Thursday, 24 May 2007

ECOSUMMIT DAY 1: DAVID, GOLIATH & THE FUTURE DIRECTION OF ECOLOGY


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

The first morning of the EcoSummit 2007 started with a plenary session of four “state of the art” keynotes, delivered to a packed hall of delegates. Each of the speakers highlighted the growth in interdisciplinarity and international collaboration as fundamental to the challenges posed by ecological complexity and sustainability.

First, James Collins of the US National Science Foundation outlined his vision of the future direction of ecology, highlighting some of the high-profile efforts that NSF was funding. He focussed especially on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which would compliment existing programmes such as Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), which focussed on local communities across long time-scales, by extending across space to link ecological data right up to the continental and international levels. Will networks of automated sensors linked by cyberinfrastructure (as used by NEON) replace field ecologists and local knowledge in the future? Let’s hope not!

Rusong Wang, President of the Ecological Society of China and Vice President of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, gave a fascinating insight into his concept of “ecoscaling”. Drawing upon ancient Chinese philosophy and modern ecological and social sciences, he stressed the limitations of these in simplifying ecological/human complexity to quantitative values. I was interested to hear what he said about China’s ecodevelopment policy, which focuses on different levels from the farm up to the province, to form one integrated “eco-unit”. I’m hoping to learn more about these policies over the coming few weeks.

Gunter Pauli, of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative (Switzerland) gave an entertaining and provocative talk, drawing on his experience in eco-innovation dating back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Highlighting some of the impressive projects in which his foundation had invested, he provided an optimistic picture of the ways in which bottom-up innovation and entrepreneurialism, especially amongst the most desperate sections of society, could deliver solutions to some of its most pressing environmental and development needs. When asked from the floor whether he thought that his ideas were feasible from a “hard-nosed” economics point-of-view, he replied “current capitalist systems are dinosaurs; the rules of the game will be changed by entrepreneurs on the ground.” “David beat Goliath”, he said, “because he changed the rules of the game.”

Lastly, Robert Costanza gave a wide-ranging and informative account of some of the analytical tools and institutions that are emerging to meet some of the complex problems highlighted by the previous speakers. Recognising the co-evolution of humans, their culture and their interactions with the larger ecological system, he described the need for spatially explicit analysis and modelling tools that incorporated social, human (including knowledge), built and natural capital. Such models (e.g. the global unified metamodel of the biosphere – GUMBO - should involve multiple disciplines and stakeholders, and thus act also as consensus-building tools. He also described innovative adaptive management institutions that promise to better manage human activities to achieve societal goals, such as common asset trusts like the Earth Atmospheric Trust.

I left the hall, my brain full of new ideas, to enjoy my first EcoSummit 2007 lunch (amongst the delicacies on the menu today: chicken knees).

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