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Ecology and Human Survival

Learning from Nature

Posted: December 10th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Each strategy nature has invented to protect organism from hot or cold could be employed in separating a solar heat load on a house in Arizona from the space inside the house. Building designers and engineers have had their own favorite design and construction approaches, but the question now is, if global warming and peak oil are real challenges of the 21st Century, should the old favorite approaches be continued? Is there a new model for construction that can transform the way human habitations interact with the changing environment?



How you would design a house “skin” with any of those strategies is the question for your innovation. Can you design both a new functionality and a new aesthetic?

Food systems considered

Posted: December 2nd, 2009 by Deane Wang

Learning about food chains, food webs, ecological efficiency, food pyramids, chemical energy, etc. in natural systems is certainly interesting, and critical to managing those systems. But is any of this knowledge useful in comparing and contrasting with human food systems? Which part of the human system would we want to consider (for example, just a local produce component, a single industrial product like mid-western corn, or a vertically integrated food provider than produces the wheat – that turns into the flour – that bakes into twinkies – that get shipped to the grocery store – that get eaten by kids – who use the bathroom – that leads to the lake – that feeds the algae, etc.). Almost all of the food systems in developed countries are subsidized by fossil fuels. Does this make the comparison much less useful? If we successfully move away from fossil fuel subsidies, will this make the comparison more relevant?


Pick one or two ecological ideas and see if you can apply them to some aspect of the human food system. By “apply” I mean draw some conclusion that might inform a modification in the system that in some way “improves” the human food system. The idea of “improve” here is completely value driven, so be clear about what your values are.

Matt’s Vermont food system:

View image

Staying in control

Posted: November 19th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Global change will be the defining question of the 21st Century. How does the Earth work and are we now capable of altering major global processes? The upcoming Copenhagen conference will continue that international dialog. The outcomes of these discusssions, resolutions, and international agreements depend on many political, social, economic, and ethical perspectives, but at some levels it come down to what do we believe about the Earth.


What evidence would you want to have, to believe in “strong Gaia” (see the Wikipedia article for strong vs. weak Gaia). What would that belief mean to responding to global climate change? Now think about homeostasis at the ecosystem-level. If we had strong evidence of ecosystem homeostasis relative to, for example, nitrogen deposition on forests (acid rain), what might that lead us to do about acid rain? Would we be more or less upset about the current situation?

Millions of moving parts

Posted: November 11th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Think about your lawn (or your neighbors). You may mow, weed, fertilize, pesticide the place to achieve the model Scott’s monoculture, but as soon as you stop, this even, level, uniform space quickly grows in “weed” diversity. If a niche is a special place (like a south-facing, dry, rocky slope), then why do many species move in to occupy this uniform space?


What is an ecological niche in this context? What would the lawn look like in 5 years, and how would you describe and explain its structure? What might trouble you in thinking about niche differentiation and community structure in this lawn?

Nature’s Services

Posted: November 5th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Nature services itself. All the living organism have evolved in concert with each other to accommodate their needs from each other and the abiotic resources around them. That humans (as part of the ecosystem) have found many of their needs attended to by nature (the ecosystem) is no surprise. However, as humans evolved their technologies and numbers, their appetite for resources increased rapidly, and in some cases outpaced the ability of the natural system to provide for humans. Part of the new technology involved restructuring nature to increase output to humans. As part of that changing relationship, we may have forgotten about some of the “services” that nature provided all along. The concept of “ecosystem services” re-emphasizes these services so that we can again come to value them more dearly. In order to do this, we need to understand what ecosystems do, and then think about how that impacts us. The exercise below is to help with that understanding.

Think of yourself as an ecosystem. What inputs do you need? Diagram your water budget (inputs, outputs, intrasystem cycling (if any). Send me your diagram and I’ll post it on the blog page. Are we in some way analogous to a forested ecosystem in its use of water? How is the forest’s use of water not a cycle? Why do we talk about a water cycle? Now think about calcium. Assuming that you do not have osteoporosis, compare your use of calcium to that of the forested ecosystem described above. Would a diagram help you think about this?


Monika’s water system:



Ian’s water system:



Matt’s water system:


Ecological Complexity

Posted: October 30th, 2009 by Deane Wang


Ecosystems are complex things. The diagram above is mislabeled. It is a simply diagram of a complex ecosystem. To better understand how we might try to understand complex things, it helps to work on a real one.

This time I want you to think about a bounded physical space. It could be your house, your backyard, a field next to your house, a nearby pond, your car, etc. — something that you can actually see all at once. Now think about it as a system. Simplify this system into the important parts and then diagram a material flow (inputs, outputs, internal cycles). Pick either a) water or b) carbon. If you choose carbon and don’t know too much about what carbon is and where it comes from, look at:


This may be more than you need to know… so focus on what you need to know about carbon. Try to keep it simple. Try to indicate which are more important processes (larger flux) and which are less important. Think about the time frame that you are considering the diagram to represent. EMail me the diagram. Now tell me what is hard about this question. What do you not understand?


Monika’s Garden:



Ian’s Water:



Michelle’s Pond:



Matt’s Compost Bin:


Disturbing Mother Nature

Posted: October 15th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Human are the best thing and the worst thing to happen to planet Earth. We are the pinnacle of evolution and we are the scourge that threatens all life on the planet. In time (millions or billions of years), evolution will handle all perturbations, but as occupants and parents at this point in time, we need to find a better way to help keep nature in balance, and by so doing keep ourselves in balance. If we could reverse engineer nature’s solutions to disturbance, we could plan our own disturbances so that they wouldn’t alter the cycles and flows that surround and support us. However, so far, the complexity of those natural solutions is often daunting and we are left with just roughly trying to copy them. Like a novice that doesn’t understand the dance, but just moves body parts in awkward imitation, we hope that the outcome will have the same effect on the audience.


What lessons can we take from observing natural disturbance? Pick one from the list (“natural disturbance regime” above) and see if you can imagine a parallel human activity that could benefit from natures solution. Then think about a specific natural waste, and imagine how we might use that example.

Survival Ecology

Posted: October 8th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Probably the most important obstacle to moving toward a sustainable relationship with the natural world is how humans think about this relationship. Are we a parasite on the planet? Are we the stewards of nature’s gifts? Are we just another species (albeit, a very successful one) going through its expansionist evolution? Reflect on the dominant culture’s (may be just for the U.S.) relationship to the planet and ponder what lessons or principles from ecology might alter this view.


The Balance of Nature

Posted: September 30th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Nature’s balance is a wonderful enigma. Intricate, inspiring, amazing, and perplexing, the presence of balance among so many moving parts has inspired naturalists and befuddled ecologists from the beginning. Human society, which is all those things and more (complex, dynamic, emergent, confusing), may seek to emulate some aspects of nature in order to be more stable… and avoid chaotic instability. We have much to learn.


1) Think about a local system (e.g., some aspect of your household, your bank account, the city coffers, your backyard, your compost pile, a nearby stream, etc.) and draw a diagram that will help you describe it as a dynamic system, with inputs and outputs, storage, and controls and feedbacks on each part. Then use words to describe the stability or instability in the system and how it works, and where it will be at some future point in time.

2) Reflect on controls that may operate to govern human stability on the planet.


Monika’s kitchen system:



Ian’s eating system:



Matt’s career system:


Growth in a Finite World

Posted: September 29th, 2009 by Deane Wang

Knowing a set of concepts (e.g., logistic growth) in an abstract way is a starting point to understanding, but application, as suggested by folks like Dewey (http://wilderdom.com/experiential/ExperientialDewey.html) and Bloom (http://coe.sdsu.edu/eet/articles/BloomsT/index.htm), is a better training ground for thinking.

Select one issue from the list below. Pick one or two ecological concepts we have considered that are essential to addressing this issue and discuss how it would inform that issue. Find some description of that knowledge that would help you understand the concept(s) through relevant examples and include the example in your write up.

Food and water scarcity =>

Urbanization and biodiversity =>

Regional population growth =>

Global population growth =>

Peak oil =>

Social injustice =>

Local climate change =>

Global climate change =>

How do you currently understand the connection between evolution and ecology?

Could you use the exponential and logistic equations quantitatively. If so provide an example (could be hypothetical). If not discuss why and how you would go about getting the skill to use either of the equations.

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