Envisioning the ecological future

Envisioning the ecological future McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 10, 2005 - Volume 37 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > March 10, 2005 > Envisioning the ecological future

Envisioning the ecological future

Garry Peterson specializes in telling stories, but he's not a novelist: he is a professor in the Department of Geography who specializes in ecology, and one of McGill's main contributors to a massive global ecological project called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. His ecological "stories" are at times scary and at times soothing, and in the coming months as the Millennium Assessment reports become available, project members hope they will begin to have some positive effect on our lives and that of our planet.

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Millennium ecosystem assessment

Launched by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001, the Millennium Assess-ment was designed as a comprehensive study of the state of the global ecosystem. More than 1,300 scientists in more than 100 countries have spent the last several years identifying gaps in what we know about the ecosystem and the external factors that influence it, ranging from economics to agriculture. In short, it has been one of the largest scientific collaborations of our time.

It is not difficult to make a case for large-scale conservation projects in today's world. Peterson, a specialist in ecology-relevant computer models as well as a Canada Research Chair in social-ecological modelling, points out that the ecosystem is essential for our survival, and the pressure of increasing population is placing huge demands on the system. "A lot of people don't realize how much we rely on the ecosystem. About a third of the world's population lacks clean water. Food production has to increase to feed another two billion people over the next 30 years. The demand for wood fuel will double in the next 50 years. And if you look at some of the places where these problems are worst, they overlap with expected population growth."

The challenge for the Millennium Assessment, rather than simply identifying the areas of greatest concern, is how to avoid the fruitlessness of so many environmental projects before it. For this project, several steps were taken to ensure the results would be useful. For instance, the project is funded and commissioned by a variety of decision-makers in federal governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, as well as civil society in general. The program is meant to generate information that is relevant to each of these parties — and because it is so comprehensive, the information is not only relevant, it also gives an accurate and integrated view of the ecosystem.

Importantly, the project is also focused on the consequences of these organizations' actions for human beings. The "scenarios" group that Peterson was a part of was charged with the task of predicting how different approaches to policy would impact humans and the resources they can derive from the environment. "We essentially came up with four different stories about the future," said Peterson. "They were designed to be realistic, but contrasted, approaches to conservation."

Predicting possible ecological futures is no simple task. Peterson's group has taken an interesting approach to the problem, which is somewhere between computer modelling and storytelling. First, the group took cues from current trends in policy to develop "storylines" of what might happen if those policies were adhered to. For example, one possible scenario is based on developing technologies for water management, agricultural efficiency and so forth in order to optimize the resources we can obtain from the environment. Another storyline follows a "traditional" conservation approach, creating conservation parks and protecting natural areas.

The group then fills this storyline framework with data from a host of other sources using existing models of population growth and demographics, economics, advances in technology and others. Computer models are developed to predict how these factors will interact within the storyline's context, and the computers are then used to simulate the relevant changes in the world's climate, desertification rates, land coverage, biodiversity, nutrient levels in the soil and other variables over the next 50 years.

This data is analyzed to determine the impact of the storylines on factors that are important to people: things like world freshwater resources, world food production, emerging diseases and the status of fisheries. The group is also able to predict levels of income, health, freedom and choice and other variables relating to human well-being.

Even with all of the different types of data being considered, a clear conclusion may elude the project group. "It's complicated," said Peterson. "Different places have different types of soil, different amounts of precipitation and other factors. A technique for managing the ecosystem that works really well in one place isn't necessarily going to work in another." If we focus on local problems, we may be unable to reduce global inequities, while if we adopt a sweeping global strategy, the unique needs of local ecosystems could be ignored, and we could lose resources.

The storyline we choose has yet to be written, but Peterson hopes that it will reflect the lessons of the Millennium Assessment. "Ecological decisions have both local and global impact," he cautioned. "And all scenarios have associated benefits and risks." Scenarios that are based on a proactive strategy, such as the technological strategy, tended to do well under changing environmental conditions, while more reactive strategies, such as the one told by the "global orchestration strategy," can do better, but only under stable conditions.

Peterson will discuss the Millennium Assessment project and the scenarios his team developed on March 10, at 6 pm in the Redpath Museum, as part of the Cutting Edge Lecture Series. A formal report of the scenario group's findings will be released to the public on March 30. The Biodiversity Synthesis of the Millennium Assessment will be released at McGill on May 19 by the Montreal-based Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. For more information, see www.millenniumassessment.org.

WARM-SPARK (Writing About Research at McGill-Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge) is a program sponsored by the Faculty of Science, the Offices of the Vice-Principal (Research) and University Relations, NSERC, the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. See www.spark.mcgill.ca for more information and articles.

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