2010 Global Sustainability Summer School-Blog

From Santa Fe Institute Events Wiki

2010 Global Sustainability Summer School

Please feel free to use this page to share thoughts about lectures and activities, and share relevant links with the group.

Monday July 12

Carolina De la Rosa Tincopa
Shirley Papuga
Anita Carrasco
Wow, I am so absent minded. I just realized that I had to blog on the first day of the summer school! Since I did not,and I have already spent a week here I will share some of my impressions of this first week: It has been a pleasure to meet people from different countries and different disciplines. I feel it is one of the few opportunities we have in life to have close conversations with other disciplines and see how they view issues of sustainability. What has left me a bit disturbed though is the idea that has been put forward by some of the presenters which is: qualitative research = especulation. Put another way, we need more quantitative/predictive research = science (not especulation). I feel this is a very serious statement and when people make these claims, I wonder if they have studied epistemology or history of science. Remember that it was not long ago, when humanity used to believe that the earth was flat. This idea of natural resource services or whatever it is called is also very disturbing. It implies that people care about resources only when they are assigned a monetary price. So, for example, if we put a price on water, people somehow are going to do something to protect it. I work with indigenous communities in northern Chile and they care about water to the point they consider it sacred. This caring for water has nothing to do with the fact that the Chilean state privatized water through the 1980 Water Code. Now that there is a water market, although indigenous communities care very much about water, they can not do anything to protect it from the mining companies that have the money to buy all the water use right titles. Thus, I completely disagree with the idea that markets for natural resources will conduce to sustainability because people will 'care more'. Another idea that I found shocking was a comment in one of the lectures that suggested that 'the rich care less about money than the poor because they have a lot of money'. If this were the case, distribution of income in the world would not be so pitiful, rich people would pay higher salaries, they would extract resources from the environment only to the point of not jeopardizing nature and so forth. There are many systems in the world that can be beautifully predicted with mathematical models. But, I just do not buy that human behavior is one such system. There are too many underlying human assumptions behind those models (i.e. people will always be selfish when it comes to public goods, etc). I would be happy to hear any counter argument from those of you who do not agree with the above statements. Debate is what we are here for right? Last, but not least, I might just be an anthropologist, but I do not speculate just because I work with meanings and not so much with measures.

Tuesday July 13

Deva Seetharam
Joseph Burger
Caleb Gallemore

Thinking about Doyne's question regarding whether the earth is our garden or a wilderness seems to me to raise questions about the role of anthropocentric thinking in thinking about sustainability. I remember that someone floated the question of whether or not we can think of sustainability without humans. Both these questions, I think, highlight a difficult intellectual challenge we face in thinking about sustainability. On the one hand, we are - usually explicitly - involved in a normative exercise. When we talk about sustainability, we at the very least imply a vague notion of a state or set of states worthy of being sustained. In almost all cases (except perhaps for some forms of deep ecology), one property of these states is the continued existence of at least some humans at some tolerable - or, preferably, enjoyable - standard of living. The interesting problem we face is this: in order to keep humans around, we are for the most part agreed that leverage must be brought to bear on the economic and social systems we have created, as well as the environmental damages we have already perpetrated. This means we must think of humans as somehow free to choose and change, even if only within limited boundaries and only some of the time. Humans, in other words, are our leverage point onto the world whose fate concerns us. At the same time, we have to think of the ways in which humans are embedded within that world and subject to pressures from social structures and natural feedbacks of our collective making. It seems to me that several of the debate questions actually center around this question of social possibility - we simply do not know what we ourselves may or may not be capable of changing about our actions and the systems that produce and sustain us.

If the world is our garden, then this seems to suggest that we are relatively autonomous from it and that we can meaningfully look on it and make choices about what its properties should be. But it may in fact be that the world is a wilderness, despite that humans have touched it everywhere, such that some geographers have started calling our age the "anthropocene." Usually we think of the wilderness as something that is untouched or pristine or unaffected by "civilization," however defined. This way of thinking, actually, is closely aligned with the conception of the garden. Again it is a view of a world untouched by humans to which humans somehow enter from the outside, a view common in much of the social sciences even at present. Of course, we know that this is not the case. Humans grow from the inside of the wilderness, just like weeds or badgers or elephants. Like all species, our advent in the wilderness has come to change it - in our case in more substantial ways than most - but we remain firmly a part of the wilderness.

All this may seem a little ambling. What I mean to say is this: we are a part of wilderness, and thinking of the social as somehow a strictly different beast can be deceiving. It can give us a sense that we have too much choice and too much power. On the other hand it can give us a sense that wilderness has too little of these things. We continue to discover both positive and negative feedbacks to our actions in the world at large, and we continue to find that the world is more dynamic and flexible than we imagined. Thinking of the interplay between our social structures, our choices, and the responses of the rest of the wilderness requires that we relax habits of thought in which we place ourselves as something acting on nature from the outside, which, in practice, most sustainability work already does. The trick is to get the social sciences to do it, as well.

Wednesday July 14

David Bryngelsson
Veronika Huber

The day started out with an instructive and helpful session with Ann Kinzig. Besides making me realize that I have found a satisfying definition of sustainability for myself yet, the discussions during her lecture left me with a few insights that I kept pondering about.

One strong point Ann made was that “information is power”. She argued that an important part of making sustainability a more meaningful concept is to develop the right measurement indices. There are many caveats to respect when trying to come up with quantitative indices. Certainly, there are limits to assigning monetary values. (How much is the spectacular sunset worth that made the mountains behind Santa Fe gloom in all shades of red and yellow tonight). At the same time, as Ann pointed out, many important decisions are taken by explicitly or implicitly assigning values. Our world works based on all sorts of incomplete and insufficient indices. Achieving sustainability (and I am sticking for now with my gut feeling of what that means) would require much more than ‘just’ implementing new indices that reflect changes in natural and social capital overlooked so far. Yet, I would argue it is a necessary condition.

Whenever you open up a newspaper, whenever you watch the news, you read and hear about “growth”. Our societies are addicted to economic growth. We cheer when the prospects of growth look great; we fall into depression when the growth forecasts are reduced by a few decimal points. GDP is – I would say – the most powerful index that has ever been developed. Replacing it or at least complementing it with a more inclusive measure of wealth could have a great influence on how we steer our planet into the future.

A second much more technical comment I would like to make concerns the lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere. We were discussing today with some people whether its atmospheric lifetime was really thousands of years – as Dennis mentioned at some point. Here is a link to a recent paper by David Archer that is extremely helpful in this regard:

Gina La Cerva

Thursday July 15

Deborah Strumsky
Stochastic Model in Social vs. Natural/Biological System

I was thinking about how models from natural and biological systems have been translated to social systems. For example, models of tumor growth have been applied to city growth, and models from physics and statistical mechanics have been applied to economics, and to be gracious, most have had less than the hoped for results. There may be many reasons why this is the case; however, it is highly problematic nonetheless. No matter how much we understand about the natural and biological system it is the human social systems that have to change.

So my thoughts have been about human social behavior. I have spoken to several of you already about how values are formed and the role of religion in that process. I have also been considering the implications of human behaviors relative to natural and biological system, in that they are not driven by natural laws or similar deterministic processes. Social systems are fundamentally stochastic, and I can already hear the physicists protesting loudly that they know how to model and predict under randomness. I will not argue that; however the randomness they can model well is that of independent action of the components of the system; statistical mechanics, Gaussian noise etc… Social systems are much trickier; as they tend toward herd behavior and the nature of the stochasticity is not of independent agents. Social system tends to overreact regardless of whether the behavior has a positive effect on the system or a negative one. Models of disease from epidemiology have been used to model fads and fashions, but do not perform well for stock markets, or circumstances like the housing market crisis. If leaves on trees were people and given a perfectly lovely day they would photosynthesize nicely one day, then given identical conditions on following day all the leaves on the trees decide not to photosynthesize and simultaneous drop off the tree in protest.

How do we approach modeling this behavior? Agent based models have been offered up as an options, but most ABM are dismal failures. This is not because the researchers are not smart, earnest or hardworking; simply because unforeseen consequence come into play inevitably and one can not blame a researcher for not having predicted the unpredictable (that is why we call it that, otherwise we would use another word like foreseeable or predictable…).

Even if we can not model all social systems well or with the desired standard errors, we can do pretty well under short time lines. Also, knowing that the agents are not independent gives us reason for optimism. If we can achieve a threshold level of behavior change, then we may be able to impose a phase transition in people’s value formation process. Frankly if those darn Tea Partiers can do, surely we can as well.

Therese Hertel

Today we changed our lecture-location for the first time. We had all day at the Santa Fe Institute. to be continued :)

Joe Cresko

Friday July 16

Janeane Harwell
Mary Turnipseed

Saturday July 17

Eli Lazarus: It's Saturday night at St. John's, and late; outside my room facing the Upper Dorms quad, a Breadloaf Writing Workshop party is bumping and raucous. Our GSSS10 crew is just back from an epic day on the road between Santa Fe and Taos -- I'm compelled to hold what pops and flashes of the last 12 hours I can before I sack out. The Taos itinerary was eclectic and spirited -- a guided tour of Earthships Biotecture, a vertiginous view into the Rio Grande Gorge, and, courtesy of Doyne Farmer, a brief stop at "the best doughnut shop in northern New Mexico." But for me, in the company of my summer-school research group, the drive itself brought a lovely and unexpected catalysis, a subtle condensing of something inspired and formative.

(And that's atop a week of the most intellectual discussion, concentration, and provocation I've ever experienced.)

Northbound, about 30 minutes outside of Santa Fe, we cracked into a few big-picture ideas, periodically interrupting each other to point beyond the highway -- talus slopes, tourist-ballasted river rafts, mesa walls of dipping strata, pine-thick mountain flanks unraveling into valley chaparral. (All of it fodder for thinking about complex, dynamic relationships between landscapes and land-use transitions.) Southbound, we took the high road from Taos and this time shimmed our stories between exclamations about bison, dust devils, pickup-truck dogs, cloud breaks, and the rain-blued mountains to the west. By the time Highway 84 widened into the Santa Fe fringe, excitement about our coming collaboration was palpable. We'd already seen our metaphor from the ridge -- all the distance we'll soon be traveling, the verdant expanse of possibilities there to explore.

JP: I don't know Taos very well, but in New Mexico it is generally disliked in many of the Hispanic communities because of the historical tension between Hispanics and the Anglos/hippies that moved in during the 60s and 70s. I might bring a lot of that prejudice to the table.

Taos was "interesting" for me. It's become disgustingly popular in the past few years and there seems to be this trend of second homes in Taos as the next must-have accessory. Gentrification is a difficult thing for me because I see it as the marginalization of a deep and genuine culture that I've grown up with. The word "quaint" in my view is a horrible word, because it implies something akin to a dollhouse or Disneyland that "real" people come around to play with and dip their toes into the culture without any of the hardship that goes into the lifestyle.

Case in point: the Taos Truck. A late 1950-early 1960s pickup is seen as the quintessential image of Northern New Mexico and the rural character associated with the area. My pet theory for this image ((that I've no way studied and is only opinion) is that during the early 1980s when Santa Fe had its popularity boom, pickups from 30 years ago were common because the local farmers (who used to work on the northwest part of town -- all gone now) were simply too poor to afford a new truck every seven years. If you drive around small towns in the North new (like Mora, Las Vegas, etc) you'll see vehicles from the late 1970s and early 1980s, which matches the 30 year offset. In Taos there was a store selling cute kitschy ceramic pickups with farm slogans plastered all over them. They were going for $800.

Maybe the next kitschy item you'll see is the Las Vegas truck, which are quite prevalent around the area of Las Vegas and Mora, NM.

Enough for the negativity:

Visiting the Earthships and some of the detail that goes into building a home of that sort is quite inspiring to me. It'e eventually like to build my own home, and rammed earth/tire construction and thermal barriers (and maybe even a natural greywater recycling system) is now definitely a consideration. I think in this case some sort of "what's best for the individual is best for the group" notion, and I personally like the idea of high efficiency homes and no-cost energy. If it's better for the world, that's gravy.

Taking the high road trip back is always refreshing. The small towns that were once and may be again largely self-sufficient makes me appreciate the area all the more, and to see that they've not been gentrified and the local population marginalized even with heterogeneous residents as has been the case in Santa Fe and Taos gives me some hope for some sort

The high road trip back down was another one of those amazing NM sunsets: even I've never seen a single beam of light spearing virga an turning it golden before. Quite amazing. Top that off with Love Apple, Angelinas, etc, and it was just a beautiful day.

One funny comment that came up during the deliriously exhausted ride home: "It's more like Reduce, Reuse, Reuse, Reuse, Reuse, Recycle" - Gabe Chan

Sunday July 18

Monday July 19

Hitesh Soneji

Dana Coelho

There have been many stimulating and wonderful things going on this past week here in Santa Fe. So as not to be a blog hog, I'll just ruminate on two of them. First is the diversity of people and ideas. Outside of academics (or inside, for that matter) this is not exactly something I (perhaps we) encounter on a daily basis, so I value the exposure immensely. The energy generated by our ability to openly challenge one another to think outside of our boxes - quantitative, qualitative, social, physical, ecological, financial, etc. - is palpable. Thank you all for creating this space and continuing to ask such probing questions. The second is perhaps a bit more topic-oriented. Ecosystem services: I think that boiling this concept down to a purely market-based idea misses a lot of its explanatory and potentially game-changing power. If sustainable development is a people-centric concept (which I fundamentally believe it is) and people in society depend on the environment (which, as a student of ecological economics, I also believe is true), then understanding this dependence is absolutely necessary. The concept of ecosystem services provides a framework within which to understand how elements and functions of nature create services that people in society need, desire, and value. And, FYI, since it seems timely... I got this call for papers for a conference next year 30 June - 2 July on Nature™ Inc? Questioning the Market Panacea in Environmental Policy and Conservation @ ISS, The Hague, The Netherlands. Perhaps we will meet again to continue this debate...

Hongtao Yi

Tuesday July 20

Lawrence Lin
Erasmus Owusu
Amanda James

Wednesday July 21

John Robert Baker
On Sunday, I had the great misfortune of spending the greater part of my day at the mall getting my glasses repaired. Unfortunately, I had no backup pair, so while the excellent craftsman at Sunset Optical was working his magic, I was stuck wandering around the mall for several hours with poor vision. I felt rather lucky that so many vendors tolerated a squinty looking fellow peering into the stores over and over again, then shaking his head in disgust and walking away, only to return a quarter-hour later. In light of our many conversation about how we, as a society, can even begin to reduce our consumption, the normally vapid capitalism of a mall seemed, if anything, more intolerable. However, I was somehow able to resist the urge to purchase an Orange Julius with matching orange boots and spurs from the Boot Barn, and on my way out, glasses repaired, I was struck by a mural next to one of the exits. MallMural.jpg
I apologize for the picture, as it was taken on my phone, but to clarify, the mural shows industrial production spewing pollution into the atmosphere, and transitions, somehow through a man in the middle, to a world of green grass and blue skies where the Roadrunner Commuter Train flies by windmills and solar panels collecting energy. This mural, appearing in a palace of consumption, struck me as incredibly contradictory (though perhaps that was the point, yet I'm still confused as to why the mall would allow such a mural to be put up). My own feeling is that it may highlight exactly what our problem is. Americans (at least some of them) seem to have at least a vague idea of what the problem is, and where we need to go. They just have no foggy clue as to what got us here.

On a lighter note (and with apologies to Brian Arthur), I propose a new El Farol Bar Problem. Let's say you walk a mile from St. John's to El Farol Bar in the rain, but when you arrive and order a Modelo Especial, the bartender asks you for $7.50. Do you pay the bartender and drink the beer, knowing that it will bring you far, far less than $7.50 in enjoyment, or do you refuse on principle and walk back another mile in the rain, with no enjoyment whatsoever?
Michael Dorsey
Christian Casillas

Thursday July 22

Cecilia Roa-Garcia
Stephen Posner
John Paul Gonzales

Joe Cresko
On issues of peer review discussed by Prof. Schellnhuber - interesting article "Rethinking Peer Review" in The New Atlantis

Friday July 23