Political economy and ecology of global sustainability

Food, water, energy, and economic systems already place enormous pressure on the Earth’s natural ecosystems through land clearing, carbon emissions, nutrient and pesticide pollution, overfishing, plastic pollution, and a host of other impacts. With the scale of human demands on natural resources projected to continue to increase this century as a result of rising population and affluence, finding ways to reduce the environmental impacts of society will be critical to avoiding complex tradeoffs between meeting the needs of 10 billion people and sustaining the planet’s most important natural life-support systems. The challenge of increasing the environmental efficiency of the global economy has two parts. First, we must find biophysical and technological opportunities to increase efficiency. Second, we must find ways to implement solutions on the ground--a challenge that often encounters social, political and economic obstacles.

Two aspects of this problem that we are interested in are: (i) forecasting development futures, and their effects on environmental impacts; and (ii) exploring how to reduce political polarization of environmental issues.

Featured publications:

Burgess MG, Langendorf RE, Ippolito T, Pielke Jr. R. Optimistically biased economic growth forecasts and negatively skewed annual variation. SocArXiv. preprint: vndqr.

Burgess MG*, Ritchie J*, Shapland J, Pielke Jr. R. 2020. IPCC baseline scenarios over-project CO2 emissions and economic growth. SocArXiv preprint: ahsxw. (*Equal contribution)

Tallis HM, Hawthorne PL, Polasky S, Reid J, Beck MW, Brauman K, Bielicki JM, Binder S, Burgess MG, Cassidy E, Clark A, Fargione J, Game ET, Gerber J, Isbell F, Kiesecker J, McDonald R, Metian M, Molnar JL, Mueller ND, O'Connell CO, Ovando D, Troell M, Boucher T, McPeek B. 2018. An attainable global vision for conservation and human well-being. Frontiers in the Ecology and the Environment 16: 563-570.

Burgess MG, Gaines SD. 2018. The scale of life and its lessons for humanity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115: 6328-6330.

Fig. 2 from Burgess, Ritchie, et al. SocArXiv ahsxw (2020): Baseline scenarios prepared for the IPCC's Fifth and forthcoming Sixth Assessment Reports have overprojected 2005-2017 energy-related CO2 emissions as a result of over-projecting per-capita GDP growth and carbon intensity.

Pragmatic natural resource management

Effectively managing natural resources is essential to food security, livelihoods, and sustaining diverse and productive ecosystems. Yet resource management is caught between needs for complexity and simplicity. On the one hand, the complexity of coupled social-ecological systems pulls natural resource science towards complex models and data-hungry assessment approaches. The need for often large-scale cooperation to achieve management targets, which are as dynamic as the science, pulls resource management towards institutionally complex and (economically) expensive management. On the other hand, many systems lack the data, and financial and institutional capital to implement even the simplest existing approaches to natural resource science and management.

We are interested in developing pragmatic and interdisciplinary approaches to studying and managing natural resources, with explicit considerations of financial, scientific, and institutional constraints. Within this theme, some overarching questions are: (i) Can we find useful theoretical insights that are not data-dependent or system-specific? (ii) How strong are tradeoffs between different resource management objectives? (iii) Are there approaches to assessment or management that are relatively easy to implement and produce 'pretty good' outcomes (as Hilborn says) in many different social and ecological contexts? (iv) Are there existing but untapped data sources that might provide insightful information?

Featured publications:

Rao A, Burgess MG, Kaffine D. 2020. Orbital-use fees could more than quadruple the value of the space industry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 117: 12756-12762.

Burgess MG, Clemence M, McDermott GR, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2018. Five rules for pragmatic blue growth. Marine Policy 87: 331-339.

Burgess MG, Giacomini HC, Szuwalski CS, Costello C, Gaines SD. 2017. Describing ecosystem contexts with single-species models: A theoretical synthesis for fisheries. Fish and Fisheries 18: 264-284.

Fig. 2 from Burgess et al. Marine Policy 87: 331 (2018): Sometimes what appears to be inefficient (e.g., point 2) is actually efficient when considering a larger set of objectives.

Mechanistic approaches to conservation

Current approaches to assessing threats of collapse and extinction to species are predominantly phenomenological, inferring threats from past population declines, high current mortality rates, species rarity, or life history characteristics correlated with threat histories of other species. We develop mechanistic approaches to measuring conservation threats, which quantify combinations of biological and socioeconomic conditions that are likely to eventually cause high mortality rates and population declines. Mechanistic approaches have two key advantages. First, they can identify threats of future extinction and severe population decline before the declines occur. Second, mechanistic approaches can be used to quantify tradeoffs and synergies between conservation and other social and ecological objectives. We have found that the nature of these tradeoffs is sometimes counterintuitive.

Featured publications:

Burgess MG*, McDermott GR*, Owashi B, Peavey Reeves LE, Clavelle T, Ovando D, Wallace BP, Lewison RL, Gaines SD, Costello C. 2018. Protecting marine mammals, turtles, and birds by rebuilding global fisheries. Science 359: 1255-1258. (*Equal contribution. Code here.)

Burgess MG, Costello C, Fredston-Hermann A, Pinsky ML, Gaines SD, Tilman D, Polasky S. 2017. Range contraction enables harvesting to extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 3945-3950. (Cover article. Open-access arXiv version here.)

Fig. 1 from Burgess et al. Science 359: 1255 (2018): The reductions in fishing pressure needed to maximize profits from target fish stocks globally would be sufficient to halt the declines of roughly half of the marine mammal, turtle, and bird populations we examined