VIDEO: Learning Exchanges for Conservation

Overfishing is jeopardizing both ocean ecosystems and the food security of the billion-plus people that depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. Over the past several decades, we have come to understand that the oceans’ bounties are in fact highly sensitive and terminable. People from every corner of the globe have responded by making positive changes from ocean to table.

Gedenkschrift for William Freudenburg

February 21, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Good mentors are more than just seasoned career professionals willing to share their knowledge. Good mentors invest a part of themselves in a student or mentee to inspire intellectual growth and performance, creativity, and character.

Dr. William (Bill) R. Freudenburg was a University of California - Santa Barbara professor, renowned environmental sociologist, and dissertation advisor to SESYNC Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Mary B. Collins. Under Freudenburg’s mentorship, Collins studied the sociopolitical factors and social problems that influence the creation of ecological harm and environmental injustice. Freudenburg passed away in 2010 while Collins was still in pursuit of her degree, but their time together directly framed Collins’ current research on the double disproportionality concept—i.e., how certain groups disproportionately create a majority of environmental harm that in turn disproportionately impacts other groups, often distinguishable by race or class.

“I went to Santa Barbara specifically to work with Bill,” says Collins. “I didn’t know him outside of his writing, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he was as cool as he was smart. His door was always open, even through the end of his illness—he was incredibly generous with his time, and completely devoted to his scholarship.”

At UC Santa Barbara, Freudenburg and Collins focused part of their research on how public–private partnerships are transformed by the advancement of technologies. A resultant article, “Temporal Myopia: A Case of Promising New Technologies, the Federal Government, and Inherent Conflicts of Interest,” was recently published in Volume 21 of Research in Social Problems and Public Policy: William R. Freudenburg, A Life in Social Research.

The volume is a Gedenkschrift, or memorial publication, that commemorates Freudenburg’s impacts to both the field of sociology and to the scholarship of those he worked with and influenced. Contributors include both colleagues and students; articles include personal reminiscences, research that reflects on and builds upon Freudenburg’s own work, and articles—like Collins’—that were co-developed with Freudenburg.

“Temporal Myopia” looks at the complications that may arise as the federal government and technologies co-evolve (from promoter to regulator and from emergent to established, respectively). Using the nuclear and nanotechnology industries as case studies, the article suggests that the federal government may create conflicts of interest by regulating the very technological industries it has financed. Freudenburg and Collins conclude by citing a need for additional research into how the federal government can balance its financial interests in a technology’s success with its responsibility to protect the public’s safety and investment, so as to “preserve both government credibility and public trust before it is too late.”

To Collins, the article’s significance is two-fold. “Certainly, the subject matter is important,” she says. “But for me, its genuine value is in paying tribute to Bill’s legacy.”

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC, RFF Awarded $250K Grant by Packard Foundation

Innovative Research to Connect Science to Action

Annapolis, Md – The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and Resources for the Future (RFF) recently received a grant in the amount of $250,000 from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The research supported by this generous grant will focus on how information flows between researchers, institutions, and decision-makers, especially at the federal level.

Modeling Locally, Thinking Globally

January 29, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Above figure: Locations of eastern Asian sites: two in China (western Shandong Province, China (a) and Northern Hunan Province, China (b)), two in Luoang Namtha, Laos (c).

Not all land uses are created equal. Among and between different kinds of land uses, their environmental impacts range from negligible to devastating. Which drivers—environmental, social, economic, etc.—influence the land use choices of a farmer, pastoralist, or housing developer may have once been treated as a question of local relevance, but a team of researchers is now studying them as forces of global significance.

Led by Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, computational research associate at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the team has developed a computational model that is laying the foundation for understanding what motivates people’s land use decisions, on both local and global scales, based on their livelihood strategies. A scientific paper based on the research, which Magliocca wrote as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was published January 29 in the journal PLOS ONE. Magliocca’s co-authors included Dr. Daniel G. Brown of the University of Michigan and Dr. Erle C. Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Land use is often tied to a person’s means of making a living. With forces such as climate change, population growth, and economic globalization at play, livelihood strategies are changing—and those changes transform how people use land. Understanding how such forces influence the choices different land users in different regions make is the first step to supporting land uses that are environmentally and economically sustainable for generations to come.

This type of analysis isn’t easy. “The traditional mode of scientific experimentation is not feasible with real land use systems,” Magliocca says. “We’re talking about people's land and livelihoods here.”

Agent-based models—used as “virtual laboratories,” as Magliocca calls them—offer a powerful and practical means of simulating the actions and interactions of agents (in this case, individual or groups of land users) in order to assess their interactions with the larger system of which they are a part.

Land use change has been studied mostly by researchers creating highly detailed, specialized models that apply to a single location and are highly context-dependent. However, we can learn a lot about what influences land use choices through comparative research across different sites.

“That’s nearly impossible if you’re trying to compare models that were created for a single specific location,” says Magliocca. “Our modeling framework is different because it uses the same model structure, language, logic, and variables across different sites so that those sites can be compared in ways that provide us with meaningful insights. It will help us understand local decisions and activities in larger global contexts.”

“This model is a significant advance in modeling practice. Sometimes it performs well—it reproduces what you actually see on the ground—and in other cases, it misses. But when it misses, the model is informative about what’s going wrong and why it misses, which is hugely informative for the subsequent models we’re laying the foundation for.”

The team hopes to continue their work with a larger research project using volunteered, crowd-sourced local data. These data would help improve the accuracy of the models at any given site while still maintaining a global context by parameterizing the model—i.e., providing a reference for how the local data relate to global data sets already being used.

“We’d be asking local inhabitants for information such as crop prices, land prices, these sorts of things,” says Magliocca. “And we hope to create a system that then delivers the data back to them. We’ll see if that gets funded—it’d be pretty cool if it does.”

The National Science Foundation supported the research under the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT), East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students (EAPSI), and GLOBE Project awards. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center—funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland—is an Annapolis, Maryland-based research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and natural systems.

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What We're Reading

January 9, 2014

“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.”
                                                             ― Maria Mitchell, astronomer

Winter break = Time to catch up on some of our reading. Click the titles for links to the resources.

Between markets and hierarchies: The challenge of governing ecosystem services

Authors: Roldan Muradian and Laura Rival
Source: Ecosystem Services
Who's reading it: Margaret Palmer, Executive Director

Challenges of Interdisciplinary Research: Reconciling Qualitative and Quantitative Methods for Understanding Human–Landscape Systems

Author: Denise Lach
Source: Environmental Management
Who's reading it: Margaret Palmer, Executive Director

Death breath: Caterpillars that blow nicotine at their enemy

Source: The Economist
Who's reading it: Amanda Grimes, Director of Administration and External Affairs

Reciprocal insurance among Kenyan pastoralists

Authors: Avinash K. Dixit, Simon A. Levin, and Daniel I. Rubenstein
Source: Theoretical Ecology
Who's reading it: Andres Baeza Castro, Postdoctoral Fellow

Taking Tree-based Ecosystem Approaches to Scale: Evidence of drivers and impacts on food security, climate change resilience and carbon sequestration

Authors: Louise Willemen, Abigail Hart, Christine Negra, et al.
Source: Ecoagriculture Discussion Paper Series
Who's reading it: Kristin Powell, Postdoctoral Fellow

Why is timing of bird migration advancing when individuals are not?

Authors: Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, William J. Sutherland, et al.
Source: Proceedings B
Who's reading it: Elise Larsen, Postdoctoral Fellow

Environmental risk, uncertainty, and participation: mapping an emergent epistemic community

Author: Jason Chilvers
Source: Environment and Planning A
Who's reading it: Lorien Jasny, Postdoctoral Fellow

Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice

Author: Shannon Elizabeth Bell
Source: University of Illinois Press
Who's reading it: Mary Collins, Postdoctoral Fellow

Spatial agent-based models for socio-ecological systems: Challenges and prospects

Authors: Tatiana Filatova, Peter H. Verburg, Dawn Cassandra Parker, and Carol Ann Stannard
Source: Environmental Modelling & Software
Who's reading it: Nicholas Magliocca, Research Associate

Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc

Author: Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Source: Harper Collins Publishers
Who's reading it: Kelly Hondula, Research Assistant

Photo: New York Public Library
Wally Gobetz, Flickr/Creative Commons

What We're Reading archive:

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Socio-Ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems

December 17, 2013

Postdoctoral Fellow

How do urban ecosystems recover from environmental disasters? Answering this question requires the bridging of social science and ecological research—the goal of the Socio-Ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems (MOVE) project led by Dr. Henrik Ernstson. This project studies how urban civic organizations engage local green areas, such as protecting and rehabilitating wetlands, urban farming, and tree planting, to produce ecological changes. The project has many components involving both social and ecological science teams studying areas in South Africa (Cape Town) and the United States (New Orleans, Louisiana), with additional plans to add future sites as well. I joined the social science team in South Africa in 2012. This fall, we had the first combined meeting of the social science and ecological teams for both South Africa and the U.S.

In my portion of the MOVE project, referred to as the Civic Network Study, we interviewed representatives of Cape Town organizations and asked them about how their groups mobilized around green spaces. For example, some groups organized to protect the hiking trails on a nearby mountain; some worked to improve water quality in nearby wells or streams; and others had broader missions of social justice with many different campaigns. We are also studying the networks formed when these organizations collaborate with each other and how ties between organizations with similar goals, tactics, ideological platforms, etc. relate to their perceptions of success. The ecological team gathered information on the types of plants and animals present in a sampling of areas around Cape Town that included many of the sites mentioned by the organizations surveyed by the social science team. They want to see how much impact these groups have had and what the different recovery or improvement processes look like around the city.

The purpose of our meeting in New Orleans was to have the social and ecological teams from Cape Town discuss their data sets and initial findings together, as well as to speak with the teams based in New Orleans about their project, where data collection is currently underway. On the first day of the meeting, Dr. Joshua Lewis, project leader of the New Orleans teams and a native of the city, led a field trip around the area. He called attention to the interplay between social and environmental forces within the city, and how continuous feedback loops between those forces have shaped the city. For example, we saw where soil displacement due to water traffic has alternately shored up land around private homes in some areas but aided erosion in others (like the lower 9th ward that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina).

The quote that stayed with me throughout that first day was that New Orleans is “the inevitable city in the impossible location.” Social and economic forces demanded a stronghold at the gateway to the Mississippi River, which made the land the inevitable site for a city, but the “impossible” physicality of the location has had a constant impact on the nature of its growth. This description was driven home when we saw the area of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) levee that collapsed during Hurricane Katrina (below photo).

Photo credit:Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA, Flickr/Creative Commons

Some houses, destroyed by the flood that resulted from the levee breach, are being rebuilt in the same location as before—steps from the levee. One example are the homes from Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project just to the east of the Claiborne Ave Bridge. These homes have been at the center of controversy because this part of the 9th Ward is still vulnerable to flooding, and initially these houses cost approximately $400,000 each (below photo).

Photo credit: Mark Gstohl, Flickr/Creative Commons

We also visited the now almost-destroyed cypress forest of Bayou Bienvenue. The photo below shows the forest today—almost entirely open water—but before the construction of the MRGO in the 1960s, this was a thriving freshwater forest. The introduction of saltwater through the MRGO starting in the 1970s destroyed the ecosystem and made the lower 9th ward, the eastern edge of which was built on dredged swampland, even more vulnerable to flooding. (For more info and restoration projects, click here.) The day was capped off by watching the new documentary MRGOing, Going, Gone? The filmmakers began filming this documentary about the Gulf Outlet in 2003, but kept filming for years afterwards due to Hurricane Katrina and its devastation. The consequences of the Hurricane were greatly intensified by the prior damage the MRGO had done to the New Orleans coastline. The filmmakers caught predictions of such devastation on tape years before Katrina struck, and they cogently showed how the construction of the MRGO set the conditions for a disaster like Katrina because large residential populations were positioned on increasingly vulnerable soil.

Photo credit: Infrogmation, Flickr/Creative Commons

Touring these areas gave the Cape Town teams some background into the New Orleans case. The two teams then discusses parallels in the history of the two cities: both are port towns; both are a melting pot of native populations, colonialists, and immigrants; and both have witnessed recent massive ecological upheaval. The South Africa teams (both social and ecological) tried to impart some lessons from the data gathering that has gone on in Cape Town to help plan for data collection in New Orleans.

The second day focused on the data our project teams have collected on social movement organizations and area plants and animals in Cape Town, South Africa. The social science team (Henrik Ernstson, Mario Diani, and me) hadn’t all met since designing the survey a year prior. Now that we had the data in hand, we needed to inspect it for errors and clean (i.e., remove duplicates among) the list of organizations mentioned. Cleaning the civic networks dataset was an especially challenging undertaking with 120 surveys ranging from 1–2 hours in length. After we finished cleaning, we identified 1,005 unique organizations including those interviewed, and identified a target set of organizations that were central in these original networks (meaning they were mentioned by three or more other interviews) for interviews in the second wave that will start soon.

This cleaning process took us much longer than the meeting in New Orleans, but it is now completed. We’re waiting for our colleagues to finish up the last few interviews, and then we will start the analyses. We plan to present findings at the 7th annual Political Networks conference at McGill University in May 2014. Hopefully, we’ll be able to compare our findings to those of the New Orleans group shortly thereafter.

Top photo: Jocelyn Augustino
Middle photo: Mark Gstohl
Bottom photo: Infrogmation
All photos Flickr/Creative Commons

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