UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Restoring America’s Wetland Forest Legacy

Like many white, middle-class, suburban kids, I grew up with one foot in the forest. To me, that small woodlot, a green buffer along a half-polluted tributary, was a paradise unmatched by any other forest in the world. Unfortunately, like many other tracts of land across the United States, my childhood forest is gone—cleared for a housing development.

Wetlands, including wetland forests, are the “filters” of our natural system, combating pollution, removing excess nutrients, and securing fresh drinking water for surrounding and downstream communities. Photo: Dogwood Alliance.

Wetland forests offer massive economic benefits

Even small forests across the United States work to provide “ecosystem services”—non-monetary benefits like clean water, clean air, carbon sequestration, hunting, fishing, and yes—recreation for children. Ecosystem services may sound like “lip service” to the natural world, but it’s not. New York city chose to spend $500 million to protect and preserve its upstream watershed (and resulting water quality), to avoid the $3-5 billion price tag of a new water supply system on the Hudson river. Forests in the U.S. offset about 13% of our yearly carbon emissions. In 2002, southern forests supported over a million jobs in the recreation/tourism sectors, generating $19-76 billion dollars in annual revenue. All of these services require healthy, standing forests across the landscape.

As our country continues to grow, we are increasing the pressures on our forests. We need clean air and clean water, but we also need wood products, food, and housing. As Research Manager at Dogwood Alliance, I work every day with other organizations and communities to improve the quality and quantity of southern forests. Much of my day-to-day is focused on coordinating and organizing a new initiative, the Wetland Forest Initiative, to conserve, restore, and improve southern wetland forests.

Cypress-tupelo forests, also known as bottomland hardwood forests, can occasionally have trees live for over a thousand years. Photo: Dogwood Alliance

Wetland forests are the best of both worlds. You can visit during a dry season to walk beside ancient trees, or explore during the wet season by kayaking in submerged habitat, teeming with aquatic invertebrates, migratory birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. “Wetland forest” describes so much of the American landscape—from forests edging creeks and the culturally treasured bayous; to coastally influenced forests, which somehow survive the onslaught of the ocean. Wetland forests span 35 million acres across 14 southern states, and provide twice the ecosystem services value of upland forests.

Taking action to save our wetlands

Yet, with a majority of wetland forests lost—cleared for agriculture, drained for commercial or residential development, even cut and converted to fast-growing commercial pine plantations—we are at a fork in the road. Will we allow our wetland forests to dwindle to less than one percent of their original range, like we did with longleaf pine? Or will we take action now to conserve these vital ecosystems, before it’s too late?

Wetland forests are home to many endemic species, found nowhere else on earth. This photo was taken during a flyover search for the swallow-tailed kite, a bird native to southern wetland forests. Photo: Maria Whitehead

The Wetland Forest Initiative is working to conserve, restore, and improve these habitats. In special places, we will work to protect the legacy of rare, threatened, and endangered species, ensuring that they will have habitat for decades to come. In places where wetland forests have been degraded by lack of management, changes in hydrology, or pollution, we will work with local groups and governments to restore the land to ecological function. Beyond the tree line, we will work with politicians and government agencies to ensure that landowners are awarded with fair compensation for their restoration and conservation efforts. And perhaps most importantly, we will work with communities, to educate them about the beauty and importance of what’s happening on the ground in their local wetland forests.

Although I never thought I would leave academia, I am happy to spend my working hours on a project that has the potential to impact 35 million acres across 14 states. Despite the differences in opinion that some of our member organizations may have, it is inspiring to see so many people from different walks of life (academic, community, environment, forestry, government, land management, landowners, social justice, and tribal) come together and create meaningful change. I am excited for the future of our southern wetland forests.

I encourage you to head over to the Wetland Forest Initiative website to learn more, endorse the platform, and get your organization or university involved.

Sam Davis is Research & Program Manager at Dogwood Alliance. A life-long treehugger, Sam earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Science in 2015 at Wright State University, and completed a postdoc at University of California Merced before leaving academia for greener forests. Sam is thrilled to be translating science into action with Dogwood Alliance. On the weekends, Sam enjoys hiking, home improvement, and gaming with friends and family.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Climate Change, Resilience, and the Future of Food

The United States food system has proven remarkably adaptable over the last 150 years, producing an abundant supply of food, feed, and fiber crops for national and international markets amidst dynamic social change, and despite dramatic natural resource variability across North America.

The story of American agriculture’s rise to world class status is usually told with technology in the hero’s role. In the typical story, the major “revolutions” in the industrialization of American agriculture came about as the result of one or more technological innovations—such as mechanical harvesters, hybrid corn and more feed-efficient livestock, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and genetic engineering. As awareness of the current and potential costs of climate change to agriculture and food systems increase, this singular focus on technological solutions continues through widespread enthusiasm for sustainable intensification.

Public investment: The true hero of the story

Rarely acknowledged is the real, underlying reason for the success of industrial agriculture: the continuous intended and unintended investment of public resources to develop, support, promote, and enable the industrial food system. These resources have taken many forms:

  • Financial resources such as direct and indirect payments designed to stabilize production, recover from disasters, and reduce environmental harms
  • Public financing of the education, research and development programs and institutions that serve the agricultural-industrial complex
  • Unintended human resource subsidies as farm families struggle to balance the demands of full-time farming with full-time off-farm work to maintain family well-being in the face of steadily declining farm profitability
  • Unintended natural resource subsidies in the form of degraded soil, water, and air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
  • Unintended social resource subsidies in the form of degraded health and well-being of rural communities both at home and abroad

Resilient Agriculture grower Jim Koan explains to USDA-FSA administrator Val Dolcini how FSA programs have helped him reduce climate risk on his 500 acre organic farm located near Flushing, MI.

Although the costs of industrial food and the benefits of sustainable food systems are widely recognized, and despite new evidence that the global industrial food system is uniquely vulnerable to climate change and other 21st-century challenges, national and international agricultural policy continues to support public investment in an unsustainable global industrial food system.

Sustainable agriculture is the future of agriculture

Sustainable intensification, the newest chapter in the industrialization of agriculture, is just business as usual for many actors in the global industrial food system. Sustainable intensification rhetoric often promotes the widely discredited myth that low agricultural productivity is the root cause of world hunger and suggests that new resource-efficient technologies that reduce the environmental degradation associated with agriculture are the solution to global food security.

My work to apply resilience theory to questions of agricultural and food system sustainability suggests that sustainable intensification, rather than advancing sustainability and the broader public good, actually keeps us locked into a clearly maladaptive path. Measures to reduce the environmental damages associated with industrial practices are welcome and needed, but agricultural innovations that do not also regenerate the natural, human, and social resources degraded by 150 years of industrialism will do little to enhance the climate resilience of the global food system. In contrast, sustainable agriculture and food systems offer successful models of locally-adapted, climate-resilient alternatives that we can build upon to put humanity on a path to a sustainable and resilient food future.

 Karl Wolfshohl

Texas ranchers Gary and Linda Price produce cattle for the source-verified wholesale market on 2000 acres of restored tallgrass prairie in Blooming Grove. Credit: Karl Wolfshohl

Local and regional actions, supported by enabling policies at local, regional, national, and international levels, can be used to enhance the sustainability and resilience of existing agriculture and food systems. My research indicates that we can use existing USDA programs, integrative initiatives, and international partnerships to address six significant levers of change:

  1. Redirect USDA credit and crop insurance investments through programs such as the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Direct Operating Loans Program and the Risk Management Agency’s  Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program to increase support for farmers and ranchers transitioning to or already using ecosystem-based, diversified production and marketing practices, especially small and mid-sized agricultural businesses supplying local and regional markets with minimally-processed, nutrient dense foods.
  1. Expand incentives and rewards for producers who use production practices that enhance sustainability and resilience of the U.S. food system through the protection and regeneration of ecosystem services. Programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the FSA’s Conservation Programs could be reoriented to achieve these goals.
  1. Redirect economic development investments, such as those funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA’s) Community Food Projects Program and the Rural Business Development Grants Program, to promote the re-regionalization of the U.S. food system.
  1. Redirect agricultural education, research, and extension investments to promote the study, investigation, and development of sustainable and resilient agroecosystems as a core mission of the land-grant university system. This goal can be addressed through the expansion of existing programs such as NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Higher Education Programs, and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Program.
  1.  Climate Listening Project

    Farmers markets, like this one in Raleigh, NC, increase consumer access to fresh, locally-produced farm products and help build relationships between producers and consumers. Credit: Climate Listening Project

    Expand nutrition assistance and education programs that support sustainable and resilient regional food systems, such as the Farm to School Grants and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

  1. Redirect U.S. international development investments such as those made through the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, USAID Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab, and Feed the Future to support collaborative, place-based development of sustainable and resilient regional food systems

The global industrial food system faces unprecedented challenges that are projected to increase in intensity in the years ahead.  Persistent hunger and poverty, growing human population, a degraded and eroding natural resource base, failing agricultural communities, increasing and shifting consumer demands, and the uncertainties of climate change demand a reexamination of the basic underlying assumptions of industrialism. We must accept that we cannot burn or build our way to global food security, that we cannot depend on human ingenuity alone, but must finally acknowledge the fundamental role that healthy ecosystems play in human well-being. We know enough to begin now to cultivate a new kind of food system, a sustainable food system that has the capacity to produce global food security as it protects us from the inevitable challenges ahead.


Laura Lengnick is an award-winning soil scientist who has explored agricultural sustainability for more than 30 years as a researcher, policy-maker, educator, and farmer.  Her work in sustainable farming systems was nationally recognized with a USDA Secretary’s Honor Award and she contributed to the 3rd National Climate Assessment as a lead author of the USDA report Climate Change and U.S. Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. In 2016, Laura launched Cultivating Resilience, LLC, a private consulting firm offering ecosystem-based climate risk management services to government, business, and communities. Her book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, 2015), examines climate change, resilience and the future of food through the adaptation stories of 25 award-winning sustainable producers located across the U.S. You can learn more about Laura and her work at http://www.cultivatingresilience.com


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

What Can “Local” Food Do?

What does “local food” mean? Most of us think of local food as something that was grown nearby geographically, although the distances can vary a lot.

We also tend to make a lot of assumptions about what local food can do. For example, we think of “local” food, as a more sustainable alternative to the global, industrial food system that produces lots of food, but is also environmentally destructive, makes people sick, and leaves many hungry.

Thinking critical about the role of local food in creating more sustainable food systems.

Thinking critical about the role of local food in creating more sustainable food systems.

Supporters of local food often assume that it’s fresher, more nutritious, and that it’s better for farm and other food system workers, the environment, and local communities. One of the themes of my research on food systems has been that we need to question assumptions like these, and to separate as much as possible our assumptions of how the world is, from our goals for how we think it should be. One of the biggest challenges of local food is disentangling these two kinds of assumptions.

Local food can do a lot to improve our food system, but our assumptions about what it’s doing may or may not be true in any specific case, and if they aren’t tested, they can fool us (what I call drinking green Kool-Aid®), and enable corporate greenwash. This means our food choices won’t be helping change the food system the way we hope they will, and can even work in the opposite direction.

So, we need to keep asking questions: What are our specific goals for a more sustainable alternative to the global industrial food system? Is promoting local food helping us to make progress toward those goals? Is “local” a good indicator of progress toward those goals? How can we adjust our actions and policies, and the indicators we use to measure them, to make more progress? I’ll give a few examples of how this works, from our research in Santa Barbara County, California.

Local food, transportation, and climate change The effect of localizing fruit and vegetable consumption in Santa Barbara County, California.

The effect of localizing fruit and vegetable consumption in Santa Barbara County, California.

We often assume that because local food doesn’t travel very far to get to us, that it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) overall, because of less transportation. So, a question we asked in our Santa Barbara research was, “Is reducing food miles a good way to reduce GHGE?”

Santa Barbara County (SBC) is a prime example of the missed potential for local food; despite having an active local food movement, 95% of fruits and vegetables consumed in 2008 was imported from outside the county, while 99% of the more than $1 billion dollars’ worth (2.36 billion pounds) of vegetables and fruits grown in Santa Barbara county in 2008 was exported.

To see what contribution localization could make to reduce GHGE, we modeled the effect on GHGE of a change to all fruits and vegetables consumed in the county being grown in the county. We found that this would be a savings per household of only 0.058 MT of GHGE per year, or about 9% of the average U.S. household’s annual GHGE for produce. However, that only amounts to about 0.7% of a U.S.  household’s total GHGE for food, and less than 0.1% of total U.S. GHGE per person.

In fact, most GHGE from food are from production, especially of animal foods. So if fighting climate change is a goal, maybe we need to look beyond localization. For example, the only life cycle assessment of the complete US food system found that eliminating meat and dairy from our diets just one day a week could reduce GHGE more than totally localizing the entire food system.

What about food gardens, food waste, and composting?

You can’t get more local than growing food in your home, community, or school garden. So, we modeled the effect of converting an area of lawn to a household vegetable garden in Santa Barbara County, and composting household organic waste at home for use in the vegetable garden. We found that gardens reduced GHGE by about 2 kg per kg of vegetable, compared to households with no gardens, purchasing all their vegetables, an 82% reduction in GHGE. And if 50% of single-family housing units in Santa Barbara County had a 200 square foot garden, they could contribute 3.3% of the official county GHGE reduction target, and if scaled to the state level, 7.8% of California’s target.

We also looked into the effect of the way household organic waste was managed, since this accounted for the largest portion of garden emissions savings, even greater than the emissions savings from reducing purchased vegetables. We found that if landfills that efficiently captured and burned methane for energy and efficient aerobic composting operations were an option, gardeners could have the greatest emission reductions by exporting their organic waste to those operations. They could then import the compost, rather than composting at home, so gardeners need to ask questions about their options for processing their organic waste—it may be more climate-friendly to advocate for municipal composting facilities, rather than the more local option of composting on site.

What about the bottom line? Wesley Sleight and Anna Breaux, founders of Farmer Direct Produce local food hub

Wesley Sleight and Anna Breaux, founders of Farmer Direct Produce local food hub

Can local food be economically profitable? Local food hubs that consolidate local farm harvests and redistribute them are an important tool for localizing food. But when they try to scale up volume to have a larger impact and more revenue, they need to adapt to the dominant industrial food system, from infrastructure to economics. This can compromise their goals, because there are often tradeoffs among environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability. Can local food be economically viable while prioritizing people and the environment?

In our case study of a local a food hub in Santa Barbara, we found that the key to success in meeting the goals of environmental sustainability and improved community nutrition was prioritizing those over the goal of economic profit, while still being economically viable.

Helping local food do more

On September 28, 2016, Senator Debbie Stabenow [D-MI] introduced S.3420, the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016. It includes support for a wide range of urban agriculture, from community gardens to technology intensive methods like aeroponics, based on the assumption that these will support local food infrastructure and economies, better nutrition, and environmental sustainability.

This bill is timely, as urban agriculture has become a popular form of local food production. For example, in our survey of Santa Barbara County residents, we found that the majority favored not building on land used for urban agriculture.

I think one of the strongest parts of this bill is the provision calling for research on the funded projects. This means asking if the goals of urban agriculture are actually being promoted, and providing information for improving them.

As our research has demonstrated, while local food systems can do a lot to promote more sustainable alternatives to the industrial system, we need to keep asking questions to ensure that our good intentions aren’t unintentionally compromised. In many cases other actions, such as changing production practices, and especially changing diets, may be more effective, or are needed to complement localization.


Bio: David Arthur Cleveland is Research Professor in the Environmental Studies Program and the Department of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a human ecologist whose research and teaching focuses on sustainable, small-scale agrifood systems, including work with small-scale farmers and gardeners around the world. He is currently researching the potential for agrifood system localization and diet change, to improve nutrition, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote food and climate justice, in California, the US, and globally. His latest book is Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture.

For copies of studies by David Cleveland not available on his website, please email him.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Communicating Science: Breaking Through Our Comfortable Silence to Form Meaningful Connections

Those who knew me prior to age of 17 probably anticipated I’d become a scientist. I held all the stereotypical personality traits of being weird, antisocial, and a tad eccentric back then. With my hombre highlights and loud persona, few new people I casually encounter today at, say, the grocery store suspect I enjoy spending at least eight hours examining microbial sequence data, synthesizing predictive models, and writing grant applications. It’s meditative. And though I’ve become a go-to socialite in my circles, I still wouldn’t label myself as an extrovert. To me I’m simply doing my job, being open and approachable to promote information accessibility.

A festive spread of international dishes, paired with live music from visiting artists in the evening where everyone is welcome – a common event for our housemates.

A festive spread of international dishes, paired with live music from visiting artists in the evening where everyone is welcome – a common event for our housemates.

During the past few years, I’ve put a lot of self-reflection into why I’m viewed as an extrovert when I consider myself to be quite awkward and introverted. Need someone to lead a project? Ask Sabah. Need someone to pop in and get things organized? Ask Sabah. Upcoming dinner party or do-it-yourself concert? Sabah probably has something to do with it. More and more often, I find myself in these roles – why? As any good scientist would ask themselves, what was the reason for transforming from the kooky 17-year-old I once was to becoming the town socialite?

Listening to different perspectives is critical for communication

People don’t take much of a stance on an issue until it directly involves them. Take, dare I say it, climate change as an example. Many are unswayed by the evidence until experiencing the negative impacts of climate change firsthand. Perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve moved further away from my introvert core and closer towards a perceived extrovert—the realization that a disregard for others and their issues is, by default, a disregard for myself and my issues.

Being an academic is a luxury we often forget we have. I didn’t notice it until arriving at the University of California, Merced as a doctoral student where more than 60% of the students we serve are (much like myself) coming from low-income, first generation college families and/or first generation households. The town of Merced also reminds me a great deal of the neighborhood where I grew up. It is a privilege to be at a university still at a stage of being influenced by its surrounding community in contrast to the (more common) other way around. The ability to talk to and interact with people who face issues completely different from my own as an academic keeps me grounded in my perspective, especially in our presently polarized political climate.

One example of listening as a critical aspect of communication is when our house finally decided we’d bring in some experts to help clean our yard. We refuse to water our lawn with California being in a drought, so things were looking a bit wild. A local friend of ours brought two landscapers to the scene, both from the Merced area. I was home that day and it was hot outside. I asked them if they wanted to take a break from the sun and take a snack break together. Somewhat skeptical, the two walked in and expressed this was the first time someone had treated them “like a human” on the job. We started talking and their skepticism soon faded. I was not the naïve UC student they had presumed me to be and they were hard working people with valuable insight. These interactions remind me of where I come from; why my voice is an important microphone for others aiming to better connect higher education with their communities, and the value in being an extrovert.

Science communication for a more inclusive future?

Science communication has become a topic at the forefront of conducting research, and for good reason. Funding for research on national and global levels is under the threat of undergoing drastic cuts, but discussion of science being made available to all instead of limited to the narrow, Aristocratic few of yester-century is increasing. Having scientists who proportionally represent the demography of the surrounding population is not only logical in terms of equity, but also in terms of ensuring science itself continues to grow and thrive. We are limiting ourselves by telling instead of asking and communicating—fostering dialogue. The future is in communicating, rather than the one-dimensional dichotomy of lecturing or staying quiet.

 Going outside of her comfort zone and communicating with individuals different from herself since 1996.

Sabah Ul-Hasan: Going outside of her comfort zone and communicating with individuals different from herself since 1996.

If we truly care about inclusion of underrepresented anything in any realm, accessibility or funding or showing that our scientific evidence for issues such as climate change are indeed real and should be taken quite seriously by all of us, then we first must consider the communities we come from and the communities where we live. We can conduct our science in a way that’s mindful of all these communities. A good place to start is with our families. My family was skeptical of the value in studying marine systems for years, especially because pursuing school for too long (i.e., doctoral degrees) can culturally be viewed as an economic waste of time in first generation American families. These days, after much patience and constant non-condescending conversations on all sides, my family is quite proud of my work as a scientist. They understand and stick up for its significance, they take their Seafood Watch booklets with them everywhere and make it a point to recycle. In exchange I continuously improve the communication of my work, a win-win for all of us. Science communication isn’t another line on a resume, it’s us.

We will mess up, but just like with any experiment—we’ve got to be okay with troubleshooting and trying again. We need to persevere. That’s the difference between a scientist and a good scientist, right? I’m not sure, but maybe being an extrovert is worth a shot.


Bio: Sabah Ul-Hasan is a Quantitative & Systems Biology Eugene-Cota Robles Doctoral Fellow at the University of California, Merced co-advised by Dr. Mark Sistrom and Dr. Tanja Woyke. A first generation American born in Salt Lake City, Sabah holds B.S. degrees in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental & Sustainability studies from the University of Utah and an M.S. in Biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire. Today, Sabah’s research interests lie with host-microbe symbioses in venomous animals. Sabah enjoys spending her free time on short films creatively promoting science knowledge accessibility, rock climbing, partaking in philosopher banter, and talking to strangers. You can find her on Twitter @Sabah_UlHasan


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) When Examining Climate Change

It all started with a simple conversation over lunch. The fuse had been lit, the spark began, and the first step had occurred in my journey, unbeknownst to me at the time. Later that day, I realized, for the first time in my life, I had experiences that were unique. And, I realized I held knowledge. Knowledge that was different from others; knowledge that went beyond the scientific or academic type, and that ran richer, deeper, more extensive. Sitting over sandwiches, sitting with culture, sitting with knowledge.

Accumulating knowledge through experience

Truth be told, it had begun much further back, as far back as I can remember, but blissfully unaware. Lunch with a friend brought it all barreling to the forefront of my destiny, and my ancestors’ wishes. I was talking with a friend about life, when he mentioned skeletal remains that had been unearthed underneath a bridge, and how the tribe had been explaining to the non-Native state and local agencies involved that the site was one of the traditional places our Native bands migrated to and from. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) was far from being on the radar for non-Native agencies at that point, and even as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act existed, the common attitude about Native Traditional Knowledges (TK) was that it was frequently discounted and dismissed.

I was infuriated at how remains and burial areas could be so flippantly desecrated, when I asked the question about taking the agencies involved to task to acknowledge our Indigenous Knowledge. I was informed that at that time, our tribe did not have a document that would convincingly show our position, and all knowledge that had been documented was brushed off as fable-like stories.

I was initially in shock, because I’d grown up continuously learning information outside of academic schooling confines. I’d never realized how much vital information I had amassed, much of it while simply playing, until it came flying back upon reflection. It reached its peak that day when I returned home to have dinner with my Mom and Dad. I listened as Dad discussed the way Native members of a committee were being brushed off by a state agency as they sat in a meeting that they’d been specifically invited to as tribal hunters and gatherers. The tribal members shared TEK about why the deer in the Western Oregon region were losing hair. Years prior to western scientific information finding an exotic lice species responsible for what is now termed Hair Loss Syndrome, Native tribal members identified the very patterns that had been noted and passed them along through a combination of TEK and TK data. My father, along with other Elders, detailed how the warming trends had allowed a surge of “bugs” to “chew” on the deer, and the massive amount of hair loss that they were all witnessing. They’d outlined the areas in Western Oregon that had been the worst hit, held knowledge collaborations with other hunters and gatherers, and shared ongoing discussions about tribal lands and the other species that were being impacted, directly and indirectly. I sat listening, as I had done so many times before, but literally stopped eating; I suddenly realized I’d reached an awareness level I’d not been at before. There, with those two seemingly innocuous conversations, it began. My journey as a scientist, but more importantly as an educator and facilitator regarding TEK and TK.

Integrating different types of knowledge

Just as with any system, applying and infusing TEK into studies and research is not a guarantee of clarified clear-cut results in a specific topic or area, and following the Indigenous community’s guidelines is imperative when working with any Indigenous tribe or community. The exploitation and theft of Native communities’ information and resources has left an indelible mark,  which must be approached with careful consideration and allowance of Indigenous oversight to sensitive material and intellectual property. The history of theft and destruction is the reason that the publication Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives was developed for protection.

Wild horses are an integral aspect of the TEK as an indicator species for the Duckwater-Shoshone tribe (NV)

Wild horses are an integral aspect of the TEK as an indicator species for the Duckwater-Shoshone tribe (NV)

Traditional Knowledges are foundational systems with which most Indigenous populations operate.  Traditional Ecological Knowledge evolves from generations of experience; a base that is incomparable in terms of the depth, breadth, and holistic perspectives that it provides for a given ecosystem. While there can be many forms of knowledge, such as Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK), Farmer’s Ecological Knowledge (FEK), Fishermen’s Knowledge (FK), TEK is often highly developed relating to traditional Indigenous areas, and can span hundreds of years back through multiple generations. In most of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon, families relied on detailed information being correct, as they lived subsistence lifestyles. Survival depended on informational accuracy, and concerted sustainability efforts. Even small environmental indicators such as squirrel behavior in the fall, or caterpillar markings, can illustrate a TEK data set that has been established and relied on for other traditional activities, such as gathering or hunting and/or fishing. Much trading occurred between all tribal systems, particularly in the Columbia Gorge at Celilo Falls, and different areas’ TEK was often shared for planning purposes. Western Oregon and Eastern Oregon have very different climate and weather patterns, but reliance on TEK information systems was vital for all Natives. Even today, more traditional aspects of cultural information rely heavily on reciprocity and sustainability aspects of TEK for maintenance of cultural traditions and traditional value systems.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is often discounted as “irrelevant” in ideologies which are based in traditional western scientific paradigms. Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte expertly articulates how western scientific assumptions discount TEK. Colonist thought processes are still prevalent, as evidenced in science curricula. Very little Indigenous information is available for students, at any level, and the lack of TEK and biases are then carried into professional realms. Working to shift this paradigm can be difficult, and daunting. As described in Paul Nadasdy’s book Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon, when Indigenous people are invited to conferences and workshop, they are expected to utilize the vocabulary and manner of western science. The invitations come with expectations of addressing one issue at a time. Each issue, or resource, is expected to be divorced from all others, which makes accuracy for TEK experts extremely difficult. TEK is holistic and the expertise regarding the ecosystem addressed, relies on interdependence behaviors of multiple species and is uniquely separate from other, even nearby, ecosystems. TEK observations, sustainability practices, and active participation in TEK resource use and management rely on information databases that can extend back hundreds of years. These long held foundations have often been exclusionary, and TEK still remains the “underdog”, if you will, in western scientific contexts.

Writing, presenting, and collaborating in traditional science areas of research and development are accompanied with challenges of TEK information systems. Because TEK research is relatively new, and due to its interdisciplinary aspect, it’s slow to be accepted and integrated into western science methodology, and funding is not as accessible as it is in other areas. I’m continuously looking for grant funding to continue my research. Increased TEK documentation that is in accordance with the aforementioned Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup (CTKW) guidelines will help contribute to the information of how climate change effects are impacting aspects of anthropogenic causes of climate change and other human impacts on the environment.

I strive to contribute information, along with other TEK scientists and Indigenous communities, to illustrate the relevant contributions that TEK has in scientific communities, and the positive impacts it has in tribal nations. I strive to help change the preconceived notion that TEK is a misnomer, and irrelevant to western scientific systems. TEK is somewhat like an outlier dataset point that, when examined and applied, can illuminate the entire context of the topic. TEK can help to clarify, enhance, and even augment knowledge that is long believed to have been studied exhaustively. When properly applied, TEK can often create a 3D approach to climate change issues presently, rather than the usual 2D regular printed paper or computer screen analyses that have been traditionally relied upon. TEK offers an integrated system of environment and timing knowledge that adds a dimension where none has been fully examined previously. It is the Indigenous science that puts faces and names in congruence with places and events, and assists in the long term assessment of what exactly is going on, by looking at long-held trends from the past.

An added dimension in studying climate change

Many scholars are, and have been, examining climate change issues from a very pragmatic and logical regimented approach that is rooted in western scientific dogmas. Everything from temperatures to land base changes, agricultural crops impacted to increased diseases that are being altered from climate change events. This logic and pragmatism provides much needed information, but difficulties arise when data is deficient in areas of human interaction with the environment, and impacts to human cultural issues. Models that are run for specific tasks cannot offer nor evaluate qualitative measures of human interaction issues such as cultural impact adaptations, traditional food set shifting, or phenology sequencing in relation to traditional cultural activities. Multiple data sets and models are run daily on issues at hand happening worldwide, lacking the insight that TEK can offer. TEK adds a holistic approach to climate change that no other data set can provide. Through the depth, breadth, and length of documented TEK and TK, there is a wealth of information that models and western science cannot reach though western science approaches alone. Human interaction and observation of the environment has been commonly relied upon for multiple generations. This type of interaction is noted in petroglyphs, and in communities FEK, FK, and LEK provide a much shorter timeframe and often a more limited dataset than Indigenous TEK, however. There is a realm of information offered that is complementary, or even new in some instances, when TEK is applied and adjusted to examine environmental events that are occurring. Dovetailing TEK and western scientific methodology can provide datasets that address climate change Impacts in an effective holistic manner, and more comprehensively illustrate human interfacing systems.

Traditional canoe of the Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

Traditional canoe of the Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

My 2013-2014 research work was funded through the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, involving in-depth research with tribes in Pacific Northwest. My research examined climate change impacts to Northwest Native traditional culture and practices. My 2015 research work through generous support of the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative extended that research to include tribes in the Great Basin region. This research involving tribes’ TEK traditional cultural adaptation responses to climate change both in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Basin brought forth new results of a time and phenology issue perceived in Native American culture that extend beyond seasonality. This newfound timing issue is based on surrounding environmental cues rather than the linear time sequencing that is common with clocks, and calendars devised from abstract time creation. Additionally encompassed are various levels of anticipated changes, with resulting adaptation response measures by Native communities. Adaptation responses included practices such as traditional food substitutions, adjusting timing sequences of hunting, gathering, fishing, or ceremonial events, or noting the changes in environmental and ecological cycles. These responses brought forth results that models and data sets could not have produced alone.

Much like analyzing tree rings for fire, disease, and flood events, TEK can offer a broader view of ecological and scientific topics researched and examined  that are localized in nature, but broad in perspective. Trends that have been documented through generations are more likely to offer detailed long term data patterns, provide tools for a better analysis, and add more comprehensive insight than stand alone western scientific methodologies. Items such as basket materials, regalia changes and fluctuations (due to materials being impacted by events such as floods, fires, or other catastrophic impacts can cause alterations and fluctuation patterns to traditional regalia and use), or even cooking and eating utensils can provide data that can be added into assessing climate change researched topics such as weather fluctuations, tree material adaptations, foods and crop impacts, any issue relating to environmental composition and the human interaction with environmental resources. Even songs, or stories that were once assumed to be merely entertainment can prove to be valuable tools in the quest to understand our changing environment and climate change events.

TEK, when applied, has been able to realize information that can clarify climate change research and analyses further, adding to the base knowledge about cycles and anticipated results, explaining certain impacts with an added depth and breadth that has been lacking in western scientific methods sans TEK. In this time of climate change uncertainty, TEK offers a tool that, can be applicable for insightful results, bridging the interdisciplinary gap that has existed within the traditional rigor of conventional scientific research. Unconventional methods are now at the forefront of addressing climate change research, information, analyses, and policy. This is one of the many ways that Traditional Knowledges can provide understanding in a rapidly changing world.

Dr. Samantha Chisholm Hatfield is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, from the Tututni Band, and is also Cherokee. She earned a Doctorate from Oregon State University in Environmental Sciences focusing on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of Siletz Tribal Members, from Oregon State University. Dr. Chisholm Hatfield’s specializations include: Indigenous TEK, tribal adaptations due to climate change, and Native culture issues. She’s worked with Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, and successfully completed a Post-Doctoral Research position with Northwest Climate Science Center. She’s spoken on the national level such as the First Stewards Symposium, National Congress of American Indians, Northwest Climate Conference, and webinars. She’s helped coordinate tribal participation for the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon State’s Climate Boot Camp workshops. Her dissertation has been heralded nationally by scholars as a template for TEK research, and remains a staple conversation item for academics and at workshops. She is a Native American Longhouse Advisory Board member at Oregon State University, was selected as an H.J. Andrews Forest Visiting Scholar, is actively learning Tolowa, Korean, and continues her traditional cultural practices. In her spare time she dances traditionally at pow wows, spends time with family, and is the owner of a non-profit organization that teaches the game of lacrosse to disadvantaged youth.    


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in 2016: the Lazy Dragon Woke Up

In Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon has been compared to a starved dragon. However, this dragon has been under control in the past. Deforestation in the region declined 70% from 2005 (19,014 km2) to 2014 (5,012 km2) in response to different strategies described in the literature. But the monster was not killed, it was just taking a nap. Since 2012, the annual rate of deforestation has stayed at around 5,000 km2 (4,571 km2 in 2012, 5,891 km2 in 2013, 5,012 km2 in 2014 and 6,207 km2 in 2015), according to data from the PRODES 2016 database. Unfortunately, in 2016 the sleepy dragon woke up. On November 29, the Brazilian government released data on deforestation in 2016 showing that an area of forest equivalent to 10 times the size of the New York City (7,989 km2) was devastated (Figure 1). This figure is the highest since 2008, when deforestation hit 12,911 km2, possibly indicating a return to the old pattern of deforestation.

 PRODES 2016)

Figure 1: Amazon deforestation rates evolution from 2015-2016. (Source: PRODES 2016)

The Amazon states of Pará, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia are again the main states to have lost forest cover. Jointly they account for 75% of all deforestation as measured by PRODES, the official monitoring system operated by the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE). The surprise, however, came from the State of Amazonas, which contains huge preserved forests. Since 2014, deforestation rates there have been on the rise, and in 2016, totalled above a 100% accumulated increase (Figure 1).

 Agência NaLata

Photo: Agência NaLata

The sad message Brazil is giving to the world with 2016’s startling new deforestation rate is that its impetus to control deforestation may be waning. The country was already ranked the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world in 2007 due to emissions from forest destruction in the Amazon. It is a past that we simply cannot return to in order to avoid putting the climatic balance of a significant portion of national territory at risk. Deforestation can bring severe consequences for agricultural production that accounts for a large part of Brazilian GDP, as shown by scientific studies in the Xingu region.

In addition to risks posed to the local and regional climate, the new deforestation rate threatens to discredit Brazil before the international community, given that the government announced its emission reduction targets from deforestation (to stop illegal deforestation only by 2030) under the Paris Agreement signed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Brazil also announced in 2009 that it would reduce deforestation in the Amazon 80% by 2020, promising that the rate for that year would be 3,925 km2. With the recent increase to almost 8,000 km2, the effort required to reach that target will be far more challenging. That is, to reduce that rate by 50% in the next four years.

On the other hand, Brazil has all the elements needed to reverse this new frightening trend. The paths to extinguishing deforestation in the Amazon are already known, as recently showed by studies published in the scientific journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. For example, full implementation of the Forest Code (the legislation protecting forests), the allocation of public forest as protected areas, and positive incentives to those conserving forest are put forth as the most crucial paths to zeroing out deforestation in the region.

Also, the Amazon contains extensive areas that have already been deforested and are available for agriculture and improved efficiency in livestock rearing. In addition, a significant portion of the private sector already recognizes the importance to keep their supply chains free of deforestation (the soy moratorium, for example). So a strong response from all Brazilian sectors – including the private sector – is needed to reverse this emerging trend of increasing deforestation rates. Otherwise, the country’s capacity to control destruction of the largest forest on the planet will, undoubtedly, be greatly hampered. We need to produce more, export more, and create more economic benefits for our population, but not at the expense of future generations.


Bio: Dr. Paulo Moutinho is an ecologist interested in understanding the causes of deforestation in the Amazon and its consequences on biodiversity, climate change and inhabitants of the region. He has worked in the Amazon for 20 years and was co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). He earned his M.Sc. and D.Sc. in Ecology from University of Campinas, Brazil. He is currently a senior scientist at IPAM, Brasilia, Brazil, and a Distinguished Policy Fellow at WHRC.

Dr. Raissa Guerra is a biologist from the University of Brasília (UnB) with a MSc degree in public policies and sustainable development (UnB) and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida, where she analyzed the potential for implementation of Payments for Environmental Services projects in the Amazon region. She is currently a researcher at IPAM, where she is involved in developing strategies to reach zero deforestation in the Amazon forest biome, among other activities.


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Graduate Students Organize to Promote Science-Informed Leadership in the New Executive Administration

What do the Curiosity Mars rover, the personal computer, and the antibiotic streptomycin have in common? They’re all inventions and discoveries made in America. Science and engineering research have made America into the nation that it is today. Our country is home to some of the world’s leading research universities, medical research and treatment facilities, technology innovation companies, an extensive national park system, and a cutting-edge space research program. Such institutions, made possible by a rich history of scientific inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge through careful research, have positioned the U.S. as a global leader.

Science: turning challenges into opportunities

As we face new political, environmental, and public health challenges in the contemporary era, it is essential that all people, especially our policy leaders, recognize the pivotal role that science has played in our nation’s past and make policy decisions that enable science to contribute to our future. Scientific reasoning and research provides us with the knowledge and tools to understand the relationship between human activities and our surrounding environment, and develop solutions and technologies to adapt to a changing world. In order to continue to innovate in the face of global challenges such as food security, climate change, and public health in a changing environment, it is imperative that the leaders in the U.S. federal government value the scientific process as a tool that will move our country into the future, defer to the body of scientific evidence when making policy and regulatory decisions, and work to protect scientific integrity at all levels.

Opportunities for science in the changing administration

As rumors about cabinet and other executive position picks continue to circulate, many have expressed concern about the role of science in the new presidential administration. It is our sincere hope that the changing presidential administration brings an opportunity to forge new partnerships between the scientific community and the executive branch. Cabinet leaders, such as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the EPA Administrator, as well as certain executive-branch officials have to be approved by the Senate. Engaging with senators and fostering a nationwide conversation about the value of science in leadership and public policy presents a real opportunity to change the way that science intersects with the federal government.

That’s where we, the Science Informed Leadership team, come in. Science Informed Leadership is an effort is led by a team of UC Davis graduate students. We are working to promote the appointment of executive branch leaders who demonstrate a track record of evidence-based decision-making that is rooted in scientific evidence and consensus, especially with regard to policy and regulatory issues that directly affect science, energy, the environment, education, and public health. We want to see federal leaders who appreciate science and the power of curiosity-driven research and make that appreciation an explicit part of their decision-making process. Dr. John Holdren, the current Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is a great example of a scientifically-informed leader who has promoted a healthy scientific environment in the federal government. During his tenure, Dr. Holdren directed White House agencies to use peer-reviewed, scientific evidence whenever possible when making policy decisions, and to develop policies to ensure a culture of scientific integrity and keep scientific research free from the influence of politics. That sort of regard for scientific evidence and explicit protection of the scientific process is something we’d like to see in future executive branch leaders.

Our approach

Our approach is simple: create and mobilize a network of science-minded citizens, and provide resources that enable them to call and write their senators to encourage the approval of executive candidates who value science and use current scientific evidence to make policy and regulatory decisions. We’ve established a nationwide network of volunteers with coordinators for each state who are working to organize phone banks and letter-writing campaigns. We will also provide state-specific resources like phone call and letter scripts so that constituents can contact their senators and express support of science in the most effective way possible.

Our main goal is to ensure that appointed federal leaders value science and use scientific evidence to make policy and regulatory decisions. Beyond that, we hope that our work helps support a national conversation about the value of science, provides a pathway for all citizens to get involved with the promotion of science, and help cement the place of science in our political system.

Join the effort for science-informed leadership!

sciinformed-logoIf you’re interested in getting involved, you can check out our website at www.scileadership.com, email info@scileadership.com. Representatives of university graduate student associations can email uni@scileadership.com to endorse our university consensus statement about the importance of science in the federal government.


Bio: Katy Dynarski is a PhD Candidate in the Soil and Biogeochemistry Graduate Group at University of California, Davis. Katy is one of the founders of the Science Informed Leadership effort. Science Informed Leadership is a graduate student-led effort to promote the appointment of executive branch leaders with a demonstrated track record of evidence-based governance that is rooted in scientific evidence and consensus. You can stay in touch with them on Twitter
Twitter: @SciInformedLead


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Eyes on the Solar Photovoltaic Revolution: 35 Years in a Front-Row Seat

When I got into solar energy research in 1981, I wanted to change the world. I worried to my father that I’d never see widespread use of solar energy in my lifetime. That made him worry, too—about my future job prospects. As it turned out, there were plenty of jobs and I got to play my part in the history of human technology. I was one of a dedicated legion of scientists, engineers, technicians, laboratories and companies who eventually made photovoltaic cells into a commodity product: durable panels that achieve a miraculous-seeming conversion of sunlight to electricity, without needing any moving parts.

Years of inspiration in one simple image.

Years of inspiration in one simple image.

For inspiration, an artsy poster has hung near my desk at home since my first solar R&D job. A spectacular desert arch, abstracted in blocks of tan and brown, is backlit by an enormous yellow sun; the caption claims the “Largest Solar Power System in the World” for Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. My wife, Carol, wishes I’d take that old poster down already, but I enjoy the reminder of my stint in the MIT Lincoln Lab group that had designed the Utah photovoltaic (PV) system. A third of a century after PV was invented at Bell Labs in 1954, our group was improving the electronics needed to build safe and efficient systems from PV modules.

The “world’s largest” 1980 PV system delivered about 100 kilowatts (kW) of power at high noon in the desert sun. Today, you can walk almost any block in Palo Alto, California, and see 100 kW of PV panels spread among a dozen home roofs. And if you want to see the World’s Largest Solar System in 2016, travel to Asia where you can find a couple of systems more than 800 megawatts (MW = 1000 kW) in size. There are now over 100 PV systems that are each over a thousand times bigger than that pioneering Utah system.

I’ve witnessed a technology revolution during my career in solar energy R&D as the industry has outgrown its niche remote-power market and become a $100

 NPS/Tom Gray

The 100 kW system at Natural Bridges. Photo: NPS/Tom Gray

billion per year powerhouse. In today’s dollars, the cost of modules has fallen from about $34 per watt of generating capacity in 1980 to below $0.57/W today, and the price of PV will fall sharply again next year. The world now has 277,000 MW of photovoltaic installed, generating 1.4% of our energy. Two-thirds of new U.S. energy generating capacity in 2015 was wind and solar generators, boosted by a similar revolution in wind technology.

Obviously, there’s a long way still to go, but I feel privileged to have had a front row seat for this revolution in solar energy. What lessons have I learned?

  • The “experience curve” drives the cost of modular products like PV down by nearly 20% every time the scale of the industry doubles. This leads to amazing growth when new technologies satisfy market demand.
  • Existing energy technologies are deployed on such massive scale, and with such big tax breaks that these fossil incumbents are hard to unseat. New energy technology R&D must show clear performance wins, product reliability, production yields and bankability before private investment capital flows in.
  • Successful lab-scale R&D doesn’t stand alone. R&D attracts more funding as low costs and big markets are demonstrated, and it must be informed by the problems faced during scale-up. In the case of PV, the driving force came from wafer-based crystal silicon PV and that technology is still the mainstay of the industry.
  • Let a thousand flowers bloom! Transformational technologies like silicon PV leave the wreckage of many promising technologies and companies in their wake. Most competitors to silicon PV were dead-ends, but some contributed a manufacturing technique, material or design feature used in today’s cells. These challengers also kept the pressure on crystal silicon PV to continuously reduce costs and raise efficiencies.
  • Consistent government support for deployment is critical to launch new renewable energy technologies. For PV, critical subsidies came from Japan’s “70,000 Solar Roof initiative” (1994), Germany’s “Feed-In-Tariff” (1999) and China’s aggressive loans and subsidies that enabled their PV companies to scale up PV manufacturing at astonishing rates during the last decade. These and other national subsidies led directly to reduced costs and a critical flow of private capital to the PV sector.

A 458 MW system at Copper Mountain, Nevada. Photo: Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy

Fortunately, we now have inexpensive solar electricity in our toolkit to combat climate change. California has mandated an electricity supply that is 50% renewables by 2030 and it looks like that milestone can be reached economically with today’s technologies. However, going the next step to reach an all-renewable future will be a technical and institutional challenge because of the natural variability of sun and wind and the diverse incentives for utilities and other players.

Happily, we are close to the tipping points in grid flexibility, storage, electric vehicles and demand-side-management technologies that will be needed to relegate fossil fuels to small markets like air travel. Government commitment to support both R&D and deployment will be essential to dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions and arrest climate change in time to avoid its worst impacts—including turning millions of Earth’s most vulnerable people into climate refugees.

That old PV poster on my wall reminds me daily of what a determined bunch of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, backed by government support and private money, can achieve. If we insist, I’m certain it won’t take 35 years to put the next critical technologies in place.


Bio: Dr. Howard Branz (MIT PhD, Physics) is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He had a 28 year career at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where he led both thin film and crystal silicon PV research groups. From 2012–15, Branz was a Program Director at the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA‑E). There he launched ARPA-E’s first solar energy program, to develop hybrid systems that integrate storage with high-efficiency collection of solar energy. Branz is now an independent science and technology consultant.


Breaking Up (with Stuff) is Hard to Do: Are We Biologically Predisposed to Collect Stuff?

Have you ever wondered why we enjoy stuff so much? We definitely enjoy buying it. Depending on what it is, we also enjoy talking about it. We research it, we browse for it, and we feel triumphant when we find that perfect something. But why?

Some of our joy is coming from our biological need to survive. Collecting behavior, sometimes referred to as caching, storing or hoarding depending on the species, is commonplace in normal humans as well as many other vertebrates. Of course, as with almost anything human, things can go to the extreme and become pathological. Out of control collecting can become deleterious if it has significant negative effects for the collector and their environment, both in the immediate and greater sense of the word.

But a pathological hoarder isn’t the only one with the impulse to find and collect.

Many animals store things for later—humans are no exception

In nature, we see that species such as chipmunks and woodpeckers regularly store food for later. This behavior anticipates need and allows a species to stock up during times of feast and retrieve during times of famine. But what about non-food items that are being collected and stored? Crows commonly cache shiny objects such as aluminum foil and in a classic 1972 study Hammer found that hamsters actually preferred to collect and store glass beads over food. Even though these objects have no clear benefit to the immediate physiological survival of the individual, they are still sought after and stored.

It’s easy to observe this non-pathological collecting behavior in ourselves as well. Art, electronics, books, and collectibles of all kinds cannot be explained by simple anticipated need. Even though nearly all of us have been guilty of procuring items not essential to life, not much research has been done into the why. However, answers may lie within the emotional and reward centers of the brain.

Our brains reward collecting behaviors Although there is no current universal agreement on every brain structure comprising the functional concept we call the limbic system, most will agree that at minimum it is associated with the hippocampus (which along with the fornix is shown in blue), the amygdala (shown in green), and the hypothalamus (shown in red). Creative commons license.

Although there is no current universal agreement on every brain structure comprising the functional concept we call the limbic system, most will agree that at minimum it is associated with the hippocampus (which along with the fornix is shown in blue), the amygdala (shown in green), and the hypothalamus (shown in red). Graphic: lifesciencedb/CC BY-SA 2.1 JP (Wikimedia)

The set of brain structures we collectively call the limbic system influences our emotions and motivations, while the mesolimbic pathway is all about rewards. For example, if what we have collected is met with a significant reward, let’s say social validation, along with minimal negative consequences, then the modulating system will continue to support the desire to collect those items. We feel good when we shop and we feel even better when other people admire our stuff. The more we shop, the more we want.

Culture also has a huge impact on this reward-based behavior. American culture, for example, highly values uniqueness and individuality. One way to communicate this highly coveted trait to others is through our material possessions, thus reinforcing the reward for having the newest finery.

Just recently, as I was exiting off Oakland’s 580 freeway, a radio ad came on for a local jewelry store touting the merits of their unique engagement rings. No bride wants to have the same wedding ring as thousands of other brides. Show your love and make your bride feel special with our small batch designer wedding rings. I immediately thought to myself how absurd that was. Could you tell the difference between the wedding rings of your friends, let alone strangers and acquaintances? I couldn’t.

Recognizing the environmental impacts of our need for stuff

The drive for stuff is intensely powerful because it can incorporate so many of our emotions, like pleasure, fear, happiness and sadness, as well as tapping into our most basic drives for sex, dominance, and taking care of those we love. Luckily, we as humans have the power to understand the biological basis for our desires as well as the fortitude to change when we see the damaging consequences of our actions. I would argue that nearly all of our current large scale environmental problems can be tied back to our stuff in one way or another. What if we could start impacting huge issues like waste, deforestation, and pollution by simply observing our reactions and changing our relationship with stuff?

I have recently started a practice of using a like, lust, love scale when thinking about whether or not to purchase a new item. If I’m not absolutely sure I love it, I will wait 24 hours and see if I feel the same way tomorrow. If my desire was merely a lukewarm like or searing hot lust seeped in that day’s emotions, I will not purchase it. If I find that even after 24 hours I still want, need, or love the thing and I’m confident that the initial emotional charge has worn off, only then will I go ahead and purchase. This strategy does not apply to wine and chocolate: those are always on the essential for survival list. It may seem like a tiny change, but it can have significant impact if you make it part of your shopping practices.


Artist: Sarah Lazarovic. From A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.

Another way of curbing the negative effects of our consuming is employing Sarah Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs. Where we only “buy new” as a last resort. Using these two easy methods could mean a huge decrease in your personal consumption of goods, resulting in cost savings and decreased fossil fuel depletion.

Wait, what? How did fossil fuels get into this conversation? Well, think about all the things we buy that are either made of plastic or at minimum are packaged in plastic. Most plastics are based on the carbon atom and utilize crude oil or natural gas as raw materials. Tack on the oil and gas used to transport your new thing from where it was produced, to the store, then to your home, and each new item has a distinct fossil fuel footprint.

This holiday season, you can make an impact

With the winter holidays upon us, it can be overwhelming to find the perfect token of appreciation for your loved ones that is memorable, environmentally friendly, and cost effective. Many times we bend under the gifting pressure and just grab the nearest decorative basket of bath products or aftershave. In recent years I have started giving experiences in lieu of physical gifts to people in my life. Experiences can be incredibly meaningful and many times super cheap. It can be simple, say for instance a handmade coupon good for a picnic in the park or something more elaborate like show tickets or a fully planned evening out. I know more than a few friends that are new parents that would kill for a gift of “one night free babysitting by me”. These gifts showcase your personality while making the receiver feel deeply special and appreciated. Which is really the entire point of gift giving, isn’t it?


Bio: Mary Poffenroth, a first generation college student who became a university biology lecturer in 2007, continues to broadened her reach of science engagement through creating video with TEDed, writing for Science Magazine, hosting live shows with Nerd Nite, and releasing a science communication book with Cognella Academic Publishing. In 2009 she created an environmental student volunteer program that to date has donated over 15,000 work hours to local non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information on this topic or the author, please see www.MoreHappinessLessStuff.com  or www.MaryPoffenroth.com

500 Women Scientists Pledge for Democracy: Finding Hope in the Growing Numbers

Our story is one of hope, both for democracy and for science. It is a story of the catalyzing power of a few to bring together the many. It is a story of how, in a matter of days, we were able to find strength in numbers.

On the morning following the election, I woke in a state of despair. How was it that rhetoric so far removed from facts, honest debate, and inclusivity had won the day? Scientific work and many of my core values were under attack. In shock, I turned to my friends in science, some of the sharpest and most compassionate minds I know. They, too, had questions about what the transition would mean for the security of our planet, how basic diplomatic relations may be affected, and our ability to answer some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to live in the same town as Kelly Ramirez, Jane Zelikova, Teresa Bilinski, and Jessica Metcalf; these friends are a group of women who approach their research with the same levels of enthusiasm that I have seen them scale rock faces, bike downhill on single track, and run up and over mountain passes. We enjoyed meeting up regularly, discussing some of our favorite podcasts, exploring local trails, and finding new breakfast hotspots. We discussed challenges in our research and even helped each other with lab and fieldwork. Eventually, our research positions, teaching faculty jobs, agency positions, and fellowships took us to places far from each other. Yet, we stayed in touch, and this group continues to be one I turn to both in times of celebration and turmoil.

Over the past ten days, we have come together to support each other, to catalyze real action, and to combat the divisive and destructive anti-science and anti-women rhetoric. Our actions started small—we texted each other to make sense of the election results, expressing fears and frustrations, sending words of encouragement, and lightening the mood with pictures of our dogs and kids. Within days, our conversation grew from text messages into an email thread that quickly spread from the 5 of us, to 50, then 100, and then 200 women scientists.

Photo credit Sarah K. Wagner www.sarahkwagner.com.

Photo credit Sarah K. Wagner www.sarahkwagner.com.

In our email thread, we galvanized our collective diversity and creativity. We realized that as a group we are in a position to create real positive change with concrete actions. Some of us are working in applied research, some are in teaching positions, some of us are in policy, and others in outreach. We are diverse. We have been trained to ask tough questions and come up with innovative ways to answer them. In our emails to each other, we sought to build on our diversity, creativity, and passion to connect with others who felt similarly inspired. Our central vision was to build an inclusive scientific community dedicated to training a more diverse group of future leaders in science. This kernel of an idea grew into an open pledge: to identify and acknowledge our shared values, to push for equality and stand up to discrimination, to support the education and careers of all current and future scientists, to engage with the public and communicate our science broadly, to foster an inclusive and encouraging learning atmosphere for women and girls, and to use the language of science to bridge divides and enhance global diplomacy.

We posted this pledge online, with the hope that we could gather 500 signatures of like-minded women. It seemed like a lofty goal, but it is one that we surpassed within just a few hours.

Now the list of signatories has topped 7,500 and it does not seem to be slowing down. The number of names pouring in has not slowed because this is a call that we feel resonates across genders, across disciplines, and across countries. Yes, I may have felt despair on November 9, but I was not alone, and together we found strength in each other. Now we are organizing. We hope many more will join us in creating our vision.

Bio: Theresa Jedd is a post-doctoral scholar and environmental policy specialist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, School of Natural Resources. She is interested in developing a framework for broadly understanding the ways that people are vulnerable and resilient to the effects of drought and climate change. Her current research is centered on how changes in temperature and precipitation affect outdoor recreation in U.S. National Parks in the Northern Rockies region. In the recent past, she has worked with communities at various scales who are interested in preparing for change from the state of Colorado to countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Theresa grew up in Northern California, attended college in Wyoming, and completed her graduate work in Political Science at Colorado State University in 2015. 

Sweets for the Sweet? How to Lower Your Child’s Sugar Intake (and Why It Matters)

Who doesn’t love cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream? Soda, fruit juice, starch? They satisfy our brains’ pleasure and addiction centers. It’s even harder to limit our intake of sugar, as it is added to so many foods we eat. Why? It’s cheap and it sells. Just read all of your food labels for a real shock!

What is the downside? How about serious chronic degenerative disease, which is appearing earlier and earlier in our lives. Life expectancies are starting to shrink. Obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and cancer incidences are rising and there is evidence that the high amounts of sugar (in whatever form) the average American consumes is a probable contributor. Our youth are vulnerable—incidences of premature illnesses are skyrocketing.

 Artem Gorohov/123rf.com

Obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses are increasing in adults and children, and sugar is a contributing factor. Photo credit: Artem Gorohov/123rf.com

Additional negative health consequences of frequent or excessive sugar consumption among children include: Immunosuppression (through reduction of healthy bacterial flora in the intestinal microbiome), insulin resistance (leading to diabetes and obesity), appetite suppression for nutritious meals, and aggravation of ADHD. It is, at once, amusing and sad to watch a parent who might acquiesce to a child’s demands for sweets to placate her, but then suffer the behavioral torrent shortly thereafter.

Paradoxically, our own tax dollars are spent to subsidize sugar production, so we are actually paying twice—once to make sugar cheaply for maximal profits for the producers, and again for costly healthcare bills. You can thank the powerful sugar lobby for that one.

The recommended daily sugar intake limit for children is 25 grams (6.25 teaspoons)—ONE serving of something sweet often surpasses that limit. Fruit juice, without fiber, has a higher glycemic load than a candy bar. Fruity yogurt may have more sugar than a regular soda.  Starch (potatoes, pasta, bread, corn, etc.) are metabolized into sugar. “Sport drinks” are just sugar water with vanishingly low nutritional value.  It certainly doesn’t help matters when the stuff is so darn tasty!

 Flickr/Shardayyy https://www.flickr.com/photos/shardayyy/

Sugar sweetened beverages aren’t the only foods that have shocking amounts of sugar. Cereals, yogurts, and energy drinks are also often filled with added sugars. Photo credit: Flickr/Shardayyy https://www.flickr.com/photos/shardayyy/

So, what is a conscientious parent to do to minimize their kids’ sugar intake when it is so ubiquitous and plenty? Several options exist to be successful:

  • Buy healthy portable snacks and put them into appropriate containers within your kids’ backpacks, sports bags, and overnight bags. Leave these better food items visible in the kitchen when your kids head there to graze.
  • Cut up nutritious vegetables and fruit (preferably organic) and keep them in reusable containers in the refrigerator for immediate consumption (so they can compete with the less healthful but easily accessible options).
  • Consider giving away the unhealthy food items that are sitting in your pantry or refrigerator/freezer to people you don’t like, avoiding the temptation to eat them.
  • Go shopping with a list AFTER you eat, limiting impulsive purchase of lower-quality food items.
  • Buy several stainless steel thermoses and fill them with water or even cold-brewed green tea with Stevia (a natural harmless sweetener) and keep them in the refrigerator for spontaneous consumption or portability.
  • Use nutmeg or cinnamon for sugar replacement.
  • If you suspect that your child is pre-diabetic, get a copy of the Glycemic Index and buy/cook/serve the foods with index ratings less than 50—this will slow the rise of blood sugar after eating and reduce the risk of diabetes.

In addition to making changes to one’s daily routines in an effort to reduce sugar intake, there are also ways in which concrete policy changes could help to improve the food environment for children and adults alike. For a start you can join me in signing onto this letter calling for strong guidance from the USDA and HHS on added sugar consumption in the next Dietary Guidelines for Americans, or you can take action here to urge the FDA to set a limit for added sugars on food products bearing health claims.

Life has become very hectic. As we all try to keep up with our busy juggled schedules, we can’t forget that our bodies need the best fuel to run well. Sweets are enticing, delicious, and fun—but remember, sugar throws a party in the mouth … and a party foul just past it! Reducing sugar consumption and associated health impacts in the US will take a multi-stakeholder effort, and the food industry will ensure that it’s not easily done. But parents can do their part to protect their children’s health in spite of industry’s best efforts with some planning and mindfulness.

Bio: Dr. Matthew Schwartz is the President of MyHealth360 in Philadelphia, PA. One of a the very few physicians in the Greater Philadelphia area recognized as a “Top Doctor” for the past 12 years by Philadelphia Magazine, he has been in private practice since 2007. He is triple board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Pain Medicine, and Integrative Holistic Medicine. Dr. Schwartz is a UCS National Advisory Board member and Science Network member.

Meeting the Transportation Demands of the Future: It’s All About Options

Like most teenagers growing up in suburban Chicago, I couldn’t wait to turn 16 and finally get my driver’s license. The ability to go wherever I wanted, the freedom of not having to ask my parents for a ride, and just the thrill itself of driving were all things I looked forward to. However, I also loved taking advantage of Chicago’s public transportation whenever I could. I’m a big supporter of cities having convenient public transportation options; I feel this way despite the fact that I’m now an engineer for one of the Big Three automakers in Detroit.  

A Tale of Two Cities

I moved to the Detroit area about 3 years ago for a job at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. I knew that there would be some significant differences between Detroit and my native Chicagoland, but the one that would stand out the most is the state of public transportation in each city. Chicago has an extensive public transportation network, utilizing a mix of buses, subways (the “L”, as we know it in Chicago), and commuter rail that serve both the city and suburbs. All these various modes of transport are managed by a multi-county Regional Transit Authority that coordinates schedules and ticket sales.


The Detroit People Mover is one of the public transit systems in Detroit. Photo credit: Mikerussell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2180481

Metro Detroit, on the other hand, has five separate agencies operating public transportation, and they currently don’t coordinate with each other very well. For example, if a Detroit resident needs to go somewhere in the suburbs, he would have to take a DDOT bus to the edge of the city, then transfer to a SMART bus. Because of the lack of coordination between the agencies, there are many gaps in the network. Even if there is a route that could theoretically get you to your destination, there is no guarantee that a seamless transfer is possible. Because of this, virtually everyone drives everywhere.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that public transportation is lacking here. Detroit’s economy is dominated by the auto industry, so anything that dissuades people from buying cars isn’t going to get much support. I myself now work in that industry, so automobile sales matter to me as well. However, I believe that having viable public transportation options is critical for the success of Detroit and many other cities. It is possible to have a successful auto industry while still offering alternatives to people that can’t (or don’t want to) drive all the time.

What’s at Stake

According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. As metropolitan areas continue to grow, in both population and physical size, transportation needs will grow as well. This will have a significant impact on our resources and infrastructure, not to mention the effect that increased fuel consumption might have on our environment.

Furthermore, our transportation policies can have a big effect on social equity and everyday quality of life. Reliable access to things like jobs, schools, and grocery stores are essential for a successful community, but there are communities that have been left out. Take for example the story of James Robertson, a Detroit resident who walked about 21 miles each day to get to his job, because he could not afford to replace his car and the bus options were very limited. Even in cities with good public transit such as Chicago, neighborhoods with a large minority population unfortunately sometimes have more limited options. As a person of color, I don’t want to see people like me miss out on good opportunities simply because there is no way to get to them. As an engineer, I know it is possible to find solutions to these challenges.

Building a Brighter Transportation Future

Despite all these concerns, there is hope for the future. Ride-hailing and ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar have exploded onto the scene in recent years. Several cities have established light rail and Bus Rapid Transit lines. Auto makers are continuously seeking improvements in fuel efficiency, and investing in hybrid and electric vehicles. There is also a strong push for autonomous vehicles, which could be a game-changer for those who are physically unable to drive, either through private ownership or a ride-sharing system.

Public policy is another area where change is happening. Here in Southeast Michigan, we will be voting on a property tax increase to fund a Regional Master Transit Plan that will bring improved transit options to Detroit and its suburbs. The plan would create several new bus lines, including bus rapid transit, re-establish commuter rail service in the region, and continue funding the brand-new streetcar in downtown Detroit scheduled to open next year. I personally plan to vote in favor of the proposal, because I believe private vehicle ownership doesn’t have to be the only option. Making it easier and more efficient for people to get places leads to better economic opportunities, stronger communities, and a better environment for all.

Bio: Jonathan Tyler is an engineer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, working to identify and address manufacturing-related quality issues. He is an active member of the National Society of Black Engineers at both the local and regional level.