September 8, 2003

Gunderson studies Panarchy of natural systems

Michael Terrazas

In 1999, shortly after Lance Gunderson came to Emory to chair its new Department of Environmental Studies, he met a certain former president of the United States—a man who once studied nuclear physics and has since won the Nobel Peace Prize. This certain former president had requested some background on Gunderson in preparation for the meeting.

“So I meet him, and he shakes my hand,” Gunderson recalled, “and he leans into me and says, ‘Nice to meet you—I have no idea what you do.”

Jimmy Carter is not the only person who has trouble grasping Gunderson’s work. Educated at the University of Florida and a veteran botanist with the National Park Service in the Florida Everglades, Gunderson now devotes his time to studying complex regional-scale systems and writing about them in ways that defy book-length explanations, much less newspaper articles.

Two years ago Gunderson coedited Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Island Press, 2001), which presents theories and examples of sustainability from a multidisciplinary perspective. It proposes a number of paradigms or “myths” through which humans view their relationship to nature and concludes that only one paradigm—which the editors term “Nature Evolving”—is ultimately helpful in sustainability planning.

To understand these theories, begin by accepting that “Man vs. Nature” is a false dichotomy; humanity is part of nature and always has been, and any environmental worldview resting on the assumption that humans are something happening “to” nature is destined to collapse.

Next, recognize that natural systems simply do not function in infallibly predictable ways; Gunderson uses the example of Lake Mendota on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. The lake is “probably one of the most studied ecosystems” in the world, Gunderson said, with researchers recording scientific data for a century—yet Wisconsin researchers still are unable to predict exactly when an algae bloom will occur.

“The complication is that humans now are affecting the planet and these ecosystems at scales that have not been seen before,” Gunderson said. “People are a planetary force now; there’s lots and lots of literature on that. The question is how we can maintain these systems in such ways that the things we rely on them for—water, food, fiber, other resources—don’t disappear. Or for conservation purposes, like the $8 billion restoration plan for Everglades National Park.”

To achieve truly sustainable development—meaning, sustainability planning that actually has a chance of being implemented and succeeding in a humanly muddy world—the groups chiefly responsible for that planning (government, industry, scientists) must take into account the economic, ecoogical and social sectors of human and natural interaction, Gunderson said. To ignore any of the three is to live outside reality and doom even the most fastidious planning to failure.

Panarchy arose through a project of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences that sought to bring together ecologists and economists to examine issues of resource use and depletion on a global scale. Gunderson said the United Nations is conducting
a Millennium Assessment that seeks to gauge the planet’s environmental health, and several of Panarchy’s multidisciplinary theories of “resilience” and “adaptive management” are figuring prominently in the UN study. International corporations also are lending attention and funding to this kind of research.

Gunderson admitted that “environmentalists”—at least those who conform to the mainstream culture’s stereotype of what an environmentalist is—are not likely to be big fans of Panarchy.

“Many times they’re working in an environment where they want answers: ‘We want to know what’s going to happen before we give approval and blessing.’ The bottom line on all this is that you can’t tell any of that stuff before it’s going to happen with any kind of assurance,” Gunderson said.

Not that the models for sustainability in Panarchy give a free pass to exploitative interests like oil conglomerates or the paper manufacturing industry; it requires some degree of sacrifice from all groups—the exploiters, the protectors, the managers—to come up with a sustainable view.

“I think that’s right,” Gunderson said. “We don’t really deal with that kind of political tension very well in this book, in terms of the ‘Use It or Lose It’ crowd versus the ‘Save Everything’ crowd. I think, if you can understand it, it’s a pretty mainstream approach.”

And if you can’t understand it, well, you’re not alone. In fact, you have presidential company.