Keystone Contributors

When it comes to common resources, a failure to cooperate is a failure to control consumption. In Garret Hardin’s classic tragedy, everyone over-consumes and equally contributes to the detriment of the commons. But a relative few can also ruin a resource for the rest of us.

Biologists are familiar with the term “keystone species,” coined in 1969 after Robert Paine’s intertidal exclusion experiments. Paine found that by removing the few five-limbed carnivores, – the purple sea star, Pisaster ochraceous, – from the seashore, he could cause an overabundance of its prey, mussels, and a sharp decline in diversity. Without sea stars, mussels outcompeted sponges. No sponges, no nudibranches. Anemones were also starved out, because they eat what the sea stars dislodge. Pisaster was the keystone that kept the intertidal community together. Without it, there were only mussels, mussels, mussels. The term “keystone species,” inspired by the purple sea star, refers to a species that has a disproportionate effect relative to its abundance.

While a keystone species refers to a specific species that structures an ecosystem, I consider keystone consumers to be a specific group of humans that structures a market for a particular resource. Intense demand by a few individuals can bring flora and fauna to the brink.

There are keystone consumers in the markets for caviar, slipper orchids, tiger penises, plutonium, pet primates, diamonds, antibiotics, Hummers, and seahorses. Niche markets for frog legs in pockets of the United States, Europe, and Asia are depleting frog populations in Indonesia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Seafood lovers in hgh-end restaurants are causing stocks of long lived fish species like orange roughy or toothfish in Antarctica to crash. Chinese consumers for shark-fin soup has led to the collapse of several shark species.

One in every four species of mammals, 1.141 of the 5,487 mammalian species have become extinct since the sixteenth century, – many, like the Tasmanian tiger, the great auk, and Stellar’s sea cow, because of hunting by a relatively small group. It is possible for a small minority of humans to precipitate the disappearance of an entire species.

The consumption of nonliving resources is also imbalance. The 15 per cent of the world’s population that lives in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia consumes thirty two times more pollution than the developing world, where the remaining 85 per cent of humans live. City dwellers consume more than people living in the countryside. A recent study determined that the ecological footprint for the average resident of vancover, British Columbia, was thirteen times higher than that of his suburban/rural counterpart.

Developed nations, urbanites, ivory collectors: The keystone consumer depends on the resource in question. In the case of water, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of use in the United States; large scale farms are the key consumers. So why do many conservation efforts focus on households rather than on water efficiency on farms? The keystone consumer concept helps focus conservation efforts where returns on investments are highest.

Like keystone species, keystone consumers also have a disproportionate impact relative to their abundance. Biologists identify keystone species as conservation priorities because their disappearance could cause the loss of many other species. In the marketplace, keystone consumers should be priorities because their disappearance could lead to the recovery of the resource. Humans should protect keystone species and curb keystone consumption. The lives of others depend on it.

Jennifer Jacquet
Postdoctoral researcher in environmental economics
University of British Columbia
Source: This will make you smarter – new scientific concepts to improve your thinking
Edited by John Brockman

Quantum Ideas are ideas which could improve our ability to create possibilities.

Focusing our attention on keystone ideas and opportunities for creative community enterprise is how we focus our creative energy, our creative resources, and our creative enterprise, and how we maximize our creative contribution to our common human interests as communities of common enterprise. What are the keystone contributors to creating possibilities for our future and the future of our world?

Community connections

Creative connections

The ten most important scientific concepts to improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit.

Source: This will make you smarter – new scientific concepts to improve your thinking
Edited by John Brockman

Every era has its intellectual hotspots. The most influential thinkers in our own era live at the nexus of the cognitive sciences, evolutionary psychology, and information technology. John Brockman gathers members of this network for summits. He arranges symposia and encourages online conversations. Through, he has multiplied the talents of everyone involved.

The disciplinary structure in the universities is an important foundation. It enforces methodological rigor. But it doesn’t really correlate with reality. Why do we have one field, psychology, concerning the inner life and another field, sociology, concerning the outer life, when the distinction between the two is porous and maybe insignificant? If there’s going to be a vibrant intellectual life, somebody has to drag researchers out of their ghettos, and Brockman has done that through Edge.

The explicit purpose of this book is to give us better tools to think about the world. Nicholas Christakis is one of several scholars to emphasize that many things in the world have properties not present in their parts. They cannot be understood simply by taking them apart. You have to observe the interactions of the whole. Clay Sharkey emphasizes that while we often imagine bell curves everywhere, in fact the phenomena of the world are often best described by the Pareto Principle.

Most of the essays in the book are about metacognition. They consist of thinking about how we think. If you lead an organization, or have the sort of job that demands that you think about the world, these tools are like the magic hammers. They will help you, now and through your life, to see the world better, and to see your own biases more accurately.

There are insights about what sort of creatures we are. Some of these are not all that uplifting. Gloria Origgi writes about Kakonomics, our preference for low quality outcomes. But Roger Highfield, Jonathan Haidt, and others write about the “snuggle for existence”: the fact that evolution is not only about competition, but profoundly about cooperation and even altruism.

Several of the essays in this book emphasize that we see the world in deeply imperfect ways, and that our knowledge is partial. They have respect for the scientific method and the group enterprise precisely because the stock of our own individual reason is small. Amid all the charms to follow, that mixture of humility and daring is the most unusual and important.

From the foreword to
This will make you smarter – new scientific concepts to improve your thinking

David Brooks,
Columnist, New York Times
Author, The Social Animal

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.
The Edge