Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Honours scandal

There has been a lot of fuss in the UK Press recently about the way honours and peerages are distributed. And horror of all horrors, it has even been suggested that money is involved.

I really don't see what all the fuss is about. This sort of selection has been used for a couple of hundred years by nearly all clubs and societies as standard practice. You can't join most clubs or societies unless you pay a subscription. Some clubs and societies are open to anyone who pays the sub, while others have additional qualifications.

A few examples: provided you pay £31 a year you can join the RSPB. If you pay £45 a year, and can show a genuine interest in Natural history, and get two existing members to sign your application, you can become a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and put FLS after your name. To become a Fellow of the Institute of Biology (and be able to put FIBiol after your name) you need to be able to fill out a complex form demonstrating your professional qualifications and experience (see http://www.iob.org/downloads/851.pdf) and then pay £132 a year. All these are transparent and straightforward.

And surely that is where the honours systems fall down -- they are not open, transparent, or straight forward. If getting a peerage required a degree, x years experience, and payment of £500,000 to a good cause, and £500,000 to a political party, there would be no problem, we would all know what was involved; the cost of an OBE, MBE etc would all be pro rata, and some would involve no financial commitment. If a fellowship of the Royal Society required a PhD and 50 published papers and a payment of y thousand pounds, again , I see no problem. But when both systems are limited by numbers, subject to political bias, political correctness, and numerous other unquantifiable, secretive biases, there are bound to be problems. While all honours are currently handed out on the basis of unquantified personal judgements, there is bound to be disquiet, disgruntlement and dissatisfaction.

In fact, when the systems were created they were much more open and transparent. You knew that if you lent a medieval king a few thousand ducats, or killed a few of his enemies, you might get a knighthood or even a dukedom, and when the Royal Society was created, virtually anyone with a reasonable scientific background could become a member (provided they came from the right social background.)

Within the WLT we practice this in a minor way -- anyone can become a Partner, by donating a minimum of £5 a month, and we will name a reserve for a donation of £5000 or more. Yes, it is buying prestige perhaps, but at least it is totally open and transparent.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

The last survivor

I am often asked 'What is the best thing one can do for conservation?' There are lots of practical steps one can do which range from a bit of greenwash, right through to hair-shirt dark green environmentalism, cycling everywhere, never flying, growing your own veg', composting etc etc. But the simplest way of helping assure the future of the world is to not reproduce yourself.

I recently looked at my own family's reproductive abilities. Many years ago I made a personal and very deliberate decision to never reproduce, but it is pure coincidence that the rest of my family has also moved towards extinction. My grandparents had three children, and had they all continued to reproduce at the same rate, there could now be 27 surviving offspring, and a potential 81 in the next generation. However, most of them have not reproduced, there is only my niece surviving, to the generation after me, so instead of 27, there is only one, and possibly her offspring in the following generation. Currently 26 fewer consumers of energy and other resources.

Add up all the resources 81 children in next generation in the developed world will consume in their lifetime, and it is easy to see why reproduction, or lack of it can be the greatest single contribution the individual can make to the future of the planet. Even if I took half a dozen holidays annually to Australia, drove a Chelsea Tractor, and used a Patio heater all summer for the rest of my life, I would still not use anything like the energy that producing future generations does. It's the great unspoken message, and probably politically incorrect to even mention it.

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Researching species to extinction

The is an old adage, that success breeds success. And it certainly appears to be true in the case of the World Land Trust. 2005 was one of the Trust's most successful years for fundraising, with more members of the public supporting us than in any previous year. This has continued into 2006, and in addition, the Trust has been in receipt of several larger donations.

Buying land vs. funding research

It is relatively easy to understand the reasons for this, which in my view are entirely justified. The Trust has been around for over a decade, and now has a proven track record and, is becoming far better known. The fact that several well-known naturalists and conservationists are associated with the Trust certainly enhances its credibility as well. But I think another important factor is that members of the public are increasingly disillusioned with the way that overseas aid appears to being poured into bottomless pits. The World Land Trust projects all have tangible and very obvious results: LAND. Land is acquired, protected and is there for everyone to see. I personally believe that far too many conservation charities waste valuable and limited resources on research. Scientific research is costly, and generally speaking not the highest priority when it becomes to conservation.

The last few decades of the 20th century saw millions of dollars being devoted to research into endangered species. It would be interesting to quantify some of these costs, but even without detail it is possible to make some interesting points. One popular 'theory' at the end of the century was that of 'biodiversity hotspots'. Numerous papers were written, by numerous well-funded scientists, and it was claimed that this research and the analyses would make conservation decisions easier and better. The definitions of endangered species were also refined, and detailed methodologies created.

In developing hotspots and other theories, large numbers of people were involved, mostly academics, many of which have little or no practical experience of implementing conservation. I was reminded of the early nineteenth century when pioneer naturalist and conservationist, Charles Waterton (among others) criticised the "closet naturalists". Those who studied wildlife in the libraries and museums, and barely knew what the living animals looked like.

Important decisions often not scentific

In my experience most conservationists can make perfectly good conservation decisions without the reams of academic papers that have been published. In fact many of those people having to make the decisions don't even have access to the publications. Furthermore, many of the important decisions that really affect conservation are not scientific anyway.

An unfortunate aspect of a lot of this type of research is that it is based on the available data, and in many cases the available data is not adequate, or irrelevant. In the recent case of the land purchase carried out by the WLT and its partner Guyra Paraguay, the most important factors involved were availability of funding, and availability of land for purchase. We can do the science later, without using conservation money.

So don't misinterpret what I am writing, I am not anti-science or scientific research. But I am anti using conservation funding for it. There are plenty of sources of money for scientific research, and in most cases, there are higher priorities for using conservation funds. Clearly I have a bias; I think land acquisition is the top priority. This is to state the obvious: without land, and without wildlife, research becomes purely academic. Interesting, but of very little conservation value. Personally i find much of the research into dodos, giant auks, moas, thylacines absolutely fascinating, and will read papers, and attend conferences -- but I certainly would not waste a single conservation cent on it.

Friday, 5 May 2006

Public transport

Although I have written about it before, I still have not got satisfactory explanations as to why public transport is such a good thing for the environment.

Improving public transport is good for the environment, cheap public transport takes pressure off the environment, or so the mantra goes. However, while a good public transport system may be highly beneficial, socially, its environmental benefits are less clear cut. The problem is that if public transport is cheap and efficient, then more people use it. A good example is Ryan Air. Under any modern day definition, this is public transport, comparable to, say, any of the privatised London bus companies. And because it is cheap and efficient, plenty of people use it. But they mostly use it for journeys they would not otherwise make. The same is true of Eurostar rail travel. Of course there are other issues to do with air pollution and air travel, but the underlying principle is there. And if commuter rail travel is made cheap and efficient, people simply travel further, and live remotely from their place of work. The World Land Trust office is based in rural Suffolk, and this is possible, in part because the rail travel to London (where many important meetings are held) is extremely cheap.

Way back in the 1970s, I think it was transport campaigner Mick Hamer, who told me that as long ago as 1912 the average commute time was about an hour, and that in 1975 it was still about the same -- but people just travelled further -- I may have got the exact figures wrong, but I am sure the principle is right. The train journey to Norwich is now fast and efficient. Consequently there are plenty of people who commute daily to London. While some of the trains are more efficient than private cars, in terms of energy, a half empty train is often far less efficient than a modern energy efficient private car with two passengers. And in any case, the private car is often still needed to get to the public transport network.

In London cheap travel passes giving unlimited access to the underground network mean that people use the system for journeys of one or two stops, instead of walking.

While energy is cheap, we are all going to continue to use too much, and while populations continue to grow, we will continue to have an increasing impact on the environment. Only by having negative population growth can we ever expect to improve the natural environment in the long term. Cheap public transport is not a solution.