Friday, October 12, 2007

Week 9: Ecology and Geography of Wealth and Resource Use

Exploring the global ecology, geography, and ecological economics of contemporary humans

“The human economy depends on the planet’s natural capital, which provides all ecological services and natural resources” (Wackernagel et al. 2002). Spatial flows of energy and materials, such as fossil fuel, wood, and food, between humans across the globe provide resilience to the global economy and sustain local economies in depauperate environments. Geographic differences in the natural, social, and economic environments govern this supply and demand network of flows. Some of the exchanges are necessary to sustain comfortable standards of living and the resilience of local economies, whereas other exchanges may maintain ecologically damaging differences in wealth or be unnecessarily wasteful. This week’s readings provide insight into these processes, examining the degree of matching between human demand and environmental resource supply, and some of the ultimate and proximate factors underlying geographic patterns in wealth and resource use.

As suggested by Liu et al. (2003), changes in the number and size of households result from complex interactions between local resource availability, per capita income, population dynamics, demographic changes, and cultural values. Individuals living in smaller households generally use resources and space less efficiently than larger households, thereby increasing their impact on the environment. Some of these impacts and patterns of consumption are investigated by Wackernagel et al. (2002) and Imhoff et al. (2004). Imhoff et al. describe remarkable spatial variation in the consumption by humans of ecosystem productivity. Wackergael et al.’s results suggest that Homo sapiens’ demand on the biosphere may exceed its current capacity.

Drawing from ideas developed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Hibbs and Olsson’s (2004) use models to argue that the distribution of agriculturally supportive environments (namely related to climate and availability of plants and animals suitable for domestication) and the geographic orientation of continents account for a large part of differences in the wealth of nations. Many patterns in human consumption and environmental degradation reflect these differences in wealth. For example, individuals with higher per capita incomes may choose to live in large houses, commute further to work, and consume more energy and resources. Thus furthering our understanding of economic development and the geography of wealth is essential towards developing a theory of modern human macroecology. The Hibbs and Olsson’s paper is only one perspective and introduction to this vast subject.

Together these readings underscore the importance of developing an understanding of human ecology and biogeography that integrates the natural and social sciences from local to global scales. Such a synthetic understanding is essential towards effectively building a sustainable and relatively poverty-free future.


Note to class: please post this week's proposal peer review assignment on last weeks proposal blog entry.


  • Hibbs, D. Jr., and O. Olsson. 2004. Geography, biogeography, and why some countries are rich and others are poor. PNAS 101: 3715-3720.
  • Liu, J., G. C. Daily, P. R. Ehrlich, and G. W. Luck. 2003. Effects of household dynamics on resource consumption and biodiversity. Nature 421:530-533.
  • Bounoua, L., T. Ricketts, C. Loucks, R. Harriss, and W. T. Lawrence. 2004. Global patterns in human consumption of net primary production. Nature 429:870-873.
  • Wackernagel, M., N. B. Schulz, D. Deumling, A. C. Linares, M. Jenkins, V. Kapos, C. Monfreda, J. Loh, N. Myers, and R. Norgaard. 2002. Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99:9266-9271.


dodegard said...

How can overuse of the environment skew GDPpc?

Justin Smith said...

What are "ecosystem services" and how are they valued?

Steven M. said...

Wackernagel et al cite some numbers for percent of the biosphere that should be preserved for "the ~7-14 million species with which people share the planet"

These figures are of the order %10-25.

Are humans that important as to require %75 of the biome? What are humans but glorified chimps? Do other primates like chimps and bonbos require a disproportionately large percent as well, perhaps %50(of what’s left after humans take their %75 off the top) for chimps alone?

Wenyun said...

Since we have exceeded the earth’s ecological capacity, what is supporting our extra demand? Is it technic? How much and how long can it serve for us? Is there any chance we can low down our usage to release the pressure of the earth’s ecological capacity?

tlvandeest said...

The Imhoff et al paper addresses the human impact on the net primary production of a given area and the human appropriation of that net. They mention that regional and global trade is a factor in that the human appropriation impact may be happening far from the area where the resource was taken, but do not explicitly consider this. Isn't the centralization of humans one of the major reasons for the increase in the inefficiency of using the natural landscape resulting in greater trade? I would think that trade and movement of the resources would be of upmost concern when looking at the patterns in the impact of human appropriation of net primary production.

Michael said...

Hibbs and Olsson seem to attribute the conquest of nations solely to biogeography. While definitely not PC, would it be appropriate to assume these groups (e.g. aboriginal Australians) were predestined to being conquered? This seems to be a gross simplification of human political interaction for the sake backing their argument.

Fred Whiteman said...

How does excluding extractive wealth affect the results in the Hibbs and Olsen paper? While the use of oil is modern and therefore wouldn't have affected economies thousands of years ago, what about the availability of gold or spices? Countries that have had these advantages for millenia may have greater GDP because of it, even if the resources have been completely extracted.

Also, is it possible to seperate the production resulting from extracting resources from the rest of the production, to come up with a modified GDP?

dtinucci said...

First, given the critical nature of this work toward the perservation of our biome, do you think these articles carry any weight?

Second, do you know of any organizations that synthesize these arguments for delivery to proper departments, and do they even exist?

helen elizabeth said...

According to the paper by Liu et al 2004, rapid increase in household numbers (and not necessarily population) will have serious consequences on biodiversity conservation. Although answering the question of how to confront this problem is difficult, it is interesting to note that the average household size varies only modestly now in many regions of the world from 5.6 Near East/ North Africa to 4.8 in Latin America (Bongaarts 2000). So, trends towards smaller and predominantly nuclear households are becoming more prevalent in the developing world. These smaller household sizes often are caused by lower fertility and access to more resources, and often result in lower infant mortality rates and lower rates of disease transmission. Trying to find common ground will be a difficult, yet pertinent next step in researching some of the larger issues of biogeography and human macroecology.

Deepta said...

The Imhoff et al. paper mentions differing efficiencies of production for imported goods. Does this mean we can minimize some of the effects of our consumption by ensuring the most efficient technological methods for production are being used?

Senorita Myra said...

I enjoyed these papers, but feel a little cynical. Many of the papers hinted to the idea that further research might come up with ideas about how to address this problem, but I feel it is still a very superficial solution. Knowledge is power, yes, but knowledge about how we are destroying the earth, or what behavior is leading to over consumption is only the beginning (vital too I know). How much research is out there that shows that humans are at all capable of being sustainable or display sustainable behaviors at the population and not just individual level? Are animals "sustainable"? Or is it natural to take all you can get while its in front of you? This is a big picture problem, are we players in the game or can we truly control this game of globalization with consciousness that it is happening? --I think not. Anthro has to present solutions too-not just research right? Is it politically incorrect to present solutions to problem in this field?

helen elizabeth said...

My question is in line with Wenyun's. Estimating human "carrying capacity" on earth is difficult and that one has to consider the wealth of a population and the technology supporting it. So, if we have pushed the total use of terrestrial NPP over the available production, how do we know what part of this is due to technology and what is do to other inputs?

Justin Smith said...

Interesting and stimulating conversation today. The best read I've found on the debate between pessimistic ecologists and optimistic economists is this old piece by John Tierney in the New York Times. While giving a well-rounded overview of the competing viewpoints and their historical development, Tierney's focal point is on the 1980 bet between Paul R. Ehrlich from our Liu et al paper and the economist Julian Simon. They wagered $1000 on the the price of five metals after ten years--if Ehrlich and the ecological pessimists were right, declining resources and increased demand due to population growth would make the metals more expensive in real terms by 1990, while Simon predicted the opposite, that progress would make these resources cheaper.

I won't spoil the result of the bet, but recommend that you read the whole thing.

Oskar said...

The Times piece about the bet between Ehlrich and Simon is worth reading. I highly recommend it - especially for anyone who was been inspired by Ehlrich's books. However, I've never seen how a dude that couldn't predict the price of tin a decade later has any barring whatsoever on the general capacity of human ingenuity to indefinitely solve natural resource limitations. Is this really supposed to be generalizable to any conceivable problem humanity may face that relates to population size, energy use, and technology? To me, that's like people who say global warming isn't happening anytime they go outside and its cold out. And I'm not saying you can't be skeptical of global warming, but if you are skeptical of it you hopefully are using reasoning more sophisticated than "well, it was cold today so therefore...".
So, what message do we take from this anecdote? It may be that Ehrlich took up an extreme position and it came back to bite him. His chiding of the opposition and outspoken nature may have put him in a position to even deserve a bit of public criticism (to say the least). He was wrong about some things. We are presently producing way more food than we need to feed the people on the earth, we just don't distribute it very evenly. But do we go from this to an unquestioning assumption that there are no limits to natural resources or human ingenuity and technology to solve society's problems? Even though I am also skeptical of many of Ehrlich's arguments, that seems like a rash and short-sighted position. Another NY Times article, that was criticizing Jared Diamond's work, pointed out that we can just fly into space and colonize other planets when we use this one up. Who knows.

Wenyun said...

Back to Economy question we discussed in Tuesday’s class, I agree with Justin that economic tools may be the most efficient to maintain the sustainability. However, the issue we meet today is that we under evaluate the value of most resources. It may be because of the higher expectation to the technique.

dodegard said...

What other types of aggregate values, like households, could demonstrate the tax humans put on the environment?

Human macroecology admin said...

Whether humans can sustain our population growth and living standards over time and whether we preserve the majority of ecosystems and their species are related questions that are nevertheless partly decoupled. Ingenuity has taken humans far and will undoubtedly take us farther. But what price another 1 billion people? what price 2 billion? I think explicitly recognizing and evaluating those trade-offs adds another dimension to the question.


Michael said...

In line with the Liu article, I recently read an article on Reuters about the perceived problem of increasing household size in Italy. A bill is being proposed to help aid 30+ year-old “children” to leave their parents homes. The economy, namely inflation, is said to drive trend, although on a global level, this increased household size seem to be a positive step forward ecologically.

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