Friday, 25 May 2007

ECOSUMMIT DAY 2: ECOLOGY, ENGINEERING AND NEOLITHIC PATHWAYS TO UNSUSTAINABILITY

By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

The latest theory and practice in ecological science, topped the bill on Day 2 of the Ecosummit, as well as some “big picture” viewpoints looking at humankind's place in ecosystems, from modern cities right back to the Neolithic age.

Wolfgang Haber gave a fascinating picture of some highly significant, irreversible developments in the history of our species. These included the discovery of fire (which left us requiring a supply of wood fuel); the adoption of agriculture over hunting and gathering (necessitating specific land and soil resources); and the industrial revolution (which unleashed our burgeoning appetite for fossil fuels). Haber called these developments the “ecological traps” of humankind. To me, the idea that what might alternatively be called pathways to unsustainability (as opposed to the STEPS Centre's approach of 'pathways to sustainability') had been taken as far back as the Neolithic placed ideas of “technological lock-in” and “path-dependency” in a whole new light. If ecology (in its widest sense) was to help us avoid further “traps”, then the role of technology in socio-techno-ecological systems had to be taken much more seriously than at present, exactly what the STEPS Centre is seeking to do.

Felix Müller of the University of Kiel started the morning by giving an overview of the theory and practice of ecological indicators, as it has developed over the past few years. He suggested that a reduction of complexity (through the aggregation of primary indicator data) was often demanded by politicians, however necessarily came at the expense of scientific exactness. The challenge, he said, at a time when a focus on ecological systems and functions had taken over from the previous focus on structures, was to try to reduce ever larger levels of complexity while doing minimum violence to scientific integrity.

Pierre Laconte, President of the International Society of City and Regional Planners, gave us a world tour of urban planning responses to “the age of mass individualism”, where our love of the automobile seems insatiable. Drawing on examples from the USA, Europe, Japan, China, Brazil and Singapore he outlined more democratic and sustainable approaches to managing land use under increasing population density. The imperative to invest in public transport infrastructure was especially acute in certain areas of China, he said.

The concept of ecological engineering, which has been gaining recognition in both China and West for 30 years, was introduced by Bill Mitsch of Ohio State University. Ecological engineering includes not only the repair of damaged ecosystems, but also the engineering of new systems that can help to remedy existing environmental problems or guard against natural disasters. But was it ecology, engineering or a trans-discipline combining the two? Mitsch suggested that it was time that ecological engineering assumed its rightful position alongside theoretical and applied ecology as the “third leg of the ecology stool.”

Jianguo Liu talked about research he had been conducting at Michigan State University on household dynamics. Even if population was declining in some parts of the developed world, social factors such as divorce and the ageing population were leading to an increase in the number of households, which, globally were growing at a rate much higher than population. This was important as many ecologically-relevant production and consumption activities took place at the household level. In addition, per capita resource and energy consumption, as well as land-use, were higher in smaller households. On a lighter note Liu showed some of the press stories that had picked up his findings, including “Divorce is not only bad for the kids, but also for the environment”, published in “Divorce” magazine. Feigned concern was also expressed from the older members of the audience at the prospect of having to welcome their kids (and families) back into their homes in the interests of saving the planet.

Sven Jørgensen of Copenhagen University lastly outlined “a new ecology”: a systems approach which drew upon brain-storming discussions in which he recently took part on the Danish island of Møn. Drawing on these conversations with his colleagues, Jørgensen identified the very basic properties of ecosystems, consistent with 10 propositions which could be considered an “ecosystem theory”. This theory was necessary, he argued, to explain a number of empirical observations, but also to open up a wider range of applications for ecological sciences in environmental management.

With plenty of ideas over which to ruminate, we adjourned to lunch, which today included ducks’ necks and pigs’ ears. The following two days of the EcoSummit do not include plenary sessions, and I’m looking forward to investigating some of the more specialised fields of research represented at the conference.

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