Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

ESA 2009 Day #3 (Tuesday): Afternoon sessions

Posted 05 Aug 2009 / 0

At lunchtime I attended a workshop dedicated to helping participants to integrate environmental justice content into ecology courses. The workshop started off with an introduction by Leanne Jablonski. She discussed the absence of ecologists (and therefore the science of ecology) in the environmental justice movement and the need to connect ecologists to communities suffering from environmental injustices. She cited that in a recent survey ESA members ranked environmental justice as the #3 emerging priority for our field.

George Middendorf from Howard University talked about incorporating environmental justice into the ecology classroom. He made the argument that environmental justice is easy to incorporate because it adds a human dimension to a field that traditionally excludes human concerns. He explained that the environmental justice movement emerged from religious groups like the United Church of Christ, and that the culture of ecology has been slow to join the movement. Howard, an historically-black school located in Washington DC, provides an fertile environment for incorporating environmental justice concerns. Middendorf described several activities that he does with his ecology class, including a GIS-based consideration of where green space is located within the city, and transect-based surveys of along gradients between affluent Anglo and poor African-American neighborhoods (a kind of “socio-economic cline”).

The next talk in the session was from Jessica Meisel, a former graduate student at Ohio State University who had coordinated a new graduate seminar in an EEOB (Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology) department. She reinforced the idea that we face a “boundary problem”, leading to a fear of discussing issues traditionally considered the domain of the “social sciences”. In shaping the seminar, which was done in collaboration with her former advisor Ralph Boerner, Miesel stressed a holistic “big picture” approach. She also recognized that traditionally communities concerned with environmental justice issues have had negative experiences with scientists, who tend to either speak above or speak down to lay-people. During the seminar she experienced some problems that seemed to mirror some of the dynamics that lead to environmental injustices: the dialogue was dominated by a small minority of the participants, who were mostly male and mostly advanced graduate students. To combat this problem she used online discussion posts to lead discussions and include voices not usually included in the “free-for-al” of a seminar class. Miesel shared with us her sequence of topics and readings, which seem to be very well chosen. She used frequent surveys to get feedback on the seminar and the content discussed. It sounded as though many ecology graduate students struggled with the content, but that they did struggle only points to the need within ecology for social education.

Mimi Lam gave the final talk of the session, addressing environmental justice in indigenous communities. Obviously this is a key link because indigenous people, including those of North America, have been disproportionately burdened with pollution, ecosystem degradation, and loss of ecosystem services. Lam emphasized the poverty cycles that Native Americans face, with socioeconomic and educational poverty reinforcing each other’s destructive effects on native communities. She set a goal of producing robust individuals and resilient communities through culturally responsive curriculum. Based on the misunderstandings that seemed to pervade the previous session on traditional ecological knowledge, it seems clear to me that ecologists need to do a much better job of explaining our science to indigenous communities. Listening to the environmental justice concerns of these communities and identifying areas where ecological research can assist social struggles will be key to rebuilding trust.

Following the talks we broke into discussion groups based on where we teach ecology, with groups focusing on educational settings ranging from community outreach to secondary school to graduate education. I sat in the undergraduate non-majors group. We discussed various historical case studies which could be used to explain the concept of environmental justice to students. One suggestion was the Tuskeegee syphilis study performed on African-American men during the mid-20th century, but by my estimation this really doesn’t have much to do with environmental injustice. Hurricane Katrina was also suggested as a case study because it occurred in part due to the degradation of wetlands. Members of our group expressed the need for more positive examples of environmental justice being reversed. Erica Fernandez, an undergraduate student from Stanford, told her story of organizing against a liquified natural gas facility and for the designation of a superfund cleanup site in Oxnard, California. Later in the week she also gave a poster on this victory for environmental justice, providing us all with a positive example of how communities can advocate for clean environments and ecological restoration.

What is a little less clear in all of these examples is how ecological knowledge fits into the picture. This came out in our discussion of how to do activities centered around environmental justice as part of our ecology classes. Many of the suggested activities, including those outlined by Middendorf, involve using ecological research methods to explore what I would call socio-economic injustices. Is the lack of green space in poor neighborhoods an ecological problem, or a problem of human health and welfare? It is all well and good to say that we ought to expand our idea of what comprises ecology — after all, humans are just another species — but I do not think that ecology comes with the tools to really understand the human health issues associated with many environmental injustices. Ecosystem services may be a lens through which we can used ecology to address environmental injustice, but that approach does not cover the whole spectrum of problems faced by oppressed communities. In my own ecology class I teach about environmental injustice in a fairly abstract way, describing the competing interests of upstream agriculture and downstream fisheries which can be turned into dead zones by nutrient runoff. Beyond this treatment I don’t really feel comfortable stretching my class further into the social sciences. If ecology is really to play a more prominent role in eliminating environmental injustice, I think that it needs to team up with social scientists and public health experts who better understand the underlying medical, economic, and political realities behind instances of environmental injustice.

I spent the afternoon bouncing around between several sessions, beginning with a symposium focused on human ecology. Oskar Burger gave a strong introduction to the topic, defining the macroscopic scale that would be employed throughout the talk. Jumping off from well-known and fairly poorly-explained allometric relationships found in animals, many macroecologists are now applying these methods to humans. Burger defined the challenge of this approach as explaining all human economies ranging from small aboriginal to large technologically-advanced urban communities. Using data on rainfall and tribal territories in Australia, he showed how a single explanatory variable can capture much of the variation in human settlement patterns (in this case more rainfall allows tribes to occupy much smaller territories, presumably due to having access to more concentrated food resources). He cautioned that these sorts of large-scale relationships do not necessarily emerge when we look at populations over short time scales, but at longer time scales laws emerge.

The law that Burger focused on was the one-third power allometric relationship between metabolism and fertility found in animals. While aboriginal groups do show this same scaling across the range of caloric intake rates, the relationship breaks down when you consider industrialized nations. But if you substitute energy consumption of industrialized countries for metabolism, the relationship between fertility and energy consumption follows the same pattern as that of fertility and metabolic rate for animals. They explain this pattern by suggesting that the increased “quality” of offspring required by industrialized societies mandates that increasing energy be consumed. Given the relationship between wealth and energy consumption, this is simply another way of saying that wealthier people have fewer children. Why this pattern has a similar power-scaling factor as that of lifetime metabolism I cannot explain, but neither can any of these macroecologists. What seems clear to me is that the two relations do not merit being placed on the same graph. The explanation for why you have fewer children as your metabolic rate increases is pretty clear: it takes longer to “save” the energy needed to make an offspring, and each offspring is more expensive to raise. This is a biological explanation. But explaining why energy consumption and fertility are related requires a very different kind of explanation, an explanation rooted in the way that human culture works.

It is interesting that the pattern of human fertility in industrialized countries scales with a 1/3 power. But why does it do so? And why do we see this scaling pattern in animals as well? The macroecological camp likes to bang on a drum the says “fractal scaling” to explain the various allometric relationships. There are some good reasons not to buy this explanation: Ginzburg and Damuth uncovered a pattern in allometric scaling of animals that cannot be adequately explained by the fractal explanation. But even if you buy this fractal explanation for biological systems, how does it apply to human cultural systems, which are clearly responsible for the fact that wealthier humans have fewer children. It seems to me that the macroecologists are great pattern finders, but their explanations have a long way to go before they really shed light on how human populations scale up from the level of the individual. With that said, I am excited by these patterns, because they suggest an underlying as-yet-undiscovered set of laws for how our various levels of organization scale up.

Marcus Hamilton presented some interesting work on further patterns of human macroecology. He showed that bigger populations tend to require less space per person and that the allometric power relationship between different cultures is the same (although the intercept varies, suggesting a slightly different baseline efficiency in each culture). He introduced the relationship between these data patterns and the concept of “consistent economies of scale”, which are demonstrated by the consistent scaling relationship. He also talked a little bit about the consistency of the way that groups of humans scale up in organization. Apparently hunter-gather groups, the catholic church, and armies all follow the same “self-similar” scaling in their hierarchical structures. While I don’t fully understand what this means I find it intriguing because I don’t think we can understand how human societies function until we understand the various scales at which humans cooperate. Clearly it runs from family units to nations and perhaps beyond, but is there some predictable pattern of scaling in these nested groupings?

Mary Stiner presented some really interesting work on the paleolithic populations of the Mediterranean. Her work has shown that as Homo species populations increased, the proportion of big game in the diet decreased and was replaced with smaller game. First slower-moving “cheap” foods were phased into the diet, and when the availability of these declined there was a shift to more expensive game like birds and rabbits. Stiner suggested that over-exploitation played a key role in human evolution, as the pressure to find “fringe” foods after megafauna were reduced in number pushed for improved hunting skills and greater specialization and cooperation. It’s not entirely clear how all these findings relate to macroecological patterns, except that they suggest that the emergence of higher levels of organization and economies of scale due to specialization might have allowed humans to outcompete our Neanderthal cousins.

Melanie Moses’ talk was probably the most enlightening to me. She did a good job of explaining critical concepts, including the best explanation of the “fractal” nature of scaling in circulatory systems that I have seen. She then applied the kind of thinking that has been claimed to explain the scaling of biological circulation patterns to various other “human problems” including how to build more efficient transportation networks and computer chips. She illuminated the efficiency of decentralized networks in allowing for flow of traffic on streets or flow of electrons in computer chips. I am not sure what to do with this information, but I am fascinated by the idea that decentralized networks are the most efficient means of scaling up flow networks. It sounds to me like there is a lot of work to be done to determine whether human-designed networks actually follow this decentralized pattern as they scale up.

I really like the field of macroecology, so I appreciated this symposium. The “think big” approach of the field seems to me to be essential to understanding the way human ecology actually works. Understanding human ecology is critical, because we need to know how human impact scales up so that we can effectively reduce that impact. I plan to read up a little more on this subject and see what more can be learned. I eagerly await more explanatory theories that can predict the observed scaling patterns so dramatically present in nature.

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

A Major Post, Allometries, Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Environmental Justice, Human Evolution, Macroecology, Talks & Seminars

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