Welcome to the Anthropocene

It’s the time of year when the academic calendar starts to get long in the tooth, and I only occasionally have time to peek out from behind the curtain of campus.  When I did this recently, I realized that there were a few phrases that I use regularly in my teaching and research that seem commonplace to me, but my friends outside of academia had no idea what I was talking about.  This concerned me both because I was so out of touch but also because these seem, to my mind, to be crucially important concepts for today’s society.  The two phrases were the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration.  I remember having similar feelings several years ago when I referred to global climate change, and I was met with either blank stares or a “you mean global warming” question.  Happily, I generally hear global climate change today.  I hope that soon I won’t encounter blank stares when I mention the Anthropocene.

To begin, the Anthropocene captures the idea that human society has so fundamentally altered the planet that we are no longer in the geological epoch known as the Holocene but now in a new human-dominated epoch, the Anthropocene.  This is introduced by Will Steffen and others in a wonderful paper in Ambio in December 2007 (Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 614-621.). [Note:  there are references to the Anthropocene going back several more years to 2000, but this article is 1) one of the most highly cited and 2) a really good read.]

The basic idea is that in the Pre-Anthropocene period, humans didn’t have the capacity or the technological means to dominate nature (the Earth Systems).  This started to change in the Industrial Era (Stage 1 of the Anthropocene) from around 1800-1945.  With the onset of industrialization, the expansion of the use of fossil fuels, and the advancements of technology, we began to transform the earth on a global scale.  This shift from local effects to global was the key change.

Stage 2 of the Anthropocene (1945-present) is when things really started changing.  This is known as the Great Acceleration.  Pressure on the global environment intensified.  Often people talk about exponential growth in population or the global economy, but the Great Acceleration goes far beyond that, as shown in the figure below.

4-1

The figure is from the very informative website:  http://anthropocene.info/en/home.  This website explains these ideas in much more detail with great references for further, more specific questions.  This is interesting for a number of reasons.  Of importance to me are a number of questions about the ramifications for social-ecological systems and what this means for changing how we govern and collectively make decisions in such an environment – in a world being altered at an accelerating pace, with increasing connectivity around the global between people and their aggregate actions.  Ultimately, if humans are shaping the world in entirely new directions, can we also collectively decide the type of world that we want to live in and make decisions to get there.

I’ll end with one final comment.  There is a proposal to formally adopt the Anthopocene as a geological epoch.  It is currently under review with the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target decision date of 2016.  The question is whether geologic formations would show a distinct demarcation for when the Anthropocene began.

Linking Complexity and Indigenous Knowledge

Let me begin by saying that I’m treading on ground that I’m only beginning to explore.  However, I find it fascinating to think about linking cutting edge science with traditional knowledge systems.  In a similar fashion to how ultra-conservative politicians often sounding like left-wingers and hyper-liberals sounding like John Birchers, it’s interesting to explore recent work in complex adaptive systems with very different ways of understanding the world.

Last week in my undergraduate course, Systems Thinking, my TA, Edward Dee, spoke about the Navajo knowledge system in which he was raised, and he began to clarify his own thinking about how many commonalities exist between complex adaptive systems and the Diné concept of hozho or the broader elements of Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózh==n. (SNBH), which is often translated as “one’s journey of striving to live a long, harmonious life.”  Edward noted common features of these two world views – in taking a holistic perspective, linking the social and ecological as a single entity, seeing emergent behavior (as in the example of the Red Ant Way in Diné tradition or how individual interactions lead to a collective behavior unpredicted by the individual actions in complexity jargon), and drawing on multiple ways of understanding.

In following up on his class, I came across a blog posting on hozho that clearly explains what I was trying to comprehend in a straightforward layperson’s account.  The website is at resilience.org, which surprised me as I consider myself a scholar of Resilience Thinking.  The website draws on the academic literature of resilience but does so in the pursuit of “resilient communities” as part of the Post Carbon Institute.  I know very little about this organization at this point, but I did find the post on hozho to be very nice.  Click here to see the article:  http://www.resilience.org/stories/2011-02-14/desperately-seeking-hozho

Enjoy.  I’ll post more as I learn more about the topic.

Getting a job in the field of Sustainability

As a faculty member in a School of Sustainability (https://schoolofsustainability.asu.edu/), we spend a great deal of time preparing our students for life after college.  It’s a bit different than many other majors.  After all, everyone knows what an engineer or an accounting major can do.  But what does a sustainability graduate do?  What skills do they bring to the table?  I’ve written a great deal about the structure of our curriculum, the training our students receive, and how we prepare them for future employment in the past:

http://michaelschoon.com/2014/04/11/training-students-to-be-solutions-oriented/

http://michaelschoon.com/2014/01/08/a-new-application-of-problem-and-project-based-learning/

http://michaelschoon.com/2013/04/11/a-brief-comment-on-problem-and-project-based-learning-in-the-classroom/

In future posts, I’ll write a bit more on our learning objectives in the school and how we’ve structured curriculum along skill sets that we want our students to take away rather than the topical areas of many other lines of study (environmental or otherwise).  I’ll expand a bit on the New American University at that point as well (for now, see http://newamericanuniversity.asu.edu).

Instead, what I’d like to focus on is something of grave concern to our current students, their parents, and prospective students – job prospects upon graduation.  I’m very pleased to write that tracking all of our students from the first graduates until the past semester, we see the following:

  1. We have graduated 448 undergrad sustainability majors.
  2. Tracking most of those, 86% of them are employed with another 12% in graduate school.
  3. Of those employed, nearly 50% are in a sustainability position or a sustainability field.
  4. We have graduated 50 Master’s students and 13 PhDs.
  5. All of our grad students are employed.
  6. Of our Master’s students, 82% are employed in Sustainability.

So, if you are thinking about enrolling in Sustainability but are worried about finding a job, or if your friends and family are pushing you away from following your dreams toward a more “realistic” path, please take a look at the data first.  Great opportunities await.

For more information, see our Dean Chris Boone’s blog post (http://cgboone.personal.asu.edu/wordpress/) as well as the data on the School of Sustainability’s website, noted above.

International Journal of the Commons in the News

Great news from IJC!  First, we are delighted with our current issue, which is coming out in the next week.  In this, you will find 6 new research articles covering commons issues in a wide variety of localities using a range of methodological approaches from experimental economics to ethnography and several stops in between.  There are also two special features.  One is the initial forays of a new meta-analysis research program – the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database – that attempts to operationalize the SES Framework of Elinor Ostrom.  This includes 5 case study analyses that utilize the database and framework, as well as a comparative piece across the variety of cases studied.  The other special feature, led by Tim Moss, is on the Spatialities of the Commons, and consists of 4 studies that explicitly address spatial research in the study of the commons, an under-researched area of the field.  We think that this issue is another strong example of the excellent work being done by scholars of the commons, which leads to my next point.

The journal has recently received its first impact factor (a measure reflecting the average number of citations to recent articles published in the journal) from ISI, calculated at 1.538.  We are elated with this score for a young journal that has only recently been recognized by ISI.  In the Environmental Studies category, we rank 38th out of 96.  Again, we see this as validation of the great work being done.  We hope that this recognition will help establish a virtuous cycle in which the journal continues to improve!!

With that in mind, a huge public thank you to all of our readers, authors, and reviewers!

Resilience Science and the Science-Policy Interface

Together with my brilliant co-authors, Manjana Milkoreit, Michele-Lee Moore, and Chanda Meek, we have a paper forthcoming with the journal Environmental Science and Policy entitled “Resilience Scientists as Change Makers – Growing the Middle Ground Between Science and Advocacy?”. It’s part of a Special Issue led by Andreas Thiel, Farhad Mukhtarov, and Dimitrios Zikos on “Crafting or designing? Science and politics for purposeful institutional change in Social- Ecological Systems”. The entire issue looks intriguing for anyone interested in institutional analysis and design and the governance of social-ecological systems.

In our paper, we analyze the role of scientists as they move from purveyors of knowledge and truth (!) into roles of advocacy and politics. In particular, we study how various members of the Resilience Alliance, a group of highly talented, experienced, successful senior scientists interact either directly or indirectly through their research with policy and decisionmakers. We highlight the challenges facing scientists at the science-policy frontier as well as a set of approaches in response to these challenges, including a hybrid approach between a “truth-seeker” and a “change-maker”. We see this as a particularly valuable identification exercise for resilience scientists and other likeminded scholars (conservation biologists, sustainability scientists, climate researchers, etc.) in that they draw on theoretical frameworks that are infused with clear value-sets. In the case of resilience science, these often include ecosystem and species protection, inclusiveness and participatory governance, and adaptation and change.

Some of these ideas are likely controversial. We are not attempting to pigeonhole any specific scientists into clearly delineated roles. However, we do hope that this sparks dialogue and introspection amongst ourselves and our peers to think about their role as scientists, change agents, and people inspired to action in ways that can change the world!

Ozone under a Social-Ecological Systems Lens

With my colleagues Graham Epstein, Chanda Meek, and Irene Perez-Ibarra, we have a manuscript coming out in the International Journal of the Commons this month, “Governing the Invisible Commons: Ozone Regulation and the Montreal Protocol”.  We are very excited to see this in print for a number of reasons.

We wanted to highlight both how the SES framework and, as an extension, the SES Meta-Analysis Database could be used for pollution cases, and we wanted to show the insights gained by such an analysis in general.  This goes against some commonly held beliefs on the generalizability of case studies.  We believe that the manuscript makes important independent contributions related to the relevance of CPR theory and the SES framework to large-scale pollution cases.  As the analysis shows several factors associated with CPR theory such as proportionality, political participation, and nested governance are associated with substantial reductions in ODS emissions.   This suggests that common-pool resources and scale may not act as a boundary for CPR theory which may apply to a wider range of goods and environmental problems.  Second, the SESMAD approach draws attention to the complexity of social-ecological systems which is often lost in narrow theoretical accounts.  Many past studies apply a  a single theoretical lens to analyze the Montreal Protocol, and focus on one or a few variables.  Given well-known problems with applying singular models to cases, we believe that our approach which draws attention to some of the real-world complexity of the case is, at a minimum, a useful complement to other studies and at best draws attention to the multiplicity of factors whose interactions led to its success.  Given the general failure of a Montreal Protocol type approach to resolve problems associated with climate change, it would seem that such considerations possess both theoretical and policy-relevant value.

We think that the greatest strength of the case study utilizing the framework is its development of a systematic approach to perform within-case analysis using snapshots over time.  This allowed us to identify important changes that may have contributed to the general success of the Montreal Protocol.  However, we acknowledge weaknesses in reducing the level of measurement associated with some variables, the loss of dimensionality of others, and the averaging over heterogeneity in some as well.

(Thanks to my co-authors for their brilliant insights.)

Ozone Layer from 1979-2008 from NASA

Ozone Layer from 1979-2008 from NASA

Social-Ecological-Technical Systems

In the next month, I will kick off a new required course designed for ASU’s School of Sustainability’s incoming graduate students.  The course is called “Social-Ecological-Technical Systems”.   This literature based seminar course will guide students in developing an integrated approach/framework for thinking about complex adaptive systems in a sustainability context. While overviews of content, theories and methods from each of the SETS domains (Social, Ecological and Technical Systems) will be presented, the primary focus will be on how to bring these domains together. The goal is to enable students to explore the SETS interfaces (intersections) from an integrated perspective and to equip students to make those linkages in their research and in subsequent elective courses.

Translated into everyday language, we hope to get students thinking in a more holistic manner across a wider range of knowledge domains.  Most of the sustainability problems confronting humanity are not pure social, political, or economic in nature.  Nor are they environmental problems apart from human contribution and influence.  Likewise, the causes of and solutions to these problems are also not exclusively technical.  Rather, they are a conflagration of these three knowledge domains.  While we cannot expect anyone to be a master of all, we do hope to provide a baseline standard and recognition of how various fields inform our study of phenomena of interest and contribute to our understanding of them.  As such, the course will require reading seminal literature on a wide range of topics – biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, environmental and natural resource economics, industrial ecology, and resilience/robustness and many others.  If you have suggestions for topics that we should be covering or readings that we should do, please let me know.  We have a planned syllabus, but this has great scope and potential as a grand experiment.

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