Winning the Battle

Santa Cruz, Bolivia forest conversion between 1975 and 2003.  Source:  NASA.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia forest conversion between 1975 and 2003. Source: NASA.

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity. — E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

As in military campaigns, one can gain superiority technologically or the old fashioned way, with overwhelming numbers of troops.  In the battle Schumacher refers to, humanity is at a tipping point where it is bringing both an army measured in billions and equally overpowering modern technologies compared to the dynamics of the biosphere.  Humans now can, if not careful, literally win the battle and lose the war.

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Discourse without Borders

The symposium participants co-conspiring to plant the ESF flag on German soil.

The symposium participants co-conspiring to plant the ESF flag on German soil.

I have just returned from a fantastically stimulating week in Hannover, Germany, where I had the honor of presenting the keynote lecture at a symposium on “Labels, Catalogues, and Architectures:  The Art and Science of Modern Systematics.”  The event was held at the rebuilt Schloss Herrenhausen on the grounds of one of the grand European formal gardens.

Participants were remarkably diverse in their backgrounds, including taxon experts from major museums of several countries, historians of science, philosophers of science, sociologists, and artists.  From species concepts to implications of naming nature, novel ways of visualizing macroevolution, and searching for common structural patterns in nature, each talk challenged participants to look at the world through a radically different lens.

It was a chance to renew several old friendships with colleagues from Germany, Spain, the U.K. and U.S., and to create several new ones.  The intellectual stimulation at the intersection of such different fields was off the charts.  At times I was grappling to defend a previously held view and at others adopting an entirely new way of looking at an issue.  Both ways, it was a mind-stretching experience and fascinating social experiment.

Blurring traditional boundaries between disciplines sparks new and creative ways of viewing problems and just the kind of innovation we shall need to overcome complex environmental challenges.  Just as hybrid vigor emerges from novel gene combinations in a plant breeding experiment, new ideas are spawned in the fertile intellectual hybrid zones found only in the overlapping outer regions of disciplines.  Such creative exchanges of ideas hold great hope for problem solving.

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Hoarding Good Ideas

Researchers gather around a table full of herbarium sheets and botanical samples in the Botany Department Herbarium of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Herbarium photo, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Natural history collections around the world are suffering neglect. A group of leading curators, scientists and scholars in Italy recently made a plea to protect specimens that date from the birth of the idea of natural history collections themselves. These collections are a treasure trove of discovery. It is estimated that as many as 40% of the yet to be described flowering plants on earth may already be sitting on an herbarium sheet waiting for a botanist with sufficient knowledge of a genus and family to recognize, describe, classify, and name them. What is more tragic is all the species unknown to science that have not yet been collected at all and the decline in a serious effort to do so.

The recent piece in Nature magazine makes these points but does not address the greatest threat to natural history collections: an erosion in understanding why such collections matter, not only among the public but particularly among professional biologists. There is a dangerous complacency that technology — molecular sequencing and digital imaging in particular — are and will continue to make physical specimens in museums and herbaria less relevant. This is simply false and one of the great follies of our time.

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Sustainability and Shakespeare

WILLIAM-SHAKESPEAR_2122089b“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that” — The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1

Shakespeare’s works have endured the centuries because we continue to see ourselves in the mirror he holds up. In a time of great divisiveness and strife, it is more important than ever that we seek out our common humanity and remind ourselves that, regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation, an objective examination of the human condition reveals that we share far more in common than all that separates us. This is as true across political, geographic, national, and cultural divides, as it is across the centuries.

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Americans’ Answers to What May or May Not Be the Right Questions

For those worried about global warming, coal is even less popular as a stocking stuffer this year. As we contemplate the “big” challenges facing us, it is interesting to consider what the public thinks. A recent Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Poll, funded by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, prioritizes 15 candidate catastrophes (click image to enlarge):


Work on Onondaga Lake, depending on definitions, interestingly encompasses the top two. If we include work on water quality in the Adirondacks and lingering impacts of acid rain, it’s a trifecta. Number four suggests that there is strong public support for a focus on forests, at least tropical ones. Emphasis on resource management makes the top six. Concerns over the use of GMOs in foods is next to last, so get those chestnuts on the fire and a happy holiday to all.

Public opinions change as fast as Syracuse weather, so putting too much weight on the views of today as guide to long term planning is to be avoided without other considerations. To explore the Yale/AP/NORC poll in detail, the report is available online:

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Presidential Perspective for Dec 2014

20131216_131148Dear ESF Alumni, Heartfelt wishes for a joyous holiday season!  I am looking forward to hosting my first campus holiday party in January at the college residence, and to my first white Christmas in several years.  A saguaro wrapped with strands of tree lights just doesn’t quite do it for anyone who has spent winters in Central New York.  Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

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Greater than the Sum of our Parts

WIMG_7485hat is ESF? Why should a donor interested in transforming the world choose to invest in ESF? What expectation does she have that ESF will give her a better and different return on investment? We want to provide a great education to our students. What university does not at least make the same claim? We have faculty doing fantastic research and solving problems. What research university does not? So, what is ESF’s story? Do we have a narrative to share that is different from that of any of scores of other universities? I believe that we do, and that is a central thread running through our strategic planning.

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