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.