Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The God Delusion

Over a Christmas drink one of my neighbours, stimulated by seeing the faithful going to church on Christmas eve, made an interesting point, which distinguished 'believers' from 'non-believers'.

Non-believers often have very fulfilling lives, and at the end of their life can look back and think they may or may not have done something useful, creative or productive. But what about all those believers, from the pope downwards, who devote their lives to the service of what many of us think of as a delusion? If we are right and they are wrong, then a large part of their entire life has been wasted on a futile gesture (Even one hour a week in church adds up to the equivalent of about a year of ones life). At least the non-believers don't have this worry; doesn't this every bother them? And perhaps this is a major hindrance to wildlife conservation, and also why so many conservationists are non-believers (I include atheists, agnostics and anti-theists in this category). A Non-believer cannot just sit and pray that god will sort it all out, a non-believer is more likely to think that he or she must get on and do something. It would be an interesting area for reasearch.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Christmas is coming and the Goat is getting fat

Regular readers will know my views on goats, and will also know that there has been a massive drought and die off of domestic lo]ivestock in East Africa. Any details of what is happening, plus your views will be very welcome, as I am planning to write more on this subject.

Another week goes by....

My blogs are getting fewer and fewer. And for those that read them my apologies. However, the reason is that the World Land Trust is getting busier and busier. Despite the recession, we are getting more and more companies wanting to support us. I have mentioned this several times already, but it is still true. The current interest is clearly influence by the up and coming discussions in Copenhagen relating to Climate Change, and carbon offsetting. However, I think we are all missing one major issue, which is only faintly heard in the background. The 'elephant in the room' is the human population. Recent predictions indicate that the UK's population is going to grow to an unsustainable 70 million or more. But this is insignificant compared with the predictions for other parts of the world.

As far as I am concerned there are two over-riding priorities for conservation: first save as much of the world's natural habitats as possible, and second support any initiative that addresses the human population crisis. Everything else pales into insignificance by comparison. This is not to say that the myriad other conservation activities are not worthwhile, but without natural habitat in the future, captive breeding, research etc are all futile.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Copehagen and human population

The Copenhagen meetings did not focus on the one issue that drives our demand for fossil fuels and results in all the CO2. That is human population growth.

If I was trying to be controversial, I might suggest that far from trying to conserve energy and trying to develop renewable sources of energy we should be opposing these changes. Why? Because increasing the energy supply and keeping prices down will simply allow the human population to carry on increasing. How? Because cheap energy allows food to be grown in an otherwise unsustainable way, and that in turn will slow down the rate of human mortality from malnutrition (one estimate I read was that 18 million deaths a year are related to malnutrition, and that figure is probably rising). A cynical view, perhaps. But realistic from a biological perspective. Read Malthus if you are not convinced

However one looks at it, the human population cannot continue to increase indefinitely. Nor can economic growth be sustained indefinitely. History is bound to repeat itself, and in the past numerous civilizations have over-reached their resources, and crashed. It is bound to happen again. To me that is as certain as death and taxes. For millennia famine, disease and war have been a natural part of the human population control mechanism. And if they are repressed for too long then eventually they re-appear with catastrophic results. History teaches that very basic lesson, which Malthus understood all too clearly. And it will happen again, unless an alternative method of population control is implemented.

Britain is set to have a population of over 70 million, all squezzed into an area of less than 94,000 square miles, or just over 60 million acres. With large areas unsuitable for farming, and with so much of the prime agricultural land now covered with roads, buildings and other infrastructure, there is considerably less than a quarter of an acre per person for growing food. Clearly unsustainable -- and yet this is presumably the lifestyle that is being advocated for the so called less developed countries.

It is time for a wake-up call. The British government still subsidises children, millions of pounds are spent on infertility treatments, at a time when a significant decrease in the human population is essential in the medium term, if not in the short term. And in the long term, without population control, nature will intervene.

Meanwhile, every 11 seconds another person (net) is added to the population of the USA -- one of the most energy hungry nations in the world. That's nearly 3 million a year, all demanding economic growth and masses of cheap energy.

The politicians were certainly fiddling while Copehagen was burning.....

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Water, water everywhere

The Fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square was used by a student from Ipswich to highlight water awareness. Dressed as a toilet, he carried a placard stating that "water and sanitation are human rights". PR from Water Aid, the charity backing him claimed that 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation. Presumably this implies that everyone has a right to a flush toilet.

A great idea, But has anyone actually given any thought as to where all the water for this human right will come from? Or where all the toilet paper that will be flushed down these toilets will come from? Or where all the effluent will go? Like so many of the quick fix solutions to world poverty being inflicted on the less developed world, virtually no thought is given to the environmental impacts. I have tried to gather data on this topic, and would be really interested to see copies of any correspondence relating to EIAs [Environmental Impact Assessments]; I know for a fact that many aid charities do not carry them out, so it is always worth writing to charities to find out if they carry them out, and with what results. What is the Environmental impact of changing traditional farming methods to 'improved' western technology? What is the environmental impact of using artificial fertilisers, pesticides? What is the environmental impact of deep boreholes for water?

I do not have a problem with emergency aid, following natural or even man-made disasters, but long-term, so called development aid, is often ill thought out, with little or no thought about the long-term environmental consequences. And providing water for everyone to use with western style profligacy is one of the biggest potential disasters I can think of. Meanwhile, we at the World Land Trust are working with several of our partner NGOs, to conserve watersheds. They are just as important as the tropical forests that often grow around them.

Is a flush toilet a basic human right or is it a luxury?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Cats. Betes Noir & Wildlife

This says it all.

And the current issue of the American Bird Conservancy magazine says a bit more

Friday, 2 October 2009

Population press release

For this blog, I have simply pasted a press release from the Optimum Population Trust. The World Land Trust and OPT share the same Patron (Sir David Attenborough) and I believe that the activities of OPT are every bit as important as anything the WLT does. Politicians still avoid the P word, but human Populations are the only real threat to the planet. Read on.......

CONTRACEPTION IS “GREENEST” TECHNOLOGYFamily planning cheapest way to combat climate change
Contraception is almost five times cheaper than conventional green technologies as a means of combating climate change, according to research published today (Wednesday, September 9).
Each $7 (£4) spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a tonne. To achieve the same result with low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32 (£19). The UN estimates that 40 per cent of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended.
The report, Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost, commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust from the London School of Economics*, concludes that “considered purely as a method of reducing future CO2 emissions”, family planning is more cost-effective than leading low-carbon technologies. It says family planning should be seen as one of the primary methods of emissions reduction.
Meeting basic family planning needs along the lines suggested would save 34 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of CO2 between now and 2050 – equivalent to nearly six times the annual emissions of the US and almost 60 times the UK’s annual total.
Roger Martin, chair of OPT, said the findings vindicated OPT’s stance that population growth must be included in the climate change debate. “It’s always been obvious that total emissions depend on the number of emitters as well as their individual emissions – the carbon tonnage can’t shoot down, as we want, while the population keeps shooting up. The taboo on mentioning this fact has made the whole climate change debate so far somewhat unreal. Stabilising population levels has always been essential ecologically, and this study shows it’s economically sensible too.

“The population issue must now be added into the negotiations for the Copenhagen climate change summit in December.** This part of the solution is so easy, and so cheap, and would bring so many other social and economic benefits, from health and education to the empowerment of women. It would also ease all the other environmental problems we face – the rapid shrinkage of soil, fresh water, forests, fisheries, wildlife and oil reserves and the looming food crisis.

“All of these would be easier to solve with fewer people, and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more. Meanwhile each additional person, especially each rich person in the OECD countries, reduces everyone’s share of the planet’s dwindling resources even faster. Non-coercive population policies are urgently needed in all countries. The taboo on discussing this is no longer defensible.”
The study, based on the principle that “fewer people will emit fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide”, models the consequences of meeting all “unmet need” for family planning, defined as the number of women who wish to delay or terminate childbearing but who are not using contraception.*** One recent estimate put this figure at 200 million. UN data suggest that meeting unmet need for family planning would reduce unintended births by 72 per cent, reducing projected world population in 2050 by half a billion to 8.64 billion. Between 2010 and 2050 12 billion fewer “people-years” would be lived – 326 billion against 338 billion under current projections.

The 34 gigatonnes of CO2 saved in this way would cost $220 billion – roughly $7 a tonne. However, the same CO2 saving would cost over $1trillion if low-carbon technologies were used.

The $7 cost of abating a tonne of CO2 using family planning compares with $24 (£15) for wind power, $51 (£31) for solar, $57-83 (£35-51) for coal plants with carbon capture and storage, $92 (£56) for plug-in hybrid vehicles and $131 (£80) for electric vehicles.

However, the study may understate the CO2 savings available because the estimates of unmet need are based on married women alone, yet some studies suggest up to 40 per cent of young unmarried women have had unwanted pregnancies.

Mr Martin added: “The potential for tackling climate change by addressing population growth through better family planning, alongside the conventional approach, is clearly enormous and we shall be urging all those involved in the Copenhagen process to take it fully on board.”
*Available at
**In a statement issued last month, OPT called on climate change negotiators to ensure that population restraint policies are adopted by every state worldwide to combat climate change. Family planning programmes in poorer countries should be treated as legitimate candidates for climate change funding. The statement was endorsed by OPT patrons including Sir David Attenborough, Dr. James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt. See:
***A recent study by Oregon State University concluded: “A person’s reproductive choices must be considered along with [their] day-to-day activities when assessing [their] ultimate impact on the global environment.” See Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals, by Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences/Department of Statistics, available on The authors calculate that in the US each child adds 9,441 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, equivalent to 5.7 times her lifetime emissions. See also: A Population-Based Climate Strategy (OPT Research Briefing) at
See or telephone 020 8123 9116

Monday, 13 July 2009

Professional Fundraisers

As readers of my past blogs will realise, I have little time for professional fundraisers, and I have explained previously why the WLT has not signed up to the FundRaising Standards Board. Some time back, I read in the May issue of Professional Fundraising, that "more than a third of Fundraising Standards Board members have failed to submit obligatory complaints figures to the regulator".
And while I am writing about complaints, a couple of days ago Vivien received a massive envelope from the Red Cross, all very personalised, with cards, address labels and a pen, and a lapel badge -- it must have cost quite a bit to produce, and clearly the intention is to embarrass recipients into donating to the Red Cross. But only a couple of days previously we happened to have been to a local Red Cross Fundraiser in our village hall. So my immediate reaction is very negative indeed towards the Red Cross. I have always disliked giving 'free gifts' as an incentive for charitable donations, and like organisations that indulge in 'chugging' immediately put them on a black list for donations. And I wonder how many other people react in the same way. The problems is that these forms of fundraising do produce some results, and they are often fairly immediate, which is why professional fundraisers like them. But how many legacies and big donations are lost by the organisations indulging in such techniques? Any one else got views or experiences?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Green colonialism?

I picked up a leaflet about a scientific symposium being organised by the Zoological Society of London. The Title was Biodiversity Monitoring and Conservation:Bridging the Gaps Between Global Commitment and Local Action. A very worthy concept. But interestingly the list of contributors seems to be composed completely of representatives of the Big NGOs (BINGOs) and university and other institutions from the developed world. The views of those actually doing the action, implementing conservation, carrying out the monitoring do not seem to be involved. I recognise that this is not a symposium that will have any real executive functions, but it does seem a bit odd that so few (none?) of those at the sharp end are involved. The WLT is involved in a lot of programmes that involve monitoring -- to ensure the actions we are taking are effective, and most of this involves biodiversity in some way or other (or at least species diversity monitoring), but one thing we are certain of, is that unless the local conservationists are actively involved in all initiatives, there is a good chance that the conservation actions will not be sustainable. The ZSL has a reputation for being a bit reactionary, but one might have hoped that with over 20 speakers giving presentations, one or two might have been from organisations based in the less developed parts of the world, actually involved in the monitoring long-term; there are quite a lot of them.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

more awards for conservation and charity

I have written about my dislike for awards in the past. Such as the Charity Times awards for 'Best charity'. In particular I dislike awards which require an entry fee, and even worse, often a large payment to attend the awards ceremony. And most of the people I have discussed this with agree with me.

But there are other awards, where agreement is rarer. And that is awards for individuals. There are a number of prizes that are given to individuals who are deemed to be significant in some way or other. But I also have serious reservations about giving awards to individuals, for a number of reasons. First, it is always very difficult to decide who deserves an award. Very often it is the pushiest person, as modesty is rarely rewarded. Second, awards frequently contain an element of political correctness. And third they feed the contemporary obsession with celebrity culture. But the backers for awards just love giving them to individuals, largely because of this latter reason -- they can generate more publicity. The reality is that while the charismatic individual can achieve a lot, ultimately it is organisations that make the real, sustainable, long lasting difference. The really good charismatic individuals do not need awards, but the organisations they represent and work for often struggle to get funds and recognition.

It was some while back that I began to have doubts about the value of rewarding individuals with conservation 'Oscars' when helping BBC Wildlife Magazine draw up a list of the most influential conservationists. And this list did not have prize money attached to it. The problem was, that even with a long list of only British conservationists, that it was a little bit like competitive team sports -- someone had to lose, and it did not mean that the losers were any worse, or the winners were any better. But we only ever hear about the elation of the winners. What about the depression of the losers? At least when it's an organisation it is not so dependent on an individual's ego, or presentation abilities. And at least with an organisation it stands a better chance of having a lasting effect.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

New Naturalists hit by recession?

I happened to look at Collins' New Naturalists on sale on ebay, and it seems that they have been hit by the recession, as prices seem to be in free fall. The market for this remarkable series has seen incrdible prices paid for the rarer editions, but it has also seen many of the volumes changing hands among 'collectors' who are not actaully that interested in the contents, buit more interested in the condition of the dust-wrapper.m The advantage of this (to my mind, silly) market, is that it has enabled HarperCollins to publish many more volumes in the series than would otherwise have been possible. It is a great pity that a similar collectors' market did not develop for the World Naturalist series of Weidenfield and Nicolson. An equally important series in my vbiew, never surpassed, but alas, no longer being published.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Monitoring mega-expenditure of NGOs

My regular readers will know that I am a critic of foreign aid, and I am also a critic of Oxfam. I also monitor many websites of charities, mostly to see how they present themselves, and to ensure that any criticisms that might be made do not apply to the World land Trust. A major problem with any large charity is that it almost impossible to understand what really goes on when reading their accounts. When a charity the size of Oxfam presents its accounts, it is done in round millions, and it is almost impossible to know what these figure concern. The charity can give away as much or as little information as it likes. But it does lead to an enormous potential for misunderstanding. I am sure there are very good explanations, for example, on the Oxfam website it indicates that grants paid to overseas recipients in FYE 2008 totalled £16 million going to 50 organisations. Yet in the same annual rport it is stated that the UK payroll cost £93 million, with 25 staff earning over £60,000 p.a. As I wrote above, I am sure there is a perfectly good reason for these figures, but what it does show is how difficult it is to undertand accounts when they are hidden in fiogures with 6 noughts on the end.

One of the more obviousreasons can be found by looking at the sources of income, and since a huge amount comes from governments, it is likely that this is expected to be spent on UK staff so that it stays at home to be taxed, and therefore returned to sender....

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Environmentally disastrous public transport

I have just been looking at the local railway service's website. There's an amazing array of special offers encouraging people to travel by train. And very environmentally friendly one might think. But is it? The answer is a resounding NO. Most of the journeys being made using these astounding special offers are undoubtedly not essential. An in many cases it is not a case of going by train instead of by car. It is simply encouraging people to travel more and more. And if the trains from Norwich are only half full with people making essential journeys, it makes economic sense to fill the rest of the train with cheap travellers. And that way the rail service is not only profitable, but it can justify itself.

Unfortunately this has been taken to new limits in London. Here, travel cards allow a cap to be put on the cost of traveling each day on the London Underground. However many journeys you make, it gets no more expensive. The upshot of this is almost certainly many people use their card for journeys of one or two stops, making the underground even more unpleasantly overcrowded, but at the same time allowing the operators to claim that public transport is incredibly popular.

I think a fact that most environmentalists promoting public transport have failed to grasp, is that public transport can only really be environmentally friendly, in a centrally controlled political system, such as once operated in the Communist world. I recall visiting Czechoslovakia in the 1960s when train travel was dirt cheap, car travel only for a few, bus travel more expensive than trains, and air travel too expensive for most people. With central controls, then all fares can be regulated to ensure the right balance is achieved. But with the type of free-for-all we now have, with subsidised fuel for air travellers, and all travel actually responsible to shareholders (which means there is a legal obligation to maximise profit above all other considerations), there is virtually no prospect of an environmentally friendly public transport system. And while I am at it, I will remind everyone, that air travel is now de facto part of public transport, and often much more fuel efficient than the average rural bus service. But of course there is a difference, in that most air travel is non essential. {Having written that, I realse that many rural bus services are now packed with pensioners swanning around on their passes, making them most of free travel.

More people travelling more and more. That's the real problem. And everyone wanting more of everything, and wanting it cheaper than before. Thereby driving the manufacture of goods overseas where environmental controls are less stringent, the production of food overseas where welfare standards are lower etc etc etc. Depressing. Perhaps a positive aspect of the economic downturn is that we are all realizing how much 'stuff' we all buy that we don't really need. Perhaps some politicians may even realise that continued economic growth is simply not sustainable if it is dependent on constantly expanding human populations.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo

Dead Aid is a brilliant summary of some of the views I have been espousing for many years. The Authoress, unlike me, can back it all up with facts; she is a Zambian, who has worked in the World Bank, and her book is a devastating indictment of foreign aid in Africa. I am sure all the government aid agencies will dismiss it -- they would wouldn't they? And I am sure Oxfam, Christian Aid, St Geldorf and all the others trying to 'Wipe out Poverty in Africa' will dismiss it. And I am sure not every little detail is interpreted exactly right. But I am also sure that the overall thesis has hit the nail on the head.

Foreign aid is the cause of corruption and poverty in most of Africa. And anyone who thinks otherwise should read this book. Before giving another cent or Penny read it.

Emergency aid is one thing, and will always be needed, but so-called 'development aid' is quite a different matter, and this is the aid that actually helps prevent real development, and feeds corruption. And it also has often huge benefits to the donors. In fact after reading Moyo's account it seems that these are the only real long term beneficiaries: pop-stars, politicians and donors get a real feelgood kick out of it, meanwhile the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer.

As she points out, governments seem all to eager to listen to Bono and Geldorf -- but how often do they listen to those who actually live and try to work in Sub-Saharan Africa? Why should a pop-star know more than them?

I would actually go slightly further than Moyo, as I see elements of cultural imperialism in most aid programmes. Pushing cows that produce more milk into African economies, where the majority of the inhabitants are lactose intolerant is a classic example. I would also argue that there is little difference between the cultural imperialism of the 21st century and the Missionary zeal of the 19th century. The end results are not dissimilar: a form of ethnicide.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Volunteer Travellers

In the course of work today I had cause to look at a couple of websites for volunteer travellers -- those going abroad to do good works. In fact while the intentions are often very good, I do have serious reservations about how much real good most of these young travellers do, For a start they can often be taking away employment from locals. The average trip will cost the volunteer something around £1500-£3000 for a month's 'holiday' -- often a year's employment for a local. But more important is the lack of transparency of many of the companies involved. Most of the young altruistic volunteers assume that the companies are also philanthropic. But a quick look at the websites reveals...... very little. Unlike charities, they do not have to publish their accounts, nor reveal who is paid what.

Whenever I am asked about gap year volunteering, or 'expeditions' I always say 'caveat emptor'. Earthwatch and a few (relatively few, I am afraid) do a great job, but there are a lot of others who are little more than travel companies with the profits going to the shareholders or ownwers -- even when they appear altruistic.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

IUCN in retreat

IUCN -- the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources-- has just had a retreat. So I read in their newsletter today. And I always find the concept faintly worrying. To start with the idea of being in retreat has a distinctly negative connotation. And even if I sweep that aside, it then has a rather austere, monastic inference. Neither appeals to me. And while it might be a useful function, for the staff and board members to get together, I am not sure it is something that deserves publicity. Cynics in the conservation world have suggested that IUCN stands for International Union for Conversation about Nature, or even worse, I Used to Conserve Nature. The fact remains that too many meetings, with too many delegates are what IUCN has become known for. We need fewer conferences, fewer meetings, less research and more action. Much more action.

Needless to say there was no mention of the most serious of all conservation issues: human populations. IUCN seems to avoid this much of the time. But I was glad to hear over the weekend, that Sir David Attenborough has beome patron of the Optimum Population Trust.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Flying off to Sicily

Last Thursday I flew off to Sicily for a long weekend. Recharging of batteries etc. It was one of the best times of the year for seeing orchids, and we saw loads of them, together with masses of other wild flowers, plus migrating birds of prey. But of course many people then criticise trips like this -- flying and all that carbon footprint. How do I justify it? The answer is, I don't really have any logical justification. It does have a carbon footprint, but since on the whole I lead a relatively low-carbon life, I suppose I feel, a little bit of indulgence is justified. Furthermore, my raison d'etre for conserving wildlife, is my own personal enjoyment of it. But while flying, I did feel that the best way of reducing the amount of carbon is to ensure that fair and realistic prices are paid for air travel. And certainly it is getting much more expensive, and there were fewer people on the plane. But it's a dilemma which is not easily solved. What do others who fly a lot feel about this?

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Easter weekend

A few days away from the office, and some glorious spring weather. Slow worms were under the sheets of corrugated iron that I have strewn around the garden to provide a hiding place for them. Also a common shrew and a bank vole were under the sheets as well. The dawn chorus seems a bit better than recent years with at least four singing male blackcaps. And I saw my first swallow on Saturday. And best of all, in our tiny patch of woodland, I found a nice crop of Morels -- a spring fruiting fungus, that is truly delicious.

And an interesting piece of behaviour. Over winter I have kept our five Japanese Quail in the greenhouse -- they hate the wet cold English winter, and seemed very happy, and became exceptionally tame. On Sunday, I decided to put some seed trays in the green house, and gave it a thorough wetting, and the quail also had a great time in the shower. Then next day their behaviour totally changed. They became very flighty -- they had only ever run around, never taking flight -- and very vocal. Did the shower I had given them, trigger a migration response? Unfortunately none of the books I have (including the Handbook of Birds of the World give any information that enlightens me on this. Any leads from my readers would be

And so today, back to work, with a few donations resulting from Simon Barnes' article in the Times (fewer than I expected, probably because with the beautiful weekend weather, no one was reading their papers, they were all in the garden!)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Wildlife, rainforests and vegetarianism

A few of WLT's supporters have suggested that being vegetarian is a way of saving wildlife and rainforests. As is so often the case, the answers are never that simple.

I was brought up a vegetarian (unusual in the 1940s and 50s), but changed in the 1960s to an omnivore diet. The fact is that while there is no question that we do not need to eat the vast quantities of meat that 'developed' (i.e. rich) societies eat, an omnivore diet actually makes as much sense as a vegetarian diet. Grazing sheep on upland pastures can be an efficient way of maintaining interesting habitats, and even in vegetarian areas of India cows are kept to provide manures.

More controversial is the fact that huge areas of rainforest have been devastated for the production of soya beans, which are among the mainstays of vegetarian and vegan foods. The more responsible soya producers only use organic soya, but even those do often get it from areas that were historically rainforest.

My personal belief is that the answer does not lie in vegetarianism per se, but in eating very limited amounts of high quality (organic, pesticide free, locally produced, cruelty free) meat, and locally produced vegetables when ever possible. But international trade is also important to benefit the poorer parts of the world, so ethically and environmentally friendly rice and other cereals etc should not be ignored.

Unfortunately there is no simple answer, other than simply reducing the size of the human population and its aspirations to ever increasing material wealth.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Stanley Johnson I presume

A few days ago I read in London's Evening Standard a review of an autobiography of Stanley Johnson, father of London's Mayor Boris. I knew and worked with Stanley Johnson many, many years ago when he was one of the great advocates not only of whale conservation, but also the Mediterranean Monk Seal. As a very active European parliamentarian, Stanley was always a memorable raconteur as well, but one thing I had almost completely forgotten until I read the review of his autobiography was that he was also a leading advocate of the need to take human populations' seriously. If only the world had listened to him. Now, millions and millions of humans on the planet later, the problem is almost insoluble.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Africa, Goats, Oxfam, Christian Aid and impending disaster

I have just returned from Africa for a series of meetings with local conservation groups, and the World Land Trust will probably be supporting some of the important initiatives by the NGO sector in both Kenya and Tanzania. Land is under considerable pressure, and one of the main reasons is the rapid spread of agriculture, and to a lesser degree the mechanisation of agriculture. Added to this the dramatic and almost out of control increase in the human population has meant that more and more land once being cultivated is taken over for housing, and other forms of urban ‘development’. All this means there is a significant decrease in the area of grasslands, open woodlands and other habitats where once domestic livestock as well as wildlife once grazed. Add to that the fact that in the past 50 years the numbers of domestic goats, sheep, cattle, camels and other grazing animals have increased even faster than the human population, and it is hardly surprising that overgrazing is widespread.

But still foreign aid charities sell the idea that having lots of goats or even camels, is a way out of poverty for Africa. Of course for the individual that gets a goat or a camel, it probably is. But since none of the donor organisations appear to carry out Environmental Impact Assessments of their projects, little is known about either the impact of all these animals or the impact of the message that is being delivered. I am more concerned about the latter. If the developed world aid charities go around pretending that goats can be bred in unlimited quantities as a solution to poverty, they should at least be able to produce some evidence. In most African pastoralist societies, goats and other livestock are a form of wealth, and accumulated. Camels could be considered as a ‘rolls royce’ symbol in some societies. So dishing out livestock to the poorer members of society may have social implications that the donors are unaware of. Certainly when I met with representatives of Oxfam (one of the few organisations even prepared to discuss the issue) they were unable to point me in the direction of any research into this area.

And my final criticism of the goat and cow brigade is the way they market the idea that they are often providing ‘improved’ breed. I.e ones that give higher milk yields. On my visit to East Africa, I saw very few Ankole cattle this time, but loads of the ‘Holstein’ types. Is it really a good idea to replace cattle that have co-evolved with their local herders, to be suitable for the local conditions, with those that have been evolved to suit the conditions of northern Europe? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that in Europe there is considerable concern of the loss of genetic diversity in domestic livestock, and societies have sprung up to conserve rare breeds. But rare breeds are being created even faster in Africa, with very little concern by the aid agencies. I also know that the introduction of modern veterinary practices also produces short term gains, but may also wipe out long term, much cheaper husbandry practices, as it has done in the north. As a simple example, and one of my hobby horses, in England good husbandry was used to largely control parasites in livestock, but since the introduction of ivermectin and other pesticides, it has been easy to ‘clean’ animals. But this does not take into account the fact that those pesticides also wipe out a huge swathe of other invertebrates, particularly scatophagous insects. Vultures are pretty well extinct in India, entirely because of veterinary medicines, soon to be used more widely in Africa perhaps. The only winners are the northern hemisphere drug companies.

I am not the first to criticise the aid agencies, and certainly won’t be the last. But my recent visit to Africa certainly confirmed my worst fears. Aid charities far from helping solve the issues of poverty, are probably exacerbating it, despite their good intentions. And I can list a few of the reasons why I believe this is the case

1. Most interventions do not appear to have a clear exit strategy
2. Most interventions rely on western, and often inappropriate, technology
3. Most interventions are designed to make the donors feel good, not deliver the maximum long term benefits to the recipient
4. Very little is being done to address the real cause of poverty, i.e the explosive growth in human populations.
5. Aid encourages corruption
6. Aid absolves governments of responsibility for their own populations
7. Many aid interventions make the recipients dependent on long-term support from the donor countries and create debt.

I realise that for many of the charities and charity gift catalogues, 'Buying a goat' is only a cynical way of playing on emotions to raise funds for worthy causes. I know, because the small print often says so. But what really concerns me is the message that is being spread across the Internet, that increasing the volume of livestock across Africa, will help solve the continents appalling problems. I asked all the African conservationists I met, and all agreed that the main cause of habitat degradation was over-grazing and the spread of agriculture into marginal lands. Both of which are being actively encouraged by aid charities. This is not simply a wildlife issue. It means that short-term gains are going to lead to even greater problems for humans in the not too distant future.

I urge my readers to ask as many of the aid charities as possible to publish their Environmental Impact Assessments, not just for goat projects but for all projects. I think you will be surprised how few actually exist.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Burton's Biomass Extinction theory

Having just returned from Kenya, where the human population has pretty well doubled since I first visited, I was musing on the impact of this vast quantity of biomass.

When looking at endangered species and declining species, despite a huge number of factors being cited as direct causes or even indirect causes, one area that appears to have been generally overlooked (or at least unquantified) is the carrying capacity of habitats related to biomass. In general, any given habitat can support a certain biomass of plants and animal species. This biomass can be increased by removing predators, by introducing fertilisers, and various other methods of short-term production. Some habitats will also store biomass in the form of carbon (such as peat) but essentially most habitats probably exist in some sort of equilibrium as far as the biomass is concerned, even if there are short term fluctuations and cycles.

If any of my readers know of publications on this topic, I would welcome references. One of our recent students looked at the issue in relation to the increase in goats and cattle, and the displacement of antelope and other wildlife, but found very little published data. And since Oxfam, Christian Aid and others continue to market the idea that goats are a solution to the issues of poverty, this has direct relevance.

If we examine areas where human interventions have increased the biomass of humans, their domesticated livestock, and crops, it comes as no surprise to observe that the biomass of the species previously existing in those areas has decreased, and with the decrease in biomass, there is also a loss of diversity (the latter being the phenomenon most commonly described). However, most of this dramatic increase in biomass has only occurred in the last two centuries, and consequently the impact on species loss may not yet have had a major impact, as many species are fairly resilient. But my view is that many species, over a relatively short period of time will start to show rapid declines to the point of ecological extinction, as the simplified ecosystems created by the human-livestock-crop interrelationships, will encourage a few relics of the wild ecosystem to become dominant, with others careering towards extinction. The only way of reversing this trend is to allow the human-livestock-crop-wildlife relationship to become more complex (by encouraging more natural cropping systems, less use of pesticides and herbicides), and by reducing the overall biomass of humans and their livestock.

Compounded with the increase in the increase in human related biomass, there has also been a massive decrease in the area available for natural biomass to co-exist. Vast areas are now given over to urban developments and infrastructure, much of which involves the total replacement of natural vegetation and habitats with roads, housing and other solid materials. This is most clearly visible in a country such as England, where even once common species such as the house sparrow are declining, along with most birds found in arable farmlands. But it is also true in a country such as Kenya, where not only has the human population increased dramatically, but urban areas have spread, and the numbers of domestic livestock has increased even more dramatically than that of the human population. And at the same time, the areas available for grazing this huge biomass of domestic livestock has been significantly reduced by the spread of agriculture. This leads to overgrazing, depletion of the soils, so that agriculture becomes dependent on artificial fertilisers, in order to maintain the levels of plant biomass.

If the theory that biomass, as much as biodiversity is playing a role in the maintenance of ecosystems, then there is an even bigger catastrophe waiting in the wings, but because much of this is a very recent phenomenon - essentially post 1950 - it is too early to speculate on the scale of the extinction. However if this theory is correct, then we may be beginning to see a wave of extinctions that even the worst pessimists of the end of the 20th century couldn't have predicted.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Living in Balance with Nature. Is it possible?

Re-reading my recent Anonymous critic, I noted the claim that " biblical times people had great respect for animals and their environment..." * This is a claim a bit like the one often trotted out that indigenous people live in harmony with nature -- the modern version of the Noble Savage from the age of enlightenment. It's a great and noble concept. Unfortunately there is very little empirical evidence to support the idea. Throughout history, humans have lived at the edge of their technology. The reason that most indigenous tribes in South America haven't exterminated the wildlife is they didn't have guns. The reason the forest was not felled is they didn't have chainsaws. And in 'biblical' times every effort was being made to wipe out lions, wolves and other wildlife that threatened humans or their crops. I firmly believe that it is essential to involve indigenous communities and all other local communities in conservation efforts. But I also believe they should not be seen through rose-coloured spectacles. One of the reasons that humans lived in balance in the past was because they had high mortality rates -- and not just from disease, it was often inter tribal warfare, geronticide, or infanticide. I don't believe there would be much support for encouraging a return to this as a way of achieving sustainability.

The WLT is helping fund projects in South America that involve indigenous communities and other local peoples in the decision-making process that conserves land and wildlife, because without local support the long term prospects will never be good. Hunters turned wardens are just one way of using local knowledge, but we believe it is even more important to involve all local people at as many levels as possible. Imposing conservation from the outside can only ever be effective in the short-term, and is likely to leave a legacy which does not help the long term.

I am about to travel to Kenya and Tanzania, to see if there is any way the WLT can assist local conservation initiatives -- and both countries have numerous examples of the problems caused by conservation being pushed from the top down, as a legacy of good intentions during the colonial era. It is not simply a case of bottom up initiatives, which can often result in simply creating a new and different problem. More a case of full participation with all the stakeholders (to use the pc jargon).

If any of my readers want to support conservation in Africa, now is your chance -- deatils to follow when I return, after 15 February.

*I am not sure when biblical times were. Presumably when people in the bible were alive or when the authors were alive, so up to about 300 AD?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

God delusion and conservation

A comment was left on my last blog, which for some reason seems to have got diverted in cyberspace, and never appeared as a comment. I wouldn't want the anonymous commentator to think we were censuring comment, so it it published below, together with my response

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The God delusion":

I have enjoyed "John's rant". What a new and refreshing idea that God doesn't exist. I love the claim that non-believers are rational thinkers hinting that anyone that dare think otherwise have somehow a lesser right to an opinion. I am a conservation scientist and a christian. I pride myself on researching all aspects of both the evolution theory and faith and through this I have come to a conclusion to what is true. This does not mean that the science is wrong as the World is a complex place with complex processes. But the truth is that how ever much I want to pretend that God is a fantasy creature developed by an over active imagination it's not true and believe that I would be wrong to turn by back on my faith however strong the pressure is for me to do so.

The one thing that shocks me is the claim that the destruction of the World's habitats is pinned on faith. During biblical times people had great respect for animals and their environment quite simply because they relied on it for their survival.We now live in World where children don't even know which animal bacon comes from. To blame global destruction on faith is shockingly short sighted and arrogant. The truth is that people have detached themselves from the environment. Maybe it is time we start to address this rather than waste time criticising other peoples faith without any clear knowledge or understanding.

Posted by Anonymous to Green Issues at 02 February, 2009 22:43

Response by John:

I think my Anonymous critic has not only missed the point, but has not actually read what I have written.

In particular, he or she should not try and put words into my mouth, since nowhere did I write that god per se does not exist; I simply rejected the concepts of certain types of god. Proving non-existence is slightly more difficult than proving existence. Anyone who has ever been involved with biological recording will know that it is relatively easy to prove that an animal or a plant occurs somewhere, but often far more difficult to prove that it doesn't. Just as proving a species have become extinct is often very difficult. Belief is simply that, belief. Existence is a different matter. The fact that I have materialist beliefs, based on the existence of evidence, does not mean I can prove the non-existence of god or anything else. But neither can believers in gods prove their existence, whether we are talking about Wotan, Zeus, Pan, Ganesh, Jehova or any other god. To the people that believe in a particular god, evidence is not needed. And to non-believer like myself, all appear to be about as worthy as each other in their diverse ways.

Nor did I write that non-believers are rational; in fact, I wrote the very reverse, that anyone who is rational, is a non-believer. A very different thing.

I watched Inherit the Wind on TV recently, and Anonymous and other theists would do well to watch that remarkable film if they have never seen it. They should be wary of attributing thoughts and beliefs which the agnostics, atheists and antitheists do not have. Nowhere did I claim that "the destruction of the world's habitats is pinned on faith". What I will say, and do stand by, is that no amount of praying will solve any of these problems. And if anyone can find one shred of scientific evidence of praying ever changing anything that does not involve the human mind, then I will stand corrected.

I would also add that if a fraction of the funds devoted to maintaining organised religions (most of which claim superiority over the others) was spent on glorifying and conserving the natural world, the world would certainly be a much better place.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Free Market economics

As everyone probably knows, understanding economics is not my strong point. However, having survived being self-employed for over 40 years, and created a relatively successful organisation from next to nothing, I have learned a few things along the way. The first thing I would observe is that the idea that a totally free market is a good way of letting the world run its affairs is probably daft. It is difficult to pinpoint any period in history where it has actually worked. And the reality is that the current so-called 'free markets' like the 12th century in England, are actually far from free -- they are heavily skewed in favour of a select few, who make vast profits.

The second observation I would make, is that small may not be always beautiful, but huge is certainly disastrous. To me it is blindingly obvious that there are limits to growth, and that when corporations get absolutely huge, they are bound, at some point to collapse. The only reason for them getting so big appears to be in order to justify vast salaries for the people who run these behemoths. Does anyone think to ask how 'efficient' or sensible it is to have to spend vast millions sorting out the trail of problems left behind when these huge companies collapse? Surely the only huge corporations that should exist have to be state owned? That way vast profits cannot be creamed off into private pockets, but can be reinvested for the public good? And when the mega-corporations get so big, the whole argument about competition collapses anyway -- they become de-facto monopolies. There were very good reasons for nationalising railways, water companies and power companies with monopolies. And very flimsy, selfish reasons for privatising them. And not good for the environment either. Perhaps if capitalism is to survive, a limit to capital needs to be imposed. That way when collapses occur, then they will not bring down whole economies.

In the course of developing the World Land Trust, I have seen that there are important economies of scale. But as we grow, I also see a loss of flexibility, a loss of dexterity and innovation. The trick is to keep a balance. But I am certain that there is a limit to growth, beyond which the organisation loses sight of its original vision. A point at which the number-crunchers take over. As I have mentioned elsewhere, business methods are introduced, and 'efficiency' is measured in purely financial terms. Despite the spectacular growth of the World Land Trust in the past few years, so far we are keeping our enthusiasm and our vision. But stopping it becoming another 'corporate conservation organisation' is the challenge ahead.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The God delusion

A recent article in the Guardian summed up a common misconception about Darwin (and indeed many other agnostics/atheists. It was stated that
In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Darwin kept his pronouncements on religion to a minimum, partly out of respect for his Christian wife. Despite continuing claims that he was an atheist, most scholars acknowledge that he never went further than agnosticism
But what Darwin and most other non-believers would also say is that the concept of the Christaian god, or almost any other god worshipped by conventional religions, should be totally rejected. The idea that someone was once crucified and resurrected, the vengeful god of the Hebrews, these and many others are what all rational people reject. I say all, because you cannot be rational and believe in them. The belief itself is irrational, and unlike evolution, not supported by one shred of evidence. That is using evidence in the rational, scientific meaning of the word.
As a conservationist, I believe it is essential that humans take responsibility for their actions. No amount of praying to a god of any sort will solve the world's problems. As Sir David has pointed out there is enough suffering of the most inhuman kind to convince any rational person of the non-existence of a benign god. If a tiny fraction of the resources wasted on religion were spent on the environment, the world would be a much better place for everyone. And don't forget to watch Sir David's new series on Darwin.

Sir David Attenborough Speaks out on God

Compulsory reading:

Sir David is very outspoken on his views about God -- views with which I personally entirely concur. I am often told that I should not let my views on religion be known as it can alienate those who have deep religious beliefs. But since I see religion as having a significant bearing on our attitude to wildlife and nature, this is simply not possible. The idea that man was given dominion over nature is an anathema to me. And almost all opposition to birth control (in its various forms) has a religious basis. I do not have any issue with those who have religious beliefs as long as they keep them to themselves. For that matter I don't really mind if anyone wants to believe in ghosts, UFOs fairies or elves. They are all just about as rational as each other, and those that do believe in them often do so passionately. But that does not mean that they exist. Evolution is demonstrable. Climate change is demonstrable. Habitat destruction is demonstrable, and actions based on such demonstrable events are rational. That is not true of anything based on a belief alone. Such actions are irrational.

It is demonstrable that the world's human population cannot grow infinitely. It is demonstrable that the rapidly increasing population is responsible for the destruction of nature. QED if we want to do something about the destruction of nature we MUST do something about rising human populations. Less than one thousand years ago, i.e. in Medieval Times, the human population of the entire world was probably less than that of present day Europe. Until a few months ago there were of course people who believed that economic growth could continue indefinitely. An irrational Belief. And if anyone believes that the human population can continue to increase at its present rate, they too will find there is another 'crunch' on its way.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Babylon at the British Museum

Not my usual topic for a news blog, but one which may be of general interest. I went to the British Museum the other day to see their widely publicised exhibition on Babylon. And I was mightily disappointed. It followed a trend all to common in Museums these days. It was verbose and boring. There were relatively few objects (but some were spectacular), but massively long captions. Text is what a museum catalogue is for (and this catalogue was excellent. Words can be put in books. But objects can't. A museum should do what it, and only it can do, and that is show specimens, objects. It was good to see lots of paintings (and even a few of the Tower of Babel), but as far as I am concerned once you have seen one cuneiform tablet or cylinder, you have seen them all.

I speak as a former musem designer, as my first job was designing gallery exhibits in the Natural History Museum (a.k.a British Museum (Natural History))so I do have a bit of background. In this exhibition the catalogue is more impressive than the exhibition. Barring a few bits and pieces from the Berlin Museum,I came away feeling very disappointed. And then spent the next hour scouring the galleries of Ancient Egypt to see if I could find an image of a Siberian White Crane. Without success, though an image has recently been found, suggesting they were once much more widespread. But it's always interesting to go around museums looking for ancient images of wildlife -- it gives me a sense of purpose.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Buy land. Save wildlife. 27 years crying in the wilderness

I was doing some filing over Christmas, and I came across some newspaper cuttings dating from September 1981. I had created a furore by giving a paper at the Annual Meeting of the British Association in which I pointed out that while millions of pounds were being spent on preserving post-Pleistocene relics such as the Giant Panda, thousands of species were going extinct in the rainforests.

According to a report in the Times of the 5th September 1981 I "called for a radical change in the approach of conservationists, and urged them to move away from funding research in favour of acquiring land to protect species...." At the time I was the Executive Secretary of the Fauna & Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International), and my comments on the fate of the Panda led to calls for my resignation.

However it was not until five years later that I left the FFPS, and soon after that I did put my money where my mouth was, and founded what has become the World Land Trust. But in the intervening quarter of a century the situation has continued to deteriorate, and we are still a voice in the wilderness (what is left of it). Economic crises have come and gone, the world's human population grows ever more out of control, poverty increases in Africa, more and more aid is poured in to poorer countries, arms flood the world. And millions of dollars, yen, pounds, euros etc, are still being spent on (often pointless) research into endangered species. All of this continues, but wilderness, wild places natural habitats also continue to disappear at an even more alarming rate.

So. Despite all the gloom and doom, if you are inclined to make New Year resolutions, can I urge all readers to spread the word? If we want to conserve wildlife for the future, there is only one way that is truly realistic: save habitats.

The World Land Trust has shown how it can be done. We can never do it on our own, but our world-wide network of small, dynamic NGOs is helping spread the word. Our target for 2009 is to raise at least £5 million. Next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. But if much of that comes from donations of £50 or £100, and if the rest comes from the corporate world, the multiplier effect is significant. And if it is spent through strong and integrated partnerships, then it is multiplied even further.

I was recently asked why the WLT had become so successful over the past few years. The answer is very simple: Because we are successful and transparent. Success breeds success, and we can demonstrate some of the most successful conservation projects , some of the the most cost effective projects, and some of the most sustainable projects. Others are now copying us, with varying degrees of success. But our model is certainly effective.