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.