Be a sustainability consultant!

It's time for some role-play. I suspect that most readers won't understand what I am talking about in some of this story, but my former classmates should.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a freshly indoctrinated master of strategic planning for sustainability. Your newly minted name-cards were delivered earlier this morning, and you are waiting for a meeting in the lobby of your first paying client. You are a sustainability consultant, getting rich and saving the world at the same time. (And they said it couldn't be done...)

Your new client is the American Prairie Conservation Management Board (this is a little fiction.... to my knowledge there is no such organization, but the quotes attributed to them are from a recent news article) . They waste no time with bullskit pleasantries (skit is Swedish, it means poop), instead they launch into their newest great idea. They are looking to you and your scientific TNS framework perspective to advise them on the best way to make sure it's "sustainable".

Their goal is to restore giant wild mammals to North America, like those that roamed the continent during the Ice Age—mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and the extinct American cheetah, among others.

Since those animals have long been extinct, the scientists propose repopulating the U.S. with the creatures' closest living relatives—such as lions, cheetahs, elephants, and camels.

Using a strategy called rewilding, the conservationists suggest using these and other endangered animals as stand-ins for long-gone Ice Age mammals.


(T)he ultimate goal, the researchers say, is to create a massive "ecological history park," where the large mammals could wander freely, much like their Ice Age counterparts did some 13,000 years ago.

It sound's crazy at first, and dangerous. But you don't let your first instincts get in the way, you do as you are trained and look at it through a systems perspective, asking yourself if it violates any of the four basic scientific principles of sustainability that you have sworn to uphold.

Does it:

Systematically increase concentrations of substances from the earth's crust?

Well, sure there is the carbon footprint it takes to fly them all from Africa over to the US. The last I heard there were no direct flights, so they will have to be brought over via Europe. (sure, they will probably go by boat, but just for fun let's pretend they are flying first-class.) According to the Future Forests Carbon Calculator, each animal's flight (not taking into account the weight of the rhino) will use about 4000 pounds of CO2. This means the imaginary conservation organization should plant two trees per animal.

You feel a little more confident having made your first "consult" and decide to throw in a little free advice, telling them not not to plant the trees in the same area as the animals, because the elephants have a notoriously bad habit of knocking down trees and other things that could be viewed as deforestation.

Then comes the first snag... although the trees are relatively cheep compared to the cost of the ticket, their chief financial officer balks at the unexpected cost -after all, your initial foot-in-the-door presentation promised that it's only strategic if they make a healthy profit.

Luckily, your on a roll. "not a problem", you say, "Instead of planting the trees, you and your staff can just skip one 'everybody who's anybody in sustainability will be there' overseas conference for each animal you bring over."

The financial officer likes this. Not only do you not have to spend money on trees that provide no direct financial return, but you also save all the costs associated with attending the conferences.

One sustainability principle down, three to go. Does this plan:

Systematically increase concentrations of persistent chemicals not found in nature?

After some discussion about wether or not tiger skit is naturally found in the great plains of the united states, and just how long "persistent" is, you interject, reminding them that skit is not a chemical, although you do acknowledge that systematically increasing concentrations of tiger skit is unsustainable. It is decided that tigers should only be fed at the same rate that their skit decomposes.

Other than that, there seem to be no problems. Next, does this plan:

Systematically degrade nature by physical means?


Now you start to sweat. You have no idea. On the one hand, you had always assumed that introducing invasive species is baaaaad. But now you have to think wether or not these species are actually invasive. How quickly do they have to reproduce to be considered "invasive"? Even if they are "invasive", does it necessarily degrade nature? There is no way to know. Some scientists say yes, some say no. The conservationists say:

We talk about horses and camels. Horses and camels originated in North America, and there were multiple species here 13,000 years ago. Currently, there are European horses in many landscapes in America, but they're often viewed as pests. We argue that they could be used as analogs for the Pleistocene horses that were once roaming North America, as can the camels.

If these species are actually native to the area, but are now extinct due to human activity, then is it not an act of regeneration to re-introduce them? You're still not sure. After all, the ecosystem has probably changed in the past 13,000 years, regardless of if the change was caused by humans or not, the nature of today is not the same as the nature of tomorrow.

Your gut says that importing these animals is a no no, but there is no proof that it will degrade any nature, and they actually have scientific mumbo-jumbo that says it will actually be good for the ecosystem. And anyway,

We don't know the consequences of reintroduction—whether they're quote-unquote positive or negative. But those questions can be answered through research-driven, experimental reintroduction. ...

We argue that our proposal is based on a couple of facts that are very clear. One is that now the Earth is nowhere pristine. Our economics, our politics, our technology pervade every ecosystem.

So we argue that even though the obstacles and risks are substantial, we no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness preservation. By default or by design, we're going to basically decide what kind of world we want to live in.

This seems to fly in the face of the precautionary principle, but then again, what can we ever really be sure of? What if these animals are not brought to the US and they become extinct? What are the long term effects of this? What precautions do we have in place to prevent this other than to introduce them into an area that at one time supported an ecosystem that was home to their ancestors? You decide that this is a little out of your league, being a newbie and all. You tell them that you will consult with your leaders and get back to them.

Finally, you get to the fourth scie... err... principle of sustainability. Does this plan:

Systematically undermine the ability of people to meet their needs?

Oh skit. You suddenly remember seeing an article in this mornings paper about ranchers who are upset that protected wolves are taking their sheep, and along with them, their income and ability to send their kids to an American university. What, you wonder, will they think about a pride of lions living next door? You dismiss this by telling yourself that they can always send their kids to school in Sweden where tuition is free, but at the same time you remember an article a while back about how some bears in Colorado attacked a young girl depriving her of her need for her right arm. Of course it was not the bear's fault, it was just looking for food at the local dump, doing what comes naturally in this ecosystem that has been anything but natural for the past century. What happens when cheetahs, whose ancestors may have once thrived in the ecosystem that once existed, arrive in this new man-made nature?

The client must see a constipated look on your face, because he quickly mentions that

We also lay out what we see as the potential for economic justifications, the most obvious being ecotourism.

And then the aesthetic justification is that humans are fascinated by large mammals. This is very clear, and it extends back to the Pleistocene as well. We see it in cave art from early Americans, right up to today in the names of the cars we drive and the names of our football teams. So there might be a lot of unexpected benefits for further reconnecting humans with large mammals.

By now your head hurts. In an effort to keep yourself from thinking about "flexible platforms", you begin to imagine that everyone in the room is naked... thereby depriving them of their need for privacy. Dang.

What would you recommend?

Keep in mind, if they bring the animals over, they will have future "sustainability" consulting needs, and you will have your first regular client. If the animals stay in Africa, you are back to eating organic instant ramen until you can find another client.

* * *

You can find a much better and fairer overview of this plan, based on on more than my cynicism atJosh Donlan's website at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of Cornell University.

Here's a bit:

Currently, a post-Columbian bias blinds us from a paleoecological view of North America, a vista with widespread implications. We envision that the re-wilding North America might entail, among other examples, managing wild horses and burros as ecologically appropriate components of the western landscape rather than pests, and the introduction of Indian Elephants (the closest living relative of North American extinct proboscideans) and African Cheetah (close relative of an extinct North American cheetah) as surrogates of extinct megafauna. As large herbivores, elephants would likely play keystone roles in the landscape as they still do in the Old World and mammoths did in the Americas until just 12,000 years ago. The cheetah would play an integral role in maintaining the adaptive biology of Pronghorn, an ungulate whose speed and life history are now anachronistic in the absence of its former natural enemy.

We propose to bring together a small group of well informed, critical people to explore the biological and social consequences of re-starting megafaunal evolutionary ecology in the New World. In the recent decades, it has become increasingly clear the critical roles apex predators and large herbivores play in structuring ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity. The native megafauna of North America likely played such pivotal roles, both ecologically and evolutionarily. Further, for many of these keystones, species analogs (Asian and African relatives) still exist today; thus making reintroductions a potential option. The goal of this workshop is to explore the justifications and feasibility of reintroducing species analogs of large predators and herbivores to North America to restore the ecological and evolutionary processes that were long present on this continent prior to human arrival. Our purpose it three fold:

  • Elucidate the ecological, evolutional, philosophical, and sociological justifications and obstacles for megafaunal reintroductions in the North America,
  • Identify species candidates that will serve as case studies for reintroduction,
  • Conduct in-depth feasibility studies of reintroduction candidates.

* * *

The photos are just some not-yet-posted portraits of people who made my last year fun.

Comments about Be a sustainability consultant!

i think the lion you introduced just ate your low-hanging fruit

Posted by: amy at August 19, 2005 09:45 PM

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