Social Media May Spark a Rebirth in Natural History

This may be a tiny bit off-topic but I thought this was pretty interesting.

Tapping Social Media’s Potential
To Muster a Vast Green Army

A rapidly expanding universe of citizens’ groups, researchers, and environmental organizations are making use of social media and smart phone applications to document changes in the natural world and to mobilize support for taking action.
by Caroline Fraser

Here’s the link.

My only tiny concern is that

Perhaps the most intriguing capability of social media involves something that goes deeper than data. The University of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Game is an interactive computer simulation with the power to change minds. Beginning in 2000, it plays out over a 20-year horizon, allowing teams to take on the roles and responsibilities of oystermen, crabbers, crop and dairy farmers, real-estate developers, and policy-makers, everyone with an impact on one of the world’s most endangered watersheds. As teams make decisions based on economic and regulatory restrictions, determining how much land to cultivate or how many crabs to trap, they watch the real-time, long-term consequences of their choices playing out. Crucially, “the game is politically neutral,” says David E. Smith, professor in U. Va.’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

On Earth Day this year, teams from seven Chesapeake Bay-area universities played, each representing a major basin — York River, James River, the Eastern Shore, etc. It was a sobering experience. At the end, a College of William and Mary biology professor acknowledged that despite players’ best efforts, “the quality of the bay went down.”

The game is impressively accurate: Its recent iteration encompasses tens of thousands of data points, and IBM has selected it for the World Community Grid program, harnessing over a million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers. Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the oceanographer, is partnering with the university to adapt it for other ecosystems, from Australia to Arizona. He foresees a day when younger students can input real data to model their backyards and lobby their parents — “Hey, mom and dad, let’s not use fertilizer on the lawn.”

Perhaps people start to believe the reality of models and don’t have the proper respect for the universe to be “queerer than we think, queerer than we can think” as Haldane said.

Meanwhile, the environment waits for a software wunderkind to find the social formula that may lure a fickle public to fall in love with the real world, not a fake one.

To me a modeled world is still a fake world..and plenty of people are in love with the real world- but we disagree on what to do about it. And that’s OK.

Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the publisher of “Yale 360”.

3 thoughts on “Social Media May Spark a Rebirth in Natural History”

  1. I’ve always thought that a forest modeling computer program could be disguised as a game, very much like the SimCity computer games. SimCity games have evolved incredible complexity and deep strategy use. The complexity of those games modeling city attributes could easily be applied to forested landscapes. Differing scenario situations could be set up and, with limited “budget money”, you have to either save or renew impacted landscapes, applied over decades and even centuries. I think such a game could go a long way towards teaching the public about site-specific silvicultural treatments and land management decisions and ideals.

    On the other hand, the game could also show the fallacies of “passive restoration” in places where it doesn’t work (and where it DOES!) The game should show players that “the right tool for the right job” is what it takes, and that sometimes you have to choose between many, many tools, at differing costs, indifferent situations.

    • Foto – So funny you mention this. A couple of years ago I had a long conversation with my then 14-year old niece. She had all those SimCity games, or at least it felt like I was always buying them for her birthday or Christmas. I asked her what attracted her to that type of game and then pitched a forest ecology theme, much like what you describe (so much for my original idea). She told me the idea had “potential” and went on to explain what she saw as pros and cons. I can’t recall everything she said (she is quite bright), but I do remember her saying that she and other kids play those games to be “someone else” for the day, so she wasn’t sure being a forest manager would be that appealing (as opposed to an ant, or a farmer, or a city planner, I presume?). Her main suggestion was to develop the game around a unique or endangered species. She thought that would be the draw (can you save xyz species from extinction by managing this forest). So sounds like we need to develop SimOwl, with spotted owls as the heroine, barred owls as the evil cousin, loggers, environmentalists, politicians all advocating for this or that, and then let the biologist try to save the day.

  2. The original SimCity was used by college-level city planning classes. Cities are close to forests in complexities, and a game could certainly use many aspects of forest ecology to measure “forest health”, including keystone species, water quality and clean air. Scenarios could include many site-specific, regional and national situations. Including realistic “disaster events” into the game play would need to be realistic, and scientific aspects of the game should be peer reviewed, for scientific integrity and political neutrality.

    Related to your comment about biologists saving the day, I’ve seen a great many “ologists” get disgusted when they cannot “save the forest” from loggers, because they aren’t finding anything to save. Back in the early 90’s, we had armies of “ologists” doing their surveys over 75% of our Ranger District’s land base, supporting insect salvage projects. I lived in the barracks with many of the temporary surveyors, and some of them were unhappy in their jobs, seeing that their surveys were only opening up ground to salvage logging, instead of “saving” that land from the evil loggers. We cut 300 million board feet of dead and dying timber from our small Ranger District in four years. Today’s annual cut for that Ranger District is now at 5 million board feet per year.


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