Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Speed of Climate Change & Invasive Species Impacts

Nothing is ever simple when it comes to invasive species. Invasive species are a wicked inconvenience and as such are directly connected to the inconvenient truth of climate change. Invasive species are those species that are causing or have the potential to cause harm to a local environment or to human health and well being. [1] Gardeners are long familiar with invasive plant species known as weeds and the disease and insect pests that plant species can carry from garden to garden and to landscapes and ecosystems beyond the garden wall. Climate change and biological invasion are dynamically interconnected and interdependent phenomena, each influencing the other. The two wicked problems are infinite problems infinitely connected.

Climate which is the long-term weather pattern of an area, including temperature, precipitation, and wind[2], affects the range of individual species habitat and suitability. Too cold, too dry, too wet, too windy and a species will not survive. The speed at which physical properties of climate systems change affects the biology of an ecosystem. The change in climate patterns and the speed of these changes permits invasive species to become established and thrive when introduced into new ecosystem. In turn, the speed of ecosystem change, both physically and biologically, can be dramatically increased by the introduction of invasive species. These complex relationships between ecosystems and invasive species result in problems that resist simplified absolute solutions. It is important to understand that climates can exist without biological systems, but useful biological systems are defined by climate; consequently, ecosystem resources and services to humanity are dependent on and supported by a specific narrow range of climate types. [3]

The long march of kudzu and the fire ant demonstrate both the effects of climate change and the cost to human health and well being, as well as the negative impact on other ecosystem services and resources of invasive species. Changes in long term temperature are allowing both species to move northward . As an example, according to a University of Florida website, damage in excess of 150 million dollars a year from fire ants “…can cause significant damage not only to soybean crops, but citrus, corn, okra, bean, cabbage, cucumber, eggplant, potato, sweet potato, peanut, sorghum, and sunflower (Stimac and Alves 1994).” Noting the harm to ecosystem services, the University of Florida observes that the “[r]ed imported fire ants … reduce ground-nesting populations of rodents and birds. In certain instances, the RIFA may completely eliminate ground-nesting species from a given area (Vinson and Sorenson 1986). Because there is a 10 to 20 year lapse before reductions in bird populations are observed, it has been suggested that actual effects of the RIFA on animal populations may be underestimated (Mount 1981).” On the otherhand only this year, kudzu has been reported in Ontario Canada where once it wasthought too cold to harbor this species.

The migration of species because of climate change will radically confuse the definition of native, and will definitely create novel ecosystem questions. Conversations about assisted migration will move into the forefront of policy debates about resource allocation. And, the expected services and resources of a given ecosystem will be altered, requiring a dramatic reshuffling of agricultural services and resources such as food, fuel, feed, fiber, flower and forests along with quickly changing land use decision pressures. We will not be setting the clock back in our life time; we will be learning how to manage the resources of the planet through adaptation and technology, through alterration of consumer expectations and life styles (though not necessarily a lowering thereof). We shall have to confront the particulars of ecosystem services and resource externalities in both our private and public decisions. The idea that one can use the air or water or soil and leave them in altered states without cost is now part of the past. We shall be held accountable one way or another. For 6 billion people to survive and become 9 billion, we all will be adapting to the speed of ecological change.

[1] Beck, K. George and Kenneth Zimmerman, Jeffrey D. Schardt, Jeffrey Stone, Ronald R. Lukens, Sarah Reichard, John Randall, Allegra A. Cangelosi, Diane Cooper, and John Peter Thompson. ISAC 2006. Invasive Species Definition Clarification and Guidance White Paper. [Online] ISAC 2006. .

“Executive Order 13112 – defines an invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

[2] A. P. M. Baede: [ed.]. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Working Group I: The Scientific Basis. Appendix I - Glossary. [Online] [Cited: December 17, 2009.]

“Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the average weather, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. The classical period is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation, and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical climate system.”

[3] Menzel, Annette, et al. . The Atmosphere And The Spatial And Temporal Variability Of. [Online] , . [Cited: December 19, 2009.] .

“… react to variations of its atmospheric environment in a sensitive way and it is astounding as to which precision subjective observations of plants are able to reflect the spatial and temporal variability of atmospheric processes across various temporal and spatial scales.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Climate change & invasive species

Climate change and invasive species are interconnected challenges global in impact and reach. Invasive species are those species which have moved from their native recorded ranges to new ecological systems where for any number of reasons they flourish, many times at the expense of the indigenous species. A major factor that enables a non native species to survive and expand successfully is the climate of the new ecosystem. This climate factor is the same one that supports the established species ability to thrive. Natural ecosystems are value neutral and climate dependent.

An ecological system also known as an ecosystem provides resources such as atmospheric gas regulation, erosion control, storm water management, genetic diversity, biological habitat and refugia, food, feed, fuel, fiber, flowers and forests, as well as aesthetic, human health and recreational services. The ecosystem is a complex web of complicated interaction between species with many scales of time and size interacting simultaneously. From virus and bacteria to charismatic mega flora (redwood) and fauna (condors), ecosystems provide renewable resources if not over-harvested or stressed by ecosystem service imbalances.

The complex interactions of system species with their environment constitute a dynamic feedback system. Each component or part of the system “tries” to maximize its use of resources. The result is a dynamic and moving middle-point of balanced forces. When the balance of the whole system is altered the system readjusts. The readjustment does not return exactly to the past state and in extreme or drastic conditions, resets into a new system passing through a collapse of resource services.

Climate change as change of any process in an ecological system is self regulating over time. A system is adapted to changes in climate that are incorporated in to the feedback connections. The whole system changes together in time and through time. When climate change comes faster its impact in the whole system is greater and takes place more quickly. Climate is a pattern of weather over time. When the function of climate changes over a smaller period of time it begins to resemble weather, and the probable patterns of climate begin to disappear replaced by greater randomness or inability to allocate resources in anticipation. The various species adapted to specific climate needs are stressed sometimes to the point of extinction while species with greater climatic adaptability weather the change.

When a species is moved from its native range into a new ecosystem where among other factors climate conditions are favorable, it may begin to establish, compete and spread. If the species is climate adaptable and the climate is changing rapidly, the species begins to impact the current expect resource services. The new species may crowd out native species reducing diversity; they may reduce harvests of natural resources such as timber and food, and even may obstruct storm management processes thereby allowing greater damage from floods. The impact of the new species, the invasive species, may be measured as a reduction (increase) of endogenous resource services. The impact of climate change may also be measured as a reduction (increase) of existing ecosystem resource services. A change in ecosystem services measures the impact of invasive species on an ecosystem. A change in ecosystem services is also a measurement of the impact of the change in time of climate type.

As weather defines, over time, a climate pattern, invasive species, over time, define an ecosystem. This level of complexity creates unintended consequences when definitions are simplified and when short term solutions are sought. Banning an exotic pest, plant or animal is a cost effective mechanism for stopping invasion to save a natural area ecosystem, but the climate can not be interdicted so easily and in periods of quick change will radically altered what is native or indigenous. Solutions formulated as simplified absolutes will get action, attention and movement, but are in themselves one of many possible answers.

Climates are impacted by ecosystems which are changed by invasive species that are impacted by climate. Addressing concerns in one with out addressing concerns in all is short term recourse to futility. Rather we must manage the entire system or be managed by it. For ease and peace of mind we create environmental sets with hard edges and give them labels. In doing so we tend sometimes to forget that the now separate pieces are all part of the same set or system: species, climate, and environment are all arts of the same grand Terran biome, our home, Earth.

Because invasive species are climate dependent and both invasive species and climate impact ecosystems we have both a fuzzy problem and a wicked problem. The wicked inconvenience of invasive species and climate change’s inconvenient truth are sets of problems with much in common. Both have multiple stakeholders so confused by the infinite possibilities that they define the problems based upon their desired outcomes. Both problems are non linear, but the stakeholders claim absolute truths anyway and put forward logical absolutes in attempts to buttress their a priori claims. The two problems have no end except when resources are exhausted or political will ends. In addition, and most importantly, the two issues have co-equal, co-evolving problems with which they are intrinsically related which are: each other.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Are cats an invasive species - a wickedly inconvenient conversation

Invasive species wickedly impact ecosystems and simultaneously are inconvenient to immediate human wants and needs. No species better illustrates this than the domesticated cat (Felis catus) also known as the house cat. The housecat occupies one of the highest positions within the turbulent world of human engendered biological co-evolution. The perfect hunting generalist is at the same time the calming innocent purring ball of contentment and pleasure. The domesticated housecat is a killing machine that can successfully hunt many small mammals, birds and even fish. And being an opportunist like its human companions, the cat quickly adopts a home and adapts to the local food supply.

Many species have co-evolved with Homo sapiens such as horses, cows, dogs, mice, rats, wheat, rice, house flies, roaches, influenza, and E.coli. This bounded collection of species has spread across the earth, together, in a stochastic system of over-production and extreme competition for resources. Each species now needs the other and so while some increase for awhile a larger balance is maintained internally at the expense of endogenous ecological systems. Simply put, the human ecosystem can be imagined as a biological bulldozer re-engineering the biomes of Earth as it moves across the planet. This whirling ball of continuous change, this human ecosystem disturbance is analogous to a farmer plowing a field. A side-effect of this disturbance is the facilitation of biological invasion. The agents of invasion are referred to as invasive species. Moreover, by deft definitional sleight of hand we mostly eliminate many of the co-evolutionary exotics that give us companionship or food from our list of invasive species, because these friends-of-mankind species have been assigned a greater value to humanity as compared to their destructive outcome to nature (the local endogenous or native ecosystem).

The housecat reigns supreme in its seat of power. It brings aesthetic and emotional pleasure earning its keep in earlier ages by keeping some of the lesser denizens of the human ecosystem’s over-production capabilities in check. Mankind values the silo of grain for tomorrow’s dinner, and thus values the cat in the raging interaction of man versus mouse. The aloofness of the cat is translated as an expression of a partially “wild” animal; a poetic state that allows humans to think the cat belongs outdoors as a right accorded to wild beings and, therefore, is living in balance in nature doing good things for all.

The purring kitten sitting on one’s lap models the image of innocence. Like the sibling that swats its brethren and then smiles when those-who-must-be-obeyed arrive, the cat is beyond suspicion or reproach for any damage to an ecosystem. Because the emotional bond is so strong and so deep and so cultivated by both the cat and the humans who love the cat, the idea of any possible negative interaction that might be induced or caused by a cat lies beyond the pale of polite conversation. The occasional pet hamster or goldfish not-with-standing, the cat is seen as a defender of the home eliminating the scourge of pest and disease vectors (rats, mice). This idea then leads to a generalization that cats only help brings balance to the world – a good thing, naturally.

One trait of the domesticated cat is to reproduce (over-produce) with little concern for population excess. The human part of the equation may from time to time make the quick calculation that cat equals wild equals nature. For whatever the reason, the cats who fall from grace and live on the edge of the human ecosystem, are now referred to as “stray” by cats-as-a-benefit and “feral” by cats-as-destructive. The word feral allows humans to use a definition function that inputs friend of man and outputs a wild species undifferentiated as to origin or impact. In other words, the feral cat is now safely classified one step removed from the good or behaved house cat, and may even be labeled by a few as an invasive species, but only if the few are willing to risk thundering approbation. Just as labeling a garden ground cover like English ivy as a weed, labeling the house cat as feral is one step from recognition of invasive species status. Both the ivy and the cat when found outside their traditional expected position or use with in the human ecosystem are species on the edge of good and bad.

Along with the blurry definitional status of the cat, the reinforcing idea that natural ecosystems consists of free, “undeveloped” spaces and, therefore, a no cost solution to the challenge of human ecosystem excesses, allows for a quick disposal of the stray cat to a native ecosystem, side-stepping the impact question and blithely finding no harm in the action. The fuzzy opportunistic definition of a cat’s place in the greater and lesser schemes of things permits us to allow the cat to reside in any aspect of any ecosystem at the lowest immediate cost to the human agent. In other words we can throw the cat out and defend its unique place in the world at the same time and do so without any internal philosophic conflict.

However, through the process of stakeholder consensus[1], housecats are not considered an invasive species. Some stakeholders, recognizing the prolific reproductive capabilities of the now stray or feral cats, propose a program of trap, alter and return. This is an attempt to protect the sanctity of all life couched in terms of a live free and let live policy. It does nothing for the impact on ecosystem resources that the now altered cats still wreak, but it does mitigate the reproductive pressure. It does highlight an environmental dichotomy between protecting life directly and protecting the ecological systems that provide the structure for life. There is an inherent collision of desires between the immediate microscopic desire to protect life now, and the large macroscopic drive to protect the ecological systems that provide the resources for the species involved in the first place. The resulting chicken and egg squabble, a collision of desired outcomes allows the much broader portion of the public as disinterested traditional cat companions to rise above the fray guaranteeing no political movement towards an ecological solution whatsoever. The result is that we have groups that claim to protect habitat, rights and welfare from human exploitation[2], but engender the destruction of the ecosystems they are trying to protect by making no distinction to the strong and weak ecological interactions. In the case of cats, we get a decrease in the extremely important weak interactions at the expense of the cat induced strong interactions. In other words non-indigenous cats are more successful at hunting indigenous species and so, changing the internal balances of the ecosystems thereby adding considerable stress.

At some level of the dialogue surrounding policy choices, if cats were classified as invasive species, serious consideration of H. sapiens as an invasive species by analogy might take place. Doing this would make the politics of climate change look like a weekend walk in the park. Invasive species definitions are constructed from an anthropocentric lens or point of view. The idea and reality of cat is ingrained in human societal expectations which by definition are good for the continuation of humanity. The practical outcome is, of course, that human societal choices are not always in the interest of all individual humans in the long term, but for the species as a whole in the long run. And even that assumption of species benefit of individual action does not necessarily guarantee species continuation.

The negative impact of cats on indigenous species with in endogenous ecosystems especially in the urban interface with what is left of natural areas may be significant. In one study in the United States suggests that “…rural free-ranging domestic cats in Wisconsin may be killing between 8 and 217 million birds each year.”[3] The large number of bird deaths should be compared to the total number of birds, but the enormity of the slaughter is enough to outrage defenders of natural areas from the predation of the cute and cuddly killing machine. This conflict of intentions sets up a us-or-them boundary and a classic wicked problem matrix (February 18, 2007, Invasive Species; Wicked Inconvenience: part two) where in stakeholders arrive at the complex issue with predetermined outcomes in mind that frame each constituency’s position and definition. An inability to actually address or even define the problem is the result of this process.

So the problem is one of perception. Is it alright to keep a house cat locked up inside away from the great outdoors for which it pines? Is there any responsibility on the part of human companions for the natural area destruction that domesticated cats can wring out of native ecosystems? Is there a role for house cats outside of strict sterile confinement? What is a natural ecosystem anyway, especially in a dense urban setting filled with mice and rats and other gems of human co-evolutionary pressures? Could we realistically ban cats in the same fashion as we attempt to ban plants or animals? To what geographic location exactly is a domesticated, co-evolved-with-humanity species native? Are housecats not native to wherever human live?

In spite of our desires for a linear simple straight to the point answer to any or all of these questions, there are no simple answers. If we intend to preserve unique, native ecosystems, then domesticated cats must be removed. On the other hand if we judge the cost of “natural” ecosystems beyond our resources to maintain, then perhaps cats have a role in the new novel unexplored ecosystems that we are unintentionally creating. We cannot have it both ways. If there are to be native species preserves, then they must be protected from the biological cloud of disturbance that is the human ecosystem including pet cats gone astray. In the end allowing pet cats or any other human companions beneficial or otherwise to wander uncontrolled in natural areas is as destructive as just paving over the green space.
On the other hand, killing our excess species, native or domesticated, because we did not take time to consider the consequences of our human actions devalue the worth of all life. Life is sacred or it is not. Treating life like we treat our plastic cups is setting up a feedback loop that will overwhelm us. We cannot build a viable, suitable life on the idea that everything has a cost-free disposable use.

[1] Definitions Subcommittee of the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC). (2006).Invasive Species Definition Clarification and Guidance White Paper. .
“It is also essential to recognize that invasive species are not those under human control or domestication; that is, invasive species are not those that humans depend upon for economic security, maintaining a desirable quality of life, or survival.”
[2] In Defense of Animals Press Release. (2000). Boeing Co. Cats To Be Killed
Fate Of Trapped Wildlife Unknown.
[3] John S. Coleman, Stanley A. Temple, and Scott R. Craven. (1997). Cats and Wildlife:
A Conservation Dilemma.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Invasive species, island grey foxes & collisions of desire

Invasive species issues are wickedly inconvenient. Invasive species solutions create conflicting philosophic outcomes or collisions of desires. An effort to remove an invasive species may produce unexpected consequences as the removal of the invasive plant tamarisk impacts the endangered bird, southwestern willow flycatchers. Concern about invasive species arises from two forces or interests of mankind: agriculture and conservation. Where mankind ventures, so too come companion species that stress endogenous ecosystems sometimes to the point of collapse.
An obverse of the invasive species issue is the concern and effort on behalf and for endangered species. With both issues every time the system is tweaked unintended results will occur because uncertainty is part of the equation. (picture from )

A clear example of the complicated nature of ecosystems and species manipulation is found in the conservation efforts surrounding the Santa Cruz fox. In order to preserve the fox, in the name of protecting a pristine ecosystem, mankind will bring all of his skills and knowledge of horticulture to the problem, deciding much as any gardener does which species may live in the “pristine” Garden of Eden and which must be removed. After conservationists engineer sanctuaries to protect the foxes from the golden eagle, begin a captive breeding program, remove and relocate the golden eagles to the mainland, restore the bald eagle displaced by the aforementioned golden eagles, and for good measure place the fix on the endangered species list[1], the hoped for result will be a habitat that can support the fox in the current state of its evolution. This of course is a near term even in time and will result in long term evolutionary forces coming to bear on the ecosystem and the fox itself. This is an effort to preserve a species and its ecosystem, mankind will step in to redirect the interaction that have occurred because of ma’s arrival and his alteration of the landscape and the species of the ecosystem. The works of man are seen to have altered the “natural” state of things, and thus the works of man will be brought to bear in reconstructing a “natural” state of being.

The island gray foxes, Urocyon littoralis, reportedly arrived on three of the six California Channel Islands they now inhabit some 16,000 years ago. Important to remember in the current discussion is the 6000 year length of human involvement with the island grey fox species. Humans took the fox species, which are only one-half or two-thirds the size of mainland gray foxes to three other islands. The island fox species faces evolutionary challenges including inbreeding, competition with feral cats and exposure to canine diseases, as well as development on the islands that threatens to limit their habitat and food supply.[2]

The efforts to protect the fox will require engineering the ecosystem (reversing co-evolutionary pressures) to a state of pre-industrial human interaction. To do this, we will need to commit energy (resources) and will (policy). The loss of the fox will be measured ecologically and economically. The short term cost of less development will me compared to the uncertainty of long term gain. And of course the wicked world of invasive species will loom large as we try to “humanely” exterminate what to some will look like pets, i.e. human companion species. Paraphrasing Simberloff (2003) one might ask how much information on population biology is needed to manage endogenous ecological systems.[3]

The quiet notion wrapped in romantic dogma that mankind can return the world to a pre-industrial state informs many of our choices. The loss of the fox is a metaphor for the loss of an idyllic past that never was but for a few well off members of the human race. But like the impulse that generated the English landscape movement the recognition that mankind is in major part defined by nature and that the loss of nature is a diminution of man’s being drives us forward to protect this denizen of the California isles. The loss of the fox is a symptomatic of a greater loss, that of the Rousseauian individual who lives one equal with his surroundings not a mere god in a machine.

[1]: Island Grey Fox”. accessed: (November 9th, 2009)
[2] Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. accessed: (November 9th, 2009)
[3] Conservation Biology. Volume 17 Issue 1, Pages 83 – 92. Published Online: 11 Feb 2003. ©2009, Society for Conservation Biology. accessed: (November 9th, 2009)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Invasive Species & Halloween

Sneaky, scary, furtive, dangerous, nimble, destructive, hidden, unexpected, spooky, terrifying, wickedly inconvenient, invasive species play trick-or-treat on Halloween and all the other days of the year. Beautifully dangerous invasive species bite and sting, overwhelm and destroy, bring pestilence and chaos. Invasive species like trick-or-treaters can look desirable but can also, when not controlled, wreak havoc on the landscape. Invasive species come in all shapes and sizes from single cell organism to charismatic mega plants and animals. Behind the friendly masks and costumes lurk potential villains of destruction. Invasive species flicker in and out of our collective imagination investing landscapes on a time scale that hides from notice until it is too late.

Like the customs and tradition that surround Halloween and have moved and changed through the centuries, invasive species have accompanied mankind as he has spread through out the last empty spaces of the planet. All Hallow’s Eve is based upon the cycles of agriculture and harvest, of the movement between the live and death. Invasive species move with humanity’s disturbance of the land and man’s dependence upon the crops of his toil. Like a roiling forest fire invasive species are an organic conflagration altering forever the ecological relationships of the natural are into which they come. And like the costumed demons of Halloween, invasive species can hide their destructive, negative intent behind familiar reassuring forms. The cat of Halloween is both pet and scary avatar, and a potential progenitor of a feral familiar.

Invasive species lack an Oprah or a Gore to champion the cost to the environment and to the quality of human life. We fail to realize the impact and the cost to ecosystem services that invasion may engender. Some people boldly fret about the impact of climate change, but little is said about the role of invasive species in altering the current balance of resources provided. Invasive species do not have cache, and go about their destructive work mostly unnoticed. We hesitate to invest in prevention because it is hard to grasp the reason to spend money on something that may or may not happen, and then, we pay to control the invasive impact, an effort which rarely gets the upper hand. We find familiar beauty and claim artistic privilege or economic benefit to plant or herd; we cry a while for the loss of habitat or tree or the last of a kind, and then return to our world lessen by the loss.

This Halloween I am thinking of dressing up as an invasive species and scaring the daylights out of the world.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Invasive species move with us as reflections of our actions

Humans like to categorize things; to put things into boxes of like items. This seemingly hard-wired activity helps to sort through the conflicting chaos of perceived reality. The decision function is a simple yes it belongs or no it does not. The categories or boxes are tagged with additional dualistic labels: good or bad (evil), us or them, black or white, native or alien, nature or artifice, art or junk, profit or loss. Once categorized and tagged the grouped collection of information is used to create value assumptions, to set personal market preferences and to address policy choices.

The impulse to label surrounds invasive species questions. From questions of garden choices to forestry management and agricultural production we place organisms into redefined categories. As a first step, we create a classification system for species identification. We then identify the species with specific ecosystems and add a time tag that tells us when and where on a timeline a species is to be found. The time tag is important because we need to reduce the cosmic scale to a more manageable human scale. Next we add as many meta-value-tags as can be handled.

In the invasive species world we wind up with pathogens and diseases, insects, plants and animals, broadly speaking. The further away from everyday, easily accessible human interactions the fewer meta-tags get assigned in general. That pathogens are bad is an initial major label with the very word pathogen as a category having a pre-assigned, pejorative sense. The result is that policy ideas that include prevention as a first line of defense are usually not too controversial. In other words, very few stakeholders appear loudly opposed to pathogen detection and interdiction. If we pick a more complicated category such as insects, the meta-tagging gets somewhat more complicated as there is a greater recognition of insect interaction with the environment and thus contending constituencies strive to limit absolute prevention and interdiction. There are good bugs and bad bugs and some bugs that just are, and the framing of the problem is highly specialized based on pre-decided outcomes.

By the time we get to the categories of plants and animals other than insects the meta-tags fly with such abandon that we create super categories to contain fuzzily framed issues. We use semantic bins such as environmental, ecological, natural, traditional, necessary, sustainable, practical and other terms to nudge and re-aim first level meta-tags such as good or bad, beneficial (to what?) or bad (for whom?). The invasive species category is usually applied at this supra-meta level. The application of the designation comes after the assignment of a value. Invasive species come pre-assigned with a negative value. This creates a dynamism that disallows the addition of, for example, feral cats into the invasive species category because of negative key stakeholder reaction. The idea of cat as a category has massive positive meta-tags while the idea of invasive species is ladened with mountains of negative tags. The two concepts become mutually exclusive and contentious.

When climate dynamics are added to the invasive species discussion the implications of an a prior value tagging grow. Because invasive species questions are framed or tagged with automatic negative connotations, we focus on the impact on and to yesterday’s ecological systems, impacts that are substantial and sometimes overwhelming, and on the other hand we overlook research on the novel systems that are, in part, the result of invasion. In someway this is a reflection of human desire to choose control about which something is known over prevention which at the surface is filled with uncontrollable, intangibles and assorted unknowns. Invasive species are symptoms of climate change and human activity. Any attempt to find a one size fits all solution for invasive species will result in unexpected and unintended consequences. Finding solutions without integrating climate and human activity will not be productive. If there were no species with invasive potential ecosystem collapse would be more catastrophic than we currently imagine. What we are doing when we try to protect an existing historic ecosystem from invasion is akin to gardening (weeding, species selection and pest control).

The longing for a time when there were unexplored spaces on the planet that leads some to advocate for a return to nature allows for policies that produce the unexpected. Unfortunately almost 7 billion humans have already terra-formed the earth. We have geo-engineered the ecosystem services already. Mankind is not a static organism but is influenced and changed by all the species with which it comes into contact, just as the human contact is changing and influencing the other species of the world. We can neither stand nor let nature do not run its course nor ignore our impact upon it for we are nature part and parcel. Invasive species move with us reflections of our actions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sustainable green jobs in a dynamic changing world

The words “sustainable” and “green” are attached to everything around us: new products, life style choices, energy and jobs. The “in” position is to sustainably green in whatever you do. You are asked to eat, think, drink, live and work green. But what does that mean? Why is there such a “buzz” about green and sustainability? What is a “green sustainable” job?

It means that there is a growing recognition that mankind must alter dramatically some of its actions because we cannot afford the cost of doing things the same old way. Our lives are build around a complex system of inter dependent actions that affects us all. We get our food and feed, our fuel, our fibers, flowers, and our forests from these ecological systems. When there were not many of us on Earth, the supply of resources seemed infinite and we planned and acted accordingly. Now the population of Earth is approaching 6 billion and some basic resources are becoming difficult to afford such as energy and food as well as water and in some places clean air.

Just as there are more people there are more opportunities and more costs. Competition for diminishing or limited resources is growing with demand. Old ideas that made the United States great now rest on no longer valid assumptions. China will soon be the number one speaking country in the world; 25% of India’s population with the highest IQ is greater than the total population of the Untied States, which means that India has more honor students than the US has children. According to a marketing video for SONY, the top ten in-demand jobs today di not exist in 2004. Today we as a standard practice are training our children for jobs that do not yet exist, but we live our lives as if everything will be just as it was yesterday. With technologies not yet discovered we are getting our next generation ready to solve problems we do not yet know exist. This is the green sustainable world of the next hour. We no longer have the luxury of waiting a few years to make decisions, for in our hesitation or inaction we will be left behind in the tsunami of humanity’s growth and technology’s relentless progress.

The US Department of Labor estimates that the children of today will have had 10- 14 jobs by the time they are 38; the old paradigms of the past have fallen and most of us are unaware. The internet has made MySpace the 5th most populous country in the world and growing; are you a citizen? It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million people television took 13, and the Internet took 4 years. From the SONY video: “A weeks’ worth of information in the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century” The amount of information generated this year will be around 4 X1019; if you cannot read this number and do not understand it, you are watching the future leave the station without you. And, this amount of information is more than all the information accrued in the last 5000 years. The amount of new technological information doubles every two years. So half of what student learns is outdated by year three.

To add to this fast moving dynamic workplace are the pressures human activities are putting on Earth’s ecosystems. We are racing through our oil deposits to supply our growing energy needs and in doing so we are pouring carbon into the air which is raising the temperature that in turn is melting the ice at the poles causing some people to run for their lives as water levels rise. Of course if you have enough money already, you simply will move to higher ground and say there is no problem, but most of the world is too poor to do so. In addition mankind is adding methane and nitrogen through its insatiable demand for low quality food sources (corn syrup) that come from industrial agriculture by adding fertilizers and pesticides to lands that cannot sustain the crops in the first place. We do this so that we can provide a quick energy fix to the workers of the world while we poison the environment around us because we have not yet invent an adaptive sustainable technology that will allow us to feed an even larger human population.

The green and sustainable movement is a dynamic market and life style choice that seeks to regulate, repair and restore a balance to human actions and the systems environment that support quality of life for humanity. Conceptual definitions such as these are the easy part of the conversation; how we translate these ideas and concepts into personal, real world decisions right now is our challenge. Green or sustainable jobs, therefore, are well paying, career track jobs adding directly to preservation or enhancement of environmental quality.
It is important to keep in mind that positions designed to improve environmental quality are not guaranteed to provide a stable living wage job that provides workers with essential benefits. It is also unclear if local green collar jobs will benefit low-income people and families, a familiar refrain from the environmental justice movement. Yet the people most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change and energy costs are those with economic challenges.

Entry level jobs, for those with the basic work skills of being responsible, being on time, having good communication skills, include green building retrofitting enterprises that “fix up” buildings so that they leak less energy helping homeowners and businesses save on energy bills, lowering the use of dirty energy. Additional entry level green jobs for example include energy auditor, green carpenter, and insulation installer as well as solar and PV (photo-voltaics) installers and mass transit operators. At a professional level we find job categories such as, Eco-Tourism and Hospitality, Planning and Land Use, Health and Medicine, Environmental legal careers, Eco-educators, Design build specialties in Architecture and Landscaping, Food and Farming, and Corporate Social Responsibility officers. The list is by no means exhaustive but rather an attempt to show that everything will be a green job eventually. However, right now, today we need to sort out the immediate choices that face us everyday keeping an eye.

Post high school, college degrees are one way of acquiring the skills necessary to meet the demands of the new green movement, as are certification processes that are beginning to spring up for what were once called blue collar and now are referred to as green collar jobs. The plethora of certification opportunities come with their own challenges as the job seeker must sort through competing claims through accreditation. All of this becomes overwhelming and certainly confusing as well as full of the potential for small business start up entrepreneurs.
Sustainable and green define a mind set that tries to bring added value to the technological progress of mankind. These two concepts hope to mitigate environmental excesses in order to enhance the quality and affordability of life for the greatest number of people.

As the dynamics of climate change, up or down, begin to interact with food and energy supplies, the possibilities and demands for jobs not yet imagined will only grow. And given the complexities of the issues the need for continuing educational opportunities will become a normative standard. Knowledge, whether wiring a building or designing a wind turbine, will require detailed skill sets acquired through a life time of learning. Green and sustainable will require broad-based education and will demand the ability to change course on a dime.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

CO2 Increase Impact - A Question of Complexity

CO2 is Green, a pending 501(C)(4) non-profit organization whose mission is to support scientifically and economically sound public policy on environmental issues. Currently, the non profit organization is attempting to sway public opinion by refuting “claims that CO2 is a pollutant…” To accomplish this CO2 is Green makes its own claim that facts support the position that “…lowering levels of carbon dioxide would actually inhibit plant growth and food production.” CO2 is Green claims the facts of carbon reduction advocates are “… a myth and are absolutely false.” CO2 is Green is not the only organization or group asking us to make decisions based upon their arrangement of information. What we have here, then, is a failure to communicate wrapped in a classic wicked problem, surrounded by a selective use of knowledge.

Challenged as to where to begin, a definition of carbon dioxide seems in order. From the web site of Lenntech Water treatment & purification Holding B.V we read:

“Joseph Black, a Scottish chemist and physician, first identified carbon dioxide in the 1750s. At room temperatures (20-25 oC), carbon dioxide is an odourless, colourless gas, which is faintly acidic and non-flammable. Carbon dioxide is a molecule with the molecular formula CO2. The linear molecule consists of a carbon atom that is doubly bonded to two oxygen atoms, O=C=O. Although carbon dioxide mainly consists in the gaseous form, it also has a solid and a liquid form. It can only be solid when temperatures are below -78 oC. Liquid carbon dioxide mainly exists when carbon dioxide is dissolved in water. Carbon dioxide is only water-soluble, when pressure is maintained. After pressure drops the CO2 gas will try to escape to air. This event is characterized by the CO2 bubbles forming into water.”

Glossing over the many uses that carbon dioxide offers to mankind including decaffeinated coffee, we turn to plants and man and the regulating function such as the gas cycles of ecosystems. Although this discussion is focused on carbon dioxide, we need to keep in mind that the “…principal greenhouse gas concentrations that have increased over the industrial period are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and chlorofluorocarbons CFC-11 (CCl3F) and CFC-12 (CCl2F2)” [Hansen et al., 1998; Schimel et al., 1996]. These increases are not in dispute but, importantly for this discussion, the mechanisms of the increase are contested by some. If the increases are by the hand of man there may be a way back from the brink; if the increases arise from a natural cycle then a much of humanity is in even bigger trouble.

CO2 is Green offers the proposition that more carbon dioxide is good and will have broad across the board positive benefits to plants and therefore mankind through increased production of ecosystem service resources. The ideas of more of anything is always better lurks beneath the claim and is supported by some plants benefitting from increased carbon dioxide. Some plants will benefit, however the CO2 is Green claim is a blanket statement of benefit, and assumes the reader will jump to the conclusion that carbon dioxide is good for all plants and plays upon most of us not recalling or ever learning about plant physiology and processes of photosynthesis.

Almost certainly, CO2 is Green is thinking of Sylvan Wittwer who observed in ‘Food, Climate and Carbon Dioxide’ that “[t]he effects of an enriched CO2 atmosphere on crop productivity, in large measure, as positive, leaving little doubt as the benefits for global food security …. Now, after more than a century, and with the confirmation of thousands of scientific reports, CO2 gives the most remarkable response of all nutrients in plant bulk, is usually in short supply, and is nearly always limiting for photosynthesis … The rising level of atmospheric CO2 is a universally free premium, gaining in magnitude with time, on which we can all reckon for the foreseeable future.”
( Thayer Watkins Silicon Valley & Tornado Alley USA)

It turns out that plants are not all alike and that there is a distinct worth considering between agricultural monocultures and diversity rich natural ecosystems. Leaving out the fact that too much carbon dioxide can harm a person directly through suffocation, kidney failure or even in extreme conditions, frostbite, more carbon dioxide is not necessarily a good thing for all plants. Because some species evolved solutions to hot dry climate conditions, some plants already maximize the carbon dioxide available and will not measurably benefit from increased carbon dioxide. These are the C4 and CAM plants, many grasses, succulents and cacti of mild and desert ecoregions. This of course does not negate the CO2 is Green claims, but does strongly suggest that in ecosystems with both plant types the C3 species may, if temperatures and light conditions remain the same, become more efficient and therefore dramatically out compete changing the resources of the system at hand. If that change results in top predator degradation or loss, the entire ecosystem will collapse.

The large elephant running freely through out CO2 is Green’s argument involves temperature and photosynthesis. Keeping in mind that photosynthesis and respiration, one the reverse of the other, play an important role in the carbon cycle and are at equilibrium with one another, and that carbon dioxide levels influence atmospheric temperature, we know that as temperatures go up photosynthesis goes down in plant species which most benefit from the extra carbon dioxide. It follows that CO2 is Green is allowing its target audience to assume that the additional carbon dioxide will be taken up by the plants as a super carbon sink thereby preventing the rise in temperatures. CO2 is Green’s imbedded claim is that increased carbon dioxide is a simple linear process with no feed back loops and no interaction with other processes such as temperature. And most tellingly, CO2 is Green fails to mention that for many terrestrial land plant species, there is a process called photorespiration which occurs at high light intensities and temperatures and competes with photosynthesis limiting further increases in the rate of photosynthesis, notably when the supply of water is limited. Thus CO2 is Green might correctly claim that a rising concentration of carbon dioxide will not materially augment, neither will it limit food production for ten billion people nor lessen the land that can be spared for Nature however, the effects on ecosystem outside of agriculture cannot be foreseen and the importance of limiting factors are not considered.

The claims of CO2 is Green are built upon a few broad based truths or facts that ignore inconvenient data or processes in order to justify an a priori desired outcome, the classic position of stakeholders in a wicked problem. The simple direct linear proposition that correlates better photosynthesis in some plant species to a better world; a complicated reality that falls a little short in the complex fuzzy fractal world of wicked problems. According to Farrar & Williams (1991), although “…[l]ittle information is available for interactions between temperature and CO2. Cold-adapted plants show little response to elevated levels of CO2, with some species showing a decline in biomass accumulation. In general though, increasing temperature will increase sucrose synthesis, transport and utilization for CO2-enriched plants and decrease carbohydrate accumulation within the leaf.” Bunce & Ziska (1995) measured carbon dioxide impact among soy bean cultivars and found that “…increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration may reduce respiration in soybeans, and respiration may be insensitive to climate warming.”

But our carbon-dioxide-increase elephant is larger than even these important biochemical functions for every process is part of a higher level system, and current research strongly suggests that while in some plant species carbon dioxide certainly enhances photosynthesis, at the level of leaf canopy, the level of the plant as a whole, the increase carbon dioxide will lead to higher leaf canopy temperatures. And this increase in temperature will lead to an increase in sterility. If this were true just for annoying pest plant species, we would stop reading, however, the research is focused on and the sterility is in, grain species. At the very least this means more land to produce the same resource, and more likely it means just less food.

If we move to the next level of system complexity we enter the plant community, the biome. Here we must note that increased carbon dioxide will not only cause large leaf and plant structures for our desirable agricultural species, but of course for the weed species that have co-evolved with the crop and humans. The current reduction in farm out-puts (harvests) in Asia could feed over 50 million people. With larger and more vigorous growth of C3 plants including the weeds which compete with the desirable plants, our needed resource yields will go down and starvation will go up.

In closing, we must find a way to balance the intricate mechanisms and complexities of ecosystem services and try to refrain from making simple carte blanche statements of the one size fits all variety. Mankind must find ways to adapt or die; evolutionary forces have no moral grounding, and we must not be fall into the trap of paralysis through analysis. We need to find a pathway between doing nothing at all and waiting until there is nothing to be done.
[1] Jerey S. Amthor, George W. Koch, and Arnold J. Bloom. Co2
inhibits respiration in leaves of rumex crispus l. Plant Physiol.,
98(2):757{760, February 1992.

[2] James A. Bunce. Responses of respiration to increasing atmospheric
carbon dioxide concentrations. Physiologia Plantarum, 90(2):427{430,

[3] James A. Bunce and Lewis H. Ziska. Responses of respiration to
increases in carbon dioxide concentration and temperature in three
soybean cultivars. Ann Bot, 77(5):507{514, May 1996.

[4] Daniel Comstedt, Bjorn Bostrom, John Marshall, Anders Holm,
Michelle Slaney, Sune Linder, and Alf Ekblad. Eects of elevated
atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature on soil respiration in a
boreal forest using 13c as a labeling tool. Ecosystems, 9(8):1266{1277,
December 2006.

[5] J. F. Farrar and M. L. Williams. The eects of increased atmospheric
carbon dioxide and temperature on carbon partitioning, source-sink
relations and respiration. Plant, Cell and Environment, 14(8):819{830,

[6] Roger M. Giord. Whole plant respiration and photosynthesis of
wheat under increased co2 concentration and temperature:
long-term vs. short-term distinctions for modelling. Global Change
Biology, 1(6):385{396, 1995.

[7] James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Jay Glascoe, and Reto Ruedy. A
common-sense climate index: Is climate changing noticeably?
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America, 95(8):4113{4120, April 1998.

[8] P. A. Jollie and E. B. Tregunna. Eect of temperature, co(2)
concentration, and light intensity on oxygen inhibition of
photosynthesis in wheat leaves. Plant physiology, 43(6):902{906, June

[9] Hiroshi Koizumi, Toshie Nakadai, Youzou Usami, Mitsumasa Satoh,
Masae Shiyomi, and Takehisa Oikawa. Eect of carbon dioxide
concentration on microbial respiration in soil. Ecological Research,
6(3):227{232, December 1991.

[10] Andrew D. B. Leakey, Carl J. Bernacchi, Donald R. Ort, and
Stephen P. Long. Long-term growth of soybean at elevated [co2] does
not cause acclimation of stomatal conductance under fully open-air
conditions. Plant, Cell and Environment, 29(9):1794{1800, September

[11] Russell K. Monson, Mark A. Stidham, George J. Williams, Gerald E.
Edwards, and Ernest G. Uribe. Temperature dependence of
photosynthesis in agropyron smithii rydb. : I. factors aecting net
co(2) uptake in intact leaves and contribution from
ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase measured in vivo and in vitro.
Plant physiology, 69(4):921{928, April 1982.

[12] T. Pypker, M. Hauck, E. Sulzman, M. Unsworth, A. Mix, Z. Kayler,
D. Conklin, A. Kennedy, H. Barnard, C. Phillips, and B. Bond. Toward
using 13c of ecosystem respiration to monitor canopy physiology in
complex terrain. Oecologia, 158(3):399{410, December 2008.

[13] V. Reddy. Carbon dioxide enrichment and temperature eects on
cotton canopy photosynthesis, transpiration, and water-use eciency.
Field Crops Research, 41(1):13{23, April 1995.

[14] G. J. A. Ryle, J. A. N. E. Woledge, Veronica Tewson, and C. E.
Powell. Inuence of elevated co2 and temperature on the
photosynthesis and respiration of white clover dependent on n2
xation. Ann Bot, 70(3):213{220, September 1992.

[15] D. S. Schimel, J. I. House, K. A. Hibbard, P. Bousquet, P. Ciais,
P. Peylin, B. H. Braswell, M. J. Apps, D. Baker, A. Bondeau,
J. Canadell, G. Churkina, W. Cramer, A. S. Denning, C. B. Field,
P. Friedlingstein, C. Goodale, M. Heimann, R. A. Houghton, J. M.
Melillo, B. Moore, D. Murdiyarso, I. Noble, S. W. Pacala, I. C.
Prentice, M. R. Raupach, P. J. Rayner, R. J. Scholes, W. L. Steen,
and C. Wirth. Recent patterns and mechanisms of carbon exchange by
terrestrial ecosystems. Nature, 414(6860):169{172, November 2001.

[16] H. Wayne Polley, Patricia C. Mielnick, William A. Dugas, Hyrum B.
Johnson, and Joaquin Sanabria. Increasing co2 from subambient to
elevated concentrations increases grassland respiration per unit of net
carbon xation. Global Change Biology, 12(8):1390{1399, August 2006.

[17] Lewis H. Ziska and James A. Bunce. Predicting the impact of
changing co2 on crop yields: some thoughts on food. New
Phytologist, 175(4):607{618 September 2007.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Invasive species issues & the danger of being controlled by dogmatic ecological paradigms

Invasive species issues are wickedly inconvenient. Martha Proctor, a UC Master Gardener, writes that “[n]on-native invasive species crowd out native species by abundant seed production, rapid growth, efficient use of resources and better access to moisture during the dry summers. Invasives outcompete natives, displacing the native habitats of fish, insects, birds, plants, butterflies and other wildlife.” (Copyright © 2008 - Marin Independent Journal Posted: 09/25/2009) The rapid introduction into an ecosystem and establishment of invasive species therein create a raging uncontrollable biological wildfire.

The impacts of invasive species on an ecosystem are measured by the changes in ecological interactions. Thinking of ecological interactions in terms of competition, predation, parasitism, mutualism, commensalism and symbiosis helps to demonstrate the possible negative impacts of non native or exotic species of ecosystem services. Competition – two species share a requirement for a limited resource reduces fitness of one or both species; predation – one species feeds on another enhancing the fitness of a predator but reducing the fitness of prey; parasitism – one species feeds on another enhancing fitness of parasite but reducing fitness of host; mutualism – two species provide resources or services to each other enhancing fitness of both species; commensalism – one species receives a benefit from another species enhancing fitness of one species with no effect on the fitness of the other species; symbiosis – two species live together can include parasitism, mutualism, and commensalism.[1] The disruption of any of these creates cascade of change in the effects of multiple interactions throughout the system. If the effects are large enough, the original system is stressed and its traditional expected resource services reduced and perhaps even eliminated. So, if one wants to play baseball with a traditional wooden bat, native ash trees are selected and shaped for the native sport. The introduction and reproduction of the emerald ash borer dynamically limits access to the resource by killing the ash trees that are needed to make baseball bats.

However, the wicked inconvenience of invasive species is not the introduction of exotic aliens to ecosystems, but rather the danger of being controlled by dogmatic ecological paradigms based upon dichotomous assumptions superimposed upon the systems of nature that do not have goals and expectations per se. Writing in his new book, a courtesy copy of which was send to me without charge, “Invasion Biology”, Mark Davis notes the tendency of ecological professionals to categorize invasive species issues in a series of yes or no, in or out, with us or against us matrices or frameworks for discussion. The result is that we think in terms of “…two types of species: native vs non native, native vs exotic, indigenous vs non-indigenous, invasive vs non invasive.”[2] The human artifice of a dualistic interpretation leads us down the path of unexpected and unintended consequences or as I now call it on Twitter (@InvasiveNotes) – Collision of Desires. We are propelled towards a management course that suspects the intentions of novel ecosystems even though that means placing a human qualitative measurement upon the system. Thus we are predisposed at a high policy making level to think that every introduced species is intrinsically bad or evil. But the status of being non native is a “…position in evolutionary history [that] does not quality as an ecological category with distinct and consistent properties.”[3] And further, we are compelled unwittingly to consider every altered system to be dysfunctional and in need of mitigation in order to return it to a past state.

Ecosystems are not static and when new species are introduced a new, novel system is created. Some of the interactions, relationships or functions of the novel system will provide desired resources as well as numerous negative impacts. For example, tamarisk, has become a poster child for a new species introduction whose removal may now negatively impact a desired species, southwestern willow flycatcher. (Agriculture Department Forced to Re-examine Tamarisk Leaf-eating Beetle Program That Hurts Endangered Songbird) It is important to bear in mind that the introduction of tamarisk was for its ability to provide ecosystem resources and services such as “…ornamental values (e.g., T. chinensis and T. ramosissima), others for planting in wind breaks (e.g., T. aphylla) or to stabilize eroding stream banks. (Neill, 1985)” [4]

Conservation and preservation are tinged by dualistic thinking with a patina of nationalistic nostalgia for, what I call, a desire to return to a “Leave it to Beaver” time and place, a Golden Age of and for a select few. The nostalgia on the part of a few stakeholders causes among other things the reaction and rise of the environmental justice movement. The wicked inconvenience arises because there is no easily accessed set of right or wrong choices when it comes to invasive species. The German Shakespeare, JW von Goethe, said that there is “… no past that we can bring back by longing for it. There is only an eternally new now that builds and creates itself.” On the other hand, doing nothing, either from paralysis of analysis or waiting until there is nothing to be done is an invitation to extinction. If the world’s farmers took a position of hopelessness in the face of nature we would all starve.

With invasive species issues, looking for final, absolute solutions results in a chronic series of hapless unintended consequences. The choices should be based on adaptation to change with the knowledge that we need and are partners with our ecosystems; and as a gardeners in the landscapes we must work daily to ameliorate impacts while allowing resources to be used and encourage systems that are self sustaining with minimal hyper-extra-eco-system input from humanity.

[1] (
[2] Mark A. Davis. Invasion Biology. Oxford University Press. 2009. p.163 (
[3] Mark A. Davis. Invasion Biology. Oxford University Press. 2009. p.164 (
[4] Roland C. de Gouvenain. Origin, History and Current Range
of Saltcedar in the U.S. Saltcedar Management Workshop, June 12, 1996.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sea berry: To invade or not to invade - an invasive species question

A recent spate of news articles is introducing a new miracle ornamental plant, sea berry, Hippophae rhamnoides L, for desert and dry ecosystem landscapes. The plant is not new to horticulture or agriculture and has been researched for its production value in Russia and China as well as Canada and the United States since the 1940’s. A Nevada Cooperative Extension facty sheet notes that “[s]eaberry or sea buckthorn is called “Siberian pineapple” in Russia, because of the juice that is produced from the berries. It has been produced for centuries in Europe and Asia as a food and medicine source. The first commercial factory processing seaberry was established in Russia in 1940. Since then China has become a leading producer with over two million acres in production, with about 200 processing factories producing more than 200 products. Canada, Germany, Japan, and several northern European countries are working with seaberries as a potential crop.”[1]

As land use demands and population expectations change, horticulture tries to address the demands through research and study that is aimed at traditional gardening needs and wants. The landscape and nursery trade continues to find plants that use less water and therefore meet the consumer surface definition of eco-friendly. Just as the gardening industry looks for plants that are pest and disease resistant so the public can use less pesticides and be “greener”, so when appropriate the nursery professionals look for plants that need less water or irrigation while providing major informing services of the local ecosystem such as color, form, and texture.

In fact, the gardening industry also touts the providing service benefit of the new introduction. The fruit of seaberry is rich in vitamin C and A. The plant produces “…high-quality medicinal oil that is made from the fruit and used in the treatment of cardiac disorders, it is also said to be particularly effective when applied to the skin to heal burns, eczema and radiation injury, and is taken internally in the treatment of stomach and intestinal diseases.”[2] Other uses include charcoal, cosmetic, dye, fuel, oil; pioneer, soil stabilization, and wood.[3] Web site can be found that note that “…it can be used as a pioneer species to help the re-establishment of woodland in difficult areas.”

However this blog is not called invasive notes for nothing. In spite of the assurances, a few nagging issues lurk in the article by Melanie Dabovich of the Associated Press. First there is the quote at the end: "It can only propagate through suckering, which can be controlled.” The implication is that unlike other troublesome plants this one does not spread by seed. However, the first part of the article talks all about the fruit bearing capacity and use of the plant: "They actually drink the berry juice in Europe, China, Russia. The (seed) oil is used in cosmetics and creams, and it's very popular - so popular that China is starting to export." Something is wrong here, but of course desire trumps caution every time; market preference wins out over public value.

A friend of mine observed that the species “…suckers like crazy, forms dense thickets, tolerates a wide range of soils, is cold/heat tolerant, and fixes nitrogen.” None of these things are necessarily a problem and none are a sure sign of an invasive species, but many invasive species share these attributes. Invasive species decisions and policies are a challenge because the most cost effective action is to prevent their introduction. But how do you know what is invasive and what is not for your particular ecosystem? And given all the benefits of this species what economic harm would be done if we prohibited its introduction into the dramatically changing landscape of the desert southwest? Who is financially responsible if the species turns out to be yet another invasive problem?

Invasive species are shown to significantly impact natural resources and other ecosystem services. The impact is translated into economic, aesthetic and human well being assessments. Increased population pressures as well as the accompanying increase in global trade has create new pathways for introduction and greatly increased the incidents of repeated introductions of harmful species. A major pathway, but far from the only one, for pathogens and pests (diseases and insects) as well as new invasive species is the increase international in ornamental species for landscape and garden use. The majority of introduced plants are not harmful (thought they may not contribute to the local ecosystem entirely they are contributing some positive services) to the economy but provide enhancements to the quality of life.

So we need to ask two deceptively simple questions about Hippophae rhamnoides L. – seaberry: How much chance of harm is acceptable; and, how much harm are we willing to allow?

[1] Jason Davison, Area Plant and Soil Specialist, Central/Northeast Area & Willie Riggs, Eureka County Extension Educator. Testing Seaberry as an Alternative Crop in Nevada. Nevada Cooperative Extension.
[2] Matthews. V. The New Plantsman. Volume 1, 1994. Royal Horticultural Society 1994 ISBN 1352-4186 A quarterly magazine, it has articles on Himalayacalamus hookerianus, hardy Euphorbias and an excellent article on Hippophae spp.
[3] Copyright (C) Plants For A Future, 1996-2008.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why do we resist sustainable ideas?

We humans have some internalized dynamics that tend to influence our reactions to events. We tend to blame each other first because it makes us feel better. We cling to those who share our desired outcomes because there is safety in numbers. We default to an automatic opposition with those we do not agree with or understand because doing so facilitates short term decision making. We tend to dismiss out-of-hand information that is not supported by our desire-motivation for preconceived outcomes. In the end, our reactions are about the enormous amount of information that we must process here and now, and the mechanisms that we use to do so.

One tool used to sort through the enormity of information that comes to us each moment of every day, is homogenization. We create structures of identity and similarity to channel useful information so that we can react without delay and without contemplation. We expect our Starbucks and our McDonald’s, as well as our definition of organic and how we access the Internet to be predictable, even as we seek creative differences in our lives. This collision of desires creates a dynamic tension of ambiguity in our decision making processes. We oscillate rapidly between short and long term information acquisition.

The expectation that all McDonald’s will operate fundamentally the same whether in New York or Moscow, that every home shall have a lawn whether in the desert or the eastern hardwood forest, propel us towards a monaural information system design. From the system monoculture we get rapid decisive information that allows us to react quickly and efficiently. We plant great expanses of one species to increase yield (information); we develop great swathes of identical shopping malls that facilitate our immediate needs. An unintended consequence is the proportional decline in creativity that comes from reliance upon the homogenized information stream. But more crucially, the very nature of the monoculture opens it to effective and repeated attack from external information streams enabling critical disruption and loss of the information. In other words, a corn field of one cultivated variety or genetically modified cultivar is subject to increasing attack and increasing odds of catastrophic failure through disease, pestilence or climate change. The uniform shopping malls, built to provide selection and price options, are because of their similarities subject to the same market forces and unable to react quickly to changing demographics or land use conditions. Both systems sacrifice creativity and novelty to increase short term information yields.

The other possibility for information flow is found in diversity rich information streams which require much thought, research and planning to navigate. They are costly and novelty rich, but while they are resilient to disruption, they are thick with informational noise. Going to a market place in Uganda, with expectation of an American strip mall experience will bring a user up short for the information will not be packaged as expected but will require time to assimilate and understand so that the planned useful information (product/yield) can be acquired. The dynamic ebb and flow of the traditional market will be a hub of creativity delivered in small discrete packages of information.

There is a ornamental landscape analogy. We look for similarities in design and species choices to reduce the noise of novelty. When we step out of our caves in to the light of dangerous day, we do not want to be distracted by un-useful information; if it moves we want to know we can shoot it - now. So we learn a landscape grammar that can be applied anywhere; we acquire a common landscape literacy. In doing so, our gardens and landscapes become prey to disruptive forces such as invasive species, diseases pathogens and pests as well as an inability to adapt quickly to external ecosystem forces. We trade the short term comfort for the long term options in the hope that technology will find away to rescue us as it has done in the past.

A critical part of sustainability’s de-homogenization is sacrifice; to have sustainable systems some information becomes “sacred” and out of bounds. The wide array of start-up green offerings offer no short term information references; we have sacrificed some basic knowledge for alternative creativity. Interestingly, the market demand for product and service certification - itself a type of informational homogenization – is a redirected use of information in order to save the time lost by de-homogenization. In sacrificing one short term information flow, we are creating another. Of even more consequence, is the sacrifice of boundless expectations and the unintended consequences of even considering that path. Many would consider living to the highest possible standards available, a basic right of humanity. In addition, environmental justice issues are raised by sustainable policy implications. Sacrifices are considered by those who least can afford to make them by those who have discretionary resources at the moment. It is well and good to choose a Prius, but for those who real choice is between paying for dinner or the heating bill, such conversations are off the mark.

The channeling of information through homogenization provides value to the end user. The definition of value offers up a problem for sustainable policies. A good case can be made that pleasure is the root of value. [Hedonism As The Explanation Of Value ScienceDaily (Sep. 13, 2009)] Pleasure is a form of short term information. We are then driven to find ways of delaying thinking about long term options in favor of short term pleasure. Thus we pave our way to prosperity, we send our manufacturing off shore to reduce present costs, we choose hydrocarbons now for the quick information feed (pleasure) rather then deal with their impact on our ecosystems let alone their finite availability.

This information conflict is the collision of desires that underlies the antipathy and reaction to questions and ideas of sustainability. We develop structures to constrict a selected flow of information to deliver pleasure faster; the unplanned consequences will be dealt with later on an ongoing basis. We have preconceived supporting concepts of ecosystem services that are free and infinite, that will sustain us no matter what. So we can spend now ignoring the science of consequences and dismiss the theologians who have always caled for sacrifice. Here is the intersection of faith and research, of science and religion. And here is where we dare not go. The immediate pleasures of many are threatened by unspoken sacrifices implied by ecologically motivated desires and policies.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Landscapes, literacy, ecosystems services & sustainability

The way we approach our understanding of landscapes influences the policies we support and the attitudes we keep. How we “see” a flower, field or forest has consequences for how we “use” them. Our fragmented, parochial, limited time horizon, decision making matrix is a reflection of why our social systems are stressed. Our collective challenges, our great social causes, are all filtered through the fuzzy goal of immediate self interest versus long term social or public value. If a memory of childhood includes recollections English Ivy lined garden pathways, then there should be no denying this ornamental addition to the current garden desire. And more importantly, the cost of managing it in parks and natural areas should be born by someone else, or better just ignored. It is the immediacy of a strong interaction that attracts self interested actions, not the outcomes of weak interactions barely noticed in the present.

Ecological and environmental issues that swirl around ecosystems and biomes are hampered because of the growing lack of landscape literacy possessed by policy makers and their constituencies. Literacy is the ability to read, write, listen and comprehend, and speak a language. I think that there is an analogous set of abilities and skills that I call landscape literacy; the ability to read, work with knowledgeably, design, use and comprehend the intricate relationships of both natural and ornamental landscapes. Landscape literacy refers then to reading and working at a level adequate for communicating ideas about ecosystem services at a level that lets one understand the complex interactions of the system. These ideas at high level of literacy would include regulating, providing, provisioning and informing ecosystem services.

Most of the traditional problems and challenges of landscape management focus on the two higher level eco-system services, providing and informing. From aesthetics to resources that can provide material for personal and commercial use, our land use planning is concerned with enhancing an supporting these high level ecosystem services with understanding of the implications of additional stress onto the ecosystem in question. The assumption that natural resources are infinite permeates local land use and development policies in urban and suburban metropolitan areas. When we add the needs of those stakeholders who are either in economic challenged communities or historically under-served areas, we compound the problems of creating sound land use consensus. We have neither a common grammar for our ornamental landscape nor a well comprehended syntax for our natural areas.

The call for sustainable landscapes has been heard but not understood. Sustainable designs do not intentionally include invasive species, and may require some measure of certification that the flora and fauna is not itself a vector for invasive pathogens or insects. The idea that beauty may be more than color combinations and texture, is met with some resistance as is the reverse that there is a need for some order in landscapes that are functional in close proximity to human activities. Sustainability looks at the entirety of nature through asymmetrical temporal lenses communicating the past to the future through the present. (adapted from Crutchfield. 2009. The collision of desires between our near-term aesthetic and economic sensibilities and the long-term requirements of the ecosystem and its ability to support out short term needs is in perpetual conflicted opposition.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Invasive Species: Reflections of how we treat the world

Invasive species cause harm to humans directly as pathways for disease, indirectly as pathways for species that harm quality of life such as food resources. Invasive species also harm the environment, or ecosystems, that provide support for human activities such as atmospheric gas regulation, storm water management and erosion control, and habitat for biodiversity that in turn supplies the genetic material we need for the Big Six “F’s”: Food, Feed, Fuel, Fibers, Flowers and Forests (also known as agriculture). And on top of this, invasive species harm human aesthetic well being damaging recreational activities such as hunting, birding, boating or swimming. Invasive species also drain resources needed to maintain open space for human activities such as hiking and running. The problem is expansive and complex; as an example, invasive species damage will eliminate the wood used to make baseball bats with the death of ash trees which are being destroyed by the emerald ash borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis. Another example is the alteration of the natural resource regime of the southwest US that will allow for more intense and more frequent wild fires which will claim more building as buffelgrass, Pennisetum ciliare, changes the desert to an African grassland.

So how much damage can we allow or do we want? The cost of prevention is expensive and immediate, but it is hard to measure effectiveness. For how do you measure and convince economically society to incur the cost of the possibility of something that has not actually occurred? Meanwhile the monetary and resource outlay of control and management follows after the damage is apparent and out of control. The costs of this after the fact control and management most often exceeds available resources and elimination is usually impossible. Zebra, Dreissena polymorpha, and quagga, Dreissena rostiformis bugensis, mussels as well as kudzu, Pueraria montana var. lobata, come to mind of examples of invasive species that are severely impacting ecosystems and the resources they provide to humanity - that is us.

Do we or should we therefore seek a 100 percent interdiction rate for the importation and denial of commerce and distribution of invasive species at our borders? Is there a rational tolerance for invasive species themselves or some acceptable level of tolerance for invasive species contaminants which hitch-hike in on trade goods and human traffic, that is achievable and affordable by the industry? If a pest species is regulated because of standards, observations, research or past experience that strongly predict negative environmental impacts and damage to ecosystem services, should there be any leeway in the zero risk metric? If we let a few invasive species enter in order to lessen the economic burden or benefit for the business and to the end user, who then should pay to control and manage the ecosystem damage at a later date?

The wickedly inconvenient answer is in part a function of how you ask the question. Do you want to know how little harm is possible? Or is your focus on how much harm is allowable? These two questions divide us in two large philosophic camps at war with one another, even while we agree that we must protect our resources. And then to this muddled, murky mess we mix in individual rights versus the common good and public value. We, the end users cherish to various degrees the right to do what we want in that little area we call our own. We want to have lythrum and lionfish with our homes under our care and in our control so that we can enjoy the beauty no matter how dangerous to the general good. We claim the right to decide without the obligation to understand the potential or real harm that certain few invasive species may bring to the ecosystem that our gardens and homes are part. It is the failure to recognize that all our activities, both individual and communal are linked.

So we look for goods and services from those who can supply us with our wants of the moment with little consideration of the impact in space and time that these demands may have. And because we want, businesses supply and seek to do so at a profit that is measured in the present, accounted for in the past and debited against the future.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Invasive Species: Simple at First Glance

Invasive species issues seem simple at first glance. A species is introduced, establishes reproduces and begins to alter the new ecosystem, or negatively impacting human health and well being. Direct, strong adverse interactions that effect human health rise to the forefront of community awareness and efforts to reduce or eliminate the threat. Much is spent to prevent or ameliorate the introduction or control of invasive species such as:

Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis)
Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus)
Brown citrus aphid (Toxoptera citricola)
Codling moth (Cydia pomonella)
Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata)
Cotton aphid (Aphis gossypii)
Diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella)
Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis)
European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis)
Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus)
Glassy-winged sharpshooter (Homalodisca coagulata)
Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar)
Hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae)
Insect Biocontrol
Japanese beetle (Papillia japonica)
Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata)
Mexican fruit fly (Anastrepha ludens)
Oriental fruit fly (Bactrocera dorsalis)
Pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella)
Pink hibiscus mealybug (Maconellicoccus hirsutus)
Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta)
Russian wheat aphid (Diuraphis noxia)
Silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia argentifolii)
Wheat stem sawfly (Cephus cinctus)

Things get more complicated when the invasive species threat is not direct. The difficulties of the science, and the lack of absolutes, lead to statements of concern and even desperation as desired outcomes collide. Nan Wishner, Chair Emeritus of the City of Albany Integrated Pest Management Task Force and a member of the Stop the Spray East Bay Steering Committee writes that the total elimination “.. LBAM(light brown apple moth) is not feasible, the state plans to carry out a multi-year eradication program involving mass pesticide applications; that program’s first year cost an estimated $97 million.”

As the level of complication and complexities rise, the wicked inconvenience of invasive species issues seems to compel stakeholders to define their perceived problem in terms of their own unique a priori outcome desires. This means that each group of stakeholders has a slightly different working definition of invasive species making it very hard to reach consensus. The end game then becomes one of my way or the highway.

Any farmer or gardener will tell you that pests such as pathogens, insects and weeds are eternal; they do the best they can to control and eliminate the daily invasion that reduce monetary or aesthetic yield, knowing full well that the task is akin to sticking a finger in a dike. If farmers were to decide that weeds cannot be eliminated and gave up, we all would starve. Why then is it different when we set out to protect a natural area? Some would say we should just allow the invasion to create a new balance in time in a new, novel ecosystem and learn to live with it. In deed that is one option. It is the option of the property owner who chooses not to landscape, and cuts the brush around the buildings only to prevent fire and rodent damage. The neighbor who chooses to install and maintain an ornamental work landscape that requires endless removal of invaders is no less wrong in his choice than the former. So too our natural areas are like garden, rich in complexity and under constant and it would seem permanent attack. The issue at this level is one of limited resources as well as competing goals. Don’t use chemicals to control invaders in natural areas, and therefore allow a dramatically altered ecosystem, and deal with the unintended unexpected consequence later. Use chemical and reduce the impact, but suffer the affects of chemical pollution of air, earth or water.

So far we are speaking about the easy side of invasive species management and politics. Mark A. Davis writes in his new book, Invasion Biology, Oxford University Press, 2009, that ” …it is usually much easier to assess impact than it is to determine the series of ecological causes for it.” (White et a. 2006) Because current science has focused on the assessment of impact and not upon the mechanisms of ecological cause, certain stakeholders can reasonably claim that there is either no science or not enough science to support the dedication of resources. The present reliance on science as religion with the concurrent expectation that scientist-priests will rule on great issues ex cathedra and never ever change their minds fails to recognize that science is a tool for use in public discourse and public valuation exercises; science is not the end of the conversation but the beginning.

As Davis point out on page 151 of “Invasion Biology”, the ever-changing dynamic relationship between an ecosystem (itself ever-changing) and social systems (also in a constant state of flux) provides an overwhelming set of choices for environmental decision makers, land managers, and public policy deciders. Solutions and recommendations for invasive species will never be static and the casual observer will be endlessly confused. The tendency to throw up one’s hands in surrender will be powerful and the call to do nothing will be loud.

Controlling an invasive species or even eradicating it is most cost effective before it has actually done anything harmful. The idea that the LBAM should be allowed to spread because it has not yet wiped out a crop demonstrates the difficulty of getting people to care about something that has not actually happened yet. USDA has asked for more funding but because the problem is not pandemic begging is the order of the day. We as a society are loathe to spend money on something that has not happened yet. Better to wait til someone turns to crime and then incarcerate them than to pay less up front in education and work force development is our motto and so it is with invasive species

“Light brown apple moth is a recognized agricultural pest. Moths, such as light brown apple moth (LBAM) (Epiphyas postvittana), banana moth (Opogona sacchari), and nettle caterpillar (Darna pallivitta), are [known] pests of various tropical /subtropical crops, limiting production, and may severely disrupt trade if not detected and allowed to become established in primary growing areas. LBAM also attacks temperate crops and has recently been identified in California as a new invasive species. Because LBAM threatens a multibillion dollar industry in California, alone, CDFA and APHIS, have asked ARS scientists to help develop methods for LBAM control. Research Gaps including effective management of moth pests of tropical /subtropical crops requires the development of: 1) user-friendly, economical, and environmentally acceptable technologies; 2) area-wide integrated pest management (IPM) systems for moth suppression; and 3) systems approaches to prevent pest movement on export commodities.” (

If gardeners waited until the weeds crowded out the tomatoes we would never have spaghetti sauce. Gardeners know that early detection and rapid response is the key to a a successful harvest and react without waiting to see if the scientist can publish; invasion of the garden are dealt with summarily. But on an ecosystem level we sometimes choose to wait until the kudzu covers the telephone poles of a million acres before buying the special machinery needed to keep the roads clear. We will carefully not try to reduce the level of the apple moth so that we have a reduction in chemical impact, as we loose the harvest of the fields, hoping that when the moth is finished it does not adapt to our natural areas and begin to be a factor in the wild fires of California as other invasive species already are. The call is to find consensus and to work together towards a common management goal using the tools of science and the techniques of IPM to reduce the toxicity of the solution and the level of the pest simultaneously.

Somehow we need to find away between do nothing at all and waiting until there is nothing to be done. But I digress…until another species catches my attention.