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: Chloƫ 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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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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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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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Identifying the Problem (Step 1.1): An Impactful Interdisciplinary Research Project Is One that Fulfills You

By Kai Chan

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

The true first step in writing a winning proposal is to identify the (research) problem. Lots has been written about how to identify a good problem, e.g., as a puzzle. For our purposes, though, that step is WAY down the road.

Or rather, identifying a good problem is a crucial and complex process that we’re going to unpack into several steps over the coming posts. But in order to engage in those steps, you need an anchor—a tentative topic or problem—that you can use to ground you through the coming exploration.

But how do you decide on that tentative topic/problem? It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma: to identify a good topic/problem you need a tentative topic/problem.

Choosing a topic/problem is a chicken-and-egg dilemma (you need
a tentative one to investigate possibilities), but there is a place to
start (read on). ruben alexander, Flikr
My route through this apparent paradox is highly unusual. The vast majority of writing about how to find a good research problem says something like this: “look for under-explored aspects and areas of concern, conflict or controversy.” Or, this: “Ideas for research problems tend to come from two sources: real life and the scholarly arena.

They’re not wrong. They’ve just skipped a key step—in my opinion. And they’re misleading.

They are misleading because there is no such thing as a “under-explored aspect … or area”. Every research area is simultaneously over-explored if it isn’t interesting or important to you, and under-explored for those who find it interesting and important.

There’s only one way to identify a good tentative topic/problem. It’s not to survey the literature or the world around you—it’s to look within. That is, start from your critical ingredients. A good tentative topic is one that would be meaningful to you.

The other authors above would likely agree that looking within—at what you find meaningful—is a good place to start. They likely just think it goes without saying. Having supervised dozens of students and taught twenty in two iterations of this course (RES 602), I know that it still needs to be said.

These other authors are probably fixated on what I’ll call the opportunity theory—that we should choose projects among the low-hanging fruit. I see several problems with this theory.
Low-hanging cashew fruit. (Did you know
that cashews had delicious fruit? They do,
and this is thanks to gomphotheres and 
other prehistoric megavertebrates, which
relates to rewilding.) 
Photo by 
form PxHere

  1. You can’t spot great, easy opportunities (the low-hanging fruit) without really getting to know a field. Those externally-obvious low-hanging fruit have mostly been picked.

  2. There’s no research area that is truly saturated—that doesn’t have a genuine research opportunity. There are areas that are very competitive, there are ones whose methods won’t appeal (e.g., because they are too theoretical, too dependent on fieldwork, or too deeply statistical). But this is all a function of fit with what ‘turns your crank’.

  3. Following apparent low-hanging fruit is unlikely to allow you to develop the methods that are most important to your future, or to enable you to develop connections with your key communities of research and practice, or to jibe with a theory of change that resonates with you. That is, they are unlikely to deliver your critical ingredients.

So start with your critical ingredients, and fine-tune your good tentative problem into a good problem (see steps 2-6 in this series).

But how exactly do a handful of critical ingredients deliver a research problem? At the nexus of each critical ingredient, there is a quadrant in n-dimensional space that represents the set of your most meaningful problems.

For me, this is a project involving the conservation and/or restoration of nature alongside its sustainable use (fields) with a combination of ecological and social dynamics (disciplines), using quantitative and qualitative methods (tools) in southwest British Columbia (geographical study areas). It will engage with values and rewilding in the context of transformative change (theories of change, questions).

So, once you’ve completed the critical ingredients document, the task is to simply layer the various dimensions as I’ve done just above: the promising "problem" is the intersection of your critical ingredient fields, disciplines, tools, study areas, theories of change, and questions.

Next we’ll discuss how to use this starting point to explore the beautiful landscape of research opportunities and approaches.

Next up: What Is a Horizon Scan? (Step 2) + Why You Need To Do One Now

Previous: Why You Need a Theory of Change

The Intro to this series (with links to the full set): How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Combating the climate crisis by changing how we connect and converse (introducing EarthNet)

After years of complicity, it’s time to subvert Twitter, Facebook and other Big Social Media. Here’s why and how to start.

By Kai Chan

One riff off the "YouTwitFace"
meme, from Pinterest.
In 2009, Conan O’Brien went viral with his joke about the future when the big social media companies YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook would all join to become YouTwitFace.

This inspired a meme and myriad riffs on all three of those platforms and more—by thousands of users … who kept right on using these highly addictive, polarizing, society-distorting platforms.

The joke is on us.

I’m no different. I was a holdout on all of these platforms, but I’m now a user of several. You almost can’t have much social influence these days without complying.

But now I see part of the way out. It involves working to build alternative platforms—that are designed for social action and meaningful connection—and bleeding market share away from the big for-profit companies that peddle in our attention and behaviours.

The Problem, In Broad Strokes

‘Big Tech’ has way too much power over our lives and societies. Social media companies distort policy through direct lobbying, and they enable others to distort elections and key social and health programs by spreading misinformation and sowing dissent. They elevate memes over truths, clickbait over news, trolls over meaningful conversation. And they directly fuel an economic model that manipulates our needs and desires to buy more.

Distortion and Dissent

A burned US flag after the Jan 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill,
Washington, DC. Flikr
I’ve already written about how social media has a deeply polarizing effect on society, after watching The Social Dilemma. And much has been written on this topic, e.g., in the New York Times. In a nutshell, because surprising half-truths and plausible lies generate attention and sharing, and because of algorithms that feed people content like what they’ve read and shared before, social media can produce echo chambers of conspiracy theories fuelling QAnon and dangerous lies about an illegitimate US presidential election of Joe Biden in 2020. Here, I unpack two related facets.

Memes > Truths … Clickbait > News … Trolls > Conversation

I joined Twitter in 2011 as an experiment. I wanted to see how people were using this platform. Is there an opportunity to advance meaningful conversation, I wondered—without spending many hours skimming and elevating conversations that don’t feel important? I’m not saying “No”, but after more than a decade, I haven’t seen it.

How could a series of 280-character snippets culminate in a meaningful argument? What convinced me to investigate this was the notion that tweets could be much more than a tiny passage of text, because they could include links. Thus, a tweet could be an ad to a blog post or an article, that would really permit delving into the details. I tried this for years.

The problem is that—even if the format enables this facilitation of longer-form arguments—the vast majority of users don’t look to Twitter for this content. They look to it for the snippets and images. They like or skim over and move on. And the comments on these tweets often come from trolls, and often based just on the tweet/headline. As one recent example, when I tweeted an article about housing and tax policy, 3 of the first 4 comments were dismissively reactionary. Most clearly hadn’t read the article.

Meanwhile, my students do incredible things, like run ALL of Vancouver’s streets—1557 km (almost 1000 miles) while doing a PhD—and I can’t get them much love.

Fuelling Runaway Consumption

Perhaps the deepest problem with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and the like, is that their whole business model is rooted in helping sell you things you mostly didn’t need, which is a key ultimate driver of the climate-and-ecological crisis.

Social media companies do this directly in two ways, not primarily via the countless influencers and celebrities that use these platforms to sell products and their visions of the world. The first way is of course advertising, which is a major revenue source for many of these ‘free’ platforms.

The second way is by selling your data—about your preferences and behaviours—to companies that seek to sell you things you don’t already want, or to manipulate you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. This is a primary revenue source for Big Social Media. There is no route more direct to boost runaway consumption.

Beyond consumption, the danger of this manipulation of our desires is that it furthers the myth that many of us don’t already have the roots of a good life (we do)—in our relationships with people and places—and that we can buy our way to happiness (we can’t). Arguably, these notions of a good life are even more fundamental to our current crises than the consumption itself.

A Partial Antidote: A Nonprofit Social Network Designed for Action

As I see it, the way forward has several key pieces. One is to limit our engagement with Big Social Media, and to use those platforms partly or largely to undermine the power they have over others (e.g., by making a public commitment and leading others to reflections/rationales like this one here). A second is to help build alternatives.

There are already some options that do most of what some of these platforms do, but without the profit motive and/or selling data. Signal is a messaging app like WhatsApp run by a non-profit organization; they don’t even store data linked to you. Ecosia is a search engine based on Google but that uses its profits to plant trees where they’re needed (search engines share some of the same issues described here). Ecosia is a B-corp (benefit corporation), meaning it exists for the purpose of advancing social and/or environmental causes, not only making profit. It still runs ads (that’s the revenue source), but there isn’t the potential deeper level manipulation.

CoSphere's hub on EarthNet.

And now there’s EarthNet, a social network platform designed to connect people and foster collaboration across the environmental movement. You can easily create your own page, and control who sees what and how your data are used, unlike many platforms that are rooted in using your data for revenue. The interface is stripped-down to enable you to engage with meaningful content and conversation (including fact-checking), not designed to divert your attention away to other rabbit-holes. This nascent platform is still very much a work-in-progress, but now is the time to engage to help build it to serve as a foundation for a better internet and a better world.

The ‘catch’ is that EarthNet is a paid platform (albeit one “that puts planet over profit”). Unlike Facebook, you can’t create content on it for free (after the trial period). Some people—probably many—will see this as a major drawback. That’s my reaction, too: I like free stuff. The key is to keep reminding ourselves that there is no free lunch. If someone is providing a service apparently for free, they’re making money off you in other ways—likely ways that you wouldn’t like. Obviously lots of folks aren’t currently in a position to pay for these services. But if you are, maybe it’s worth it.

I believe it is, so CHANS Lab and CoSphere (a Community of Small-Planet Heroes) are proud to be on EarthNet.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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