Nature Blog Network Future Earth: November 2007

Thursday, 29 November 2007

“It’s not easy being green”

Kermit was right – and “being green” is becoming increasingly complex in this globalised world.

In 2003 EU Politicians thought they were brushing up their green credentials nicely by creating the EU Directive on Biofuels. This set a target that all fuel in the EU would be 5.75% from biofuel sources by 2010. Great – less burning of limited fossil fuels, more of stuff we could grow ourselves.

What happened? Massive conversion of land to biofuel production of course (couldn’t they see this coming?)... Increasing the rate of deforestation in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to phenomenal amounts of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere.

Consider this.....a four-million hectare peatland forest in a province in northern Sumatra stores 14.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Indonesia is now the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after the USA and China.

We’ll come back to biofuels on this blog, but I’ll leave you with the words of a UN report just released in the run-up to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Bali next week.

“Deforestation to make way for large-scale mono-cropping of energy crops obliterates the ‘green credentials’ of the biofuel.’’

Back to the drawing board – sharpening up the green pencil.....!

Monday, 26 November 2007

Types and talents

“Myers Briggs Type Indicator” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it? But oh what fun it is to delve into, and what formidable mental barriers it unblocks.

Have a look... and, if you get the chance, take the test, together with all those in your orbit. Sceptics will be shown in their true colours (it’s their type). At work, it will help you realise why one colleague is so desperately shy of deadlines but is tolerated for those creative brainwaves; another genuinely needs to have the different colour pens lined up neatly for document correction. And, crucially, it will help you work out how to get the best out of your working relationship. Sneakily, see if your life partner, or that obstreperous teenager will take it too... the relationship is more likely to weather the storms of misunderstanding. If I had my way, I’d include it in the welcome pack for all representatives at the Bali conference on Climate change The world needs a good resolution.


Friday, 23 November 2007

"Darwin award" for humanity?

The “Darwin awards” honour those whose stupidity causes them to accidentally remove themselves from the gene pool, thereby improving the caliber of our genetic soup. Well I’d like to nominate humanity for accidentally kicking the soup bowl over and allowing our essence to desiccate in the increasing heat of a dying planet. How much evidence do we need about the speed of change and the scale of the problem? Tell you what, let’s have another conference. It only took a decade for “Kyoto” to find its way into George Bush’s vocabulary, how irrelevant will “Bali” become by 2017?

The United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Bali, Indonesia from 3-14 December: It is a tremendous opportunity to agree the international framework that will reward countries retaining the natural habitats that will allow our planet to breathe. Come on humanity...grasp the lifeline and reject that “Darwin award”.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Tropical to Temperate – a SAD story

What were we doing? Why did we ever even consider moving from the bright light and socially-warm tropics to the dismally dark and culturally-chilly temperate zone? Anyone out there considering a similar move... think twice and thrice again. It is sad. People rush to their little homes in their little streets as soon as the light is turned down, currently mid-afternoon. At least in the tropics the sudden blackout at 6.30 signals a move out of the house to bask in the warmth of social interaction. Music starts up somewhere, laughter rings out along the way. But there is an even sadder danger lurking for the tropical to temperate traveler. The real SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder will creep up on you more often than not. Normally optimistic? Why then are you starting to feel depressed as the daylight shortens? Wonder why you need to sleep so much? Your body is hibernating without your mind realizing it. SAD but true…take it seriously…burn a bit of carbon and nip back out to the tropics (or invest in a hi-lux lamp!).

Monday, 19 November 2007

Gorilla tactics

Mountain gorillas are fortunate to have Eugene Rutagarama on their side, helping forge partnerships for conservation of gorillas in the Virunga volcanoes that transcend the warring factions and shifting politics of eastern central Africa.

Recognise his inspiring leadership and vote for him as a CNN hero – you will be helping mountain gorillas too.

Voting began November 12 and closes November 26.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Velcro Vizslas

Close connections of the Vizsla kind are deeply engrained. Primitive carvings in stone in the Carpathian region, estimated at 1,000 years old, show the Magyar hunter, his falcon and his Vizsla.

If you have ever come across one of these creatures you will know why the symbiotic relationship between hunter and canine associate has survived, even where the hunting landscape has deteriorated to the level of a computer keyboard in a grey office. Survived and thrived – people owned by Vizslas have nicknamed them Velcro Dogs – they are there at your heel as you move around the house, and they have to be actually in the house, not banished to the yard. What you offer in lifestyle, respect and outdoor exercise, (wo)man’s best friend will return in spades with loyalty and companionship. An easy, rewarding relationship where you are in the driving seat. Sound interesting to those embroiled in the complexities of human partnerships…?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Chinese Whispers

The question is not whether the future is Chinese, but how much the rest of the world wants to engage with China in shaping it – and how (on earth) they can go about it?

With an economist’s hat on, it is impossible not to admire how the nation is taking over the planet. What thoughtful advanced planning to tie up the United States in a financial stranglehold, and what clever opportunism to make offers that could not be refused to cash-strapped African economies in exchange for absolute rights over increasingly scarce and essential mineral resources. Oh yes, and let’s become the aid agency of choice to our increasingly powerful colleagues in the Americas.

With an environmental hat on, however bright green and jauntily tilted, that grudging admiration turns to abject horror. Recognising the complete decimation of natural resources nationally, the country has turned to its own back yard and beyond. Yes there are uncomfortable parallels with other historical colonists but can we risk a repetition of past mistakes at devastating scope and scale for the planet? Meanwhile, almost under the radar, forest resources from Asia Pacific are draining into China and all living things, plant and animal, across Kazakhstan are being hoovered up progressively by their neighbour. And while increased wheat and soya prices globally are attributed to a changing climate, we are almost not noticing the impact of these feedstuffs being converted into meat for a burgeoning and aspirational Chinese middle class. Of course the price will rise, and it will continue to rise until the market kicks back.

And what price for biological diversity? With China in control of the planet, the answer is “not much”. Where the culture dictates, as in some rangeland communities, biodiversity is part of sustainability. But otherwise “if it moves eat it or laugh at it” and “we don’t need nature, just technology” seem to predominate. A glimmer of hope lies in Chinese pragmatism. Firstly, if we can demonstrate the value of biological diversity in providing ecosystem services (which we can – check out it will become valued economically (just in time or too late?). Secondly, we can hold China to account on the international stage over natural resource conventions and the like (surprisingly perhaps this international recognition is still craved). Perhaps most importantly we can use every opportunity to support young environmental champions and glimmers of an environmental movement within China. It’s their future too – and we do have access to (most of ) the internet..... Whisper, whisper, pass it on...

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Whose land is it anyway?

After several years in Africa I share that deep-rooted desire for my own piece of ground – the security, the illusion of persistence it provides for me and my genes. It is almost guttural. But it just doesn’t add up does it? 6 billion people now, 9 billion by 2050, land needed to grow crops to (over) feed us, and now for biofuels as well. Two thirds of the planet is covered by ocean anyway. What will give?

Well, land claims for a start. Some of us may feel quite unreasonably secure with several hundred years of legal tenure behind us. Others have seen their title deeds ripped up by Dictators (shame on you Mr. Mugabe). The Siulak people in Sumatra have a traditional statement that “where my feet have walked is my land and I will do with it what I wish”. Well, at least that has the virtue of unashamed honesty – and perhaps reflects the nature of humanity more than we might like to admit.

Voyage of the Beagles

I always wondered about Darwin’s Beagle. Who chose the name for the exploration ship and why? As a Beagle owner, and watching beagle puppies start to explore their environment, they were spot on. Beagles are particularly adventurous, escape artists who will always push out the boundaries. Loyal to the hand that feeds, trustworthy, calm and reliable – but show me a Beagle owner who has never lost their friend in the great outdoors for several hours, and I’ll be willing to bet they have never let their dog off the leash. Scent hounds, bred to hunt hares, they have selective hearing that can filter out cries for their return, until they are good and ready. Knowing this, those modern Darwins – the Mars mission scientists – might have been better served calling their planetary explorer “Golden Retriever 2”.


Thursday, 8 November 2007

Trade-offs in Conservation?


Scientists will not save the planet, even though science might help us work out how to do it. A gathering at the Zoological Society of London last week brought together far too many scientists under the banner “Trade offs in Conservation – how do we decide what to save?” Evidence and experience from around the world on conservation planning, choices, finance, policy and the like, led to the conclusion that conservation is a social process, guided by science, not the other way round. Well, finally, thank you. Will this stop those who need irrefutable evidence (squared) before they take a decision on protecting this area or that, from standing in the way of good judgment? Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees…as we take time to count each leaf, the clock is ticking. Whole habitats are being destroyed and swathes of species lost. Could we not perhaps, just possibly, look around us and direct that brainpower more usefully?

I feel like a turncoat as I am a scientist and grateful for the body of science on climate change that has played a crucial role in waking up people and politicians to the scale of the problem we face. I just get frustrated at the pervasive default to the miniscule and the rejection of the intuitive as science is put to work in society.

By the way, the “Trade-offs” event will produce an interesting book, edited by Leader-Williams and Adams, so look out for it. One audience member described it as a “bungee jump – from the ethereal philosophy of conservation by Professor Adams to the gritty reality of conservation in conflict zones from Fauna & Flora International”. Here’s hoping that the bungee cord allows us to bounce at least halfway back and not smack into the end of the planet.