingdoms interact in a rice system. Opportunities for sustainable production also exist in making use of crop residue that is otherwise wasted in a very pollutant-heavy way, most commonly by burning directly in the field. A viable option to dealing with this waste is to use gasification. Gasification is a closed system that would bring a value added commodity in the form of energy to fuel downstream processes, like milling. The question is, will growers be willing to transport their leftover stems and leaves down the road to support this operation? Would it be cost effective for them? This scenario could be applied to many annual cropping systems, especially those where several crops are consecutively produced in one year. Another beauty in working with rice is that it is a simple grass. It is heavily studied so many research tools are available, such as a complete genome sequence and a multitude of invested researchers worldwide. Due to the nature of evolution, many of the traits people are interested in for bioenergy, such as cell wall structure, are highly conserved among plants. By taking advantage of rice as a model, research can quickly advance to optimize systems for not only sustainable food production, but reducing wasted crop residue and using it for bioenergy. So much like reducing that amount of consumed food wasted, creative approaches to reducing waste in all steps of agricultural productions should be explored.

It’s easy to feel far removed from the people and environments we’re working to help, since no one grows rice for hundreds of miles from my lab bench or our tropics-simulating greenhouses. However, much like the lettuce dilemma, we know our work locally does affect the global movement towards sustainable crop production and that our results can be readily translated to other food crops. This solution sounds straight forward when simply written in a blog. But what is perhaps most frightening in the sustainable food security challenge is climate change. Weather extremes and natural resource abuse trigger complications in microbial and agricultural ecology. The phytobiome (a new ‘ome’, meaning the microbes that hang out, for better or for worse, on plants above ground) is a diverse and complex environment that is sensitive to even single degree changes in temperature. Rice isn’t going anywhere; it has been around as a staple crop for centuries. So when I ponder my career and my own decisions around food security, I think there is a balance. We can make choices locally to support our growers up the street and tend our own little plots of land, but research and decisions we make around our food supply can influence our neighbors across the world.

Dr. Foley so accurately describes the absolute power agriculture has over our environment, our society, our diet, our governance and our day to day lives. Agriculture is like the economic ‘Sauron’ of plants and animals followed by reliant humans. It has to be a priority for sustainability studies. If our population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050 AND people are going to live longer, food security is not an option, it is a necessity otherwise, our planet may shift from looking like the Shire to Mordor.

Literature Cited:

Godfray, H.C.J., Beddington, J.R., Crute, I.R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J.F., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S.M. and Toulmin, C. 2010. Food Security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science. 327:812-818.







If a tree falls in the forest, does it affect the water from our faucets?

Tue, 12/17/2013 - 12:28pm

Written by Heidi Huber-Stearns, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.

From the Pacific Coast, to the forests of Northwest, and over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the western United States contains a checkerboard of geographic, ecological, and social diversity. These westernmost 11 states (including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) are home to over 73.5 million people (which is 23% of US population), and contain the highest concentration of federal land ownership in the US. This region is also home to historic water rights (western water law principle of ‘use it or lose it’), suffers from arid and unpredictable precipitation, and drought-induced risks such as wildfire, and a contains critically important headwaters of major river systems (the Colorado Rockies alone contain headwaters for seven major US river systems).

Over the past couple decades the western US region has grown faster than the entire country. This growth has been accompanied by complex, expensive, and often poorly defined conflicts, which are fueled by rapid land use pattern changes, such as exurban development, and public land use transitions, and changes in climate, demographics, socio-economic conditions, and decreased funding for land stewards. Particularly on public (federally-managed) lands, significant funding limitations and gaps in forest and watershed maintenance have increased, as budgets are reprioritized to address immediate environmental and social concerns such as wildfire. States and their respective watersheds are not uniformly exposed to all these factors, nor are they only factors pertinent to this region, yet these factors are all cited as playing a role in driving the development of new approaches to addressing watershed stewardship challenges.

There is a clear need for new and creative ways to address these increasing concerns, especially since the majority of drinking water in the region comes from surface water supplies primarily protected by forests on public lands (Barnes, et al, 2009). So what occurs in the forested watersheds upstream is indeed linked to the water most of us in the region receive at our faucet. These new approaches to watershed stewardship have developed hand-in-hand with a shift from historically federally-managed conservation actions to decentralized collaborative efforts aimed at the local and regional scale (Nie, 2008).

One such approach, broadly called “Payments for Watershed Services” (PWS) has increased in the region. We can think of PWS as a set of mechanisms that attempt to address these complex conflicts facing the region, designed in different ways to fit a variety of preexisting institutional and ecological conditions. This kind of expansion in PWS approaches is not specific to just the western US, in fact, PWS expansion is occurring across the globe. Ecosystem Marketplace  (a Forests Trends Initiative) has tracked the development of PWS globally, culminating in the State of Watershed Payments 2012 report, and an interactive map.

Zooming back in to the western US, our recent research included collaboration with Ecosystem Marketplace to inventory existing PWS programs in the region (data used in our work is part of the State of Watershed Payments data set). Our program inventory found 55 programs in operation or in design in the region in 2012; a number that more than doubled from the 20 programs in the region in 2003. These programs and their status (active, in design) are listed on the map to the right. Point map of Payments for Watershed Services in the Western United States (Huber-Stearns et al., 2013-unpublished). Our research resulted in information about the programmatic components of all 55 programs, which is more comprehensively covered in our full manuscript (email me for more information). In keeping with the theme of this blog, we will focus in on one specific subgroup of programs that emerged in our data analysis: Watershed Restoration and Protection programs.

We identified nine Watershed Restoration and protection programs in our 2012 inventory, and this number has increased since, with more programs under design and beginning full operation. Watershed Restoration and Protection programs focus primarily on targeting water quality ecosystem services, including general water quality, as well as some specific concerns, primarily, temperature, sediment and nitrogen. The programs focus on these ecological concerns through management actions, mainly: land restoration (forest thinning, prescribed burning, riparian restoration, and other actions to improve watershed health); and protection actions (outreach and increased patrols to educate public about appropriate activities in key watersheds, purchasing of conservation easements). These management actions are aimed at the protection and restoration of upper watershed lands that directly affect water municipalities’ source water, and in some cases, lands affecting wastewater and storm water discharge.

In all cases, water municipalities and utilities fund these programs. These programs include cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Tualatin. Due to the inherent checkerboard of land ownership in the region, those conducting stewardship practices on the land for these programs are varied. In the Pacific Northwest, these programs contain mainly private landowners who conduct a variety of restoration and protection practices on their land to enhance and improve water quality. In more arid states, the key land steward in the US Forest Service, who partners with utilities to cost-share restoration and protection actions on public lands.

It may seem unusual that water providers and federal agencies are teaming up to address water quality concerns. However, the Forest Service is increasingly focused on strategies to improve upstream water health, with a specific focus on engaging large water users who are willing to pay for protection, risk aversion and/or restoration practices. Both utilities and public agencies see these partnerships as opportunities to leverage their limited staff and funding towards improved watershed management. The utilities are motivated by source water protection, and other water quality and quantity concerns, while the public agencies and private individuals are motivated by the opportunity to improve overall health of both public and private lands. PWS can serve as a mechanism to work across land ownership boundaries in order to address larger social and ecological concerns.

These watershed restoration actions are often seen as investments in natural infrastructure: as a complement, or in lieu of municipalities increasing technology and treatment within drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. (Click here to read a recent report: Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the United States) As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As one example, investment in natural infrastructure can be worth avoidance of severe wildfire costs (loss of lives and property, forest health effects, costs of fire suppression) and subsequent damage (increased nutrients and sediment in water, increased water treatment costs, negative impact on water security, biodiversity). This approach can address such watershed health issues at their root cause, conducting restoration work along waterways and in headwaters.

Programs such as these PWS show that major urban water users are focusing on proactive thinking beyond their own intake and discharge pipes; investments in such programs are starting to solidify the economic value of upstream forests to downstream water users. PWS provides a mechanism that can facilitate: new partnerships and work across boundaries, leveraging of resources (making a dollar go further), and co-benefits such as habitat restoration, and landscape beauty. The relative newness and increasing popularity of PWS means that the next few years will be key for studying new programs coming online, and existing programs reporting outcomes and program effectives. In conclusion, the answer is yes; the clean, cold drinking water gushing forth from your open faucet can indeed be connected to falling trees in your watershed.

Heidi’s research is supported by the Agricultural Experiment Station. Heidi is also the Coordinator for the Colorado Conservation Exchange, a program of the Center for Collaborative Conservation.

Maps were produced by the Geospatial Centroid at Colorado State University.


Barnes, M., Todd, A., Lilja, R, and Barten, P. (2009). Forests, Water and people: Drinking water supply and forest lands in the Northeast and Midwest United States. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service report.

Bennett, G., Nathaniel .C and Hamilton, K. (2012). Charting New Waters: State of Watershed Payments 2012. Washington, DC: Forest Trends. Available online at

Carpe Diem West. (2011). Watershed investment programs in the American West: An updated look: Linking upstream watershed health and downstream security. A Carpe Diem West Report. California.

Folke, C. (2006). Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions, 16(3): 253-267.

Gorte, R., Hardy Vincent, C., Hanson, L., Rosenblum, M. (2012). Federal land ownership: Overvew and data. Congressional research Service 7-5700, R42346.

Majanen, T., Friedman, R., Milder, J. (2011). Innovations in market-based watershed conservation in the United States: Payments for watershed services for agricultural and forest landowners. Ecoagriculture partners. June 2011.

Nie, M. (2008). The governance of Western public lands: Mapping its present and future. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas. 

Robbins, Meehann, Gosnell, & Gilbertz. (2009). Writing the new west: A critical review. Rural Sociology 74(3); 356.

Theobald, D. M., Travis,W. R., Drummond, M. A., and Gordon, E. S. (2013). “The Changing Southwest.” In Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for the National Climate Assessment, edited by Garfin,G., Jardine, A., Merideth,R., Black, M., and LeRoy, S. 37–55. A report by the Southwest Climate Alliance. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Travis, W., Theobald, D., Mixon, G., and Dickinson, T. (2005). Western Futures: A look into the patterns of land use and future development in the American West. Report from The Center #6, Center of the American West, University of Colorado at Boulder.

Weidner, E. and A. Todd. 2011. From the forest to the faucet: Drinking water and forests in the US, Methods Paper. Ecosystem Services and Markets Program Area, State and Private Forestry, United States Forest Service.

Sustainable behavior: Changing the habit by changing the context

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 10:16am

Written by Liesel Hans, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Economics

Habits make life easier in a hectic, fast-paced world. It’s hard to fight routine and convenience. There are actions taken everyday that we probably would acknowledge as something we could, to our own benefit, do differently (candy dish, anyone?). We unfortunately aren’t the perfectly rational or consistent decision-makers suggested by traditional economic theory.

However, behavioral economics, a field gaining popularity and credibility, seeks to apply the evidence from behavioral psychology to improve economic models of decision-making. There’s been a recent burst of popular non-fiction titles surrounding behavior and psychology like Predictably Irrational, Nudge, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, (all great reads!) and the President officially established a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (a.k.a. “The Nudge Squad”), modeled after the success of the UK government.

This line of research is being applied to the design of public policy related to health, diet, finance, savings, retirement plans and the environment. Environmental behavioral economics sets out to find what influences decisions that have an impact on the environment.  For example, which method might get the most people to bike to work: pro-environmental messaging, pro-health messaging, improving/expanding the bike lanes and routes of a community, offering an individual a tax rebate on the purchase of a bike, or telling people how many of their coworkers bike to work?

Behavioral economics focuses on two channels of change, in addition to the tried-and-true price incentives. First, we can change behaviors and habits directly: “changing minds”. Or, we can change the architecture of the decision-making environment:  “changing context”. We all have the ability to process information, critically weigh the options and change our behavior (for example when I learned that butter was the second largest ingredient of my favorite granola). However, it’s often our subconscious, automatic reflexes that dictate many of our choices.  These choices may be based on emotions and associations rather than objective, rational processes. If this is how people make the majority of their choices, how can we encourage people to make better decisions when it comes to their impact on the environment?

Richard Thaler, one of the behavioral economists who authored Nudge, argues that “the solution is to apply the single most useful bit of psychology one can ever learn: If you want to encourage people to do something, make it easy -- or even better, automatic.”

The following are a few examples that highlight how behavioral economic research and concepts influences (via “nudges”) how we impact the environment. Nudges are ways of changing the context in which we make decisions to potentially reach different outcomes, while not limiting consumer choice.

Let’s start small with plastic bags at the grocery store. Here we invoke a concept called loss aversion (sometimes called framing). Loss aversion is the notion that people will react differently if a decision is framed as a loss than as a gain. Furthermore, people tend to be swayed more by a loss than by a gain of the same amount. In some U.S. grocery stores you can earn a 10-cent rebate for each reusable bag you bring. You get rewarded for doing something ‘good’.  However, in Europe (and perhaps soon in more U.S. cities), you get charged for any plastic bag you need to tote your groceries home. You get punished for something ‘bad’. These are seemingly the same incentive schemes, but result in very different outcomes. Framing the situation as paying for the bag results in far more people bringing their own bags (or not using a bag at all), whereas ‘getting’ money to not use a bag doesn’t actually encourage many to consistently use reusable bags.

One example from the White House is the website, which lets consumers compare the total fuel costs of a car over five years, rather than only by the traditional metric of miles per gallon (MPG). MPG doesn’t easily or quickly convey the true fuel costs of a vehicle. This is an example of the behavioral economics concept called salience. The fuel costs over the lifetime of a vehicle are often not salient to a consumer the way the price tag on the car window is. By doing the math for consumers and make the information easy to find, the overall fuel costs have a better chance of playing a role in a car purchasing decision.

Salience is a concept that similarly applies to household water and energy use. When someone purchases a home, they’re more likely to think about the price of the home rather than the additional monthly cost of living in the home (e.g. energy and water bills) and thus are less likely to consider the efficiency of the home (e.g. insulation, appliances). These additional costs of being a homeowner are less salient than the sticker price of the house.

Defaults, which relates to the physics concept of inertia, are another concept that’s getting a lot of attention in behavioral economics. People tend to go with the flow and often stick to the default option. Policies can be designed to offer the same options to consumers, but changing the default option to the one that is expected to maximize benefits is an easy way to improve well being without restricting choice. For example, having to request a change of sheets or towels at a hotel vs. these automatically getting changed for you each day you stay. This is one example of changing the decision-making environment from “opt-in” to “opt-out” (i.e. organ donation, retirement plans). Another example: some utilities offer the voluntary option for consumers to pay a bit more for their electricity but then amp up the use of renewable energy sources. If you make this an “opt-in” program, few would participate, but setting it up as an “opt-out” program results in more households who stay enrolled.

Continuing with home efficiency, research finds that informational campaigns (think utility bill inserts) improve knowledge, but don’t actually change energy use behavior. However, social norms reports, like what the company OPower provides, show how much energy a household is using compared to similar neighbors. This nudge does have a significant impact on changing household energy use. As a result of this social norms driven program, households reduce energy use in the short run (e.g. changing light blubs or actually program the programmable thermostat), and in the long term (e.g. improving insulation or HVAC systems). Telling people what other people do has a strong impact on what we do. The concept of norms also ties in with the concept commitment where we seek to be consistent with public promises and try to reciprocate other’s actions, as well as the concept of ego where we tend to act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. The Opower report includes a smiley face if you’re doing better than your average neighbor. This simple positive reinforcement is typically enough to keep the most efficient households from increasing their energy use when they learn they’re using less than most of their neighbors. Check out Allcott (2011) to learn more.Behavioral economics seeks to find ways to nudge people in the right direction without limiting choice. Small reminders and small changes to the context of the decision-making environment are often easier, more cost-effective means to improve individual well-being and the environment. The following are some visual examples of behavioral economics in action. E-mail me with examples of nudges you see!


A few visual examples of behavioral economics at work:

Invoking social norms to reduce littering in public spaces


Household reminder of the bigger picture when it comes to flipping a switch


Whole Foods' trash options

Challenges to Biodiversity Conservation: What can we learn from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador?

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 10:41am

Written by Mónica Páez, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Yasuní National Park

The Yasuní National Park, located in Ecuador on the Northwestern edge of the Amazon basin, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It occupies a unique location that intersects the Andes (located less than 100 km from the Andean foothills), the Amazon, and the Equator. Created in 1979, the Park encompasses an area of 9,820 km2 and was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989. It has more than 1,300 species of vertebrates, more than 100,000 species of insects, and more than 2,500 species of plants. In just one hectare of forest in Yasuní, 664 species of plants can be found, which is more than all the plant species in North America. Yasuní also encompasses part of the ancestral territory of the Waorani (Huaorani) people.

My first encounter with the Yasuní National Park was more than 10 years ago during a class on biological field techniques in which we were taken to the university’s Yasuní Research Station. I did not have to spend very long in the Park to witness the detrimental footprints of human extraction activities. Although, the access to the Park is designed to be limited, the Yasuní Research Station uses a road built by the multinational oil and gas company REPSOL-YPF. Oil extraction in the Park started in the 1950s, before it was declared a National Park. Currently, oil exploitation is listed as the largest threat to the Yasuní National Park: a substantial part of northwestern Yasuní has either been exploited or is targeted for future exploitation. Besides the impact of the oil extraction process itself, oil access roads have led to deforestation, colonization, and overhunting. One of the most striking impacts of oil companies has occurred on the Waorani people. Since oil extraction started in their territory in the 1950s, it has placed them on a conflictive edge between traditional and modern influences. Convergence of these two worlds has led to several issues, including but not limited to illness, division between clans, and conflict. In fact, while some Waorani communities participate in activities like trade, research and tourism with the outside world, some have shown aggressive behavior toward the oil companies that have tried to drill in their lands.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative

Perhaps the greatest threat that the park faces lies in its easternmost region, the ITT block (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini). Approximately 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves lie in this block (846 millions of barrels of oil, currently estimated to be worth $18 billion) along with the presumed territories of the two voluntarily isolated indigenous groups, the Tagaeri and Taromenane. In 2007, Ecuador proposed to maintain the oil under the ITT field for perpetuity in an attempt to conserve Yasuní’s biodiversity, protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane, and to avoid emission of a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By leaving the oil underground, Ecuador would have avoided the emission of 407 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which, at the time the Initiative was proposed, represented $7.2 billion on the carbon market. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative proposed an alternative to address global climate change, in which countries collaborate to avoid gas emissions to the atmosphere while protecting biodiverse regions. Ecuador, in a co-responsibility approach, was willing to forego the income obtained by extracting the oil at the ITT field, which was estimated to be $7 billion when the Initiative was first proposed. Ecuador would contribute (forego) half that total income ($3.6 billion) if the world community contributed the other half by 2023, regardless of price changes in the oil market.

But how would a country, with a history of political instability, guarantee that oil would be left underground for perpetuity? And what would happen to the contributions? On August 2010, the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund, administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was officially launched. The funds supporting the Yasuní-ITT Initiative would be collected by the Yasuní- ITT Trust Fund and were going be allocated to development strategies for handling the proposed income solution. One part of the funds would go towards investment in strategic renewable energy projects to change Ecuador’s energy matrix from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources, including hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and tidal energy projects. The other part would fund a shift from an extractive economy based on oil extraction to a more sustainable model of development. First, these funds would be used for the conservation of protected areas in Ecuador. Ecuador has one of the highest percentages (20%) of protected areas in the world. Secondly, funds would contribute to reforestation, natural regeneration, and management of watersheds and forests. Additional funds would go towards strengthening social development in the Initiative’s zone of influence by investing in health, education, and training programs along with the encouragement of sustainable activities like ecotourism. Lastly, remaining funds would go towards supporting research, science, technology, and innovation projects in Ecuadorian institutions that enhance sustainability. The government would issue Yasuní Guarantee Certificates to donors of more than $50,000. The Certificates would not expire as long as the ITT field remained unexploited.

The optimistic times

After the Yasuní-ITT Trust Fund was officially launched in 2010, Ecuadorian citizens, organizations, and the government were all proudly bragging about Ecuador’s historical decision to leave oil reserves underground. According to the United Nations Development Group, 78% of Ecuadorians citizens supported the Initiative. Ecuador was already proud of being the first country to concede rights to nature in its constitution in democratic election in 2008, and the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was a clear gesture in respect of those natural rights and a forward-looking step towards environmental protection. The proposal was also in line with the new development paradigm of Ecuador, known as Sumak Kawsay (from Kichwa, meaning Living Well or Fulfilled Life in English), which strives for improving the population’s quality of life while promoting equality and harmonic coexistence among different ethnic groups and with nature.

During those years, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative was well covered in documentaries, books, and scientific publications in Ecuador and abroad. Ecuadorian scientists, including myself, named newly described species after Yasuní, and even mention the Initiative in the etymology section of those scientific publications. National and international organizations were created, like “Viva Yasuní” created by a group of people in France to support the Initiative and convince governments of western countries to contribute. The National Geographic Magazine, in its special 125-year anniversary issue dedicated to the age of exploration, included an article about Yasuní, the threat of oil exploitation, and the Initiative. The Yasuní National Park and Yasuní-ITT Initiative were continuously mentioned in social, local, and international media. The campaign “Yasunízate” (Yasunize yourself) was launched in Ecuador, and more and more people became “Yasunized”. Ecuador wanted the world to Yasunize.

The end of the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

On August 15th, 2013, President Rafael Correa announced that after six years of its existence, only $336 million had been pledged and only $13.3 million had been delivered to the Initiative. Due to the indifferent international response, he cancelled the Trust Fund, thus ending the Yasuní-ITT Initiative.

After this announcement, the supporters of the Initiative protested around the globe. Ecuadorian citizens and the international community actively manifested their disagreement. One very significant manifestation of the unrest occurred in Ecuador just a few weeks ago. Women leaders from Amazonian groups walked for days to Quito to debate with government officials about the oil extraction in their territories. In the meantime, the Ecuadorian government initiated a persuasive campaign stating that only 0.001% of the Park will be affected, that the best technology will be used, and that Ecuadorians will greatly benefit from the revenues obtained by the extraction. Unfortunately, even with the public outrage and protests, oil drilling in the ITT block was approved a few weeks ago. Currently, Ecuadorian people against the exploitation of the ITT block are putting pressure on the government, asking for a referendum on the subject.

What can we learn from the Yasuní-ITT Initiative?

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative is a very complex subject with ecological, social, economical, and political implications. However, as an Ecuadorian conservation and evolutionary biologist, I want to address issues that the Initiative brings up from my perspective. I will first focus on the value of biodiversity. Then, since almost all conservation strategies must incorporate the human dimension, I will add some thoughts on this subject from my perspective as a citizen of this megadiverse, and multicultural country.

The value of diversity

First of all, as a biologist, especially one interested in conservation, the intrinsic value of biodiversity is a given. However, for most people, the value of biodiversity is not so obvious. Biodiversity seems to lose value as urbanization increases, and people connect less and less with nature. The disconnection from the natural world happens not only on emotional and intellectual levels, but also in the losing the realization that natural resources sustain our life and that our actions truly impact nature. Urbanization prevents us from witnessing and experiencing our interactions with nature, and this disconnection has an influence on our daily choices. When decision-makers adopt that attitude, they might overlook the importance of conserving nature simply because they do not have the opportunity to experience it. For example, it is not uncommon to hear the false dilemma of development versus conservation. Certainly, a central component of conservation is public education, particularly in urban areas. Conservation education programs, especially when coupled with outdoor activities and field trips, would be one way to enhance experiencing nature.

Biodiversity also has a utilitarian value, providing humans with goods, services, and information. Estimating the utilitarian value of biodiversity has increased in interest as a less controversial and more pragmatic approach than focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity. Following this justification, ecology and economics have been brought together to help make conservation decisions. There are several techniques that can be used to estimate both the intrinsic and the utilitarian value of diversity in monetary terms, for example, a cost-benefit analysis. This approach has proven to be useful in many instances, though there is debate over a strict focus on the utilitarian and economic value of diversity.

A major flaw of this utilitarian approach is that economic appraisals will always underestimate the real monetary value of biodiversity. For example, most analyses on the economic value of an extractive activity such as oil drilling ignore the costs of the social impact (e.g. health issues related to activity, displacement of people where the activity will be carried out) or the environmental impact (e.g. remediation costs, loss of biodiversity). In most places, including Latin America, the cost-benefit analysis is far from complete. Eduardo Gudynas, an expert on development, economics, and ecology from Uruguay, maintains that if the assessment of the environmental impacts of extractive activities were more extensive and considered all of the repercussions of drilling, most projects would not be approved. Moreover, by monetizing the value of biodiversity, we are ignoring indigenous groups, particularly the ones who rely on the land, not money, to sustain their lives.

In addition, recognizing the intrinsic value of biodiversity “has a dramatic effect upon the framework of environmental debate and decision-making” (Fox, 1993). If biodiversity is considered to have an intrinsic value, then sufficient justification has to be provided to put biodiverse areas at risk. Whereas, if biodiversity is only considered to have utilitarian value, then sufficient justification has to be provided to conserve it. If we focus only on the utilitarian value, biodiversity will always lose. Therefore, it is essential that we bring not only the economic but also the cultural, traditional, anthropological, and ecological values of biodiversity to the environmental debate and decision-making. Increasing focus on the utilitarian value and economic assessment of biodiversity could potentially be shifting the attention of conservation biologists away from other strategies that focus on the intrinsic value of nature. As cautioned by Soulé (2013), known as the father of conservation biology, conservationism based only on utilitarian values is drifting away from true conservationism.

Human dimensions

An important step in the task of conserving biodiversity is recognizing that, in order to implement adequate conservation strategies, we need to add a human dimension. It is one of the biggest challenges and requires substantial collaboration between ecological and social disciplines. We desperately need to consider indigenous groups, to develop strategies together that are actually applicable and in line with their culture. In these cases, it is even more pressing to expand our utilitarian logic as mentioned earlier and incorporate the cultural, social and ecological values of these people. Ignoring this in the past, has led to conflicts within indigenous groups and with extractive activities in every South American country (except Uruguay, which is the only country in the region that does not have indigenous groups).

Furthermore, the importance of local and indigenous knowledge in conservation decisions has been overlooked in the past. If we want to find sustainable alternatives for the use of our natural resources, indigenous knowledge is an invaluable resource that has to be taken into account. Examples of indigenous agricultural systems in Bolivia, Mexico, and New Guinea, among other places, show that they are highly sophisticated and productive; however, these systems have been at risk of disappearing in the face of modern management. Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been trying to come up with methodology that puts indigenous knowledge at the same level of importance as scientific knowledge when making land management decisions.

In countries like Ecuador, the economy has mainly based on the extraction of minerals, oil and gas that are destined for international markets, which is commonly referred as extractivism. The pressure to develop threatens natural resources and biodiversity, but new paradigms of development could alleviate that pressure. The National Plan based on the Sumak Kawsay, which acknowledges the importance of a harmonic coexistence between different ethnic groups and nature, is a first step. However, that acknowledgement has to be translated into actions. The Yasuní-ITT might have been a first attempt, and even if the Initiative fails and the ITT is exploited, the debate is open now. It is the perfect time to collaborate and propose new initiatives that would translate into a truly progressive, post-extractivism economy.

Recognizing the value of biodiversity, expanding the human dimension in conservation by incorporating indigenous knowledge, and proposing alternative paradigms of development are some actions that would enable biodiversity conservation while allowing people to attain what they consider fulfillment. That fulfillment could mean the Sumak Kawsay for the Ecuadorian people, or remaining in isolation to the Tagaeri and Taromenane in the heart of perhaps the most biodiverse place on Earth.

Potential Effects of Modern Agricultural Biotechnology on Biodiversity in Malaysia

Wed, 11/06/2013 - 1:50pm

Written by Chubashini Suntharalingam, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Malaysia is moving from a manufacturing-based economy to one that is service-oriented, with a vision of becoming a developed knowledge economy by 2020. In doing so, biotechnology has been positioned as a new key engine of growth by policymakers (MOSTI, 2005). There are a couple of strategic reasons for this. Malaysia is rich in biodiversity and has been identified as one of the twelve mega-diversity countries in the world, which together comprise 70% of the world’s species diversity, (Polski, 2005; Krishnapillay et al., 2003) a source of natural capital which can be utilized in developing many biotechnology products of the future.

Second, the Malaysian agriculture sector is important both for contribution to GDP and for food production. In terms of GDP, the agriculture sector contributed approximately USD 17 billion, which is 7.6% of total GDP in 2011 (EPU, 2011).

Yet, in terms of food production, Malaysia does not have self-sufficiency for major food commodities such as rice (72%), vegetables (44%), fruits (66%), beef (29%), mutton (11%) and milk (5%) (MOA, 2012). There are concerns that in recent years, growth in agricultural productivity has been slowing in several key commodities globally (Hossain, 2007). In coming years, climate change, limited fertile lands and, emerging pests and diseases are expected to pose additional challenges to Malaysian agriculture (Jaganath and Bakar, 2012). While Malaysia is not currently facing any food security crisis, researchers from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) have identified transgenic crops to play a significant role in helping to solve some of these problems, increase food output by using fewer resources as well as to enhance nutritional and therapeutic content, taste and quality of some of these crops in Malaysia (Jaganath and Bakar, 2012; The Sun Daily, 2012).

Endowed with such a wealth of natural biodiversity and an agricultural sector with much unrealized potential, the development of agricultural applications of biotechnology, in particular have been proposed as a way to transform and enhance value creation of the agricultural sector.

However, while biotechnology is anticipated to drive innovation, and thus economic development, in Malaysia, the policy framework is not in place to achieve this agenda. One of the biggest impediments being voiced to the development of transgenic varieties in Malaysia are environmental concerns over the potential impact of transgenic crops on Malaysia’s wealth of natural biodiversity. These concerns, and the resulting policy stalemate, have resulted in no commercial release of transgenic crops in Malaysia to date. The national policy regime, it seems, is not fully in line with stated economic development goals.

Hence, I am planning on identifying potential environmental effects that transgenic crops might have on natural biodiversity, in order to assist policy makers make science based decisions on regulations concerning the interaction between transgenic crops and Malaysia’s biodiversity.

EPU (Economic Planning Unit, Malaysia). 2012. The Malaysian Economy in Figures 2012. Prime Minister’s Department, Putrajaya.

Hossain, M. 2007. “Technological Progress for Sustaining Food-Population Balance: Achievement and Challenges.” Agricultural Economics 37: 161-172

Jaganath, I. B., and U. K. A. Bakar. 2012. “GM Technology to Address Food Security and Climate Change.” Paper presented at Workshop by the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute and Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre on GM Technology for Ensuring Food Security, Health and

Environmental Sustainability, Serdang, Malaysia, 24 September.
Krishnapillay, B., M. I. Adenan, A.R. M. Ali, and S. Nimura. 2003.”Tropical Rainforest: A Cradle for Biological Resources and the Malaysian Policies on CBD.” Actinomycetologica 17(2): 50-53.

MOA (Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry, Malaysia). 2012. Agrofood Statistics 2011. Strategic Planning and International Division. Putrajaya, Malaysia.

MOSTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia). 2005. National Biotechnology Policy. Putrajaya, Malaysia.

Polski, M. 2005. “The Institutional Economics of Biodiversity, Biological Materials, and Bioprospecting.” Ecological Economics 53: 543-557.

The Sun Daily. 2012. GM crops to boost Malaysia’s food security. Accessed on October 31, 2012.


Rafflesia flower. The flower may be over 100 centimetres
(39 in) in diameter, and weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 lb).

Orangutan – Native species to Malaysia


Trees on the move

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 12:00pm

Written by Katie Renwick, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Throughout the past decade, an unusually severe outbreak of the mountain pine beetle has affected millions of acres of forest across western North America. The mountain pine beetle is a native insect that affects several species of pine. Beetles burrow into trees to lay their eggs just beneath the bark, and trees are ultimately killed by a fungus that the beetles carry.

To a forester, the mountain pine beetle may be seen as a pest that destroys valuable timber resources. To tourist visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, the millions of dead trees may be seen as an eye sore. As a scientist, I view the mountain pine beetle outbreak as an opportunity to learn more about the impacts of forest disturbances.  

Disturbances can create a sort of natural experiment when different parts of the landscape are affected to different degrees, and can help us answer questions that cannot be addressed experimentally. My research focuses on understanding how beetle outbreaks may interact with climate change to alter the composition and structure of forests. Drought stress can make trees more susceptible to insect attacks, and rising temperatures allow more beetles to survive the winter. As a result, mountain pine beetle outbreaks are expected to become more frequent and severe as the climate warms. Understanding the implications of this interaction between climate change and forest disturbances will become increasingly important for land managers tasked with maintaining diverse and productive forest ecosystems in the future.

By studying how forests located at different elevations respond to this current outbreak, I can learn how the impact of insect outbreaks may differ in relation to temperature. One question that I am particularly interested in is whether or not the beetle outbreak will facilitate tree migrations. Many species are expected to migrate towards higher (cooler) elevations as a result of climate change. Trees are immobile, and so in forests this process occurs through the death of old trees at lower elevations and an increase in the number of seedlings at higher elevations. As a result, tree “migrations” are slow and can lag behind the rate of climate change. Insect outbreaks can accelerate the migration process by killing old trees that might have persisted for many decades and reducing competition so that new seedlings can become established. The mountain pine beetle outbreak may consequently allow trees to “migrate” faster than would otherwise be expected.






Visitors at Rocky Mountain National Park are confronted by vast hillsides of gray, needless trees killed by the mountain pine beetle.






Mountains create sharp climatic gradients that allow us to study how temperature may affect forest recovery following the mountain pine beetle outbreak.






New seedlings at the upper elevation limit of lodgepole pine indicate that the species is already starting to migrate in response to climate change.

Dissecting Dispersal

Wed, 10/09/2013 - 8:57am

Written by Tabitha Graves, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology; David H. Smith Post-Doctoral Conservation Research Fellow

Have you ever wondered whether animals face the same tough choices as a teenager leaving home for the first time? I do! I study grizzly bears and I am very interested in dispersal, the process of moving away from the place of birth to a new place. I wonder about how bears will wind their way through snow-capped mountains, cross roads, and wander along steams, and whether they will make their home surrounded by wilderness or next to a subdivision. Learning the answer to this will help us plan where we should put our homes and roads.


This two-year old bear, has to answer three key questions:

  1. Should I leave home?
  2. Where should I go?
  3. What route should I take?

It turns out to be pretty difficult to catch and track young bears. So, I thought, ‘Maybe, just maybe, we can learn about dispersal if we only know where bears are born and where they end up.’ My collaborator, Kate Kendall, collected hair from bears for 13 years in northwestern Montana. The hair has DNA, which I used to make a grizzly bear family tree. I know, cool, right? I love my job!

Here are a few boughs of the family tree I created (parents at the top, great- grandcubs at the bottom).  A few exciting details:  Bear 1 (female) has at least 3 daughters, 1 grandson, and 2 great-grandcubs.  Bear 4 (male) has at least 5 offspring, 1 grandcub, and 2 great-grandcubs. This gets even more fun when we look at where we caught the hair. For example, we caught the hair from bear 2 along with bear 35 and 38 at the same location. Do you think these two bears had not yet dispersed?

Now, by using the mom’s location as the origin and the young’s location as the end of the dispersal, along with a statistical model I developed, I can answer questions about the way people and habitat influence where these young bears will go! For instance: 1) Do bears move further when they come from places with a big family? 2) Are young bears likely to find a new home amidst lots of wet meadow vegetation? and 3)  Will grizzly bears cross a huge highway while they are leaving home?    

The answers I find can be used to manage land and people in ways that will keep bear populations big and connected. The methods I am developing are useful for understanding movement and dispersal for other species, like kinkajou, too. Now! I can’t wait to find out what bears do when they leave home.

*The grizzly bear data I am using was collected by U.S. Geological Survey researcher Kate Kendall between 1999 and 2012, in collaboration with 5 national forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the Blackfeet Nation, and the Salish and Kootenai tribes, and many more.   I greatly appreciate everyone’s assistance with collection of this rich data.

The photo above shows a young grizzly bear in a spring rainstorm in Glacier National Park who is walking away from her mom who was clearly pre-occupied with mating. Perhaps this may be the very moment it began to disperse.

Not-so-clean Hydropower is Damming Us All

Wed, 09/25/2013 - 12:00pm

Written by Natalie Anderson, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Geosciences

Image: Kayakers enjoy the rapids at on of the proposed locations for the Slave River Hydropower project. This is truly one of my favorite spots in the world. Along with a nesting colony of white pelicans I migrate North to visit it year after year. (photo by Leif Anderson)

While I was in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (NT), Canada this summer observing and measuring wood floating down the Slave River for my dissertation work on Mackenzie River driftwood, I attended a local town hall meeting facilitated by Alberta member of Parliament Linda Duncan about what the town of Fort Smith can do to ensure that they will have their voices heard at a national level regarding future hydro development of the Slave River corridor in the face of the river’s de-listing as a navigable waterway in 2012 (Northern Journal, Aug 6 2013, CBCnews, Oct 18, 2012). The Canadian navigable waterway act is one of the country’s oldest pieces of legislation, dating back to 1882, and provides federal oversight to any proposed project in a river, lake, or ocean that could float a canoe. Prior to 2012, more than 2 million waterways were listed. Now, fewer than 200 are. Most proponents of the de-listing feel that it will eliminate redundant provincial-federal red tape, streamlining projects on small ditches and streams. They maintain that large waterways are still protected. The Slave River is big (~0.5 km wide with summer flows ~4,000 cms), has a rich history as a shipping/trading corridor, but is no longer protected even though waterways upstream and downstream are.

Most townspeople (NT residents) are making connections between this seemingly cherry-picked delisting of the Slave River and a large-scale >800 megawatt hydropower project (and 500 kw/500 km North-South transmission line) proposed by TransCanada and ATCO Power to be built in their backyard just a few kilometers upstream in Alberta (Calgary Herald, March 20, 2008).  If the Slave is not re-listed federally, the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT) would have little say in a project that, built by Alberta, would provide power primarily for southerners and mining industries while the environmental impacts would be shouldered by northern communities (Northern Journal, Aug 13 2013).

In speaking to me about the hydropower project, François Paulette, elder and environmental leader for the Smith’s Landing First Nations Band - whose land would be flooded - said: “Why do they call it clean energy, where do they come up with this word, ‘clean’? It is not clean.” This strong stance by Smith’s Landing is right now the main impediment to the project going forward (Northern News Services, Feb 18, 2013).

As a geologist who studies rivers (a fluvial geomorphologist), I couldn’t agree more with François and his intuitive understanding of the land. This year, the World Bank, after two decades of refusing to fund large hydropower projects, is back in with big hydro in order to combat world poverty due to climate change (Hydro World, May 30, 2013). Dam building for hydropower, especially in developing countries is occurring at alarming rates (The Atlantic, May 20, 2013). As a scientist and concerned global citizen, I will use the proposed Slave River project to help me make my case against big hydropower as a source of clean, renewable energy. People deserve better reasons to oppose this than, “it will degrade the environment”, “it will flood a pretty place” or “we will lose such and such animal or plant”. How about this: large dams are societal hazards, pollutants, non-renewable, and economically unsound.


Large Dams are Societal Hazards

When large dams are built they often require relocation of people from lands that are to be flooded. The number of people displaced by upstream flooding can be relatively small, as in the case of the Slave River project, or can be huge, as in the case of the 1.2 million people displaced from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China (Biello, 2009).  In either case, the strife encountered by displaced people is very real and long-lasting, no matter the compensation offered.  It is estimated that globally between 40-80 million people (mostly the poor and indigenous) have been displaced, usually involuntarily (Namy, 2007).  The displaced suffer economic and cultural declines as well as high rates of mental and physical illness (see Namy, 2007 for further explanation).  Political conflict can also occur because dams are built upstream by one group of people or nation, depriving the downstream group or nation of its water.

Many reservoirs themselves are recognized health hazards; they can be breeding grounds for waterborne illnesses spreading infectious disease , they promote the growth of toxic algal blooms impacting drinking water, and they accumulate contaminants delivered from up basin in the reservoir sediment (Wildi et al., 2004). Heavy metals (often mercury) and other toxins cascade up from the benthic zone through the food web becoming concentrated in fish, birds, mammals and humans. For people in Fort Smith, this should be of special concern since the Athabasca oil sands are upstream (Northern Journal, July 8 2013). Their sister community of Fort Chipewyan has already noticed the negative impact the oil sands have had on the environment and their health (Vancouver Observer, June 30, 2013). A long-anticipated cancer study is about to begin (Fort McMurray Today, Feb 20, 2013).

After large dams are built large populations come to depend on them and thus they become and weak point weak point in water, energy, flood and food security. A recent example is the threat that the Rim Fire has had on the quality of drinking water and supply of electricity from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to 2.5 million people in San Francisco (CBS, Aug 28, 2013). Communities which would not exist without the presence of the dam, such as Las Vegas, are especially at risk should the dam lose capacity or cease to operate. While dams do provide flood control for average flooding events, they give people an erroneous sense of security resulting in extensive development on floodplains.  During big infrequent events, these communities are flooded and loss of property and life is the consequence (Prairie Fire, May 2009). The detrimental effect that dams have on downstream riverside ecosystems leads to decreases in food security by reduction of game, fish, and fertile farmlands - impacting 472 million river dependent people worldwide (Richter et al., 2010). Due to the USA’s dependence on dams for water and electricity and the threat to civilian lives if one should fail, it is no surprise that after Sept 11th security was heightened at most large dams in the US to protect citizens against organized or individual terrorist acts (CSO, Oct 26, 2009).

Large dams are ‘natural’ disasters waiting to happen. If a dam should fail for any reason (poor construction/maintenance, earthquake, attack, etc.), the catastrophic flooding is sure devastation for communities living downstream. In addition, reservoirs can reactivate faults and trigger earthquakes because their weight places stress on major fault lines and lubricates existing fractures with water. Research indicates that this may be what caused the Sichuan disaster in May 2009, leaving 80,000 dead (The Telegraph, Feb 2, 2009). Although the proposed Slave River dam will not have a large reservoir behind it, it is likely that it would increase groundwater, probably exacerbating an already recognized problem with landslides. In 1968 a large landslide that delivered a large portion of the town into the river is still vividly remembered by residents (Northern Journal, Aug 26, 2013).

Dams can be a hazard affecting people globally, not just those downstream. For example, dams slightly change the tilt of the earth’s axis and gravitational field (NY Times, March 3, 1996) and can impact extreme precipitation patterns (Hossain and Jeyachandran, 2009) and global circulation patterns (Maser, Aug 23 2012). Dams also increase coastal erosion by depriving deltas of sediment. This, coupled with sea level rise, is a severe concern for shoreline communities since it increases their risk during large storm events (Stewart, 2005).


Large Dams are Polluters

It is estimated that global hydropower currently produces energy equivalent of several thousand coal fired power plants (Biello, 2009), and thus is viewed as an appealing clean alternative. However, large hydroelectric plants are very dirty polluters themselves. Often hydopower projects are financially feasible because they have customers from high carbon emitting industry partners. ATCO Power has made it clear that they consider the presence of the Athabasca oil sands as a plus because the oil sands would be guaranteed long-term purchasers of their energy. Financing the high cost for construction will be a safe bet for Alberta since ATCO won’t likely default on their loans (Northern Journal, Jan 15, 2013). It is ironic then that a ‘clean’ energy source will mostly provide energy for the rapid growth and expansion of not-so-clean energy extraction.

One of the most pressing global pollution issues today is nitrogen pollution from extensive use of fertilizers to the world’s oceans, causing the spread of dead zones and the collapse of world fisheries (NPR, Aug 18, 2008). Dams play a large role in the export of this nitrogen to the ocean by decreasing the frequency of inundation of water onto floodplains, thus decreasing a river’s ability to denitrify its waters before it gets to the ocean (Gargel et al, 2005). After the completion of large dams on the Slave and Athabasca, it is likely that residents of the Great Slave Lake will start seeing algal blooms to the detriment of their fisheries, especially as the climate continues to warm.

Scientists have shown that hydropower contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect through the release of substantial amounts of methane gas to the atmosphere. For example, it is estimated that in 1990 the Tucuruí Dam in Brazil released more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere then Sao Paulo (Scitizen, Jan 9, 2007). In large bodies of water, methane gas is found in the colder waters near the lake bed. In natural waters this methane gas is released as bubbles slowly rise to the surface (Bastviken et al, 2005).  However, hydropower facilities substantially increase methane release to the atmosphere by using the cold water, high in methane, from the bottom of the reservoir to run through their turbines.


Large Dams are Unsustainable

Hydropower is often touted as a renewable, sustainable form of energy because water is commonly seen as a renewable resource. While small hydropower in the form of instream turbines probably are, any hydro project which puts a dam across a river isn’t. All dams have a useful working lifetime and for many dams this is shorter than you may think. The Hoover Dam has reduced power production by 23% since it came into operation, and in 2010 was at the lowest levels it has been since the 1930’s when it was filled (Circle of Blue, Sept 20, 2010). Water levels in the lake will conceivably be low enough by 2025 to require operators to shut off power production that 29 million people depend on. There are several reasons for the loss of power generating capacity: infilling of reservoirs with sediment, evaporation, and less water availability from melting snowpack due to climate change. ATCO Power has stated that it wants to build a ‘run of the river’ dam with minimal reservoir storage. If there is a small reservoir then it also has the capacity to fill with sediment faster, especially since the Slave River has very high levels of suspended sediment ranging from 3-5600 mg/L (AANDC, 2013). After the dam is built, ATCO will probably have to build another dam upstream in order to capture the sediment to keep the hydro facility functioning at full capacity.

A river carries many things besides water, however. A dam cannot be ‘run of the river’ because it serves as an impoundment by which, not just water, but sediment, nutrients, and organisms cannot pass. This blockage of the natural flux of materials up and downriver has devastating environmental effects; effectively contributing to species loss, decimating fisheries, and starving floodplain lands of much needed nutrients and water (Richter et al., 2010). The environmental impact that the W.A.C Bennett dam has had on the Athabasca delta upstream of the Slave River is well documented (Environment Canada, 2013) and strongly felt by residents of Fort Chipewyan (Northern Journal, Jan 22, 2013).


Large Dams are Economically Unsound

Although hydroelectricity is cheap to produce, dams are not cheap to build and costs to the average citizen are very high. The Slave River project is estimated to cost ~$5-7 billion, taking at least ten years to get a return on the investment (Northern Journal, Jan 15, 2013). Most large projects are backed by the government (you - the taxpayer) or, for developing countries, by the World Bank (Washington Post, May 8, 2013). Most hydropower projects have overly optimistic benefit projections, since dams do not operate at full capacity due to declining availability of water, evaporation, environmental flow releases, sediment infilling, climate change and/or political situations. Once you add in the cost of mitigating effects of the dam such as food scarcity, flooding, pollution, relocation, ecosystem rehabilitation, countering risks of natural disaster, and cleaning up disasters that do occur (paid for in suffering by those affected and monetarily by the taxpayers) the cost-benefit for the average citizen just doesn’t pan out. China is now recognizing the real unplanned costs of building the $23 billion Three Gorges Dam lies in mitigating permanent social, ecological and geological damage (Global Research, Feb 8, 2013).


The Future

I firmly believe that the way of the future and the solution to our energy woes lies in the next big thing in energy: decentralization (Roberts, Feb 26, 2013, Dolezal, Feb 6, 2012). Decentralized, localized, diverse sourcing of energy avoids the waste of long transmission lines, is robust to failures of any one system, doesn’t damage the environment in irreparable ways and will provide wider access to more people. Large hydropower projects requiring big dams do not fit into this picture, but perhaps in-river turbines that don’t require a dam do (Eaton, Dec 23, 2008). The argument doesn’t have to be about hydropower or no hydropower; it should rather be about what kind of hydropower. The Slave River may be a perfect location to install a series of in river turbines as a part of the renewable and clean energy plan for Canada.

In response to Chief Cheyeanne Paulette citing environmental reasons for not allowing feasibility studies to continue in 2010, one supporter of the Slave River Hydropower dam wrote [you] “live in the stone age, paulette [sic], you hypocrite!” (CBCnews, Oct 18, 2010). Big dams were originally built in ignorance of their widespread consequences. They are a vestige of Industrial Age. It is time that we moved forward and start considering solutions to our problems fitting of the Information Age. We have the information, now let’s act responsibly. If you clogged most of your arteries in your body, you would no longer be able to live. Likewise, if we keep clogging the rivers of the earth, don’t be so sure that this planet will be able to support life as we know it.  The current spurt of damming of large rivers in the name of obtaining renewable clean energy is a global crisis. I plead for the sake of humanity: let’s stop staunching the flow of our rivers and choose to live.

Image: Map of all large dams in the World from the GRanD database.

Natalie Anderson has received support for her work on Mackenzie River driftwood from the National Geographic Society. You can view this blog cross-posted at National Geographic here.

Imagine Melanie

Wed, 09/11/2013 - 11:58am

Written by Jonathan Fisk, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science

Imagine Melanie - she lives in Colorado at the base of the Rocky Mountains and is greatly concerned about climate change. Yet, she is not quite sure what to believe. Is it a myth – as many people she looks up to and respects have said? Is it real and if so is it really being caused by human activity? And, even if Melanie decides that climate change is indeed real and that fellow humans are to blame – what can she do? A political ‘sciencey’ answer would point out that energy and environmental issues exist in the context of complex labyrinth of geopolitics, formal and informal institutions and a collection of stakeholders from multi-national corporations to individuals. Additionally, within this ‘web’ is the proliferation of new technologies that make it possible to reduce uncertainty, identify nascent and growing challenges and even beginning the process of addressing ecological problems.

To strip away the jargon – what the preceding means is that Melanie faces a bumpy and stressful road strewn with arguments and difficult decisions. And, it is likely that Melanie will be torn because environmental issues are tough, they likely require Melanie to change her behavior and routines, they will tug at her core values, many of which are at stake and considered legitimate. It is also apparent to her that no one governing body (institutions) exists that can completely solve contemporary environmental issues like climate change.

Suppose Melanie decides she wants to address climate change. The institutional landscape she would confront ‘encourages’ conflict because it allows Melanie but also those who may disagree with her, multiple opportunities to debate and shape public policy. In this context – supporters of climate science may convince their city to take action but may struggle in their Statehouse. And, because power is so decentralized - if she loses in the Statehouse, she could try to work with members of Congress or wait until there is a new governor. The flip side is – so can her opponents.  Think of it this way – both she and her opponents can lobby 535 members of Congress, hundreds of bureaucratic agencies, 50 state governments and thousands of local governments.  Because of the structure and design of the U.S. political system, political power cannot be consolidated to the degree necessary for Melanie to just work with her city, state or member of Congress – so she can shop around and find the most receptive audience or institution.

Federal-state-local environmental roles and powers often change, which contributes to ‘fluid' and shifting legal boundaries and understandings of problems – this may lead to additional disputes. Again, consider poor Melanie – while she might believe that climate change can be solved through technology, others would argue that climate change is not real or that her solution does not go far enough – likely leading to additional disagreements. The potential for conflict does not end here. Even after laws are written – the language is often ambiguous, leading reasonable people to disagree on how goals may be achieved, the tools to be used and whether such goals will lead to new and unforeseen consequences.

Melanie may also encounter all sorts of conflicts about climate change because, as an issue, it involves key ideological debates. In short, her support for climate change related policies may depend on whether she is a Republican or Democrat – with Democrats increasingly supporting climate change science and Republicans more likely to believe the opposite.

Core values may also be at stake – concern over electricity costs, renewable power, good jobs and protecting the planet can pull Melanie, her opponents and even governments in multiple and conflicting directions. Bracketing off partisan debates, climate change, like many new environmental challenges, is also more likely to produce conflicts because it is no longer about distributing money. Rather, climate change may mean shifting to renewable (and more expensive) power, living in a walkable neighborhood rather than typical  suburbs, giving up one’s car in favor of public transportation, recycling or not engaging in as much consumption.  In other words, many new environmental policies are regulatory, which means that goods and services may be eliminated or altered, and certain behaviors: required or restricted. To return to political science jargon, conflict is likely because costs are acute (directly placed on the individual, firm or government) and the benefits diffuse i.e. (intergenerational and global).

What does all this mean for Melanie? Environmental conflict is likely inevitable– as the stakes are high., She will likely feel conflicted between protecting the planet, ensuring public health, sustaining biodiversity, heating her home and fueling her car, while also the ensuring that the economy continues to grow.  And, she may also disagree with others as to how to achieve and/or measure those goals.  She, moreover, will have multiple opportunities to interact with political institutions and disagree with stakeholders (who – in terms of numbers is increasing). And, when she loses the argument with one institution and she can go to another to continue to pursue her desired change. What this all means is that conflict is the new normal relative to environmental politics.


Environmental flows offer a win-win strategy to sustain flows in rivers while providing water to us

Wed, 08/28/2013 - 9:51am

Written by Ryan McShane, SoGES 2012-2013 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus mused more than 2,500 years ago that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” He had been pondering the supreme significance of change in the universe, but I like the quote simply because it might be the first time anybody had conveyed the fundamental nature of rivers. In a nutshell, rivers change – they vary. This natural variability is the essence of rivers. It affects how rivers work, in turn affecting which organisms live in rivers. However, we have altered this natural variability by building dams on rivers to store and divert water for many purposes, including drinking and irrigation water and electric power. Dam construction may have started as far back as 2650 BC, with Sadd el-Kafara in Egypt, but it did not begin in earnest until the mid-1900s, with Hoover Dam in Nevada/Arizona (read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for a thorough account of dam building by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers in the American West), and now we have more than 75,000 dams over 2 meters high in the United States alone. Although dams have many benefits, such as deterring floods that devastate cities and droughts that wither crops, floods and droughts themselves are natural features of river flow regimes, and our suppression of them has produced many costs for rivers.

The natural flow regime of rivers is described as comprising five components that are critical to rivers and the organisms that rely on them. These components include the magnitude, frequency, duration, timing, and rate of change of flows, and many plants and animals have evolved adaptations to them. For example, plains cottonwood is flood dependent along rivers in the western USA, where the natural flow regime is dominated by snow melting during the spring months. The early summer peak flow erodes vegetation from a river’s banks, and deposits sediment in other parts of the river channel, creating new ground for trees to occupy. Adult trees release seeds when the peak flow begins to recede, and the seeds land on this new substrate and germinate. As the peak flow continues to recede, the roots of the new seedlings grow deeper, toward the water-saturated soil beneath the surface. Because the flooding occurs with some predictability, older saplings are recruited into adulthood, and new seedlings can establish on new habitat created with the next flood. However, dams have disrupted this predictable flooding, and plains cottonwood has been disappearing along many rivers downstream from dams while many non-native tree species, such as saltcedar, have been replacing them.

We need water from rivers for many purposes, and dams are our means for fulfilling those demands, but dams are harmful to many organisms that need water in rivers as well. This simple realization led us to consider ways to obtain water from rivers while reducing our impact on organisms that depend on rivers. For instance, an early impact of dams was that rivers could sometimes run dry because we demanded too much water (all of it) during droughts. To prevent this drying of rivers, we decided that rivers should always retain some “minimum flow” that we would be obligated to meet, typically because it benefited some valued game fish. However, as we developed a better appreciation for the natural dynamism of river flow regimes, we began to realize that this initial focus on minimum flows was too simplistic to sustain healthy rivers. We understood that water management needed to maintain some semblance of the natural variability of rivers, initially arising as a question of “how much water does a river need?” Yet, the answer was primarily approached from the perspective of rivers as legitimate users of water, and did not explicitly address the predominating human dimension of water demands on rivers. Toward that end, a more comprehensive strategy for managing river flow regimes has finally emerged with the idea of “environmental flows”.

Environmental flows are defined as “the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems”. As this definition establishes, environmental flows do not entail river flow regimes that sustain just organisms living in rivers but also we who rely on water from rivers. This definition also conveys that at the heart of river sustainability is the balancing of a social-ecological system that governs how we and other organisms benefit from rivers. A way that we may achieve this balance is through the re-operation of dams to restore a more natural flow regime to rivers, mitigating some of the negative effects of flow regulation on organisms while also still delivering water that meets most of our needs. An example that shows the promise of dam re-operation is three experimental high-flow releases from Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, which were designed to transport sediment into the Grand Canyon and create habitat for endangered humpback chub while minimizing the impact on our water use. Yet, this balance is not quickly or easily achieved with existing water law in the western USA under “beneficial use” and “prior appropriation” doctrines (read the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law for more information on water law), but we can attempt to provide tools that will support decisions about how water might be distributed toward attaining this balance.

My research is an attempt to develop tools that will support these decisions. I am trying to show how to restore a more natural flow regime to rivers that will aid native species of concern while also inhibiting non-native species. Moreover, I am interested in how climate change will affect future water supplies and what that will mean for balancing our demands for water from rivers and the needs of organisms living in rivers. Lastly, an important impact of reservoirs on rivers is that they change the water temperature downstream from dams, warming the water during the winter months and/or cooling it during the summer months. Because water temperatures are expected to increase with climate change, the release of cooler water from reservoirs may be beneficial to some cold-adapted fishes, like cutthroat trout. The tools I am developing will hopefully inform water managers on how to re-operate dams to positively affect not just river flow regimes but their thermal regimes as well. I am applying these tools to the Colorado River, its tributaries and their dams, and I hope to demonstrate the feasibility for releasing (or not releasing) water at certain times of the year and at certain places in the basin to provide the greatest benefit to native species of concern while producing the least cost to us in lost water use.

Climate change and population growth in the western USA will present many challenges in the years ahead (read the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study for more information on potential scenarios), but I think that we can decide as a society how to attain a balance between our demands for water from rivers and the needs of plants and animals that rely on a more natural flow regime for their livelihood and continued existence. Many of the needs of humans and other species fortunately are not diametrically opposed and can be met through similar river flow regimes. Water use in the western USA is not a zero-sum game, with humans winning only if other species lose. Life is full of trade-offs, and I hope my research will support decisions that reduce harm to rivers while maintaining a reasonable semblance of our way of life in the western USA. It is impossible to have our cake and eat it too, but if we can think strategically about how water is distributed—when and where—it may be possible to have our cake (sustain healthy rivers) and at least lick the icing off (satisfy most of our water demands).

Advancing Sustainable Communities on the CSU Campus: Living and Learning with Housing and Dining Services

Wed, 08/21/2013 - 9:49am

Written by Kaye Holman, SoGES 2012-2013 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Education and Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources; Tim Broderick, Sustainability Coordinator for CSU Housing and Dining Services

As described by Colorado State University’s (CSU) School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES), Sustainable Communities are organized to enable citizens to meet their own needs and enhance their well being while preserving Earth's life support systems and without endangering the living conditions of other people now or in the future. The focus on meeting present needs while taking into account the needs of future generations is a central principle of sustainability (World Commission, 1987). How do we translate such a principle into action?

On our own CSU campus, Housing and Dining Services serves as a living laboratory advancing recognized student affairs practices in sustainability (ACPA Sustainability Task Force, 2008). The unit incorporates a commitment to engaging students, visitors, faculty, and staff in waste reduction, resource conservation, and other practices associated with sustainable living. Housing and Dining Services’ efforts range from waste management, utilities conservation, and recycling to student leadership development and recognition for making sustainable choices.

With some 5,000 students in residence on the campus, conservation and waste reduction efforts can quickly add up. Composting was initiated in February 2012 with 191,000 pounds of campus food waste and bulking materials diverted from landfills over the course of the next 11 months. In early 2013, through collaboration with the City of Fort Collins, an anaerobic digester was brought into assist with diversion efforts. In the spring semester alone, an additional 67,000 pounds of food waste was converted to energy and fertilizer production. For all of 2013, Housing and Dining Services is projecting the collective efforts of staff and students will divert approximately 300,000 pounds of food waste from landfills.

With investment in a variety of energy projects, similar efficiencies have been realized in utilities-based energy and water use. Between July 2008 and June 2013, there was a 9% overall reduction in energy use in residence hall even while increasing the square footage of facilities and adding more student residents. The reductions were accomplished through a combination of physical improvements—i.e., insulation in older buildings, retrofitting of residence hall lighting, and installation of low-flow toilets and shower heads—and direct engagement with students to encourage active participation in energy conservation efforts. 

Students have made other significant impacts. Through the Leave It Behind program, residents have been invited to recycle unwanted items as donations to support campus sustainability initiative and local charities. For the 2012-2013 school year, 17-1/2 tons of items were diverted from landfills.  Student efforts haven’t just ended with recycling. Eco Leaders living in the residence halls have worked to raise awareness about sustainable behaviors, and the Green Warrior Campaign has recognized students who seek to reduce their environmental impact. More and more CSU students have made the commitment to be Green Warriors, too. There was a 28% increase in program participation in 2012 alone.

Living and learning with CSU’s Housing and Dining Services helps students see for themselves how their individual efforts can make big differences in advancing sustainable communities on campus. The coordinated efforts of staff and students put principles into action. Importantly, the knowledge and skills students gain be used in their lives beyond college to help them make wise, sustainable choices for a lifetime as well as for future generations.


ACPA Sustainability Task Force. (2008). Toward a sustainable future: The role of student affairs in creating healthy environments, social justice, and strong economies. Washington, DC: ACPA College Student Educators International.

World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sustainability from Space

Wed, 08/14/2013 - 9:00am

Written by Tim Assal, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Environmental sustainability requires a balance between economic and social development while ensuring environmental protection. Monitoring of our planets resources is therefore a critical component in the realm of sustainability. We live in a world faced with uncertainty of climate change and rapid population growth, both of which contribute greatly to increasing pressure and competition for natural resources. Over the last 40 years, a growing network of satellites orbiting high above the earth has played an increasingly vital role in global change research. Currently, there are approximately 120 earth observing satellites, each providing a unique birds-eye view of the planet. The images captured by these satellites are more than just pretty pictures. They are records of the Earth’s surface and can reveal what is hidden from our view, enabling us to track changes in the global ecosystem over time. For a thorough treatment of the subject, I would encourage you to check out NOVA’s recent special.

Earlier this summer, one of the newest satellites in orbit, Landsat 8, beamed back its first images after launch in February. The imagery provided by Landsat is not quite as sophisticated as some of the other satellites of the last decade. However, the commencement of Landsat 8 is a significant event because it continues the longest running enterprise of satellite imagery which began during the Nixon administration. Any major event since 1972 that left a mark on the planet larger than a soccer field was likely captured by Landsat. The true value lies in the temporal resolution associated with the data collection (every 16 days). Landsat reached new heights in 2008 when the USGS released the entire archive to the public, free of charge. Given the imagery is readily available and covers large areas where ground access can be difficult, it’s no surprise there has been a sharp increase in multi-temporal remote sensing studies. The journal Remote Sensing of Environment dedicated a special issue to the legacy of Landsat in 2012.

I suspect I was more excited than most about the new satellite because this type of data is central in my work. I research how disturbances such as fire, insect outbreaks and drought impact our forests. I use remote sensing to investigate the connection between historical pine beetle damage and wildfire in Glacier National Park, as well as drought stress in semi-arid woodlands in Wyoming. Disturbances have always been a natural occurrence in forests; however, global climate change is expected to increase the extent, frequency and severity of future disturbances. I use remote sensing in part to uncover when, where and why these changes took place. Disturbance alters forest ecosystem structure by both abrupt, conspicuous change and by gradual, slow change over some period of time. Such impacts allow remote sensing to capture the pre and post landscape and detect changes that might not be readily observed, such as drought stress. Through assembling multiple snapshots in time, we can begin to answer more difficult questions regarding the severity of a disturbance and the recovery trajectory for a given area. 

I use many different types of remotely sensed data in my work, but Landsat is always my “go- to.” My work often involves a retrospective analysis of an event and I believe one project epitomizes the utility of Landsat. My advisor and I are working with a colleague at the Universidad Austral de Chile to quantify forest mortality in Tolhuaca National Park. This understudied national park in south-central Chile and an adjacent national forest reserve experienced a devastating wildfire in 2002. We were able to utilize Landsat imagery from before and after the event to calculate the extent and severity of the fire. We are validating our model through field data of canopy mortality and studying the regeneration of key species that will determine what the future forest will look like. The durability of the Landsat program allowed this particular project and so many more to come to fruition. As a write this column millions of pixels are waiting patiently in the archive to help the next scientist tell a story.

Araucaria forest mortality in Tolhuaca National Park from the 2002 wildfire. Photo taken in March 2012.

Unburned Araucaria-Nothofagus forest canopy in Tolhuaca National Park. Photo taken in March 2012.

The extent of the 2002 wildfire derived from Landsat data in relation to the park and reserve boundaries.