Historical Study of a Mexican Ejido

Working with Carolin Antoni, a visiting scholar from the Universidad de San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and her doctoral advisors, we have created a resilience assessment of a social-ecological system in an ejido in Laguna de Mante, Mexico.


Figure 1: Jaguar on patrol in Laguna de Mante (from Huaxtecaonline)

The objective of this study was to identify key (external and internal) drivers of change in this SES and their role in the historical development of a tropical landscape in Northern Mexico, now dedicated to industrial sugarcane production. We used the adaptive cycle metaphor to identify and explain the phases and transitions that the region of Laguna de Mante went through since the 1940s.


Figure 2:  The Adaptive Cycle (from the Resilience Alliance)

In particular, we wanted to understand how the system changed over time and what the key drivers of change were.  We were interested at social, economic, and ecological outcomes and whether the current state of the system was stable and resilient to the current context and whether it was likely to remain so to future drivers such as climate change or trade regime modifications.


Stay tuned as this works its way through the publishing gauntlet.


Governance and Geoengineering

I had the good fortune of participating in a workshop on geoengineering last week (April 5th), organized by Elisa Graffey and ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.  For those that aren’t familiar with the topic, here are a couple great overviews of the discussion that the workshop organizers shared:

Here is a quick overview of the technologies in picture form (Courtesy of the Climate Viewer website):


You’ll see that the technologies fit into two broad categories. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which included all of the carbon capture technologies that you hear about in the coal industry discussions, is about removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The second type of technology is solar radiation management (SRM), which is about blocking some of the solar radiation from the earth’s atmosphere.

I’m not an expert on this subject, and I was attending to help understand the governance challenges.  Clearly, there are many issues to consider ranging from technical know-how to scalability, from moral and ethical implications to difficulties with experimentation and irreversibility.  The two interrelated challenges that I’d like to raise are:

  1. The capacity to act unilaterally and affect climatic conditions globally, and
  2. Who gets to “control” the global thermostat.

Some of these technologies – iron fertilization, spraying sulfates in the atmosphere, cloud seeding, and others – are inexpensive enough that they could be undertaken by a single country or even by wealthy individuals.  However, the ramifications would go beyond the borders of any individual country, affecting global temperatures, precipitation patterns, biodiversity levels, and many other knock-on effects.  In this situation, how are global decisions to be reached?  How are rogue nations (or other groups) to be contained? What are the collective responses to unilateral action?

These questions all relate to this second point.  If we reach a technological and scientific stage where we can effectively control the global temperature, how do we choose where to set it?  Do we rely on historical patterns?  If so, at what point in history?  Pre-industrial? The 1950s?  What if Russia wants to have a longer growing season?  What if island nations want more ice in Greenland to prevent sea level rise?  Of course, this oversimplifies, as temperature is not the only thing that changes.  What if the US or China acts to increase rainfall locally at the expense of other places?  What if changing temperatures affect the seasonality of monsoons or the runoff of glaciers and snowfields?

Clearly, the lists of questions can go on endlessly.  And clearly, there are no easy answers.  These are the challenges that we confront.  My hope is that raising some of these questions in this format would be enlightening to others that haven’t given it much thought yet.

I’d like to end with one final concern that underpins all of this – the moral hazard of such interventions.  At the end of the day, we still need to think about how we want to change our global emissions of carbon.  The technologies listed above do not target changing emissions and all have ramifications.  The ultimate question is what type of world do we want to live in.

Spending time in Prison

This past Monday I spent the day in the Florence Prison complex with the Heber Wild Horse Collaborative where we learned all about how inmates gentle and train wild horses and prepare them for adoption under the BLM.  The facility has two parts – one for housing horses and burros and keeping them healthy for adoption and another for training the animals. The photo here is of my doctoral student, Julie Murphree, and the BLM coordinator for this facility, John Hall.  They are standing above the chutes where the horses and burros are processed upon arrival.


The program is fascinating with high levels of care for the animals, successful adoption rates of animals leaving the program, and skill development for inmates.  The actual work looked very enjoyable to me and worthwhile.

The challenge it seems is one of scalability.  The training process creates a bottleneck, given the number of horses and burros in the wild, the capacity of the trainers, and the number of potential adopters.  As a collaborative, it’s interesting to align this option within a suite of strategies that could be used in cases where horse or burro populations exceed the capacity of the landscape.

And in case you’re interested in adoption, here is a photo of some of the adorable burros:



New Working Paper on Collaboration

Building on a workshop last November in Oaxaca, my lab group in the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment at ASU has recently published a working paper on success factors for effective environmental management.  This work builds on several great papers published over the last decade as well as field work by my students and collaborators to substantiate this research.

We put this together as a practitioner’s brief that could be used by people in the field working to build or strengthen collaborations.  There is no fancy work here, just a collection of findings that we hope can help people achieve better outcomes and accomplish their goals.

This is the first part of our work towards understanding how these factors change under varying contexts.  We are building a database and examining multiple cases from around the world with a goal to improve how groups of people work together across borders and boundaries.

New article on Governance and Sustainability

With my good friend, Michael Cox, we have just published the introduction editorial to a special issue of the journal “Sustainability”.  The editorial can be found here. Entitled “Collaboration, Adaptation and Scaling: Perspectives on Environmental Governance for Sustainability”, we target these three issues as the critical ingredients for governance in the complex and dynamic world that we live in.

While I hope that you read this article, it’s really just an entry point into what we see as a stellar special issue that can be found here.  With articles from Fikret Berkes, Kate Brown, Kai Chan, Jesse Ribot, Oran Young and many more, the special issue covers governance and sustainability from a range of angles.  It hits multiple scales from local to international, targets subject matters from fisheries to international agreements to urban dynamics, and draws on a wide range of disciplines.

We very much look forward to your thoughts and ideas!

Sustainability Education in Elementary School

Beginning in the spring of 2017, I have had the good fortune of working with some amazing ASU Sustainability students.  Building on some pilot sessions last spring, these students have developed a year-long sustainability curriculum for third, fourth and fifth grade students at the International School of Arizona. I want to personally thank the ASU students – Julia Colbert, Kiriah Slagel, Hannah Lira, Haley Penny, and Megan Warner.  They have been industrious, inventive, and inspiring.  On the ISA side, the US curriculum instructors (Cristina Celaya,Deb Kahalewai, Kari Nehlsen, and Marlena Sypel) have created an atmosphere conducive for learning and students primed for this content.  It’s exciting to watch.  My role has been mainly to get out of the way.

These amazing students (both the ASU instructors and ISA pupils) started with the fundamentals of sustainability – the economic, environmental, and social pillars – and then took a deep dive into each.  They used student garden plots to demonstrate ecological principles and to link our individual and group behaviors between the social and ecological realms.

It seems that the concepts make intuitive sense to the students in ways that don’t always resonate quite so readily with adults.  Perhaps this is why books such as All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten continue to be so popular.  We know a great deal, but as we get busier and busier with our careers, our families, and our constant racing, we tend to forget some of the basics.

I look forward to continuing to learn from the children at ISA and my wonderful students at ASU.

Pictures to follow….

New Research on Social Tipping Points

Earlier this week, a group of scholars (including myself) published a review paper on social tipping points.  The article will be open access, and the article has now been made available online at https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaaa75.

This paper originated in a workshop at the Complex Systems Society conference in Arizona in 2015.  An assessment of preliminary results occurred at a workshop in Oaxaca in 2017 with a group of researchers (including several of the paper’s authors) and practitioners.

In our article, we analyze how the term has morphed over time as its application has grown from natural systems to social and social-ecological systems.  We also note how the definitions and characteristics assigned to the term have proliferated.  This has led to a lack of clarity in the use of tipping points, particularly in social systems.  We identify 23 distinct features of tipping point definitions.  Using both qualitative and quantitative analyses, we propose definitions for social tipping points that draw upon the most frequent features and logical consistency.  The field is clearly in its infancy, and we welcome insights and comments on the paper.