Nature Blog Network Future Earth: 2008

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

"A mutt like me"?

There he was, America's new President-elect, thinking he would have to start fending off the anti-war lobby, the anti-abortion lobby, the 'market forces' lobby, the 'drill-baby-drill' lobby and the odd pitbull in lipstick (lips seem to have gone a bit pale on that front however). Was it a deliberate distraction ploy from the issues of the day, to stir up the dog lobby?
Acceptance speech... "...the new puppy that will be coming with us to the White House...". You could almost hear the tital wave of "ahhhhhhh..." sweeping across the nation and beyond.
Press conference.... "hypoallergenic dog...". Hmmm, interesting - now just how hypoallergenic does it have to be?. Some very helpful insights here such as that from Patrick Mahaney, Pet Care Examiner. And then .... "a mutt like me". Well, he strikes me as a perfect pedigree, breeding true. So my new recommendation for those Obama girls is a beagle (actually a pair - one each) - calm under fire, fleet of foot, minds of their own and long, silky ears to cut off unfavourable comments.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Presidential Paws

President-elect Obama's first good decision - a new puppy for the family moving to the White House. Perhaps he's read the Canine Charter and knows what that will do for family health and happiness amidst the pressures of the new job.

His first bad decision would be to listen to dog people about which breed would suit as whatever they chose there will be howls of disapproval. Of course it should be a Velcro Vizsla - a sleek and charming orator (just listen to all the singing vizslas on the web).

Nor should he listen to his Kenyan 'family' where dogs are mostly for guarding or hunting - apart from the stock of labradors fringing Nairobi which provide pampered prey for prowling leopards....

(For more of the intermittent canine posts on this blog click the "Man's Best Friend" link on the side panel.)

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

What can Obama do for the Great Apes?

Finally, a U.S. President who is welcomed the world over, who has the intelligence, charisma and demeanour that mark out a leader, and who ......wait for it ..... understands what is happening to our environment.

The blogosphere is alive with this today, but my angle is this. After Obama has dealt with a crashing economy, restoring world relations and rebalancing the climate..... might he just be tempted to give a nod to his African and Asian heritage and the Great Apes that unite them? Now we just have to keep them alive until he can get round to it......!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Vote, vote, vote!

Please, please, America - vote, vote, vote. My life in Africa provided a stark realisation of how precious this is and what a difference it can make. And if you are undecided, just ask whether you would feel confident about your country's engagement with the rest of the World with Sarah Palin as President.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Pines gain value on the climate exchange - a boost for boreal forest stocks!

Boreal Forests (nickname "The Taigas"?): 1. Tropical Forests: less than 1?

At last, the underdog Boreal Forests ( are gaining ground against premiership leaders Tropical Forests in the race to save the planet. So much global publicity and funding is focused on the carbon, biodiversity and water management roles of tropical forests that the boreal forests rarely get a mention. But here's some good news for this important biome - European scientists looked at chemicals called terpenes that are released from boreal forests across northern regions such as Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. Terpenes give pine forests their distinctive smell, and the team found that they react in the air to form tiny aerosol particles that condensed water vapour and doubled the thickness of clouds above the forests, reflecting an extra 5% sunlight back into space. Over such a large area, and in such a finely balanced system, this could be an invaluable contribution.

Fortunately for tropical forests they can also do some of this - just not quite so well. O.K. pundits, off you go. I sense a vigorous debate on the way, as the Boreal Forests fight to claim their place in history. Or, rather, on Future Earth.

Living planet?

latest Living Planet Report produced every couple of years by WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, measures the health of the planet's ecosystems and the extent of human demand on them.

In summary this 2008 "human demands on the world's natural capital measure nearly a third more than earth can sustain."

We have an increasingly start choice - do we just let competition sort it out (and would the "fittest" survive?) or do we collaborate to sort it out together, as we naked apes are supposed to be able to do? Whatever kind of society we want we don't have much time to ponder. Andy Dufrein's "get busy living or get busy dying" (Shawshank Redemption) has some resonance for humanity.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Dogs are good for you - official!

My 100th post has to be a good news story and this one fell into my lap this morning. A
Canine Charter is launched today that details the 10 top reasons why owning a dog can benefit human health and even recommending doctors to prescribe dogs as an antidote to human stress and depression.

For readers in parts of the world used to viewing dogs as a culinary addition to human nutrition - pause before you put the dog in the pot. Alive it might do more to help you survive and thrive through the depressive effects of global recession.

Perhaps not this one..

Monday, 20 October 2008

(Dis)united Nations

Such a good idea, the United Nations. But then so is America (as the American writer John Gunther said "Ours is the only country deliberately founded on a good idea") and look where that is going.

Didn't we see it coming, the economic nose-dive set off by a disconnection from reality in the minds of finance supremos? No - well, now you are in practice, watch out for the next one. In the minds of the securely tenured and over-compensated officers of the United Nations there is a similar disconnect from reality. Despite laudable and overdue attempts at reform the UN shows every sign of trying to maintain a global lifestyle rather than focusing on its constituents. An overstuffed bureaucracy unable to walk, let alone run - unravel the threads and start again Mr. ban Ki-moon.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Waste not, want not

Alternative to charcoal helping protect gorilla habitat. Good to see this appropriate technology in use and all credit to the teams currently promoting it.

During a prolonged lull in the security mayhem of this central African hotspot a few years ago, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and partners were presciently addressing this problem - setting up a buffer of trees around the Park and monitoring fuelwood use.
(Building on the local networks of a health education charity, a "social marketing" campaign distributed both condoms and tree seedlings - and was irreverantly dubbed "pricks and sticks" by the team!) This living buffer of young trees was obliterated by waves of refugees and rising population levels, but perhaps reduced the severity of destruction and left some knowledge in its wake.

Going, going ......

There are 5,487 known mammal species on earth and over a quarter of them are at imminent risk of disappearing. Actually there is one more.... and 8,000 individuals of that species are gathering in Barcelona for the IUCN Congress. According to IUCN (ex "World Conservation Union") these are " the world’s leading decision makers in sustainable development: from governments, NGOs, business, the UN and academia". Can we therefore breathe easily in our sleep, rest assured that this will turn the tide? Not if we leave it to IUCN - rather we have to follow all those worthies back to their home countries and support them in their endeavours there. IUCN meanwhile will be competing with them for funds to maintain a physical estate of offices and officers around the world and - if past decades are anything to go by - failing in its unique niche of catalysing action between government and non-government sectors. We are looking at a poor track record here..... a complete inability to lead the way in "mainstreaming" environmental issues globally or to support its members to do so.

But are there glimmers of light emanating from Barcelona that have nothing to do with the sparkling sunshine conference participants are bathed in? Yes - the forum has provided a platform for some NGO-business alliances to shout their stuff. They are demonstrating that value can be generated from conserved resources, and that we can make that value work for conservation of those same habitats and species. Business meets Biodiversity - not just as a risk to be managed, but as an opportunity.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Drilled, baby, drilled.

What makes a scientist into a political obsessive? Denial of our impact on climate change, complete obeisance to the "free" market (which has suddenly become expensive for those whose energy and creativity provide the fuel to its fire) and creationism. All of which coincide in Sarah Palin. Question - can you train a Pitbull? Answer - to a certain extent. Douglas Burns' flow chart is not an unkind lampoon, but a sadly accurate depiction. Potential VP Palin (shiver) was "drilled, baby drilled" and didn't depart far from her coloured cards. Certainly not a debate. She looked at the camera and superficially aligned herself with "ordinary Americans". She had clearly learnt the names of 5 country leaders. (I admit this is a particular concern of mine, as a signed up member of the "I have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin" Facebook Group). But what she doesn't know is only half the problem. She professes to be an Energy sector specialist but drill below the surface and you find only oil or gas, nothing on renewables or restraint.

Should we be worrying so much about the result of the US election next month? Probably not - the impact of the US globally is likely to be increasingly irrelevant. China anyway owns its national debt and is outcompeting its companies around the developing world. Its the Chinese leadership we need to be watching closely, and working out how to engage with them on the international stage if we feel democracy should form part of human governance in our future earth.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Are frogs swans or canaries?

Serenading frogs led me to slumber almost every night in Africa. But are these evocative calls swansongs for our amphibian friends? The world might have to get used to missing frogs if their decline continues and in this Year of the Frog, venerable Sir Dave is coming to their rescue. In their declining years we might just hope that frogs show the resilience and determination that Attenborough does in his. (As an aside, BBC Radio 4 listeners will note with pleasure that Attenborough is the first interviewee to reduce lookalike Humphreys from a rotweiller to a puppydog). Our concern for frog declines is not altruism - in retreat from loss of habitat and a warming world they are less able to survive attack by pathogens. The loss of frog song could be the miner's canary of the modern world - alerting us to the danger of our own demise. Hang on in there treefrogs - and 82 year old Sir Dave - we need both of you!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Are you feeling lucky?

"Are you feeling lucky?" Clint Eastwood's character asks in the film 'Dirty Harry'. Here on an increasingly dirty earth another IUCN world gathering is about to descend on Barcelona, and "Transition to Sustainability: towards a Humane and Diverse World" has been put together to this deadline.

It will need more than luck. Adams and Jeanreneaud argue that the two essentials (of a low carbon economy and a world that values nature) require a third companion to have any chance of planetary sustainability - social equity. What was that at the back? "Fat chance" did you say? Well think again... in this philosophical narrative of conservation we are reminded of the self-fulfilling politics of fear. "I had a nightmare..." might not have had quite the resonance, or stimulated quite the change, that Martin Luther King's dream managed to do. All very well and yes, we need inspiration as much as information - but both science and history indicate that we'll change the world only when the selfish genes kick in. Too late? Another soundbite pulled from the ether by these authors.. "there are no sewers on a spaceship".

If you are expending carbon to help save the world at the IUCN congress, you can offset intellecually by engaging in the "sustainability dialogues" around these issues.

And by the way
is it, or is it not, the "World Conservation Union" - compare the mixed branding still on the IUCN website against comment on this post.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Darwin's busy bees

Something is buzzing in south Kensington. Around the side of the Natural History Museum a giant transparent wasp nest is emerging- in anticipation of the Darwin 200 celebrations next year, the "Darwin Centre" - a 200 cell hive for 200 busy bee scientists is nearing completion. They are excited and they will be on show, doing their bit for taxonomy. Watch the promo video (and spot the deliberate error):

"Don't worry (about the rate of species extinction)" they say as "90% of all the species in the world are still to be classified". So its O.K. if we go extinct as long as we are monitoring our own decline is it? As the workers, drones and multiple queens settle into their new surroundings we will have to amplify the buzz of the promo video that connects what they do to conservation impact in the world around us. Yes, it can be about food, disease and climate change, but it is important that not all available funding resources are carried back to this particular hive, and that a clear "line of sight" to conservation of living biodiversity is created.

Meanwhile, watch the story unfold .... will some of the drones follow an escaping queen on her nuptial flight back to America? Are there lessons to be learned from the devastating decline of honeybees....?

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Howl from the heart ...

Wolves, bears, humans ..... be scared, be very, very scared.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Dances with wolves

From Shaun Ellis with his wild wolf pack to Mrs Mattisson-Sandstrom with her champion pyrenean mountain dog, dog-human relationships are certainly deep, diverse - and dependent. We've been here before on Future Earth as I am fascinated by where we might go from here on out. I have my own hounds marked out as food providers, in conditions of global scarcity (one will pluck pigeons out of the air and the other will hunt down hares) which should ensure their survival as the resource crunch starts to bite.

Still 3 weeks to watch this 2-part exploration of where this symbiotic relationship comes from by Martin Clunes on the itv site. The bit I would like to explore further is the evidence that all dogs in the world will accept humans as part of a pack, where the only important factors are appropriate behaviour and relative dominance. All except the "Painted Hunting Dogs" of Africa, where the leadership role is genetically inherited. Canine nepotism?

Monday, 25 August 2008

Going for Gold in Ghana?

Quietly, under the media shadows created by activities in Beijing and Georgia, a meeting of fundamental importance for the planet is taking place in Ghana. One of a series leading to "post Kyoto" agreements on Climate Change next year, it needs to go for Gold and not settle for just taking part - not something the UN has a great track record in. Blue sky thinking and innovative action rather than flying the flags of narrow national vested interests.

Personally, if we had to rely only on the U.N. in this arena, I'd give up now. Fortunately we have civil society knowledge and ingenuity as well as corporate economic drive to turn to as well. If they work together, rather than in opposition, they could provide some winning solutions.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Conservation Clarity

What a trill..... Birdlife International et al have come up with a new language for conservation hoping that this will make life easier for its advocates. Now we can reduce complex systems to comparable components and make logical decisions on how to intervene. Ah ha.

That's the science, anyway. But as conservation is a social process guided by science, not the other way around, how far will this really take us? Who really makes those decisions? And what will they make of (I quote Dr Butchart) ".....common databases of conservation practice, enabling practitioners to share and compare......"

I have a request to make of the conservation lexographers. Can our conservation Rosetta Stone provide clear and unambiguous definitions in at least Chinese, English and Portugese of

(a) Biodiversity, (b) Ecosystem Services and (c) Going, going, Gone!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Spectres at the GM feast.

Those blight-resistent potatoes growing quietly in an experimental agricultural plot outside Cambridge, those fields of golden corn fulfilling their genetically manipuated destiny of higher yield and disease resistance, those countries allowing policy change under the radar - you have been rumbled. HRH Prince Charles has thrown the spotlight back on Genetically Manipulated Food Crops with an impassioned, angry tirade of concern. But is he over-reacting?

On the plus side, food security is indeed the more important underlying factor, and there is little argument that creating an environment where small farmers can flourish around the world is crucial to global food security. On the other, in a land-constrained world, what is wrong with helping the evolutionary process along in food crops? According to many small and family farms, the problem lies not with the technology or its application, rather in the behaviour of the profit-driven large companies who insist that (going beyond return on investment) anyone seeking their GM seeds is required to use all their support services. Seeds cannot be saved either, so the customer is forced into repeat purchase.

Oh, I see. The real problem lies in the competetive behaviour that drives our global corporate economy. Well, as consumers we have shown that we can make Corporate Environmental and Social Responsibility a competitive advantage for financial investors. So we can, if we combine efforts, insert the CESR gene into some of the biggest agri-tech brands and engineer a longer future for (our) life on earth.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Web World

Future Earth is the sum of its web presence? (World map of 1001 weblogs)

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Swamp(ed with) Gorillas?

In his breathtaking film Swamp Gorilla Bruce Davidson captures the fragility and (although I baulk at my own anthropomorphism) loneliness of swamp-living western lowland gorillas in central Africa. On the edge of survival, beset by waves of disease and destruction, I wondered when I saw early scenes from this fabulous film whether they might be the last comprehensive record of another ape to vanish from all but our screens.

Not so, it would seem - surveys led by by the Wildlife Conservation Society have confirmed local knowledge (and Steve Blake's work in the 90s) by rustling up another 125,000 or so lurking further from the madding crowd. Yay! Can we rest assured then for their future? Not so fast - their sources of conservation support are at risk from budget cuts in the US government. In that great democracy, I hope its citizens will rally in support of central african forests and their primate inhabitants. After all, its our future too.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Primates in peril

No laughing matter this, whatever the orang art featured here might indicate.

A report released today by the IUCN (World Conservation Union - howzat for a branding nightmare) revealed that 48% of the world's primates are in severe trouble. 303 of the 634 species are now listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN threat risk scale.

The report is being picked up by the media
but will the news be taken seriously by the primate responsible, the human kind? There are heros and advocates battling against the odds, and there are some good news missives from the front line. The cost of saving an orang utan has been (simplistically but interestingly) calculated as £568.48 - a better investment in the future than a year's car tax or an airline flight one might, equally simplistically, assume.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Sense, sensibility and symbolism

Charity begins at home as a released baloon, and ends up overseas in the belly of a turtle. A welsh charity for the homeless has finally settled on the release of biodegradable chinese lanterns as part of a fundraising drive after a proposed baloon release was criticised by the Marine Conservation Society. A replacement release of pigeons and doves was then stopped after being criticised on ethical grounds. What do readers of "Future Earth" think of the lantern release? A deal of unecessary energy expenditure in an energy-constrained world (bah, humbug) or beautiful symbolism of global connectivity (peace and love)? Either way, we can expect more of it as the tiger economies roar across the globe - this is a big thing across Asia and, sadly for the turtles, the biodegradeable lanterns are being replaced by more durable materials.

(And anyone who wants to help save our seas from uneccesary plastic can support the Marine Conservation Society's Coastal challenge - via the two intrepid canoeists navigating Raasay to Rhona)

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The "p" word....(puffins 2)

Concerned about declining puffins in UK (see Future Earth's Ppppppick up a puffin)? Don't let the "f" word's Gordon Ramsey near the Farne islands then.

(Credit to for puffin pic)

Friday, 25 July 2008

"From the Mountains to the Sea"

As one of the 1,200 or so conservation biologists who registered for the conservation biology bio-fest in Chattanooga Tennessee, I spent all last week bouncing between sessions on ecological responses of various creatures to our rapidly changing environment.

Amidst this sea of beards and beige, by the end of the week, the creature I was most concerned about was the conservation biologist him/herself. We all want to measure stuff, and at the moment we are spending a huge amount of time and energy on monitoring our own decline. Take all the data on "winners and losers" in our changing climate, put on a clean pair of shoes and hotfoot to the doors of policy makers, papers, tv and radio producers. Get the warnings out there and see if you can get the world to understand the word biodiversity before it becomes irrelevant.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Eye in the sky

O.K. - last one - and you can find the other 27 most beautiful abstract satellite images of earth here. What artistic brushstrokes will a changing climate and burgeoning human population sketch on our future earth?

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Eye of the beholder (2)

Another one for you. Where is the beholding eye?

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Tell me what or where this beautiful image is, and I'll post the link!

"Waste not, want not"

Don't you just hate it when those old parental sayings come into sharp focus - especially when they come back to you through the mouths of your politicians? And when you know they are right. How can we possibly be throwing away so much food in some societies - even the most selfish of interests should buy into this one. And if you buy either the environmental or economic arguments, you get the other one free - with collected health points thrown in along the way.

But a glimmer of hope on the recycling front from the centre of environmentally damaging incineration - Japan. Total recycling, no waste collection in the village of Kamikatsu. 100% recycling.... good effort. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.... or rather, in your bin and don't burn it.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Fabulous fences

I've been watching this living fence for a year now, enjoying its responses to the changing seasons. It is layered Hawthorn, with a few Hawthorn trees left to grow on. Between the winter and summer pics above, a realisation that wooden fencing is increasingly in short supply globally has added a practical edge to my interest. Traditionally laid in winter, before the sap rises, the stems are severed with a billhook until they lean over on their own with just a small amount of tissue to keep the trees alive. Stumps and "pleachers" (the layered stems) send up new shoots which thicken and strengthen the hedge. Stakes at regular intervals and a woven layer of hazel sticks along the top ("heatherings") keep this living artwork in place - beautiful.

Perhaps not quite so obviously beautiful as living fences of rosa rugosa and some of the living fences in widespread use across central/southern America. The experience in Africa has been mixed (I have seen park managers spend years trying to reduce the invasive spread of "prickly pear" planted with all good fencing intention) but living fences are being reinvented in our carbon constrained world. There are downsides but generally living fences must be preferable to carbon-unfriendly metal & plastic n'est-ce-pas?

Back to watching the twigs grow....the screenplay for ."There will be Wood" is Future Earth's next offering to Daniel Day Lewis.