Monday, 31 July 2006

Environmentally disastrous public transport

Sorry to go on about it, but having recently travelled by 'public transport' to a conference in Angers, in the Loire Valley of France, I have even more disquiet about promoting 'public transport' as being environmentally friendly.

On arrival at Waterloo International I was confronted by a seething mass of travellers, most of who seemed to be en route to DisneyLand Paris. And Yes, the train was full, no doubt enabling the pundits to claim that it was more environmentally friendly than going by car or flying. But as I flashed through the countryside I wondered how many people needed to make the journey, compared with those who were making it simply because it was cheap and easy. In fact, my own decision to go to the conference was to a large extent based on the fact that it was reasonably cheap and easy to do so.

It reinforced my view that 'public' transport may be a social good, but it is not automatically environmentally good. All transport has an element of negative impact on the natural environment. In some cases, those impacts are less than other forms of transport, but in many (most?) cases efficient public transport simply encourages people to travel more, and the cheaper it is the more it is used. But this does not mean that it is environmentally friendly. Paradoxically, air transport has less impact on many terrestrial ecosystems than extensive networks of major roads, for example.

Instead of urging people to use public transport, a good environmentalist should urge people to cut out non-essential journeys. If we all did that, then public transport economics would probably change dramatically, and since most 'public transport' systems are now privatised, it would produce some interesting results. This is because most public transport systems, being privatised, and profit driven, are now to a greater or lesser extent dependent on people making more and more non-essential journeys.

I am not saying don't go to Disneyland, and I am not saying don't make journeys for pleasure. But I am saying don't think that all public transport is environmentally friendly. Train journeys have an impact on the environment -- not perhaps as much as air flights - but an impact nonetheless. They require fossil fuels to power them, and concrete and steel to ride on.

As with so many of my blogs (unfortunately) I am not offering any answers or solutions. I am trying to open up what seem to me complex issues, being treated in very simplistic ways, not only by politicians (who are often simple souls), but also by environmentalists who should know better.

A footnote: What is 'public transport'? Is it transport FOR the public (ie. Virgin trains, Ryanair, or taxis? Or is it transport OWNED BY the public (i.e British Rail, now privatised, British Overseas Airways Corporation, now BA etc)?

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

Lebanese Environmental disaster

The invasion of Lebanon by Israel is not only morally unjustified, it is also having devastating effects on the environment. I had the pleasure of visiting Lebanon only two weeks before the Israelis started bombing it out of existence. It was a beautiful country, and the massive effort that had gone into rebuilding Beirut and other towns was everywhere apparent. The people were clearly optimistic, and a great future lay ahead. The environmental movement -- that had actually not only survived during the dreadful civil war but started to develop -- was blooming. In a week's time the launch of the first really good field guide to birds was being planned. It was an Arabic translation of Richard Porter's Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East. A consortium of wildlife organisations (including the World Land Trust) had got together to fund the publication because it is well known that one of the best ways of stimulating interest in wildlife and wildlife conservation is make high quality field guides available. The number of birdwatchers in the Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East is still small, but growing, and this book will give impetus and fire their enthusiasm.

But now everything has been set back by Israel's aggression in the region. An animal rescue centre I visited is having problems because the bombing has caused food prices to escalate. No one knows where the next bombs will fall. Innocent civilians are the main casualty, but the country's infrastructure is being completely torn apart. I had been extolling the beauties of the montane flora to botanist friends -- there was a huge potential for ecotourism -- all shattered when Israeli bombs tore into the international airport. And the international powers, such as Britain and the US, so quick to interfere when oil supplies are involved are standing by and watching, to all intents and purposes silent.

Thursday, 13 July 2006

Fair Trade organic coffee that also saves rainforests

My blog today is a blatant sales pitch for an excellent organic, fair trade coffee.
Earlier this year the World Land trust entered into a sponsorship agreement with Miko Coffee, which will help save some large areas of rainforest in south America. Miko Coffee were developing a new fairtrade brand, which has now been launched as Puro [see:]. Miko realised that there was an increasing demand for fair trade coffee, and they also realised that since most fair trade coffee was also organic, that many of its potential customers would be interested in conserving the natural environment. And hence the link with the World Land Trust. The Puro Coffee brand is sourced from growers in the Tambopata Valley of Peru -- an area in the Amazon watershed and well-known for its wildlife importance. Consequently protecting remaining forests and linking that protection with local coffee growers will be a priority for the WLT.

But readers of this blog can also help -- if they know of any offices, students' unions, businesses large or small, clubs, theatres, restaurants ete etc., that would like to sell a high quality fair trade organic coffee, they should refer them to the Puro website. The World Land Trust receives a royalty on all the coffee sold. And it really is an excellent tasting coffee, as the staff were able to sample this morning. Our local Miko Coffee marketting manager arrived in the WLT offices and intalled a small table top coffeee machine -- that grinds fresh coffee beans as it makes the coffee. The coffee is available throught most of Europe, as well as in Britain. And it will also help save rainforests.

Swifts swallows and martins

It's that time of the year when the swifts hurtle around Halesworth in their mad, dashing screaming parties. We're in the midst of a hot, sunny spell and it's been a good summer for swifts. In a cold wet summer, swifts have the ability to go into a semi-torpid stae, and often their breeding success drops to zero. This is not a serious problem for swifts as they are exceptionally long-lived for a small bird -- perhaps living up to 20 years. But despite the warm sunny weather, insects are far from abundant, and swallows and martins seem to be continuing to decline, along with other binsectivorous birds. Last year a pair of spotted flycatchers that nested under the eaves of our house as far back as anyone in the neighbourhood could remember, failed to return. And they did not come this year.

Insects seem to be in some sort of free-fall decline, with most of the specialist organisations, dealing with dragonflies, butterflies and other groups reporting more and more species as disappearing. Local success stories with a few spectacular butterflies obscure the fact that huge numbers of insect species are disappearing. And more worrying is the fact that the total biomass also seems to be declining.

When I grew up in London in the 1940s and 1950s flies were everywhere in summer. Now it is possible to sit in a street in London (and even the suburbs) eating a meal, and not see a single fly. It is a miracle that there are any house martins and swallows left.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Conservationist Denies Climate Change is a Problem

An interesting headline if it were true. But while I would not dispute that climate change is a major problem confronting the planet, I would suggest that it is not the most important issue, by a long way. The most important issue is that which is the cause of climate change. And that is the overuse of non-renewable resources, which in turn is totally dependent on the human population of the planet, which is still growing and totally out of control.

Politicians seem to have a knack of always sidestepping the real issues, and there is always the worry that virtually all politicians and economies are committed to growth. However, economic growth does not have to be connected to population growth.

In fact sustainable economic growth is probably only achievable in a country like Great Britain if there is negative population growth. All these issues would have been apparent in the boom and bust economies of the historical past, where populations exploded, then were devastated by plagues and disasters. But with the globalisation of world economies these ups and downs have been largely displaced from the developed world. But this is almost certainly only a temporary respite. Famines and economic depression have plagued Africa for the past half century, and the gap between rich and poor has widened all over the world. And no amount of foreign aid is going to revive Africa, despite the pledges of politicians and rock stars.

Avian 'flu set alarm bells ringing, probably rightly so. Because while the likelihood of avian 'flu transferring to humans is low, it is equally true to say that the probability of a major pandemic disease sweeping the world in the near future is extremely high. Just as it is not impossible that another natural disaster of the scale of the erruption of Tambora over a century and a half ago, would probably lead to widespread famine and disease even in the developed world. The 2004 tsunami showed what a relatively small natural disaster can do -- it was only a fraction of the scale of disasters that have occurred within historic times. The erruptions of Pompei, Krakatoa, the earthquakes of Lisbon and San Francisco would all cause incomparable damage if they occurred tomorrow, largely because the human populations they will affect are so much larger.

Until politicians place population control on the same footing, with the same level of funding as the so-called war against terror, they are doing something considerably worse than fiddling while Rome burns. And the devastation to human life is potentially incomparably more serious than any terrorist attack.