Wording Matters: Conservation vs. Preservation

In a world where words like sustainability are used in many contexts with widely varying meanings, we forget that the environmental community was once very choosy in its wording. Terms have specific meanings such that a single word can communicate a philosophy and accompanying ethics. Conservation and preservation are two such terms. The first denotes an effort to sustain a space or resource for perpetual use. Preservation denotes a fortress-like approach to nature, walling off human influence in order to maintain pristine “wilderness”. The terms are linked to big figures in American history, each of whom established a land ethic according to their philosophy now codified in US law. Read More

Seven Billion Strawmen: Population Bombs and Demography

As Halloween welcomed the world’s seven billionth person, there has been renewed interest in meeting the food, shelter, and water needs of a large and growing global population. One recent article in the Washington Post (10/30/11) attempted to make 7 billion a tangible number that kids can wrap their minds around by describing 7 billion M&M’s filling three Olympic-sized swimming pools. While I think this is a useful exercise, when thinking about 7 billion people, not all people can be counted equally. In terms of resource use, each of the over 300 million United States citizens are like bloated, entitled M&M’s squeezing their smaller brethren out of the pool.

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The Curse of Gold: Dimensions of Injustice in Gold-Mining Communities

Protests at Esquel, one of the communities examined in the article. Thanks articles.riderdownload.com

Buried within the depths of Andean geology lie small seams of gold tempting worldwide investors. These money-lined pockets aid the development of new extraction methods that dissolve gold from the mountains using cyanide. Cyanide is a metabolic poison, shutting down cellular respiration. In the wake of cyanide leaching stand piles of rubble and contaminated rivers where forested mountains and their people once stood. Surprisingly, Andean residents are willing to entertain the possibility of gold mining by this poisonous method, but oppose current mine development on environmental justice measures. A recent study by Urkidi and Walter in the journal Geoforum documents the emergence of justice narratives from mining conflicts in the Andes and predicts impacts on future development planning. Read More

The Pacific Divided

Challenge: find a map of the Pacific Ocean that includes both Japan and California. Or that focuses on any of the island nations in between.

One of the casualties of mapping a three-dimensional planet on two-dimensional paper is the part of the world that is split between the edges of the paper. Usually, this is the Pacific. As Sarah Palin made famous in the 2008 presidential campaign, as an Alaskan, she can see Russia from her house. While I admit that for Palin, this is an exaggeration, but for the residents of St. Lawrence Island, this view is a reality. In fact, they are as likely (if not more) to speak Russian than English and have the capability of kayaking to Russia if so desired. But your average world map makes that distance look infinite.

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10 Myths About Social Science

Over the last couple of years of doing social science research at a marine laboratory, I’ve heard any number of comments about the social sciences that are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture of a different (and relatively new) discipline. In a broader context, the Social Science, Behavior, and Economics (SBE) directorate of NSF was recently under fire and threatened to be cut entirely from NSF for ‘not being a science’. Under the umbrella of Ocean of Pseudoscience Week, I’m going to tackle some of those myths.

10. Social scientists hide the fact that they have nothing to say in impenetrable jargon.

Admittedly, many social science journals are filled with jargon and complicated theory that are impenetrable by anyone outside the discipline. Part of this is due to the fact that most social sciences are still in the young, growing stages – and this means theory-building. We’re creating new words to describe never-before-described phenomena and deciding which of those terms will work for future discussion on the matter. Many pages of our journals are therefore filled with dense social theory terms as people make tiny contributions to big understanding of the way society functions. On the flipside, there are a few journals and other outlets (such as blogs like this one) for a translated version, lots of times for policymakers, that offer easy-to-understand conclusions and empirical examples.

Furthermore, to defend our use of unfamiliar vocabulary, I’d like to point out that I never heard of the discipline ‘geography’ until I arrived in graduate school, even though that’s a field with which I largely identify today. It’s due to my particular educational history, but I’m sure I’m not alone, as geography is disappearing in secondary and higher education. In fact, up until college with its distinct disciplines physically separated on campus, “social studies” – the one class – is meant to cover all the social sciences, history, and many others in one fell swoop. I’d argue that the reason people find social scientists full of jargon is that they haven’t received the basic education they deserve that helps them understand the lingo of other disciplines. Read More

Pseudoscience Redux: Maximum (un)Sustainable Yield

This post was originally published on September 8, 2010 as a part of our first Week of Ocean Pseudoscience. Enjoy!

In 1954 and 1957 Gordon and Schaefer respectively described the idea of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) – that is, the amount of fish that could be taken by commercial fishing operations to maximize reproduction by the system year after year. Since then, it has been heralded as the mathematical panacea to fisheries management.

Gordon and Schaefer also described the maximum economic yield which threw price relations into the mix.  It describes the point at which the fishers will make the most money, accounting for revenue and their expenses. Note in the graph below the fold that the maximum economic yield (MEY) is below the MSY in terms of effort. Gordon and Schaefer imagined a private manager or government overseer that could calculate the MEY and regulate fisher behavior in order to meet it. The idea was meant to be win-win for the fishers and the fish.

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Misunderstood Marine Life # 5 – Lionfish

Thank You Joel Rotunda, ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu

Last time you went to an aquarium, you probably saw a lionfish swimming happily in a tank filled with a bit of coral or rocky bottom, calmly flipping its fins about in the slight current created by the water pump. Now think back to the interpretive sign next to the tank – did it say that the exhibit displayed an invader or an awesome, weird aquarium fish? Depending on which part of the world you’re in, you might get a different answer. Along the east coast of the United States, though, it should say the former. Lionfish have spread from south Florida throughout the Caribbean and up to North Carolina, where they can be found on reef habitat (either natural or manmade via the sinking of ships) at a concentration of 400 fish per square meter. And they eat everything in sight.

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It’s Not All About Carbon


Why is it that every time someone proposes a wind turbine there is immediate opposition because of consequent bird mortality? And at the same time, when we build or expand a coal operation, the reaction isn’t to remember all the miners that have sacrificed their lives so that you and I can turn on the lights? Why is the reaction to dirty coal to promote clean coal? It might help keep the carbon emissions down, but it doesn’t cut down on the human toll of coal.

Recently there have been highly publicized stories of miners trapped in deep mines in Chile, West Virginia, Kentucky, New Zealand, and China – and those are just the ones I heard about through traditional news outlets. However, the hype over such accidents quickly fades and the families and communities touched by the tragedy are left with the cleanup. These miners represent the human face and sacrifice of coal-fired electricity. They should join the ranks of the polar bear in symbolizing the need for better energy choices. Read More

Misunderstood Marine Life # 6 – Jellyfish

photo by Amy Freitag

“Yikes! It’s a jellyfish, get out of the water!”

I can’t remember how many times I heard this shriek from my friends as a kid around the end of July, when loads of comb jellies washed ashore, the casualties of their massive breeding efforts. Like most kids with a good poking toe, however, I figured out that these jellies couldn’t hurt me. For a number of reasons, not all jellyfish equal a painful sting.

Furthermore, like many sea creatures, they are symbolic of a beautiful greater ecosystem at work but often lead to squeaks and squeals of fear rather than smiles of appreciation. I’ll go so far to say that jellyfish are a good candidate to be a charismatic creature of the sea.

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Thank You NSF

The National Science Foundation has recently announced the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative largely in hopes of retaining women in the sciences past their the dissertation years. Most notably, the Initiative allows a year long pause in awarded grants to new parents. This pause matches the pause in the tenure process that most universities offer (but few faculty know about). In addition, parents can apply for supplemental funds to keep their labs running while on leave. In addition, NSF promises to advertise its new help for families, continue researching new methods of keeping women in the sciences, and continue to promote tenure pauses and spousal hires in its partner academic institutions.

Thinking about ways to make the academic environment more friendly to families is a topic that fascinates me both as a sociologist and as a person who will likely benefit from this initiative. According to the White House announcement for the program, the Initiative emphasizes the need for women in the sciences in order to maintain creativity and leadership. Language like “parental leave” instead of maternity leave also signifies that NSF is leading the way to a new kind of workplace, recognizing both men and women’s desires to balance work and family in an equitable way – not to put the burden of that balancing act on the mother. Kudos to NSF.