Monday, May 27, 2024

System Change is Needed but Elusive: What Next?

Dr. Kai Chan is a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, a TEDx speaker, and founder of CoSphere, a Community of Small-Planet Heroes.

[Reposted from the National Observer; Meta doesn't allow links to media organizations in Canada, so link here instead, and then go there.]

It has been five years since 132 nations declared that only a complete overhaul of how our world works could save it. Yet we are still sleepwalking deeper into the climate and ecological crisis. A million species are still at risk of extinction, and we are among those that will lose from our inaction. We have been lulled into complacency by urgent distractions and the comforts of modern life. For a healthy, sustainable future, we must change the very systems we rely on: economic, political, social, and more.

While the COVID pandemic interrupted the groundswell of climate concern, the nations were never really poised to initiate the “transformative change” they touted. The declaration was not mere posturing, though. As a leading author of the UN report that inspired the declaration—the Global Assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—I could see genuine concern in the diplomats who negotiated the summary. But there’s a huge gap between calling for system change and making it happen. In hindsight, it was naïve to think that governments could undertake such a transformation without an adamant social movement demanding it.

Galvanizing that unified social movement is our task. It falls upon us to demand systems change towards sustainability. Fortunately, this doesn’t require giving up a day job to stop traffic on busy bridges. Instead, it starts from five feasible but essential foundations:

Go Deep: we move beyond what’s quick and easy—both in our actions, and in policy. Picking low-hanging fruit is not a recipe for system change. It’s a favored approach of policymakers to achieve short-term wins when the system works well. New technologies like electric vehicles might help somewhat, but they are popular because they don’t require changes in our economic, political, or social systems. This easy approach is insufficient.

So we challenge doing what’s easy in law and policy. We also need to prioritize what’s effective in the long term, reminding skeptics that we are beyond easy solutions. So, not only subsidies to encourage low-carbon technology, but reforming the much larger subsidies that support the status quo in agriculture, fishing, and other resource extraction.

Update Tradition: we transcend “this is how we do things”. How often have you heard people justify an action this way? History provides context, but we cannot fix what’s broken by following precedent.

We can challenge decision-making by questioning the process. Policymaking in many nations is rooted in economic analyses that assume little will change. This is self-defeating when seeking system change. Economic analysis must be complemented by systems science—the integrated study of social and natural systems that acknowledges deep uncertainty, nonlinear change, and multiple ways of knowing. This way we don’t get trapped in decisions that only make sense economically in the short term.

Embrace Uncertainty: we resist oversimplifying problems. As American writer H.L. Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Populist political parties spout simple-sounding solutions to all that’s broken, glossing over the uncertainty and unintended consequences inherent in big changes. We must keep questioning.

We also can’t be certain about our own favored policies for big changes. Is a strong carbon tax the way to go? Maybe. Should governments subsidize businesses facing rising fuel costs? Probably not, but maybe. When systems evolve, everything is subject to change, and the way forward is to proceed adaptively. Not meekly, but boldly, experimenting for the sake of learning, with a plan to use that learning to improve our decision making and institutions.

Seek Widespread Solidarity: we embrace multiple perspectives. It is easy to find comfort in echo chambers. However, polarization not only breeds hate and fear, it poisons harmonious futures. To change laws, the economy, and society in democratic nations, we must push together.

We can guard against division by actively supporting rigorous and balanced journalism, so we draw from a common body of facts across the political spectrum. Some of my students turned away from mainstream media because coverage of fighting in Gaza felt biased—because it legitimized perspectives other than their own. But juxtaposing contrasting perspectives in context is what’s needed—that’s how journalism favors discussion over disconnection.

Engage Science: we enhance public access to system science (as with CoSphere). With everything connected, how else can we orient efforts to change systems, or anticipate the resulting impacts? How else can we contest policies? When politicians of all stripes promise to make housing affordable, voters struggle to interpret what each intends, or what evidence supports each approach. By enlisting academics—whose job it is to assess evidence while divulging and overcoming biases—we can all interpret claims and better understand pressing problems.

We can initiate and grow partnerships involving academics and communities. Scientists like me have long felt that merely studying problems is deeply unsatisfying. While I remain curious, my bigger purpose is to help anyone find community in their unique contribution to a better future. I’m not alone.

Globally, we’re not on track to rosy futures. But by leveraging systems together, boldly and adaptively, we can meet this challenge that’s bigger than any of us alone.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Steller's Sea Cows: did they decline before human beings arrived?

by Kai Chan

Were Steller Sea Cows very rare as of 400,000 years ago?

(If so, human beings were likely not the main cause of their decline.)

Or were the Commander Islands just isolated from the rest of the range?

We suspect the latter.

Campos, A.A., C.D. Bullen, E.J. Gregr, I. McKechnie and K.M.A. Chan (2022). "Steller’s sea cow uncertain history illustrates importance of ecological context when interpreting demographic histories from genomes." Nature Communications 13(1): 3674. (Open-access)

Figure. (a) Interglacial range. (b) Range during glacial maxima. The Commander Islands have always been physically isolated by deep channels - even during lowest sea levels - that likely constituted ecological barriers, or biogeographic breaks, for sea cows. Different lines of evidence (e.g., absence of echolocation or other navigational apparatus13; limited ability to submerge9; exclusive seaweed diet10) converge to a strictly coastal, ‘linear elongated’ distribution along kelp-dominated shorelines, a range that coincided with that of the sea otter, Enhydra lutris13. Sea cow range reconstructions were based on: (1) review of existing sea cow records (see Dataset); (2) bioindicators of sea cow habitat (i.e., kelp forests, sea otter historical ranges14); (3) southern extent of winter drift ice and year-round kelp habitat;15,16 and (4) the estimated shoreline of Beringia and Bering Sea islands during the Last Glacial Maximum12. ‘Sea cow records’ (red stars) refer to undisputed records only. Question marks refer to uncertainties related to sea ice extent along the shoreline of Beringia during glacial times. Map background image source and license: Maps were created using ArcGIS Online basemap ‘World Ocean Base’ (Esri, GEBCO, DeLorne, NaturalVue) and using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

Our paper responds to an article by Sharko et al. who argued (based on DNA from one sea cow from the Commander Islands) that sea cows’ population had greatly contracted some 400,000 years ago. The implication was that humans were not the primary cause of sea cows’ decline (because humans arrived much later).

Our paper argues that the Commander Islands were likely isolated from the rest of the sea cow range, using a range of different forms of evidence. Accordingly, the 400,000 year figure likely represents the time of isolation of the Commander Islands population rather than a range-wide population decline. 

More generally we argue that genetic techniques for inferring ecological histories need to better account for the ecology of the relevant species and the geography of the range.

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Thursday, April 28, 2022

Can genetic data motivate people to conserve widespread but declining species?

This content was reblogged from Relational Thinking, the People and Nature Blog.

By Harold Eyster

Varied Thrushes have declined by more than 60% over the last five decades. Artwork: © Harold Eyster.


In short, yes. Coupled with a framing that highlights the interdependent relationships between people and a species, evidence of population differentiation can be a powerful motivator for individual efforts to conserve or restore nature.

Just last week, a Mexican fish that went extinct in the wild in 2003 was reintroduced back into its ancestral habitat. Other endangered species are also doing well—one of the rarest birds in North America, the Kirtland’s Warbler, has seen its population increase by over 1000% since 1970.

But whilst many endangered species have been making a comeback thanks to conservation efforts, widespread and common species have been rapidly dwindling.

Continue to read the rest on Relational Thinking...



















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Friday, March 18, 2022

Launching CoSphere, a Community of Small-Planet Heroes

On Monday, we launched CoSphere. Here's my invitation to friends, family, and colleagues:

Dear friends, (apologies for cross-posting)


Many of you know that I’ve been at the forefront of science-policy efforts to bring attention to the need for transformative system change. It’s now clear that despite acknowledging this necessity, governments and businesses will not take the needed actions unless there’s an unprecedented coordination to pressure them to do so. Working only in science and science-policy circles left me feeling like a pawn in political theatre of the absurd (see the story here).


So today a powerful little team and I are launching CoSphere, a coalition for system change toward sustainability. Our aim is to bring science to build a community of those passionate about a better future.


The relevant science is the global systems science of where we have leverage and where that’s needed (what to act on), and the science of social transformation to strategize our efforts (how we can act). Millions of people demonstrated their concern for a better future through recent climate protests. Equipped with this knowledge, together we can bring about that future even despite opposition from those seeking to preserve business-as-usual.


My ask: If this resonates, join us, and share this with others. You and they may also be interested in this essay (published in The Globe and Mail), this coverage in the Vancouver Sun, or this Twitter thread. Our partners include David Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS, Canopy, Plastic Oceans, Birds Canada, Raincoast, Y2Y, and more. (If you can bring another organization, please do!)


Bring your passion, your creativity, and your expertise. On the Forum, we seek to create a space where people’s efforts are celebrated, and where we all bring our expertise towards our common objectives. Whereas so many scientists are used to speaking primarily to policymakers and journalists, we hope to create a pathway for science to empower activists and advocates of all ages (including the powerful youth movement).


So we’d love help reaching out to youth leaders. We want to help equip and orient climate groups and environment clubs at universities, high schools, and elsewhere.


In solidarity,



PS, Since we’re brand new, you’ll see that some places feel incipient (e.g., the Forum). We welcome your contributions to make it an inviting, vibrant space. KC


Kai M. A. Chan, Professor and Canada Research Chair—Rewilding and Social-Ecological Transformation (he/him)

CHANS Lab (Connected Human-and-Natural Systems)              CoSphere (now launching)

Coordinating Lead Author, IPBES Global Assessment

Lead Editor, People and Naturea BES journal of relational thinking 

Royal Society of Canada College of New Scholars—member

Leopold Leadership Fellow; Global Young Academy alum; Canada’s Clean16 for 2020

Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability

The University of British Columbia | Vancouver Campus | Musqueam Traditional Territory

AERL Rm 438, 2202 Main Mall | Vancouver, BC | V6T 1Z4 Canada


Ph: 604.822.0400               Fax: 604.822.9250                  Blog: CHANS Lab Views 

@KaiChanUBC                   My group:

Google Scholar                   Confidential: for intended recipients only


Recent papers: Kreitzman et al., Ecosphere, Woody perennial polycultures enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions

Bullen et al., Global Ecol. Biogeogr., Ghost of a giant (Steller’s sea cows) (Hakai Magazine)

Naito et al., Sust. Sci., An integrative framework for transformative social change

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Friday, January 21, 2022

From the Seas to the Spotlight: Healing the Planet Will Take All of Us

This content was reblogged from CoSphere.

A Story by Alanna Mitchell

Image by: Chloë Ellingson

I remember the moment I let myself glimpse that I was deeply, intimately involved in the work of healing the planet. It was nearly two decades ago, as I sat down to write the first words of my first book, Dancing at the Dead Sea.

I had spent a year travelling the world as a journalist with Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, as a self-styled earth sciences reporter. The stories from those adventures had garnered me a couple of international awards and a fellowship at Oxford University where I studied with the late Norman Myers. He was, I always reckoned, a Cassandra. He was one of the first scientists to flag our current extinction spasm, the looming tragedy of environmental refugees and the fact that so much of the planet’s biodiversity rests in a few small and precious hotspots. Hardly anyone believed him. Yet he kept going, a cranky soothsayer of the Anthropocene.

And as I sat down to begin crafting that first book, so much of which had been shaped by him, I panicked. I had written the newspaper stories in the conventional way: as a journalistic observer of the information. At a remove. As if I were not also a citizen of this planet and affected by all this information I was unearthing.

Should I write this book in the uninvolved third person, or the passionately involved first? Did I even have the right to write it in the first person, as one implicated in the story? A crisis of faith. I sat at my keyboard – tucked away in a corner of my bedroom in Toronto – and pressed capital I. The book was first-person. I was in.

Myers had already taught me that the real story was about the systems our species had set up – energy, food production, finance, governance. And that what was at stake was the life support systems of our planet: the marvellous dance of creatures, the hydrological cycle, the climate, the ocean. All the small stories added up to something far bigger than the sum of their parts. We need to be on the planet as if we mean to stay, he always used to tell me.

It was a small leap from that first book to a one-woman play. Well, philosophically, if not practically. I had already quit my newspaper job – “What part of ‘NO’ don’t you understand,” one of my editors barked at me shortly before I quit, when I asked once again to write stories about the changing sea – and spent three years on 13 journeys around the world with scientists to interrogate the state of the ocean. It turned into my second book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis.

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Monday, January 17, 2022

What Is a Horizon Scan? (Step 2) + Why and How to Do One Now

Years or months from now, you’re defending your dissertation/thesis, and one of your examiners frowns. You tremble as they ask, “What you’ve discovered is pretty normal in [field H]. But you haven’t even discussed [that field], or cited any of the key papers. Why not?”

Scanning the horizon is crucial, but can be overwhelming. There's a lot out there! Photo: Kai Chan

Or maybe it’s, “Have you ever heard of [method Q]? It seems like it would have saved you loads of time and provided a much more robust basis for your conclusions.” Or any number of other scenarios of overlooked studies, fields, or methods.

Such a moment of chagrin is largely due to a failure to scan the horizon. Avoiding such moments is why you might conduct a horizon scan right now—whether you’re just starting or well underway.

Scenarios like this might sound far-fetched. But they happen all the time, because the literature is vast and deeply fragmented. When Alejandra Echeverri scanned the horizon for literatures addressing the nonmaterial relationships between people and animals, she found an astonishing 27 fields—many of which barely engaged with many of the others.

Echeverri et al. found 27 different fields of human-animal relations.

For student X (a concrete anonymized example), an oversight like this was very costly. X was studying zoonotic disease risk and its various causes. A central finding was the large gap between the spatial distributions of the physical prevalence of risk and of people’s concern. But X hadn’t engaged at all with the risk perception literature, where such findings are well documented and also well understood. X had entered the problem as a zoologist seeking to expand into social-ecological problems. It simply hadn’t occurred to X that there was a general literature on risk. For X, this meant a brush with failure, and the need for major revisions. What should have been a triumphant moment was nearly the exact opposite.

As I see it, there are three kinds of horizons to explore (all related to critical ingredients and your tentative research problem).


Domains are the broad problem of focus—e.g., biodiversity conservation, just climate transitions, sustainable fisheries, or endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The domain or topic aligns closely with interdisciplinary research fields, where many different methods might be applied, potentially from many different disciplinary backgrounds. But sometimes—as with Echeverri et al. (2018)—the domain is much broader than a single field. Within a domain, it’s important to understand how others are growing knowledge about similar problems. A forthcoming paper in Sustainability Science led by Rumi Naito (with Jiaying Zhao and I) demonstrates the kind of insights that can be gained by a deeply interdisciplinary analysis of the illegal wildlife trade. 

An example of human-animal relations (and values):
I feel a sense of responsibility and kinship for orcas,
hence this Father's Day card from my daughter.


Methods are the tools for collecting and analyzing data to answer research questions (e.g., system modeling, multivariate statistics, surveys, document analysis). Any given method might be applied in a wide variety of contexts and disciplines, and understanding this diversity of applications can yield new insights and approaches. This great paper by Paul Armsworth lays out how economists and ecologists use similar statistical regression methods quite differently, and why. Meanwhile, the use of narrative elicitation (developed earlier) led to crucial insights in the field of ecosystem services (thanks to Terre Satterfield; see here, here and here). Insightful guidance for mixed-methods research—which is common in sustainability science and interdisciplinary environmental research—can be found in Creswell & Creswell 2005.


Themes are concepts and constructs that cut across domains and methods (e.g., risk, values, power, resilience, telecoupling, markets, neoliberalism). They represent another key pathway by which learning can bridge from one domain to another. E.g., Leslie and McCabe (2013) demonstrate beautifully how response diversity can yield resilience in social systems (not just ecological ones). The idea of relational values was intended to enable tremendous insights to overflow from the coming together of several domains and multiple disciplines, as in this special issue.

Relational values are an example of a theme that straddles many
fields, disciplines, and domains. But it's key to relate them to other
kinds of values, as we did in Chan et al. (2018).
But how to actually conduct a horizon scan? There’s no single recipe. When there’s no map of a landscape, many kinds of explorations can be fruitful. In basic terms, having identified your domain/topic, possible methods and themes—and a wide variety of terms to represent these—do the following to get a sense of what key reviews/papers/fields/terms you might be missing:
  • Surround yourself with diverse like-minded folks researching similar problems and themes, from a variety of vantage points.
  • Talk with your supervisor(s) and committee members, and other experts.
  • Talk with fellow students about your work and theirs.
  • Search the academic literature using your keywords without too much constraint (i.e., without applying ‘and’ links, so without restricting to spaces you know) (using ISI Web of Science, Google Scholar, etc.; see Paperpile and UBC library for tips).
  • Follow chains of citations (backwards and forwards: sources cited by key papers; and sources citing those key papers—Connected Papers might be helpful for depicted citation links across sources).

A key point is not to let yourself read deeply during this step. Drilling down in one part of the landscape will distract the exploration of broader horizons. It may help to distinguish 'scanning' from 'exploring', and iterating between these phases. In the superficial phase of scanning you might focus on finding new literatures while also taking notes about particular papers, books and fields to explore more fully.

Similarly, don't let this step drag on for too long. Do it in a time-bounded way in one burst, and then do it again later in fits and spurts. You can never really finish scanning the horizon. The idea of 'saturation' is elusive here (that you've reached saturation if searches repeatedly reveal the same sources), because this can result from searching in a rut rather than getting out to the broader landscape. But don't sweat it; people will forgive you if you gave horizon-scanning an honest effort but still missed some features of interest. 

Scanning horizons promises to vastly improve your research and its reach, and to prevent the worst moments of chagrin.

But much more importantly, horizon scans can enable you to help facilitate great insights well beyond your own research, by bridging parts of this deeply fractured academic landscape that remain isolated. This hope is what led us (the editors of People and Nature) to state in our opening editorial that "People and Nature thus aspires to be not a collection of unlike contributions to different literatures, but rather the nexus where these various literatures about human‐nature relationships convene."

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