Tag Archives: environment

Measuring sustainability across scales

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

Sustainability, meeting present demands without degrading environments in such a way that we jeopardise their ability to meet the needs of future generations, has been a topic of interest for a great many years as the world’s environments are converted and degraded like never before. Here, I briefly discuss an article in Area, on quantifying global sustainability, alongside a recent sustainability assessment of the world’s fifty ‘most prominent cities’.

The recently-published ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index has attracted much attention in global and national media outlets (e.g. National Geographic, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Gulf Times, and the Australian and US media). In the list of fifty, European cities performed well (the top three being Frankfurt, London, and Copenhagen; Manchester and Birmingham were in the top 20), with the relatively new metropolises of Asia-Pacific (not including Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, which did rather well), the Middle-East and Central and South America lagging far behind. The USA’s cities generally fell in the middle of the list. This index combined three sub-indices of ‘sustainability’: social (‘people’), environmental (‘planet’), and economic (‘profit’). Cities’ positions sometimes changed quite a lot between these sub-indices.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr; author: Ewan Munro. Click on the photograph to see the original.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr (original). Author credit: Ewan Munro.

Elsewhere, in Area, Phillips (2015) recently described a “quantitative approach to … global ecological sustainability”, identifying the importance of population density at this national scale. The ten least ‘ecologically sustainable’ countries in this study had very high population densities (these are: the UK, Italy, Belgium, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, India, Lebanon, Israel, Netherlands, and Singapore). Of these ten that are considered as ‘economically developed’ countries, the combination of high population density, high standard of living, and high GDP are thought to have caused negative environmental impacts that affect people in the present and will affect people into the future. The ‘economically developing’ countries in the list are highlighted as being so because of socio-economic (India) and environmental (Trinidad & Tobago) reasons, and a combination of environment and political instability (Lebanon and Israel).

We therefore see some cross-scale spatial mismatches between these independent studies, whereby countries with purportedly sustainable cities (top 20) have been ranked amongst the least sustainable countries (e.g. UK [London, Manchester, Birmingham], Belgium [Brussels], Netherlands [Amsterdam, Rotterdam], and Singapore). This highlights the importance of spatial scale in sustainability science, and translating this through to planning and management. Indeed, very different approaches will be required between city authorities and national governments to ensure sustainability.

Both of the focal publications in this blog post strive to advance our understanding of ‘sustainability’ by quantifying this concept and its many components, from environmental and ecological, to social and economic. Both studies are global in scope, but the approach, data, and scales of analysis differ, with one focussing on fifty cities and the other on countries. The results, in combination, demonstrate the complexities of sustainability science, especially those regarding geographic scale. They show that quantifying and understanding sustainability across all spatial scales (towns > cities > landscapes > regions > countries > globally) is vital for future planning, targeting of resources, and understanding what we need to do not only for the people of today, but also for the people of the near and distant future.

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REFERENCES

books_icon Phillips, J. (2015). A quantitative approach to determine and evaluate the indicated level and nature of global ecological sustainability. Area, Early View. DOI: 10.1111/area.12174.

60-world2 ARCADIS (2015). Sustainability Cities Index. Available at: http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com/.

Badgers and bovine tuberculosis: how geographical research can help

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

If I mention bovine tuberculosis (bTB), I imagine that a badger, not a cow, would come to mind for many people. British news has recently reported a push for culling these mammals and calls from others for vaccination, with the intention of curbing the spread of bTB. Some famous faces have also engaged in the anti-culling debate (e.g. see ‘Stop the Cull’). There are strong views on both sides because of the damage that bTB can do to cattle herds and farmers’ livelihoods. All parties, of course, want to see a decrease in bTB cases; it is just the preferred means that differ. Here, I outline the debate and move on to discuss how geographical research can help.

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

First, why are badgers getting all of the press? Badgers, along with a number of other mammals, are capable of contracting bTB and spreading it to cattle, the result of which can be devastating because cows that test positive are compulsorily slaughtered. Badgers, perhaps justifiably (they can and do infect cows with bTB), perhaps not (reported infection rates vary but can be very low), are often referred to as a natural ‘reservoir’ of the disease and there is now a strong association between badgers and bTB in cattle. The Government has approved badger culls in England, whilst the Welsh Assembly has favoured a vaccination programme. .

The BBC recently reported on the decision for future culls in England to not be independently monitored as they have been previously. Naturally, this has been heavily criticised and it is disturbing considering the outcome of last year’s pilot culls. However, to many, culling generally seems to not be a sensible or sustainable solution, not least because of the high uncertainty surrounding badger numbers and the associated need for highly costly surveys to decrease this uncertainty and reduce the risk of causing local extinctions, costs which potentially make the whole process financially impracticable (Donnelly & Woodroffe, 2012). Most importantly, such local extinctions would be a tremendous natural loss to an area.

Culls in England were criticised by a Welsh Minister earlier this year who referred to ‘promising’ results from the vaccination efforts in Wales. It has been shown that only a minority (even with varying figures) of badgers actually carry bTB (see The Wildlife Trusts infographic and references therein), meaning that many uninfected, healthy badgers are likely to be killed during a cull. Unlike with vaccinations, culling can also cause badger populations to spread unpredictably (known as perturbation), making control of any infected badgers not killed during the cull more difficult, thus potentially increasing the likelihood of the disease spreading.

Nationally, the Wildlife Trusts are leading the way with badger vaccination efforts and no Wildlife Trust allows culling on its land. Given that badgers live for 3–5 years, it is estimated that herd immunity could be achieved within 5 years (see bottom) as infected animals die over time and the proportion of vaccinated animals increases. How to target vaccination efforts, though? This is where geographers can help.

A recent article in Area (Etherington et al., 2014) recognises the importance of landscape isolation and connectivity, alongside data on badger presence and abundance, in mapping the spatial variation in bTB. Such knowledge is potentially very valuable for bTB management strategies. Indeed, understanding badgers’ local or landscape scale population dynamics and their isolation or connectivity within that broader landscape could allow for more effective vaccine distribution within an area surrounding a farm, for example. Namely, if a population is likely to be connected to certain other populations and a certain farm, it follows that these populations should be vaccinated in parallel. That is of course a simplification of reality, but an enhanced understanding of such dynamics will hopefully be able to contribute to bTB management.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that bTB in badgers represents a small, albeit significant, part of the overall bTB crisis. Overall, it seems to me that targeted vaccination of badger populations in combination with enhanced biosecurity (I have not discussed this here but it is a significant part of the solution; e.g. ‘badger proofing’), is clearly a superior solution to culling when it comes to achieving long-term reductions in bTB. Such an approach also ensures the survival and welfare of the badgers that so many people deeply care about.

(For another Geography Directions blog post on bovine tuberculosis, see ‘Badgers, borderlands and security‘ (by Helen Pallett), which discusses the inherent complexities of disease in nature.)

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books_icon Donnelly, C. A. & Woodroffe, R. (2012). Epidemiology: Reduce uncertainty in UK badger culling. Nature 485, p. 582.

books_icon Etherington, T. R., Trewby, I. D., Wilson, G. J. & McDonald, R. A. (2014). Expert opinion-based relative landscape isolation maps for badgers across England and WalesArea 46, 50-58.

Nature and economics: a necessary marriage?

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

Adams et al. (2013; p. 585): “Neoliberalism may offer a new set of mechanisms in pursuing conservation ends, but also creates new risks and challenges.”

Sustainability and social and economic human prosperity resulting from ecosystem services provided by nature form the heart of the principle of human–nature connectivity (see UK NEA, 2011). Such services are categorised as supporting (e.g. soil formation), provisioning (e.g. food), regulating (e.g. flood regulation) and cultural (e.g. education, recreation) by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2005). These services can then be assigned an economic value and, theoretically, be more wholly incorporated into a neoliberal economy where conservation is seen as protecting an area’s economic value, rather than diminishing it.

Adams et al. (2013) note regular mention of such ecosystem services in UK ‘Large Conservation Area’ (LCA) project descriptions; a shift towards neoliberalism in conservation, and the apparent need to assign an economic value to designated conservation areas, is present in the UK. Such themes also extend to conservation the world over, as we can see by two recent major biodiversity reports.

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Two separate recent international reports on biodiversity – Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the WWF’s Living Planet Report – have been widely referred to by the press. Both reports discuss ecosystem services and the benefits of nature conservation to our well-being and economy. The Telegraph, on the WWF’s report, discusses how humans “depend on ecosystem services”. Meanwhile, The Guardian and Blue & Green Tomorrow discuss the Global Biodiversity Outlook report and the overall failure to meet current global conservation targets. Perhaps then, better incorporation of nature into neoliberal economies via ecosystem services is necessary to convey the value of nature to policy and decision makers, in the UK and beyond.

Of course, ideas of ecosystem services are seldom isolated from opposition to the valuation of nature and for its inherent value, which is arguably priceless. Key arguments against such valuation include: (i) not all of nature’s outputs are useful services, indeed some are disservices, or are neutral, in relation to ‘serving’ people, but the areas providing these may house amazing species and ecosystems (are they at risk if they cannot provide a useful service?); (ii) ecosystem service arguments imply that the conservation of nature should only happen when it is profitable to do so; (iii) technological advancement may surpass nature’s services in the future (then what of a nature reserve that was being protected just because of a service and associated value?); (iv) nature has an intrinsic value and would be better argued for on moral, rather than economic, grounds (list summarised from McCauley, 2006 in Nature). Also see The Ecologist on biodiversity offsetting who ask: “How many pandas is a five star hotel worth?”.

Nature conservation, and associated themes (e.g. biodiversity offsetting, ecosystem services), in the UK and the wider world will only increase in importance and relevance as environments continue to change and, perhaps inevitably, the so called neoliberalisation of nature continues. As territories reserved for nature (and the value of these) are debated, understanding the spatial patterns of biodiversity, and indeed how these will change through time, will be vital so that we can move towards informed, resilient and sustainable decisions. Perhaps true sustainability can only ensue if nature’s intrinsic value takes a dominant role in discussions? Perhaps not, though; perhaps economic valuations will dominate by necessity? Personally, I hope that such intrinsic value is never overshadowed and that economic arguments, where necessary, simply supplement moral ones.

 Adams, W. M., Hodge, I. D. and Sandbrook, L. (2014). ‘New spaces for nature: the re-territorialisation of biodiversity conservation under neoliberalism in the UK‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39, 574–588.

60-world2 Bertini, I. (2014). Governments have failed to protect wildlife, UN biodiversity report findsBlue & Green Tomorrow.

60-world2 Global Biodiversity Outlook 4: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014)

60-world2 Lean, G. (2014). Life on earth is dying, thanks to one species. The Telegraph.

60-world2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

 McCauley, D. J. (2006). Selling out on natureNature 443, 27 – 28.

60-world2 Scrivener, A. (2014). Nature as an ‘asset class’ – the free market’s final frontier? The Ecologist.

60-world2 UK NEA (2011). The UK national ecosystem assessment: technical report UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.

60-world2 Vaughan, A. (2014). UN biodiversity report highlights failure to meet conservation targetsThe Guardian.

60-world2 WWF et al. (2014). Living Planet Report 2014.

Let’s get a proper grip on flooding

By Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Middlesex University, London

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

The floods in winter 2013 show the damage and disruption such events can cause. Spurred on by this flooding the government is moving to secure ‘affordable’ flood insurance arrangements, after a bruising ‘battle’ with the insurance industry and the prospect that the scheme will be vetoed in Europe. Flooding remains highly political!

But the total flood risk that England and Wales is facing has been exaggerated by the Environment Agency for over a decade, as this paper shows (Penning-Rowsell, 2014a). I am not saying that this country cannot suffer from serious flood events (as in 1947, 1953 and 2007). What I do say is that the average economic losses from fluvial and coastal flood are being exaggerated some 3-4 fold by the current national assessments, and that this is not a good basis for wise evidence-based decision making.

The annual average losses are not over £1bn as suggested by the Environment Agency (in NAFRA 2002), reaffirmed by Foresight in 2004, repeated again in the Agency’s Long Term Investment Strategy (LTIS, in 2009), cited in the National Audit Office report in 2011, and repeated once more in the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s 2012 report. The real annual average economic loss value is more like one quarter of that sum: my thinking is that flood depths are being exaggerated, as is the likelihood of existing flood defences being breached.

And the 2013/14 flooding supports this argument. Figure 1 shows that the years 2012 and 2013/14 are indeed above the average, but that the mean of £0.146 billion is actually lower than the mean for the years 1998 to 2010 (£0.147 billion). This is because the year 2011 saw relatively few floods, with a total flood insured loss of no more than £52 million (Penning-Rowsell, 2014b). Grossing up to total losses we get total annual average loss/compensation of c. £0.294bn. Again this is less than one quarter of the figure recently quoted in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Figure 1.  Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

Figure 1.
Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

The results of this research should help the Environment Agency improve its evidence base for the decisions that it has to make: better data equals better decisions. But for this we need a radical overhaul of the Agency’s methodology and data sources: what we have now is simply not good enough (as many involved privately admit). The results also need proper peer review – hitherto minimal – and a willingness to accept that risk may be much lower than those oft-quoted figures that appear now to have become embedded. We want flood risk to be taken seriously, but not at the expense of rigour and transparency.

About the author: Edmund Penning-Rowsell OBE is a Professor of Geography at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, London. Edmund is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University and is currently a member of the Defra/Environment Agency Research Sponsoring Board. He was awarded the O.B.E by the Queen for services to flood risk management in May 2006.

 Penning-Rowsell, E. C. (2014), A realistic assessment of fluvial and coastal flood risk in England and Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12053

 Penning-Rowsell, E C 2014b The 2013/14 floods: what do they tell us about overall flood risk in England and Wales? Circulation. Forthcoming.

60-world2.jpg (15×15) DEFRA 2013 Water Bill Flood Insurance: Flood Re – Finance and Accountability (pdf)

60-world2.jpg (15×15) Ross, T New flood insurance tax ‘could breach EU law’ The Telegraph 26 August 2013

The battle for the Chagos Islands: who counts?

Salomon Atoll in the Chagos islands
Image credit: Anne Sheppard

By Helen Pallett

In June this year the High Court ruled that the UK government’s decision to create a marine park around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean had been lawful. This marked the end of a three year long struggle for the indigenous Chagossian islanders, who had argued that the 2010 designation of the archipelago as a protected marine reserve robbed them of their fishing-centred livelihoods and effectively prevented them from ever returning to their ancestral lands. At 545,000 square miles, the Chagos marine park is the largest in the world, claiming to protect an area as rich in biodiversity as the Galapagos Islands. In the absence of any further barriers to its designation, the new reserve will now be expected to live up to its promise of slowing the rate of regional biodiversity loss in the Indian Ocean and replenishing its fish stocks.

The media coverage of this legal struggle has shed light on the continuing influence of the archipelago’s colonial history on its present fate and that of its islanders. In 1965 the British expelled the Chagossians in order to allow the Americans to build an airbase on the main island, Diego Garcia, and also deterritorializing the islands from the Mauritian state. This act prompted an extensive legal battle for the Chagossians to try to secure their right to return, with challenges in the British and international courts both from the islanders themselves and the government of Mauritius. The recent decision to create the marine park has been interpreted as a continuation of the British colonial claim to the islands (which are still designated as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory), with the clear intent of preventing the return of the Chagossians to the archipelago and to their previous way of life.

There are strong parallels between the story of the Chagos islands and the account offered by Emma Norman in a recent article in Area on the governance of the activities of indigenous fishing communities in Boundary Bay, North America. Norman describes a process of what she calls ‘ecocolonisation’, whereby indigenous communities suffer the consequences of the seizure and degradation of their lands by an outside force. She sees this ecocolonisation as occurring in three main ways, all of which also resonate with the story of the Chagossians. Her first mode of ecocolonisation is through the containing of land and sea into different political regimes. In Norman’s account this is exemplified by how differently the activities of indigenous communities on the Canadian side of Boundary Bay have been governed, compared to those living the south of the bay which is governed by United States. Similarly, the territorialization of the Chagos Islands as a British Indian Ocean Territory and relatedly as a US military base has had direct and devastating effects on the landscape and people’s of the Islands, by designating who had rights to make decisions about the appropriate uses of land and sea. These territorial boundaries has been actively contested through the legal battles of the Chagossians and the government of Mauritius. The second form of ecocolonisation which Norman describes is the effects of pollution inputs which come from outside of the territory. Again, such debates are clearly alive around the creation of the Chagos marine park, as the degradation of this environment has been described as a problem of broader pollution and overfishing throughout the Indian Ocean.

The most central element of Emma Norman’s account of Boundary Bay, is the third mode of ecocolonisation that she describes; a process she feels has been left out of many accounts of the governance of indigenous communities, and something which helps us to understand the more subtle negotiations and practices which are at play, beyond the narrative of colonial greed. This process is what Norman calls the politics of calculation. A focus on the politics of calculation forces us not only to think about who counts in the sense of whose perspectives are sought and whose welfare is valued, but also to think literally about who is doing the counting in these processes. Norman argues that the technologies and methods with which governments and administrative bodies measure pollution, assess biodiversity and designate certain territories and species as threatened, all carry with them certain kinds of rationalities which themselves have political effects. In this case the technologies and rationalities used by the British government and by conservation bodies such as the IUCN, designating the Chagos islands as in need of environmental protection, are very different rationalities from those which govern the (relatively low impact) activities of the Chagossians themselves. Norman would argue that the political effects of these instruments are central to understanding the story of the Chagossians and how the British high court was able to justify its decision to uphold the creation of this marine park. This politics of calculation is what sets the Chagos Archipelago apart from the other inhabited islands in the Indian Ocean as an area of rich biodiversity which must be protected. It is also what foists the responsibility for replenishing the Indian Ocean’s fish stocks onto the beleaguered Chagossians and decentres the gaze from the polluting activities of sea-faring industries and the American military.

60-world2 Chagos Islands marine park is compatible with law, high court rules The Guardian

60-world2 Chagos Islands: open secrets The Guardian

60-world2 Britain Faces UN tribunal over Chagos Islands marine reserve The Guardian

60-world2 Chagos marine park is lawful, High Court rules BBC 

books_icon Emma S Norman, 2013, Who’s counting? Spatial politics, ecocolonisation and the politics of calculation in Boundary BayArea 45 179-187

Forest decline in the eastern U.S.?

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

by Peter Klepeis

Most news coverage of forests tends to focus on deforestation. And for good reason. The Food and Agricultural Organization concludes that from 2000-2010 upwards of 13 million ha of forest per year were converted to other uses or lost to natural causes. Most of the clearing occurs in the tropics, and the resultant biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide emissions, and threats to local inhabitants are among the reasons to be concerned.

Global trends in forest cover hide regional differences, however. Many temperate and rich-country contexts have been experiencing forest recovery for decades. In the eastern United States, for example, cleared areas reached their peak in the mid-to-late 19th century, but this was followed by widespread natural forest regeneration. This forest expansion is celebrated for increasing carbon sequestration and improving water quality, reducing flood risk, decreasing soil erosion, expanding wildlife habitat, and providing opportunities for recreation and extractive industries. But it is not entirely positive. As described in Jim Sterba’s new book Nature Wars, extensive forest cover, a decline in hunters, and a lack of natural predators has led to a boom in wildlife – and deer in particular – with tick-bearing disease, auto accidents, and munched veggie gardens among the negative consequences.

Regardless of its positive or negative impacts on nature and society, what explains the shift from net forest loss to net gain? In the early 1990s the geographer Alexander Mather started to develop forest transition theory: economic development, the abandonment of lands marginal to agriculture, and the movement of rural inhabitants to urban areas tend to stimulate forest recovery. The theory captures fairly well the recovery trends seen in the U.S. and Europe over the past few hundred years. But the theory is not without its critics. Forest change is dynamic, non-linear, and the factors involved are linked to specific places and time periods. Not surprisingly, therefore, recent scholarship documents how – after decades of net gain – forest cover in the eastern U.S. started to decline in the 1970s.

In a new article in the journal Area, my co-authors and I use aerial photographs to evaluate changing forest cover between 1936 and 2008 for a town in central New York State. As expected, a decline in the farming sector and changing life and livelihood goals within farming families led to 25.8 % of the town reforesting. Two new trends emerge, however. First, there is a pronounced increase in the percentage of forest recovering on prime agricultural soils, which holds the potential to diversify habitat and increase biodiversity. Prior to 1994, reforestation on high quality soils was rare. Second, alternative land uses and invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis), represent possible new forms of forest disturbance. Landowners are starting to develop wind power and natural gas, and practice silviculture. Also, there is steady growth in amenity-oriented land use and rural residential development. These new dynamics challenge theories of forest change, and raise questions about the prospects of sustainable land and forest use in the region.

The author: Peter Klepeis is Associate Professor of Geography at Colgate University, N.Y., U.S.

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Klepeis P, Scull P, LaLonde T, Svajlenka N and Gill N 2013 Changing forest recovery dynamics in the northeastern United States Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12016

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Mather A S and Needle C L 1998 The forest transition: a theoretical basis Area 30 117-24

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Grainger A 1995 The forest transition: an alternative approach Area 27 242-51

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Mather A S 1992 The forest transition Area 24 367-79

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Sterba J 2012 America gone wild Wall Street Journal 2 November

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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2012 State of the world’s forests FAO, Rome

Affecting Our Physique: The Place of Obesity

by Jen Turner

By Octagon (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Research carried out with people living in Colorado, US, has found that Americans who lived well above sea level were less likely to be obese than those in low-lying areas.  Reported in the Mail (online), Lead researcher Dr Jameson Voss, from Uniformed Services University in Maryland, said: “I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect… I wasn’t expecting such a consistent pattern as what was emerging.” The study based on data from 400,000 people living in Colorado illustrated that a person’s obesity risk dropped with every 660ft increase in elevation.

To examine obesity rates at different altitudes, the researchers combined information from several databases, including a telephone health survey of 422,603 Americans from 2011. The researchers had information on 236 people who lived at the highest altitude of at least 9,800 feet above sea level. Those people tended to smoke less, eat healthier and exercise more.

The researchers also had information on 322,681 people who lived in the lowest altitude range – less than 1,600ft above sea level. After taking into account other factors that could influence the results such as retirement age, the researchers found adults living in the lowest altitude range had a Body Mass Index (BMI) – a measurement of weight in relation to height – of 26.6. That compared to people who lived in the highest altitude range, who had a BMI of 24.2. A healthy BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9.

Dr Voss considered that the associations persist over the long term, with changes in elevation perhaps affecting appetite hormones, growth and how many calories the body burned. These findings could help explain the difference in obesity rates between states.  However, the results are unable to conclude whether moving to an area of high altitude would mean you would automatically loss your excess weight.  It would be interesting to study whether obesity prevalence would change if the research participants moved to a lower altitude.

The rapid rise in obesity rates over the last 30 years has been considerably noteworthy for geographers due to its profound implications for the health of populations. A recent paper by Dianna M. Smith, and Steven Cummins explains that, as this rise has occurred over a relatively short biological time scale, it is suggested that changes in the environments to which we are exposed may be to blame, rather than individual genetic endowment. Focusing on developed world nations, this article briefly reviews this emerging ‘ecological’ perspective in the search for the causes of obesity. This article explores how aspects of our environment might disrupt ‘energy balance’ through influencing food consumption and physical activity. It focuses on three hypothesised pathways for environmental risk: the organisation of built physical space, the social environment and the political environment. The article demonstrates that a consideration of scale and context are also important in the search for the environmental drivers of weight gain. For the discerning geographer, these inherent relationships between physical spaces and the body continue to be of interest; with this particular topic generating another avenue of study surrounding the transformation of the individual through space.

books_iconDianna M. Smith, and Steven Cummins, 2008, Obese Cities: How Our Environment Shapes OverweightGeography Compass, 3(1), 518-535.

books_iconJ D Voss, P Masuoka, B J Webber, A I Scher and R L Atkinson, 2013, Association of elevation, urbanization and ambient temperature with obesity prevalence in the United StatesInternational Journal of Obesity, DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2013.5.

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Want to slim down? Living at a higher altitude can help (and it’s nothing to do with climbing)Mail (online), 13 February 2013.