Human ecology discussed by furloughed adviser

Science adviser to the director of the National Park Service used controversial examples aimed at an inciting audience engagement to illustrate the complexity of human ecology.

In a talk titled, “The Ecology of Hope and Devastation,” Gary Machlis , science advisor to the director of the National Park Service and professor of conservation at the University of Idaho, used cocaine production in Colombia as a relatable example to articulate the far-reaching effects of human actions on a global, and environmental scale on Oct. 14.

Machlis presented a PowerPoint slide with the recipe for the manufacture of cocaine.

After letting audience’s excitement climax over the slide, Machlis added the caveat that it was “for illustrative, teaching purposes only.”

The chemicals used in production of cocaine are seeping into the water supplies far upriver in Colombia, Machlis said.

The more demand there is for cocaine, the more cocaine is made.

Machlis connected these two ideas to argue that the water quality of Colombia could be directly tied to a person’s cocaine habit anywhere in the world.

“Human ecology has to look at the dark side of things and how something in this part of the world has a strong effect on something far away,” Machlis said.

Machlis drew on his experience working with panda’s in China to teach the audience about how human interaction with nature can disrupt delicate ecosystems.

“You also have to understand territory,” Machlis said when referring to the studying of human ecology. To illustrate this point, Machlis presented a slide of the map of gangs of Los Angeles.

“You don’t have to be an ecologist to figure out the areas where it’s not safe to be,” Machlis said while explaining the overlapping territories of rival gangs.

The dangerous overlapping-territories affect the habits of people in that environment based upon the perceived areas of safety.

“The struggle for turf is an ecological matter whether it’s wolves in Yellowstone [National Park] or people in Los Angeles,” Machlis said.

As social scientists have come to accept the driving force of human exploitation of resources upon change of ecosystems, there has been an effort to understand those resources beyond face value.

“This looks like water behind a dam,” Machlis said, gesturing to another slide, “but, that dam is not just damming up water, it’s concentrating economic wealth, political power. There’s all of these other things that are happening besides just the water.

“The challenge is to apply that kind of thinking to the real world problems of the day, to apply them in ways that can actually make a difference,” Machlis said.

Continuing with the trend of countering real world problems, Machlis left the audience with one example of how individuals could make a difference: developing a solar-powered refugee tent, like the one designed by IKEA earlier this year.

Ryan Morgan / Senior reporter

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