Sociocultural Boundaries

By Tom Abel

Some years ago now a team of Swedish scientists proposed an interesting framework for understanding planetary environmental problems. It generated a range of responses from the environmental community, mostly positive. I had what is undoubtedly a very unusual response to their framework, and while it is perhaps old news, it may still be useful to present it here. As an anthropologist, I see planetary problems from a cultural and evolutionary perspective that could offer a different take on the subject.

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
Estimates of how the different control variables for nine planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

First, though, I want to say that the identification of the nine interrelated environmental ‘boundaries’ has been unquestionably of great value (Planetary Boundaries). Raising awareness about the problems and emphasizing nonlinear feedbacks effects, and so the possible triggering of abrupt global environmental changes, are integral to a more sophisticated discussion of climate change and the other problems they highlight. To list them, they are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nutrient fluxes, global freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

SteffenExponential
The great acceleration of the Anthropocene. Source.

The nine ‘boundaries’ are concisely represented in their popular diagram. The green space in the center represents the safe operating values. If the wedge exceeds the green space then it has already crossed its threshold and become a threat of flipping to a disastrous state for our human presence on the planet. Worse, the problems are interrelated and interactions are a grave threat. As an example of dangerous interactions, loss of soil moisture, degradation of land to new land types, and biodiversity loss all reduce the ability of ecosystems to sequester CO2, and thus increase greenhouse effects.

These same issues can be found today in a number of diagrams such as the one above. The Swedish authors have called our times the ‘great acceleration’, a time of rapid growth of a number of environmental problems. They have argued persuasively that now is the time that we need to ‘bend the curves’.

BendtheCurves
The great acceleration. Source.

Continue reading Sociocultural Boundaries

Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

by Tom Abel

La poule aux oeufs d’or 1905 movie poster (goose with the golden eggs)

Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs.  I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe.  Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan.  MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming.  Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in.  George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”  Get it?  This is the end of universities as we know them.  A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there.  Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.”  That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.

So I started to search for articles on MOOCs.  It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang.  I could find nary a discouraging word.  And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this.  Why are the big boys interested?  I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent. Continue reading Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?

by Mary Logan

A previous post explored the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we fail to recognize the true energy basis for global problems such as climate change. This week’s post follows up with another example of cognitive dissonance in the sciences; the disconnect in relating  the energy basis of ecosystems to that of economies. Soddy (1926) describes the essential nature of understanding the energy basis for society: Continue reading Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?