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.