Building Resilience into Complex Systems



When a person is single they make their own decisions and any consequences are self-contained. In a relationship, the needs and desires of a second person must be taken into consideration. Decision making calls for ongoing compromise between both people. As more people are added to the household, including other adults, family members or children, the system becomes more complex and requires structure to maintain its equilibrium. Communication becomes more critical to understand the needs of each member and achieve a happy home.  This scalable approach can be used on most complex systems; the greater the complexity, the greater the need for communication and understanding. System may have underlying similarities, but each is unique and may not respond to a one-size-fits-all approach, the same way each household is unique.

An example in education is Brazil’s Fund for Strengthening Our Schools (Fundescola) program, partially funded with loans from the World Bank. In order to reorganize the country’s public school system, the government imposed a top-down strategy for all 185,000 schools impacting 45 million students. Where municipalities had previously governed their regional school system, the new approach empowered the schools themselves. They were given 50% of the budget and the ability to make decisions on their own behalf. Schools that already had a strong interconnected network between the administration, teachers, parents and students succeeded in this new environment, but schools lacking structure faltered. Many of the schools, especially in urban areas that had experienced exponential growth in the student population, struggled just to address the daily needs and maintenance of the school building; the program burdened them with more administrative requirements. Without additional support this program will create a larger divide between success stories and the struggling schools will fall further behind. The well-intentioned program provided a template to unify the school system, and flexibility to tailor it for each school, but cannot provide the necessary structure to help it succeed.

Building a resilient structure in a company also requires communication and flexibility, as well as a clear objectives. Larger companies are comprised of separate teams that must work together toward the same goal. This cannot be achieved without leadership, planning, open communication, and an understanding of how the teams interrelate. As discussed in Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, there are many ways in which a system can go awry, but there are paths to success. One case centered on the conflicting goals of a comprehensive water management system that needed to maintain a consistent source of potable water and produce hydro-power while simultaneously protecting the biological integrity of the watershed. It required developing a new structure, multiple planning and development stages, model simulations, and communication between the teams. This communication wasn’t achieved only in meetings, but with the assistance of “interpreters” who could, for instance, help the engineers understand the concerns of the ecologists who had been added to the team. All of the parties had a stake in aligning the conflicting goals, and success was only achieved by consensus. They will need to continuously strive toward this shifting goals over time.

This approach can also be applied to the global issue of climate change. Humanity has always altered the planet throughout our history, however we have altered it beyond recognition over the last 200 years. We have changed not just the face of the earth with development, but the climate, oceans and atmosphere.  Our actions had unforeseeable consequences, notably the burning of fossil fuels that has caused a series of events leading to climate change, which has had different impacts on every ecological system. Our shared future is dependent on correcting this problem, but engineering a solution—creating a technological response to counterbalance our previous mistakes—may only complicate or amplify the existing problems. The earth’s climate system is so complex that we cannot accurately predict the outcome of a proposed response to solve one part of the problem we created. It is unlikely that we will intentionally return to a pre-industrial lifestyle, but we must find a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and explore effective alternatives, rather than attempt to counterbalance greenhouse gases with another technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS). Our solution may end up being worse than our current problem.

There is a childhood rhyme about an old woman who swallows a fly. She reacts to the minor problem with a logical solution; a spider. This does not resolve the problem. She continues using more extreme measures to deal with the consequence of her previous decisions, creating more complex problems, until finally the poor woman perishes from her solution, not the original cause. Should our planet take reactive measures to respond to a problem with a known solution—reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels—we may be in for similar fate. We can avoid this by continuing to work together on mitigation and adaptation and for each person to make a personal choice to change.

Image Credit: Association for Library Service to Children

Adapting to Climate Change


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The world’s cities are at the greatest risk from climate change socially and economically. Each city will face its own challenge based on their regional location and may experience increased incidence of drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, and extreme weather events. Many cities are built near large bodies of water, including oceans and rivers, which increases the threat of rising sea levels. Cities in the developing world, especially South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, have additional challenges in that they are exploding in population, but do not have the infrastructure or resources to keep up with the day-to-day requirements of running a city, never mind funding adaptation strategies in response to climate change. Millions of people live on the margins of most large cities and are most exposed to the impact of weather events. One only need look at Haiti, an under-resourced country that has suffered a catastrophic earthquake and two hurricanes for an example of development needs and human suffering.

The developed countries have a different problem in responding to climate change. Most cities have an aging infrastructure, inefficient housing stock, and a haphazardly built energy grid. Many of these elements will need to be improved or replaced in the coming decades and will need to be reinforced to withstand the greater likelihood of extreme weather, and insulated to not only reduce GHG emissions, but also to protect against extreme temperature variations. Transportation systems, including roadways and mass transit, are also at threat to climate change.

Today more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities and this number will continue to grow as we move away from an agrarian-based economy. Cities are also the biggest polluters and collectively contribute 70 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the challenge of creating new and updating existing infrastructure provides a real opportunity to adapt and mitigate climate change. The World Bank estimated that climate-proofing new construction may add 1-2% to the total budget, but this up-front cost is a long-term investment against future events. These large projects will require substantially financing and most cities may need public private partnerships to achieve results. One sector they may look to partner with is the insurance industry, which will need to create a new model to pay out for environmental catastrophes that can cost in the billions; we can avoid some of those future costs by adapting now.

There are already many known solutions but need financing, time, construction policies, and political motivation to implement them. However, some very simple and inexpensive steps can also be taken now. A prime example is in green building practices. Increasing green spaces in cities with roof gardens, vertical wall gardens, parks and bioswales provides an inexpensive measure with multiple benefits that have economic savings. These include absorbing storm water runoff saving on wastewater treatment, cleaning air pollution that reduces healthcare costs, heat island mitigation that reduces energy costs, absorbing GHG emissions which mitigates climate change, and also provides space to protect biodiversity. An additional benefit is that green spaces are aesthetically pleasing and can increase property values. Some cities have implemented these ideas for budgetary, as well as environmental, reasons, including Berlin, Denmark, Philadelphia, and my home town of New York City.

A takeaway is how to help cities in developing countries create sustainable infrastructure now, instead of building on the foundation of past building practices. Many of these cities are growing exponentially and need to provide living space for the millions of people who are flocking to economic hubs for employment and other opportunities. A question is how to guide their building practices, policies, and notably how to finance them. We may look at the financing mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which provides money to developing countries for climate change adaptation as a potential source. We have an ethical duty to assist these countries, as well as insure against a future where climate refugees will flood into the developed countries. We have seen Europe nearly destabilized by the Syrian refugee crisis, where more than a million people have fled a war-torn country. Millions more may be displaced by climate change. How do we work together to prevent a future humanitarian disaster?

Managing Decisions in Complex Systems


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Complex systems including climate change, health care policy, and consumer behavior are difficult to comprehend because they have many overlapping factors that influence each other; it is hard to accurately model an outcome. The further out the time horizon the more challenging it becomes to make an informed decision. The concept of bounded rationality, which is the idea that decision making is limited by the information that individuals have—or choose to pay attention to—further complicates the decision-making process. We often favor short term results from simple binary choices, which hampers resolving multilayered far-reaching problems.

This may explain why the international response to something as varied and long-term as climate change has been achingly slow. Each country has their own needs and desires, with more countries benefiting from keeping the status quo, for the moment, than those who are in peril. Building consensus on environmental issues through the use of framework conventions over the last 50 years has helped define the terms and potential resolutions to climate change. This United Nation’s coordinated effort led to the recent adoption of the Paris Agreement. The legally-binding treaty calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to prevent the average global temperature from rising over 2˚ C above pre-industrial levels, however recent reports from NASA indicate that in the it has already increased by 0.87˚ C. While we have slowly built consensus on what is impacting the climate, we have continued business as usual. Instead of mitigating GHG emissions to reduce future consequences we are more likely to adapt to changes in our biosphere because we perceive that it is happening very slowly; 200 years is like a flash of lightening in relation to the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history but generations for humanity.

Caring for and protecting the earth for future generations has been a key to driving many of these treaties forward, and one may look at the success of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer for hope that we can influence positive change. When it was originally drafted there was no scientific consensus that human activity was causing ozone depletion, nor that its impact had significant consequences, but the prospect of global environmental damage, increases rates of skin cancer and cataracts were enough to build swift consensus among all nations. As opposed to climate change, the problem had immediate consequences, and was easier to understand and resolve. Reducing GHG emissions is also easy to accomplish, but it will take significant shifts in consumer and development behavior. Building on the public understanding and empathy for generations that have yet to be born may help drive this change, but we must agree on a collective action and move forward.

When a decision is forced, or when some parties are not part of the decision-making process—or choose not to be—implementation of a policy or treaty may be difficult. A prime example is in the hotly contested Affordable Health Care Act in the United States. Prior to its adoption the majority of the American people agreed that the health care system was broken and understood that runaway costs were bankrupting individuals, Medicare and Medicaid. In opposition to this finding, a majority also wanted to retain their own insurance and feared it being taken away. Parties interested in preventing the act from being successful, including the Republican party, leveraged these fears and launched misinformation campaigns, including the threats that death panels would make end-of-life decisions or that there would be a scarcity of resources. What started out as an effort to help all Americans get affordable health care became a toxic bill. Democrats were rightfully worried about backing the legislation; they were voted out of office in the midterm elections due to the misinformed public’s outrage. In order to push the legislation through Obama was forced to make many compromises that undermined its impact and may be its eventual undoing. Today Republicans continue to try to repeal the act because they had chosen not to participate in the legislation.

Building an understanding of what motivates individuals may help with both efforts. A study on the relevance of environmental issues in relation to green products was conducted in Turkey. The results were measured against the Schwartz value survey, which includes ten basic values: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, traditionalism, benevolence, obedience and security. While this study may have been skewed by being completed predominately by older affluent women, some of their findings may help the producers of green products or environmental policy makers succeed. Environmental concerns do drive consumer behavior, especially among affluent consumers who are more educated, particularly about the environment. As a group they have a higher willingness to pay for environmentally friendly goods, but most individuals do not have the means to pay more; we must make these goods more affordable for wider adoption. One interesting observation was that younger consumers where more informed about environmental concerns and their consumer habits were more flexible; they were also more interested in innovative products. Tapping into this segment might help drive future behavior changes in protecting the environment.

Managing decisions in complex systems can be completed with the right tools and methodology. Breaking a large problem into sub-components makes them easier to measure, which is the goal of mediated modeling.  Building consensus is one step, but surveying and engaging the community, building understanding, and modeling various outcomes of a decision will facilitate the decision making process.

Measuring GHG Emissions


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On November 4, 2016, the most recent international treaty to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions went into force; the goal is to limit the average global temperature rise below 2˚ C. Emissions can linger in the atmosphere for centuries after being produced and trap more heat from the sun. The average global temperature has already risen 0.87˚ C above pre-industrial levels according to a 2015 report from NASA; it has increased by more than 3˚ C in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. With the future of our planet riding in the balance, it is important to accurately capture emissions.

GHG data is self-reported by each country, but there is not an easy nor consistent approach to record or track emissions over time. Emissions come from a variety of sources, however human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, has significantly increased the volume of GHG emissions entering the atmosphere. Measuring these volumes is often estimated based on an underlying factor, for instance the number of kilowatt hours of energy produced via specific fuel types, with fossil fuels such as oil and coal contributing more than renewable sources. Similarly, miles traveled by car, train or airplane are aggregated, or the number of cows per acre, to determine emissions produced. There are other metrics that are harder to quantify, including emissions from buildings which may be the leading source in dense-urban areas. The variety of housing stock, including age, insulation, energy consumption and fuel source, can vary significantly from building to building, never mind city to city. Waste is another factor that has wide variance on methane production. Complicating these measurements are the various carbon sinks that absorb emissions, which are being rapidly depleted. How can all of these various sources be quantified into one national total?

If any real effort is to be made to reduce GHG emissions, we need a consistent method for calculating an accurate estimate. The Global Protocol for Community-Scale GHG Inventories (GPC) responds to this challenge by establishing guidelines and methodology. The inventory outlines three primary factors: establishing the boundary within which the measurements will be conducted, an overarching and sector-specific account method, and a way to track performance over time. Sources for GHG emissions are grouped into six sectors, including stationary energy, transportation, waste, industrial processes and product use, agriculture and forestry, and out-of-boundary emissions (GHG emissions that take place outside the prescribe boundary); these are divided into sub-sectors. Finally the emissions are categorized by scope, with Scope 1 covering emissions created within the boundary, Scope 2 capturing all energy/heat related emissions, and scope 3 capturing the out-of-boundary emissions. Breaking down the complexities of what and how to measure each factor creates a consistent approach on how each sub-sector can be calculated into the total. This also helps identify the larger contributors, including energy production in Scope 2, so that they can be prioritized for remediation. Additionally, these measurements can be more easily tabulated to create a baseline and revisited to ensure reduction targets are being met.

New York City has successfully implanted effective measurement and GHG reduction efforts under differently titled, but similarly themed, programs under mayors Bloomberg and DeBlasio. New York is already a green leader due to its concentrated development, mass transit system, and lack of a manufacturing sector. However, there are still many ways to reduce emissions including the expansion of bike lanes for alternative bipedal transportation, increased green space, and building policies that call for tighter emissions standards in new construction and retrofits. New York’s Governor Cuomo also has a goal of adding more renewable energy to the mix to decrease emissions and reliance of fossil fuels. Without reliable reporting methods none of these successes could be captured or computed against a baseline. New York City also leads by example and shares its plans via the Compact of Mayors, which includes leaders from over 400 cities.

Measuring GHG emissions is going to become increasingly critical as we move into an uncertain future. By establishing a method for capturing these numbers, and continuing to modify it for ease of use, will help all parties, especially those in the developing world who may not have the resources to measure their impact. A takeaway is how to ensure this measurement is universally adopted so that self-reporting is as accurate as possible; perhaps it should be a condition established by COP23 in 2017. By facilitating the capture of this vital statistic will make it easier to accurately capture updates and determine areas for remediation.

Image Credit: NASA Global Climate Change

Measure your Carbon Footprint

Humans Are Causing the 6th Major Extinction Level Event


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“Everything is connected to everything else.” — Barry Commoner

Humanity is having an increasingly negative impact on our surroundings. We destroy habitas as we urbanize, which destroys native species of plants and animals. This destruction impacts the climate, water, and ultimately the richness of life, including our own. Each misstep creates a domino effect of non-linear consequences that are difficult to measure. These combined impacts are leading us into unknown territory, with humans, not nature, causing the sixth major extinction level event in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history.

The statistics included in “Consequences of Changing Biodiversity” should be alarming to any reader. The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased 30% over the last 300 years, humanity is well on its way to using 70% of all fresh water for ourselves, and we have introduced invasive species for centuries that have dominated landscapes. We are responsible for the rise in temperature of the planet. Although the drama of melting glaciers recieves a lot of attention, one indirect consequence of a warming climate is the shift in the stability of the permafrost. This destroys the native mosses that protect the soil, allowing more invasive species to get a foothold and continue the warming cycle. This is also adding substantial amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Sadly, this is nothing new. Humans have been impacting our environment since we started hunting in groups, we are just getting more efficient. The article underscored the financial impact from the loss of diversity, which leads to a proliferation of invasive species, increased risks of forest fires, soil degradation, and erosion of agricultural productivity.

A Global Analysis of the Impacts of Urbanization on Bird and Plant Diversity Reveals Key Anthropogenic Drivers,” is slightly more optimistic. One surprise is that many cities included in their bird and flora study were predominately populated by native species; the taxonomy of the cities was regionally different and more diverse. A handful of plant species that were predominant across European cities were introduced to foreign countries before 1500, but the cities in 36 countries from the study did not share invasive species; this may change if we do not take action now. Urbanization has had a direct impact on the climate and biodiversity, which has led the extinction of native species. The article underlined the importance of preserving remnant vegetation that supports native bird populations; they have a symbiotic relationship.

Lastly, “Extinction by the Numbers,” may be read with mixed feelings of crisis and hope. Human activity, especially in the species-rich tropics, has gravely reduced the biodiversity of the planet. The slash and burn practices of agriculture has robbed the habitat of approximately 15% of the native species; the remaining 85% are subsisting in increasingly smaller and fragmented reserves; it is also removing our carbon sinks. We have reached a tipping point after which the extinction rate will increase dramatically. To prevent this irreversible loss, we must protect the remaining areas that have not already been destroyed. This will preserve the world’s biodiversity, even while we continue to lose it in urban areas. One positive way of viewing this finding is that as humanity migrates to cities we are moving away from rural habitats. Perhaps that natural shift in population as we flee nature for the gleaming concrete jungles may allow us to preserve the remnant areas; as long as we don’t exploit them to feed and clothe the city-dwellers.

Image Credit: World Wildlife Fund

We Can Achieve Sustainability Together


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There is an underlying challenge to the sustainability movement. How can we get people to care about the environment enough to drive change? As we have seen in the recent US presidential elections, climate change, which impacts everyone on this planet, is not even on the minds of the voting public nor was it discussed by either of the candidates. Governments and businesses are not set up to be environmentally goal-oriented; it is counter to their agendas of growth and development. We need another approach.

James Miller in “Biodiversity Conservation and the Extinction of Experience,” draws our attention to our “collective ignorance that ultimately leads to our collective indifference.” As people migrate into larger and larger cities and sprawling suburbs, they reduce their exposure to natural environments. Our urban lifestyle is predominately lived inside, and children, as well as adults, spend a majority of their lives in front of computers or television instead of spending time outdoors. City dwellers also “encounter biological uniformity in their day-to-day lives,” so we grow accustomed to the lack of biodiversity without even realizing there is a problem. Our children do not develop a relationship with nature, and their children will be further removed. This increasing distance adds up to what ecologist, Robert Pyle, has termed the “extinction of experience”. To cure this, Michael Rosenzweig has called for “reconciliation ecology”, which suggests “a belief that contact with elements of the natural world would contribute to their well-being.”

This point is taken up in “Improving City Life,” (Standish, Hobbs and Miller). Communal gardening “will result in a wide variety of opportunities for city folk to interact with nature,” while potentially increasing biodiversity with native and exotic species planted by the gardeners. “Integrating people’s value systems, cultural traditions and socioeconomic activities into landscape ecology” will make them part of the solution. Developing intentional green spaces within the urban landscape, such as turning “urban wasteland” into more aesthetic—and more likely to be preserved—shared gardens, will not only build communities but increase knowledge and appreciation of ecology. Sweat equity will help people appreciate their effort to preserve and maintain green spaces, along with the flora and fauna that they become responsible for.

Turning to Lester Milbrath’s, “Psychological, Cultural, and Informational Barriers to Sustainability”, he wrote that “polls show a majority, usually a high majority, of people in most countries were aware of environmental problems and very concerned about getting them solved to ensure a decent future… [however] most people were deeply disappointed in the lack of action by their governments on these concerns.” He also detailed the results of a study that showed a high degree of awareness about ecology with students, but a significantly low degree of knowledge. Education may not be the problem, with harried teachers unable to cover the core basics and are lacking in environmental knowledge themselves. The real culprit may be the lack of contact with nature, as Miller suggested.

We, as a society, need to take it upon ourselves to reconnect with nature and build knowledge. As Milbrath pointed out, incremental changes “accumulate exponentially over time, adding up to a major environmental degradation.” We fail to see the daily impact of our consumptive lifestyle on the planet, since it does not change day to day, but over longer stretches of time. However, that same process can be turned around to a positive. If we learn to consume less resources as a society, and increase our exposure to and appreciation of nature that sustains our life, those incremental changes can begin to reverse decades of damage. Each of us is part of that solution. We need to get this message into the minds and hearts of people; it is not about austerity, but about the preservation of the richness of our lives and our long term survival.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Inclusivity and Diversity are Keys to Successful Development


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When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 it brought global attention to the city and its long-standing financial problems. As described in Jonathan Schlefer’s “Plans Versus Politics: New Orleans After Katrina,” funding shortages had impacted the city’s infrastructure, public education system, healthcare and delivery of services. 27% of the city’s residents were living below the poverty line—double the national average—who were disproportionately African American and living along racially segregated topographical lines. The wealthier areas of the city, including the French Quarter, universities and hospitals, were built on a raised crescent with the poor living in the bowl beneath. The aging levee system that should have protected the city had not been maintained due to federal cutbacks, and the flood walls built on top of them were poorly constructed. Additionally the bayou had suffered from decades of environmental damage and no longer provided protection against storm surges. This combination created conditions for one of the worst disasters in American; not just Katrina but the years of aftermath.

Mayor Ray Nagin called upon Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to quickly form a responsible development plan to restore the city. Although both groups attempted to engage the communities to get their ideas it was nearly impossible. Some neighborhoods had been wiped off the map and most of the residents had fled the city, uncertain if they could return. BNOB and ULI moved ahead without their input to draft a practical approach. They saw no reason to rebuild a city that had been broken. Redevelopment would be focused in areas that were raised above sea level—predominately rich and white—while the lower lying areas that remained susceptible to flooding would be put on indefinite hold. When the development plans were revealed to the community they were perceived as racist; there were no plans to help the communities that had faced the worst devastation.  Worse, the city had limited funds available to buy out the people in these areas. Since the community as a whole could not participate in the development decision, it was perceived as biased against segments of the community and interpreted as a plan to keep them from returning to their homes.

Similarly urban centers used to be built for humans, but following the broad-adoption of the automobile, urban plans favored accommodating vehicular traffic. This segregated pedestrians to the margins. Thousands of pedestrians are killed by automobiles every year, accounting for 13% of fatalities. The misguided plan to build cities around cars was raised by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities; removing residents from the streets destroyed the community. Hartman and Prytherch’s essay, “Streets to Live In: Justice, Space, and Sharing the Road”, discussed the problem of streets use in terms of societal justice. They offered an alternative in the shalom street, which allows the street to be shared equally. We have seen a gradual retaking of city streets where cars are removed or restricted in favor of greenways that provide space for pedestrian and bike traffic. These initiatives not only help provide a safer and healthier alternative mode of transportation, they also allow provide people opportunities to engage with one another and build community. These efforts take leadership, community engagement, money, and notably time, to achieve.

Achieving a more inclusive community has benefits. Susan Reed’s, The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate American…and What Can Be Done About It, tracked the years of incremental progress to building a more inclusive company. One chapter focused on pharmaceutical giant Merck’s diversity strategy. It started with one CEO, Roy Vagelos, who saw a problem in the lack of diversity in upper management; it was not reflective of the company. He began with not just a token hire, but added a mix of women and minorities at the top to send a message throughout the company. Merck was acknowledged for its efforts by the industry, but within the ranks it was seen as only the first step. Over time the program was expanded through the company by actively engaging the employees, gathering feedback, and providing a safe platform to air concerns.  The big difference with Merck was they actively used this information to make progress toward their inclusive goal and continue to make this a daily, not annual, initiative. This path took time and continuous effort, but they were rewarded in building a more resilient company where people from different background felt included in the company, shared their ideas and experiences. Merck claims that they focus on patients over profits, and they expanded this goal to people over profits. This inclusive strategy can be applied in any organization, including government, urban planning, and our unified approach to sustainability. When people are encouraged to participate they become the solution.

Image Credit: Diversity Index

The Green Invaders: Urban Plants


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Classifying and valuing ecosystem services for urban planning” by Erik Gómez-Baggethun and David Barton presented a different perspective on urban plant life. While aesthetics plays a roleincreasing property values for tree-lined streets and park viewsurban plants have very different jobs and expectations than their country counterparts. For instance, Baggethun and Barton document how urban plants purify the air, which can reduce health care costs, as well as mitigate water runoff and heat transfer, which may reduce other city expenses not often considered in urban planning. Plants around cities can offer a buffer to protect from natural elements, including storm surges. Urban plants offer green spaces to migrating animals and birds, which not only increases biodiversity, but their excrement can be potent fertilizer and germinate seeds eaten elsewhere. Finally, urban gardens may provide more than sustenance, but a sense of community that draws people together for a common cause where rural agriculture may be run by a corporation or single family.

The demands on city plants, similar to humans, requires adaptability and ability to survive intense environments. Covered in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast by DelTredici, non-native species found in urban environments may be the only plant life that can survive and thrive in variable climates, precipitation, sunlight and potentially lack of soil or groundwater inherent to urban landscapes. These species were introduced via Europe and Asia to North America over hundreds of years and joined our own species of plants that are capable of adapting quickly. If it were not them to colonize these areas, including sidewalk cracks, abandoned plots, or neglected rooftops, what other plant life would be capable? These plants, perhaps unwelcome for their aesthetic appearance, help cleanse the air, give sustenance to urban animals and insects, and fill in a biotic gap that humans have created by removing native species. The Tree of Heaven, aka the ghetto palm, is able to grow in places made inhospitable to the native plant life by urbanization, but it is not displacing any pre-existing plant life, it is filling in a niche left empty by urbanization. These plant species have the ability to adapt to the challenges we created, not only growing, but becoming the primary plant life outside of human cultivation. We may consider the areas they colonize abandoned, or a wasteland, but they add to the biological diversity lacking in cities.

 This is the same way that Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden views “novel ecosystems” which are a combination of native and non-native species that have grown, most often without human maintenance. These areas may comprise up to 35% of the non-glaciated landscape, and perhaps the majority of urban and semi-urban areas. We should study these areas more thoroughly to understand their unique diversity, and especially what makes them work together, to assist our understanding of re-growing areas that have been devastated by human or natural disturbance. Perhaps we should consider introducing invasive species that might thrive in ruined environments, such as reclaiming the rainforest, which has been clear-cut for agricultural use and animal grazing. Although this might not be the final result, it might help nature get a leg-up in reforestation and soil-generation that could not occur if left only to native species and would otherwise take significantly longer. The “invasive” species might attract and give shelter to other wildlife, insects, animals and plants, which might not have the ability to exist alone in a bare landscape.

Earth as Easter Island


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“When the Bank has no houses to sell, players wishing to build must wait for some player to return or sell his/her houses to the Bank before building. If there are a limited number of houses and hotels available and two or more players wish to buy more than the Bank has, the houses or hotels must be sold at auction to the highest bidder.” – Rules for Monopoly®

Monopoly® was one of my favorite games as a child, but after hours of play I was frustrated at the limited resources the game provided. There would often come a point in the game when we would run out of houses, hotels and/or money, bringing the game to a deadlock where no one wanted to trade. To solve this problem I cannibalized other Monopoly® games, stealing pieces until my own game was bulging at the seams. This childhood memory came back as I read the “Urban Ecological Footprints: Why Cities Cannot be Sustainable—And Why They Are A Key To Sustainability”, by William Rees & Mathias Wackernagel because it describes in greater complexity the same actions I had taken as a child. By stealing pieces from other Monopoly® games, I had rendered them useless and undermined the goal of the game: to succeed with the resources available.

Although the article was written in 1996, the points are even more relevant today. Global consumption and the human population have exploded in the 20 years since it was published. It is easier to grasp that we have well exceeded our limitations by simplifying the complex math of sustainability to how many acres per person are required to generate the resources necessary to support city life. We are producing increasing amounts of waste and exploiting the remaining “natural capital”. We have already reached or surpassed a tipping point after which the imbalance may cause system collapse.

A historic example of system collapse occurred on Easter Island, one of the most remote populated islands in the South Pacific. A community thrived there for centuries, but increasingly depleted their finite resources until their home could no longer support life. At the moment, Earth is Easter Island, there are no other inhabitable planets near enough for us to colonize or exploit for resources; the article noted that if “everyone on Earth lived like the average North American… we would need three such planets to support just the present human family.” We must learn to accept what we have.

Although it is frustrating to read this article that made such a clear case for sustainable development 20 years ago, it should not come as a surprise. In November 2015, information was released that Exxon’s own team of scientist has raised the climate change alarm in the late 1970’s. Although the company began preparing itself for the anticipated effects of climate change, they simultaneously started a lobbying campaign to keep doing business as usual and question the science behind climate change. George W. Bush’s administration did the same, forcing their scientific team to revise papers to neutralize the effects that carbon emissions was having on the environment. The Rees & Wackernagel piece underscored this cross-purposed agenda as they conclude the article,  “…as a result of political inertia, the world may well simply stay its present development course in the blind hope that things will work out. If so, and the analysis presented in this article is correct, humans may well become the first species to document in exquisite detail the factors leading to its own demise (without acting to prevent it).”

An upside to the article is that cities might be “entropic black holes” absorbing all natural resources locally and abroad, they do reduce the amount of materials and energy required by increasing density. As we have learned, there are many ways in which cities can provide for themselves and reduce their waste, including: urban farming, recycling, public transit and renewable energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Although we may have passed a tipping point in resource consumption, we can make remediating efforts to avoid becoming a global Easter Island.

Image Credit: Didrik Johnck, published in The Huffington Post

Combat Corruption With Transparency


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Corruption can be found in every country and in many different sectors, but it can be more evident in some areas, where bribery and extortion may be accepted as the normal way to conduct business. Kemi Ogunyemi discussed extortion in “How Extortion Works (Evidence from Nigeria): The Extortion Cycle”, which summarizes 159 narratives of corruption. There is a formula to extortion. One person acts as gatekeeper to withhold something from the person who wants it until they pay some form of penalty. This imbalanced relationship demeans the victim of corruption and makes that person distrustful of the system, especially when the extorter is in a public office. If corruption is widespread citizens begin to believe that nothing can be done to fix the broken system and begin to accept it as a way of life even if they object to the practice. Once this point is reached the system is broken because no one believes in it.

One way to limit corruption is by self-policing. In her essay, “Guilt and Elation in the Workplace: Emotion and the Governance of the Environment at Work,” Rebecca Whittle discussed how environmental concerns have entered the workplace and are causing new conflicts among co-workers who are not following the rules. People who make small but collective sacrifices to recycle, reduce energy use, and commute by bicycle begin to monitor those who do not. These self-appointed police may begin to judge the noncompliers for being lazy and uncaring about the environment, and the people being policed may become defensive for being called out. Whittle outline the cause of this conflict as the “good” conservationist employees vs the “bad” employees who are not participating. While conservation efforts are critical to sustainability, this interpretation of it being a moral choice creates tension while social norms are shifting. She noted a better practice would be strong leadership from the top engaging all employees to help shift the mindset to drive change.

Strong leadership to drive change was discussed in a case study by Jonathan Schlefer.  “Change in Chignahuapan: Reforming a Municipal Government in Mexico” covered the 3 year term of Raúl Rivera, mayor of a small rural town in the Sierra Norte mountains of Mexico. He and his council took some simple and effective steps to remove the perception and potential for corruption, including opening council meeting to the public, publishing monthly budgets, but primarily in engaging the citizens. While all of these things were required by law, they had not been done under previous administrations; residents had restricted knowledge about the government’s dealings. Since it is a relatively small and isolated community, where most people know each other, nepotism was common, however when decisions made by the government were made public, residents were made part of the process. This transparency discouraged backroom dealings; they now had to be disclosed. His one legacy was digitizing all public records, since it reduced the time to produce necessary documents from 3-4 days to 30 minutes; this removed the potential for bribery with public officials to expedite the process. Although he was only allowed to hold a single 3 year term, Rivera made significant progress. Change is possible with the right leadership and community support.

Image Credit: Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI)