Sunday, August 21, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. Those famous lines are often attributed (abeit incorrectly) to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France in the late 18th century, responding to food shortages and widespread  hunger. While the origins of the utterance are still hotly debated, the sentiment behind them and what they represent is quite powerful. An impoverished segment of the population complains of a lack of food - of no bread - and the wealthy, bourgeousie's response is to "let them eat cake". It demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of why people are going hungry, and the lack of empathy for the plight of those in poverty.

It's interesting that as a society we seem convinced that both the nature of and responses to contemporary poverty have changed drastically. We may no longer confront the feudal societies of lords and serfs, but there are vast inequalities present today, not only between countries but also within nations. Income inequality, one of the best studied of these topics, is still striking and a testament to the fact that capitalism and democratic societies breed elites just as do monarchies. But income is not the only measure of poverty, nor is it considered a complete one

Another school of thought, adopted by media sources like Fox News, reduces poverty down to material possessions, arguing that ownership of modern appliances like refrigerators and TVs negates any claims of need. Yet, it is increasingly accepted that material goods don't tell the whole story, either (see study on car ownership). Particularly where showy items are a sign of social standing - or are at least used to give this impression - people may opt for the seemingly less rational choice of buying a flatscreen rather than necessities. This complexity is part of the challenge, and why the questions of not only of how do we measure poverty, but also how we define it, continue to plague the 'development' sphere. These are no trivial matters, as what we measure and why to a large extent informs what we do.
There seems to be two tracks of interest for those of us who happen to study topics related to poverty. On the one hand, we spend a lot of time identifying where poor people exist. A recent study used an interesting combination of survey data from national statistics bureaus in Africa, 'night lights' or luminosity data, and daytime satellite images to build a model that predicts areas of poverty. This could allow poverty tracking to enter the 'data age', filling gaps and potentially replacing costly and often inaccurate household surveys.

On the other hand, what we really need to address are the root causes of poverty-driven inequities and suffering. For instance, groups that have historically been oppressed, because of ethnicity or social caste, may be more susceptible to the poverty trap. Some argue that freedom and empowerment enhance individuals' capacity to get out of poverty. Oftentimes, underlying factors are perpetuated and exacerbated by poverty itself, resulting in a viscious cycle. Poor neighborhoods many times have underperforming schools, fewer skilled job opportunities, and perhaps greater violence and drug use, making it difficult to break the cycle. These murky waters of poverty (and social injustice) were evident in a recent article in the New York Times, which explored divides resulting not just from wealth and education but by race. Of course, if this were all simple and straightforward, we would have met the Milennium (and now Sustainable) Development Goal of ridding the world of poverty ages ago. But acknowledging it's not clear-cut is a first step.

Now for those of you who only clicked the link because you thought I was offering cake, well you're partly in luck. However, rather than simply handing out sugar-laden baked goods or approving the act without providing means of obtaining or consuming, I'm giving you the first tool to enable you to bake your own cake. Sure, this assumes you live in a house with an oven and at least a bowl, spoon, and baking pan. It also assumes you have the resources to purchase the necessary ingredients. But seeing a roadmap (ie recipe) and knowing that eating your cake is possible, can be very empowering.

Citrus Polenta Cake
⅓ cup vegetable oil (canola, sunflower, etc.)
½ cup sugar (I used raw/unrefined)
1 tbs honey (or agave)
½ cup almond milk (or other non-dairy)
Zest of 2 oranges or lemons

1 ⅓ cup fine cornmeal/polenta (can also substitute up to ⅓ cup almond meal)
1 cup plain flour (unbleached)
¼ cup cornflour/cornstarch
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda/bicarbonate

1 tbs cider vinegar or lemon juice
¼ cup chopped almonds

Juice of 2 oranges or lemons
¼ -⅓ cup sugar (respectively; or to taste)

1. Combine first five ingredients (‘wet’ ingredients) in a large bowl.
2. Mix five ‘dry’ ingredients (flours, salt, and bicarb) in a separate bowl* so that everything is well-incorporated.
3. Combine wet and dry ingredients until everything has come together. Add acid (vinegar or lemon) and almonds, mixing just to incorporate.
4. Pour batter into a loaf pan or small cake round (grease and flour, if not a silicone pan). Bake at 180°C for 25-30 minutes, until a knife comes out clean.
5. Meanwhile, heat citrus juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it comes to a soft boil. Lower heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. It should be a bit syrupy and lightly coat the back of a spoon.
6. When cake is done, remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Pierce the top of the cake with a fork, so that the citrus syrup will the able to filter into the cake, then pour the syrup over the cake. Allow to cool completely. It will be dense!

*Can also do this in the first bowl, but make sure cornflour is added after the cornmeal and flour, otherwise it will clump.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The End of An Era? Some Perspective, 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.
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.

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.
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.  
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.
(Close second was taken in North Berwick, Scotland on my moderately successful attempt to see a puffin

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

(Close second for Asia was at Angkor, Cambodia:
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.