Thursday, July 23, 2015

Consequences of Sustainability - Guest Post by Susan Schneider

As long term strategic planners, we are often asked to take abstract concepts that require forecasting into the future and create logical solutions that we can implement now in the hopes of creating a sustainable solution for current problem. This can not only be a daunting task but require decision makers to take out their crystal balls and predict the future. In our world, the crystal ball is usually an extensive uncertainly model, years of monitoring data, or maps generated with layers of data, but the reality is that we use these tools to help us make predictions about the future so that we can develop long terms plans now. This is essential and if done correctly, can result in highly productive and sustainable solutions for a diverse set of issues. Long term planning is a key feature of any sustainable program and is the hallmark of sustainability. The following piece explores this concept in more detail.

Today, I am excited to introduce Dr. Susan Schneider as our guest blogger. She has packed a lot into a short piece where she looks at the consequences of sustainability with regard to overfishing. Susan Schneider, PhD is the author of the award-winning book The Science of Consequences and has just completed a book tour of 90 talks across the US and Scandinavia.  Her book brings an inclusive interdisciplinary approach to learning principles, their biological context, and their many applications, including sustainability.  The book received coverage in Nature. As a Visiting Scholar at the University of the Pacific, Schneider holds graduate degrees in engineering (Brown) and psychology (University of Kansas).  She has been a board member for several Audubon chapters for 14 years, and is currently seeking to transition from academia to the nonprofit sector. You can email Susan Schneider at to learn more about her work.

Consequences for Sustainability
Susan M. Schneider

“Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And understanding them—or, often, ferreting them out—is the key to solving just about any riddle.” - Levitt & Dubner, Freakonomics

One of the poster children for sustainability riddles is overfishing.  The late 20th century collapse of the Atlantic shad and cod fisheries are just two of the more recent examples in a long history.  As award-winning journalist Tom Horton noted of the Chesapeake Bay’s depleted shad fishery:  "By 1890, bay watermen had responded to the relative scarcity in the same, time-honored fashion they still often follow - they redoubled harvesting efforts and developed more efficient catching methods" (Bay Country, p. 45).  It’s a matter of short-term vs long-term consequences.  Guess which ones often win.

Individually, too:  Even when long-term consequences are as sure as anything can be - such as painful tooth decay and expensive dental work - people can still put off dentist visits.  Throw in a little uncertainty and toss the wiser choice with it.  A riddle indeed.

Native Americans kept their harvesting of Atlantic shad sustainable.  It was only with the arrival of the European colonists that overfishing became a problem.  Early regulations were largely ignored, and in 1738 a full-scale battle ensued.  Lives were lost.
We can project benefits-to-costs ratios over time, and Cambridge Professor Andrew Balmford did just that for a number of environmental policy challenges like overfishing (Science).  Going for the desirable long-term consequences of sustainability often brought very high ratios - but in the face of substantial short-term costs.  Can we develop strategies to help surmount this barrier?
Yes, but we need all the help we can get.  Nobel Prize-winning environmental economist Elinor Ostrom wrote of the “complex, multivariable, nonlinear, cross‑scale, and changing systems" that made careful tailoring essential for success in addressing each challenge.  With a multitude of factors to consider, an interdisciplinary analysis is often essential.  But it can be helpful to remember that everything still comes down to lots of individual choices - choices influenced by their consequences. 
One of the relevant sciences has long focused on the role of consequences.  In The Science of Consequences, I cover the principles of learning from consequences, their biological context, and their wide range of applications.  Researchers in this area worked out the mathematics of the most typical drop in consequence value over time:  the "delay discounting" function that is pivotal in behavioral economics as well.  Not surprisingly, the longer the delay, the more the consequences get discounted.  That’s just the beginning of analyses based on the functions of our choices, and all the factors influencing them.

A few of the many success stories:
* US Safe Harbor programs provide incentives for landowners to preserve habitat for endangered species.  Andrew Balmford again (Wild Hope):  Despite Endangered Species Act protection, a woodpecker species was losing ground.  When the arrival of these birds meant increased liability and restrictions, landowners used techniques like preemptive logging to avoid these consequences.  Instead, putting out the welcome mat under a Safe Harbor agreements offered protection, and sometimes cost-sharing.  So far, most landowners have been happy.

* Utilities send community comparison reports to consumers, with happy faces for reduced energy use.  It made a difference in places like California, Minnesota, and Washington.  Once new habits become established – turning off lights, unplugging "vampire" electronics - how much easier to maintain a more sustainable lifestyle.

* In a very direct approach, arid Las Vegas successfully paid residents to switch from water-wasting lawns to water-wise yards.  Again, once established, people adapt to the new lifestyle (as they've done with recycling).  And there's much to appreciate in addition to the savings in water charges:  more birds and butterflies and (often) decreased maintenance.  New social norms have developed, helping to support the new look and change attitudes.

These are all positive strategies that make economic sense as well.  Positive consequences aren’t just what we hope for when we work toward sustainability.  They’re an essential tool to help us get there.


Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. "Shad and River Herring," website, consulted July 13, 2015.‑river‑herring

Balmford, A.  Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success.  Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012.

Balmford, A., A. Bruner, P. Cooper, R. Costanza, S. Farber, R. E. Green, M. Jenkins, et al. “Economic Reasons for Conserving Wild Nature.” Science 297 (2002): 950–53.

Horton, T.  Bay Country.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1987.

Levitt, S. D., & S. J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: Morrow, 2005.

Ostrom, E. “A Diagnostic Approach for Going beyond Panaceas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (2007): 15181–87.

Schneider, S. M.  The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2012.

Schneider, S. M.  "For Presidents' Day (US): Sustainability, Consequences, and the ‘Founding Fish.’"  Web blog post, The Science of Consequences, February 22, 2013.