Interview: Disposable lives, globalization, and the future of sustainability

Shalini Randeria, a sociologist and social anthropologist focused on legal pluralism and global inequalities, is the Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow. On 9 March, she gave a keynote lecture in Vienna entitled, “Precarious livelihoods, disposable lives, and struggles for citizenship rights,” as part of the IIASA-Austrian Academy of Sciences public event, Human Capital, Geopolitical Complexities, and our Sustainable Future.

Q. Why do you say that globalization is full of contradictions?
A. We are living in paradoxical times. The global spread of democracy has gone hand in hand with the erosion of its substance. Decisions once made by national parliaments are now made by supranational institutions, reducing the say of citizens in public decision-making. As people feel disenfranchised, trust in our governments fades. Sometimes going to court seems to be the only way to make governments accountable to citizens. This development not only expands the power of the judiciary but also politicizes it.

What role does globalization play in the inequality between Global North and Global South?
Neo-liberal economic restructuring has increased inequalities between countries but also within each society. We are witness today to an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth, which is not an unforeseen consequence of economic globalization but the result of deliberate public policies. The global South, however, is no longer a geographical category. Greece is an example of European country dependent on international finance institutions in much the same way that once so-called developing countries were.

Shalini Randeria © IWM / Dejan Petrovic.

Shalini Randeria © IWM / Dejan Petrovic.

You say that economic and political processes render some lives disposable – what do you mean by that?
Take India for instance: since the country’s independence in 1947, every year some 500,000 people—mostly small farmers, agricultural workers, fishing and forest-dwelling communities —have been forcibly displaced to make room for gigantic infrastructure projects. They have become development refugees in their own country. These people are regarded as ‘dispensable’ by the state in the sense that their livelihoods are destroyed, their lives disrupted, and they are denied access to common property resources. These populations are the human waste that is sacrificed at the altar of an unsustainable model of incessant economic growth.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted last year, include aims to end poverty, ensure access to employment, energy, water, and reduce inequality, at the same time as preserving the environment. What challenges do you see for achieving these goals?
The SDGs will prove to be an important milestone, if they are implemented the world over. Some of these goals are in conflict with one another. Take the protection of biodiversity, for example, which is often constructed as an antagonistic relationship between society and nature In the new global regime of biodiversity consveration, nature is portrayed as self-regulating, as a pristine, uninhabited wilderness that is threatened due to the wasteful resource use by local populations. Thus access and traditional usufruct rights are curtailed, and indigenous knowledge is devalued and marginalized.  The (post)colonial transformation of landscapes into “environment,” “natural resources,” and “biodiversity” has enclosed the commons in most regions of the global South and often commercialized them.

The idea of the Global Commons as spaces and resources that all have access to and also have the responsibility to protect is a useful one in this context. The oceans are but one example of the global commons that include water, forests, or air, which are all being increasingly privatized. The Global Commons also include common resources developed by humans such as virtual data, knowledge, computer software, and medication..

What needs to be done by international institutions to make significant progress in achieving the SDGs?
Eliminating poverty will need an understanding of it that goes beyond a merely economic one. One will need to take into account possibilities of democratic participation, access to public goods and infrastructure, as well as civil rights and a restoration of a plurality of livelihoods. But these institutions also need to be reformed as they have a serious democracy deficit, be it the EU or the Bretton Woods institutions.  Unaccountability of international institutions and powerful corporations along with stark asymmetries of power between these and the nation-states characterizes the new architecture of global governance, which need to be remedied  urgently if we are to realize global justice.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Can nature bounce back?

Jesse Ausubel is director of the Rockefeller University Program for the Human Environment. He was a participant in one of the first classes of IIASA’s Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP).

Please tell us about your current job – what is your major area of focus?
I do research and manage research.  My research primarily concerns sparing natural resources through changes in technology and consumer behavior.  The main projects I help manage are the Deep Carbon Observatory  (concerned with the origins of life and hydrocarbons) and the International Quiet Ocean Experiment (aiming to achieve a better soundscape of the oceans, including human additions of noise).

In your recent paper, Nature Rebounds, you present a hopeful view of environmental change which contrasts with many other views of the future. What makes you think your view is possible?
The paper looks objectively at the peaking of demand for many natural resources that has occurred in the USA and elsewhere since about 1990.  Demand for water, energy, land, and minerals is softening, while demand for information continues to soar.  Fortunately, information brings precision in production and consumption and spares other resources.  The result is, for example, huge regrowth of forests.  The global greening, or net growth of the terrestrial biosphere, allows re-wilding.  Ecological restoration inspires many people, although learning again to live in proximity to bears and wolves is not simple.

The American bald eagle population has recovered from endangered status. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

The American bald eagle population has recovered from endangered status. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

What would be the key changes humanity would need to make for this vision to come true at a global scale?
Most of what happens is not because humanity consciously and deliberately strategizes and makes changes.  The role of policy is vastly exaggerated.  French intellectual Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote in his profound 1945 book, Du Pouvoir, “politics is the last repository of hope. “ High tech tycoons Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) popularized tablets and e-readers and did more, together with the innovators in e-mail, to spare forests than all the forest activists and UN targets.  Good systems analysts find high leverage for sound directions like decoupling and recycling. Simply observing well, describing the world as it is, matters greatly and demands tremendous skill and dedication.

Ausubel wears the ribbon of the International Cosmos Prize, which he shared with other leaders of the Census of Marine Life program. Photo courtesy Jesse Ausubel

Ausubel wears the ribbon of the International Cosmos Prize, which he shared with other leaders of the Census of Marine Life program. Photo courtesy Jesse Ausubel

Please tell us about your YSSP work at IIASA? What were your questions, and what did you find?
I participated in the 1979 YSSP, the second class.  IIASA’s energy group had developed scenarios of how human activities might change climate. My task was to explore impacts of climate and adaptations.  The 1980 book Climatic Constraints and Human Activities summarizes much of what we learned. Most of the book still reads well.  Following climate today, I am reminded of the remark, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.”

How did the YSSP influence your career?
My YSSP summer encouraged a big drop in my disciplinary and national prejudices. My chief, Soviet hydrodynamicist Oleg Vasiliev, had great intellectual integrity.  We had a wonderful rapport and in fact in July I sent him best wishes for his 90th birthday.  Oleg invited me to stay in Laxenburg for two more years, which opened more avenues, most importantly collaborations with Cesare Marchetti, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and Arnulf Gruebler which continue today. The YSSP class itself was lively and talented; John Birge, for example, has had a great career in operations research.  Finally, IIASA showed me the value of scientific cooperation between nations in conflict, and I have actively supported such cooperation ever since.
Ausubel, Jesse H. 2015. “Nature Rebounds.” Long Now Foundation Seminar, San Francisco, 13 January 2015.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Aquatic invaders and ecological networks

Danielle Haak, who recently completed her PhD from the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has won the annual Peccei Award for her outstanding research as part of the 2014 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) in IIASA’s Advanced Systems Analysis research program.

Haak_postYSSP_IcelandCould you tell me a bit about yourself? Where are you from and what do you study?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA), and it was there I fell in love with the natural world. As a kid, my family and I spent weekends boating on Lake Michigan, and I’ve always been fascinated by lakes and the hidden world beneath the water’s surface. As an undergraduate, I spent a few summers in northern Wisconsin at a limnology research station, and this is where I realized I could actually make a career out of this fascination! I went on to get a BSc in Wildlife Ecology, a MSc in Biological Sciences, and I recently defended my PhD dissertation that focused on the energetics and habitat requirements of the invasive freshwater Chinese mystery snail. In general, I’m interested in aquatic invasive species and how their introduction affects ecosystem structure, functioning, and resilience.

How did you get interested in this subject?
I was drawn to aquatic invasive species during my undergraduate research. My first independent research project was on invasive crayfish in a northern Wisconsin lake; in addition to out-competing the native crayfish population, the invasive species suffered from a fungal disease outbreak, and we wanted to understand its prevalence throughout the lake. I also worked as a technician on a whole-lake study researching the efficacy of manual removal of an invasive crayfish species from another lake. It was a long-term project that successfully reduced the invasive rusty crayfish population enough that the native crayfish population was able to recover, and the entire lake underwent a drastic physical change as a result. These large-scale dynamics have always been appealing to me, and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue in my career. When I started my PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, our research group had just started a number of side projects on the Chinese mystery snail, and there was an obvious gap in our scientific understanding of the species; thus, it made sense to take advantage of this opportunity!

What was the question you were trying to answer in your YSSP research project?
My YSSP project built upon my dissertation topic but went in a slightly different direction. My YSSP supervisor, Dr. Brian Fath, and I wanted to utilize the already-established methods of social and ecological network analyses, but in a way that hadn’t been done before. Ultimately, we had two main questions. First, we wanted to investigate how the social dynamics of ecosystems can be integrated into ecological network analysis. And second, we wanted to use network analysis to analyze the ecological effects and movement of the Chinese mystery snail in the southeast region of Nebraska.

What did you find?
Because there were a few parts to this research, we had a number of different results. First, we were able to create directed networks of how anglers and boaters moved among a network of flood-control reservoirs. We also developed ecological networks specific to each of the 19 reservoirs included in our study. Both of these findings were relevant by themselves, but the cool part was how we combined them. We adapted the framework of infectious disease network modeling to simulate what would happen within the first 25 years after a hypothetical introduction. The human movements connecting reservoirs were equivalent to a disease’s transmission rate, and the individual population growth of the snail within each reservoir after an introduction was like a disease’s incubation time leading up to a threshold where that reservoir then became contagious. We started with 5 infected and contagious reservoirs, and after 25 years only 5 of the 19 reservoirs did not have the Chinese mystery snail in it. Finally, we identified three of the already-infected reservoirs where preventing snails from being transported out of them would be most critical as well as two susceptible reservoirs where preventing introduction of the snails would be most beneficial.

Chinese Mystery Snail. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Doug Jensen

Chinese Mystery Snail. Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Doug Jensen

Why is this research important for policy or society?
Our preliminary results demonstrated that social and ecological network models can be used in tandem, which has the potential to address a number of complex policy and management issues. Additionally, being able to prioritize reservoirs based on how effective prevention efforts would be allows managers to focus their limited resources in places they would get the best return on their investment. I believe there is also a great deal of potential in using this combined model approach to assess the spread of other aquatic invasive species of concern as well as other types of disturbances.  

How are you planning to continue this research when you return to IIASA?
I would like to work with Dr. Fath on refining some of my individual ecological network models, and possibly incorporating some of the additional social data that’s available to us. We also discussed possibly using the approach to look at other questions related to aquatic invasive species, but in different geographical regions and possibly with different software. One of the best parts of this project was coming up with so many questions on where we could go next, and I really enjoyed working with Dr. Fath and gaining a new perspective on the questions that interest me.

How did your time at IIASA affect your PhD research?
My time at IIASA refreshed my love of the scientific process, and I loved the flexibility in adjusting my project as I learned more and developed new questions. Ultimately, I ended up with an additional chapter for my dissertation and came home with a mostly-completed draft.

What was your favorite aspect of the YSSP and IIASA?
I loved so much about YSSP and working at IIASA, but the best part was probably the ability to meet other brilliant scientists and students from around the world. In addition to thought-provoking discussions on science and research, we also had some incredible discussions on life in other countries with drastically different cultures. The other students made the entire summer even better, and I’m so happy I was able to participate in such an incredible experience. IIASA has a truly unique work environment, and everyone made us feel right at home. It really was a dream come true, and I’m so excited about the opportunity to return and pick up where I left off. The only thing missing will be my fellow YSSPers! I wish we could all come back every summer!

What was your favorite moment of the summer?
I think my favorite experience was the end of summer workshop and dinner and dance that followed. I was so impressed during the initial presentations and it was great to hear about all the progress that was made in the short three months. Celebrating this progress with a night of dancing and dining was just the perfect ending to a great summer. It was a bittersweet farewell, but I think it cemented our friendships and was a great capstone to an already dreamlike experience!

Photo credit: Danielle Haak

Danielle Haak (right) and fellow YSSPer Adriana Reyes, at the end-of-summer awards ceremony.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Six questions for Simon Levin

Princeton University Professor Simon Levin—IIASA council chair 2003-2008–has won numerous awards for his interdisciplinary research in environmental sciences, economics, and evolutionary biology. On 10 November, Levin gave a public lecture at IIASA, at which he was named an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Simon Levin speaks at the fifth OeAW/IIASA Public Lecture in Laxenburg on 10 November. Credit: IIASA/Matthias Silveri

Simon Levin speaks at the fifth IIASA/OeAW Public Lecture in Laxenburg on 10 November. Credit: IIASA/Matthias Silveri

IIASA: Your research explores issues such as environmental degradation, human inequality, and climate change. Why are global problems such as these so difficult to address?
Simon Levin: To a large extent, many of these are problems not well addressed in market-based systems. The problem is that for public goods and common-pool resources, the incentives for individual actions are misaligned with the interests of society.   Equity gaps and discounting of the future add to these problems, and make it difficult to achieve consensus, especially at global levels for which the feedback loops associated with individual and local actions are weak.

What kinds of approaches are needed to understand such complex, global environmental and social problems?
Certainly we need systems approaches to deal with the linkages and scaling problems within these complex adaptive systems.  We need interdisciplinarity, and we need more study of how to achieve cooperation at national and international levels.  These are all problems central to the agenda of IIASA.

What new insights has your research brought to these problems?
I have long been impressed with the power of using what we learn in one set of systems to address analogous problems in others, and have benefited greatly from what I have learned from colleagues in other disciplines.   I feel that I have been able to get a great deal of mileage out of translating and adapting those lessons to environmental problems, and feel that my ecological and evolutionary perspective in particular, and what I have learned from how evolution has dealt with challenges, has allowed me to bring useful perspectives to the management of coupled biological and socioeconomic systems.

How can models of complex environmental systems inform our understanding of human systems such as the economy?
We learn from such systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse; the importance of diversity, redundancy, and modularity to the ability of systems to adapt in variable environments; the importance of flexible and adaptive governance.

Credit: PhotonQ via Flickr

“We learn from [environmental] systems what makes them robust, and what makes them vulnerable to collapse” Credit: PhotonQ via Flickr

What can studies of cooperation in nature tell us about cooperation in human societies?
Cooperation in nature is strongest in small groups; and as those groups become larger, agreements, social norms and institutions become increasingly important.  Nobel Prize winner  Elinor Ostrom led in adapting those principles to the management of small societies, and I agree with her on the importance of polycentricity—building  up from smaller agreements—in addressing global environmental problems.

How can we apply such findings to find practical solutions for the problems we face?
We need research, but we also need partners outside of science.  Increasingly, business leaders have looked to biological systems for models as to how they can deal with challenges; we now similarly need to partner with government leaders if we are to address the grand challenges in achieving a sustainable future.

Watch the full lecture

Beyond sharing Earth observations

By Linda See and Ian McCallum, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program, Earth Observation Team

Land cover is of fundamental importance for environmental research. It  serves as critical baseline information for many large-scale models, for example in developing future scenarios of land use and climate change. However, current land cover products are not accurate enough for many applications and to improve them we need better and more accessible validation data. We recently argued this point in a Nature correspondence, and here we take the opportunity to expand on our brief letter.

In the last decade, multiple global land cover data products have been developed. But when these products are compared, there are significant amounts of spatial disagreement across land cover types. Where one map shows cropland, another might show forest domains. These discrepancies persist even when you take differences in the legend definitions into account. The reasons for this disagreement include the use of different satellite sensors, different classification methodologies, and the lack of sufficient data from the ground, which are needed to train, calibrate, and validate land cover maps.

An artist's illustration of the NASA Landsat Data Continuity Mission spacecraft, one of the many satellites that collects data about Earth's surface. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Landsat

An artist’s illustration of the NASA Landsat Data Continuity Mission spacecraft, one of the many satellites that collects data about Earth’s surface. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Landsat

A recent Comment in Nature (Nature513, 30-31; 2014) argued that freely available satellite imagery will improve science and environmental-monitoring products. Although we fully agree that greater open access and sharing of satellite imagery is urgently needed, we believe that this plea neglects a crucial component of land cover generation: the data required to calibrate and validate these products.

At present, remotely sensed global land cover is not accurate enough for monitoring biodiversity loss and ecosystem dynamics or for many of the other applications for which baseline land cover and change over time are critical inputs. When Sentinel-2–a new Earth observation satellite to be launched in 2015 by the European Space Agency–comes online, it will be possible to produce land cover maps at a resolution of 10 meters.  Although this has incredible potential for society as a whole, these products will only be useful if they represent the land cover more accurately than the current products available. To improve accuracy, more calibration and validation data are required. Although more investment is clearly needed in ground-based measurements, there are other, complementary solutions to this problem.

Map showing disagreement between two different land cover maps. Credit:, Google Earth

Map showing cropland disagreement between two different land cover maps,  GlobCover and GLC2000: all colors represent disagreement. Credit:, Google Earth

Not only should governments and research institutes be urged to share imagery, they should also share their calibration and validation data. Some efforts have been made by the Global Observation for Forest Cover and Land Dynamics  (GOFC-GOLD) in this direction, but there is an incredible amount of data that remains locked within institutes and agencies. The atmospheric community shares their data much more readily than the Earth Observation (EO) community, even though we would only benefit by doing so.

Crowdsourcing of calibration and validation data also has real potential for vastly increasing the amount of data available to improve classification algorithms and the accuracy of land cover products. The IIASA Geo-Wiki project is one example of a growing community of crowdsourcing applications that aim to improve the mapping of the Earth’s surface.


New apps developed by IIASA’s Earth Observation Team aim to involve people around the world in on-the-ground data validation efforts.

Geo-Wiki is a platform which provides citizens with the means to engage in environmental monitoring of the earth by providing feedback on existing spatial information overlaid on satellite imagery or by contributing entirely new data. Data can be input via the traditional desktop platform or mobile devices, with campaigns and games used to incentivize input. Resulting data are available without restriction.

Another major research projects we are using to address many of these issues identified above is the ERC Project Crowdland .

More information

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.