The Scale of Change Over Time

(or “The difference between rust and fire”)

Randall Munroe has given us a great way to look at climate change over a somewhat-deep-time perspective.  (Remember, I’m an anthropologist, so 20,000 years is trifling – it’s next to nothing in geologic time, and only about one-tenth of the time since the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.) Today’s XKCD walks the viewer through a very nice scale model of the 20 millennia since the last glacial maximum, with some key events from the geological, archaeological and even linguistic record.  I’ll admit I haven’t taken the time to fact-check his placement of these events, but the ones I’m familiar with seem to be in about the right place (tragic extinctions of saber-toothed cats and Pokemon, I’m less certain about).  Scrolling through 500-year chunks of time, and reading the events therein, leaves one with a clear sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary the change over the last 500 years – and especially the last 100 years – has actually been.


It’s good to see that the associated explainxkcd has not yet descended into a flame war (as of 11am PDT on 12 September 02016).  Clear, popular and provocative explorations often attract the attention of professional climate-denier trolls – this even happened to me once, gentle readers, despite the fact that I have “dozens of loyal fans… baker’s dozens… they come in 13s.” Remember, when there is over 97% scientific consensus on something, it is about as close to proven as science can reasonably get.

As Randall Munroe had pointed out previously, the difference between the effects of regular corrosion and a car fire is simply a question of how fast the oxidization is happening.


When it comes to climate change, extinctions and far too many other phenomena, the difference between Anthropocene changes and natural background rates of change are roughly on that scale of difference.  It’s time to be in emergency response mode if we are to have any hope of saving what’s left.


Cultivating Ecosystem Gardens of Health and Hope

This is a talk I gave last week at the conference “Spontaneous Beauties?” World Gardens and Gardens in the World at NTU (YouTube video of practice talk, and SlideShare of PowerPoints).



Three different approaches are transforming humanity’s relationship to the wider biosphere through innovative ecosystem stewardship, informed by our deepening understandings of ecology and complexity.  Microbiome management promotes human health by cultivating the ecologies of microorganisms in, on and around our bodies, seeking to encourage beneficial symbionts and discourage invasive microbes that can trigger illness. Permaculture is a philosophy of gardening, food production and homestead management that fosters beneficial ecological interactions to cultivate healthy habitats for humans and other species.  Rewilding is a strategy of landscape management that seeks to restore the balance and diversity of historic or prehistoric ecosystems by introducing species to fill trophic niches emptied by local extinctions.  These approaches represent a radical shift of the post‐industrial human role in nature, from one of dominance, produce maximization and pest eradication to one of regenerative alliance and collaborative cultivation.

Keywords: microbiome, permaculture, rewilding, ecosystem, biodiversity, complexity



The Myth of Bartering and the Realities of Sharing and Gift Economies

In their ethnographic research, anthropologists do not find barter economies among people who have never used money.  Much more prevalent are gift economies: a complex and time-extended form of reciprocal altruism.  Often there is a great deal of social pressure to participate and share, giving away any accumulation to others, wherein no insult is crueler than to say that someone is “stingy.”  For good examples, see

1990. Counts, David. Too Many Bananas, Not Enough Pineapples, and No Watermelon at all: Three 0bject Lessons in Living with Reciprocity. In The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacific, Philip DeVita, ed., pp. 18-24. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

2006. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  The Old Way: A Story of the First People. Farrar, Straus, Giroux.(see here and here for some specific examples)

There was also an intriguing article outlining the myth of bartering and the realities of sharing and gift economies in the Atlantic a few months ago, that included the following insights:

“No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”

[The] barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.

But the harm may go deeper than a mistaken view of human psychology. According to Graeber, once one assigns specific values to objects, as one does in a money-based economy, it becomes all too easy to assign value to people, perhaps not creating but at least enabling institutions such as slavery (in which people can be bought) and imperialism (which is made possible by a system that can feed and pay soldiers fighting far from their homes).

Are gift economies possible in a civilization built around assigning specific values to objects (and maybe people)?  Are gift economies only workable in small communities of people who all know one another?  How do they differ from charity efforts?  Do efforts to ascribe value to ecosystem services help our efforts to save ecosystems more than they distort our real relationships to them?


Why study ecology? Spontaneous poetry.

The brilliant, 100% Made of Awesome (no artificial colors or preservatives) Hank Green, somehow capturing exactly why the science of ecology is great, and hikes in the woods are even better.

Plus, pretty butterflies.  (And, ya’ know, predation, death, and decay, because nature.) Enjoy!

Some days it seems to me like the purpose of life is to convert energy into beauty.

~Hank Green (Vlogbrothers, SciShow, Crash Course and more)

Mind-mapping a career path

I’m deep in job search mode, meaning I’m spending a lot of time just looking for something that might fit, and sending out applications.  But there are deeper questions I should be answering: What am I actually supposed to be doing?  What do I want out of my next job?

Complex questions are not always amenable to mere lists.  Mind-maps are  often a better tool for dealing with them.  I started with a couple pencil-and-paper mind-maps, but rapidly ran out of room on my small notepad, and got frustrated with trying to erase and reorganize.  So I decided to try the high-tech approach.  I wanted to compare some of the better rated free mind-mapping tools out there.

MindMup: my qualifications

I organized my qualifications in MindMup, a (sort of) free online tool. It has a nice, intuitive interface, and I like that it allows users to make links between things on different branches (red dashed lines, below).  It did have some glitches when I tried to move large branches and sub-trees on the graph.  Frustratingly, the free version only lets you save and publish very small files directly. It does include an option to save working files to Google Drive, but it appears to only save the latest version and overwrite it, even if you try to change the name and do a “save as”.  When I attempted to edit it down, I nearly lost most of my work, and there’s no “undo”  :-(  Below is a screen-shot of the pretty version, before I started trying to trim it down. Even edited way, way down with no pictures, I couldn’t get the file under 100Kb so that I could print or save and publish within the free version. (MindMup did control fairly nicely for creating the map, and the “Gold” version isn’t terribly expensive at US$2.99/mo, so if you’re willing to pay a little it might be a good choice.)


Coggle: my qualifications redux & qualities of my next job

I used the free online tool Coggle to generate a mind map of what I think that next job should look like.  I found that Coggle behaved much better than MindMup on many things, and it allowed me to save a fairly complex mind-map for free.  I re-created and expanded the mind map of my qualifications, and did one on the things I want in my next job.


XMind: how to search for my next job

XMind is open-source software with a free download for Windows, MacOS or Linux.  It offers different layouts and styles.  It also keeps many of its features in reserve for those who shell out for the ‘Pro’ version. I used it to do a map about ways to look my next job.  I like the many options for map style and the ability to show relationships.  The interface isn’t quite as slick as the others, but it’s still pretty intuitive.  The free version didn’t let me add pictures. What I was able to create I could save easily locally, and I was able to get a link for a share-able version, but it doesn’t seem to load well.


List: dream jobs

I did also try the list approach, just for comparison’s sake.  Here’s a list of my “dream jobs” (in no particular order) and some of the reasons I believe I would like them:

  1. Sustainability Pedagogy Specialist for United Nations or a big NGO
  2. Sustainability specialist within Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy program at large university
    • provide faculty professional development training
    • conduct research on EfS, especially within home university and with EfS Asia collaborators
    • some travel to conferences to present research
    • possible gigs at other universities do do faculty development workshops
  3. Faculty in Sustainability Studies Program
    • teach a variety of courses on sustainability themes
    • lots of time in the classroom and working with students
    • may include support for research, publications and/or conference travel
  4. Sustainability Coordinator for Higher Education Institution
    • conduct faculty, administrator, and staff professional development workshops
    • help organize student events, projects and clubs
    • do local community outreach
    • holistic view of institution and its sustainability activities (facilities, operations, purchasing, student life/co-curricular activities, research and instruction)
    • represent institution and present achievements at sustainability conferences like IGEE, AASHE or CHESC
  5. Interdisciplinary Introduction to Sustainability course developer
    • start with re-design of course at NTU, then branch out
    • hop from university to university, working with local faculty to set up core courses and help design programs in interdisciplinary Sustainability Studies
  6. Consultant in Sustainability and Biomimicry
    • reconnect with Janine Benyus, Dana Baumeister, Toby Herzlich and other biomimicry experts
    • direct application of my background in evolutionary and organismal biology
    • work on a variety of interesting design challenges
    • perhaps apply pedagogy expertise to redesign and further development of educational materials

Listing is less satisfying, but it does help to surface and articulate some ideas.  It could have been done in a mind-map, but perhaps that would be more about formatting than actually developing content.

So there you have it.  To sum up the review of the free tools:

  • I had the best experience with Coggle – easy to use and share results for free.  Not as full featured as the others, but I’m happiest with low levels of hassle.
  • MindMup was fun to play with, but the free version is not very useful for keeping and sharing files.
  • XMind required a download and install.  Features were good, but still awkward to share.
  • Mind-mapping with paper and pencils can be frustrating to make changes and can be awkward to share.
  • Listing, on paper or onscreen, still works for some things, but is less fun than mind-mapping.

Now, about that job…?


Energy Return on Investment

What every schoolkid (and investor) should know, and why it is time for fossil fuel divestment.

Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is easy to understand: how much energy do you get out (R) compared to how much energy you had to put in to get access to that energy (I) –R:I. EROI tells you how much net energy you can expect to use for other things (driving cars, running generators, etc.). Traditional petroleum (think gushing oil wells) used to have a lucas_gusherspectacularly high EROI, about 1000:1 a century ago [1]. Since the 1970s, the EROI of the average barrel of petroleum has been dropping fast – it is now below 5:1 [1].

“The evidence suggests that the global production of conventional oil plateaued and may have begun to decline from 2005.” [2]

Essentially, we are expending a lot of energy to scrape the bottom of the barrel, digging out very hard-to-get stuff in deep seas (think Deepwater Horizon and its attendant complications), tar sands, athabasca_oil_sandsand “tight” shale oil.  Because we have to use so much energy just to get at that fuel, it only makes sense (from a profit perspective) if the selling price of the resulting fuel is very high.

“We find the EROI for each major fossil fuel resource (except coal) has declined substantially over the last century. Most renewable and non-conventional energy alternatives have substantially lower EROI values than conventional fossil fuels.” [1]

As you may have heard (or noticed, if you fill a gas tank), the selling price of petroleum has recently dropped a lot.  Seems weird, but there are explanations (more on that later). What this price drop means is that a lot of places where it used to make sense to be extracting these fossil fuels, places where extraction companies have invested a lot in exploration and infrastructure to get at the stuff, don’t make sense anymore.  This is part of what is meant by “stranded assets” (more below) and it can lead to things like bankruptcy [3].

So if energy from petroleum is increasingly hard to get, why would the price be dropping now? Some of it may be due to a drop in demand because of the global economic slowdown, in turn related to China slowing the pace of its phenomenal economic growth [4].  Some of it may be due to the production boom from short-lived tight oil extraction and fracking taking place in the U.S., where production is high enough at first, but seems to fall off rapidly after about 15 years at each new site [2].

“Thus, despite the fall in crude oil prices from a new peak in June, 2014, after that of July, 2008, the peak oil issue remains with us, and broad economic recovery combined with the consequences of recent oil exploration and production cut-backs will bring back further major oil price rises.” [2]
The truth of the current situation is even more complicated than the EROI, of course. There is also the climate disruption represented by fossil fuel reserves.  And this leads to the other reason that fossil fuel companies should expect collapsing prices: we don’t want it so much anymore.  If we are serious about meeting the targets that global leaders just signed onto, we can’t even burn the fuel reserves that people have already invested in developing, let alone continue to develop new ones.  This concern was laid out by Bill McKibben in 2012 in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and is even more relevant in light of the Paris COP 21 agreed ambition to attempt to stay below a 1.5C rise in average global temperatures [5].

When whales get stuck on beaches, helping them back to deeper waters is usually the right thing to do [6].  But when fossil fuel titans are stranded, gasping for profits under the weight of their history, the most merciful response for everyone might just be to put them out of their misery.  A few brief moments of economic pain can spare us all from longer decades of climate and pollution disasters if these beasts are allowed to keep flopping around on- or off-shore.  Sadly, we are past the point of easy, painless solutions now.

“If the oil crisis hits the economy hard, then the prolonged recession that results could dampen the rising demand that everyone projects. If oil prices thus remain relatively depressed for longer than expected, this could hemorrhage the industry beyond repair.”[6]

To hasten the inevitable demise of fossil fuels, there are increasing calls for divestment.

“Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.” [7a]

Cities, colleges, foundations and individuals are hearing from activists demanding that they withdraw investments from fossil fuels.  And they are responding, with 517 institutions committed to withdrawing their investments in fossil fuels as of this post [7b].

“For the divestment skeptics who believe I am pushing an environmental agenda at the expense of necessities such as financial aid, let it be clear: The financial argument for divestment is sound, even independent of environmental concerns. The investment literature overwhelmingly shows that fossil fuel-free portfolios have higher risk adjusted returns than those invested in fossil fuel companies, which is understandable, considering the increasing risk of fossil fuel companies’ faulty practices and the imminence of carbon legislation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August that California pension funds lost $5 billion due to investment in fossil fuels. ” [8]

If you are so inclined, you might think of divestment as a death penalty for criminal corporations who knowingly perpetrated [9] mass murders [10] in the past and who plan to continue into the future. I generally prefer less retribution-focused imagery, perhaps that of allowing an ill and deranged sufferer the dignity of a quick death, but then again, perhaps that metaphor is less accurate.  Either way, the humane thing to do is to get it over with quickly, before more harm is done.  Keeping fossil fuel extraction on life-support with continued investments is doing no one any good at this point.

Since EROI from fossil fuels will continue to drop, and since there is essentially incontrovertible evidence of harm from the stuff,  why would any sane person invest money in fossil fuel extraction at this point?

Divestment is the rational and compassionate thing to do.


(Note: much of the cited information actually came from other primary sources, referenced in the summaries below, because this is just a blog and I didn’t want to take the time to dig for primary sources – not the best scholarship on my part, but still a good starting point for discussion.)

[1] J. Lambert, C. Hall, S. Balogh. 2013.  EROI of Global Energy Resources: Status, Trends and Social Implications

[2]   M. Jefferson. 2016. A global energy assessment. WIREs Energy Environ 2016, 5:715. doi: 10.1002/wene.179

[3] 2015. The $2 trillion stranded assets danger zone: How fossil fuel firms risk destroying investor returns.

[4] D. Nathman. 2016. Crude Oil Prices In 2016: Made In China?  Forbes.

[5]  N. Scharping. 2016. Half a Degree Makes a Big Difference for Global Climate

[6] 2013. What To Do If You Find A Live Stranded Whale Or Dolphin: An Inconvenient Advice from StrandedNoMore.

[7] N. Ahmed. 2016. This Could Be the Death of the Fossil Fuel Industry — Will the Rest of the Economy Go With It?

[7] 2016. a) and b)

[8] S. Vaughan. 2015. Divestment Movement Spurs Existential Crisis in Higher Education.

[9] S. Hall. 2015. Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago. Scientific American.

[10] World Health Organization. 2015. Climate change and health.

What would a sustainable Third Level Campus look like?

Another rehearsal video – this time for a short job talk on ways to address sustainability and sustainable development in third level (a.k.a. post-secondary, higher or further) education.

I advocate an integrated systems approach, where every aspect of the institution is informed by key sustainability competences, and viewed as an opportunity for students to develop these competences.  Communities of practice among faculty, staff and administrators, can help make this possible.

Works Cited and Recommended References

Abdul-Wahab, S. a., Abdulraheem, M. Y., & Hutchinson, M. 2003. “The need for inclusion of environmental education in undergraduate engineering curricula.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4(2), 126–137. doi:10.1108/14676370310467140

Bacon, Christopher M, Dustin Mulvaney, Tamara B Ball, E Melanie DuPuis, Stephen R Gliessman, Ronnie D Lipschutz, and Ali Shakouri. 2011. “The creation of an integrated sustainability curriculum and student praxis projects.”  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 12 (2):193-208.

Barth, Matthias, Jasmin Godemann, Marco Rieckmann, and Ute Stoltenberg. 2007. “Developing key competencies for sustainable development in higher education.”  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8 (4):416-430.

Cullingford, Cedric, and John Blewitt. 2004. The Sustainability Curriculum: The challenge for higher education: Routledge.

Jones, Paula, David Dr Selby, and Stephen R. Sterling, eds. 2010. Sustainability education: perspectives and practice across higher education: London ; Sterling, VA : Earthscan, 2010.

Lambrechts, Wim, Ingrid Mulà, Kim Ceulemans, Ingrid Molderez, and Veerle Gaeremynck. 2013. “The integration of competences for sustainable development in higher education: an analysis of bachelor programs in management.”  Journal of Cleaner Production 48 (0):65-73. doi:

Meadows, D. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Merrill, M.Y., Chang, Y., Islam, M.S., 2016. Communities of Practice in Education for Sustainability: A Case Study from Asian Higher Education, in: Sharma, V.K. (Ed.), International Symposium on a Sustainable Future-2016 (ISSF-2016). Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai, India, pp. 127-143.

Merrill, M.Y., Chang, Y., Islam, M.S., Burkhardt-Holm, P., Chang, C.-H., in prep. Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia. Routledge, Singapore.

Mochizuki, Yoko, and Zinaida Fadeeva. 2010. “Competences for sustainable development and sustainability.”  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 11 (4):391-403. doi: doi:10.1108/14676371011077603.

Rieckmann, Marco. 2012. “Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning?”  Futures 44 (2):127-135.

Sandri, Orana Jade. 2013. “Threshold concepts, systems and learning for sustainability.”  Environmental Education Research 19 (6):810-822. doi: 10.1080/13504622.2012.753413.

Sterling, Steven. 2011. “Transformative learning and sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground.”  Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 5:17-33.

Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L Redman. 2011. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.”  Sustainability Science 6 (2):203-218.