Monday, July 20, 2009

Re: MIT Sustainability Minor : Yang

Here are some responses I have. I realize this is a really awkward format, and this is exactly why I want to make a forum format so we can have a discussion like this.

Prof Susskind says:
I'm a bit distressed that we didn't make the first core subject seem more important
to you. In the rest of the country, in the sustainability curricula that have already been
adopted, ecology is a centerpiece. MIT hasn't had a basic
ecology course available to undergraduates. Our approach is to embrace some
of the ethical issues concerning the responsibilities of humans for the stewardship
of the natural environment.

I don't know a whole lot about ecology. I think I had negative feelings about the words "ecology, ecologist, and conservation biology." I think there is probably a dissonance, though, between general usage of the word and academic usage of the word. In general usage, I think ecology has some negative connotations. It is often used to demonstrate that any living system is so complex that humans should never modify the natural environment since we never know the full extent of the consequences. While this idea is sometimes popular with the usual environmentalist crowd especially in developed countries, it has a different meaning for developing nations, especially rapid developing nations where conservation (of the rainforest, for example) sounds like a good idea, but it's impossible as long as people resort to logging the rainforest to improve their standard of living.

Now, I doubt that the class would have an antidevelopment message, but this is what I think of because of the mention of "conservation biology," although maybe I just don't even know what that is.

Regarding embracing ethical issues in the class, I would caution against putting too much focus on ethics. Most people who take the class would probably already agree that humans should not irreparably harm the environment, whether because of a moral obligation or because it ultimately threatens our own survival as a species. I think at some colleges it could be good to put more emphasis on ethics, but a lot of MIT students are cynical about talking about ethics and responsibilities in those terms. I think it's easier for a lot of us to think of things in terms of optimization of efficiency or utility or quality of life.

I think there is a subset of MIT students who are not activists or environmentalists but are interested in having a more fulfilling career that positively contributes to the natural world while still increasing quality of life for people. I think I'd be interested in

- tools for studying ecology rather than analyzing particular ecosystems

- tools for measuring human impact

- how ecology can help humans design better (biomimicry? perhaps this does not really count as ecology. I don't know)

- how human designs can work with ecological systems instead work against or completely separately from

- I don't really know what "population ecology and human demography...along with a review of important bio-physical cycles and the ways in which humans are affected by and shape these cycles" means, but they sound good.


Lynn said...

An ecology class for sustainability should definitely talk about why we should care about ecology. 1) climate change, 2) agriculture and why we should switch to organic/sustainable methods of farming - damaging effects on environment and increased incidence of food poisons due to antibiotic resistance (both an environment and public health issue), 3) problems with raw materials extractions, 4) biomimicry and finding new methods of dealing with climate change/agriculture issues

Lynn said...

I'm not sure about general usage of the term. Ideally, I'd like to see ecology presented in a business sense. This would be much more compelling. When does the environment matter? When do we need to know about ecology? A paper mill will be using raw materials - wood. Logging will affect the local ecosystem. The paper company thus has a need to learn about the local ecosystem, and the role that these trees play (if they want a competitive advantage). There are a couple reasons to care about this: 1) consumers care (at least some do now, and more will in the future) about how a paper company extracts its raw materials, handles its waste, and treats its employers. 2) competitive advantage: if the paper company employs some method of sustainable tree farming and leaves the local ecosystem in tact, this paper company will not have to worry about loss of forest, which its competitors will be worrying about, 3) save money in the long term if they have some sustainable harvest solution (not sure on the details here, but I assume there is some financial benefit, and some could be created).

I guess that's what I'd like to see...

And ethics is an abstract concept that does not really speak to people, because it does not really have real-life applications. We should not care about ecology and the environment because of ethics - we should care because we depend on living systems, because we'd die faster if we didn't know anything about the environment. Some industries that depend on the environment: manufacturing for raw materials, energy, agriculture. Of course, all human activity depends on the environment.

So yes, it is fascinating that squirrels need trees for acorn nuts and all the other complicated relationships between animals and plants. But there is much more to say about ecology in terms of sustainability, human life, and economics/industry.

The main point is not ecology. The main point of all this is to continue to enhance the quality of life. In order to do so, we need to take care of the environment. So we have to learn a little about ecology.

I, Lynnbot said...

Yes... I think sort of an overview of what ecology is all about is useful, and tools for analyzing. The nitty gritty details aren't as useful for sustainability issues, unless in specific cases.

I'm not sure if climate change is included in ecology, I sort of assume it is. But I think bio-physical cycles and how they affect humans is sort of related to climate change. Natural disasters have increased in frequency in the past 20 years - climate change or something else?

And yea I don't think biomimicry is exactly ecology. In the ecology sense, I was sort of thinking along the lines of how do different species in nature interact with each other? And do we want to copy any of those interactions in our larger, societal organizations? Or we could look at resource use/waste management within an ecosystem, and see if that can be extracted onto an industrial/societal scale.