Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

Prompted by a recent visit to the US, I am once again wondering what kind of science we ought to be doing for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world. A woman in the street yesterday wanted me to (financially) support an anti-bullying campaign. She explained to me all the wrongs of school bullying, as well as the substantial legal costs that needed to be covered to fight it. While her cause was worthwhile the whole interaction left me somewhat befuddled – the insanity of appealing to the good will of a few to fix what is systemically messed up seemed almost unbearably pathetic; and a theme that to me (as an outside observer) seems to run through much of the US in particular. Electric cars, good-natured philanthropists and coffee sleeves made of “85% post-consumer fiber” will not fix…

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From PRNewswire: Nationwide Economist Network Tackles Important Question: Has The Future Economy Arrived?

“The E3 Network – Economics for Equity and Environment – examines the impacts of new business models such as community-supported agriculture, sharing platforms, community energy, green jobs initiatives.”

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The Alan Greenspan Strain


Oldie but awesome-ie.

Originally posted on Farming Pathogens:

First, a question with which few biogeographers bother. If a goodly chunk of their discipline is dedicated to veiling the impact capitalism imposes on the natural world (discussed here and here), how can researchers interested in paying their bills study the crises that threaten the posh gamblers for whom, however distally, they ultimately work?

For those who study pathogens, the answer is a short one. Focus on viruses and bacteria as biomedical objects alone. The spread and evolution of these lil’ nasties can be tracked underneath the microscope or, at the public health level, across computer maps, but rarely over their rough-and-tumble geographies.

Otherwise, the problem of a pathogen, already treacherous, becomes in such a political context nigh impossible. God forbid, researchers might be forced to study the social relationships that bind together and separate out populations across  capitalist landscapes near and far. The corrupt omission, a constant headache…

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Mickey the Measles

Originally posted on Farming Pathogens:

mickeymeaslesI only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it all started with a mouse. –Walt Disney (1954)

An outbreak of highly infectious measles starting at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, has spread to eight U.S. states and Mexico. Arizona, one state hit, is presently monitoring 1000 people linked to Disneyland visitors and subsequent exposures.

With good reason, much attention has been placed on the role the anti-vax movement has played in both the initial outbreak and its subsequent spread. In 2014, before the outbreak, U.S. measles clocked in at three times the cases (644) than any of the ten years previous.

The outbreak may represent a second scandal.

Five years ago Disney objected to suggestions the theme park and resort, drawing 15 million visitors a year from around the world, was a potential amplifier for infectious diseases.

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Pigskins for the Ancestors


Lovely prose, dense with irony and… um, density.

Originally posted on Farming Pathogens:

jea 147 gopher FB uniformsBolivian medical anthropologist Isadore Nabi recently visited Minnesota. With his permission we reproduce an excerpt of a draft report he is preparing.

Despite constructing sprawling monasteries dedicated to positivist empiricism, imperatives of magical thinking are strictly enforced here even in what are ostensibly the most leisurely of cultural practices.

Take the popular sport of American football, an anomalous mix of tableau vivant–wherein players pose together in different combinations looking up at a scoreboard while pulling on their uncomfortable costumes–and an explosive brutality that, in the course of carrying a pig bladder toward an opponent’s distal zone, leaves even the strongest participants bloodied, broken-boned, concussed, and, repeated studies show, brain damaged. Dementia is a lucrative trade here. 

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The Declensionist Diet

Originally posted on Farming Pathogens:

We continue with the ‘big picture’ of food crises I co-authored with Richard Kock and Robyn Alders. This is the second of three excerpts. The first can be found here.

We argued the causes of our ongoing and oncoming food crises are manifold, rooted in present-day policies as well as humanity’s history, as far back as even our species’ origins.

The past offers us some unlikely lessons. Agriculture, for one, wasn’t so much a bright idea as a damning necessity for populations forced upon overhunting to scavenge for food. Subsequent shifts in food regimes, including those under way today, were likewise defined by such path-dependent contingency.

At the same time, history appears to have produced an illusion of inevitable existence. Humanity was able to repeatedly overcome food and other resource limitations, even as archaeological strata are also littered with dead civilizations. These near-misses, however, can offer no sample sufficiently…

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Re-balancing … everything?


Some excellent thoughts from Joern, departing from a comment I made at Ideas4Sust.

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

In a particularly insightful comment to a recent blog post of mine, Jahi Chappell challenged the ultimate benefits of ever-increasing specialisation. Having thought about this a bit, I was struck by the generality of what this may mean. I was amazed by just how often, the problems we discuss in sustainability science result from society having favoured specialisation over balance. In this blog post, I just want to substantiate this observation by highlighting well-known examples where re-balancing would have benefits for sustainability. There is no particular order to these examples.

The time budgets of individuals. Let’s start with the point that Jahi raised – the time budgets of individuals are increasingly lob-sided. We’re encouraged to be super-stars (= workaholics) in one thing, rather than spreading our time across a variety of things; rather than “just being” (in Jahi’s words) in our communities. “Academia’s obsession with quantity

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Too cool not to share: First global estimate on urban ag!

A paper from an international team of researchers just came out, estimating that urban ag composes 11% of all irrigated cropland and 4.7% of all rainfed cropland.

While you can’t just add these two numbers to get a total extent of urban ag*, it seems nevertheless striking that such a very approximate total would give 15.7% of cropland–very close to the USDA’s uncited estimate of 15% that appeared on their urban agriculture homepage, at least, it did between Feb. 2012 and March 2013. For some reason, after the latter date, the page was updated to include no estimate whatsoever. Given that it appeared to be a “guestimate”, perhaps that’s understandable. But given this recent paper, it seems (a) that estimate, or the more precise one given by Thebo et al. by breaking out rainfed and irrigated separately, should return to the website, and (b) the idea that urban/peri-urban agriculture will not/does not significantly contribute to food security should be banished to the dustbins of history. (At least until a contrary study appears?)

And I can’t help but note that this does give grist to my previous comment: as important as I think organic/agroecological agriculture is, this latest evidence does indeed imply that “urban food production may be many times larger than the organic sector“–and so it should garner our sustained and increasing attention, I’d say.

* “…their sum does not necessarily represent the total urban cropland area when the maximum extent of irrigated and rainfed croplands occurs in different months.”

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New report out from IATP on “agrodemocracy”: Deepening Food Democracy!

IATP has just released a report by my former intern Jill Carlson and I beginning to explore the connections between agrarian citizenship, food democracy, and food sovereignty. Blog from IATP announcing it, and link to the report, below:

Drawing upon citizens’ voices: Deep democracy in action

Posted January 14, 2015 on IATP’s ThinkForward

by Jill Carlson & Dr. M. Jahi Chappell

La Vía Campesina Used under creative commons license from wdm.

What does it mean to participate in a democracy? Does the answer change when it comes to the food system? After all, as IATP’s latest report, Deepening Food Democracy, illustrates, for every corporate lobbyist exercising control in Washington, there is a food movement participant changing the food landscape in their local community.

This past November was in many ways a typical one for American politics—although the turnout rate of just 36 percent of eligible voters was a low not reached since 1942, it was only five points lower than the 2010 midterm elections, and totally in line with the fact that the last time at least half of eligible Americans went to the polls outside of a presidential election year was literally 100 years ago: 50.4 percent in 1914. Happy 100th b-day, minimally adequate participation in American democracy!

Alas, the historically low turn-out is not because things are historically good—food insecurity remains steady at over 14 percent, with “very low food security”—hunger—staying near six percent, or  about 18 million Americans. We face numerous other challenges in our food system, alongside continued and historic levels of wealth and income inequality that our politicians seem little-inclined to address. Despite voter priorities and majority agreement on many issues like supporting education, protecting the environment and confronting corporate control[i]; despite the fact that sizeable majority of Republican and Republican-leaning citizens believe in climate change, and believe their elected officials are not responsive to their views; despite the fact that Americans underestimate wealth inequality and cite a much fairer split of wealth as their ideal; despite all this, only about a third of us turned out for an election where two-thirds of us think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

But these seeming inconsistencies are tempered by the fact we do not live in a system that rewards our political involvement with political responsibility. The limited vision of democracy where voting every two to four years is the primary duty, and the full extent of our democratic responsibility, describes what Raj Patel has called a “complainocracy”—a system that makes us cynical, because we’ve been led to believe that this kind of democratic practice is the full flowering of the democracy we’ve been promised. If this kind of hollow, empty process is the best of democracy, then many of us likely reason that we may as well not get too involved in it.

At the same time, we see change and cracks in the edifice showing us that another world IS possible. Indeed, in many ways, it is already here. People know change is needed, and are acting on it—from the Seattle protests in 1999 to Occupy to #BlackLivesMatter; from protests in Brazil over World Cup displacements, to We Are Fed Up against agribusiness, in Germany, the recent protest against police brutality at the Mall of America, and September’s People’s Climate March—the movement from knowledge to action continues. As radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said, we make the path by walking it—we learn how to birth new alternatives and live a new democracy in the process of pushing for it and doing it.

This is why IATP is proud to release our report, Deepening Food Democracy, which looks at examples from around the world, but particularly within the United States, where people are creating new ways of participating in democracy; new ways to engage and change our political systems; new ways of making autonomy and food sovereignty—a food system of the people, by the people, and for all people—practical and real. From food policy councils in North Carolina to participatory budgeting around the world, from Rural Climate Dialogues to Citizen Technology Reviews, we are building and living the tools to turn the system around.

In a way, these examples can still seem like so little when matched against the great tidal forces of powerful corporations and unresponsive governments. But we must see these new and growing alternatives for what they are—the building blocks, the tools for large-scale and lasting change. No movement started out knowing it would succeed; those we admire in generations before did not see the end of the path clearly, did not hear the accolades the future would bring them when they went out to push for change; it is only in retrospect that we put all their efforts together into a righteous effort destined to succeed. But we hope that this report shows that we are increasingly equipped to create the better alternative that we dream of, and the next steps towards a just, agroecological, and food sovereign future are right before us. We need only to keep stepping forward together.

Read IATP’s new report, Deepening Food Democracy, for more.

[i] For example, 71% of the general public believes that we should do whatever it takes to protect the environment; 56% believe that corporations make too much profit, and 78% believe that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies.

– See more at: http://www.iatp.org/blog/201501/drawing-upon-citizens-voices-deep-democracy-in-action#sthash.aimDjsv1.dpuf

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Paper to note: Agricultural Intensification Exacerbates Spillover Effects on Soil Biogeochemistry in Adjacent Forest Remnants

Paper addressing an important lacuna in the literature; I’ve yet to give it a careful read, but likely an important and useful contribution from what I saw in skimming it.

Agricultural Intensification Exacerbates Spillover Effects on Soil Biogeochemistry in Adjacent Forest Remnants


  • Published: January 9, 2015
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116474
  • Abstract

    Land-use intensification is a central element in proposed strategies to address global food security. One rationale for accepting the negative consequences of land-use intensification for farmland biodiversity is that it could ‘spare’ further expansion of agriculture into remaining natural habitats. However, in many regions of the world the only natural habitats that can be spared are fragments within landscapes dominated by agriculture. Therefore, land-sparing arguments hinge on land-use intensification having low spillover effects into adjacent protected areas, otherwise net conservation gains will diminish with increasing intensification. We test, for the first time, whether the degree of spillover from farmland into adjacent natural habitats scales in magnitude with increasing land-use intensity. We identified a continuous land-use intensity gradient across pastoral farming systems in New Zealand (based on 13 components of farmer input and soil biogeochemistry variables), and measured cumulative off-site spillover effects of fertilisers and livestock on soil biogeochemistry in 21 adjacent forest remnants. Ten of 11 measured soil properties differed significantly between remnants and intact-forest reference sites, for both fenced and unfenced remnants, at both edge and interior. For seven variables, the magnitude of effects scaled significantly with magnitude of surrounding land-use intensity, through complex interactions with fencing and edge effects. In particular, total C, total N, δ15N, total P and heavy-metal contaminants of phosphate fertilizers (Cd and U) increased significantly within remnants in response to increasing land-use intensity, and these effects were exacerbated in unfenced relative to fenced remnants. This suggests movement of livestock into surrounding natural habitats is a significant component of agricultural spillover, but pervasive changes in soil biogeochemistry still occur through nutrient spillover channels alone, even in fenced remnants set aside for conservation. These results have important implications for the viability of land-sparing as a strategy for balancing landscape-level conservation and production goals in agricultural landscapes.

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