Friday, April 12, 2013

Spittballing on Human Habitat

(Note, this post represents me kicking these ideas around, and beginning an initial exploration of them... as such, it will not be heavily cited beyond what I think readers may need to understand a given point)

Recently, some thoughts have arisen in the lab I belong to about a different way to think of cities: as human habitat, modified by humans through all our ecological behavior to suit us.

It's a given that all species alter their habitat.  They may do this through herbivory, nest building, tunneling, alteration of biogeochemical cycles, even by changing the local climate.  The impacts of many species are relatively minor compared on their own.  A handful of species directly produce large changes in their environment through their behavior that other organisms have to reckon with.  Beavers, elephants, and humans spring to mind.  For the bulk of our few million years on the planet hominins have been no more of a force to reckon with than most other species.

Even after the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens--possibly the most versatile and hardy animal to grace the face of the Earth--we didn't tend to have too outsize an impact.  We may have cleared some land, burned grasslands in a purposeful way, and eaten a number of species into extinction, but we have otherwise lived within our niche as omnivorous apex predators without massively disturbing the Earth at large.

This would largely seem to be because humans historically lived in a relatively integrated manner within other ecosystems, making both intensive and extensive use of resources as necessary, and often being highly mobile (whether residentially or logistically).  The high mobility and relatively small numbers of humans kept us from doing too much damage to the ecosystems we inhabited.  Our versatility and cleverness occasionally enabled us to abuse our surroundings in ways other species cannot.  After all, wolves can't switch to shellfish and tubers after all the giant flightless birds have been eaten.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Future Sound of Puget

As I mentioned the other day on my plus account, last Thursday we held a small conference on the Future of Puget Sound. The guest panelists were Amy Snover and Howard Frumkin from the University of Washington, the chief analyst technical fellow at Boeing, Bob Peterson, and Diana Gale of the Puget Sound Leadership Council (though she is also a lecturer at the Evans School of Public Affairs at UW).  Larry Susskind closed out the day with a keynote on collaborative decision-making methods.

Marina opened up the day by presenting a short talk on how deeply uncertainty is intertwined with our decision making processes, and how we may be going about the question of how to deal with it the wrong way.  Her argument is pretty simple, at its core:  We cannot pretend that we can dismiss uncertainty and reach an 'optimum' solution; rather we need to explore and embrace the uncertainty that is a part of our knowledge processes and try to find solutions that are robust and adaptive.

One of the tools for tackling this problem is scenario analysis, and Michal gave a brief (but very informative) presentation on the Snohomish Basin 2060 Scenarios as an introduction to this way of analyzing uncertainty.  The thing that makes scenario development interesting is how it combines quantitative technical knowledge derived from research, qualitative and quantitative local knowledge, a fistful of models, and synthesizes them into a series of digestible, diverging narratives.  The importance of narrative in presenting information to the public cannot be underestimated, as I have said before.

This was followed by a discussion from the panelists, who each gave a short statement about dealing with uncertainty in decision making, and then took questions.  Each of the panelists had a very distinct view of the world, but all tended to mention a point that I've heard before:  genuine dialog between participants in decision-making processes is key.  All of them tended to emphasize this for different reasons.