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).