Monday, November 26, 2012

An Ecological Account of Parts and Wholes Preparatory to a Comparison with Husserl's Account of Same Issues

Systems are defined by Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy as “sets of elements standing in interrelation”.[1]  Acknowledging that the definition may seem vague, von Bertalanffy argues that when the idea is mathematized using differential equations, novel properties can be adduced in systems in general and in more specialized applied situations.  Although von Bertalanffy has quite concrete objects in mind, for instance “a galaxy, a dog, a cell, and an atom are real systems” [von Bertalanffy’s emphasis], he also recognized as systems those “conceptual systems such as logic, mathematics (but e.g. also including music) which essentially are symbolic constructs; with abstracted systems (science) as a subclass of the latter, i.e. conceptual systems corresponding with reality.”  [von Bertalanffy’s emphasis][2]  There is, it would seem, an immediate parallel between von Bertalanffy and Husserl in their recognition that thinking of parts and whole (Husserl) or elements and systems (von Bertalanffy) can refer to quite concrete objects as well as more essential rules.  It is pretty clear though that whereas Husserl has more commitments to the ideal over the empirical von Bertalanffy’s emphasizes the converse.
Hierarchy theory is a component of this more general systems theory that is applied to understanding the “architecture” of complex systems.[3]  “Nature loves hierarchies”, Herbert Simon, the social scientists, who pointed out that natural objects can be seen as arranged like Chinese boxes, each level inside a progressively larger box.  Herbert Simon recognizes four intertwining sequences: chemical, organismic, genetic, and human social organizations.[4]  This fourth hierarchy includes “the “programs” and other components called elementary information processes”.[5]  We might like to think of this as “mind”, but in this fourth hierarchy Simon also includes those programs which “have been occurring with growing in the artificial complex systems called digital computers.”
The tenets of hierarchy theory have been attractive to ecologists since observations of the nestedness of ecological levels, organisms, populations (of a single species), communities (of several species), ecosystems (the biotic community combined with the abiotic environment) and so on.  This hierarchy in natural systems is referred to as the “level of organization” concept.  Ecologists have proceeded with the assumption that subsystems on the same level can be studied without reference to one another.  For instance, we might study prairies, making the assumption that we do not simultaneously have to include tropical rainforests in our investigation.[6]  This methodological assumption relies upon the supposed “near-decomposability” of all medium-number systems and is rooted in the observation that “most interactions in nature, between systems of all kind, decrease in strength with distance.”[7] However, there are some dangers in simply conflating ecological hierarchy with “levels of organizations” concept since natural systems are comprised of more than just simple entities (organisms with clearly defined boundaries, biotic communities that are spatiotemporally reasonably well designed etc.).  They are also comprised of more diffusely defined sets of processes, and, depending upon the research question, there is more than one “n-1” level that might be examined.[8]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Phenomenological Approach to Social Ecological Systems Research in the Chicago Wilderness Region – First Notes.

These are some thoughts on the results so far of work our group is doing on understanding governance structures surrounding ecological restoration in the Chicago Region.

Recently, I have been reading excerpts on the natural history of the Chicago Wilderness region recorded during the 19th Century as collated in Joel Greenberg’s excellent volume Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing (2008). 

One piece that especially caught my attention is Colonel Colbee Chamberlain Benton’s A Visitor to Chicago in the Indian Days: Journal of the Far-Off West.  There Benton described a trip that he and Louis Ouilmette, a young man of French and Potawatomi heritage, embarked upon from Chicago on August 19th 1833.  They left the infant city to inform local Indian tribes that their federal annuities would be paid in September of that year. On the night of August 24th the pair of travelers passed through some oak groves and arrived at a small stream in a little prairie in Southeast Wisconsin and they camped there for the night.  As night fell they heard Indians around their camp.  Benton hid beside a large tree and at Ouilmette’s suggestion he removed his straw hat since it was “a good mark to shoot at.”  Assessing the danger they found themselves in, Louis remarked that “there were occasionally some of the Sauks and Fox Indians wandering about in [that] part of the country, and from them [they] could not expect much mercy.”  Benton could not sleep.  Not necessarily because of the danger.  Rather, because of the noise!  Some of the noise certainly may have emanated from the Indians who “mocked almost every wild animal.”  But also there were unfamiliar birds calling, as well as foxes and raccoons.  In the distance, wolves howled and the owls hooted in concert with the wolves.  The mosquitoes added their part to “the music”.  A sleepless, noisy, vaguely threatening night, and yet Benton declared that never before had he “passed a night so interestingly and so pleasantly…”

Though some might conclude that what Benton and Ouilmette experienced was the Chicago Wilderness against which present times seem lusterless, species poor, and silent.  And though some of that may be so, nonetheless we know better to conclude it was nature pure and simple.  It was, of course, a social ecological system, one that at the time of the trip had been in place for centuries.  In those times it was the society of Native Americans being shaped by, and in turn shaping, the natural systems surrounding them.  By a social-ecological system we mean a system in which humans and non-human life forms are found in a spatiotemporally defined environment.  Moreover, the term is not simple an expansion of the ecological community concept to include humans which is a relatively easy matter.  Rather, SES’s include more of the mental tackle of humans in it; not the biophysical interactions merely.  Humans’ conception of nature, our consciousness of it, our desire to change it or leave it alone, for example; the human institutions that govern nature and the way in which nature influences human health and sensibilities are part of the social ecological system. These mental attributes are less easy to accommodate in our ecological theories than our trophic ecology for instance.

Ecologists are accustomed to thinking about parts and wholes.  The way in which the aggregation of components contribute to higher level structures – organisms, populations, communities, variegated landscapes, biomes, Gaia etc is theorized under the rubric of Hierarchy Theory or Systems Thinking.  Now we know it does perhaps a little injury to suggest that in this theoretical approach we can separate out a particular level in the hierarchy and analyze the level discretely, as if the other levels do not exist.  That being said, this is the basis for the subdisciplines of ecology: autecology, population ecology, community ecology etc.  But since each one of these subdisciplines derives from humans’ conception and abstraction of nature, the subdiscipline of ecology dealing with the integration of human mental processes into ecology has some sort of confusing meta-status.  Social-ecological systems research, in a sense, founds all ecology; that is, all ecology is already a type of under-inspected social-ecological systems ecology to begin with.  Our conception of nature and our recognition of the different ways of teasing apart the pieces of an ecological system to make them tractable for analysis can plausibly be done for everything except for the very mental processes decomposing the system, those very processes that represent the very “stuff” of social ecological research.

Now, ecologists are not the only ones interested in theories of wholes and parts.  Such a theory is at the cornerstone of phenomenology, a central movement in 20th C continental philosophy.  This is provided by Edmund Husserl (1859 1938) as the third of his six Logical Investigations.  We don’t need to detain ourselves long with this (though the entire Logical Investigation may detain you for a considerable period – in fact, reading it is like striking yourself repeatedly with a dull mallet).  But let us just note that Husserl makes a distinction, one that ecologists don’t, between parts of wholes with quite unique properties.  Those parts that can be analyzed separately from the whole to which it belongs he calls pieces (populations, communities, tree branches, a horse’s head (ask me later!) and those parts that cannot be so analyzed.  He calls the latter part “moments”.  The color of a branch is a moment rather than a piece since it cannot be separated from the branch of which it is a whole.  Let skip ahead quite a bit and suggest there are several problems in science and philosophy that are exacerbated by confusing these distinct notions of parts. The notion of mind, the ecologically novel element in social-ecological ecology is not a “piece” clearly; it is a “moment”.  It can neither be extracted nor added to our analysis like adding an orange into a barrel full of apples.  The orange is always already in the apple barrel. 

It is perhaps not a surprise, then, that social ecological systems research has been difficult, slow.  We are used to working with “parts” and now we must address “moments”.  In our work exploring the ways in which variation in governance systems influences biodiversity and how biodiversity outcomes in turn influence our response to nature we are, in fact, doing something a little easier than putting the whole structure of consciousness back in the picture.  We are not looking for a pure science of essences as Husserl was.  Our problems at the moment are the pragmatic one of determining how two data sets should be analyzed together.  Environmental social science and ecology have developed as disciplines in response to the way in which we have broken down human-nature connections for the purposes of empirical investigations.  Surveys, sophisticated qualitative analysis of interview data, elucidation of rules, worm surveys, vegetation analyses, mite ordination are the ingredients but reassembling this particular Humpty Dumpty into a whole egg will be difficult.  But I am working with the finest of the king’s horses and the best of the king’s men.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Social Ecological Systems Then and Now: Chicago example

With a population of 2.7 million, Chicago is the largest city in the US Midwest and the third largest in the United States. The greater Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) to which Chicago belongs has a population of almost 9.5 million. The radical and rapid transformation of the landscape that has occurred over the past century and a half in order to accommodate a burgeoning population might suggest that Chicago is not a promising place to undertake large-scale conservation efforts. However, the region supports conservation programs that have received widespread local, national and international recognition.  That significant biodiversity protection occurs in Chicago is, in part, a consequence of the region’s climate and its evolutionary and ecological history. It is also the result of decisions made by people both before and after the settlement of the region by European and other non-indigenous populations (hereafter referred to as the “settlement” period).  These decisions resulted in land protected from development and/or maintained to preserve the characteristic biodiversity of the area.

When the contemporary situation in Chicago is compared against the description of the natural heritage of the region immediately prior to European settlement the differences are stark and from a conservation perspective seem somewhat discouraging.  One can barely walk for a mile across tallgrass prairie in Illinois compared to the possibility of a one hundred and fifty mile trek along the Grand Prairie back in 19th Century.  That being said, the landscapes of both eras each represent social-ecological systems – in the pre-settlement case the human agents involved being primarily indigenous Native American populations, more recently high populous and diverse urban population dominate.  Thus, both then and now human decision-making played a role in shaping natural components of the region. 

Journalist Charles Mann in his assessment of the impact of Native American peoples on the America found in 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus concluded: "Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same.”  Now, we might quibble with the rather enormous license that this offers, nevertheless, the statement underscores the role of human agency in shaping ecological landscapes (second nature, in William Cronon's terms), both before and after the emergence of the great urban centers.  The emergence of a conservation ethic, one that contrasts with the more cavalier attitude of early settler population in the Chicago region, and one that informs the work of present day biodiversity conservationists and that inspires the work of Chicago Wilderness should be seem as a remarkably positive development.  Though we may not recoup the losses of species, communities and ecological processes that have largely been lost from the region, nonetheless it may be that we develop quite new social ecological systems  - in some cases, with highly cyborgian landscape emerging, mixtures of technology and forces beyond the immediate ken of humans – that are hopeful, biodiverse, and resilient in the face of ongoing anthropogenic disturbances.  We may be betting our lives on it. 

In The Beginning Was the Verb

In the beginning was the Verb, and that Verb was with God, and the Verb set all things in motion. More than just any Word (Latin verbum, word) the God who is, was, and shall be a Verb commuted motion of an Absolute form to Relative Motion. In the universe created of the Verb everything moves; absolutes have no meaning.
And some things rose and other things fell. Those which rose remained in constant motion until impeded and of those which fell some acquired spontaneous motion. These self-moved movers, called motile, include some cells, spores, the quadrupeds, and the bipeds. The Philosopher studied the motile keenly, since the prime mover and all that had risen remained less accessible to knowledge. Since the self-moved require the unmoving for motion, they must themselves be, he concluded, comprised of a series of both fixed and moving parts at the seat of which is an unmoved mover – the animal soul. In this way the motile mimic the first mover.

Living things move and they share this characteristic with every other thing; stasis, that is, can only ever be relative stasis. Movement differs from motility in as much as the latter, in its most fully expressed form, is movement where a purpose that goads, a desire that compels, and a body that advances, converge.

Read on in About Place 

The Erotic Charge of Big Ecology

In reflecting back on the International Biological Program (IBP), one of the largest of the early attempts to co-ordinate ecological and environmental research on a global scale – Big Ecology, as Dave Coleman, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia calls such projects – Coleman recalls how the months away in the field and at project meetings, led to certain temptations.  Temptations were succumbed to, liaisons formed,  divorces ensued, but the progress of the science marched on. 

Coleman in his latest book Big Ecology – the Emergence of Ecosystem Ecology, University of California Press (2010) (buy it here) provides a fascinating account of the background to large-scale ecosystem studies around the world, but especially in the United States. He points to the antecedent trends, provides rich insights into the contentious, but nonetheless highly productive IBP program, gives the ultimate insider’s guide to the National Science Foundation’s Long-term Ecological Research Program (LTER) and points to directions for newer programs like the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

Perhaps this may sound a little dusty to you.  To look at, large-scale ecosystems experiments often have appearances that only a mother could love, and to scientists not directly engaged in them they may seem like an ungainly older sibling that their parents lavish too many resources on.  And indeed that may be so, but they are nevertheless fascinating human enterprises.  The social architecture is complex, the scope extensive, and the promise is very rich, if only because our environmental challenges are no longer just local (if ever they were).  No one is in a better position to provide a field-guide to the Daedalian labyrinth of Big Ecology than Coleman who lead the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab LTER efforts from 1996 – 2000 (which overlapped with my time at the University of Georgia).  However his research work in soil ecology stretched back IBP days.  I recall from Frank Golley’s book on the Ecosystem concept that Dave was the first researcher in the US Grassland Biome IBP to get independently funded by NSF as part of the IBP program.  He thus knows that of which he writes.

I worked as a post-doc for four years with Coleman and one of his primary collaborators Dac Crossley Jr between 1994-1998.  What strikes me in retrospect is that with these fellows I not only learned my ecosystems ecology (I was primarily a decomposition guy back then) but also learned the interdisciplinary ropes.  Dac, who is enjoying a flourishing post-retirement career as a writer of westerns, had at that time eclectic and entertaining interests, and Dave had keen insights into how a complex group of people can be brought together to undertaken a complex set of projects under the LTER.  This training has paid dividends to me in my subsequent career as an interdisciplinary researcher.

So, please, take a look at this book.  I think you will learn some things.  Things about ecology, things about collaboration, and things about people.  With many pleasing vignettes of the scientists involved in the work, and the administrators within NSF that tended to these program, the reader gets a change to poke their head behind the scenes in a way that historians of such topics may not always capture.

I guess that by the time I was doing Big Ecology, the erotic change, perhaps thankfully, had dissipated from the game.  Nevertheless, Coleman’s account manages not only to reflect upon past success and failings (both scientific and personal), and should be read as a scientific history but it should also be read by all those interested in the future of ecology and the environment; that is, frankly, it should be read by all of us.   It is a rich book.