Friday, December 23, 2011

Is All Ecology Urban Ecology? Reading Henri Lefebvre’s “The Urban Revolution”.

The overarching theme of the relevance of Urban Ecology for a more general environmental thought will be discussed in a series of posts over the coming weeks.  If you are interested use the labels to the right to locate the series.

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), was a French Marxist whose philosophically inclined sociological writings have had an enduring influence on geography, urban studies, and, to some extent at least, on environmental thought.  Although La Production de l’espace (The Production of Space) (1974)  is perhaps his most influential work, I have been re-reading his slimmer volume The Urban Revolution (La Révolution urbaine (1970) ) in recent weeks.  From my perspective the volume is interesting since Lefebvre’s hypothesis that society is completely urbanized is important to those of us who might claim that urban ecology is not just an upstart subdiscipline in ecology but may be in fact be a synonym for ecology. 

An urban society is by Lefebvre’s definition one that comes about, unremarkably, by the process of urbanization.  The core hypothesis, more arrestingly, is that society has been completely urbanized.  Although urban society has been used to refer to a suite of social arrangements Lefebvre confines the use of the term to a society emerging from industrialization.  Now, as he points out, this totalizing urbanization that leads to urban society is “virtual today but will be real in the future.”  Thus the term urban society refers to “tendencies, orientations, and virtualities, rather than any preordained reality.”  For all this urban society is not fictional: it is a “virtual object”, or a “possible object”.  It is a “horizon, an illuminating virtuality.”  Urban society, Lefebvre claimed is “gestating in and through the “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.”  Urban society represents "the prodigious extension of the urban to the entire planet".

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Making Nature Whole" Book Launch 18th Jan 2012, 6:30

Mark Your Calendar

DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture Presents 



Making Nature Whole – A History of Environmental Restoration

By William Jordan III and George M. Lubick

WHEN: Wed 18th January 2012 at 6:30 pm

WHERE: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building (McGowan South), 1110 West Belden Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614

PROGRAM: Interdisciplinary reflections on the book by Tom Simpson (McHenry Co Conservation District), Anthony Paul Smith (DePaul University Institute for Nature and Culture), Paul Gobster, USDA (Forest Service), David Wise (UIC), Claire Butterfield (Faith in Place), and Gavin Van Horn (Center for Humans and Nature) and from the author William Jordan III.

PLEASE CIRCULATE THIS WIDELY.  For more information please contact Liam Heneghan (lhenegha at gmail)
Signed copies of the book will be available for purchase.

Restoration as a key strategy for Green Infrastructure Planning in Chicago

Liam Heneghan and Gerry Clabby (Fingal County Council, Dublin, Ireland)

The role of green infrastructure in facilitating energy flows and material exchanges that sustain human habitation in urban regions is becoming more apparent and its importance for long term urban planning is being increasingly recognized. Open space planning (i.e., parks, wildlife corridors, urban forests) has long been on the agenda of urban designers. In contrast, green infrastructure serves as a way of framing discussions about the future of the city so that green spaces in are presented alongside engineered structures (i.e., roads, bridges, sewers) in urban areas so both can be simultaneously regarded as providing vital environmental services.

Green infrastructure gives metropolitan planners and engineers a greater range of tools for mitigating urban problems. Additionally, if more extensive green space is planned and protected in metropolitan areas then this increases the opportunities for biodiversity conservation. Thus, green infrastructure combines several seemingly disparate environmental strategies such as increasing ecosystems services, enhancing biodiversity conservation, and bringing a landscape ecological perspective to the management of urban regions where open space is no longer considered as isolated fragments.

We provide a definition for green infrastructure as this is a relatively new term and is used inconsistently. However, we demonstrate the usefulness of the term “green infrastructure” as a way of integrating several aspects of an urban ecological strategy. In particular, we argue that restoration is a critical tactic in achieving functional green infrastructure in large metropolitan areas where degraded ecosystems are often assailed by multiple stressors. We illustrate progress made in the Chicago area in developing a green infrastructure vision, and suggest a number of key knowledge gaps, attention to which may increase our ability to translate this vision into a reality.

Green Infrastructure Defined
We define green infrastructure as the ecological features of a human settlement that may be considered alongside traditional engineered infrastructure to enhance ecological values and functions. Usually green infrastructure is deployed for the benefit of the resident human populations although in the cases of natural areas conservation the supposed benefit for people may be an indirect one. This broad definition captures the range of uses to which the term has been applied, from those structures and processes that augment urban storm flow systems (Anon. 2008) to interconnected natural areas that contribute to human welfare (Benedict and McMahon 2006). Green infrastructure builds on previous work on ecosystems services, urban natural capital evaluation, and open space protection by integrating these insights explicitly into landuse planning in partnership with others involved in urban planning.

Since much open space in urban areas is currently either low diversity turf grass or degraded semi-natural land, restoration may be a key ingredient in increasing the ecological functioning of this land where the potential of this land to serve as green infrastructure is recognized and thus has been incorporated into urban planning. In order to provide a city with services required to augment, and in some cases replace, elements of gray infrastructure, the rehabilitation or restoration of open space will often be required. Green Infrastructure Planning in Chicago

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In The Kingdom of Decay: How a Motley Team of Subterranean Dwellers Ransacks the Dead and Liberates Nutrients for the Living

The recently dead rot much like money accumulates in banks (until recently, at least), only, of course, in reverse.  A sage great-great-ancestor who had, for instance, set aside a few shillings for a distant descendant would, through the plausible alchemy of compound interest, have made that great-great-offspring a wealthy person indeed.  In contrast, after death a body-heft of matter accumulated over the course of a lifetime is hustled away, rapidly at first, but leaving increasingly minute scraps of the carcass to linger on nature’s banquet table.  It is as if Zeno had not shot an arrow but instead had ghoulishly slobbered down upon the departed, progressively diminishing the cadavers but never quite finishing his noisome meal.  The soils of the world contain in tiny form, scraps of formerly living things going back many thousands of years.  Perhaps these are the ghosts we sense when we are alone in the woods.

Before you rake away the final leaves of the autumn season, hold one up to the early winter light.  Those patches where you see sky rather than leaf are the parts that had been consumed live, nibbled away by insects or occasionally browsed by mammals.  But you may have to pick up several leaves to see any consumption at all!  The eating of live plant material is rarer than one might suspect.  It is almost as if most creatures, unlike us of course, have the decency to wait for other beings to die before they consume them.  Ecologists have wondered why this is the case, asking in one formulation of the problem “why is the world green?”  At the peak of the summer season the world is mysteriously like a large bowl of uneaten salad.  The world it turns out is green for many reasons but a compelling one is that plants generally defend themselves quite resourcefully.  The thorn upon the rose provides more than a pretty metaphor – this shrub knows exactly what to do with its aggressive pricks.  And if one can neither run nor hide nor protrude a thorn, you might manufacture chemical weapons.  Crush a cherry laurel leaf in your hand, wait a moment or so, and then inhale that aroma like toasted almond.  It’s hydrogen cyanide, of course.  “Don’t fuck with me” is one of the shrubbery’s less lovely messages.

Read on at 3quarksdaily

Monday, December 12, 2011

Four Conjectures on Soil Microarthropods and Ecological Restoration

In what follows I conjecture about soil organisms in the context of restoration projects.  This are listed below as C1-C4.  I concentrate here on soil microarthropods (primarily free-living soil mites and springtails), since these are the groups that my lab are most interested in.  I also have Midwestern systems in mind, but the remarks can probably be generalized.  These are for the most part empirically-based conjectures (a "empirijecture, if you will!)": there is not enough work done to be emphatic, but there is data emerging that supports each contention.

C1.       Soil microarthropods are hyperdiverse at most restoration sites.  This may be true even those that are considered to be in poor ecological health.  The number of described mite species globally is 45,000 or so and this may represent less than 10% of the total diversity.  To put this is perspective: if mite diversity got proportionate attention there would be over 100 consecutive "Mite Weeks" on Discovery for every one 'Shark Week”.  In the coming years we will get some real numbers at a variety of sites.  Expect no fewer than 200 species per hectare.

C2.       Factors that negatively affect plant diversity will also have adverse affects on soil organismal diversity.  Invasive species, fragmentation, nitrogen deposition, altered hydrology, climate change and so forth have implications for the soil environment.  In particular, factors that elevate decomposition rates may have devastating implications for soil animals.  This is because the decomposing litter, hosts the greatest diversity of soil arthropods.  I conjecture that in habitats where the litter layer has been reduced diversity is greatly diminished.  This may represent a vast unnoticed local extinction crisis.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Should We Care about the Conservation and Restoration of Decomposer Assemblages?

Soil organisms are phylogenetically diverse, trophically heterogeneous, highly variable in size, dissimilar in longevity, variegated in morphology, behaviorally divergent, adapted to different soil horizons, disparately pigmented, but united in their reliance on death.

By this, I mean to imply that an adequate study of soil ecology calls for interdisciplinarity on a scale that we are not especially good at.  That being said, the fact that dead things provide a foundation for these complex foodwebs has been enough for them to be functionally lumped together despite their multifarious attributes.  For the purpose of examining the fate of detritus this makes good sense.  Collectively the action of detrital-based foodwebs results in the breakdown of dead organic matter and the mineralization of organic compounds making them key nutrient available to the living. 

Restorationists need to pay attention to soil organisms both because they are a very large component of the diversity of most sites, and because the regulation of nutrient availability exerts a large influence on the diversity of plants and other components of the biotic community.  We all live in the shadow of the kingdom of decay.  Concern for the conservation of soil communities is made all the more urgent because soils are vastly affected by global change.  A warmer earth implies generally more rapid decomposition rates (when other factors such as moisture content of the soil remain constant).  Invasive species can also have dramatic implications for soils, either directly when soil animals (earthworms and isopods, for instance) are moved around, or indirectly when plants invade.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Don Quixote - Patron Saint of The Ecologically Naïve

In an especially marvelous episode in Don Quixote, the mad knight errant attacks Master Peter’s puppet show. He takes his sword to the puppets and the fittings and destroys the show. Confronted with the extent of the damage Don Quixote is unmoved, claiming that an enchanter had transformed the scene he had witnessed – in which Sir Gaiferos frees his wife Melisendra from the Moors – into the puppet show which he was then, naturally, compelled to reduce to wooden carnage. Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sad Countenance, might be a fitting patron of the ecologically naïve, failing as he does to perceive the realities of important connections, confusing what he sees with what fits the vision of his madness. The explicit role of ecology is to excavate these connections and to make transparent realities that might otherwise, to our cost, elude us.

In recent years ecological exploration has attended to the role of soil organisms and to the ecosystem processes occurring primarily belowground. This skein of research has resulted in a mild revolution (ecological revolutions tend to be bloodless and polite, but revolutions none the less) in our thinking. This reorientation in thinking is referred to as plant-soil feedback theory, the central claims of which are that the structure and functioning of ecosystems cannot be fully understood without appreciating the influence of the aboveground component of ecosystems on the soil and reciprocally of the influence of the soil on the communities above the soil surface. In effect the strings that run the Master Peter's ecological puppet show run not only from above, but emerge from the opaque but teeming world of the soil.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Snowed Under in Chicago: i.e. Unrealistic reading and writing plans before the end of the year

 A Heneghan Youth attacking during one of last year's snow events
When one’s ambition outstrips the confines of calendrical time one prioritizes I suppose.  As usual I had kicked too many assignments towards the touchline that is this December break and now I have some decisions to make - I can't do 'em all.  Minimally I have to get the following writing assignments finished:

1.      Finish the draft of our mulching experiment with Lauren Umek.  This is more than 50% done, but there is at least two more days of statistical analysis and a full re-write to go.  We’ll submit this to Biological Invasions by the end of the month.
2.      Microarthropods (free living soil mites and sprintails) in restoration projects.  A short piece on this for Restoration News Midwest
3.      A cheerful 3quarks daily piece on Death and Decay.
4.      A series of short pieces on Henri Lefebvre, Albert Borgmann, Aldo Leopold and Jack Kerouac etc for this blog (and ultimately my book)
5.      Some work on a couple of new proposals (actually a pressing priority). This includes some work on a proposal linking some philosophical work on biodiversity conservation with the scientific perspectives on this topic..

Of course to get these written I need to get a lot of reading done (mainly rereading, fortunately).   

Additionally I want to read a few things before the quarter begins in January.
  • Nicomachean Ethics for the seminar I will take in winter with SeanKirkland
  • Bill Jordan’s newer book (Making Nature Whole – some of which I read in draft).  I need to have this ready for the book launch event we at INC are hosting in January (look out for a note on this).
  • I will also be rereading Bill’s Sunflower Forest (though I have this almost memorized since I have taught it so frequently) and a reread of Tim Morton’s Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought for an informal seminar we’ll host next year on Friday mornings (more info on this soon – let me know if you can to join) on “Deep, Dark and Shameful (see here).
Also I need apply myself to French translation so I can technically complete my MA in philosophy.

If I can get anything else written and read that will be gravy!