Monday, 30 January 2006

Germans in decline. Great for conservation.

Returning from a short holiday in Sicily last weekend, I read in the Daily Telegraph about the new German Chancellor's fears concerning the declining birth rate. According to the report, Angela Merkel is concerned that the falling birth rate will eventually lead to Germans disappearing. (see for a summary ). I always feel guilty when flying back from a holiday, but feel that my flying a few times a year is no worse than producing a large family of future consumers -- as exemplified by the British Prime Minister.

It may be the way the Daily Telegraph reported the issue, but it seemed almost to have neo-Nazi overtones, concerning a decline in German-ness. According to Merkel, an aging population would not be able to support itself, and more children were needed.

This of course is a hoary old myth, that expanding economies depend on. Surely the German Chancellor realises that children cost thousands and thousands of euros, pounds or dollars to rear to maturity. Health care, education and countless other facilities over the first 20 years of a person's life add up to a tidy sum. The elderly, by comparison, generally only become very expensive in the last four or five years of their life, and they also often have the means to pay for it. The problem is, that the elderly often want to hang on to their wealth, and expect the state to pay for their health care.

But my interest in the subject is that the one hope for the modern world is declining populations of humans in the developed world. It is the populations of countries like Germany and Britain that consume disproportionate amounts of energy and other non-renewable resources. So any decline in population has to be beneficial, both in the short term and in the long term. Every baby brought into this world will consume, and possibly reproduce itself with more consumers. The quality of life for huge numbers of people throughout the world is already terrible, and even in the more prosperous parts of the world, there are increasing gaps between the haves and have nots.

Malthus got it right, and human populations are limited by resources. Those who deny this connection are ignoring the fact that the only way that the current human populations are being sustained is by reliance on irreplaceable fossil energy, the systematic over-exploitation of renewable resources, and by huge, and steadily increasing levels of abject poverty. Anyone who thinks that all the world's human population can live at a reasonable standard of living, is living in a fool's paradise.

I hope the German Green Parties are celebrating the fact that the population is declining. It gives some hope for the future.

And as an afterthought, take any one item of consumerism, such as face-washes (what's wrong with water?), bottled water, or pet foods. If we devoted 1% of the amount spent on any of these items to preserving what's left of the planet, we could achieve a huge amount. Now there's a thought.

Friday, 20 January 2006

Make Poverty History

I have just read an appeal from the 'make poverty history team', asking everyone to lobby the Chancellor to provide even more aid.

I can only reiterate what I have stated many times before. I have seen very little evidence that increasing aid diminishes poverty. Most of the countries which receive large amounts of aid also spend large amounts of money on arms, and suffer from varying degrees of institutional corruption. Aid benefits the donors, by ridding countries of food surpluses, and often makes recipient countries aid dependent. It salves the consciences of individuals, who live a life style, which is often dependent on exploiting poorer countries. It also absolves corrupt and oppressive regimes of solving refugee problems. Aid is also a huge industry, with a large number of (often very well paid) jobs in the developed world now dependent on it. The celeb's sponsoring fund raising to 'make poverty history' could easily take enough money out of their own bank accounts to donate more than is raised from the widows' mites. And some aid -- such as increasing the number of goats in Africa) -- leads to environmental degradation. Aid is a short-term papering over of two long term problems: increasing human populations, and environmental degradation. While we spend more on the wall paper than restoring the crumbling bricks and mortar, we can be sure the wall will fall down soon.

This is not to say that some emergency aid is not vital. But long term aid is not a long term solution.

This is a personal view, based on extensive experience of travelling the world. When I first started travelling 40 years ago, there was serious poverty in Spain, southern Italy and many parts of Central and South America. Those areas have mostly seen dramatic improvements in standards of living, while Africa has seen dramatic increase in those living in serious poverty; is there an aid connection?

I wrote to Oxfam recently asking about their goat policies, and the impacts on the environment, but have not had a response......

Thursday, 12 January 2006

Large Area projects

I have recently received my winter edition of Natural World -- the magazine of the Wildlife Trusts. I am a keen supporter of the Wildlife Trust movement, and would always urge all WLT supporters to also support their local Wildlife Trust. But I thought that the current issue does put the WLT's activities into some sort of perspective. Natural World Contains a special report on 'The 40 large area projects that are helping repair Britain's ecosystems'. If you are not already supporting this initiative then I urge you to consider it. But what really interested me, was what constituted a large area project. Of the 40 projects listed the majority were under 2000 hectares, with several under 1000 hectares. This puts the WLT projects up in the region of giant projects -- our latest project in Paraguay is starting with a land purchase of 3600 hectares (14 square miles), and has a potential for at least twice as much. And with over nearly 500 square miles protected by our Belizean partners, with much of the funding coming from the WLT, it gives an idea of the sort of projects we can undertake.

Of course one of the reasons we are able to do this is that there is a huge differential in land prices. with land in England often around £10,000 an hectare, compared with less than £35 an hectare in parts of South America -- that means we can buy 285 times as much land for every £1.00. And of course the good news does not stop there. Species diversity is also several times greater in tropical areas, so if that is an important issue, it is also more species per £1.00.

The World Land Trust would very much like to support a project to acquire over 160,000 acres (280 square miles)of forests and other wonderful habitats in Belize, but has failed to come up with the £5 million needed -- that's around £30 an acre. In England £5 million might buy a large farm - about 1,000 acres. But our problem is that while it's reasonably easy to raise funds to buy a few acres in England, it is very difficult indeed to raise funds to buy large chunks of rainforest. Does anyone know a rockstar, or city slicker with the odd million to invest in the future of the planet?

Monday, 9 January 2006

Why save energy?

Just a thought. What I am about to write is only that. It is certainly not WLT policy, and it is not even something I believe in, but it's meant as a thought to elicit thoughts of others, and perhaps some facts to discredit it or prove it.

Is there any point in conserving energy? At present the amount of energy consumed globally is largely limited by supply, not demand. So if I reduce my energy use, someone else, somewhere else will use that energy. But they may use it on something more damaging. In simple terms, I may save a gallon of petrol by not driving somewhere, but the person who uses the petrol may use it to power a chain saw to cut down a tree.

Another thought. Cheap public transport is damaging to the environment. The cheaper public transport is, the more people will use it -- a pretty obvious and incontrovertible fact. But is this a good thing? Just because it is public transport, and perhaps more 'efficient' it is not automatically a good thing. Cheap public transport allows people living over 100 miles from London to commute daily; in order to do so they may ruin a nice bit of countryside to build a commuter home. Surely the only 'green' form of commuting is bikes or feet.

And finally, what about the air transport dilemma. If air transport becomes more energy efficient than trains, is it 'greener'? Our local, highly subsidised, half empty trains, does not compare favourably with a full-to-capacity easy Jet. What we are always failing to ask, is: what is the purpose of the journey? Public transport is no greener than any other form of transport, if it is for a non-essential journey. So it all boils down to what is an essential journey. I.e the whole debate about energy efficiency and travel is really a philosophical one, not one about facts, since the facts are almost entirely subjective. Most journeys are non-essential, and most freight being shipped around is far from essential. Worrying about the energy used shipping it, and making minor savings is, as one of my correspondents wrote recently, like "rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic".

The iceberg ahead is comprised of the billions of people now on this planet. And like an iceberg, below the waterline are all those under 20 years old, yet to reproduce themselves. And like the Titanic we are on a course that cannot be altered in time to avert a disaster. A few may get into the lifeboats but the rest, in steerage will probably go down.

Just a thought.

Monday, 2 January 2006

New Year resolutions

The New Year is traditionally a time to reflect, and it has also become a time when TV has endless reviews of the past year. The past year has seen numerous natural and man-made disasters. Some claim this is a result of global warming. Others may see the hand of god. To me none of this is particularly relevant.

I too have spent the Christmas break pondering the grave issues that threaten the planet. I have watched the recap of the earthquake disaster in the Himalayas, watched the films of the tsunami, and heard the rhetoric about making poverty history in Africa. I have also reviewed my 'blogs' for the past year or so. And perhaps more importantly, I have looked at the replies posted to my blogs, or sent to me by email. What is perhaps surprising is that there seems to be a remarkable consensus out there in cyberspace. Despite my attacks on poverty relief, buying goats etc, almost without exception I am getting positive feedback. I interpret this very simply: Anyone who gives more than a superficial thought to the claims of politicians and rock stars, and some of the aid agencies, can see the falsity of the claims that poverty can be eliminated. Blair, Geldorf and all the rest should be given copies of Malthus to read. It was a turning point in Darwin's thinking, and it is as relevant today as when it was written in 1798. Buying goats will never solve the problem -- particularly since in many cases they created it. Throwing aid at Africa has demonstrably exacerbated the problem.

But my Christmas ponderings took me two steps further: There are only two issues that need to be addressed if the planet is going to have a future. The first is the human population issue must be addressed. And that means everywhere. It is not a third world issue. The average Asian consumes only a fraction of the resources consumed by the average European, which is considerably less than the average North American. There is absolutely no way can the world's population attain the standard of living considered acceptable and out of poverty in Britain, without a huge amount of environmental deterioration.

Which brings me to my second step: We must save as much as possible of what is left. That is why, when I am asked why I am not doing more to reduce energy dependence, recycling, or any other of the myriad seemingly important issues, my response is always the same. While these are all important, without remnants of natural habitat and wilderness to repopulate the world, there is little point in any of the other activities.

I certainly agree that dealing with the human population issue is paramount. Unfortunately, I have little expertise or experience in this field. Which is why I put my effort into conserving land. For over 40 years I have been working as a wildlife professional in various guises, and I do now have some experience and knowledge of wildlife conservation and habitat protection. I believe it is up to all of us to do what little we can, and to the best of our ability.

So my message for 2006 for those who wish to help ensure that planet earth survives for a few more years, for what ever their reasons, and whatever their personal beliefs is as follows.