Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

I had arrived at the IALE World Congress (International Association for Landscape Ecology; see my last post to know what that means) early on Sunday, July 5th.  I bustled into the conference room, slurping weak coffee made in that morning’s motel room.  I was desperately searching for more coffee as the other participants trickled in.  I gave up on finding any more coffee just as the meeting preceded to start.  Pulling out my pad and paper, I waited, surrounded by a room full of strangers brought together by one man:  Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University.   We all were here because we were attending a workshop called: Telecoupling Framework for Studying Cross-Border and Cross-Scale Interactions.

Most of the participants at this workshop were here because NASA (yes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Michigan State University had singled out the 17 or so of us as promising candidates to contribute to the field of landscape ecology (again, see my last post if you don’t know what landscape ecology is).  That being said, those two organizations had gambled on us by looking at previous work we had accomplished and deciding that we were among some of the best people to thrust a brand new scientific concept upon.  I can only say that I did not feel as if I belonged.  Surrounded by doctoral candidates, post-docs, and agency professionals, I was in the minority and one of the youngest in terms of academic careers.

I have to admit that I didn’t care if I belonged or not.  From childhood I could remember wanting to be somehow associated with NASA.  Seriously, didn’t everyone? I am sure I could look through pictures at my parents house and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find one that included a space/NASA theme. I was just excited to be participating.  But wait. In what was I participating again?  Being one of the NASA-MSU awardees, I was participating in a telecoupling workshop.  Tele-whating?

Telecoupling is a new scientific concept that addresses the idea of the ever decreasing size of the world because of globalization and how human and natural systems are connected more and more – for better or worse.  And this new concept is the baby of Dr. Liu, the man who brought all of us together at this conference.  He brought us together to try and spread his new concept into different reaches of the scientific world.  And to do this, he had to make us understand what this concept really meant.

“Global Sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed” (Liu et al. 2015).  This means biologists haven’t really talked to sociologists all that much and vice-verse.  And this is a problem because the world is becoming more and more connected through environmental and socioeconomic means.  What happens to the environment in one place has an impact to the economy of another.  Human health issues can be impacted by the agricultural or biodiversity changes in another.  These places do not have to be near each other either.  One of the major tenets of telecoupling that Dr. Liu described was that it brings together human-natural interactions across broad distances.

Telecoupling has 5 major interrelated parts: systems, agents, flows, causes, and effects. Systems are the stages in which the human and environment interact.  These could be habitats, countries, or some other abstract spatial, temporal, economic, or social entity.  The parties that act within the systems are the agents.  These would be the multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, your aunt, your dad, you and me.  These agents impact how the materials, services, and information move between systems, i.e. how they flowCauses are why the telecoupled things happen.  And you can not have a cause without an effect.  The effect is the socioeconomic and environmental fallout or benefit of a telecoupling system/event.

From: Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., deFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2). doi:10.5751/ES-05873-180226

I have said before that I like examples.  So let us try to work one out using all of these different parts.  Let’s look at palm oil.  It is the worlds largest consumed edible oil.  Recently it has gone under higher scrutiny than it ever has before.  The palm oil industry has a long history that started out in West Africa and today is predominantly grown in SE Asia.  Depending on your perspective, the SE Asian countries and their producers are the sending system and the U.S. and other developed countries and their consumers are the receiving system.  The exchange of money and goods are the flows.  The agents are the governments, farmers, and environmental groups trying to manage different expectations and produce different outcomes.  The causes and effects are reciprocal but identifiable.  Recently, palm oil demand has increased but has been a major cause of deforestation. All those snacks you like to eat that have palm oil in them is helping cut down forests across the world.  That means loss of biodiversity, increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and mounds of other problems.  Because of this consumers have started to demand that business use palm oil that is more sustainably harvested.

I left out one key part.  And this is the part that I think has the most importance for the concept of telecoupling to have big impacts.  That was the spillover system, an idea not to many other scientific concepts incorporate.  In the palm oil example, I have one major example to show as a spillover.  Because of the demand for palm oil and the resulting tropical deforestation, American farmers could be losing a lot of money.  An article from the Economist, postulates that if palm oil producers (sending agent) were held accountable and rainforest conserving policies were enacted (spillover cause) based on these consumer demands (the receiving cause), American agricultural businesses (spillover agent) could expect to net up to $270 billion dollars more (spillover effect) than if nothing was done.

At our meeting we broke up into groups based on our research interests and Dr. Liu helped us start coming up with ideas for new research ideas in our particular areas of study using this telecoupling framework.  I am really excited to be included in this new field.  I think it has a lot to offer based off of its multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. Especially considering how telecoupling framework is adding the idea of the spillover system.  This might be the most important concept that is brought to the table by the telecoupling framework The world is getting smaller and the links that draw us together are getting stronger and stronger.  Telecoupling helps us identify the costs, the benefits, and unintended consequences of the globalization of the planet.  Through this it helps to reach for a more sustainable outcome for the future.

I will try to layout another example in Telecoupling and IALE World Congress Part 3: Avalanches and Watermelon Snow. Next time there will be many more pictures (I promise)!  Before I got to the landscape ecology conference, I spent several weeks backpacking and traveling across the west.  I tried to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  I will try to layout the experience using a telecoupling framework to make it relevant.


I linked several good news articles, webpages, and journal articles throughout this post.  Please check them out for a more in-depth understanding of telecoupling.  Please feel free to email me too. And check back in later for new posts and updates.

I really am truly excited to part of this new field of understanding how human and natural worlds are interwoven.

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

That title, if you aren’t a landscape ecologist, might appear to be a bunch of mixed up words and random letters.  I will get to telecoupling in a later post so bear with me while I explain what IALE is. It’s the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  This is a professional society that tries to further scientific study in the field of landscape ecology.  That’s now the third time I have mentioned that phrase.  Many of you out there might wonder what it is.  If you are thinking that it means the study of how to landscape stuff, you’re wrong.  But don’t worry, because it is exactly what everyone that I talk to on airplanes and at bars thinks it is too.

So what is landscape ecology? Well it’s a little hard to describe.  I kind of think it’s like art in the way that you “know it when you see it.”  Here is an attempt though from the professionals:  IALE describes landscape ecology as, “the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales.”

Okay… so that did not help much.  You are sitting there on the plane next to me thinking, “This guy just said some key words that go together and it still sounds like fancy landscaping to me. I don’t really care anymore.”  And that is because I have not done my job properly.  Lets try again.

A biologist’s job is to study life.  There are microbiologists that study cells and bacteria and things like that.  There are wildlife biologists that study, well, wildlife.  There are geologists that study the nature of the planet itself: how it formed; how minerals and rocks are formed and behave; and things of this nature.  Botanists study plants.  Ecologists study how all of the communities of life (single-celled life, plants, animals and everything in between) interact with each other and how they interact with all the non-living stuff (water, air, soil, sunlight, temperatures, fire, etc…).

Landscape ecology is, if nothing else, interdisciplinary.  It takes all of those things you just read in the previous paragraph and tosses in a couple other things like urban planning, ecosystem services, geography, and even more.  Again from the IALE website, “The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines.”  To me landscape ecology mashes these things together to try and understand how the distribution of a specific thing across the landscape influences other things and processes.

Picture taken by Joe Drake.

This picture really captures the idea of scale, disturbance, and the effect of human processes on natural systems. These are all parts of landscape ecology.

I like examples to try and explain things.  The following are all examples of what could be covered by the concept of landscape ecology: trying to understand what causes the spatial pattern of different types of forests; trying to understand how the spread of city sprawl will influence agriculture or wildlands; and simply trying to understand why cities, forests, rivers, lakes, deserts, and the other features of the landscape are where they are.

Other areas that landscape ecology covers includes trying to understand how the patterns of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems influence processes in the landscape.  Take this question for example, why are wild fires becoming more frequent and dangerous across the United States?  Related to these types of questions are another area of study under landscape ecology: trying to understand how humans are changing the patterns, processes, and natural systems of the landscape.  And what does it mean for the landscape (and some may argue more importantly what does it mean for us)?

One more big area of study within landscape ecology is trying to understand how scale and disturbance impact the landscapes and the players in that landscape.  Differences in the scale of a disturbance can make a big impact on natural systems. A little fire could be a good thing for a forest, but too much fire across too big an area might end up breaking down the natural systems that organisms rely on.  Sometimes, however, the findings are that you can get away with doing a lot of some activity without too many problems occurring.   Or landscape ecologists might find that even a little bit of another thing has serious and irreversible consequences for animals, plants, and people.  A good example of this type of thing is looking at the difference in ability for animals to inhabit a landscape that is being disturbed by different levels of logging.  Another example would be trying to figure out how the development of new suburbs are going to impact the ability for groups of animals to move between habitat patches?

This is just the most basic of intros.  Hopefully, if you were sitting on the plane next to me, you have not decided that risking death by falling to the earth via an escape through the exit row cabin door is better than listening to me any longer.  If you were at the bar listening to me and have not yet tried to drink enough to forget what I have been saying, there are some good places to find more info.  The webpage for IALE is here.  If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest the Wikipedia page on landscape ecology.  I don’t have time to go over the origin of the this discipline but it is interesting.  Some of the key players in the development of landscape ecology are Alexander von Humboldt, Carl TrollRobert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, and John Wiens among many others too numerous to mention here.

Next time will be about me and telecoupling. So I guess it will be about you too.  So deal with it.