Blog Action Day: Following the Water

As part of Blog Action Day, bloggers from across this Pale Blue Dot will be posting about some aspect of water, a timely topic indeed.

Recent reports highlight aquifers running dry, glaciers melting, sea level rise, floods, pollutants in our rivers and streams, upcoming “water wars” for agriculture or energy or between nations, failing infrastructure, and even “Peak Water” in the United States.

Lots of alarming news.

In any case, let’s take a step back.

Start from wherever you are right now

Wherever you are reading this — especially if it’s on a computer plugged into an outlet — you are probably not more than 25 yards (or meters) from a faucet or tap, perhaps in a kitchen or restroom, water fountain or even garden.

From the tap to the pipe — If you follow the connections, that pipe will lead you down through the circulatory system present in almost any building in more developed nations. The fixtures, the valves, and the joints reveal the standardization that guides (and sometimes hamstrings) an industry and facilitates wholesale construction.

From the pipe to the main — Moving into the ground, the pipe leads into a network of conduits that course for miles under roads, houses, and fields. Water seeps from cracks along the way. Water mains run alongside sewage mains and gas and electrical conduits, all part of the invisible infrastructure that serves the population–invisible, that is, except when something breaks down or have to deal with unexpectedly extreme conditions. Likewise, waste treatment plants usually protect waterways from sewage, except when they don’t.

Pipes tell a tale of your town or city’s history and development, even if the pipes just lead to a well in your backyard. The pipes or mains might be decades old, perhaps more than a century old. On the rare occasion, something like a greywater system or bioswales might suggest promising changes in how settlements could be developed. Pipes embody decisions about how we live, now and into the future, and how we plan in relation to nature.

From source to system — The pipes eventually lead to a water source – a river, lake, well, etc. Human communities share water for the whole range of needs: agriculture, energy, industry, drinking water, tourism, comfort. In order to guarantee water quality, treatment plants remove bacteria, sediment, even chemicals that originated in fields and feedlots, storm drains, and bathroom sinks.

We all live both downstream and upstream.

Of course, this source is not the end of the line — just where the hydrological cycle is turned into a “utility.” Physical infrastructure gives way to green infrastructure, upon which we all rely for natural services for our well-being. Land and water interact in the watershed. Here, too, water and wildlife have coexisted for millennia. Water is habitat, water is life. Humanity’s increasing water withdrawals change the balance of life, especially in local ecosystems.

So what?

This may not be news to you. But easy access and the convenience of infrastructure systems can leave us taking local resources (utilities) for granted.

And the great water crises around the globe can be unfathomable, such that we fail to take away any lessons for our own lives, communities, and watersheds.

As the saying goes, think globally, act locally (or bioregionally). There are many things you can do to reduce water use, from improving efficiency in the home to being more thoughtful about purchases of food and goods — which affect water use wherever the food was grown or goods produced. Calculate your water footprint. Take the bioregional quiz. Understand and appreciate water’s role in everyday life.

Things fall apart

Following the industrial revolution, the practices of urban planning and public health grew out of responses to poor sanitary conditions that made burgeoning urban settlements difficult places to live. These efforts to promote the well-being of communities are now faced with even broader problems. Our great successes now push us towards greater challenges, and humanity is straining at planetary limits.

The US is slowly realizing that physical infrastructure is not a “if they build it” proposition. Constant maintenance of bridges, tunnels, and water mains comes with the territory.

Likewise, the human footprint has expanded such that a corollary for natural infrastructure is greater human responsibility for management and stewardship. And that starts with recognizing the “wisdom” embodied in natural systems and then acting accordingly. We can even choose to remove roads to better preserve natural systems, such as protecting wildlife corridors.

I recently watched a web presentation by the Washington Department of Ecology about the future of the Puget Sound. One of the key lessons was that land use planning needs an ecosystem or watershed perspective. There is great utility in rethinking how human communities coexist (perhaps even culturally co-evolve) with natural systems.

Practices change, and our expanding awareness of the need to maintain and foster resilient ecosystems entail different ways of planning – and living with water.

Check out what other blogs are writing about water at Blog Action Day.

Image credit: Xymox (Flickr/CC)

Looking Back on Climate: “Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study (1977)”

Oil spills. Floods. Heat waves. Water wars. Biodiversity loss.

We live amid a torrent of news and information — including reports and controversies about the environment. It’s helpful to step out of the rushing stream occasionally and take a look back.

Here are two items I’ve been thinking about.

From dust to dust

First, a remark made by paleogeologist Tjeerd Van Andel (who recently passed away) about a quarter century ago in one of my college classes  managed to lodge itself in my (now increasingly addled) mind.

According to Van Andel, the United States benefited from an unusually stable weather cycle for the four decades following the Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s. This stability coincided with and facilitated the rapid development of the American agriculture and economy across a period of modernization. This period, which includes the post-WWII boom, often serves as a baseline for comparison (or expectations).

Our still-growing understanding of global geophysical and socio-ecological systems shapes our interpretation of history — and informs planning for an increasingly complex future. Any beliefs regarding national exceptionalism, the causes of economic success, or our recent path of consumerism must be evaluated in the changing ecological or environmental context. Considering increasing climate variability and planetary boundaries, past experience is not a guarantee of future growth….

“People should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

The second item is an article from the Toledo Blade, dated March 13, 1977. Given the past year’s climate controversies, this summer’s heat waves and floods, and Van Andel’s comments, it resonated with me. [I came upon the piece through Google Timeline, but that particular issue seems to be currently unavailable through the Google News link.]

Meteorologists and climate scientists have long been making the case that we should be better prepare for a more variable world. This article from over 30 years ago predates scientific consensus on man-made global warming — although even back then, climate scientists like Stephen Schneider and James Hansen had begun to recognize the warming trend. The National Weather Service meteorologists in this article, however, emphasize the need to build “resiliency” against more extreme weather patterns. The article mentions global population and development pressures and somewhat presciently identifies arid and semi-arid regions as particularly vulnerable; these regions have been in the news recently.

Also of note: the author, Robert Cowen, was the longtime science reporter/editor at the Christian Science Monitor. The world’s population in 1977 was roughly 4.2 billion (now around 6.6 billion). The largest city was Tokyo, followed by New York City. Carter was President. The cost of a gallon of gas was US$0.62 ($2.35 per liter). I was in junior high. Things change.

“Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study”

By Robert Cowen

Don Gilman, chief of the U.S. National Weather Service’s long-range forecasting group, says he as mystified as anyone as to why North America has had such a rough winter.

You can’t see through the complex interactions of the atmosphere and ocean and say “This is the cause of that,’” he explains.

But one thing he feels certain – you don’t have to invoke a return of the Ice Age to account for it. Drought in the West, freezes in Florida, or a snow blitz in new York merely show what the present climate can do. And the hardships this is causing emphasize how vulnerable the United States, indeed the world, has become to what should be expectable extremes of weather.

“People,” Dr. Gilman says, “should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

Years of analysis have produced only disagreement among the specialists as to long-term climate trends. But, on one point, they tend to put increasing emphasis – the recent past has been relatively kind as far as weather extremes are concerned in some important areas, such as the United States corn and wheat belts.

Living patterns evolved during milder years—modes of farming, energy consumption, land use, or transportation – often can’t take it when the weather turns nasty.

On a global scale, burgeoning population and economic development are putting so much pressure on resources that the surpluses of fat years are no longer adequate reserves for weather-related lean periods.

It is this loss of resiliency to cope with rare, but expectable, weather extremes that meteorologists believe to be the real climatic threat now facing the United States and the world.

Developers of arid and semiarid lands should be especially weather-wary. Such lands – for example, Africa’s Sahel, California, and the North American Southwest, or the Soviet Union’s “new” agricultural region – suffer most from unanticipated swings of weather.

“I haven’t seen anything like it since 1917-18,” says Dr. Gilman, adding by way of reassurance: “That winter broke in February, and we may see this one break too.”

Will this turn out to be a “once-in-50-years” winter unlikely to return for a long time, or could its pattern repeat next year? No meteorologist can answer this. But what Dr. Gilman and his colleagues do know is that what has happened can happen again. Moreover, the very fact that they can’t predict next winter suggests this possibility must be planned for.

“What people should do,” Dr. Gilman says, “is to figure it just isn’t safe to use only the past 10, 20 or even 30 years of weather data as a guide in weather-related planning. A much longer record is desirable – just as long a record as they can get.”

Update: I came across this article today: Water Scarcity in American Southwest Gets Serious. Indeed, the arid regions mentioned in the article have become recurring headlines in the news. (h/t @Blackdogworld and @InvasiveNotes)

Image credit: Tim Lindenbaum, Flickr/Creative Commons

Minor revisions: October 21, 2010

Biodiversity and the City 4: What Edward Norton Should Know for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit

Diplomats from around the world are gathering this week in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week. While much discussion focuses on climate change, there is additional pressure during this International Year of Biodiversity to build consensus for the upcoming Biodiversity Summit (COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan. A “High level meeting on Biodiversity” takes place at the UN this Wednesday, September 22.

The actor Edward Norton, who was named Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, recently penned an op-ed calling for greater action on biodiversity by world governments, especially the Obama administration in the United States.

In anticipation of the Biodiversity Summit, Marielle Anzelone wrote the excellent piece below for the Huffington Post over the summer. The global loss of biodiversity, which has been compared to rivets popping out of an airplane wing, needs greater public attention.

Anzelone, formerly the plant ecologist for NYC Parks’ Natural Resources Group, is leading tours of New York City’s tremendous biodiversity this week for the visiting diplomats.

I think this is a vital aspect of deliberations. Though undoubtedly informed by solid scientific input, the Biodiversity Summit will ultimately aim for high-level agreements and commitments about valuing and protecting habitat. I expect that virtually all of the diplomats from around the world live in cities and are more accustomed to engaging politicians than to understanding nature where they live.

Biodiversity, like climate change, is a broad concept that invokes somewhat amorphous global systems. But biodiversity is also about plants and animals that live in, or inhabit, places. This wildlife thrives or declines alongside — to varying degrees — human communities. Conservation, therefore, cannot succeed without buy-in and regular participation from local residents. Local biodiversity conservation also supports climate change mitigation and adaptation and human security.

Conservation efforts will have to expand in and around urbanizing areas (a challenging negotiation). There will be a concurrent session in Nagoya called the City Biodiversity Summit. Nonetheless, helping diplomats to recognize the ongoing interplay of wildlife amidst large human populations, like in New York City, is vitally important.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere….

- – -

Actor Edward Norton is unhappy. He is miffed because although he had starred as The Hulk in an earlier movie, he was not cast as the great green hero in a follow-up film. Cheer up, Ed! You’ve landed an even greener role: United Nations’ Biodiversity Ambassador. As the former botanist for New York City, I know first-hand the importance of biodiversity. In fact, I’ll be hosting international diplomats on a tour of New York’s nature this fall for the UN’s Biodiversity Summit. Since we’re going to be colleagues, I’d like to help you prepare for your new role. Here are some things you should know.

Urban nature exists. Most people embrace Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the Big Apple as a “Skyscraper National Park”. While accurate at 51st Street and 7th Avenue, it obscures the fact that there is bona fide nature in the five boroughs, even in Manhattan. New York City has more open space than Los Angeles and Chicago combined. These 53,000 acres include towering forests, vibrant marshes and grassland meadows. The world looks increasingly like New York, with more people now living in urban settings than rural areas. The city’s 8 million residents are drafting a blueprint for biodiversity from which global lessons can be learned.

Clean air isn’t free. Local biodiversity provides us with fresh air to breathe and pure water to drink. Humans benefit from abated floodwaters and the pollination of food crops. Nature provides these ecosystem services for free, but there is clearly a price to be paid for their loss. Purifying contaminated water costs money. Recently a study commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determined that natural ecosystems provided benefits worth $18 billion per year, equal to the state’s construction industry. Continue reading

Biodiversity and the City 3: The consuming city

The last post focused on the surprising lack of conservation research on cities and biodiversity, given the rapid urbanization of mankind. Beyond direct habitat fragmentation, the other significant way in which cities impact biodiversity is through consumption.

The global footprint of cities is growing.

This is partly a function of sheer numbers: most people on the planet now live in urban areas. Three out of four Americans (United States) reside in cities and suburbs; two thirds of Latin American residents live in urban areas. By 2030, China will have more than 220 cities with a million or more inhabitants.

According to a Nature Conservancy study in 2008, urban growth around the world threatens biodiversity.

“While the effects of urbanization are very localized, cumulatively it is a big threat to biodiversity,” says [Robert] McDonald, the lead-author of the study. “Our urban footprint covers much of the globe and is coming closer to stomping out many endangered species and posing new risks to protected areas and parks.”

But it’s not simply population that creates the footprint.

Welcome to the Overshoot

Last Saturday was Overshoot Day (or Ecological Debt Day), which marks when the humanity’s consumption of the world’s resources surpasses the annual productive capacity of the planet. Or as RP Siegel writes:

In a way, it’s a bit like finding out on August 21st that you’re not going to get another paycheck until next New Year’s Day. How would you deal with that?

Mathis Wackernagel, the president of the Global Footprint Network, applies this concern to the state of the planet.

The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Overshoot Day is a useful concept to explain the impact of human society. The fact that “it now takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year” is pretty sobering. It’s also important to remember that the ecological debt is cumulative: the planet’s resources do not reset every year. Furthermore, the burdens created by the well-off tend to fall on more vulnerable communities elsewhere.

Finally, the rate of consumption is accelerating: this year the human footprint has reached “overshoot” a month faster than the previous year.

What drives the Overshoot?

So does population or overconsumption have the greater influence? It’s not necessarily a simple question. A couple recent items by David Biello (here) and Jonathan Foley (here) thoughtfully address the issues.

What is clear, however, is that cities have a key role in this relationship between humanity and the Earth’s resources.

Consumption driven by cities deepens the pressure on global systems. City dwellers tend to have higher incomes (and greater income disparities) and inhabit new social relationships. This combination fosters new markets and encourages consumerism — a kind of hyper-consumption stoked by advertising.

Supply chains radiate like tentacles from urban areas (themselves sprawling) to the farthest reaches of the planet. Food mile calculations start in distant landscapes and terminate in urban supermarkets and restaurants.

While large cities are notably energy efficient, the gains of urban density can be quickly outweighed by the increase in total embodied energy of goods consumed. According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP),

One third of the average US household’s carbon footprint is due to emissions caused abroad producing goods imported into the US market.

Urban dwellers in the US, Canada, Australia, and other developed nations have a much larger footprint that city folk in other countries. Wackernagel and William Rees estimate that

a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land—an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island, Canada—to meet domestic needs alone without even including the environmental demands of industry. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres.

The UNEP study suggested that agriculture and energy are the primary forces of environmental change.

“How the world is fed and fueled will in large part define development in the 21st century as one that is increasingly sustainable or a dead end for billions of people.

“Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies; triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests; intensifying disease and death rates and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels.

And it is an urban penchant for consumption that continues to drive resource extraction, manufacturing, and their related impacts around the globe.

A recent study (also here) found that the primary forces driving deforestation are the rise of big cities and international trade. Increasing urban demand for agricultural products and biofuels greatly impact land use.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

This vast shift is now happening primarily in the global South.

But the demand itself is not solely from developed nations. While cities in the developed world have a larger footprint, this pattern is being mirrored in the developing world, as more people funnel into urban areas. The food demands of cities in the emerging economies of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), in particular, will push agricultural expansion.

Agricultural output in the Bric nations will grow three times as fast as in the major developed countries, the joint United Nations-OECD study said.

And rising incomes and urbanisation in developing states will drive growth.

“Developing countries will provide the main source of growth for world agricultural production, consumption and trade,” the report said.

“As incomes rise, diets are expected to slowly diversify away from staple foods towards increased meats and processed foods that will favour livestock and dairy products.

“For virtually all commodities, the projected growth in imports and exports of developing economies [over the next decade] exceeds that of the OECD area,” said the report.

The vast demand encourages agribusiness-driven exploitation. Where the main causes of deforestation were once the cumulative impacts of individual actions, now large-scale land grabs and conversion to agriculture have become a primary concern. Opportunistic agribusiness tends to exploit nations with weak governance structures. So this is not simply an issue of urban-driven demand, but also one of land tenure in the Global South, distribution, and a global food system.

Not just mega-cities

It’s uncertain (at least to me) whether the hyperconsuming mega-cities or the small to medium-sized cities — where most of global population growth during the next few decades will occur — will have a greater collective footprint.

The carbon footprint — and impact on land use and deforestation — of the megacities may be larger given the consumption levels. The sheer number and distribution of smaller cities, however, may end up disrupting more habitat and contributing more to biodiversity loss.

The rapid expansion of cities will test the capacity of urban governance (i.e., haphazard systems, untrained managers, corruption).  Small to medium-sized cities may face the “double whammy” of rapid, unplanned expansion and a “brain drain” of more talented or educated individuals to larger cities. The urban response will determine the scale of social and environmental impacts.

In any case, the future of humanity will be found in cities. As Robert McDonald from the Nature Conservancy concludes:

“Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”

On Dust

This is the Amazon rainforest. Or at least a part of it.

Last week, an item in the Guardian (UK) highlighted a surprising connection between the Amazon rainforest and the Sahara desert — how one region in Chad supplies the Amazon with half of the rainforest’s mineral nutrients.

Around 40m tons of dust is carried by prevailing winds from the Sahara to fertilise the Amazon basin each year. This is a very satisfying finding, since the extraordinary fertility of the Amazon rainforest – one of the richest and most biodiverse places on earth – has been a puzzle. Tropical rains leach nutrients from jungle soils, and the soils of the Amazon forest are notoriously poor, which is why clearance for cattle farming is such a bad idea. Biologists had calculated that the forest needed at least 50m tons of fresh mineral nutrient each year to keep its trees tall and in leaf. In 2006 an international team of researchers established that at least half of this annual mineral supply is quarried from one tiny location in the Sahara, the Bodélé depression in Chad. A combination of fortuitously placed mountain ranges that flank a basin of diatomite sands so focus the winter winds as to scour the depression and lift from it an average of 700,000 tons of dust each day, and air-freight it across the Atlantic.

So for thousands of years, and without any fuss, a tiny part of one of Africa’s poorest countries has annually subsidised the growth economy of one of the world’s most richly endowed. This discovery is yet another insight into the intricate dance performed by earth, air, fire and water in the service of life; and another reminder of the enduring intercontinental interdependence that sustains human civilisation. We should respect the IUCN‘s [International Union for Conservation of Nature] concern for the deserts. Without green things, we could not breathe. Without deserts, there might be no forests.

NASA’s Earth Observatory posts satellite images of massive dust clouds — including the one above — blowing from deserts (and other brilliant photographs from space).

According to the Climate Matters blog of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, scientists from a wide range of disciplines convened earlier this summer to coordinate their research on dust, much in the way that the oceanographic community came together in the 1990s to collaborate more effectively. Why dust?

Dust is a global phenomenon. Where it comes from, where it goes, and how it impacts climate and the biogeochemistry of land and oceans are questions that span all the realms of earth science.

More:

Dust influences the radiative balance of the planet in two different ways, either directly by scattering and absorbing incoming solar radiation, or indirectly by changing the optical properties of clouds, themselves an important player in the climate system. Dust also contains iron, a limiting nutrient in many areas of the ocean, so when dust falls onto the ocean, it can act as a fertilizer for the growth of algae, or phytoplankton, which uses CO2. Dust not only affects climate, but also is influenced by it: its production, atmospheric transport and deposition are sensitive to climatic conditions.

During Earth’s history, dust has been strongly linked with climatic conditions: Ice cores and marine sediments tell us that the ice age world was much dustier than today’s world. Thus dust is both a driver and a passive recorder of climate change under different climatic regimes of the Earth’s past. However, its exact role in past climate change remains poorly constrained. Understanding the links between dust and climate in the past will be crucial to evaluate the future impacts of dust on the Earth’s climate system in a warming world.

One could add a recent study (here and here) that suggests soot may be the second greatest contributor to global warming — behind carbon dioxide, but ahead of methane. Produced by the combustion of fossil fuels and borne around the globe by winds, soot helps to accelerate the melting of glaciers and Arctic ice by absorbing more of the sun’s radiation. Controlling soot may be the most effective short-term measure to slow warming.

On this ceaseless swirl of land, air, and water, everything is in motion. The movement patterns are part of the relative stability of the climate system around which life has evolved and upon which we rely. Climate change’s uncertain impacts on the atmospheric and oceanic flow and upon the well-timed relationships between plants and animals naturally raise great concern. Wind and water also transport pollutants across state and national boundaries and even from continent to continent. Whether they involve global warming or specific pollutants, these vast connections make all life “downstream.”

Biodiversity and the City 2: In an urban world, where are the ecologists?

What happens to biodiversity in areas that become more urban? The short answer, not surprisingly, is that urbanization decreases biodiversity.

In a review article published in Science a couple years ago, Nancy Grimm and colleagues wrote that urban land use tends to

reduce both species richness and evenness for most biotic communities, despite increases in abundance and biomass of birds and arthropods. Because the urban footprint extends far beyond municipal boundaries, urbanization may also reduce native species diversity at regional and global scales.

Cities have a huge impact through local habitat loss and fragmentation. More broadly, urban consumption helps to drive global environmental change.

The longer answer, however, is that we don’t know enough about urban biodiversity and how to protect ecological systems amidst urban growth.

This is significant, because the Earth is more and more an urban planet. The Population Institute recently forecast that the human population will grow to nearly 9.5 billion by 2050. Between natural increase and migration, most of the population growth will occur in cities in developing nations. By 2030, two thirds of humans will live in urban areas.

Climate change/destabilization, biodiversity loss, and agricultural land grabs (stemming in part from food demand from urban areas) may drive much of the urban migration in the developing world.

“Ecologists shun the urban jungle”

While tools like wildlife corridors and habitat conservation plans can help to preserve ecosystems facing rapid urban growth, several recent items highlight the vast challenge of supporting biodiversity in an urbanizing world.

First, conservation research is simply not looking at urban areas.

An item in Nature News suggests that only one in six papers on conservation addressed regions used by humans and only 4% studied urban or suburban areas.

The world’s top ecologists are failing to study the landscapes that most need work, and they risk delaying conservation efforts and making their subject irrelevant.

That is the stark message from US researchers who have quantified the extent to which ecologists devote themselves to pristine wilderness at the expense of inhabited regions. The bias is a major problem for both the field and the environment, they say, because it is areas used by humans — which take up most of the Earth’s land-mass — that are in most need of conservation.

The piece discusses work presented this past week at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). According to Terry Chapin, the new president of the ESA:

It is really important that ecologists do research on areas populated by people. I would hate to go so far as to say studies of pristine areas are not important, but we clearly need to know much more about the direct ways in which we are affecting the biosphere.

There are undoubtedly ecologists whose research focuses on the urban landscape, but this still appears to be an emerging field of study. This article mentions five research “nodes” addressing urban environments as social-ecological systems (including the previously quoted Nancy Grimm):

Marina Alberti’s at the University of Washington, Nancy Grimm at Arizona State University, Stewart Pickett and colleagues at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, Mark McDonnell at the Australian Research Center for Urban Ecology, and Herbert Sukopp in Germany.

Second, as a post on Conservation Bytes suggests, conservation studies rarely lead to actual conservation, in part because of the siloed approach of researchers whose communication primarily echoes within the academic arena. The presentation cited was specific to tropical forest research, but the post also discussed considerations for all researchers.

These tidbits reflect the recent state of biodiversity research, which may in turn highlight the traditional bent of academia and its funding sources, as well as the difficulties of studying complex urban-ecosystem interactions. They also say little about the efforts of ecologists working for nonprofit organizations, such as Conservation International or the Nature Conservancy or especially local conservation groups, or for local or state departments of natural resources/environment/parks.

But the two realizations above may contribute to a significant third item: While there has been an increase in the number of protected areas around the globe, little progress has been made towards the goals set by the Convention on Biological Diversity (2002).

On a positive note, 2010 and the International Year of Biodiversity have brought relative successes on the biodiversity front, even as climate change’s roller coaster year continues (Copenhagen, Climategate, climate bill in the US Congress, etc.). The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study brought attention to the economic benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services. A June conference in Busan, Korea, has led to the creation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — basically an IPCC for biodiversity. IPBES promises to bring greater coherence to fragmented conservation efforts.

Given the growing human impact on living systems across the globe, more foresight, research, and action is needed to ensure that governments (and individuals) protect urbanizing landscapes for biodiversity as well as climate change resilience.

Part I focused on a wonderful video promoting the Biodiversity Campaign from the European Commission on the Environment.

Biodiversity and the City


Part I

On Worldchanging, Amanda Reed posted this remarkable video from the Biodiversity Campaign that the European Commission on the Environment launched earlier this year.

It’s a lovely piece that I hope reaches a large audience. What is surprising is the explicit focus on connecting urbanization and biodiversity loss. The ad seeks to shift the ways in which city dwellers envision the world.

This is brilliant. Now that more than four billion human beings — half of the human population — live in urban settlements, fostering a deeper understanding of connections between humans and nature and our intertwined futures has become increasingly difficult. Yet this remains a central challenge for our civilization, as it continues to press alarmingly against planetary boundaries.

According to the description of the video:

Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth including ecosystems, species and genes. We are part of biodiversity and our lives depend on it. And this life supporting biodiversity is disappearing from our cities at an alarming rate. Today it is the sparrow, but tomorrow it could be us.

Amanda Reed writes in the Worldchanging article:

While the video above is more about a problem than a solution, I think it is a compelling way to communicate the issue of biodiversity and interconnectedness to a large audience, which in turn can perhaps spur greater action and interest in solutions. The trick though, is to grasp the large scope of the issue, and spur action at the right scale and speed.

Reed goes on to suggest that the actions for change recommended by the Biodiversity Campaign are overly limited to the individual scale and, hence, insufficient to address the “large-scale systems of industry” that drive global biodiversity loss. Indeed, the problems are in large part systemic, making change necessary at many levels.

Business decisions make sense from a narrowly economic perspective optimizing the path from source to market. New reports connecting business and biodiversity — such as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) — will help to educate the business community and policy makers, expand consideration of ecosystem services, and tip businesses towards less harmful options.

Campaigns that reframe our relationship with nature – specifically as an urban species – serve as an important complement.

Bill Reed on “The Practice of Living System Design”

Architect Bill Reed recently spoke at the Living Future 10 conference in Seattle. Reed, a principal at the Integrative Design Collaborative, was a founding board member of the US Green Building Council. Julia Levitt from Worldchanging wrote a nice piece about Reed’s talk, which was part of a panel entitled, “Integrating the Whole System — The Practice of Living Systems or Regenerative Design.” (A video and transcript will be forthcoming on the Living Futures website.)

Reed was just one of many fascinating speakers at what must have been a marvelous event. Check out this item from Worldchanging for more coverage.

Some excerpts of Levitt’s piece:

[Reed] opened by offering two big questions to the audience: if sustainability is about sustaining life, then what is life about? What will our design practices and organizations look like if we are intentional about sustainability?

“Sustainable” and “regenerative” are words which, when spoken conscientiously, evoke a much more comprehensive and long-term vision than “green,” “recycled,” or even “energy efficient.” Even “carbon neutral,” he argued, isn’t really his idea of sustainability. If the ultimate goal is to replicate nature and to create systems for sheltering and feeding ourselves that are truly regenerative, it’s important to recognize that sustainability is not the same as zero.

“‘[D]o you want to do LEED, or do you want sustainability?’

It seemed that in his experience, many have simply become so used to thinking at the level of individual, segregated components that they’re unable to easily see the system or their place within it. In order to think systemically, one needs to reestablish relationships; to feel connected and to care; to be personal and up-close rather than academic and arm’s-length. To underline this point, Reed quoted Wendell Berry: “no one ever called his home an ‘environment.’”

As he put it, it’s important to remember that “living systems aren’t just about buildings and things. The people who work on them are regenerated, also.”

Earlier this year, Reed spoke on “The Practice of Living System Design” as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects. His talk addressed “the need to redevelop a conscious understanding of the whole system of life-giving processes that shape the places we live in order to reintegrate our building—and our communities—with life on Earth.”

William Reed: The Practice of Living System Design from BSA on Vimeo.

A couple of tidbits from the talk:

Sustainable design “is not just carbon neutral…it’s fundamentally about our relationship with place.”

Restoration…doesn’t mean restoring something to its original condition…It actually means restoring an ecological subsystem to the condition where it has the ability to self-organize and evolve.

The talk is well worth watching. Reed imparts his wealth of knowledge and experience about integrative ecological design.

Nature in the City: promoting community-based ecological stewardship

With its focus on regional stewardship and “re-inhabiting the land,” the following item from Peter Brastow resonated with me.

Brastow directs Nature in the City, a project of the Earth Island Institute that focuses on local ecology and stewardship in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nature in the City recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Last week I experienced an acute episode of realizing that our message of community-based ecological stewardship is missing still, not only in the public-at-large, but also even within the environmental activist community. This realization repeats itself over and over again and in fact, was largely the justification for the Nature in the City Symposium at World Environment Day 2005.

Peter Berg of Planet Drum expresses eloquently that real sustainability must be grounded in a bioregionalist perspective whereby people are aware of and living in harmony with the natural systems of which we are all a part. But the broader environmental community seems to continue to limit the definition of sustainability to green buildings & technologies, recycling and clean energy.

The lack of attention to protecting and connecting with our city’s ecology is a function of our larger society’s fundamental and wholesale disconnection from nature. We have culturally evolved as a species to become totally separate, physically and psychologically, from the rest of nature. Most humans nowadays pretty much operate in the modern human realm as sort of a layer on top of the rest of nature, uncaringly and/or unknowingly exploiting the rest of the biosphere. We go about our daily lives without the slightest understanding of the nature and biodiversity all around us; including while performing all of the critical “green” tasks of installing solar panels, achieving zero waste, and closing the “ecological” loop, as it were.

“Green” and “ecological” are in quotes because well-meaning folks use the terms without any understanding of our local ecology, of the native plants, animals, and habitats that characterize San Francisco’s natural heritage. Inspired by the philosophy of bioregionalism, we at Nature in the City aim to demonstrate the way to break down the nature-culture dichotomy by physically, materially connecting people and nature where we live, everywhere.

When we physically re-inhabit the land, we derive mental, physical and spiritual health and well-being and a deepened sense of place and meaning in our lives, learning more intimately how we are interconnected with all other living things; we restore a more positive relationship of mutuality whereby local nature also benefits from our careful stewardship by becoming healthier and more abundant. Two weeks ago, we learned that the Green Hairstreak butterfly found its way to one of our brand new stewardship sites at 14th and Pacheco along the corridor between its two remaining populations in the Hawk Hill and Rocky Outcrop natural areas. We photographed an individual on a coast buckwheat – one of the two host plant species for the butterfly – that we planted between the streets!!

Re-creating healthy, positive relationships with nature is revolutionary, because it means rethinking how we live on the planet, globally, and in our own communities, neighborhoods and backyards. Evolving a new culture of community ecological stewardship is ecological sustainability. If we are to survive on this planet amidst natural beauty and abundance, we must learn how to recreate an actual physical, sustainable relationship with the rest of nature by taking care of the land and healing our ancient human-nature relationship, becoming, literally, part of the natural history of San Francisco.

[links and highlights are from the original note]

Next, I’ll post some thoughts inspired by this letter.

Some thoughts on cities and nature while perusing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Green City, Flickr CC photo by alykat (Alyson Hurt)

This morning I found myself in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, not two blocks from home, looking at a stack of books by Annie Dillard, whose works I have not read.

I opened up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which won Dillard a Pulitzer Prize) and landed on this passage:

The general rule in nature is that live things are soft within and rigid without. We vertebrates are living dangerously, and we vertebrates are positively piteous, like so many peeled trees.

This oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed as by Pliny, who writes of nature, “To all the rest, given she hath sufficient to clad them everyone according to their kind: as namely shells, cods, hard hides, pricks, shags, bristles, hair, down feathers, quills, scales, and fleeces of wool. The very trunks and stems of trees and plants, she hath defended with bark and rind, yea and the same sometimes double, against the injuries both of heat and cold: man alone, poor wretch, she hath laid all naked upon the bare earth, even on his birthday, to cry and wraule presently from the very first hour that he is born into the world.”

I am sitting under a sycamore tree: I am soft-shell and peeled to the least puff of wind or smack of grit.

Humans are a dynamic, weedy, and increasingly urban species.

Soft-shelled, we armor ourselves with technology. We build humancities, our correlate to anthills and beehives. As a social species, like ants and bees, our well-being depends upon mutual aid, social networks, and cultural adaptations — of which technology is a manifestation.

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted aphorism applies here: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization celebrated its annual World Health Day. This year’s theme was “Urbanization and health: urban health matters.” Continue reading