Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sustainability: Steeped in Values, Animated by Process, and Structured (but Not Dictated) by Experts

A book review of the following for BioScience: Sustainable values, sustainable change: a guide to environmental decision making. Bryan G. Norton. University of Chicago Press, 2015. 344 pp., illus. $37.50 (ISBN: 9780226197456 paper) (Published version at BioScience; below is the submitted version)

How should we as a society understand and pursue environmental sustainability? This question has long occupied environmental scholars, activists and practitioners, and despite multiple decades of intellectual debate, the idea of sustainability remains fraught. What is it that should be sustained? Economic welfare? Ecological resilience? Or something else? In Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change, philosopher Bryan Norton provides a thoughtful account of the issues currently vexing sustainability, refracting them through the lens of environmental values and then drawing together these insights into a practical program of action. His book argues that no single theory of environmental value can tell us what to sustain, and that instead, values need to be described and transformed through the processes of actual place-based decision making. The book provides a philosophical primer for environmental scholars and practitioners, establishing the philosophical and ethical foundations that can both frame and guide the pursuit of adaptive ecosystem management.

This book serves as a culmination of Bryan Norton’s 30+ year career in environmental ethics and policy. Now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of philosophy and public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, Bryan has built up a coherent and powerful body of work through his career, making valuable contributions to pragmatic philosophy, environmental ethics, and ecological economics. While Bryan’s core arguments and concerns have developed over time, they remain firmly committed to the ideals of philosophical pragmatism and political pluralism, themes that are crystallized clearly in the present volume.

Norton’s book attempts to shift debates about sustainability away from the terrain of theory and toward a concern with practical processes of decision making. He contends that sustainability conversations are gridlocked in theoretical debate, as ecologists and economists (among others) promote narrow disciplinary concepts of environmental value that are incomplete in their representations of what matters for communities. Rather than trying to win contests of theory, Norton contends that environmental scholars should contribute to the process of deliberation with local communities about ‘what should be sustained’ in particular places. What is ‘right’ and ‘what should be sustained’ cannot be determined by a single discipline or theory; they need to be worked through with communities via a fair and effective process of deliberation. Thus, the pertinent question then becomes how a fair and effective process might be conceived and constructed.

The book’s argument proceeds through two parts. In the first part, Norton critiques the idea that disciplinary theories can (and should) tell us what to sustain and why. He takes aim at economic welfare theory and intrinsic value theory, arguing that both approaches are too narrow and static in their purview to provide a meaningful framework for sustainability. What is needed, Norton contends, is an approach that: 1) works with actual communities to articulate their values, 2) focusses on how specific environments can support desired human experiences over multiple time and space scales, and 3) incorporates uncertainty and change by being part of an iterative, inclusive, and adaptive process. In the second part of the book, Norton proposes and develops a ‘procedural approach’ to sustainability that is concerned with identifying and facilitating an effective and fair process through which communities and experts can generate, analyse and evaluate possible environmental and development futures. Such an approach would organize deliberation toward constructing a place-specific concept of the public interest. A good process would also place expert analysis alongside other forms of moral reasoning, and employ a range of deliberative tools and mechanisms to get participants to construct new ‘mental models’ of their relationships to their place and to nature. Environmental values, then, rather than being static or knowable in advance (as economists and ecologists have often assumed), need to be worked out with actual communities facing specific decisions. Norton’s solution to the challenge of sustainability, then, is valuable and distinct: instead of deriving ‘what should be sustained’ through theory and then measuring ‘sustainability’ as a relative alignment with this ideal, Norton’s vision of sustainability is about creating deliberative forums where a multi-scalar concept of the public interest can be generated, discussed and embedded.

The book is well written, although there are bouts of jargon and the text is dense. At 291 pages, what should be a short read was not, owing both to the density of ideas and terms as well as several conceptual detours. The claims and logic of each chapter are not clearly stated up front or in summary, so each chapter is somewhat of a circuitous journey. The book is at its strongest when discussing environmental values and communicating the implications of different concepts. It is at its weakest when it evaluates social science relating to sustainability and adaptive management, or when it offers tangible advice beyond the ivory tower. The book employs a helpful but comical narrative device for readers to keep track of the argument as it progresses. Optim, a wonkish cartoon hedgehog, and Adapt, a stylish fox, are used to represent distinct approaches toward sustainability. Optim—the straw-man of the book—seeks to derive a goal theoretically and optimize his pursuit of it, whereas Adapt seeks to learn her way toward sustainability in an incremental and iterative fashion. The characters appear throughout the book to clarify how the two approaches differ, and the book introduces and defines ten ‘heuristics’ that guide Adapt’s behavior.

The book has one major contribution for each of its two intended audiences. For critical and reflective practitioners of environmental management, the book provides a grounding in ethics and a conceptual framework for the pursuit of sustainability through adaptive management. Put simply, it helps practitioners to understand and articulate why adaptive, process-focussed approaches are needed in terms of environmental values. For scholars of environmental values and adaptive management, the book provides a unique theoretical contribution linking environmental values to the practice of collaborative and adaptive management. By characterizing and evaluating the utility of adaptive management through the lens of environmental values, Norton shifts the axes of environmental values debates to a concern with process in place. The book also provides a nuanced justification for the roles of ‘experts’ on environmental values with respect to community decision processes. By positioning experts as equal contributors of reasoning into community deliberation, Norton democratises the decision making process where citizens can shape (and not merely receive) environmental metaphors and developmental pathways. These are important points for scholars of environmental values and/or adaptive management. Despite Norton’s intent to reach a practitioner audience, however, the jargon, structure, and density of concepts and terms will mean that the book is of most use to an academic audience.

The book suffers from its refusal to engage with power. For some readers, Norton’s proposal to unite communities to work collaboratively toward ‘sustainability’ will ring of naiveté and idealism. Norton caveats this omission by stating explicitly that his analysis assumes that political institutions will work for the public interest. He leaves for other scholars the task of figuring out whether this assumption is true (or how to make it so). Thus, the book’s thesis is predicated on the assumption that all members of a community are willing to come together in ‘good faith’ to work through their differences and change their ‘mental models’ to arrive at a normative and multiscale concept of the public interest. Troublingly, Norton assumes that a “free trade in ideas” will yield the best ideas, that broad acceptance is the “best test of truth”. One need only look at the success of Donald Trump in US politics to see that truth is not the arbiter of popular acceptance. While we wholly agree with Norton’s project to champion adaptive management, we remain unconvinced that one can legitimately outline such an approach without delving deeply on the question ‘adapting for whom?’, especially given the messy real world of special-interest politics.

Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change would also be more compelling if it more explicitly addressed the messy mechanics of societal change and individual thought. Much of the book treats as the primary choice that between hedgehog Optim and fox Adapt, as if sustainability is truly the product of pointy-headed policy, which currently operates by identifying (sans politics) what to optimize, and then structuring society so as to achieve that. However, our world does not change only as a result of such intentional policy choices, but also through messy social processes wherein the influence of corporations and non-governmental organizations are key. Norton says little about such organic changes, instead writing as if humans were rational agents (‘think first’). Since abundant evidence demonstrates that people are largely intuitive or emotional agents, perhaps what is needed next is a treatise on feel-first sustainability designed specifically for affective thinkers, which might help level the playing field of entrenched power, and unleash the agency of the disempowered and the latent sustainability values in all of us.

In sum, as scholars of environmental values we enjoyed reading Norton’s book and we would recommend it to others with strong intellectual interests in the topic. The book is a novel bridge linking environmental values to adaptive management, and practitioners in both fields will benefit from a close read and reflection.

Marc Tadaki ( is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia, and Kai M. A. Chan ( is a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the flood ... science, society, and coping with a Trumped up world

An email sent to students in ENVR 430, RES 508, and members of CHANS lab.
Many of you are likely reeling after last night’s election result and what it means for you as students of environmental science. What's the point in the pursuit of truth if its repudiation can be so alluring? To hear that a man who referred to climate change as a Chinese hoax is taking office in the most powerful nation in the world is surely unsettling. No less so because he is a demonstrably lying billionaire who hoodwinked a near majority of the voting public as the saviour for the ‘forgotten man’—despite having made his fortune by ripping off blue collar Americans (e.g., Trump University) and shipping their jobs overseas … a man who spoke of grabbing women by the p***y and call it locker-room talk (as if it were acceptable there—it isn’t!) … a man who enjoys the support of Vladimir Putin, who wants nothing less than chaos for the US … today is a dark day indeed.

But in your despair, remember this: there is no better affirmation of what you are doing than last night’s result.

Why? Because last night represented the clearest demonstration of the failure of conventional education and economic policy. For decades, elites have governed the US and many other western nations, on a promise of economic benefits from free trade and trickle-down economics. Promises that might have sounded good in theory but rang hollow in reality. Public education in the US was given too little attention (it’s far less equitable than in Canada), and it wasn’t enough to prevent the social stratification that resulted in much of middle America feeling left behind even as the US economy continues to power on. The policies promoted by political elites had tangible costs and mostly diffuse benefits—except for a few powerful corporations, whose power was entrenched and enhanced.

In ENVR 430/RES 508/CHANS lab, we are seeking science and societal change by a fundamentally different model. In contrast to the conventional approach, which assumes that policies that have a net societal benefit will be adopted by liberal democracies, we strive to account for the messy reality of social change and the fact that we humans are not rational actors. Instead of seeking change in such top-down policies, we are learning to engage directly and to enable bottom-up change by connecting with what really matters to people. E.g., Whereas for years environmentalists have classified what matters to people in very academic terms (intrinsic and instrumental values), we seek to understand this in the terms that people themselves use, including a much broader set of values (e.g., relational values).

Of course we don’t have all the answers (not even half of them!), and last night’s result is a huge setback for those who favour a freer, more tolerant, more truthful world. But remember that life is a struggle, and you’re on the right side of a long campaign.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

An Economy for 2100

Helm, D. (2015). Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet, Yale University Press. 296 pp. (ISBN: 9780300213942).

[What appears here is the original submitted version of a book review appearing in the journal BioScience at]

With excitement and also trepidation, I cracked open Helm’s new book, “Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet”. Would the book chart a path towards reformed economics that would actually nurture the planet for future generations? Or was it simply another advertisement for economic valuation of nature? I soon discovered that Helm delivered key components of the roadmap to an economy for 2100, leaving me wanting more.

Helm’s mission is bold and important. He seeks to provide a set of strategies for truly sustainable economic growth, while admitting that current trajectories are systematically flawed (both global and national, in virtually all nations). He seeks to persuade any reader of the necessity of this task—the neoclassical economist who sees no problem in environmental degradation (merely progress), and equally the naïve environmentalist who imagines that we can and must erase virtually all human impact on Earth. The book itself delivers a message neatly between these two extremes, but ambitiously so: a vision of sustainability between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ (maintaining aggregate natural capital), which includes a reversal of the environmental degradation we have seen to date.
Dieter Helm is undeniably ideal for this task. A professor at the University of Oxford, Helm is a deeply engaged economist in British policy. Indeed, Helm chaired that nation’s Natural Capital Committee from its inception in 2012, a committee that includes Georgina Mace and Ian Bateman, among other accomplished experts. The committee’s task is to implement a framework for economic growth that simultaneously both stops the decline in natural capital and improves this crucial foundation for the economy.

In four parts comprising twelve chapters and an introduction, Helm lays out his argument. He first describes the current state of the environment and its relation to the economy, that environmental degradation has real economic consequences, although these may be diffuse, delayed, and difficult to observe directly. He then addresses the question of what we collectively should be seeking, in order to treat future generations fairly. Here Helm proposes his aggregate natural capital rule, which is the conceptual foundation for the whole book. As alluded to above, Helm argues that ‘weak’ sustainability is too weak in allowing the whole-hog substitution of natural capital for built capital, but that ‘strong’ sustainability is too strong in allowing no such substitution. Helm’s compromise is to propose the maintenance and improvement of aggregate natural capital, which could be achieved by investing the revenues from non-renewable resource extraction into the restoration of renewable resources.

The third step is to outline the current set of policies and measures governing and accounting for natural capital and its contribution to the economy (e.g., gross domestic product, GDP), and why and how they are flawed. The fourth step proposes a suite of economic tools and policies that would enable the realization of the aggregate natural capital rule.

The book is well executed. I enjoyed the specific examples of heathlands and moors, including the one that opened the introduction. I appreciated the rigour of the scholarship, and the fluidity of the prose. I also appreciated the manner in which Helm anticipated many critiques, addressing many.
Natural Capital’s greatest contributions are threefold, in my view. First, many readers will be pleased to have a well-articulated economist’s argument for natural capital protection and restoration, and a sustainability rule that is stronger than ‘weak’ sustainability. Few of us can speak the language of neoclassical economics that dominates policymaking in most nations and many multilateral institutions, so having Helm’s convincing argument for this stronger position is reason alone that many concerned with the environment should buy this book. Particularly useful here may be Helm’s proposal for resource extraction endowments, following the logic of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, which Helm would see put toward the restoration of renewable resource assets.

The second crucial contribution is Helm’s debunking of conventional national accounting and economic policy, and their basis in the flawed measure of GDP. Other volumes are devoted just to this issue, but I appreciated the way Helm lays it bare. Whereas many national governments debate the merits of fiscal austerity vs. Keynesian growth, by which a government bets on future economic growth to rescue national legers from current deficits, Helm seems to argue that both sides have it wrong. If national accounts such as GDP fail to reflect the depreciation of natural capital, which is pervasive in Britain and elsewhere, growth (be it Keynesian or with austerity measures) cannot be sustained—because natural capital is the ultimate asset, the source of all wealth.

The third great contribution is the discussion of the suite of economic tools and policies for achieving truly sustainable growth, including damage compensation schemes and the utilities/trust model for governing common-pool resources and public goods. The utilities model, by which a private or public organization takes responsibility for maintaining key infrastructure (e.g., electricity transmission and distribution lines) and derives revenue from the provision of a needed service (e.g., electricity supply), has worked quite well for water and also—as Helm argues—public parks. Helm extends the model to river catchments, for example, whose revenues could include insurance rebates associated with improved flood mitigation (an ecosystem service enhanced by watershed restoration). It is an intriguing idea that deserves close scrutiny from policymakers everywhere.

Every contribution, no matter how great, also has shortcomings, of course. No one volume can do all, and all of it well. The three most important gaps, in my opinion, are the justification for the aggregate
natural capital rule, the treatment of valuation, and the treatment of the implementation of these important policies.

Helm’s aggregate natural capital rule has two important components, and both encounter difficulty. The first component is the substitutability of improved renewable resources for the non-renewable ones used up, which Helm argues must be measured in monetary terms: “For non-renewables, there is no possible physical substitution, so depletion can be measured only in economic terms.” This claim overlooks the fact that non-renewable resources are not wholly lost, rather converted to less useful forms. Fossil fuels are rendered into carbon dioxide and other by-products; and metals are locked up with other chemicals. In both cases, substitutability could quite easily and naturally be measured in terms of energy potential or exergy, and given the uncertainties associated with monetary metrics in the long run, this might be preferable.

The second component is the substitutability of some renewable resources for others, which Helm allows (e.g., rare habitat for great-crested newts to be substituted for more available nightingale habitat), with insufficient justification. Helm argues for this on the basis of ethics and practicality, but he never expresses the ethical argument, only the practical one, “There will be further economic development. It cannot be stopped.” Even if we accept this premise, it does not follow that we must allow all manner of economic development to proceed, e.g., even if it threatens the last remaining habitat for great-crested newts. Counterarguments would include responsibilities to non-human species (which I have argued for, for all organisms--Chan 2011), and the inappropriateness of assuming that because we have no particular need for such newts, neither will future generations. I see justification for substituting newt habitat for newt habitat, but not nightingales for newts.

The second gap is Helm’s treatment of valuation, which is supposed to be grist for deciding that, e.g., nightingale habitat is a worthy substitution for newt habitat. Helm’s justification here is far too quick, “Benefits require valuation, and the units are explicitly or implicitly money. Hence a price has to be put on nature.” A full response is well beyond the scope of this review, but suffice to say that benefits do not always need to be valuated to enable good societal choices (Vatn & Bromley 1994; Gregory et al. 2012; Ruckelshaus et al. 2015); just because you can derive an implicit price after the fact does not mean that a priori valuation is generally applicable or helpful (McDaniels & Trousdale 2005); and important classes of benefits cannot be valuated appropriately in monetary terms (Chan et al. 2011; Chan et al. 2012). An associated disappointment here is that whereas Helm rightly touts the importance of his approach being an asset-based one (rather than a services- or benefits-based one), he offers no guidance for the special challenge of valuating assets beyond the too-simple assumption that the value of the asset is simply the value of the current uses extended into the future. Accordingly, Natural Capital is overly focused on valuation and pricing when neither needs to be central, and it doesn’t entirely deliver its promise of a truly assets-based approach.

The third gap is that Part Four, “How Can It Be Done?” leaves this key question entirely unanswered. Instead, this section reminds us what good can be anticipated to come from restoration, and reviews important ideas about finance that were already covered extensively in Part Three, “What Needs to Be Done?” Helm himself details the challenge of politics and lobbyists for thwarting good economic policies, but it will fall to other volumes to propose how such policies might transform from fiction to fact.

All told, Helm’s bold volume achieves a great deal in its autopsy of current growth-obsessed economic policies and its blueprints for an economy for the 22nd Century. Now for the hardest part: building the economy Helm imagines.


Chan, K. M. A. (2011). "Ethical extensionism under uncertainty of sentience: Duties to non-human organisms without drawing a line." Environmental Values 20: 323-346.

Chan, K. M. A., J. Goldstein, T. Satterfield, N. Hannahs, K. Kikiloi, R. Naidoo, N. Vadeboncoeur and U. Woodside (2011). Cultural services and non-use values. Natural Capital: Theory & Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services. P. Kareiva, H. Tallis, T. H. Ricketts, G. C. Daily and S. Polasky. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press: 206-228.

Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield and J. Goldstein (2012). "Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values." Ecological Economics 74(February): 8-18.

Gregory, R., L. Failing, M. Harstone, G. Long and T. McDaniels (2012). Structured Decision Making: A Practical Guide to Environmental Management Choices. Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

McDaniels, T. L. and W. Trousdale (2005). "Resource compensation and negotiation support in an aboriginal context: Using community-based multi-attribute analysis to evaluate non-market losses." Ecological Economics 55(2): 173-186.

Ruckelshaus, M., E. McKenzie, H. Tallis, et al. (2015). "Notes from the field: Lessons learned from using ecosystem service approaches to inform real-world decisions." Ecological Economics 115: 11-21.

Vatn, A. and D. W. Bromley (1994). "Choices without prices without apologies." Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 26(2): 129-148.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Why Community Engagement Matters in Addressing Climate Change

How does the image above make you feel? Your answer may be key to addressing climate change, because in the post-Paris Climate Change Agreement world, creating more sustainable landscapes depends on local perceptions of proposed low carbon energy development projects.

I recall an exquisite yet frightening ice-sheathed world when the moon rose over my dark neighborhood in Maine following the ice storm of 1998. My family and millions of others lost electricity for over a week. My sister and I called it camping out in our house, but the novelty of life without electricity wore off after a few days.

Before this disaster, I hadn’t given much thought to electricity. Sure, the lights didn’t switch on during the occasional brief power outage, but it had never occurred to me that our running water and toilet used an electricity-powered pump. An extended power outage meant manual flushing. Chipping away ice to fill a bucket from a nearby stream just to flush a toilet made me think twice about flushing. Relying on a woodstove not only for heat but also for cooking gave me a far less romantic view on life before electricity. And washing clothes by hand? No thanks.

Joni Mitchell summed up how I felt in her song lyric: “you don't know what you've got ‘til its gone.” I had taken electricity for granted without ever considering where it came from. Fast-forward a decade and a half later. My family cares where electricity comes from. While my dad installed a solar hot water heater for the showers and PV solar panels to help charge his electric car, I’ve been researching controversy over offshore wind farms, a promising but contentious new(ish) technology.

Wind turbines Scroby Sands
Image credit (edited) Martin Pettitt, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Part of my research entails asking: what do images of wind turbines - such as those above - make you think about? How do they make you feel?

Your answer may be key in addressing climate change, because in the post-Paris Agreement world, generating climate-friendly electricity depends more than ever on the extent to which people obstruct (e.g., file lawsuits), accommodate or champion low-carbon energy solutions. Perceptions matter.

If you are like the majority of North Americans, you probably have vaguely positive reactions to these images, even if you perhaps feel a little overwhelmed at the height of the turbines and the scale of the London Array Wind farm. According to opinion polls and my survey results, most North Americans support the development of offshore wind farms, which they think of as clean sources of electricity. Despite general public support, problems arise when it comes to financing and figuring out where to put offshore wind farms. Why?

The Economist, August 19, 2010. Public opinion polls show high levels of general support for offshore wind farms, but different activists in Cape Cod have vigorously demonstrated support and opposition to the Cape Wind Farm proposed off the coast of Massachusetts, U.S.  
For an offshore wind farm, the cost per unit of electricity generated is approximately two to five times more expensive than electricity from onshore wind, hydroelectric dams or natural gas plants. These costs will likely diminish over time. Despite the expense, Northern Europeans have already built industrial-scale wind farms. For example, the 175-turbine London Array powers approximately 500,000 homes.

If North Americans get serious about reducing carbon emissions, which will be needed to meet the new goals espoused at the COP21 climate negotiations, harnessing offshore wind could be an important part of a low-carbon energy portfolio, particularly for the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.*

The fledgling offshore wind industry is rapidly gaining momentum in the U.S., but, as evident in numerous lawsuits, it has not been smooth sailing. My PhD research explores why it has been controversial and what can be done to address people's concerns about this technology.**

To dig into this controversy over transitioning to a cleaner source of electricity, I lived on my father's sailboat for a summer and commuted by rowboat to Island Institute in Rockland, Maine. Island Institute is a non-profit organization working to sustain Maine's island and remote coastal communities. They collaborate with communities, developers and decision makers to support effective stakeholder engagement and outreach processes related to offshore wind and other coastal issues. I partnered with staff in their Community Energy Program to help synthesize lessons they have learned about participant satisfaction and frustration with community engagement processes, which have played out on New England islands near proposed offshore wind farm sites.***

Over the summer, I met with island residents involved in energy initiatives and scoured documents about this new use of ocean space. I integrated my academic knowledge about risk perception and decision theory with their on-the-ground experience of how stakeholders were engaged on these islands near proposed wind turbines.

In our report, we emphasize the critical importance of making mutual learning accessible and collaboratively developing community benefits. The overarching goal was not to provide a guide to obtaining consent for offshore wind farms, but rather to improve the decision process and the quality of the interactions between communities, government agencies and project developers in the hopes of creating more acceptable outcomes.

The major lessons I took away from my summer of working closely with Island Institute is that attempts to change energy systems are inherently political and messy affairs. These efforts require long term collaboration with local communities. Conflict is pretty much inevitable because all sources of electricity have drawbacks. We can, however, learn from island residents, many of whom, by choice or necessity, tend to be remarkably self-reliant and mindful of their energy production and consumption.

As of 2015, the foundations for the first offshore wind farm in North America are complete, the majority of adjacent island residents support it and they negotiated for several community benefits from the developer. This could be a launch pad for a massive transition to low carbon electricity sources. Our case studies have relevance for other parts of the world where deliberating with communities and being mindful of their perceptions of low-carbon energy sources is key in transitioning to more sustainable alternatives.

Will transitioning to greener energy sources be too little and too late? Local satisfaction or frustration with renewable energy technologies and siting processes impacts the answer to this crucial question.

The author, Sarah Klain, lived on Peaks Island, Maine until age 5. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation focuses on offshore wind farms, risk perception, biodiversity conservation and environmental values. During the summer of 2015, she lived on her father’s sailboat and rowed to work to collaborate with Island Institute. This effort was supported by the UBC's Public Scholars Initiative, the Biodiversity Research: Integrative Training & Education (BRITE) program and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

* For examples of nifty albeit politically naïve renewable energy plans from a team at Stanford University and their partners, see here.
** See Whither Wind in Orion Magazine for a fantastic description of ambivalent environmental values at play in wind farm controversy.
*** We compared three case studies: 1) a wind farm near Block Island, Rhode Island, which, as of 2015, is on track to be the first installed offshore wind project in the U.S.; 2) a proposed offshore wind farm near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts that is currently moving through regulatory processes; and 3) a proposed offshore wind project near Monhegan, Maine where developers are focusing on refining their floating turbine prototype.

Feature image credit (edited): 
Mariusz Paździora  Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Contributing to the relational value concept: considering ecological relationships and interdependent values

In their most recent article, published in PNAS, Kai Chan and colleagues (1) propose that framing ecosystem values in terms of relationships can help unpack why we value nature and how research and policy might better reflect our values. In this this thought-provoking conceptualization, Chan and colleagues consider two primary types of relational values. First, they consider relationships between people and places; that people value specific places of meaning, not necessarily an ecosystem service in abstraction. Second, they consider relationships among people that are mediated by important places and ecosystem components. The relational values concept can be further enhanced, however, by including not only relationships among people and between people and the environment, but also relationships among different ecosystem components. Such ecological relationships go beyond bio-physical processes. I do not mean to evoke generic environmental interactions such as salmon needing cold water and therefore needing a forested watershed. This basic biophysical model is already captured in Chan and colleagues’ discussion of the “golden rule” in their policy application number four (i.e., care for your place may translate into care for someone else’s place if the two are ecologically connected). Rather, what I mean is that the values people place on connected ecosystem components are themselves interdependent.
This fuller picture of relational values is illustrated in how the Cree Canadian First Nations people manage their goose hunting. I was fortunate enough to spend several seasons living in the Cree community of Wemindji, in James Bay, Quebec, and to learned about goose hunting, an important subsistence and cultural activity (2). Hunting takes place in specific coastal marshes; but, prime locations change over time as the James Bay coast rises out of the Earth’s mantle having been depressed by the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America during the last glacial period (2, 3). The land is still rising to this very day, causing coastal marshes to dry up and new ones to form (2). Coastal marshes and prime goose habitats change rapidly, within the course of human lifetimes (4).
Cree hunters often invest significant amounts of energy to build soft infrastructure, such as mud dikes, to protect important marshes from drying up so that future generations can hunt (2, 4). Through intergenerational use, these marshes become imbued with history, culture, and identity and take on a value of their own (2). However, management decisions are influenced by ongoing environmental, social, and technological changes (2). Hunters may stop maintaining a marsh if, for example, geese change their flight paths and no longer visit an area (2). The marsh is still valued as an historic place that contributes to people’s identity (2).
The goose and the coastal marsh each have a value that is relational to specific Cree hunters, that cannot be reduced to one another or substituted, and that is interdependent. The relational values in Cree goose hunting involve social-social relationships (e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes)[1] (Fig. 1). What we can learn from the Cree goose hunting example is how the values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components.
Considering a wider array of social and ecological relationships helps flesh out the relational value concept. It can promote cross fertilization with other disciplines such as social network research, where social-ecological systems are conceptualized as networks with social-social, social-ecological, and ecological-ecological relations (6). Such collaborations will hopefully lead to theoretical and methodological advances that will help us achieve Chan and colleagues’ goal: a meaningful understanding of ecosystem services valuation that can better inform research and policy.
Figure 1. The values people place on certain ecosystem components are interdependent with values they have for other components. Valuation in Cree goose hunting involves social-social relationships (SS, e.g., intergenerational use), social-ecological relationships (SE, e.g., hunters valuing birds and certain marshes), and ecological-ecological relationships (EE, e.g., spatial-temporal interactions between geese and marshes). These relationships define a network of interdependent social and ecological units (red and green circles, respectively). Figure adapted from Bodin and Tengö (6).
Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank the CHANS lab for hosting my commentary and Kai Chan for editorial comments and advice.
Jesse Sayles is a postdoctoral fellow at the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University. He does human-environment and sustainability research in costal and watershed systems. He is friends and colleagues with several CHANS lab members.
1.            Chan KM et al. (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:1462–1465.
2.            Sayles JS, Mulrennan ME (2010) Securing a Future: Cree Hunters’ Resistance and Flexibility to Environmental Changes, Wemindji, James Bay. Ecol Soc 15:22.
3.            Pendea IF, Costopoulos A, Nielsen C, Chmura GL (2010) A new shoreline displacement model for the last 7 ka from eastern James Bay, Canada. Quat Res 73:474–484.
4.            Sayles JS (2015) No wilderness to plunder: Process thinking reveals Cree land-use via the goose-scape. Can Geogr / Le Géographe Can 59:297–303.
5.            Peloquin C, Berkes F (2009) Local knowledge, subsistence harvests, and social-ecological complexity in James Bay. Hum Ecol 37:533–545.
6.            Bodin Ö, Tengö M (2012) Disentangling intangible social–ecological systems. Glob Environ Chang 22:430–439.

Photo: Canada Geese flying in Wemindji.
Source: Cree Nation of Wemindji online gallery.

[1] While the coast is likely always to be important, a new set of ecosystem relationships may also be emerging. Hunters increasingly travel inland and hunt at roadside gravel pits due to a combination of social and ecological changes that affect where geese go and the amount of time people have for hunting (5). Thus, for some hunters, these roadside areas may take on a different value in the future than they have had in the past.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Perceptions are Evidence and Key to Conservation Success

ChansLab postdoc Nathan Bennett has just published a new paper in Conservation Biology, Using perceptions as evidence to improve conservation and environmental management.  He has blogged about it on his personal website here:

It is already creating a bit of a stir, check out his blog for the abstract or the article at the link below and weigh in!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Trophy Hunting: A bugbear (and moral test) for politicians

Grizzly bear sow and cubs, image courtesy of Andy Wright

Kai published an op-ed in the National Observer on trophy hunting for grizzly bears in B.C. In it he warns Premier Christy Clark that her stance on this issue risks tarring her with a moral stain, as many voters see this as an issue of appropriate vs. abhorrent relationships with nature, not a purely economic matter.