Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Open Letter from Dr. Madhusudan Katti to President John Welty

Dr Madhusudan Katti is an associate professor in biology and an expert on urban ecology. This is his letter to Dr. Welty:

Deforestation of an urban ecosystem and failure of campus governance: an open letter to President Welty

Dear President Welty,
I am writing to you today as a tenured faculty member who is deeply disappointed and worried about the direction in which our campus has been heading. While I am sure you are used to hearing complaints of this kind from faculty who may not seem to have the bigger picture you focus on, I would assure you that I think of the role and image of our university in the broadest contexts possible and am acutely concerned about the leadership our campus can (but too often does not) provide in improving the lives and environments of people and nature. I write now in particular to respectfully express my deep sense of rage about the deforestation of a mature urban forest on east campus yesterday morning, to make way for a handful of new parking spaces for students. This deforestation represents a massive failure on the part of our university at multiple levels: in the complete failure of consultation with relevant faculty senate committees (not to mention other interested faculty members) before cutting down over a 100 mature, healthy trees; and in the total lack of any broader vision about how to build a truly sustainable green campus (despite everything we profess on this front) that could be a model for urban landscape development. On a personal academic level, I am also deeply hurt by yesterday’s deforestation because it was the equivalent of ripping up a significant part of my research and teaching laboratory without even the courtesy of any advance warning. Allow me to first provide some background to clarify my perspective, before I address the two main failures I just mentioned above.
I am an Associate Professor in Biology, where I teach various courses in ecology and evolution. Current research in my laboratory focuses on Urban Ecology, where I study, in collaboration with colleagues from multiple other disciplines, the dynamic interactions between ecological and human social components determining biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems such as cities. I am lead PI of Urban Long-Term Research Area - Fresno And Clovis Ecosocial Study ( a multidisciplinary grant funded by the National Science Foundation to study the interplay between urban water policy, residential water use behaviors, landscaping practices, and urban biodiversity in the Fresno Clovis Metro Area, in the context of the onset of water metering in Fresno. This project is perhaps the largest active interdisciplinary research collaboration on our campus, involving over two dozen faculty members and students from at least eight departments in four different colleges, a co-PI from UC-Davis, and several collaborators from UC-Merced and the USDA Forest Service. It builds upon the Fresno Bird Count (, a volunteer-based citizen science project started by me, and run by graduate students in my lab for the past 5 years, to monitor urban biodiversity in our growing urban area. Our research in both these projects has attracted considerable attention from urban ecologists across the US and worldwide: I’ve been asked to Guest Edit a special issue of Cities and the Environment journal this summer, and have also been invited to present a Keynote Address at the upcoming international Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference (URBIO 2012) in October in Mumbai, India. A year ago, the campus development committee at UC Merced sought my advice on building their campus into a living laboratory for teaching and research where principles of urban ecology could be tested and implemented.
All of my research is situated within a framework of Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach which seeks to develop novel ways to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. This reflects my fundamental optimism (in the face of overwhelming reality as my colleagues often point out) about the human capacity to clean up our act and do the right thing towards all life on this pale blue dot we share. While that may sound like a lofty romantic ideal, I actually prefer to take a practical approach by engaging with policy makers, urban planners, and ordinary citizens to explore and develop new ways to soften the impact of our actions on our environment while also improving the quality of life for humans, especially those from underprivileged sectors of our city. While sustainability is a buzzword we often use in promoting our campus, reconciliation ecology offers practical ways to achieve the goals of a sustainable environment.
Thus far, I have enjoyed a great deal of support from my department, college, and higher levels of our university in developing this research program during my way up through the tenure track. You may remember me describing some of this research at various meetings, and perhaps also recall my seeking access to the grounds of your residence at University House as a site for field research on bird behavior by my students. I have also developed new courses in field ecology and reconciliation ecology - which was one of the reasons I was hired here. In my urban research and in these classes, various parts of our campus serve as primary field study sites. Indeed, I am grateful that our campus offers a range of habitats in which to study questions of reconciliation ecology, even though we are rather profligate in our use of water, to maintain many acres of lawn. Many of my students have done interesting original research projects right on campus, including in the now deforested parking lots. We have documented how even these seemingly barren urban spaces (what could seem more devoid of life than a parking lot?) provided valuable habitat to a number of wildlife species including many species of migratory birds protected by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Fox Squirrels which have become something of a mascot on our campus being celebrated during Squirrel Week, a number of Great Horned Owls that live on our campus, other birds of prey (including an occasional Peregrine Falcon), and a number of other species. Alas, these habitats now stand barren, bereft of the tree canopy which provided valuable resources for all these species. Apart from habitat for wildlife, those trees also served as valuable pedagogical tools for field lessons taught by me and several other colleagues in the biological sciences. This deforestation therefore presents an existential dilemma for my entire research and teaching program on this campus: how can I teach reconciliation ecology to my students and others if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus? What credibility will I have at URBIO 2012 next October when I give that Keynote address to an international audience (of academics, policy makers, and practitioners) trying to convince them that it is indeed possible to preserve and nurture biodiversity within urban habitats, when my own university so blithely cuts down a mature urban forest to make room for cars?
All of this brings me to the two most important failures of our university leadership in how this deforestation was visited upon us:
  1. Lack of transparency in the decision making and failure to communicate with faculty members and students: my colleagues and I were completely taken aback upon arriving on campus yesterday to witness the trees torn down. Several of us serve on high level campus committees charged with overseeing the nationally recognized University Arboretum as well as the broader development of our campus (FACEL). Yet none of these committees were aware that all these trees were to be cut down - until after the fact. Had I heard about this plan earlier, I would have gladly helped devise a much better way to accomplish the goal. This action clearly represents a serious dysfunction in how our campus is governed even in such important matters, and such dysfunction needs to be addressed immediately given how demoralized our faculty already are these days. 
  2. Lack of vision for true long-term sustainability: While the ostensible reason for yesterday’s deforestation is to increase parking spaces available to students, the manner in which this is being addressed shows a complete lack of vision or ecological foresight. I know that conventional approaches to construction and land development treat trees as just another physical element on the land to be disposed off at will, but is that really necessary? Was it really necessary to cut down a 100 trees (which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to name just a few) just to add 600 new parking spots? Did whoever make the decision to go this route on the masterplan consider any creative alternatives that would not require the killing of living, breathing, healthy, mature trees? I am sure my colleagues and I could have come up with alternative plans that would preserve the forested nature of our campus environment (recognized nationally in our Arboretum status) while meeting the needs of students. Were alternatives such as aggressively promoting carpooling, bicycling and other options even considered at all when deciding to cut down trees to make more room for cars? Even as our research on local urban ecology is beginning to attract wider attention, we appear to have failed utterly in bringing any ecological transformation to our own campus. I would love for our campus to serve as a model and a demonstration / experimentation ground for the design of more ecologically sensible landscaping and urban habitat design options for others to adopt. Alas, this appears to be a mere pipe dream as our campus rushes headlong down the unsustainable path. What kind of message are we really sending to our students and future generation of leaders by putting cars above trees, at a time when many people around the world are actively developing and implementing solutions to help us transition into the post-carbon age? Is our university even interested in being a leader in finding solutions to our environmental problems? Or are we content to remain a big part of the problem?
I am afraid that yesterday’s deforestation sends exactly the opposite signal on both these counts: that we don’t really care about sustainability or any elements of Nature on our campus, and that we are willing to ride roughshod over both the environment, and any concepts of democratic shared faculty governance as we hasten to turn our campus into another concrete desert.
As the leader of this campus, who must navigate carefully to sustain our campus through extremely difficult financial times, I urge you to not overlook the ramifications of various decisions being thrust upon a campus academic community that feels increasingly alienated and demoralized. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts in finding ways to soften the hard edges of our campus’ physical and psychological footprint, will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead far more bearable for all of us. It can also turn our adversities into opportunities to show genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable academic community and environment for the long term future of this century old university, and indeed our whole world.
Sincerely, and with the very best of intentions,
Madhusudan Katti
Associate Professor, Biology

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