Thinking in (human–environmental) systems – a research triptych


Work in progress.

Three papers were released into the wild this winter, making for exciting times at the Lab.

Walking to and from the office the past few days, I’ve been thinking about where and how their themes overlap. Seems to me these three papers are connected by a process of argumentation: the work of sketching out the architecture of an environmental system, and then playing out the logic of that architecture.

1. Lazarus, E. D. (2014) Threshold effects of hazard mitigation in coastal human–environmental systems, Earth Surface Dynamics, 2, 35–45.

Human–environmental systems are not the same as coupled human–environmental systems. The latter is a type of the former, as in my favorite near-proverb from geometry, “A square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square.” The quality of coupledness – at least according to the definitions I tend to use – requires a reciprocal responsiveness embedded in the way the system functions. In abstract terms, information has to travel in both directions, be received in some way by the human and environmental components, and then that information has to matter – changes in one component have to affect subsequent states and behavior in the other component. That’s what responsiveness implies.

My favorite example of an “unresponsive” human–environmental system is the island of Nauru, a tiny atoll in the South Pacific. At the turn of the 20th century, exceptionally high-grade phosphate was discovered there – a geologic deposit (millennia of guano from migrating birds) underlying the otherwise jungle-covered island. A hundred years since that discovery, 80% of the island has been mined out beyond remediation. It’s not that information about environmental destruction wasn’t getting back to the people on Nauru (first peoples and the colonial presence there) – it’s that people in decision-making roles decided, effectively, that the environmental-change signals filtering back weren’t important. (This willful ignorance became the core of a lawsuit Nauru filed with the International Court of Justice against Australia, arguing that Australia had failed to uphold its obligations of territorial stewardship.) Signs of runaway environmental destruction went ignored, and the island was mined into a crater.

Life behind the dike – Hondsebossche Zeewering, Petten.

Life behind the dike – Hondsebossche Zeewering, Petten.

Which is where mitigation comes in. A human–environmental system that includes some kind of hazard mitigation immediately introduces a dynamic of responsiveness. The Dutch response to the hugely destructive storm event of 1953 was to overwhelm with engineering any future natural event that could rage out of the North Sea – that was their answer to systemic information delivered by an environmental disaster. But the Dutch action to “climate-proof” the Netherlands sets up an interesting question regarding how coupled systems evolve over time. As I wade into it in this paper’s Discussion section, “the scale of mitigation action,” which functions as a protective threshold, a filter that screens out all but the largest natural events, “affects the time frame over which human activities and natural hazards interact,” which means that climate change, although it may speed up rates at which physical landscapes change, might not necessarily also “strengthen the coupling with human dynamics” (Murray et al. 2013). If the threshold determines system responsiveness, then that threshold – its characteristics, how it functions – is the key to how coupled a human–environmental system will be.

2. Lazarus, E. D. (2014) Land grabbing as a driver of environmental change, Area, 46, 74–82.

Kalimantan, Borneo – courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

Kalimantan, Borneo – courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

Disturbance Geography, this one’s for you. Land grabbing, and perhaps geographic frontier-expansion more generally, represents a human–environmental system phenomenon with some confounding characteristics: it’s geographically diffuse; it manifests in the pursuit of natural resources of all kinds; it’s at once incredibly fast-acting – nearly instantaneous as a mechanism of environmental change – and brings in its wake a tangle of legacy effects, some with very long time scales.

If you’re craving long-form environmental investigative journalism, I recommend getting yourself a copy of Fred Pearce‘s recent book The Landgrabbers. I scared the hell out of myself working on this paper. Where Pearce examines land grabbing where it’s happening, reporting in the field from projects underway and projects that never materialized, I got interested in trying to frame the implications of Pearce’s work within the spatial and temporal scales of a global system. If humans move around more of Earth’s surface (in terms of mass) than any natural geomorphologic force on the planet, and the majority of that anthropic sediment flux derives from agricultural activities, then – from a “Consider a Spherical Cow” approach to estimation – how much sediment might agricultural land grabbing be capable of moving around? (And in this paper I don’t even consider sediment flux from mining or construction, because those figures are even less constrained than figures for agriculture.) And by extension, if that flux could ever be attributed back to present land grabbing as a historical period, is it enough to register in the stratigraphy of Anthropocene geology?

A footnote here: Geography Directions, the official publications-imprint blog of the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of British Geographers, invited a companion post when the paper appeared; the work also got a shout-out from the Santa Fe Institute as a news item.

3. Hall, D. M., E. D. Lazarus, and T. M. Swannack (2014) Strategies for communicating systems models, Environmental Modelling & Software, 55, 70–76.

Drafting the "communicating models" cartoon.

Drafting the “communicating models” cartoon.

Damon Hall‘s background is in environmental communications, with deep roots in social theory. Todd Swannack is an ecological modeler. This paper is really Damon’s triangulation, knitting workshops he’d run with Todd for environmental-management practitioners together with long discussions he and I have had about systems-based thinking. Together we pooled tricks, strategies, and things that worked from our collective experience as presenters (and as audience members) trying to convey (or absorb) what it is, exactly, a given environmental model “does.” We kept coming back to the observation that when you say “in this model…” to a room full of people – whether that model is analytical, numerical, physical, conceptual – every person there has a different sense of what “model” means. By extension, if that model represents an environmental system of some kind, then each person in the audience also has her/his own sense of how that system functions, what its architecture looks like, and what about that system is most important. Hence the utility of a few handy communication strategies. Check ’em out, try ’em out, tell us your stories of science-communication triumphs and disasters, both. I’m working these strategies into my classroom teaching, too – they generalize well to some interesting pedagogic contexts.

And a final footnote here: Damon and Todd consented to let me draw the cartoon that became our graphical abstract.

With that, thanks for reading. A few more posts forthcoming, now that the teaching term is winding down – “winter’s come and gone – a little bird told me so.



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