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Sustainability Dilemmas

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 7, 2010 7:19 PM


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The social/ecological relationship is one that fascinates me. It seems to have been the theme of this year's annual Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) symposium, which Piper Corp reports on at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) blog. For those unfamiliar with LTER's, this gem of a program is in its third decade and is overseen by the National Science Foundation. In 1999, I wrote in Science magazine about some surprising findings from the Phoenix LTER--one of two urban study sites. The ESA post interested me because of a thorny dilemma highlighted by new research from the Phoenix LTER, which Corp lays out here:

Ecologists frequently consider how to preserve the resilience of ecosystems"”how to make sure that they will continue to produce important services as they face stresses like climate change and water shortages. But we can't have it all. At some point, said Kelli Larson (Central Arizona-- Phoenix LTER)

, we'll have to make some tough tradeoffs, depending on which services we value the most. Larson's work looks at residential landscaping in the Southwest, where traditional lawns use more water but homes with pebble-covered yards use more energy to keep cool and more chemicals to control pests artificially. Sustainable living, it seems, begins not with a to-do list but rather with a question: what do we most want to sustain? (And, importantly, what do we need to sustain?)

As recent controversial developments involving renewable energy suggest, the path to sustainability will require us to make all kinds of uncomfortable tradeoffs. Inevitably, those last two questions--what do we most want to sustain and what do we need to sustain will be decided by human values.

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