2008/07/15 11:00 David Waltner-Toews, The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty and Managing for Sustainability", ISSS

ISSS Madison 2008, 52nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted on the ISSS web site by David Ing.

David Waltner-Toews, University of Guelph, Population Medicine


Will be talking about a book that just came come out this month

Unfortunately, James Kay died

Group worked together on creating experiments, on learning how to deal with health issues and ecological issues

Diamond diagram:

  • Generating desirable and feasible futures
  • Ecological realities:  scientific side, constraints, types of soil, bacteria
  • What do want to see on this landscape?  Nature doesn't have preferences, we have preferences
  • Then loop of management and governance

Examples: many countries

Will talk about Nepalese example

Tapeworm in dogs, doesn't cause problems in dog

  • Comes out in poop
  • Find a wiggling grain like rice in poop
  • Eaten by others
  • Creates a cyst in animals
  • Butchers remove it, then feed to dogs
  • If people live with dogs, they'll get the cyst
  • Surgery, 20% will die

1991 water buffalo

  • Fire to burn hair off
  • Pigs wandering around, vultures, crows
  • Meat cut up, put on rickshaw, meat goes to hotel to feed tourists
  • Butchers don't waste much, consumers take home and trim off

1991-1994 intensive conventional investigation

  • Estimated infection 

Proposed solutions:

  • Slaughterhouse
  • Inspection
  • Keep house pets, kill stray dogs

5 years, nothing changed, something missed in the science

  • What are we missing?

Inappropriate theory --> inappropriate goals --> inappropriate action

Reducing the problem to fit the models

  • Out statistics can't handle it

Dogs are also community police and companions

  • Dogs watching temples

Butchers were providing services, but also carrying on family, caste and cultural traditions

  • Danish came in and built slaughterhouse, but cast a long shadow
  • Family businesses

Germans said could create garbage system, but collapsed, because multiple jurisdictions, caste, role of women

Fuel:  burning off hair, but also for heat

  • No petroleum, they deforest
  • Impacts ecosystem, erosion, river deltas
  • Girls who carry fuel, not in school, they serve someone else's purpose

Pass an animal health act?

  • Were at the beginning of a democracy moving
  • Were in crash and reorganizing phase
  • In butcher's shops, pictures of martyrs
  • Good time to organize, bad time to pass laws
  • Tenuous coalition of Maoists, government collapses


Systemic feedback with users

Scale and nested hierarchy

  • At what scale are decisions being made
  • How does one affect the other
  • Can you study and understand what's happening at different scales?
  • Whom do you trust?

Peruvian Amazon:  household level ... regional level ...

  • Different scales

Multiple perspectives was most difficult as a scientists

  • Pucallpa, for some decades, major economic associations saw it as a forest with a river running through it
  • Main source of protein was fish

How do we engage and prioritize perspectives?

  • Showing kids own poop under a microscope, makes it real for themselves

1994:  Systems thinking with participation

Initally, start with presenting issue

  • Ask about given history:  secondary records
  • Stakeholders, issues, governance
    • Rules, implicit and explicit
  • Collect people's stories, their narratives
    • e.g. bird flu:  economists, farmers, villages
  • To put them together, develop a systemic understanding
    • Part systems analysis:  key processes, temporal scales, 
    • Part systems synthesis:  scenarios for future and when they might occur, e.g. what would you like your grandchildren to say about you?
  • Collaborative learning and action
    • Engaged political decision makers
    • Is there a shared future?
    • Institution?
    • Implementation? Who changes garbage, slaughtering practices
    • Indicators have to emerge from process of engagement, certain indicators owned by certain people

Where can systems make a difference?

  • Who benefits from the system of investigation?
  • Certainly, for the investigators
  • But for the system being investigaged, and the children, the next generation?

Did this with a lot of information, before an ecosystem approach

  • Years later, put in public parks, started composting, built houses for squatters, built public toilets, built own enclosed slaughtering areas
  • Didn't need Denmark to come in, different scale
  • Stabilized river banks
  • New leadership, young guys in butcher association
  • In 6 months, young guys changed the neighbourhood

In 2001, royal family in Nepal self-destructed

  • Person became a king at 2001
  • Fight of Maoists
  • People came out in streets
  • Election, Maoists won, now trying to figure out
  • Had built local resilience, communities had meetings and continued during the turmoil

Changes understanding of the world

  • In 2001, no vultures in the trees, but 95% of vultures have died off, as pain killers used on cows that vultures ate
  • Decision making, governance, management and monitoring

What happened to the parasite?

  • Don't know
  • People in the community hadn't exercised this

Who cares if we make a difference?


  • The Ecosystem Approach, David Waltner-Toews, James Kay, Nina-Marie E. Lister
  • Integrated Assessment of Health and Sustainability of Agroecosystems, Thomas Gitau, Margaret W. Gitau, David Waltner-Toews