Saturday, June 26, 2010

Invasive species and oil spills impact ecosystems similarly

          What is so upsetting about the spread of oil across the ware and shores of the Caribbean? Is it the pictures of animals coated with oil slowly dying? Or recreational shorelines no longer open for human use? Perhaps it is the loss of jobs that once supplied our menus? Could it be the change in economics to an already stressed economy, or perhaps the loss of ecosystems that support our ways of life? Are we afraid of what tomorrow has in store with the dramatic change from what we new to the novel species limited environment that is in store? The oil freely gushing is the same oil for which we pay dearly in order to drive to restaurants and fly to beaches, to heat and cool our homes and to make the pharmaceuticals and plastics that fill our world.
          There is another carbon based spill that is invading our ecosystems and altering our ways of life. Unlike oil, which come from the remains of plants and animals, this wave of change is alive. It comes silently in the packing of the goods we import from near and far; it comes with us as we set sail in our boats; it follows us in to the water when we fish in felt bottom boots; it flows over the garden fence from purchases of beautiful flowers whose danger we do not notice. Invasive species bring disease and they bring death. They alter local ecosystems as surely as the charismatic oil flowing in the Gulf of Mexico, and they cost us the use of the environment. Invasive species limit our food supply and create medical problems. Invasive species change the temperature of wild fires and can impact the soil creating conditions for mudslides. Invasive species overwhelm the native species of today beginning a cascade that can lead to species extinction. And like oil they can provide energy, food, flowers, fiber, and feed, thereby providing opportunity for business and jobs.
          The oil is a catastrophic environmental disturbance that is changing much of the ecology of the gulf in ways we do not understand; invasive species are changing the world in a similar fashion. Invasive species are a biological wildfire, an oil spill with global reach that is silently changing our ecosystems because of our outputs and without our input. Invasive species come in with our purchases either directly because we choose to buy them or indirectly because we do not know they are there. Oil, free flowing from a well, looks like, smells like and acts like oil. There is no problem in knowing what you are seeing and what is causing the environment to change before your eyes. Invasive species on the other hand can be microscopic and hard to see or large enough to bite and yet remain  hidden behind a kitten's purr. From a virus or bacterium invading a forest or a field to a rat in an alley or a feral pet in the park, invasive species are hard to see and harder yet to define. The damage caused by these invaders disturbs the complex web of interactions pushing ecosystems to the tipping point..
          We like our oil in controlled situations, in tanks of cars and in plastic form. And so we like our invasive species; our little pet pythons in cages at home and our gentle English ivy container bound. We love the cool of oil in the heat of summer time and we love the quick shade of the Norway maple for a summer's eventide respite. And in so loving we quietly enjoy the short term benefits without knowing the long term impacts. Any negative outcomes to oil that moves without control or to invasive species that spread without concern is chalked up as necessary externalities which are a result of just the way things are and always have been. The assumption is that nature, which we feel individually as overwhelming in her force, is large enough to dispose of all that we cannot control or do not want.
          The collapse of a complex system such as a society dependent on a natural resource or ecosystem services is an opportunity to restart that comes at great cost. However, the collapse of existing ecosystems is happening without most of us aware; for the changes that come from invasive species come like the biblical thief in the night and shall wake us to a new and novel world not of our memory. We are sleep walking into history shepherded by invasive species and our need for oil. Thinking about invasive species and ecological change is very upsetting for it tells us things we do not want to know.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Trends in Gardening with John Peter Thompson « Homestead Gardens

Trends in Gardening with John Peter Thompson « Homestead Gardens

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Invasive Species Impact akin to Oil Spills without the Publicity

          Invasive species climb our trees choking them to death, they cling to our forests and smother them, they coat the surfaces of our waterways, and they cover our landscapes altering the resources we use in our lives. They are the biological equivalent of an oil spill changing the interactions of local and regional ecosystems and altering our lives directly and indirectly. Invasive species and oil spills remove resources and kill jobs. Invasive species and oil spills change the resources humans may take from their environment. Both invasive species and oil spills kill fish, destroy wetlands and prevent human use of natural and managed landscapes.    

               [Image: dead ash trees: Forest health and biodiversity news from the Atlantic Forestry Centre]

          Recent headlines speak to the effects of these human induced ecological changes. “Invasive species [are] destroying Missouri’s economy and forests” while along the Gulf Coast  the long term impact of the oil spill will be catastrophic and the environment in the area will be severely damaged. The speed of ecosystem change overwhelms the expected resources and changes the relationships among human beneficiaries of the environment. The oil is killing the fishing and recreation industries; a solution to stop drilling will destroy the port and oil economies and attendant jobs. Invasive species sold as pets alter recreational use of local landscapes and impact hunting, while stopping the sale impacts a major industry serving the needs of the public. The same situation is true of the nursery industry and a few of the plants its customers want to buy. In an effort to adapt a local landscape, some garden plants escape and alter the surrounding landscape impact food production and recreational activities.

          Human activity has always impacted the environment, and at a local personal level man has been busy disturbing the ecosystem he lives in since the discovery of agriculture. What is new is that there are now 6 billion people actively “plowing” up the world, and the ecosystems are responding faster. As we alter or destroy large charismatic species, microbial activity as well as larger species readily able to adapt are rapidly evolving with us. Whether they will continue to evolve in support of our human needs is not yet clear for these species have their own trajectory into the future.

          The spread of invasive species and the spread of oil have much in common but in one important way they are very different. The damage real and predicted are covered in minute detail 24 hours a day; the even greater damage of invasive species, calculated to exceed 130 billion per year, is unknown, mostly unreported and completely ignored by most people. The death of charismatic mega fauna from invasive species happens quietly and continuously but over longer span of time and geography and thus by the time the past species is located it is way too late do do anything about the damage caused by the invasive predator. We are well aware of the loss of the marshes now occurring, but are strangely silent on the millions of dead ash trees across many mid west and now east coast states.

          The spread of oil is a tragedy in a three minute viral ready world. The lack of on going continuous risk assessments and risk management plans is obvious in the gulf oil crisis. The despair, outrage and dismay is palatable; the same cannot be said for invasive species impacts and the even bigger change in ecosystems and the resources they provide us.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Invasive species complexity, uncertainty and the human condition -Weeds Across Borders Presentation Synopsis

Weeds Across Borders June 3rd 2010
Synopsis of my 20 minute presentation

Biological invasions are linked to economic decisions creating a wicked problem for stakeholders and ecosystems. Wicked problems have multiple definitions, exist without ending points and are non linear, thus defying simple “either or” solutions. The nursery, landscape and gardening industry, a sub system of agriculture, is a major pathway for the introduction of invasive species, and provides a complicated mix of cultural, environmental, and financial choices that are better informed by understanding how risk reductions are valued. Since the challenge of scale also affects valuation of economic and ecological calculations, the inclusion of uncertainty in ecological processes and the potential for fuzzy logic are equally important as a tool for environmental policy choices and ecosystem management decisions. The presentation will provide a very brief philosophic overview of the bio-economic considerations of invasive species.

Bioeconomics recognizes the feedback loop between biology and economics and the need to balance the flow of damage until the next control as compared to delaying the control as well as controlling costs and damages between controls. “A manager maximizes expected returns on investments by equating the marginal returns on costs across prevention and control” according to Shogren [2009]. The need for a conversation between risk assessment and risk management has never been more apparent than today. One need only ask what the difference is between the picture on the left and the picture on the right.  

Carbon based impacts on ecological systems are on the rise as human activity increases. And human disturbance comes in many beneficial forms. The fact that the oil spill of today has raised some concern but not changed significantly human activities that demand oil, should be an indicator of the size of the information mountain facing invasive species issues. The landscapes that serve our aesthetic impulses are filled with species that have “learned” to coexist with our needs. They are coevolving with humanity which has grown to love them. Moreover, for all of written history, nature has been perceived as asymmetrically arrayed against mankind – an unfair, unbalanced, overwhelming force that compelled him to seek natural resources which could be controlled or tamed. Natural areas, therefore, are considered undefined spaces which need to be controlled to extract resources.

There is a human desire for security that comes from limited choices, and for the majority of people who may be described as landscape illiterate there is an enticing welcoming aspect to the well kept and well manicured expanse of landscape pictured on the left.

The “meadow” on the other hand is not a place welcoming bare feet and the uninformed. In fact most people would think that the species in the unkempt ragged natural setting would be more likely to harbor invasive species than the fastidiously maintained lawn and surrounding, carefully-selected landscape specimens. The immediacy of the informing service of an ecosystem determines much of the public sense of landscape use and valuation. Confounding the conversation is the challenge of scale both temporal and geographic. The problem of future value or discounting is complicated by the problem of integrating multiple scales. Furthermore, confusion arises over the appropriate function to use for an appropriate discount rate as many models chose a pure exponential rate when perhaps a hyperbolic rate would be more appropriate.

In the arena of climate change and invasive species there is a tendency to conflate our scale types and units into a one size fits all paradigm in attempt to simply a complex system’s vagueness at the edges. Most of our thinking as a society is linear and simplistic and is the template upon which assumptions are made about complex systems and the businesses that service them as well as the ecosystems that are involved.

However, the problem of ecosystems, climate change, invasive species and humanity’s needs are non linear and are properly consider as wicked problems. According to Rittel and Webber's (1973) a wicked problem is made up of the following characteristics: There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem; Wicked problems have no stopping rule; Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse; There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem; Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"- because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly;

Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan; Every wicked problem is essentially unique, Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem; The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution; The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate). Additional features cause the problem to be cast in the light of a super wicked problem because both climate change and invasive species are characterized by: Time running out; lack of central authority; those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; the occurrence of hyperbolic discounting.

Ecosystems are complex adaptive systems as are political groupings and business systems. What we are trying to do is to assess and managed risk inherent in these systems. We seek a framework for our various assessments that will return useful and beneficial information. An interdisciplinary approach is required that at a high level integrates ecological and economic modeling with policy and management modeling.

Using Shogren’s model we look at a manager’s investment in control, his investment in prevention (non-exclusive & non-rival consumption), the all important random uncertainty variable, any research in for the public good and endowed wealth.  From these we create the functions that provide information about the probability of a good state of nature, the probability ofno damage from invasive species, the probability of a bad state of nature the probability of damage from invasive species, a money equivalent of realized damages, a distribution of support bounded by (a,b) of research to reduce impact, a control cost, a social value of good state of nature, as well as a social value bad state of nature. To these functions we add a net wealth formula and address any change in damages that affect social welfare.

An integration of these functions addresses the irreversibility of outcomes and the uncertainty over time of invasive species allowing for a decision on timing of investments or action.

Noting the irreversibility and focusing on uncertainty helps adjust the basis for decisions. The idea that any biological function “… generally requires the consideration of opinions of experts or expert groups, of experience gained from comparable problems, and of additional information where necessary…” reinforces the basic concept that “…any study of biological complexity is rooted in the knowledge of biological reality, an expression for possible limit of human knowledge about ontological biological reality…”. The unsettling nature of the vagueness of what we actually know is in part a result of reliance on Aristotelian logic.

The A or not-A approach to climate and invasive species limits the policy choices and management tools. Scientific information and value systems are merged and confused in much of the current policy conversation. A better way of thinking perhaps is found in fuzzy logic A .and. not-A which can provide a better interpretive platform for decision making. The general public thinks that science has for example found the precise value of the hypotenuse of a right triangle with side of unit measure. In fact science knows that we can find the answer in a “good” enough measurement and ignore the infinite irrational number. But the public continues to think that there is a precise absolute a misconception which science allows the public to have.

The vagueness of ecosystem service interactions is highlighted by the seeming necessity of man’s incessant plowing of the environment. The complex systems that have accrued over time in support of resource extraction are of themselves also filled with uncertainty. It is the vagueness at the edges near chaos that promulgates creativity. Attempting to corral this fuzziness creates unexpected and unintended outcomes.

The business chain is as complex as the ecosystem chain upon which it rests. Given the uncertain nature of complex adaptive systems, “our uncertainty is expressed quantitatively by the information which we do not have about the state occupied.” The overall effect is the one of the relationship of the myriad points of view, of syntropy to entropy which “… is expressed in terms of probabilities, depends on the observer. One person may have different knowledge of the system from another, and therefore would calculate a different numerical value for entropy.” [MIT course chapter 10]

Keeping the vagueness of probability in mind we can work with trait based models that include economic benefits of introducing new species, the annual value of trade in new species, the number of invaders/number of introduced species, a proportional risk assessment and an annual cost of administrating risk assessment. Other modeling strategies include niche based, gravity, random utility, reaction-diffusion and spatial-phenemological models.
As we add models there is the chance that the models operating independently produce an affect akin to the court of Aethelred the Unready with too many plans too much information, no direction. Consideration of behavioral choices brings us back to consideration of future value function when integrating time dependent state variable (invader abundance) and control strategies in aggregation in respect to change in abundance to the change in control strategies. With carful aforethought we can create and integrated, environecopragmaphilosophicapproach. The dynamic interrelationship found in world population growth and resulting resource needs, climate change, energy and invasive species combine to form the super wicked problem that only an integrated approach to policy making can begin to make clear.

Into this mix we must carefully and clearly place the two major opposing philosophic world views. The Proactionary Principle focuses on freedom to innovate, objectivity, comprehensiveness, openness, transparency and simplicity. The other way of understanding complex issues is the Precautionary Principle that shifts the burden of proof, recognizes scientific uncertainty, recognize diverse positions, seeks the least-harmful solution and declares a duty to take action. Science alone does not set management or policy goals, but informs them, a fact that is often lost in policy and political discussions. Science has an obligation to translate research into user-friendly language as the stakeholders have a duty to create broad personal networks. All parties must remember that change is not instantaneous and that there is a deep rooted need to focus on the immediately relevant.