Editors’ picks: Our favourite articles from 2011

  • 2011•12•29

    William Auckerman, Heather Chai, Mark Notaras, Stephan Schmidt and Carol Smith

    Editors’ favourites

    Photo: James Gordon

    When we launched the “new” (current) unu.edu website in April 2011, a major change was the addition of weekly – now biweekly — articles that showcase the research and teaching activities of the global United Nations University system.

    To wrap up the year, the  UNU Media Centre editorial team would like to share with you our favourites from among the 62 articles published in 2011. If you are new to the unu.edu website, or if you missed an article when it first appeared, we think you’ll find this baker’s dozen of articles worth a look.

    The editors′ favourites

    “Could climate science become open source?” (2011/3/19) ponders whether climate science could benefit by being more firmly grounded in the principles of openness, perhaps along the lines of the free and open source software communities and open content movements. Mark Notaras likes this article because it “brings a new edge to the discussion about science. Why should information be captured by certain organizations? Is a better model out there, and can the UN learn from other sectors?”

    “Tokyo drifts from seafood to meat eating” (2011/3/19) looks at Japan’s changing diets and the associated food self-sufficiency challenge, as well as the impact on countries bearing the environmental burden of supplying the growing Japanese appetite for meat. This article, says Mark, “shows a critical global problem in a local context, through grass-roots data collection and analysis”. He also likes the article’s graphical representation of the data. “It’s not only enlightening to the reader, but provides a chance for other researchers to look more closely at ways to address the problem, using this research as a point of departure”.

    “Health and human security in emergencies” (2011/4/19) argues that the international community should re-think its approach to dealing with health and human security issues when responding to natural and man-made disasters. Heather Chai says: “I moved to Japan earlier this year, just before the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Glimpsing Japan move along its road to recovery has also been a defining element of 2011 for me. This article struck a chord because it reminded me that human and natural disasters can affect countries, people and communities everywhere, in both the developing and developed world, and that the right to health should always be at the forefront of responses to emergencies.”

    “Fighting the Colonel: UN Security Council sanctions on Libya” (2011/5/10) focuses on the then-ongoing conflict in Libya, and the actual and potential role of the international community in dealing with that conflict, from the perspective of UN Security Council resolutions. Stephan Schmidt likes this article because it presents “an informative historical summary on Libya with a connection to the situation in 2011, and is argued from several angles”.

    “Multilateralism 2.0: The transformation of international relations” (2011/5/31) charts the rise of emerging nations and regional organizations within the multilateral system. Mark considers this “a model article. It is a short, simple explanation of a phenomenon we have to acknowledge in the world — even if some Western countries are slow to do so. The style and language are approachable, while the content is broad enough to be interesting but focused enough to get a strong message across”.

    “Japan’s urban agriculture: cultivating sustainability and well-being” (2011/9/20) looks at what is special about urban agriculture in Japan, and its role in local ecosystem services and biodiversity enhancement, urban footprint reduction and heat-island mitigation. Carol Smith says that “with global urbanization set to continue, localizing food production is a must for many reasons — all of which this excellent article looks at. There are challenges, but there are opportunities too, and this look at those faced by Japan is very interesting”.

    “Summer school with a difference” (2011/9/27) reports on a three-week programme in Yunnan, China, co-organized by UNU, that helps participants from around the globe learn about the complex relationship between societies, culture and the environment. Stephan thinks this article is “an excellent report on a summer school in relation to UNU. It offers factual information combined with student quotes, enabling participants to get the word out by reporting directly from the ground”.

    “Asia’s emerging asbestos epidemic” (2011/10/5) looks at research on a global epidemic, and the status of asbestos-related diseases in Asia. Stephan considers this “a great study on a pressing topic, with well presented research data; there is potential for a second and third follow-up article. It is a concise article with lessons that can be learned from industrialized countries and applied to developing countries”.

    “Can the patent commons help eco-technology diffusion?” (2011/10/13) analyses the role and usefulness of patents in generating innovation and promoting the diffusion of green technologies. Bill Auckerman says that “while patents are intended to stimulate and reward innovation, the patent system as it is implemented today too often tends to obstruct the spread of new technologies and impede the development of derivative products. This article is a favourite because it looks at the issue within the context of environmental protection technologies, from the perspective of the Eco-Patent Commons initiative”.

    “Siblings, but not twins: POC and R2P” (2011/11/01) examines the origins and evolution of the “Protection of Civilians” (POC) and “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) concepts, and discusses their applicability to the situation in Libya in 2011 within the context of Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. Heather likes “the way this article explains succinctly the development, similarities and differences between these concepts. Increasing our understanding about both R2P and POC will hopefully help us better protect the human rights and humanity of people caught in conflict in the future”.

    “Unraveling the drivers of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity loss” (2011/11/08) explores a complex issue that requires multi-level policy responses and concerted efforts. Carol chose this one “partly because biodiversity loss is such an important topic, and deserves its share of the spotlight. But this article is also great because it clearly overviews the causes, which for those living in other parts of the globe is very illuminating; we can even see the part played by international trade in this regional phenomenon. Lastly, the authors give examples for a policy response mix that makes the complex solution look hopeful”.

    “The killing of coral reefs and what it means” (2011/12/06) features an interview with marine ecologist Prof. Peter Sale of UNU-INWEH. Carol says: “I think this recent Q&A is destined to stay one of my favorites, simply because Professor Sale — an expert with 40 years of experience — is so frank and passionate. You come away truly feeling the urgency of this issue.” Bill likes it for similar reasons: “This interview helps to put a human face on the work of UNU. It reminds us that behind the science there are scientists: real people who are passionate about what they do, and who know that, far from being ‘dry’, science can be controversial.”

    “Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change” (2011/12/13) explains why indigenous peoples’ collective knowledge of the land, sky and sea makes them excellent observers and interpreters of climate change. Heather “found this a fascinating article to edit, as it cast a clear spotlight on an essential, but often marginalized, aspect of climate change mitigation and debates. I liked the focus on agency, not victimization. And, most of all, I enjoyed tracking the varied and interactive comments that the author received”. This article was also one of Bill’s picks: “We too often reject so-called ‘traditional knowledge’ as being nonscientific; we consider it — if we bother to consider it at all — as anecdotal, non-quantitative, obsolete, or even mere superstition. But as this article points out, there are valid insights, important observations  and innovative techniques to be found in traditional knowledge.”

    The most-read articles

    Those are the editors’ picks, but what have been the favourite articles among unu.edu website readers?

    While “pageviews” is not necessarily a valid proxy for popularity, the 10 most-read (or, at least, most-clicked-on) articles of 2011 were:

    1. Natural disasters and human security (2011/4/29)
    2. Entrepreneurs and economic development (2011/3/23)
    3. Arab Spring: Will more freedom boost knowledge transfer? (2011/6/14)
    4. The Responsibility to Protect (2011/4/5)
    5. Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change (2011/12/13)
    6. Summer school with a difference (2011/9/27)
    7. Assessing NATO’s involvement in Libya (2011/10/27)
    8. Japan’s urban agriculture: cultivating sustainability and well-being (2011/9/20)
    9. Multilateralism 2.0: The transformation of international relations (2011/5/31)
    10.  Free and Open Source Software in sub-Saharan Africa (2011/6/28)

    Since this ranking is based on a simple “number of pageviews” count, it is skewed towards those articles that have been online the longest, and thus had a longer time span in which to garner clicks.

    What’s particularly interesting about this list is that while, as of year-end, the top four articles had been online for more than six months, “Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change” (one of  our “editors’ picks”) powered its way to number 5 on our most-read list after just two weeks online.

    Do you have a favourite article that wasn’t one of our “editors’ picks”? Or do you have an opinion  about one of the articles that was? Leave a comment in the Disqus field below telling us which 2011 article you most liked (or didn′t like).

  • bill


    Sorry for the last-minute request. Here’s a rough version of the 29 December article. I’ll be expanding/refining the text and reordering the bullet list today & tomorrow, but the list of favourite articles, at least, is set. Hope you can come up with an appropriate featured image.

    Thanks, & happy new year


  • bill

    Hi Curtis,

    Guess you didn’t see my request in time, or were busy over the year-end holidays. I went ahead and attached a featured image myself, so that I could publish on this piece schedule.

    Feel free to change or replace the image if you feel it isn’t appropriate/good enough.


  • curtis

    Thanks for the help, Bill.

    I don’t think the image you chose was bad. Just had a plan to recycle an image based on the content of the article.


  • bill

    Thanks Curtis.

    In that case, I think I’ll go back to my original title — baker’s dozen doesn’t really seem appropriate to use with the fishing image. (I won’t change the slug, though, since that might screw up the link that has already been tweeted.)


  • Bielak

    Which was my favourite article? Why, my own of course! (http://unu.edu/articles/global-change-sustainable-development/liquid-language-the-deepening-and-shallowing-of-global-water-discourse). I confess however to not having read most of the others, so I’ll be bookmarking this top ten for future perusal.

    Actually if my piece was any good, it was because of the ministrations of the excellent editorial team who helped knock it into far better shape than my original submission. Hats off to the Editors, and best wishes for the new year.

    Alex Bielak

  • Jennifer Doherty0986

    Excellent work, excellent article. Let me write a couple of words on social & legal context

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions. 

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels. 

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said. 

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists. 

    It present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

  • Dinesh C Srivastava

    In order to promote green economy, the economic leaders ( US, West European countries and Japan) must take a lead in reducing fossil fuel based energy consumption through  modest energy consumption behavior, and increasing the share of renewable energy. It is well known fact that about 20% of world  population ( from developed countries) consumes about 80% of total energy consumed and about 80% of remaining population ( from developing countries and LDCs) consumes only about remaining 20% of energy.

    It is also well established fact that during first oil crisis in 1973-74, most of the developed countries could reduce the consumption of fossil fuel energy, and even could increase the share of clean energy, however, LDCs and developing countries could not do the same, and they kept on consuming the same amount or more energy at very high price even during that period also due to lack of capacity and access to technology and finance. This situation even prevails today to a great extent due to prohibitive price charged for renewable technology specially of solar by developed countries who  possesses some of these technologies.

    It is also a well known fact that energy, development and environment are interrelated in a complex way. Energy is essential for economic and social development, more use of energy would adversely impact environment, degraded environment can adversely affect the social and economic development, but economic development if achieved up to certain level it can protect the environment by putting in place proper policies.  To some extent inter-dependability among energy , environment and development can be reduced, but this can largely be done by developed countries and to some extent fast developing countries who has got capacity, technology and finance.