Research Interests

My research for the last twenty five years has been about the development of the ecosystem approach as a way of understanding and managing our role in the biosphere. My research activities span the full spectrum from the theoretical and epistemological basis for an ecosystem approach, to the formulation of ecosystem based environmental policy, the development of ecosystem monitoring programs, to on the ground planning both in the context of urban, industrial, and natural ecosystems and the greening of institutions.

My research work began with my Ph.D. which focused on the thermodynamics of the self-organization of living systems using the ideas of complex systems theory, particularly non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The purpose of my research is:

  1. to understand the development process of complex systems
  2. to use this understanding to develop a theory of ecosystem dynamics (both human -socio-economic and natural-biophysical)
  3. to develop a method for evaluating and measuring ecosystem integrity
  4. to develop a theory and practice of ecosystem management and planning.
This work incorporates elements of information theory, systems theory, hierarchy theory, thermodynamics, catastrophe theory and ecology imbedded in the epistemological framework of post-normal science.

Development of Complex Systems
(Self-organization theory and Thermodynamics):

What is the appropriate thermodynamic description of self-organizing systems?

We (with R. Fraser, Mechanical Engineering, UW) are examining different exergy analysis techniques in order to ascertain their utility in describing self-organization. In particular we are looking at simple self-organizing systems (e.g. Benard cells) and very simple biological systems (single cell systems).

A theory of the thermodynamics of self-organization.

In collaboration with E. Schneider, we have developed a theory which suggests that self-organization is a phenomenological manifestation of the propensity to survive while increasing exergy use, thus furthering the universal proclivity for equilibrium, the destruction of all gradients. We have discussed the implications of this theory for describing and measuring the development of biological systems, particularly ecosystems.

What are the empirically observed thermodynamic changes in self-organizing systems?

We have examined this for simple systems such as Benard Cells. With J. Luvall (NASA), we are working to analyse the energy budgets of ecosystems using thermal remote sensing equipment from aircraft. In particular we use surface temperature as a surrogate for exergy use. C. Swanton at Guelph, in association with us, has measured surface temperature in crops and in old fields (regenerating agricultural lands) over the course of two summers. In all these case studies surface temperature decreases (exergy use increases) as ecological organization increases. These empirical tests suggests that surface temperature is a robust measure of ecosystem development which holds promise as an indicator for use in remotely sensed evaluation of ecosystem integrity.

How does the flow structures in ecosystems change with self-organization?:

This work focuses on developing measures which describe the flow of resources in ecosystems. The measures are based on economic input/output analysis, trophic analysis, cycle analysis, and information theory. Much of this work has been done in conjunction with R. E. Ulanowicz (Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, University of Maryland).

Ecosystem Management for Integrity:

The concept of "ecosystem integrity" is the current attempt to characterize the well being of ecosystems. I am working closely with D. Waltner-Toews, G. Francis & H. Regier, on the evolution of the notion of stress-response and ecosystem health as put forward by Regier & Rapport. We have developed an ecosystem approach for evaluating ecological integrity and for the development of management strategies that promote ecological integrity. We are currently working on several case studies.

Most notable of these is the Huron Natural Area project which is an exercise in the rehabilitation of a remnant piece of landscape into a natural area. In collaboration with V. Rynnimeri and T. Seebohm, of the UW school of Architecture, we have recently completed a Master Plan for the natural area.

The practice of Post-Normal Science: an Ecosystem Approach

What are the guiding principles for studying complex systems?

In collaboration with the so-called Dirk Gently gang; G. Francis, H. Regier, S. Funtowicz, J. Ravetz, G. Gallopin, M. Giampietro, D. Waltner-Toews, M. O'Connor and T.F.H. Allen, and honourary member Douglas Adams, we are developing a set of guiding questions for the study of complex systems and a methodology for doing this. In particular this focuses on the issues of uncertainty and surprise in nested self-organizing systems. The problematique is of decision making in the face of complexity and high risk, of charting a sustainable course in uncertain waters.

Developing the practice of post-normal science: an ecosystem approach.

Through a number of case studies we are developing an ecosystem approach for sustainability as an example of a post-normal science. In particular we have been developing:

Greening the Campus

Turning the University of Waterloo campus into a showcase, environmentally appropriate institution is the goal of the Greening the Campus initiative. Students, faculty, and staff together are investigating ways in which to improve the university as an ecosystem. Since 1990, over one hundred student reports have been done. Many of these reports have resulted in changes in university practice. In 1995, a formal university committee with representation from each faculty was created along with a WWW site showcasing student work. I was the chair of this initiative from 1990-1995. Currently I chair a committee on the development of an Environmental Literacy centre at UW.

Other Interests:

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Last updated 27 December, 1999.