Thursday, August 27, 2009

PNAS - "Science for managing ecosystem services..."

A pile of folks (Carpenter et al.) provided a blueprint, or rather an eight page precis of a blueprint, for what ecologists and their collaborators should be doing now to help humankind (Carpenter et al., 2009, PNAS 106:1305-1312). I find the whole thing rather overwhelming, but I must be strong, and take heart.

First, some of the overwhelming bits. It seems as though we are supposed to know and understand everything about the current state of the natural environment and its processes, in every location, over time, current social (cultural, political, and economic) institutions, policies and practices, AND how they all interact, so that we can predict unpredictable future events. "Oh," I said. "Is that all?"

Every question seems to spin out of control with a huge number of factors and feedback loops that need to be included.

It sounds as though a "School of Sustainability" would include the business school, college of arts and sciences, the school of architecture, the med school ... . This will be like the IPCC committees, on steroids.

OK, so what can I do? How do we move forward? Carpenter et al. were kind enough to suggest a few research areas, including (i) the analysis of biodiversity in a social-ecological context, (ii) match quantitative models to conceptual goals, and (iii) figure out how to predict the unpredictable ... oops, scratch that last one -- I mean "address nonlinear and abrupt changes," and (iv) expand the quantification, understanding and communication of uncertainty. I must admit, these feel helpful because they have the appearance of being tractable, and happen to interest me.

Another aspect of this report that I cling to is "place-based" research. This seems to suggest the assumption (or hypothesis) that spatial variation in social and environmental drivers will require local assessment, testing, evaluation, etc., of any science or policy. Thus, we should be able to argue, for instance that a set of feedback loops operate in Ghana, Peru, and Sweden, but Ohio is different for reasons A, B, and C, and so we need to test whether these feedback loops operate here in Ohio, USA. Perhaps I am scared or lazy, but I hope that experiments replicated in place and time are valued by funding agencies. They should be, but sometimes novelty seems more important than utility.

It seems essential, and a great opportunity, to "Learn from existing management programs." I think that current efforts of monitoring and evaluation of past and current practices are probably woefully inadequate. It may be quite productive to simply ask agencies and programs how we can help. How can we bring our expertise to bear on doing jobs that are already identified as important.


  1. Well. That is a lot. I find that most of these ecosystem services papers tend to fall into the overwhelming and impractical category. Even if we could predict with perfect accuracy the interactions and outcomes of various "management practices" on ecosystem services, we would still fall flat on our faces when it comes to implementation. Private property is the rule and law of the kingdom and that will never, and should never, change. It is sooooo much better than the alternatives. The most promise that I see is in the further development of PES schemes. Thanks for the post. - Robert

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