Sunday, July 17, 2016

The End of An Era? Some Perspective

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1555Ok, that was a bit of a melodramatic title, but on Saturday I had my birthday (and according to societal norms, it was a big one), so I am going to proceed to making tenuous links between aging and decision-making! For starters, the longer I work on environmental issues the more relevant subjects like psychology and economics seem to become (which is perhaps very telling for someone who has mostly identified as an ecologist). I'm definitely not alone in this, if the surge in scholarship around behaviour change and environmental problems is any indication. Climate change policy has become a textbook example of the shift in focus, from providing people (in this case decision/policy makers) with loads of information to considering how to influence the context and underlying drivers.  Basically, we're finally coming to the realization that humans are not wholly rational actors - as in we don't always choose the option that yields the greatest "benefit" - and that we don't do particularly well making decisions solely on an extensive array of cold, hard 'facts'.

But let's get back to this whole aging phenomenon. I think we approach birthdays and getting older in a similar manner. A couple of years ago now, I remember reading a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about big life decisions made at the end of decades. If you take a look at the studies themselves, they focus on the occurrence of extramarital affairs, suicides, and first-time marathon finishers by age (which to be fair are relevant to only a subset of the population). 'Participation' in those activities was highest among subjects in their ultimate year of a decade (e.g. 29...). The popular media interpreted the findings as demonstrating that the '9's are spent in self-reflection and in search of meaning (but the Jury's still out...), and when we reach these transitional years we become “particularly preoccupied with aging and meaningfulness, which is linked to a rise in behaviors that suggest a search for or crisis of meaning.” In reflection, this is very odd. It's not as though overnight the knowledge, skills, etc. that you've built up reset, or suddenly certain 'milestones' come due. Why then do perfectly reasonable and practical individuals go bonkers over hitting thirty?

So, having just spent the last year fretting* about the end of a decade, and making moderately 'big life decisions', albeit different from those in the study (e.g. starting a PhD, moving to Australia, adopting a cat...), I thought it would be interesting to take a step back and assess the situation 'rationally'. Much of the to-do about getting older stems from unmet expectations of accomplishment. In my case, we could look at income as a measure of success (figure a), but perhaps my life choices aren't especially optimized for monetary gain - most of the past decades' income consumed by educational instutitions or lenders.  If tertiary education qualifications are something we care about, then I'm doing a bit better (figure b). Now considering I suffer a bit from wanderlust and place a high value on exposure to different places and cultures, perhaps the map (figure c) of countries visited in the past decade is a better tool to assess success ... by my metrics, at least. And while some things haven't changed significantly in ten years (still a student, still working on environmental problems, still haven't lived in the same house for more than a year...), the fear of having squandering my twenties is obviously unsubstantiated!
c) Countries "added" in the last ten years (ignore the comma in the legend...)

Even when presented with this evidence, I can't help but feel some 'crisis of meaning' insinuated in the psychology studies. Returning to the behavioural economics reference earlier, the researchers behind these studies suggested future work could explore why some people respond to periods of pre-birthday reflection in the ways they do. The implications of examining underlying drivers of these decisions is that they could suggest means of direct that motivation for positive outcomes. You can imagine that this has also struck a chord with folks interested in environmental policy and sustainable behaviours, pinpointing social norms and other non-economic forces.

So there you go - tenuous connections between birthdays and big decisions. Hopefully, the end of my fourth decade of life won't result in any destructive life decisions. Here's to a new decade, and the one just put to bed.
Some things really don't change... NYC July 2006

A Decade of Birthday Posts (sans 2015):


* This seemed like a big birthday, but moreso because I still feel comfortably in the mentality of an early/mid 20-year-old...perhaps due to the perpetual state of student-hood. 
** Pre-2010 blog posts are also pre-My Munchable Musings. I apologise in advance for the writing not quite meeting current quality control standards...see, that's something else that has improved in a decade! 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

What We Call Potatoes

If I had to go back and do it all over again, I'd probably be an ethnobotanist. Oh sure, the career path is a bit more limited, and I probably would have tired of plants after a bit, but something about tying together history, culture, and ecology gets me really jazzed. The field of ethnobotany examines the relationship between plants and people, situating plants within societies and humans within ecosystems. But we're not talking about just any botany; it's the stuff we end up eating that is fascinating.

http://www.farmandforksociety.com/2014/10/potatoes-101.html
Lunchtime conversations in my department range from the completely random and truly bizarre to classic ecology nerdiness. Yesterday veered more toward the latter and ended somewhere in between, when  my unassuming purple sweet potato instigated a discussion on what is potato. 'That's taro, right?' 

Ok, so according to the International Potato Center, a potato (Solanum tuberosum) – part of the nightshade family along with eggplant and tomatoes - is a species native to the Andean region of South America composed of 4,500 varieties and consumed by people for about 10,000 years. Now in third place in terms of crops of global importance for human consumption (and more limited to a small subset of this vast gene pool), this genetic diversity and cultural, climatic, and ecological specificity persist in the Andean heart. It's not all sunshine and roses, though, and potatoes proved to be front and centre of such tragedies as the Great Famine in Ireland - in which the monochromatic landscape of 'lumper' potatoes presented fertile ground for a devastating fungal blight.

Now sweet potato is a separate genus (Ipomeoea batatas) – hailing from the morning-glory family – but is also from Latin America. Contrary to my initial understanding, it is not a tuber (a thickened stem) but a “storage root”. It was one of the big botanical travelers, probably hitching a ride with Polynesian sailors to the Pacific Islands. Eventually it hit Japan and radiated throughout Asia. High in vitamin A, the sweet potato has more recently found itself a favourite staple introduced to Africa for nutritional improvement. And while batata (one of its names) may sound similar to patata, the sweet potato is most definitely not.

Taro, a not particularly notable-looking tuber, also belongs to another genus (Colocasia esculenta), although in some languages it is called a type of ‘potato’ (e.g. itchy potato in Vietnamese and village potato in Japanese). Thought to have originated in South Asia (India, Nepal, Bangladesh), taro has spread widely throughout Oceania and the Pacific, embedding itself in culture and tradition. For instance, Hawa'iian folklore has the ancestral human and the first seed of taro as siblings, borne of the sky father and earth mother. 

Deceptively plain from the outside, sweet potatoes as art!
Finally, yams - no not those deep orange gems eaten at Thanksgiving - are also from a different genus (Dioscorea, spp) and are indigenous to West Africa (although one species originated in Asia). After cassava, it is the most cultivated root/tuber crop in Africa. A central part of people's diets for upwards of 10,000 years, yams have also found their place as symbols for marriage and fertility. And if you're around Ghana or Nigeria next month, there is a 'Yam Festival' in celebration of the rainy season ending and the harvest commencing.

Botanically speaking, these four are all very different; my purple sweet potato is not a taro or a yam, or I guess even a potato for that matter. But I suppose culturally, they have similar preparations and culinary manifestations as a result of common characteristics as starchy staples. The astounding thing is how far each has travelled, and how non-native crops have immersed themselves so thoroughly that they become invaluable, pivotal in traditions and diets, and imbued with their own local significance and names. 

Further Reading: 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Do We Need a Bigger Box?

Humans are social creatures. We like to feel as if we belong, have a common bond and value set as our peers. And we often do so by putting ourselves in boxes. There are liberals and conservatives. We have national identities, racial identities, religious identities, even dietary identities. In academia, we love it. He's an historian; she's a mathematician; they are economists; we are biologists. It makes it easier. We know how to talk to one another, use the same vocabulary, approach questions in the same way, have the same colleagues and network connections. It's comforting to know what something is; when I see an apple, it's nice to know that it's an apple (and not a grapple...that's just wrong).

But that's not really how the world works. And while we as people may try to fit ourselves into those nice little boxes, as much as we try we just can't address complex, real-world problems that way. The field of conservation biology grapples (not the fruit...) with this challenge on a regular basis, as by its very nature is tasked with addressing complex, real-world problem. So it is observing how this plays out, while participating in the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania conference this week. If you simply looked at the programme or the delegate list, you would see an astounding diversity topics from hard-core ecology to spatial planning to economics. But if you dug a little deeper, started having conversations, or just listened to today's plenary, a dynamic emerges that - while not unexpected - is indicative of the larger shortcomings of tertiary (and perhaps even earlier) aceademic training.

Today's really fantastic plenary speaker (no seriously, I sat rapt through his "not-very-deep history of conservation"), Mark Burgman set a challenge to the "card-carrying social scientists" at the conference and more broadly engaged in conservation to step up their game in terms of the means and methods of getting people to care about conservation, which the ecologists presently lack. But there was a bit of an us versus them cloud descending on the room, which reflects how natural and social scientists are trained to define problems, analyse data, and develop solutions. And therein lies the challenge, in my humble opinion: we approach conservation in an interdisciplinary fashion, bringing together the ecologists and the economists, the anthropologists and astrophysicists (hey, they're good at maths and modeling!) and expect to fluidly join expertise to answer burning questions. But what we are actually missing are the transdisciplinarians who have the background to be able to translate and mediate across different disciplinarian methods, yes, but also ingrained ways of seeing the world (and to give credit where it's due, this was a mutual point in a conversation yesterday post-conference). 

So this brings me back to identity, because all this thinking has perhaps clarified my own struggle with disciplinary identity and explained (...or rationalised?) my seemingly meandering academic training to date. When asked 'what is your background', I often resort to identifying as a lapsed ecologist. But to be honest, I'm not and never have been. Sure, Earth Systems - Biosphere majors spent a fair amount of time studying ecology (the 'fuzzy' natural science), yet also took classes in economics, anthropology, and even the odd course in history or psychology. The differences emerge in part because of the questions we try to answer: ecologists seek to understand the interactions between plants, animals, and abiotic factors, whereas Earth Systemsers ask how we can use knowledge of ecosysems, as well as the socio-economic contexts in which they are situated, to solve pressing environmental problems. But I would argue it goes even further to keeping an open-mind, not diminishing or invalidating a discipline's approaches (most likely because we don't understand the underlying theory and reasoning), and embracing the wealth of methodologies and existing knowledge at our fingertips when we work together.

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I'm not arguing for the end of specialists or disciplines, but we do need to put more weight in training people across disciplines to translate and mediate. Going back to blog posts from ten years ago (which were admittedly a bit mundane and poorly written) the references to this type of undergraduate training were there, although perhaps not fully appreciated at the time. It's increasingly important that training across disciplines be encouraged, while at the same time, those who gravitate towards a particular field of study also must work to be at eye-level with other disciplines (i.e be more accepting and not scoff at the credibility and reliability of each other's practices). If this conference is any indication, it's still a long road, but at least we've begun!

Read More: 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Reconciling People and Nature: A Week of Photos

A friend set me a challenge: post one photo of 'nature' a day, every day for a week. So I rooted through photos from years past and just a few weeks ago, tied the seven images together with a pretty bow of a storyline, and submitted them for gawking purposes on Facebook. It seemed only right, when all was done, to leave them for posterity on the blog.

The challenge was intended to highlight the beauty of the natural world, but I turned it on its head a bit and tried to depict human’s interaction with nature (as you might expect from me). I mean, what is 'natural', anyway? It was also a bit of a world tour in an attempt to represent a different region of the world each day.

We’ll start in the Cascadian Region of North America. The contrasting values in this scene in a Vancouver, British Columbia bay struck me when I visited last May - with paddle boarders and sailors enjoying the peacefulness of a spring evening against the backdrop of shipping vessels and tankers.
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Keeping with the theme of people and nature, we travel up and over the Arctic to the island of Ice and Fire. It just astounds me that people have lived in these harsh conditions for hundreds of years, with essentially no trees (and thus no wood) and frigid temperatures. Yet here we see a farm (!) snuggled in close to a volcanic crater along the south coast of the island.  
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This one was hard, because I seem to have a disproportionate number of photos from Europe. These vibrant leaves along a country road show up much better when contrasted to a gray drizzle. On a rainy autumn day, Katty Glover and I embarked on a muddy meander to the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire, UK. Like many landscapes in the British Isles, this one had signs of human occupation dating back thousands of years, and culture probably shapes the notions of ‘natural’ more than any pristine baseline.
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(Close second was taken in North Berwick, Scotland on my moderately successful attempt to see a puffin https://flic.kr/p/wT1QQi)


Moving from temperate to tropical, we make our way to Southeast Asia. The ancient temples encountered on my trip in Thailand and Cambodia, spoke to the ephemeral nature of our societies, despite our modern concrete jungles appearing very much to the contrary. This Buddha head is found entwined in the roots of a banyan tree in Ayuthaya, Thailand. Given time, ‘Nature’ will take back what was hers

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(Close second for Asia was at Angkor, Cambodia: https://flic.kr/p/FfG3xU)
We make our way across the Indian Ocean to the fourth largest island in the world, off the eastern coast of Africa. For a 20-year-old on her first solo fieldtrip (i.e. me in 2007), Madagascar was a bit overwhelming. The wildlife and landscapes were amazing (and I still have photos of lemurs adorning various walls), but observing the dependency of the local people on natural resources had a more profound and longer-lasting impact on my values and career path. This photo is from Mananjary, a coastal town in east, where fishing is the primary livelihood.   
Coastal Morning
Back to the Americas, we take a quick jaunt to Costa Rica. The country is the poster child for ecotourism, a shift from the 1990’s that has helped rehabilitate the extensive forests. We passed this small montane humid forest settlement in Orosi on the way to the west coast.
Above the Clouds

Ending where I am now, this final photo is from a recent Australian excursion. This is taken from Lamington National Park, looking out across an extensive production landscape. Much of Queensland’s diverse forested areas - running the gamut from open woodlands and sclerophyll forests to both temperate and tropical rainforest - have been converted to crop agriculture and livestock pasture. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

When it Rains, It Pours

On Saturday it rained. Not some pizzly drizzle, but a proper downpour. And as I revelled in the excuse to remain at - luxuriating in the slothfulness of a damp day, listening to the melodic drum of the raindrops on the roof - it struck me how much the relationship with rain has shifted for over half the world's population (see urbanization post...). In the concrete jungles we have built to house a rapidly growing global population, water finds few permeable surfaces to infiltrate the soil below, and heavy rainfall often means the floodgates open, infrastructure is damaged, and lives are lost. We've seen this recently: people paddling through the streets of Paris, much of Texas submerged, and residents of Sydney (among many other areas of eastern Australia) fleeing for high ground. This simple molecule of hydrogens and oxygen wreking havoc on society.

Perhaps it is this urban existence that leaves us unaware of the vital role precipitation events and flooding played and continues to play in the existence and continuation of society. Yes, water quenches a thirst, but it also feeds the soil. Human habitation and subsequent civilization crept up around bodies of water that flooded regularly. For instance, the Nile supported the empire of Ancient Egypt, whose fertile growing regions depended on the influx of nutrient-rich silt from the highlands of Ethiopia, transported during the flood season. The floodplains back home in Puget Sound serve the same end, yielding highly productive agricultural zones and salmon habitat, supporting people back probably thousands of years when Native Americans first settled the region. 

In South Asia, people similarly depend on the arrival of the rains, here in the form of the monsoon. The summer monsoons in India recharge aquifers, drive hydropower, and enable the production of rice, tea, and dairy where rainfed agriculture still dominates. Because of the importance of the arrival of monsoon rains, festivals and traditions arose over time. In the past twenty or so years, with decreasing dependability of rainfall in the region, countries like India have seen an increase in the number of farmer suicides as the industry's prospects look more and more bleak.

Now these deluges are not always causes for celebration even if they are an essential life force; they still bring devastation when in excess. I suppose humans have dealt with these ups and down throughout our history; but with more of the landscape heavily modified and the climatic trends moving towards less predictable and more extreme, the challenges are likely to overshadow the benefits. Food for thought on the next rainy day.