December 6th, 2012 by Michael Ricciardi
Throughout this week, nearly 20,000 scientists will attend the annual American Geophysical Union meeting, held this year in San Francisco. The important conference features rather dry-sounding seminar and session offerings, with typically academic titles like ‘Atmospheric and Oceanic Variability Associated With the MJO in the Tropical Indian and Western Pacific Oceans’. †
But not this year…not, at least, for one such session.
On Thursday (today), Brad Werner, professor of geophysics and complex systems at the University of California, San Diego*, is giving a talk entitled: ‘Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism’ as part of the AGO session “The Future of Human-Landscape Systems II.”
The eyebrow-raising talk draws upon Werner’s research into the “dynamical relationships” which are “illustrated and explored using a numerical model that simulates the short-, intermediate- and long-time-scale dynamics of the coupled human-environmental system.” (i.e., a ‘virtual Earth’ model)
Indeed, the abstract to Werner’s paper includes this statement:
“[T]he dynamics of the global coupled human-environmental system within the dominant culture precludes management for stable, sustainable pathways and promotes instability,”
This quote would seem to offer a resounding “yes” answer to the session’s title question. The talk would seem to hold promise of other provocative content, as well, given its critical calling out of the “dominant culture”.
Werner analyzes the environmental challenges that we face over short , intermediate and long-term time scales, noting the increasingly “two-way, nonlinear interactions” (i.e., chaotic or disproportionate interactions) between global (resource exploiting) markets and the “Earth System”. These challenges — driven by increasing resource demand — result in a “mismatch between short-time-scale market and political forces driving resource extraction/use and longer-time-scale accommodations of the Earth system to these changes.”
Human markets and the Earth System, observes Werner, operate along different time scales.
This is what drives these mismatches and “non-linear connections”, and this is the basis for Werner calling to task current environmental management policies and their “widespread inability” to address challenges like climate change and soil degradation; environmental managers are “slaved to short-to-intermediate-term interests.”
But Werner is not completely pessimistic, noting the important, dissipative role ‘direct action’ (as mentioned in the talk’s title) plays in pushing for change in the short-term, market-driven, dominant culture:
“Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups, increases dissipation within the coupled system over fast to intermediate scales and pushes for changes in the dominant culture that favor transition to a stable, sustainable attractor.” [emphasis added]
“The transition from unstable dynamics to sustainability is sensitively dependent on the level of participation in and repression of resistance. Because of their differing impact inside and outside the dominant culture, virtual Earth predictions can either promote or oppose sustainability.”
Invaluable food for thought, and, it would seem, a measured call to action (while it also points out the context-dependent, dualistic nature of predictive models).
The talk, to be delivered Thursday, Dec. 6, is being recorded for on-demand viewing later this week.
Brad Werner’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation, Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics Program.
For additional session information for this year’s AGU conference, visit the AGU Meeting website.
* Complex Systems Laboratory 0225, University of California – San Diego, La Jolla, CA, United States.
† (AGU session title) Charles Long (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) and Angela Rowe (University of Washington)
Top Photo: (Globe toaster recycled art) by Eric Brown, photo by M. Ricciardi
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