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.
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