the Asko meetings

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Since 1993 the Beijer Institute annually organizes informal workshops for internationally leading ecologists and economists at the island of Askö in the Baltic Sea. The Askö meetings have generated unique cooperation between these disciplines.

Twenty years ago the disciplines of ecology and economy stood far apart. Ecologists and economists generally viewed one another with suspicion, and economic growth and environmental protection seemed incompatible. When Professor Karl-Göran Mäler in the beginning of the nineties became the director of the new Beijer Institute it was with a conviction that the big environmental challenges could only be solved if ecological and socioeconomic systems were viewed as coupled, which called for transdisciplinary cooperation between economists and ecologists.
To pave the way for such cooperation he decided in 1993 to organize a workshop at the Askö Laboratory, a marine field station off the Swedish east coast. The meeting was to be informal with a selected, open minded group of people discussing a given theme.
-I was keen on creating a warm and open atmosphere so that the participants would feel comfortable in interacting with people from different scientific backgrounds, says Karl-Göran Mäler. Thus, we spent the first evening eating, drinking wine and singing together.

The first Askö meeting was a great success and the discussions and comparisons of economic and ecological models resulted in an article in Bioscience titled “Ecologists and economists can find common ground”.


the ‘Environmentalist’s Paradox’, and the role of ecologists in advancing economic thinking

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a new epoch, the Anthropocene

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Geologists press for recognition of Earth-changing ‘human epoch’
Experts want the human imprint in the geological record to be acknowledged as a new epoch, the Anthropocene

by Gaia Vince, Friday 3 June 2011 16.22 BST

These are epoch-making times. Literally. There is now “compelling evidence”, according to an influential group of geologists, that humans have had such an impact on the planet that we are entering a new phase of geological time: the Anthropocene.

Millions of years from now, they say, alien geologists would be able to make out a human-influenced stripe in the accumulated layers of rock, in the same way that we can see the imprint of dinosaurs in the Jurassic, or the explosion of life that marks the Cambrian. Now the scientists are pushing for the new epoch to be officially recognised.

“We don’t know what is going to happen in the Anthropocene,” says geographer Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland. “But we need to think differently and globally, to take ownership of the planet.”

Anthropocene, a term conceived in 2002 by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, means “the Age of Man”, recognising our species’ ascent to a geophysical force on a par with Earth-shattering asteroids and planet-cloaking volcanoes. Geologists predict that our geological footprint will be visible, for example, in radioactive material from the atomic bomb tests, plastic pollution, increased carbon dioxide levels and human-induced mass extinction.

“Geologists and ecologists are already using the term ‘Anthropocene’, so it makes sense to have an accepted definition,” says geologist Dr Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester. “But, in this unusual case, formal recognition of the epoch could have wider significance beyond the geology community. By officially accepting that human actions are having an effect on the makeup of the Earth, it may have an impact on, say, the law of the sea or on people’s behaviour.”

In the past, geological changes on a scale big enough to merit a new epoch have been the result of events such as the eruption of a supervolcano or a catastrophic meteor strike – things a lawyer might describe as acts of God. Now, instead of being just another one of the millions of species on our planet, humans have become the determining factor – the guiding, controlling species – and many of our changes will leave a permanent mark in the rocks.

The Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is the body charged with formally designating geological time periods, met at Burlington House, London, last month, to discuss evidence for the planet having crossed into a new geological epoch.

The geological signal will be clear from industrial-scale mining, damming, deforestation and agriculture, as well as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere and nitrates in the oceans. Even the presence of the first human-produced chemicals like PCBs, radioactive fallout and the humble plastic bag could be measured millions of years hence.

Putting humans at the centre of our planet’s activity represents a paradigm shift in the way geologists usually think of our species – as a mere blip on the long timescale of Earth.

There have been seven epochs since the dinosaurs died out around 65m years ago. The last time we passed a geological boundary, entering the Holocene around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, we were an insignificant species, just one of a couple of hominids struggling to survive in a world where so many of our cousins, like Homo erectus, had failed to make it.

Now our effect on the climate and our fellow species is having a global impact. “The fossil record will reveal a massive loss of plant and animal species, and also the scale of invasive species – how we’ve distributed animals and plants across the globe,” Zalasiewicz says.

The working group still has some more evidence to gather before it presents its findings to the stratigraphy committee, “and then the real battle will commence”, says Zalasiewicz. “These are slow, nit-picky debates, fraught with acrimony and issues of nationalism. Some members are very cautious and think it’s premature to define the Anthropocene, because the Holocene has only been around for a short period in geological terms. Other epochs have lasted millions of years.”

Others feel that the new epoch is upon us and we should come to terms with its implications for the planet. “We broke it, we bought it, we own it,” Ellis says. “Now we’ve got to take responsibility for it.”

Ban Ki-moon ends hands-on involvement in climate change talks

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Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general who made global warming his personal mission, is ending his hands-on involvement with international climate change negotiations, the Guardian has learned.

In a strategic shift, Ban will redirect his efforts from trying to encourage movement in the international climate change negotiations to a broader agenda of promoting clean energy and sustainable development, senior UN officials said.

The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban’s realisation, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years. (If not within the next few years, then when? We’re already running out of time.)

“It is very evident that there will not be a single grand deal at any point in the near future,” said Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary general for strategic planning and a key adviser to Ban.

The view from UN headquarters will likely dismay developing countries who fought hard at Copenhagen and last year’s summit at Cancún for countries to renew their commitments to the Kyoto protocol in just that type of grand deal.

UN officials say Ban will no longer be deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to the next big UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting at Durban in December 2011.

“He will continue to encourage leaders to aim for a higher level of ambition but there will need to be less day-to-day stuff,” said one UN official. “The negotiations are very important, but it is the big-picture issues that he needs to be more engaged with.”

Ban will focus on broader issues of sustainability, which will be in the spotlight at a summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, marking 20 years since the first Earth summit.

“Because the circumstances have changed, the nature of his engagement is changing,” Orr said. “The relative balance of his time is shifting towards getting it done on the ground out there.”

UN officials, and those who closely track climate change negotiations, insist that Ban has not lessened his commitment to finding a solution to climate change. Ban has called global warming “the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family”.

“His heart is still there, and he does want to make a breakthrough in his tenure, but this might provide a better platform in the near future,” said one UN official.

However, they say he now believes there are more immediate gains to be made in mobilising international finance to support a green economy in developing countries than in trying to persuade world leaders to commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Others inside the UN system as well as in world capitals have been circling towards a similar conclusion as Ban: that gains in clean energy technology and energy efficiency could do more in the near future to reduce emissions. They could then drive the overarching deal that the UN still sees as necessary.

(Shouldn’t it be a simultaneous thing? Reducing emissions WHILE promoting a green economy – competitive research to find clean energy alternatives and to increase energy efficiency – so that the green economy and the greater awareness it will promote will contribute to reducing emissions, hence creating a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.)

“The idea that the world will gather together and parcel out emissions cuts among the various nations is probably a non-starter at this point,” said Reid Detchon, vice-president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation, a Washington thinktank. “Whether it is in 2012 or 2013, the political consensus does not exist for a top-down approach.”

In operational terms, Ban’s climate change advisory team, which grew to about a dozen people ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, has shrunk to less than five people.

Meanwhile, he is in the course of expanding his advisory team on sustainable development to about a dozen people ahead of the Rio meeting.

“The things that are moving faster are the investments in renewable energy, the kind of actual investments and changes on the ground that will make a difference,” said Tariq Banuri, director of the division of sustainable development at the UN’s department of economic and social affairs. “There should be enough forums to accelerate and support those – some may have to wait for climate negotiations and some may not.”

Ban still believes an international agreement on climate change is essential, Orr said. “The sails haven’t been trimmed. We are still going in the same direction, but we will have to tack back and forth between the multilateral negotiating process and national realities on the ground.”

The strategic shift by the UN secretary general in some ways mirrors thinking in Washington, where environmentalists are looking at how to many progress on climate change without votes in Congress or the regulatory help of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

In the case of the UN, however, Ban’s decision is not a product of failure. The climate negotiations at Cancún produced modest progress on some of the essential pre-conditions to a global deal, such as climate finance and forest preservation.

The first public indication of a shift in direction was delivered in a speech to the UN general assembly on 14 January, in which Ban ranked sustainable development as the lead item on his agenda for 2011, ahead of climate change, human rights, security and humanitarian aid for Haiti.

(Why not just subsume ‘climate change’ under ‘sustainable development’? It’s all interlinked, isn’t it?)

But UN officials and others who closely follow climate diplomacy say the UN chief had been considering how best to move forward on climate change at least since the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

Ban has said repeatedly he sees climate change as the challenge of the generation. He staked his reputation as secretary general on gathering world leaders at Copenhagen, arguing that environment ministers and bureaucrats could not hope to command the authority to sign on to agreements that would essentially require the rewiring of their entire economy.

The hands-on approach worked in 2007 when Ban stepped in to prevent a collapse of the Bali summit over George Bush’s refusal to agree to emissions cuts.

But the elevated hopes for reaching a final deal at Copenhagen resulted instead in acrimony and a tentative last-minute understanding among the big polluters that was not fully endorsed by the 190 countries in the UN negotiating process.

The Cancún meeting, overseen by Christiana Figueresmanaged to get the talks back on track, and some see Ban’s disengagement as a sign of confidence in the negotiation process.

“The phase the negotiations are going into now is one more of rule-making, rather than heads-of-state engagement,” said Jennifer Morgan, who directs the climate and energy programme at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “It is just in a different phase than it was before, and the fact that Cancún was the moderate success that it was allows it to carry on the process in the way that it normally does with ministers and officials.”

Beyond watchdog: engaging business for change

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The whole idea of inhabiting the margins really bothers me, safely watching decisions being made by others, then commenting, critiquing or second-guessing from a distance. It’s too easy. Dare I say too academic? And it borders on self-righteous. Given what’s at stake for Nature these days, being a perpetual observer, with no real skin in the game, is no longer defendable.

I have always preferred to be at the centre of things, fully engaged with those in power, and PARTY to the decisions that the watchdogs ponder from the sidelines. Doing, not watching, is where you can take the kind of risks that make a real difference. Because, when all is said and done, more is said than done.

There are those who caution against engaging business at all. Too big. Too powerful. Amoral at best. Immoral at worst. Profit-driven and corrupting by association, to paraphrase Machiavelli.

But since the market capitalization of the world’s largest companies rivals the gross domestic product of many medium-sized countries, we have no choice but to engage business. Their operations dramatically impact the environment on a local-to-global scale, and they affect each of our daily lives. Therefore, to leave the corporate sector unaddressed would be the strategic equivalent of hiding your head in the sand.  Do you want to make a difference, or not?

So the question is not whether to engage, but how. Further, I believe such engagement is not just a matter of fending off evil. Rather, much good can come from it. To those who feel that anyone who engages business has sold out, I ask, “Just how deep is your commitment to our cause, if you won’t deal with those who affect it most?”


Go to the right place out of goodwill, if you wish. Or go there because you were pressured, if you must. But go there you will. Or perish.

I like this line. Harsh, but real.

Conservation and Schrodinger’s cat

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In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment involving an unsuspecting, limbo-bound feline, the mere act of observing something can change its state.

The very idea of ecological science as it’s practised nowadays is that what you see when you go into the great expanse of  nature is the reality; that you’re observing animals doing what they do, unaffected by your presence.

And in this week’s Nature, Claire Saraux and her colleagues report a 10-year project on penguins that demonstrates pretty unequivocally a big problem associated with the standard research tool, the flipper band.
As my news story relates, in a nutshell, the bands harm the penguins – slowing their foraging, shortening their lives and having a major impact on their breeding success.

So for anyone wanting to use flipper bands on penguins while they’re at sea now, there are two dilemmas.

Firstly, will the research produce a conclusion that’s reliable – that isn’t distorted by the bands?

And secondly, are the project’s aims important enough to justify harming the birds?

King penguins, the species used in this study, are pretty abundant, with an estimated population in the millions; so there’s no conservation reason why shortening the lives of some would be an issue.

Even so, many of us would think twice about the ethics of research that carried these consequences.

Would it have been worth harming one whale in order that the whole population could be better conserved?

In many parts of the oceans, you can find fishing boats engaged on something that might sound like an oxymoron – fishing for conservation.

Scientific sampling of ocean areas determines fish abundance. Trials with new nets aim to reduce bycatch, or improve the specificity of fleets for certain fish species or ages – but again, fish die in the process.

So is that justified?

Occasionally, the mere presence of conservation scientists has been enough to damage wildlife.

One of the first principles of medical ethics is “first do no harm” – and some have suggested this could usefully be adopted for conservation too.

But the only way to be sure of doing no harm is to do nothing at all… and then it becomes very difficult to do any good.


The older I grow, the more I know, and the more gray areas become evident to me. Any kind of study is going to be intrusive in some way or another, no matter how hard one tries to make it not. It’s a choice between standing by and doing nothing and watching it all slowly disappear, or making some sacrifices and trying everything you can think of, and sheer, blind hope.

Turtles prefer the ‘city life’

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This is interesting. Researchers found that turtles that lived in the suburbs of Canberra, Australia travelled longer distances and occupied home ranges nearly three times larger than turtles in adjacent nature reserves.


Both turtle populations made long journeys of up to two and a half kilometres between bodies of water.

“Given their extensive movements, we expected that suburban turtles would have a high rate of encounters with vehicles on roads, and thus fewer would survive,” Dr Roe says.

“Despite this, suburban turtles did not suffer appreciably higher mortality than their counterparts on reserve lands, only one of our 36 radio tracked turtles was hit by a vehicle,” he told BBC News.

Vegetated drainage lines and drainage culverts running under roads in the suburbs of Canberra protected the turtles.

“The vegetated drainage lines and culverts allowed the turtles to move about and use the landscape in normal ways, which reduced their exposure to urban threats and allowed them to avoid suffering from excessive road mortality,” Dr Roe explains.

Turtles in the nature reserves responded to the drying up of the wetlands by estivating, lying dormant buried under leaf litter.

However, suburban turtles did not need to.

“Water bodies are often incorporated into urban design for the purposes of storm water removal and retention,” Dr Roe says.

So “suburban water bodies remain flooded, allowing turtles to maintain aquatic activities throughout the drought.”

That means turtles living in towns and cities are immune to the worst effects of prolonged drought, which can deplete wild turtles’ energy and water stores.

“It appears that the suburban landscapes, despite their many challenges, may be higher quality habitats than nature reserves for turtles during drought,” Dr Roe says.

Dr Roe hopes to continue the research to see if this trend is represented over the turtles’ entire life span.

He also hopes to monitor the turtles’ response to the frequent droughts that are gripping much of Australia whilst exploring how suburban areas, road design and urban planning may effect them.

“It would be interesting to determine whether well-designed urban areas hold any promise as long term drought refuges for some turtle populations.”


These findings seem to run contrary to the commonly upheld belief that urbanization and hence the loss of natural habitats are always detrimental to the wildlife that remain in the steadily shrinking patches of nature areas embedded in the urban matrix. This thus comes as a rather heartening example of Nature’s resilience and intrinsic adaptability. Although, of course, not all animals would be as adaptable nor as fortunate.

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