Friday, November 12th, 2010
The Atlantic is featuring an interesting back-and-forth between rancher and author, Nicolette Hahn Niman, and philosopher Adam Phillips.
This debate focuses on whether eating pigs carries the same ethical considerations as eating dogs. But it has deeper roots in a centuries-old debate about objective vs. relative moral truths in our world.
For a current example of how this deeper debate is playing out, check out Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
Photo credit: nao-cha
Thursday, November 11th, 2010
In the Policy Forum of today’s issue of Science, a research team that includes recent Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom, issued a call for innovative interdisciplinary approaches to confronting major environmental challenges:
Tremendous progress has been made in understanding the functioning of the
Earth system and, in particular, the impact of human actions. Although this
knowledge can inform management of specific features of our world in transition, societies need knowledge that will allow them to simultaneously reduce global environmental risks while also meeting economic development goals. For example, how can we advance science and technology, change human behavior, and influence political will to enable societies to meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change? At the same time, how can we meet needs for food, water, improved health and human security, and enhanced energy security? Can this be done while also meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring ecosystem integrity?
They identified what they call five grand challenges:
(1) Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.
(2) Develop, enhance, and integrate observation systems to manage global and regional environmental change.
(3) Determine how to anticipate, avoid, and manage disruptive global environmental change.
(4) Determine institutional, economic, and behavioral changes to enable effective steps toward global sustainability.
(5) Encourage innovation (and mechanisms for evaluation) in technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability.
And their concluding message resonates with much of what I have been writing about at Global Change (emphasis mine):
These grand challenges provide an overarching research framework to mobilize the international scientific community around a focused decade of research to support sustainable development in the context of global environmental change. … Research dominated by the natural sciences must transition toward research involving the full range of sciences and humanities. A more balanced mix of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research is needed that actively involves stakeholders and decision-makers.
Reid, W., Chen, D., Goldfarb, L., Hackmann, H., Lee, Y., Mokhele, K., Ostrom, E., Raivio, K., Rockstrom, J., Schellnhuber, H., & Whyte, A. (2010). Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges Science, 330 (6006), 916-917 DOI: 10.1126/science.1196263
From the Environmental Literacy in Higher Education series:
From the Why Don’t People Engage Climate Change? series:
Image credit: woodleywonderworks
Sunday, November 7th, 2010
Here’s an interesting idea: Get a bunch of people writing about environmental disasters to help raise awareness about what these are like (and may become) and to spur planning efforts for preventing/dealing with them. That’s the latest from io9:
We can’t prevent environmental disasters without preparing for them. That’s why io9 is going to pay $2000 each to two people who write the best stories about environmental disaster. It’s io9′s Environmental Writing Contest – for science fiction and non-fiction.
io9 is looking for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. We believe that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth’s history.
We’re holding this contest to reward people for coming up with ideas that could help avert the next Deepwater spill and Pacific garbage gyre – or help people prepare better for the next Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti earthquake. Storytelling is a powerful tool. We want you to use it well.
Our awesome team of judges includes Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker’s environment reporter), Paolo Bacigalupi (author of Ship Breaker and Windup Girl), and Jonathan Strahan (editor of the Eclipse anthologies), as well as others to be announced.
Interested? The contest rules can be found at the link above.
Photo credit: Reinante El Pintor de Fuego
Monday, November 1st, 2010
An amazing night-time photo from the International Space Station showing how human settlement along the Nile River and Delta stand out against the Sahara Desert (shot by Astronaut Doug Wheelock). Click here for a larger image.
Wednesday, October 20th, 2010
Matt Nisbet has an excellent new post, Investing in Civic Education about Climate Change: What Should Be the Goals?, highlighting some of the next-generation approaches to helping people engage climate change.
Why don’t people engage climate change?
Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
In a fascinating new article in PLOS One (open access), Daniel Nettle asks why we see social gradients in preventative health behaviors:
People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to smoke more, exercise less, have poorer diets, comply less well with therapy, use medical services less, adopt fewer safety measures, ignore health advice more, and be less health-conscious overall, than their more affluent peers. Some of these behaviors can simply be put down to financial constraints, as healthy diets, for example, cost more than unhealthy ones, but socioeconomic gradients are found even where the health behaviors in question would cost nothing, ruling out income differences as the explanation.
Socioeconomic gradients in health behavior are not easily abolished by providing more information. Informational health campaigns tend to lead to greater voluntary behavior change in people of higher socio-economic position, and thus can actually increase socioeconomic inequalities in health, even whilst improving health overall. Thus, we are struck with what we might call the exacerbatory dynamic of poverty: the people in society who face the greatest structural adversity, far from mitigating this by their lifestyles, behave in such ways as to make it worse, even when they are provided with the opportunity to do otherwise.
What are some of the possible explanations for this pattern, and are they sufficient?
Underlying socioeconomic differences in health behavior are differences in attitudinal and psychological variables. People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to be more pessimistic, have stronger beliefs in the influence of chance on health, and give a greater weighting to present over future outcomes, than people of higher socioeconomic position. These explanations seem clear.
However, they immediately raise the deeper question: why should pessimism, belief in chance, and short time perspective be found more in people of low socioeconomic position than those of high socioeconomic position? These deeper questions are at the level which behavioral ecologists call ultimate, as opposed to proximate causation
To develop more of an ultimate explanation, Nettle hypothesized that lower socioeconomic groups are subject to greater hazard or environmental harm or even simply the perception of living a more hazardous life. This, in turn, discourages healthy behavior.
To test this hypothesis, he developed a mathematical/statistical model predicting the probability of dying in a given year, which is a combination of extrinsic risks that people cannot control as well as intrinsic risks that they can control through modified health behavior. Thus, people choosing to take the time to engage healthier opportunities reduce their mortality risk. Now there’s a tradeoff, however, because the more time people choose to undertake healthy behavior, the less time is left over for leisure activities and other life events.
Overall survival is therefore a combination of all of these factors, which can easily be modeled by assuming a range of values for time spent on health vs. other activities to see what kinds of mortality outcomes arise.
Here are the interesting results he found…
Sunday, September 26th, 2010
The NY Times and Huffington Post are running a story by Kim Severson, Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries, lamenting how hard it is to get people to eat healthy.
The thing that struck me about this article, as its title suggests, is how nutrition in America is often pitched top-down. A strategy is bound to fail when it consists simply of government experts making recommendations about nutrition, as one of the folks interviewed notes:
“It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working.
…The government keeps trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (that’s nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day. Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with vegetables.
The article explores the usual things claimed to be preventing people from eating better—convenience and cost:
“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Mr. Balzer said.
In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.
“Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Mr. Balzer said.
Melissa MacBride, a busy Manhattan resident who works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren’t, in her words, “a pain.”
“An apple you can just grab,” she said. “But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?”
“It’s just like any other bad habit,” he said. “Part of it is just that vegetables are a little intimidating. I’m not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don’t know how to cook them.”
The solution is presented as a problem of overcoming access to good food:
But clear guidance probably isn’t enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more available.
I’m a fan of nutritional literacy, as I am with environmental literacy, but only as one of several approaches in a portfolio of strategies for improving the quality of life and the environment. Nutritionists and climate change educators should team up in this regard because they face the same challenge—winning hearts and minds (or, in this case, stomachs) and changing behavior.
The problem is that a top-down nutritional literacy approach, by itself, is woefully inadequate (more information, alone, simply won’t accomplish this), and access to good food is only part of the challenge.
If you want engagement, then nutrition needs to be turned into a bottom-up venture. It’s not simply a matter of food pyramids and access to good food. People need to experience growing and cooking their own food. They need to be engaged with how good it can be, how it can be grown cheaply, and how plant-based diets are easy to prepare.
There are several ways to begin accomplishing this:
1. Start early. Make gardening and cooking a part of the elementary school experience. All kids should take an active role in planting, tending, and harvesting food. Then they should take part in preparing the foods they have grown in ways that are appealing to eat. The power of this should not be underestimated. The only thing I remember from kindergarten is making bread and butter from scratch.
2. Diffuse this knowledge to home or community gardens. When kids are taught how to prepare healthy, tasty food, they can bring what they learn home, starting home gardens and helping out with making dinner by showing parents what they learned in school (maybe accompanied by some kind of creative incentive from parents to do this). People can see for themselves that is is often less expensive to grow healthy food, especially if communities team up and share their bounties, than it is to buy junk food that makes up much of their diet.
3. Involve the community in a contest to generate a list of the most popular recipes for different fruits and vegetables. Perhaps engage the help of local chefs for fun. I have a 100% whole fruit smoothie recipe that most kids would mistake for dessert.
4. Disperse these recipes widely and incorporate them into school education programs and lunches, as Alice Waters is accomplishing in California.
5. Not only should farmers markets accept SNAP (food stamps), there should be classes/demos to show people how to prepare foods. Also, having samples and recipes that are tasty and convenient would be helpful. People should be convinced, by seeing with their own eyes and taste buds, that they can do this and that it’s worth their time.
And that’s part of the larger problem: overcoming the psychological barrier that fresh food prep is time consuming:
“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it.”
Although I see the point here, I think it’s a poor reason for not eating healthy. People schedule time around education, sleeping, exercising, soccer practice, vacation, being with friends, spirituality, and visits to the doctor/dentist because these things are considered necessary to living well. Is preparing healthy food not a similarly meaningful part of our lives? Is it really impossible for families to schedule 30-45 minutes preparing meals? Should leisure time or other competing interests really be that high an opportunity cost?
Perhaps that’s one lesson: So long as Americans treat preparing and enjoying healthy meals as a tradeoff with leisure time or other activities, American diets will suffer. No amount of top-down government nutrition guidelines will overcome that.
Related news: Bill Clinton now eats vegan
Photo credit: hellochris
Friday, September 24th, 2010
It’s always pleasing to run across stunning photos of our world. The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), a UK-based NGO, sponsors an annual contest for environmental photographer of the year. Here’s a story on this year’s competition, with a few excerpts and several of the award-winning photos below:
A picture of an unprecedented congregation of Munkiana Devil Rays in Baja California Sur has won Florian Schulz the prestigious 2010 title of The Environmental Photographer of the Year. And 20 year old Bulgarian Radoslav Radoslavov Valkov has gained the title of the Young Environmental Photographer of the Year with his macro photograph of a fly.
Organised by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), the Environmental Photographer of the Year has exceeded all expectations, receiving over 4,500 entries from photographers in 97 countries in just its fourth year. That’s a record breaking rise in entries of 93 percent from 2009, with this year seeing the first entries from countries such as Tajikistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mongolia, Swaziland, Palestine, Latvia and Bolivia.
The Environmental Photographer of the Year is an international showcase for the very best in environmental photography, honouring amateur and professional photographers who use their ability to raise awareness of environmental and social issues. The categories are Mott MacDonald’s Changing Climates; The Natural World; Quality of Life; Innovation in the Environment (New for 2010); The Underwater World (New for 2010); A View From the Western World (New for 2010); and the Young Environmental Photographer of the Year (Under 16 & Under 21).
Saturday, September 11th, 2010
This week’s issue of Science includes a special section on biodiversity. A review article by Michael Rands and colleagues, Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010, summarizes the current approaches and challenges for conservation.
Here is an excerpt describing their outlook for the future:
The challenges of addressing the social and behavioral contexts for biodiversity conservation are daunting. We are far from including biodiversity in our conventional measures of well-being, which focus on wealth creation and internationally
recognized estimates of GDP. Although there have been attempts to redefine these (including, for instance, the Human Development Index and green national accounts), the mainstream view of well-being and of national development remains focused on narrowly defined economic growth. Furthermore, the current recession only strengthens the emphasis on growth. The transition to sustainability will not be easy, but it is central to securing a future for biodiversity. Conservation strategies, in concert with other environmental policies, must address seemingly intractable and politically unpalatable issues. In both developed and emerging economies, we need to reduce the carbon and material throughput demanded by current patterns of production and consumption if we are to create viable and democratically acceptable trajectories of contraction and convergence in resource use. In parallel, we must recognize that successful human development agendas are underpinned by functional ecosystems, and by biodiversity. This is the year in which governments, business, and civil society could decide to take seriously the central role of biodiversity in human well-being and quality of life and to invest in securing the sustainable flow of nature’s public goods for present and future generations.
Photo credit: Feuillu