ecology education restoration ecology

Planting plants, growing understanding, nurturing passion.

Peter Bowler

Most of these students have never been to a wetland, never been to a’s exciting to awaken these feelings.

Dr Peter Bowler is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University Calfornia Irvine. His is Director of the UCI Arboretum and Herbarium, is Faculty Manager of the Natural Reserve System’s San Joaquin Marsh and Burns Pinyon Ridge Reserves, and Director of the Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability.

Extra: Field-trip to the San Joaquin Marsh.

Talking points

I grew up by in Idaho by the Snake River, and I worshipped nature, botany, I loved freshwater biology, It stimulated me. I became very interested in snails.

I managed to get four snail species listed as endangered, I was involved in a lot of dam controversies, even described a new new genus and species in one of them.

When I was a child, it was so remote, my parents were educated luminary people in the area, so every geologist and palaeontologist passing through would stay at our house.

My role has been primarily teaching, I ran an environmental education programme here at UCI

I teach a lot, a lot more than I’m required to teach, but I enjoy teaching.

(Developed a sustainability minor in 1994 only a couple of years after Rio) Before that I was involved in global peace and conflict studies – they’re very similar. One of the things I really about both programmes is the interdisciplinarity that is emphasised – the fact that cooperation, complementarity and hearing what other people have to say…learning about other fields is very important.

One of the most exciting things is the establishment of a formal initiative in sustainability.

Ecological restoration…a massive expansion locally…I was involved in a lot of controversy.

America was a leader in environmental ethics – we need to return to that.

The original idea was conquering the west, trying to be master of nature, fighting nature, trying to control it, bringing it into utilitarian causes. And then there came a time when the American consciousness changed, people thought maybe we’ve gone too far, we need to start setting land aside, we need to start going the other way – preserving things. Modern attitudes about desert are very different from what they used to be – it used to be they were viewed as wastelands, today people treasure them.

There’s a need for cities not to be ecological deserts.

People are realising that deserts have an intrinsic value unrelated to people, and that’s a very different kind of epiphany.

Most of these students have never been to a wetland, never been to a’s exciting to awaken these feelings.

You want to teach the intrinsic value of these sites – my this an area that has 273 bird species, I never knew that. Here is an area of 55 hectares of wetland that Dr Bowler and his colleagues got funding for, designed and constructed – for us and for wildlife..and if he can make a difference, I can too.

Ethical structures…land ethic.

Understanding expressions of culture has adopted. Compare the intrinsic values expressed in the Wildlife Act to a time of shooting buffalo from the train.

One of the wonderful things about sustainability at this point in time is that we can look back – we never should have built all those dams…

Sustainability: we share the planet with other organisms, and as the human population expands, and so do its needs and requirements, we have to do that in a way that does not further degrade – to the extent possible – the natural environment in which we live.

We are cohabiters with nature and life.

In my classes…(even the theory ones)…students go and plant plants.

Our urban landscapes are not restoration sites, but they can play a large role, particularly in softening the impact along the urban/wildland interface… and in providing corridors.

Restoration can’t be pure restoration everywhere, most places have been so severely damaged that you’ll never get the full complement of species, and the true goal of restoration is to do that – to bring back all of the biodiversity that existed at site using a natural model. Then ameliorating the impact of humans along the line. Expanding and connecting natural areas.

There are efforts to scale things up. While I was talking before about pure restoration maybe not being possible, it’s all worth trying. It may not be like it was when native Americans were here, but it can definitely be wild.

To me, to really be meaningful we should focus on expanding our natural areas and connect them…then native plants in urban areas to connect

It’s just about planting plants, it takes landscapes too. Today we’re going back…putting bends in the river…developing ways to hold water on the site rather than getting rid of it.

(Are roof gardens, community gardens, small scale restorations worth the effort?) Absolutely. Placement is important, but they are extremely valuable in educating students, they’re integral in having places for both resident and migratory wildlife, critical for linking habitats.

(Success) Area has had a history of grazing…the cattle had really bashed it…working with agencies I was able to get 12.5 acres preserved. We transplanted…native species…to remove non-natives, replace it with native known genetic stock, now besides the California gnatcatcher which is abundant there, there is the California coastal cactus wren which is almost extinct – and we have several pairs nesting in the cacti we have moved.

(Activist) Yes. I certainly have been in the past. Not so much marching and carrying billboards, as trying to provide sound scientific comment on management approaches, publishing, training. I consider teaching activism. Training students to be able to understand and think critically on their own.

(Motivation) I have a ridiculous number of everything to do. 748 students this past quarter. Every day I go to the marsh, and all the coyotes – we all know each other, they see me coming, we sort of salute each other, I howl at them a little bit – for me personally this has been beautifully fulfilling in my lifetime. I can show you picture of areas that had not a plant on them, and now is healthy coastal sage scrub with gnatcatchers living underneath it – I can’t tell you how rewarding that is.

(Challenges) Follow-up restoration…we have just completed removing 3,100 lineal feet of road,…my ultimate plan is to make the lower part of the marsh an area that salt marsh can migrate into, before flood control channelisation in 1968 you could row from Newport Back Bay and all the way up into the marsh…so I would to open it, so when sea level rises and we lose that 900 acres of salt marsh, we’ll be able to at least have 50, maybe 100 acres for the salt marsh for the highly endangered Ridgway’s rail. Its a salt marsh obligate, unless we do this it will go extinct. It’s very important, I’m going to get that done.

(Miracle) In the marsh it would definitely be developing the whole lower marsh as a salt marsh. I’d like to do a study of the succession that will occur as the relationship shifts between the landscape and the Pacific Ocean. In education it would lower class sizes, more interactive hands-on learning approaches will be more meaningful.

(Advice) We need to be more cautious and think really about our personal…karmas…behaviours. When I came to California in the 1970s there was so much smog, your couldn’t even see across the campus. And thanks to catalytic converters and other improvements, that’s gone. We can be little catalytic converters as well. We can make huge contributions as an individual among a larger group. I think that’s something people forget – they think “gosh, it’s too much, there’s no impact I can have”, but you can have. And it’s not just an impact for the environment, or society, it’s an impact for you. You can be personally empowered. You can be fulfilled. You can have huge reward as you work with others, share with your family – this is probably the most meaningful thing of all – is your own inner light.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

psychology sociology

Interdisciplinary approaches to complex societal and global problems


The value of interdisciplinarity is that most of the complex societal and global problems that we are facing can not be resolved or even ameliorated from a single vantage point.

Professor Dan Stokols is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus in University of California Irvine’s School of Social Ecology. We talk about the transdisciplinary, multi-level, and empathic nature of Social Ecology.

Talking points

Expose students to many vantage points, and teach them how to connect those different analytic perspectives

Three legged stool we were founding our programme on, first the ecological paradigm with all its conceptual and methodological implications – that is you look at problems from a very broad contextual perspective at different levels of analysis from gnomic to societal or global; the second leg is interdisciplinarity, we were committed to training students in an explicitly interdisciplinary way – so that when they framed problems they would not embrace the orthodoxy of one particular field or one level of analysis, but they would be flexible and able to move across different levels and be receptive to different disciplinary points of view; and the third leg of the school was application to policy and community intervention – what today is called translation to practice, translating scientific knowledge into practical strategies to improve the world.

The value of interdisciplinarity is that most of the complex societal and global problems that we are facing can not be resolved or even ameliorated from a single vantage point. They are complex, they have multiple origins or causes, they manifest at different levels, from individual organisational levels to community and societal levels. So to tackle those kinds of problems, it is important for students, researchers, practitioners to bring a broad multi-level, cross-disciplinary perspective where they’re able to span and integrate a lot of different fields. Now, there are some problems in science and society that can be solved quite nicely by disciplinary specialisation…for example vaccine development…but the social ecology comes in when you can have a wonderful new technology developed by one field…but when it needs to be integrated into society you need a broader model for how to facilitate that.

If we want to cultivate a transdisciplinary orientation in a student or a scholar, there are certain values that underlie that orientation – for example inclusive, being tolerant of other perspectives, not rejecting things that are different or foreign to what you are used to things about. Also there are attitudes and beliefs. If people believe that it’s way too time intensive to do interdisciplinary work, and they can be more effective working individually on smaller and more focussed problems, then that’s an attitude that will make it difficult for them to thrive in a large cross-disciplinary team environment. Then there are behaviours that reflective of a transdisciplinary orientation – such as reading material outside your main field of training, or going to conferences outside your main field, or getting together often with colleagues from different fields to integrate and share ideas. Finally, there is a conceptual or analytic stance – how people frame problems. What we try to focus on in social ecology is how would we train a student to think systemically, to look at the multiple levels of a problem – to be able to traverse those and be adept at doing that. How would we train them to think ecologically, so that they see that a problem is science or society may have roots in biological processes, in material geographic properties, it may be an economic phenomena…in other words the roots of complex problems may lie in several different fields.

Wicked problems are vexing because there are no easy clear solutions to them.

One of the attributes of wicked problems is that they are so intertwined with other problems, in other words, you cant identify the core wicked problem, but it’s wicked because it cross penetrates other problems that are related to it. Rather than taking a reductionist approach to a wicked problem it seems that the only hope to getting a sense of the multiple roots and manifestations is thinking more broadly – it’s patterns of wickedness, the ways in which different problems are synergistic that becomes vexing.

Climate change is pretty wicked…I don’t know whether the behavioural potential is sufficient to get us out of this predicament

Psychology in an age of crisis.

We’re going to need behavioural and social innovation for greater sophistication.

As humans we haven’t been very good at curbing some of those destructive impulses.

People get overwhelmed by the enormity of the environmental and social problems we’re facing. They see not only occasional references to these things, but through the internet and multimedia they’re seeing tsunamis and the terrible destruction that they can cause, real time. They’re seeing terrorism, and the aftermath of terrorism, and war and brutality, we’ve become so immersed in media coverage of these problems that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel that there’s nothing an individual can to try to be more sustainable, to try to promote civility…a learned helplessness in thinking about global problems.

We are in an age of crisis and psychology is important in trying to understand what are the bases for people’s tendency to give up on these problems, and how can we reverse those tendencies and get people more engaged in a collective active effort to stem those problems?

There’s a certain amount of defensive neglecting – trying to get problems such as climate change out of our awareness because they are just too disconcerting to think about them.

Whether we can reach Anthropocene 2.0 and pull that off, is anybody’s question.

We’re all in this together, no matter what area of the globe we live, but humans haven’t proven themselves to be very effective at political cooperation across borders. Our social limitations are just as important to address as our technological limitations.

Slow collapse suggests processes are happening so gradually, an almost invisible way, and yet there are tipping points where processes accelerate very rapidly

Social ecology in the curriculum – a missing systemic view of the world, we need to broaden the curricula. we need students to think broadly about the environment, and the way that different phenomena are interrelated, rather than encouraged too early to pursue a narrow curricula box.

We need to enable students to think in more innovative and broad ways about the world around us.

Social problems…high school students should be exposed to some of the underpinnings of violence – racism, poverty…

People in the top 1% of income bracket – global change may not seem as threatening. They may feel that they are insulated from it – they can always go to higher ground, or more luxurious ground, buy the water the need. But in fact, we’re all so interconnected that it’s really a mirage. A mirage for affluent people to think that way. The whole infrastructure is something they’re dependent on and if that collapses, they’re just as vulnerable. Certainly the poor are more vulnerable, they don’t have the buffers of income and affluence, but ultimately even the 1% need to take into account the protection of the earth’s ecosystems and equality.

Sustainability: many different definitions…one definition concerns preservation of resources for future generations so that the current generation doesn’t over consume…a quantitative assessment of the resources we have against global footprint of the current generation. Other definitions embrace the idea of equity and equability – sustainability for whom? for which groups? what’s being sustained? Many definitions prioritise the idea that sustainability preserves and takes care of the most vulnerable in society, whether that be be women, or people living in poverty, or minority groups often suffering from prejudice. So a combination of resource management and fairness, distributive justice and fairness.

(Intergenerational equity) a kind of visioning process, whereby imagined or projected needs of that population, those future generations are brought to the table.

As our world population grows fairly soon at 10 or 11 billion people, what would it feel to be living on a hotter, drier planet with so many more mouths to feed? How can we crack some of those challenges. So in some ways, our decisions need to be made as if we are already there. How would those more severe constraints shape our decisions?

I’m at times an optimist, at other times I’m less optimistic when I see the capacity of people to hurt each other. That bothers me because the climate change is going to require cooperation, some altruism. It’s going to require empathy. I would like to see more of that in the world.

We have to get our social and behavioural house in order before before we have a prayer of effectively tackling the environmental and technological problems we’re facing today.

(Success?) I really value my teaching. I value my research too, but when I see students in my classroom getting excited about ideas, and they leave a course wanting to do some good things in the world – that for me is a momentum for changing the world.

(Activist?) There are ways that I have been activist, in working to translate some of the research that I’ve done into guidelines for improved policy, public health. As far as environmental movements or at the frontlines of those, I haven’t been as active that way, but I’ve tried to be at the interface of research and scholarship, and the translation of some that into strategies that might improve public health, or urban design or environmental management

(Motivation?) Joy in my family. building a non-traditional interdisciplinary unit. Thinking freely.

(Challenges?) Working on a book on principles of social ecological analysis. Continuing my research into understanding the circumstances that enable cross-disciplinary teams to work effectively together to create integrate knowledge, to create transdisciplinary innovations that have a positive effect on society.

(Miracle?) I’d love to see major illnesses cured. Effects of global climate change reversed. I’d like to see more peace in the world, and less conflict, war and posturing in ways that have potential to create havoc.

(Advice?) If we to have any hope of resolving some of the problems we’ve been talking about at global level, it’s going to require individuals thinking broadly, acting cooperatively with each other, giving each other the benefit of the doubt – rather than being too judgemental or quick to criticise – I do think that so many of our problems are rooted in this proclivity for conflict and competition. So think as broadly as possible, give fellow humans the benefit of the doubt – everyone’s having a challenging existential existence, trying to get through their day so if we could all support each other that would be very valuable.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.

electricity generation energy engineering

Civic science – what are you good for?

Phil Taylor

We sell electricity in units, rather than as a service – so the electricity companies want us to buy more. So the market is diametrically opposed to energy efficiency. Every time we use less energy they make less profit.

Prof Phil Taylor is Director of the Sustainability Institute at Newcastle University. We talk about his increasingly transdisciplinary career and the changes required for a transition to a decarbonised energy system.

Talking points

I was always searching for application domains, reasons for doing it.

My career has become more and more interdisciplinary….really stimulating and challenging.

The big question for me is about seeking sustainability, sustainable solutions. It’s about trying to understand complex systems.

I’m a systems thinker, I like to think of things as complex interacting, interdependent systems. I tend not to be a component person, or a siloized thinker, I always look for understanding the complexity and the interdependencies in a system – and therefore I try to solve sustainability problems but I’m always looking at the earth, or an engineered or a natural environmental system and that leads me to need to develop relationships, working partnerships with people in different disciplines.

Influences…Centre for Alternative Technology….Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

There was a gap in my career, my undergraduate training as an engineer – sustainability was never mentioned, early industry…before I came back to sustainability.

It wasn’t about new energy, at best it was efficient use of old energy.

The automotive industry…just felt like toys for burning petrol.

As soon as a saw a career opportunity in sustainability I jumped on it.

That’s how I got to interdisciplinarity, I realised that it didn’t matter how clever the piece of hardware or software was, unless the commercial and regulatory framework changed, and people’s energy practices changed, we wouldn’t get to the decarbonisation that we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The transitions required in each field are related but different.

The challenge in energy is to cut across the silos and stakeholders. You can’t make a case for energy storage if you are only looking at the wires, or only looking at the retailers, or only looking at the generators. If all these things are separate, you can’t make a compelling business case for something that is hugely transformative in just one of those silos – it takes an integrated approach.

We sell electricity in units, rather than as a service – so the electricity companies want us to buy more. So the market is diametrically opposed to energy efficiency. Every time we use less energy they make less profit.

Consumers need to be empowered to take part in the smart energy system. People and organisations – their choices about the energy they use and when they use it,are crucially important.

More diversity in when people use energy enables a more sustainable system.

We might chose not to drive across town in rush hour because we can see the congestion…but we don’t have the same visibility of energy congestion. We just flip the switch and the power comes through

It needs a mix of information provision, awareness and incentives.

You have to start with demand. If we continue to use energy in the way we are now, it doesn’t matter what we do with renewable energy, we’re chasing a moving target and we’re doomed.

We have to get demand down while we work on the technological breakthrough. But even if we get the breakthrough, it’s not going to make much of difference unless we get the regulatory, commercial and social changes to go with it.

Population change, and the thirst for growth in businesses will outstrip most, if not all, technological developments we’re going to make over the next 20-30 years.

Civics…means asking yourself what are you good for? as much as asking yourself what are you good at? So a goal of the Institute is to drive social impact.

One of the measures of interdisciplinarity is how early in the research process did that start? Did you actually frame the research questions in an interdisciplinary way. Not just the researchers, are the end users, the communities involved in this early framing process?

The research metric framework doesn’t favour interdisciplinary research.

Sustainability is now hard-wired into engineering courses.

Science Central…will become an exemplar of urban sustainability.

We want to make planning of cities more inclusive…in a “decision theatre”.

(Superpower) Bring about change – overcome social, cultural and organisational inertia.

(Success) Securing funding then running, the biggest smart grid project in the UK – Customer-led Network Revolution, done with industry it took a socio-technical approach to smartgrids. It took interdisciplinarity seriously.
People are flexible in time of energy use, and are willing and able to do that.

Tipping point is decarbonising the grid.

(Activist) If I’m in a romantic view about myself I would like to think that, but if I’m really honest I’d say no. I’m too part of mainstream academia and industry to call myself an activist. I’d have to be a bit braver.

I’m drawn to that quote – is it better to be on the inside, part of the establishment, be challenging person in that establishment – I think I am – is it better to be outside as an activist trying to get change that way. I suppose I’ve chosen the former as a better way to get things done, but it does mean you have to compromise to some extent.

(Motivation) Seeing real impact, working on genuine problems, working with people, enthusiastic about what they are doing

(Challenge) Realising the vision on Science Central.

(Miracle) Low cost, long life-time, environmentally benign energy storage. (how far away is that?) Not tomorrow, ten years at the very least.

(Advice) Be careful about listening to anybody. Be prepared to change your mind – revel in being proved wrong, see that as a positive thing.