Monday, 19 July 2004

Global warming and the population problem

The past month has seen an increase in the publicity surrounding global warming. The UK Governments Chief Scientist, Sir David King, has given dire warning about the impact that continued warming will have on rising sealevels. But what does not seem to have happened, is that the public at large do not really seem to be taking on board the connection between global warming and human populations. The areas which are likely to be most seriously impacted by continuing -- or even accellerating -- rises of sea level, are going to be large conurbations. And a very large proportion of the world's largest cities are in low lying areas, close to the seas and oceans of the world. From London to Aukland, from Amsterdam to New York, all over the world millions of people live in places no more than a few metres from from sea level.

In addition to the sea levels rising, the future may well see dramatic increases in violent weather, but extreme weather occurs erratically in almost all parts of the world from time to time, and so the sort of weather encountered in Britain in 1952, coupled with a sea level rise of less than a metre would be devastating -- imagine what would happen if the London underground was flooded. [A first rate disatster movie scenario]. London may be able to deal with it, in terms of human lives, but other places will not be so fortunate. The coastal cities of Asia -- Calcutta, Dacca, Madras, Hong Kong, Osaka, Singapore, -- to name but a few, could be inundated with the loss of millions of lives. And of course, the economic impact of such disasters is almost incalculable.

The problem is that still the mentality that pervades much of the wealthiest nation in the world is exemplified in the claim by Lee Raymond, Chairman of ExxonMobil in June 2002:

"We in ExxonMobil do not believe that the science required to establish this linkage between fossil fuels and warming has been demonstrated"

With massively powerful corporations expressing such views, and with George Bush leading the US, and with China and India both sitting on massive supplies of fossil fuels (coal), the future is unfortunately predictable. But fortunately not everyone in the world is quite as short-sighted as Bush and Raymond. Some governments are trying to reverse the process, but few have bitten the real bullet, of increasing human populations. Building another million homes in Britain won't do much to control emmissions, however well insulated they are. It is simply a recognition of the fact that the more affluent a nation becomes, the more resources its population consumes. Confirmation that the population problem is one that is most serious in countries such as Britain and America. Not Bangladesh or Malawi. It is the populations of the developed countries that consume the most non-renewable energy, and the same people who consume the majority of other resources, from food to rare metals. And it is the affluent nations that are resposible for the destruction of the world's rainforests.

The WLT may be small, and it may not have achieved much on a global scale, but multiplied up, pro rata per head of population that have supported its work, it could become a major force -- we just need more supporters. A few thousand supporters have helped save over 300,000 acres. Think what a million supporters (the membership of the RSPB or National Trust in the UK) could do. And the cost of an army tank or fighter jet alone could buy in excess of 2million acres of rainforest.

It's time we sorted our priorities. The real terrorists are those destroying the natural environment -- and that, indirectly includes most of us in the developed world.

Friday, 16 July 2004

e-philanthropy - Internet volunteering for the WLT

The WLT’s Web Manager passed me a copy of an article published on the internet on “How your non-profit can use the internet strategically” ( This was a fascinating insight into the use of the internet, but particularly interesting, as once again, it showed that the World Land Trust was certainly performing well above average.

According to the article, developing an effective e-philanthropy site typically costs hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Yet when I evaluated the WLT’s site against the criteria listed for an effective e-philanthropy site, we rated very high indeed. There are a few functions that we are currently unable to fulfil, but these are either irrelevant to our activities, or ones we have under consideration. One particular function, which we only started last month, was the involvement of e-volunteers. I see this as a very important part of the WLT’s future. Because of our effective and efficient web site, we are attracting supporters who are both computer literate, and also confident about making on line donations. There are plenty of other websites which have fancier graphics, but most serious we users don’t want this, they want a fast, efficient site.

Our next target is to spread the word –- and this is where our e-volunteers come in. They can help us refine and improve our existing web site, and they can also help us spread the word by passing on our website to friends and colleagues. They can also help us answer questions about how supporters use our site. If you are reading this blog, the chances are you will be an ideal e-volunteer – so why not contact helena*at*, and sign up? (replace *at* with the symbol @ in your email address field.)

Going, going, ....

For the past week or so I have been asking friends who have been birdwatching most of their life about the changes. It is scary. We are all aware of the huge drop in numbers of so many species. Even though the conservation groups such as the RSPB are publicising declines, they don't really seem to me to reflect the scale of decline.

Back in the 1950s, there were far fewer birdwatchers, and the data was scant. But so many species that we took for granted had declines or become locally extinct. Wrynecks and Red-backed Shrikes no longer nest in souther England, while Wheatears (aleady much reduced in numbers by the second half of the 20th century) are now comparaive rarities as breeding birds, and yellow wagtails, reed buntings, turtle doves are among those fast disappearing. But this is hardly surprising when one looks at the lack of insects. The pesticide revolution of the 50s and 60s was partly to blame, but it is now in suburbia where the problem lies -- massive amounts of toxic sprays are unleashed in gardens every year, so it is no surprise that there are no insects.

In the 1950s there were still small numbers of horses in the towns, and the countryside was full of animlas. Now, urban horses are a rarity, and the countryside is largely bereft of free roaming cattle over large areas of England. So it is not surprising there are hardly any insects for the birds to feed on.

I have recently been involved with a survey of European red lists (of endangered species) of invertebrates -- and it is really alarming to realise just how many insects, molluscs and other invertebrates are disappearing. And the problem here is that they are so little studied, that it appears that whenever someone studies a group of insects or other invertebrates in detail, they find they have problems.

All very gloomy. However, at least locally in East Anglia, there are some glimmers of hope. Declining markets for farm produce, has led to some fairly major changes in the countryside. More and more land is being used as amenity land, for horses, or simply small meadows. People like myself, have a couple of acres, and need to graze it, so they bring livestock back, not for commercial gain, but for management purposes, and these are usually kept organically -- or near organic. Hopefully copious quantities of sheep dung will benefit the swallows by breeding flies, and the pond I plan, should become infested with mosquitos and benefit the bats. And the dragonflies will attract Hobbies.

When thinking about wildlife, think insects: anything that can increase the number of insects is a sure-fire way of helping a lot of other wildlife.

Friday, 9 July 2004

Why big trees?

I've been involved with conserving rainforests and other habitats or over 30 years, and it has always been the accepted wisdom that the big, mature tropical forest trees are paramount, and we must conserve virgin forest whenever possible. I am not disputing this, but I am intrigued to know what the science is to back it. After all, nearly all the forests of Europe are secondary forests, and so are those of much of Central America, and a large part of Asia. And there is plenty of species diversity.

In England, almost every naturalist will know that hedgerows are among the most species rich areas for nesting birds -- and these effectively mimic forest edge habitats. I recall that when I was first working in Belize, the best place for seeing as many bird species as possible in as short as time as possible, was in a derelict milpa (slash an burn farm). In fact this is true in almost all parts of the world that I have visited. Most of the large mammals of South East Asia, such as Kouprey, Banteng, Gaur, Deer and even rhinos, all prefer forest clearings, and avoid dense closed-canopy forest. Dynamic, regenerating forests with a mixture of trees of different ages, almost always seem to have the greatest species diversity.

But if I was to postulate not worrying about old growth forest, there are some obvious flaws in this argument. There are some species that are only found in large stands of old growth forest. The best known is perhaps the ivory-billed woodpecker -- alas now extinct, largely through loss of its habitat. But it would be right to ask the question: How many species are restricted to old-growth forests with really big trees? And in the 21st century with all the pressures on the forest can forests really be maintained for these few species? I ask the question, because the alternative might be to selectively log forest, thereby providing a sustainable income, and increasing the numbers of other species, most of which thrive.

Conservationists do not have the funds to buy every bit of remaining forest, and neither do governments have the resources to protect from exploitation all the resources they control. Logging out big valuable trees reduces the value of land, in commercial terms, but does it reduce its value for wildlife? If it doesn't, then it makes sense to save heavily logged, cheap land, rather than virgin forest which may be more expensive.

Any ideas?

Mass extinctions

Back in the 1970s and 1980s there were widespread predictions of mass extinctions, and the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of species by the end of the 20th Century. But looking back it is very difficult to see if those predictions were wholly accurate. Certainly forest loss, and the destruction of natural habitats continued unabated, and those gloomy predictions were largely fulfilled. Equally depressing is the fact that the world's population growth, continues out of control, but by the begining of the 21st century was hardly mentioned as an issue. The gap between the poor and rich nations continues to widen, and the consumption of natural resources has spiralled virtually out of control. At the turn of the century, while some countries tried to impose controls and limits on the exploitation of natural resourse, the US continued on its growth path, and there was widespread concern that the Bush administration was very retrograde in terms of its environmental policies. In the UK quick-fix energy policies by the Blair government sought to develop masses of wind farms, despite the fact that not all conservationists are convinced of their enrgy efficiency, and they are known to kill wildlife.

But back to where I started, have the predictions of extinctions been fulfilled? The answer is that nobody really knows, but we can be pretty sure that unles the human population growth is slowed, at least in the developed world, the demand for natural resources, will ensure that wildlife habitat continues to disappear. That's why the WLT's acquisition programmes, though tiny, are still significant. At least we're doing something.

Thursday, 1 July 2004

Giving all your money to charities

When a donor gives money, they generally expect all the money they give to go to the charity they have chosen. But does this always happen? The answer is no. There are several reasons for this, and there is not necessarily anything sinister about it, but donors should be aware.

First, anyone raising funds on behalf of a charity may be entitled to charge reasonable expenses, and may have agreed with a charity to charge a fee for every donation made. The worst example of this is probably ‘chugging’. This is an abbreviation used in the fundraising field for ‘Charity mugging’ – young people, often students, out of work actors etc, on the street stopping passers by with a clipboard, and trying to recruit donors to a charity. They are usually paid for every person they get to sign up – so how much of your donation will benefit the charity?

There are also web sites operating on behalf of a wide range of charities, and these often purport to give the whole of the donation to the charity, but often omit to mention that the gift aid reclaimable may not be passed on to the charity. For a one-off donation this probably does not make a great deal of difference, but if you are considering long term support – such as becoming a WLT partner, it is always best to make your donations direct to the charity you are supporting, it makes a huge difference if they can claim the gift aid. And if you are considering larger donations or legacies, it is often best to speak to the charities representatives or solicitors, as they can advise on cost effective giving and maximising tax benefits.