December 29, 2011

Environmental science and politics: Book reviews

Having a bit of time off this week, I've read two books that both take a political ecology approach to environmental problems. Political ecology emerged from a certain tradition of social scientists, and really seeks to intertwine the social and natural aspects of the environment. Since both books are relevant to the themes of this blog and my own research, I thought I would do a quick review!

The first book was Critical Political Ecology by Tim Forsyth. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Forsyth over the summer, so I was really excited to read this book. Forsyth combines critical social theory with STS, philosophy of science, and his on-the-ground experience in international development work in South and Southeast Asia. The central theme of his book is that environmental science has been used to reinforce "environmental orthodoxies," which are similar to myths or narratives. Some of these key environmental orthodoxies are that population growth causes soil erosion, and deforestation causes loss of biodiversity. Forsyth shows that these arguments are used for specific political/normative agendas, but that alternative scientific approaches have actually revealed contrary data in some contexts. Each chapter reviews different case studies that touch on themes of democratic science, science-policy boundaries, global risk and uncertainty, and scientific expertise vs. indigenous knowledge. Overall, his book shows the tension between top-down environmental orthodoxies and local adaptations to the environment, and the limits of using scientific facts to make policy decisions.

The second book I read was Arun Agrawal's Environmentality (no connection to the photo above, but still funny). "Environmentality" is a form of Foucault's "governmentality," which roughly means rendering subjects governable. So environmentality is the making of environmental "subjects" through technologies of governance. The primary technology that Agrawal examines is the use of statistics in Indian forestry, starting in the mid-eighteenth century under British colonial rule. Agrawal takes both a historical and anthropological approach to the region of Kumaon, in northern India (looks like a horrible place for fieldwork). He uses historical sources as well as surveys and interviews to show how Kumaon villagers have a dialectical relationship with state-driven forest policy, which protects forests but limits local access. The villagers use some of the environmental rhetoric of protecting forests, while simultaneously using it to their advantage and resisting state control. This is a great analysis, because it confronts the shortcomings of a one-sided approach to development politics (i.e. either ignoring or too relient on indigenous knowledge and local adaptations).

The themes of local adaptations vs. global development/top-down power/technological interventions is seen throughout Forsyth and Agrawal's recent work, especially with regards to climate change, and is something I hope to explore in my own research on agriculture in India (once I figure out what I'm doing...).

Finally, I also recently enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind Up Girl, which is a science fiction novel about a dystopian, post-sea-level-rise, post-fossil-fuel world. Bacigalupi's dislike of agri-chemical companies is obvious, as they are the main antagonists in the hunt for the last remaining seed bank in Bangkok, Thailand. Intriguingly, the government in Thailand is dominated by the Environment Ministry, which usurped power because of the impacts of climate change and global pandemics. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that in the absence of fossil fuels, energy is measured in calories since the only remaining energy sources are biological. This relates back to Agrawal's Environmentality-- making things into government subjects by classifying them-- whether it's carbon emissions or calorie intake.

[UPDATE] I also wanted to say THANK YOU to everyone who's reading and commenting! According to Blogger stats, I've had over 4000 pageviews this year. Not sure how accurate that is, but thanks even if you're not getting counted through GoogReadz or something. Happy New Year!

December 14, 2011

Grad School Reflections: Year 1.5

I am making a habit of writing a summary of each semester of my PhD, not only for posterity, but to shine a bit more transparency onto what the heck I'm doing with my life. Year 0.5 and 1 reflections are posted as Facebook notes, and they will remain there. Here goes year 1.5...

Once again, the grades are entered and my final papers are submitted, signaling the end of the academic semester. But this year, unlike my previous 5-week, leisure-filled holiday, the work does not end. I only took two seminar classes this semester so that I could start writing my research prospectus-- a proposal that has to be approved by my committee before I can do my field research, and a significant stepping-stone towards eventually graduating. So over the holidays, work on my prospectus will resume as I further narrow down my research questions and methods in an iterative process.

My classes this semester were another Environmental Social Science seminar, where we focused on Marxist theories about the environment. I wrote my final paper about the connections between food security and climate change, because there is a good deal of research in this field of "political ecology" that tends to be overlooked by the "hard sciences" that I read about agriculture and climate change. So that was an interesting paper. My other class was a workshop on "Adaptation, Transformation, and Resilience" in the School of Sustainability. With the guidance of two professors, our class of 7 students created a research project to explore the connections between climate change, water scarcity, and cotton farmers in Arizona. I thought this would be a good connection to my work in Michigan, and it was. I learned a lot about the concepts of "resilience" and institutions (policies and social norms that govern the use of social and natural resources). We ended up holding a public forum, where we had four expert panelists who were involved with different aspects of water management and agriculture in Arizona.

I also had a great experience at a big conference in Cleveland last month- I went  to the co-located History of Science Society, Society for Social Studies of Science, and Society for History of Technology conference. I met a lot of interesting grad students and professors, and it confirmed that I am at least on the right disciplinary trajectory.

Back to my research, I've almost certainly decided that I'm going to northwest India to do field research. I will likely be interviewing agricultural scientists, extension workers, and maybe farmers, and also doing some historical work on how climate change as entered different research agendas. It's all still evolving... but I'm fairly certain that I want to be engaged with international development topics, and I feel that going abroad again is important to understand what's happening "on the ground" as well as from a critical academic perspective. What I need to do is narrow down what I'll be focusing on, what information I'm looking for, and how I will interpret it. Also- to find someone who will pay my tuition and travel funds. Easy, right?

So here's to more over-commitments, over-worked and underpaid graduate life, attempting to have a social life, and more bike rides in 2012. Have a happy holidays!

December 5, 2011

Science policy summer programs for grad students

Just thought I'd pass along some opportunities that have been sitting in my inbox.

AIBS Emerging Public Policy Leadership Award
  • For biology grad students who have an interest in policy. Includes a trip to D.C. for some hands-on policy and communication training and opportunities (i.e. lobbying the NSF).
STEPS Centre Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability
  • A 2-week training in the UK in May. No fee, but no travel or lodging stipends either. I would love to do this, as the STEPS Centre has a really interesting mix of STS, science policy, and international development people!
Young Scientists Summer Program
  • A summer program in Austria for scientists working on global environmental issues.
And for the "I'm feeling lucky" crowd of students, Nick Kristof's "Win-a-trip 2012." Kristof recommends that you volunteer at BRAC, in Bangladesh. That's where I interned in 2008! If anyone applies, I can give you some tips for working in the 'Desh :)

December 4, 2011

Climate change vulnerability: diverging definitions

I'm writing a paper right on climate change, food security, and vulnerability for one of my classes. Vulnerability is a tough concept to define, but it's often used to assess the potential risks of climate change impacts. We can examine the consequences of these diverging measures of vulnerability by looking at visual representations of vulnerability assessments. The following figures are all global maps of vulnerability from different researchers and organizations. 

Figure 1 is the result of a 2011 academic research paper by Samson et al. The map represents their calculation of a global climate–demography vulnerability index based on climate models projections for 2050 (Samson et al., 2011). They combine climate models with bioeconomic models of population density, thus making a value-based claim that regions are more vulnerable when they exceed their “climate-consistent population growth” (Samson et al., 2011, p. 538). Image source. 

Figure 2 is from a private advisory firm called Maplecroft, and represents the results of their 2011 Climate Change Vulnerability Index (Maplecroft, 2010). Their methodology was unavailable, but they rank Bangladesh as the most vulnerable to climate change impacts in 2011. According to their website, this is “due to extreme levels of poverty and a high dependency on agriculture, whilst its government has the lowest capacity of all countries to adapt to predicted changes in the climate. In addition, Bangladesh has a high risk of drought and the highest risk of flooding” (Maplecroft, 2010). Their timeframe is based on current vulnerability as well as future adaptive capacity. Image source.

Figure 3 is based on results from a report prepared for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in collaboration with Maplecroft and CARE International (UNOCHA, 2008). While the entire report has multiple maps of different human and environmental indicators, this particular map is of the “overall human vulnerability index” with regards to climate risks in the next 20-30 years. This combined their assessment of natural vulnerability, human vulnerability, social vulnerability, financial vulnerability, and physical vulnerability. Interestingly, while the other maps in this report include developed countries, the maps related to vulnerability only include the Global South. Image source.

The diversity of results in these three maps represents the variability of climate change vulnerability, some of the value-laden assumptions about climate vulnerability and choice of timescale, and the overall difficulties in defining and assessing vulnerability.

Samson, J., Berteaux, D., McGill, B.J., & Humphries, M.M. (2011). Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 20, 532–544.

United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2008). Climate change and human vulnerability: Mapping emerging trends and risk hotspots for humanitarian actors. Discussion Paper. Geneva: Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, Inc. (CARE).

November 28, 2011

Foodsheds and resilience

Two quick updates: one is that I totally love these pictures of upper Mississippi "foodsheds." This is related to a project I'm working on with some MSU colleagues, and these images are great. They also relate to a recent book I read, William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis. It is about the history of commodities and land use change in Chicago. It's long, but really interesting to think about the geographical flow of nature and capital throughout the Great West.

Also, tomorrow I'm giving my first real lecture to a large class! It's going to be on climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience. I asked my students to read this article. The process of writing and putting together this lecture has actually helped me solidify some of my own thoughts on these subjects. The problem is I have to keep them fairly simple for my audience. Email me if you'd like to see my slides!

November 21, 2011

Ethics and Science: Climate Adaptation, Bird Flu, and Vaccines

Next week I'm giving my first lecture to undergraduates on "Sustainable Development: Climate Change and the Ethics of Adaptation." I'm trying to narrow down the three main themes I want to get across, while teaching the students something about the nuances of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability. I'm going to focus on Bangladesh, gender, and agriculture, since I have a background in these things and they make a great case studies. While I'm working on that, take a look at these three science policy blog posts that I really enjoyed this week:

Adaptation or Development? (via the CGIAR's CCAFS blog). This post surprised me at first, because typically this blog promotes straight-up climate-proofing development and technological fixes. It looks like the guest author is a policy researcher. This reminds me of some of the work of Jessica Ayers, a young scholar who I've been reading a lot of lately.
When we think of climate change adaptation in agriculture the first thing that comes to mind is improved crop varieties. Water harvesting and irrigation schemes may also be high on our list. Perhaps too is crop diversification. But on a recent trip to western Kenya, one agricultural community reminded us that sometimes the interventions that can most improve the adaptive capacities of small-scale farmers may not occur on or even near the farm.
Publish or Perish (by my friend Jessie, a Lyman Briggs graduate and medical researcher). Jessie writes about the ethical conundrum in publishing a scientific report about a more virulent strain of bird flu, and the implications for scientific governance.
One result of a global biomedical research field is that there exists no single regulatory body to dictate publication ethics in cases like these. Instead, there is an amalgam of various institutional, professional, local, state, national and international governmental and regulatory bodies which come together to dictate first ethical laboratory practices, allocation of research monies, and finally what happens with research-driven revelations.
The Vaccine Controversy (by Michael, an ASU colleague/my favorite person). This week we brought my former professor, Mark Largent, to ASU's campus where he met with the graduate students and gave a talk on the vaccine debate. Michael's write up hits the key points of his talk, which is about how the vaccine controversy is a case of scientized politics: a very Pielke/Sarewitz-esque argument.
But parents, looking for absolute safety and certainty for their children, aren’t convinced by scientific studies, simply because it is effectively impossible to prove a negative to their standards. A variety of pro-vaccine advocates, Seth Mnookin and Paul Offit among them, have cast this narrative as the standard science denialism story, with deluded and dangerous parents threatening to return us to the bad old days of polio. This “all-or-nothing” demonization is unhelpful, and serves merely to alienate the parents doctors are trying to reach.
Enjoy and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

November 17, 2011

Climate change adaptation: local to global

Some of you may have already read this- I posted it on my facebook last spring. In a few weeks I'm giving a lecture to the environmental ethics class I TA based on this topic, so I thought I would reshare it!

Climate change adaptation is a current impetus for decisions that will result in profound changes in both agricultural landscapes and social systems, although as Stephen Lansing argues, “Agriculture, in short, is a social as well as a technical process” (Lansing, 1991, p. 6). Sustainability, which we have identified as having social, economic, political, and environmental elements, is deeply connected to climate change adaptation. What I will explore today is the nested system of decisions related to climate change adaptation. Who makes decisions at each level of adaptation, and what might the consequences be?

One of the challenges of addressing climate change impacts is of scale. Climate change is viewed as a global issue with local impacts. Pielke Sr. et al. write that, “The IPCC and U.S. National Assessment reports start from a large global perspective and work to downscale to regional and local impacts” (2007, p. 235). For example, countries like Bangladesh are predicted to be hit hard by climate change, due to both physical (low-lying coastal country) and social (highly dependent on agriculture, pervasive poverty) vulnerabilities. Some of these vulnerable countries are the least able to prepare for climate change impacts. Thus, we tend to imagine climate change adaptation in hierarchical terms.

At a global level, decisions had until recently revolved around climate change mitigation (lessening greenhouse gas emissions), but a new paradigm of climate adaptation as a moral obligation of international development is forming. Developed countries can contribute money and expertise to developing countries that are vulnerable to climate impacts. Countries and regions will have to decide what sort of local policies might be enacted to deal with climate impacts: perhaps strengthening adaptive capacity through economic empowerment of people in poverty, or preparing for the social and political ramifications of “climate change migration” and “environmental refugees.” On a local level, however, farmers might face more immediate questions like: what environmental changes will I see this year? What crops should I plant? The top down notion of adaptation sees solutions like modeling regional impacts of climate change and developing “climate-ready” crops as desirable.

We tend to think of farmers as rejecting change-- for example, we perpetuate the ideal of the American heritage family farm. However, agriculture has radically changed over the past century in both developed and developing countries. During the Green Revolution, farmers rapidly adopted new agricultural technologies and land management practices, despite the negative social and environmental outcomes sometimes associated with these. Perhaps in less-developed countries like Bangladesh, rather than prescribing a future based on assessments of current technologies, local knowledge could be incorporated into higher level decision-making.

Works cited:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001. Third Assessment Report Glossary. P. 365.

Lansing, Stephen, 1991. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pielke, Roger A., Sr., 2007. A new paradigm for assessing the role of agriculture in the climate system and in climate change. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 142, 234–254.

November 14, 2011

Guest post at STEPPS blog

In my undergraduate at Michigan State University I was co-opted into the STEPPS program: Science, Technology, Environment, and Public Policy Specialization. Although I had taken many of the requirements throughout my undergraduate, it wasn't until my senior year, when I took both the introduction and senior seminars, that I felt like I had found my academic cohorts. I got a crash course in science policy, and two of my history of science professors pointed me towards ASU's Biology and Society program and the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, both of which I now call my home.

So I was very happy that my professors at STEPPS started their own blog. I contributed a guest post about my search for grad schools, so I hope you'll check it out!

November 10, 2011

Conferences and sociotechnical systems

Flying is a constant, necessary (in)convenience in my life. While it’s great being only a 4-hour flight away from Michigan when I’m in Arizona, the endeavor requires careful planning, packing, arranging, and management of every little detail from my laptop’s battery life to remembering to drink water. I’m doing a lot of flying this month, and just got back from the joint conference of the History of Science Society, Society for the History of Technology, and the Society for Social Studies of Science. As a consequence of all this talk of science and technology, I can’t help but begin to see everything as “socio-technical system.”

If you’ve seen the movie “The Matrix,” you have an idea what graduate school is like for me. There’s a Facebook page for one of my advisors, Dan Sarewitz, that jokingly asks,
- Are you unable to sit through a traditional biology/chemistry/physics/engineering/economics course without constantly contemplating how your professor managed to "drink the kool-aid?"
- Do you constantly remind yourself that your science professors are but tiny cogs in a global innovation machine?
- Are you unable to look at a tomato without thinking about science, politics, labor economics, sociology, anthropology, Michael Crow, agriculture, geopolitics, innovation systems, the University of California, and climate change?
- Does the mere mention of the "linear model" make you shudder?
- Are you unable to synthesize your views on climate change in less than 5,000 words? 
If so, you are probably a former student of Dan Sarewitz. You will never hold a mainstream academic position, and your peers (and the public) will never quite be sure what your "deal" is. That's what you get for taking the red pill.
Yep, that sounds about right.

A major project of the science studies is to give social, historical, and political context to the technologies we use in our everyday lives. For example, I’m reading a book by Maria Kaika about urban water infrastructures. We don’t really think about where our water comes from every day. We turn on the tap and expect water to be there (in the Western, developed world, at least). What we don’t think about is what it takes for that water to get there and for an assured, constant, and instant supply of water at our faucets. During the rare times when the tap might go out, we get a profound sense of “uncanny” because our expectations are suddenly jolted as we realize water doesn’t just appear form the walls. The author writes about the hidden infrastructure of urban water. For example, let’s say you visit a dam someplace out west. We don’t really connect this with out water supply, and also the enormous amount of energy needed to move water from the source to tap. All of this is hidden from view and out of mind. Kaika argues that this is because of the artificial divide between “wild” nature and the sanitized urban home. So here we have not only a sociotechnical system, but a socio-technical-environmental system.

Back to airplanes, since I’m actually writing this on the plane! Airplanes, and the process of air transportation, are a more visible form of sociotechnical systems. We stare in awe at the massive planes used for transcontinental flights. But from the second you walk into the airport, you become immediately aware that you are part of a finely tuned system of both humans and technologies. We are enrolled, inspected, standardized, and shuffled into our seats. Usually everything goes well, but today after our flight landed, the electricity went out as we were leaving the plane. This was also an example of “uncanny,” even though it is a more visible system. We can see the nuts and bolts of the plane (and don’t get me started on rivets… we read a painstaking paper last semester about the technological innovation behind airplane rivets), but we still expect everything work.

Think about the complex and heavily embedded system behind energy extraction and production, and the technological disaster that this has caused. These aren’t just technological disasters though, they are most definitely sociotechnical disasters. It’s crucially important to realize that humans design, maintain, and run these systems (to the extent that we have control). But inevitably, tightly coupled systems, such as energy, increase the severity of human error and technological failures. The take home message is that we often don’t notice sociotechnical systems until they fail.

UPDATE: Here's a great link via Arijit on the nation's water infrastructure being ignored.

October 24, 2011

Research proposal writing: topic and methods

Photo by me. I like the T-shirt of the boy on the right: "PhD: Philosophy of Denim."

As you've likely realized, I am intently focused on the impacts of climate change on agriculture. But not in a way that most other scientists are. They want to quantify, predict, assess, and project. I want to tell a human story about how scientists, policy-makers, farmers, and the people in between, imagine their future. This is why I became a social scientist rather than a biochemist.

I'm running into a bit of a conceptual roadblock, which is that not many other scholars take a "human perspective" towards agricultural research systems. There is a lot written in economics and policy, but I don't have, nor necessarily desire, an economics background. I read a lot of economics, because economists like to write about things like agricultural innovation. My disciplinary trajectory, however, is currently inclined towards Science and Technology Studies, political ecology, and some ("enlightened") science policy. I end up drawing from a medley of sociology, history, anthropology, geography, and environmental studies; picking and choosing relevant theories, methods, and similar case studies that I can base my research on. 

On one hand, my unique (inter)disciplinary perspective is something that I hope gives me special insights to my research, as well as contributing something original to the field of literature; on the other, sometimes it feels a bit lonely! I have a great set of advisors and colleagues, but I'm feeling like I want to express something really badly, but can't quite come up with the words. Writing my research proposal has been eternally frustrating because of this.

I know that the work I'm putting in now it really important to the rest of my career. I have a steep learning curve to get over, but luckily I'm equipped with a pretty good brain to help me out :)

In other agriculture related blogs, check out Ed Carr's post on agricultural productivity, and a response by Nathan Yaffe.

October 18, 2011

Boserup vs. Malthus: Hope or despair?

In contrast to the eternal pessimism of Thomas Malthus, Ester Boserup was a 20th century social scientist who offered a more hopeful view of the future, even in the midst of a neo-Malthusian resurgence. Whereas Malthus predicted catastrophe from overpopulation outstripping food production, Boserup came up with her theory of induced intensification. This states that under pressure for more production, humans will develop new technologies that allow them to grow more crops on the same amount of land. See my previous post on Malthus and agricultural technology for more background.

One of my ASU professors, Billie Turner, tested the Boserup vs. Malthus hypotheses in a historical study of agricultural change in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has long been viewed as a Malthusian crisis in waiting, given its extreme land pressures and impoverished agrarian sector. Yet, the country’s small-holders in fact increased agricultural production significantly from 1950 to 1986 through the intensification process, and the percentage of the population below the poverty line decreased, according to some sources. (Turner and Ali, 1996)
What they found is that neither model worked exactly well- on one hand, technology has kept up with population, and on the other, just barely. But innovations such as tube well irrigation, high yielding varieties, and other technologies have meant that Bangladesh is largely self-sufficient in food production.

Boserup's theory is still very much relevant to agriculture today. One of my research questions (broadly) is whether technological change can keep up with climate change and its impacts on agriculture? It's a different "demand" than population, but an important one. Also, Boserup helped pioneer gender studies of agriculture (see Billie Turner's homage to Boserup here), pointing out that traditional Western models of agricultural development ignored women's role in farming. This has been a persistant problem with agricultural development. So yay for Ester Boserup, an inspiration to me and many others!

October 14, 2011

October updates

This is, I hope, the craziest month of my semester. Working on my NSF proposal, my prospectus, and putting together my committee (mission accomplished!). I am running to meet with my advisor in a few minutes, but I don't want to neglect this blog.

In the meantime, enjoy why don't you stop by Praj's blog to muse on some climate change science and policy goodness.

Two recent posts:
Related, my previous post on climate change communication and politics.

Or check out what's been up at my other group blog, Her Story of Science.

October 8, 2011

Genetically modified foods and public engagement

A great blog you should check out this weekend is Jack Stilgoe's "Responsible Innovation." My grad colleagues and I recently enjoyed discussing his "'How' technologies and 'Why' technologies." An excerpt:
Some emerging technologies are defined by how they do things. So called ‘platform-technologies’ or ‘enabling technologies’ like synthetic biology provide new ways of doing a whole lot of different stuff.... Geoengineering, on the other hand, is defined by its intentions (I wrote about this here). Its target is a future in which we are able to influence the climate. This doesn’t mean that geoengineering researchers desire this future. Many of them would despise such a prospect. But they are interested in it. So while nano and syn bio are defined by the how, geo is defined by its why. This invites different sorts of governance and difference sorts of public engagement.
But his recent post that really intrigued me was an interview with Stilgoe on engaging the public in dialogues about genetically modified (GM) foods. Stilgoe discusses how going into a public dialogue about GM foods is different than with a more politically-neutral, or less entrenched, topic (see my previous post on GM and risk; also see my post on public dialogues). He also talks about "upstream engagement," which means involving the public in science throughout the research process, rather than just dealing with the possible consequences of the results. On engaging with stakeholders:
[Q:] The report speaks of engagement with both stakeholders and the public. In the case of GM, what do you perceive to be the difference, and do we need a different approach for each? 
[Stilgoe:] Absolutely we need a different approach for each. When you are engaging upstream, everyone is a potential stakeholder; yet at the same time there are no obvious direct stakeholders because there isn’t anything yet for people to have a stake in, except researchers and the people who govern that research. In a downstream discussion like GM, there are clearly established stakeholders: farmers, regulators, politicians, interest groups, supermarkets, and animal feed companies who all need to find a way to thrash things out in a fairly old fashioned way. I think that confusing this activity with public engagement is unhelpful and puts far too large a burden on public engagement. 
I think there’s another important set of lessons that need to be learnt which we didn’t cover in the report, particularly about how to engage with stakeholders. These more controversial issues involve direct action, lobbying and engagement in ‘uninvited spaces’ that government is not controlling and is less comfortable with. With an issue such as GM, working out mechanisms for this form of engagement may be more important than convening a formal public dialogue.
Really interesting stuff to think about! Have a good weekend!

October 3, 2011

Defining my research question Part II

My big project of this semester is writing my prospectus, which is a full-length research proposal that I will later present and defend in front of my committee. I'm also working on my NSF GRFP proposal, which I got an honorable mention for last year and am really working on right now. So I'm working on the "big picture" prospectus, and then cramming it all into a 2-page (with detailed methodology, of course) research proposal for the NSF. Today I gave a presentation about my research, and was highly encouraged to look not only at public research organizations, but private as well. They looked at my figure (above) and asked the glaring question: where would a company like Monsanto be? I think we're onto something, so here goes...

How do crop varieties that are developed for short-term weather variability become promoted as a long-term climate adaptation strategy? What is the role of, and interaction between, international public and private research organizations in developing and promoting these varieties?

Motivating context
My research question revolves specifically around technological innovations in plant genetics, which are often promoted as a solution to climate change adaptation in agriculture. Drought-resistant, flood-tolerant, salt-tolerant, and heat-tolerant varieties can improve plant responses to weather variability, which is expected to increase under climate change. My research will examine how climate change is addressed in plant genetic research in the agricultural innovation system, and some of the farm-level implications of these technologies.

‘Agricultural innovation systems’ are typically viewed as the research pipeline from public international, to national, to local research and extension systems. The international research centers provide a centralized hub of knowledge production and, critically, innovations in plant genetics. Plant genetic improvement—such as “modern” (high-yielding) crop varieties, hybrids, and transgenics—has guided agricultural innovation systems over the past century. This concept has captured the imagination of scientists, policy-makers, and the public alike since the Green Revolution.

However, today’s agricultural innovation system is much more complex than the linear research pipeline. Farmers now participate in plant breeding research, and non-governmental organizations and private seed companies work in parallel with the public, Green Revolution-style research and extension infrastructure. Notably, the introduction of patents and intellectual property rights on genes and plant varieties frustrates the public-good-oriented public agricultural research, while providing an economic incentive for private agricultural research. The result is not a bifurcation of research goals, but rather a collaboration of public, private, and other agricultural organizations woven together in a “triple-helix” model of innovation, rather than the linear model. For example, this article shows the interactions between public and private research and funding:
Monsanto and BASF, for instance, are working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and national agricultural research programs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa to develop drought-tolerant corn. The program is supported by a $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In March this year, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation announced that Monsanto and BASF have agreed to donate royalty-free drought-tolerant transgenes to the African researchers.
Innovation theory
The Hayami-Ruttan “Induced Innovation Hypothesis” seeks to explain how “supply” and “demand” factors influence the development of new agriculturally technologies. On the “supply” side is scientific agricultural research. On the “demand” side is farmers’ willingness to adopt new innovations. “Climate,” and other environmental forces, also affects the “demands” of agriculture, imposing new conditions that limit or provide opportunities for innovations. Can Hayami-Ruttan’s hypothesis provide insight into where we expect innovations to happen in the research pipeline, in light of the new organizational and institutional arrangements?

So what?
We imagine futures based on current technologies and past trajectories, thus certain innovations get “locked-in” and others “locked-out” of research and development. While climate is a relevant variable in the future of agriculture, it is not the only variable, especially in light of farmer livelihoods and the complexities of climate change adaptation and the overall resilience of agro-ecological systems. How does climate change influence farmers’ adoption of new crops, and facilitate or hamper longer-term climate adaptation strategies?

Further reading:
Parayil, G. (2003). Mapping technological trajectories of the Green Revolution and the Gene Revolution from modernization to globalization. Research Policy, 32, 971-990.

September 26, 2011

How the calorie shapes food politics, past and present

Despite feeling like I'm sinking into a puddle of quicksand as my work piles up this semester, there is one thing that always keeps me going: the excitement of reading about food and agricultural studies. I know this makes me the biggest nerd ever, but my dream job is for someone to pay me to write about whatever I want related to food and the environment. I might not be the next Michael Pollan, but I have a lot of academics and authors that I really look up to because of their work in this field.

One of my favorite authors that I discovered last year is Nick Cullather, a diplomatic historian. His most recent book, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, is a great read for anyone interested in foreign affairs, food politics, and the Cold War. The first chapter of this book is based on his previously published article, The Foreign Policy of the Calorie. It begins in the 1890s, in the beginning of the Progressive Era, with Wilbur O. Atwater and his invention of the calorimeter.

Cullather describes how the neutral technology of the calorimeter becomes a tool of foreign policy making, writing that, "With a numerical gauge, Americans could begin to imagine the influence to be gained by manipulating the diets of distant peoples. The calorie, Atwater declared, would determine the 'food supply of the future'" (Cullather, 2007, p. 341). Interestingly, Atwater worked for a time with Ellen Swallow Richards, who I wrote about earlier (much of her later life's work was in nutritional science).

The calorie became what we might call a "boundary object"- something at the interface of science and policy. It is used to co-produce both scientific knowledge and social order. Cullather shows how although the calorie is an extremely reductionist measure of health, it was used to define the post-world war foreign policy agendas. He writes: 
Beginning with India’s 1946 crisis, “famine” came to be understood as a national caloric deficit rather than the strictly localized emergency defined by imperial famine codes.... Caloric accounting reversed the flow of information about famine; international authorities decreed emergencies, while officials in stricken areas complied with mandated remedies. (Cullather, 2007, p. 362-363)
The invention of the calorie established a metric for modernization. Cullather shows "the capacity of science to renew positivism by inventing new metrics and new ways of deploying them. Quantitative reasoning was not a singular approach that could be disproved, but a succession of rhetorics tied to particular ways of counting. The inception of new numbering schemes revived a mandate for international social engineering" (2007, p. 364).

This obviously has a lot of links to later international development, including the Green Revolution and the population bomb. The complex ideas of food security and family networks were reduced to the simple metrics of calories, land area, and population size, and used to justify large-scale modernization interventions in developing countries. Today, I often think about how we have perhaps replaced the rhetoric around calories with the rhetoric of carbon. Instead of calorimeters we have climate models. Instead of a mismatch of calorie production and consumption, we have a mismatch of carbon emissions and climate impacts. What sort of inventions are we justifying through the normative lens of science and technology?


Cravens, Hamilton, 1990. Establishing the Science of Nutrition at the USDA: Ellen Swallow Richards and Her Allies. Agricultural History 64(2):122-133.

Cullather, Nick, 2007. The Foreign Policy of the Calorie. The American Historical Review 112(2): 337-364.

September 21, 2011

Blogs I like

My apologies for the lack of updates. School has gotten really busy again, but I still hope to update as much as I can. Honestly, at this point in the day I'm lucky if I can type full, coherent sentences.

So I want to introduce you to two of my new favorite blogs (one is actually new, the other is new to me). I've started reading the "Global Dashboard" blog, which is usually both informative and humorous. Two recent articles of interest:
"Our unspoken bet on climate change: we’re going to wing it, and to hell with the poor (and our kids)" and "What is the population problem?" Hope you check them out.

My new favorite lady-blogger is Kate Clancy over at Context and Variation (also see the blogroll on my other blog- because female-authored science [and science policy!] blogs are a bit rare around here!). She does an awesome job taking down the evolutionary psychologists, and has great insights on science and gender.

Finally, I should probably mention... "Does it matter what politicians believe about science?"

September 13, 2011

Defining my research question

This month I've been slowly working on developing my research question. A research question represents why you want to do your research. It will be crucial to explaining my research to other academics, to my field contacts, and to eventually shape my dissertation. Some professors think the "what" should come first- what methods, field sites, case studies you want to use- and others, the "why." Clearly, they are interdependent, and will both change as I engage more and more with my topic.

I have been struggling a lot with this. I clearly know what I want to study- climate change and agriculture- and am drawing from a variety of theoretical traditions to frame my interest. But I struggle with what methods I want to use- history? anthropology? empirical research? econometrics? geography? I believe this has been the primary block to me narrowing down my research question.

Since I am taking a proposal writing class this semester, and am resubmitting an NSF graduate fellowship proposal, I'm forced to really work on my research question. Last semester I created a few questions for my NSF and other proposals, but they were broad, heavy, and highly influenced by a few of my professors.

So here is the evolution of my progress this semester, and I'm still working on it.

Draft 1) How is scientific expertise used to shape international agricultural development agendas in the context of perceived socio-ecological crises (such as the "population bomb" and climate change)?

Criticisms: Is this really what I want to study? Do I want to study agriculture or environmental crises? This question precludes the on-the-ground fieldwork that I want to do. The word "shape" is ambiguous, the rest is too abstract- need concrete variables.

2) How do policy-makers use scientific knowledge to define and respond to socio-ecological crises that affect food production and consumption?

Criticisms: Same as above, too broad.

3) How do agricultural research institutions utilize plant genetics as a strategy for climate change adaptation, and how is this affected by past technological trajectories?

Criticisms: What is my focal point? Research institutions? Climate change adaptation? Plant genetics? What assumptions am I embedding in this question?

4) How do international agricultural research institutions portray innovations in plant genetics, such as biotechnology, as a strategy for farm-level adaptation to climate change?  In particular, what is the interplay between national and international agricultural research agendas with regards to climate adaptation, and how is this affected by historical technological trajectories of plant-based innovations?

Criticisms: Still too broad! What is my case study here? How am I going to study this, and is it a manageable project?

5) How does a specific technological innovation in agriculture, such as flood-tolerant rice developed at the International Rice Research Institute, become a climate change adaptation strategy at different levels of the agro-innovation system, from farmers to scientists to policy-makers, in South Asia?

Criticisms: Much more concrete! But the language is clunky. Specify what I mean by "climate change adaptation strategy"- what are the physical implications of this- in science, seed marketing, farmer education, policies, agricultural technologies, etc.?

I'll be meeting with my professors all week to narrow this down and clean up ambiguities/clunkiness in my language. But yay, I have progress! What do you think, is my research question reasonably clear? Any suggestions?

In other news, some interesting analyses of climate change, food security, and conflict: the new environmental determinism!

September 9, 2011

Pika politics and climate change

Look at the cute little pika! So cute! So... controversial??? One of my professors at Arizona State University studies pikas, little critters that are found in both North America and Central Asia, and is entrenched in an unusual debate between environmentalists and the government. I'm going to paraphrase a bit from a presentation he gave to our lab group and then discuss the science policy behind it.

North American pikas are a focal point of the climate change agenda among conservationists in the American west. This is because pikas live in the mountains, and with rising temperatures due to climate change, it is feared that they will soon run out of habitat at high enough altitudes to stay cool. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not so, according to my professor. While the conservationists are lobbying for pikas to be listed as endangered, he believes they are using shaky science.
In the advocates' claim for [endangered species] listing, Andrew Smith of Arizona State University sees a case of going overboard, and extending implications from limited studies. 
In his own work in Bodie, Calif., begun in 1969, Smith said he found pika capable of adapting to temperature swings by haying at night, instead of during the day, if it is too warm. He also has found the animals at low elevations, where they were not documented previously, complicating the theory that pikas are being chased relentlessly upslope. 
"We really think pikas are at risk, and we should learn more about them, and be monitoring them at lower elevations," Smith said. "They should tell us an incredible amount about climate change. But they are not endangered." (Seattle Times, 2009)
He thinks that environmental groups have picked the pika as a poster child for climate change based on values (such as conservation ethics) over scientific fact, and that they repeatedly cherry-pick data that supports their cause rather than the broader scientific consensus. While the lobby groups claim that pikas are disappearing before our eyes, others note that the western mountains are literally crawling with pikas. Scientists are working to take censuses of pika populations, but this is arduous and can reflect changes other than climate. So the question is, what will happen if the pikas don't disappear? Will we give up on climate change mitigation policy? Will science lose credibility? These are familiar questions to anyone who studies scientific controversies.

Environmentalists have long held a tenuous relationship with science- they both distrust it, and use it to their advantage in legal battles. Science has the power of legitimacy, and making visible the invisible. The case of agricultural biotechnology (GMOs), and how environmental advocates use science, is strikingly similar to the pika controversy. Small degrees of scientific uncertainty become major points of contention, and unfortunately the environmentalists and scientists seem to be speaking directly past each other. I will refer you to my past post to highlight this point. Roger Pielke Jr. would call this a politicized scientific debate. As he argues in The Honest Broker, we should use science to highlight a range of possible policy options, rather than a narrowly defined, predetermined political position. Implicit in the entire pika debate, as with the polar bears, is that in order to save the pikas, we must limit our carbon emissions.

Should scientists speak up and advocate against the environmental lobbyists? Or aim to provide a more robust understanding of the science and policy implications of climate change on animal populations? Can conservationists promote their own agenda without using dubious science?

Until next time, check out this new blog by some of my former MSU professors.

September 7, 2011

Women scientists and Home economics

This article, coincidentally by a professor of history at Michigan State University, calls for a revival of Home Economics as a response to widespread obesity. The first half of the article is about the foundations of Home Economics, which was a legitimate science, albiet one run almost entirely by women. The unequivocal founder of Home Economics was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), who began her graduate career as a chemist, coined the english version of "ecology" (based on Haekel's Oekologie), studied and taught at MIT, and was critical to the formation of no less than half a dozen applied science fields, such as sanitary science, nutrition science, domestic science, and human ecology.

Not coincidentally, I wrote a paper on Ellen Swallow Richards last fall and, dear reader, I'm happy to provide it to you. I was really interested in Richards' theories human-environmental interactions, so I mostly focused on that. But some of my main points will interest environmental, women's studies, and history of science scholars:
  • Ernst Haeckel introduces Oekologie (ecology) in 1866, defining it as:
“knowledge concerning the economy of nature—the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and its organic environment… the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.” (Foster, 2000:195)
  • Richards envisions ecology as the science of the total environment (human and non-human, including the built environment), introducing it to America in 1892.
  • As the "organismal" (and non-human) definition of ecology prevailed in the male-dominated sciences, Richards’ tries to re-brand her vision of ecology as domestic science, home economics, human ecology, and "euthenics"- as opposed to eugenics- as "the science of the controllable environment."
  • Richards situates women as guardians of the home environment, emphasizing safety, efficiency, education and relief from drudgery. Rather than seeking to impose more housework on women, Richards saw scientific home economics as empowering.
Some scholars recognize Ellen Swallow Richards as a proto-feminist, or even ecofeminist. Philosopher of science Sandra Harding writes, "Might our understanding of nature and social life be different if the people who discovered the laws of nature were the same ones who cleaned up after them?” (Harding, 2001:27) Unfortunately, I believe that many of Richards' theories on the environment disappeared after her death. Although she was a prominent chemist at the time, even appearing in books such as American Men of Science, she was marginalized because of her gender and her progressive views on human-environment interactions. Her version of Home Economics was watered-down significantly over the next century. Nonetheless, I cautiously applaud the call for a reinvigoration of Home Economics- perhaps one that recognizes the role of men and women in the household.

This blog is cross-posted at my other, less updated blog, Her Story of Science. References available in my paper, linked above.

August 29, 2011

Is agricultural technology the answer to Malthus?

Just a quick update today, based on some interesting articles I've come across related to agricultural technology and climate change. To start, maybe you'd like to refresh your memory with some of my previous posts on this topic? For a few years now, I've been following news articles about agriculture and climate change, and I'm noticing a pretty obvious theme. Biotechnology(!) Climate models(!) Nanotechnology(!) and other promising new technologies in the pipeline are heralded as the next big thing in adapting agriculture to climate change. Listen, I don't want to sound like a ranting environmentalist here, but I believe there's value in taking a slightly more critical approach to these technological fixes. As I've said before, technology and technological innovation plays a hugely important role in global agriculture. Yet social contexts of innovation are equally important.

Rodrigo Cortes-Lobos, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology, explores this is at CSPO's Soapbox. He proposes a participatory, adaptive management approach to developing agricultural technologies for smallholder farmers:
No matter the location, small farmers require new technology development, but under frameworks that foresee potential risks or disadvantage that the new technology can produce, with enough time to amend those negative consequences before the cost to the users is too high.
Related, here's an interesting article on the importance of farmer communication networks in adopting innovations: in this case, a radio program about new agricultural technologies.

Finally, two articles on food prices, climate change, and Malthusian predictions. This NYTimes article is from a few weeks ago, on Jeremy Grantham and his reframing of climate change as a resource depletion issue. His argument seems to be that if we can frame it this way, it will attract rich investors who respond to market signals. Grantham reflects classic neo-Malthusian views about population growth, soil degradation, and now climate change. He is hoping for a second Green Revolution, driven by commodity markets. The second article is by Michael J. Roberts, an agricultural economist and writer of this blog. Roberts has a great analysis of food price volatility, market signals, and climate change. But his proposed policy solutions are as follows:
First, we could restore some of the funding to crop sciences. Research dollars could be directed toward the basic research that private companies are less inclined to undertake. Some might also be aimed at developing crop varieties more tolerant of warmer temperatures. 
Second, we could persuade countries to reform their processes for approving new genetically modified crops. Ingo Potrykus’s genetically engineered golden rice, developed in 1999, promises to substantially reduce the millions of deaths worldwide each year that stem from vitamin A deficiency. But due to regulatory hurdles, this life-saving variety of rice will not reach the market until at least next year.
Sure, it might be great if we could have global regulatory standards for GMOs. But the likelihood of this happening? GMOs are one of the most value-laden, contentious topics in agriculture. Patent rights are a huge problem. And when are we going to get over Golden Rice? The chances of it ever significantly catching on seem to be getting slimmer. As for funding more basic research, it's one of the easiest to make because it sounds so apolitical. But research, from the outset, can be inherently political. Scientists and donors are driven by humanitarian pursuits, but how do we know they are the right ones? Who gets to decide what are appropriate research goals? Is it possible to ignore the reality that private research is driving the global agricultural agenda? Why are we so obsessed with sustaining staple crop production in regions that are struggling to keep up with market prices as is? What about developing livelihoods rather than substituting technological inputs? 

I'm wondering whether this blog post comes off as ranting? My goal is not to be anti-science or technology at all; but I think anytime we bring up accepted tropes such as Malthusianism, the Tragedy of the Commons, and other narratives that really don't have any empirical backing (again, "miracle rice"), it's worth delving a little deeper into these embedded assumptions about human behavior.

Here's some interesting opposing viewpoints to Malthus. Population: more than a number. Agroecology as the next green revolution. An academic article on agricultural research and technological lock-in. World Bank paper on seeds, biodiversity, and patents.

I promise that the pika blog post is coming soon! In the meantime, do a google image search for pikas.

August 26, 2011

Narrative break

Exploring some narrative writing today. Possible introduction paragraph for my personal statement?

It’s 105 degrees as I cruise through Phoenix’s historic neighborhoods on my surprisingly rust-free 1979 Schwinn bicycle. From the canals laid by the prehistoric Hohokam Indians; the palm and citrus trees lining the flat, wide streets; the crunchy, dry grass that carpets the lawns of many homes; to the occasional lone, vaguely anthropomorphized saguaro cactus, these features reveal the complex history of societal-environment interactions in Arizona. Hidden from view are the peri-urban agricultural fields, buffering Phoenix’s water supply and keeping the desert landscape at bay, but facing a questionable future due to the impacts of climate change. This landscape is drastically different from the familiar cherry orchards and cornfields in my home state of Michigan. The hot, dry air is like breathing in front of an open hot oven, and the sun grates against my skin like tiny, burning needles. But a year into my graduate studies at Arizona State University, I know that I am in exactly the right place.

Next week: How does politicization of science explain the connection between these cute critters and climate change?

August 22, 2011

"How science works": A jaded pursuit of knowledge?

As I get back into the swing of graduate school classes, I'll likely be blogging less frequently. But if you all keep sending me interesting articles, the more fodder I have for new posts!

A staple of STS theory, and other post-modern theories, is that "science" (defined roughly as an organized pursuit of/production of knowledge) is less objective than we'd hope. After all, scientists are human, and all human artefacts are shaped by our own experiences, biases, and institutional environments. So although not all STS scholars adhere to the full-blown post-modern relativism that there is no objective truth, I see the STS perspective as simply more critical of taken-for-granted assumptions about science.

There are plenty of examples from the History of Science about how science, at the time, was taken as the paragon of truth, only to later be totally de-bunked. The regime change from one scientific theory to another is what's known as  "paradigm shift." But perhaps science isn't just about finding out what's right and wrong in the universe. What matters is even what we decide to study. For example, STS scholar Scott Frickel writes about science and activism. In his 2004 book, Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology, he describes how a group of scientists, influenced by the 1970s environmental movement, started a new, interdisciplinary field of "genetic toxicology." While building the scientific legitimacy of their field (which Frickel points out, is an act of advocacy itself), the scientists also strategically distanced themselves from the more "activist" arm of their academic society. I have a more detailed analysis on science and activism linked at the end of this previous post.

The recent controversy of science and activism centers around, of course, climate change scientists. The question is whether scientists can be pro-climate policy activists while still maintaining scientific integrity? However, the scientists themselves don't see themselves as activists. Here's a recent excerpt from an NPR article:
Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process.... (AAAS, 2011
Climate research works precisely in the same way. To politicize it, to persecute and scrutinize individual scientists as if they were corrupt politicians, is not only misguided but useless. Not all scientists are virtuous (and not all doctors, lawyers, bankers, or teachers either), but the whole point of the scientific process is to free itself from such personal flaws: sooner or later, fraudulent or wrong data is uncovered and the path toward certitude is restored. Errors may persist for a while, but not for a very long while.
The author is speaking of traditional paradigm shifts, and the self-correcting view of science described by Michael Polanyi. The problem is that this view of science ignores what we know about scientists: they too, are human. A "free market" pursuit of science is not necessarily best for society as a whole. This might be partly because scientists have long been a homogenous social group, although this is changing.

A round-up of recent news articles adds some interesting perspectives to the mix:

"Biased by Brilliant" (bonus points for referencing philosopher of science Heather Douglas)
Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
"It’s Science, but Not Necessarily Right"
Scientists can certainly point with pride to many self-corrections, but science is not like an iPhone; it does not instantly auto-correct. As a series of controversies over the past few months have demonstrated, science fixes its mistakes more slowly, more fitfully and with more difficulty than Sagan’s words would suggest. Science runs forward better than it does backward.
"The objectivity thing (or, why science is a team sport)."
In both the ideal of reproducibility and the practice of peer review, we can see that the scientist’s commitment to producing knowledge that is as objective as possible is closely tied to an awareness that we can be wrong and a desire not to be deceived — even by ourselves.

Science is a team sport because we need other people in order to build something approaching objective knowledge.
However, teamwork is hard.
"Toni Scarpa: Reviewing peer review"
The goal was to ask people to focus more on impact and significance. Peer review is simple — I think it should ask only two questions. First: Is it worth doing? That is impact and significance. If the answer is yes, then you ask the second question: Can they do it? In the past we were asking those questions in reverse.
So I'm not sure if I'm ready to come to any conclusions about what this means for climate science, but it certainly highlights science as a human pursuit, subject to the same biases and ethical dilemmas as any other.

August 15, 2011

Climate change and food security vs. famine

Image courtesy of Adrianne Daggett.

I'm back to blogging after a week-long road trip to move from Michigan to Arizona for my second year of graduate school. While I'm catching up on my news  and getting my brain back into academic gear. One thing I can tell you is that I'm really excited to write my research proposal. A recent conversation with a professor and a series of other academic readings on agriculture and climate change have prompted me to frame my research around "food security." What does food security mean to different people (scientists, farmers, policy-makers), and how to we envision a "food secure" future in a changing climate? This also allows me to explore some foreign policy themes that I hope to trace back to the Green Revolution era.

But for now, I will leave you with some articles/blogs that better articulate what I'm trying to say! First is a blog by Ed Carr, which I'm mentioned before, called "Open the Echo Chamber." Here are some excepts from two recent posts.
From "Stories, Development, and Adaptation":
My entire research agenda is one of unearthing a greater understanding of why people do what they do to make a living, how they decide what to do when their circumstances change, and what the outcomes of those decisions are for their long-term well being. Like Hulme, I am persistently surprised at the relative dearth of work on this subject – especially because the longer I work on issues of adaptation and livelihoods, the more impressed I am with the capacity of communities to adjust to new circumstances, and the less impressed I am with anyone’s ability to predictably (and productively) intervene in these adjustments.
From "Early Warning for Climate Tipping Points":
...people seem to forget that agricultural systems are ecosystems; radically simplified ecosystems, to be sure, but still ecosystems. They are actually terribly unstable ecosystems because they are so simple (they have little resilience to change, as there are so few components that shifting any one of them can introduce huge changes to the whole system), and so the sort of nonlinear changes I am describing have particular salience for our food supply. I am not a doomsday scenario kind of guy – I like to think of myself as a hopelessly realistic optimist – but I admit that this sort of thing worries me a lot.
Finally, the famine situation in Somalia is heart-wrenching, but what can social science tell us about policy responses? Here's an article that helped me better understand the context. You'll hopefully be hearing a lot more riffs on these themes over the next few weeks and months.

UPDATE: I just found a few more interesting articles that relate to this post. One is an interview with some agricultural/environment/development experts and public figures on NPR about climate change. Then I found this brief article interesting: "Singapore to address global food security through R&D."

While these articles hit on all of the main themes that have come up in the agriculture/climate change discourse, I find their definition of "food security" quite limited. Food security invokes a range of factors in people's livelihoods, the market, and the environment. Food security is not just higher-yielding rice. It's amazing to me how the narratives of the Green Revolution ("miracle rice," technological fixes, the scientists swooping in to save the day) are perpetuated in climate change adaptation efforts.

It's a lot easier to break problems into small bits- I know this as someone who studied biochemistry for five years! But problems like the impacts of climate change on agriculture are, like I mentioned last week, "wicked problems." They won't be "solved" anytime soon. On the other hand, technological innovation is a major factor in agriculture and our global economy. The problems we face today will be categorically different in 50 years because of changes in technology and society. So I somewhat easily dismiss Lester Brown's warnings that the "agricultural system that we have today has evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability.... But now that climate is changing, with each passing year, the agricultural system is more and more out of synch with the climate system, and that's presenting a challenge." I did background research this summer on regional climate change, such as the American dust bowl, or how farmers in Nepal adapt to varying levels of rainfall and soil quality. It's true that overall, we have lived in a "climate stationary" period for the past thousands of years. However, when you increase the resolution of the picture, you see that farmers are incredibly innovative in adapting to changes in technological, economic, and environmental conditions.

August 4, 2011

Video break

I'll likely be taking a break from blogging to move back to Arizona next week, so in the meantime, enjoy these videos!

The first videos are from a recent hire at MSU: Laura Schmitt Olabisi is an environmental scientist-turned social scientist. She describes her journey here:

She also worked on a public engagement with science project in Minnesota, which she describes here:

Watch/read an interview with Roger Pielke Jr. here. The clips are short and it's very interesting!

Finally, for a bit of meta humor, definitely watch this:

Nation's Climatologists Exhibiting Strange Behavior (Season 1: Ep 5 on IFC)

August 2, 2011

Science and public policy: The Social Animal

This summer my colleagues at Michigan State University recommended that I read David Brooks' The Social Animal. Brooks' book merges a narrative of love, life, and career with research about what drives us as humans (the social animals, of course). This relates to our work with climate change, because much of Brooks' research is about how we form values and make decisions. Unlike the economics model of rational behavior, Brooks argues that humans are much more complex and driven by unconscious motivations (not necessarily "animalistic" motives, but rather neurological pathways that have been shaped by both evolution and social/environmental factors). So while public policy tends to rely on economic models of rationality, instead we should look at how people actually work to improve public good. This sort of social science-based analysis is useful for anything from political to public health campaigns. For example, something I've been hearing lately (including in this book) is that to be a good parent, you don't have to be perfect. Social scientists have shown that being "good enough" is really "good enough" to raise a child. So instead of a hypothetical public safety campaign to track your child's every movement with a GPS tracker, a Brooks style campaign might be something like "You can't teach them everything: equip your child with the tools to decide for themselves" (uh-oh, have I been watching too much Mad Men?).

There are downsides to Brooks' approach. One, as pointed out by biologist H. Allen Orr, is that Brooks actually relies too much on over-simplified scientific explanations. Boil it down even further, and it sounds like Brooks might be advocating for policy based on science (in this case, social science), which we know is problematic! Orr writes,
There can, of course, be no doubt that a decent grasp of human nature is a prerequisite for decent public policy. (A policy that assumes, for example, that people mostly want to give away their possessions would not be the most promising.) And there can also be no doubt that a decent grasp of science can help us figure out a thing or two about human nature. (So that’s how people trade goods in a behavioral economic experiment.) But there’s a serious question of whether a scientific understanding of human nature is the main thing that matters. It seems peculiar to believe that a more sophisticated understanding of, say, the genetics or biochemistry or evolutionary basis of human nature will provide special insight into the human condition and thereby allow us to—finally—shape successful public policy. Why, to put it differently, is it so easy to imagine a society that knows very little if anything of the new sciences of humanity but that is exceedingly happy and another that knows all about these sciences but that is thoroughly miserable?
It is exceedingly difficult to broadly characterize populations of people, even with top-notch social science research. A blog post that sums this up well questions whether people (using the example of climate change deniers and scientists) are even inhabiting the same social reality anymore:
What many techno-scientists fail to understand - and thus find most frustrating - about dealing with climate change deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality.
Others offer solutions to complex problems through deliberative decision-making, which we are finding very useful at MSU Extension. Consider this description of so-called "wicked problems" like climate change, and how to approach them:
Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn't use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult--but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope. 
Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.
As I've touched on before, what all of these "new models" of science and society show is that the Enlightenment vision of rationality is no longer applicable to today's public policy problems. So maybe Brooks has it wrong that "more science" can solve our problems, but I believe he's onto something, which is that we need more than economics, cost-benefit analyses, and risk assessments to create policy.