Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

ESA 2009 Day #1 (Sunday)

Posted 03 Aug 2009 / 0

Today I arrive in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am here to attend the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting and give a talk entitled “Virtual Prairie Dogs Weigh in on the Resource Dispersion Hypothesis”.

I have never been to Albuquerque and when I mapped the various locations where I will be during the conference I came to realize that all were within reasonable walking distance. Although I am not sure I will keep up with this, today I decided to walk everywhere and see a bit of the city.

As is true in most American cities the car rules, but Albuquerque does have sidewalks!

My big walk was from the airport to the conference center, about four-and-a-half miles. I really like walking in cities that are new to me, because only walking can give you a flavor for details of the place. Although I have never been to Albuquerque in many ways I feel that is familiar because I have spent a fair amount of time in the desert, mostly as an undergraduate student in Southern California. There’s something remarkable about how dry and dusty the natural landscape of the American southwest can be. Albuquerque makes this all the more clear because there does not seem to be a lot of over-watering going on. Along my whole walk, only the airport and a large park were home to unnaturally verdant lawns. The park was particularly spectacular, carving out a beautiful but completely out-of-place green space amongst blocks of tan dustiness.

The theme for the conference is “Ecological Knowledge and a Global Sustainable Society”, and I have to confess that I think that Albuquerque is a pretty ironic choice for a conference looking to apply ecological knowledge so that we can create sustainable societies. From what I understand, cities like Albuquerque are going to experience extreme water shortages in the coming decades if predicted declines in Rocky Mountain snowmelt come to pass. Looking at how dry the city is now, it is hard to imagine how such cities will be sustained long-term.

Appropriately the opening plenary, given by Sandra Postel, addressed the issue of water use and its relation to maintaining healthy ecosystems and the services they provide. While Postel did not get into the details of New Mexico itself, she did lay out in stark terms some of the very serious water issues we will face in the coming decades. I have been reading Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0, so I have become familiar with some of the scary trends in our water use. Basically we are extracting water from rivers, wetlands, and aquifers at rates that exceed the natural rate of replenishment. This overuse of water has led to the destruction of freshwater ecosystems, which has in led to the loss of numerous ecosystem services. Postel used a term that I think deserves more attention: “ecological infrastructure”. In describing our ecological systems as part of our infrastructure, Postel is trying to make the obvious more obvious: that our entire civilization is built upon a foundation of ecosystems services, and many parts of that foundation are incrementally crumbling.

I haven’t thought a whole lot about how to solve these water-related “ecological depletions”, but interestingly Postel’s prescription falls right in line with every other scenario where common resources are being over-exploited: we need to put an absolute cap on how much water we use. Just like carbon, we need to establish a sustainable limit; Postel argues that once that limit is in place, the market can be trusted to incorporate the actual cost of limited water. She claims that “water productivity” — the amount of value we get out of every liter of water — will inevitably increase once water is limited. This makes perfect sense, and given the way Americans use water we have plenty of room for increasing our water productivity. Interestingly, there are already many examples of effective water management through the establishment of caps. Unlike carbon limitations, limits on water can be effective in local regions. Although water isn’t so local that disputes over usage rights will never arise, the costs and benefits of water management policies are spread over a much smaller area that the effects of global warming. Maybe if we can get water right we can start to approach a global solution to excess carbon production.

I was really impressed with Postel. She even made a specific appeal for more ESA members to reduce their water consumption footprint be eating lower on the food chain; this was the bravest and boldest statement against meat I have heard at an ESA meeting. I almost yelled “go vegan!”.

I was able to attend this meeting thanks to funding from the Pratt Institute Mellon Fund for Faculty Travel.

A Major Post, Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Freshwater Ecosystems, Talks & Seminars, Water Supply

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