Watch This Video And Drink This Beer

Polar Bears are dying. But why should we care?

First of all I’ll qualify what Polar Bears represent; they’re essentially the figure-head of Climate Change. They’re the Charismatic Megafauna, the Umbrella Species, and other conservation jargons that fundamentally mean ‘interesting to people and fundamental to an ecosystem’. They always have been, and always will be. I remember when I was first hearing ‘Global Warming’ being talked about at school; the Polar Bears were the first poster-children of the climate catastrophe. The now over-used image of a lonely Polar Bear on a shrinking iceberg was quickly latched on to and spread far and wide as a way of making people care (by breaking their hearts) about the threat of a warming global climate.

One of my [retrospectively] worst memories as a climate activist was actually hearing people whom I respected shooting the polar-bear image down, shouting “You don’t understand Polar-Bear Ecology,(They were not ecologists themselves…)Polar-Bears are great swimmers, they’re really happy in the water, you’re making a big fuss about nothing!
For the record – that’s a petty way to be a climate skeptic, and a big fat red-herring.  

So to address the ecology first of all, the Arctic ice-caps are melting catastrophically quickly, and that is very bad news for Polar bears. That’s because Polar Bears aren’t just bears that happen live around ice; ice is fundamental to their survival, because they are very specially adapted to hunt within an icy marine environment.
No ice, Polar Bears can’t eat. And just to demonstrate that, here’s that phenomenal clip from The Hunt:

Climate Change has been a tricky issue to communicate effectively for decades, because it’s all been projection into the future – with somewhere between dry hypotheses and all-out-threats of what’s to come from climate scientists. It’s been too intangible, and as such, deniable – or at least, put-off-able. Only in the last couple of years have we had anyone start to point to major climatic events and say “This! This is the impact of climate change, happening now!”

Over the weekend, I’ve seen a video circulating that puts climate change into more brutal reality than much we’ve seen before. One-off weather events can still be dismissed as co-incidence, but after more than a decade the grim reality of the Climate Change Poster Child is really being revealed. The Prophecies are coming true, and it’s heartbreaking. If I didn’t believe it was important, I wouldn’t share this with you.

This is what Climate Change looks like.

Why should people care about Climate Change? Because it means the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Because it means severely threatened food security. Because it means the death of coral reefs. Because variety is the spice of life, and biodiversity is the majesty of existence. Because life without life isn’t worth living. Because it bloody hurts.

Sci-Commers: What drives people to action? There’s two core things that influence behaviour – people move away from pain and towards pleasure.
Which is why your work is only half-done if you only beat people up with Climate Change – they need something to DO, to avoid pain, and to grasp pleasure. You have to provide that pleasure, to ensure positive action.

So would you like some Polar Bear-associated pleasure? How about this:

Those hop-loving beer-pirates at Brew Dog have released Make Earth Great Again – a phenomenal protest brew in response to *someone* saying they might withdraw their country from the Paris Agreement.  Make Earth Great Again is an imperial-strength Saison, brewed at a higher temperature than most beers, and with ingredients including actual melted ice caps (glacier water) and endangered Arctic Cloudberries. The result is a crystal-clear, golden brew of activism in a glass, and it’s utterly delicious. Spicy, citrus-y and sweet with a hint of dry acidity, culminating in a beer that’s a perfect accompaniment for a slow afternoon with friends, a conference of parties, or Die Hard marathon. I’m not a brew guru providing bevvy review here – I’m just trying to say that climate activism can be freaking wonderful.

Further to just making a delicious and potent point in this brew, Brew Dog are also giving all proceeds from Make Earth Great Again to 10:10 – a community-focussed climate-action charity doing some really awesome work. So do your part and buy some now.

So it’s incredibly important that we know what’s at stake here, but it’s also desperately important that we make people feel good about taking positive, straightforward action, so that our very worst predictions may not have to come true.

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Blue Planet II DESTROYS A Plastic Ocean In Under 5 Minutes

“Pilot Whales have big brains, and can certainly feel emotions” – Blue Planet II. Image courtesy of BBC.

In one of the most powerfully emotive TV sequences to ever have been broadcast, Sir David Attenborough made the case to end plastic pollution in Sunday night’s Big Blue episode of Blue Planet II.

The series so far has been absolutely mesmerising, as we’ve discovered a fish that uses tools, been transported to depths of the ocean never-before explored, been captivated by resourceful Anemone Fish, hypnotised by Cuttlefish, and overall carried away by shot after shot of natural beauty and wonder.

But this last episode was a true exception to everything we thought we knew about Natural History Storytelling and Science Communication.

After criticism of previous series being ‘preachy’ (turns out people still don’t like to hear about how we’re fucking everything up through climate change), there was the lingering fear that, with everything threatening ocean health at the minute, we could get caught up in a bit of climate change woe in Blue Planet II. However, thus far in the series there was only the slightest of nods towards climate change – in the Coral Reef episode, in the mention of oceanic warming and acidification leading to coral bleaching (I don’t think ‘Climate Change’ was even explicitly mentioned) in a way that left viewers not feeling too beaten-up at all.

Come the climax of the Big Blue episode however, and we were to suffer an emotional gut-punch unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – and I’m so so glad that punch was thrown.

Plastic can be found even in the most remote parts of the oceans, and has the ability to concentrate toxic chemical pollutants on it’s surface. Image courtesy of BBC.

It’s become increasingly common knowledge in recent times that plastic pollution is a colossal threat to the environment. We’ve all seen the images of dead albatross chicks bursting with plastic shrapnel. We’ve seen the agonising clip of a Sea Turtle having a plastic straw painfully removed from it’s nostril. And A Plastic Ocean is available on Netflix for all to enjoy – and that’s even recieved global renown from some very influential sources (and worth a watch if you need more anti-plastic ammo).

A Plastic Ocean is certainly a substantial coverage of a severe issue, including elements that even the most savvy environmentalist may still be surprised to learn, and it certainly inspired my partner and I to upgrade our eco-lifestyles further and switch to fully bio-degradeable toothbrushes (we already avoid plastic packaging and single-use items as much as possible). BUT, and this is a big BUT, A Plastic Ocean‘s impact is still limited *mostly* to people who already really care already about the environment and are passionate about taking action to make the world a better place. It preaches, mostly, to the converted.

What’s the tell? It’s a documentary about activists, doing activism. There’s a little bit of a story about whales, which just starts you off on an emotional journey, but then it moves head-long into consumerism, pollution, and mostly-human suffering. And you know the take-home message – that plastic sucks – as soon as you’ve read the title. While there is a journey of discovery, it’s a package journey of discovery, where you’ve familiarised yourself with the itinerary online and you know what you’re signing up for.

Now watch Blue Planet II. For 40 solid minutes you are purely immersed in the greatest photography and fantastical wildlife that the world’s leading experts in Natural History Programming currently have to offer. Without anthropomorphism, you are transported into the lives of some of the most incredible animals on Earth in a way that is almost overwhelming. If you’re a committed environmentalist, you do know what’s probably coming, that the sucker-punch is inevitable – you’d even be disappointed if Sir David didn’t deliver it – you’re bracing yourself but are so encompassed by his storytelling you can hardly blink or breathe. And then, when you’re becoming completely lost to The Big Blue… it’s upon you. Plastic.

I wasn’t timing it, but in what can’t have been more than 5 minutes of screen time Sir David Attenborough delivered more information on the severity of plastic pollution, and a more powerful call to action to rid the world of plastic in all it’s malevolent forms than A Plastic Ocean managed in it’s full 1 hour 40 minutes of more ‘pure’ SciComm.

Blue Planet II’s coverage of plastic pollution was not dragged-out, exaggerated or preachy. Sir David simply and respectfully did what he does best; he told the story of life on Earth in 2017. I don’t feel that he intended on beating his audience into submission – maybe he’s out-grown that, as some activists do. I personally felt that his approach was much wiser – to open our hearts to the issue, and let us hear his contemplative call to action quite peacefully on our own.

As I’ve said, I would’ve been disappointed if plastic pollution had been omitted from the series entirely, but I was never expecting it to be such a powerfully moving inclusion.

Thank you, Sir David, for continuing to guide and define our appreciation of nature, and thank you also to Executive Producer James Honeyborne and the rest of the Blue Planet team for utilising the power you have to profoundly inform and move people so responsibly.

The Carbon Farmer

I’m working on something new, and it’s called The Carbon Farmer. Take a look:

So I guess a valid question is ‘Why am I making a film about bog?’

Peat moorland is something we’ve got a lot of in the UK. There’s over 400,000 Hectares of peatland in England and Wales, and it covers over 70% of Scotland’s land mass, so it’s a big, boggy deal.

However, we’ve not looked after our peat well for the last few hundred years, in a variety of ways. Around the industrial revolution, particularly as northern towns like Manchester and Sheffield started pumping out a whole lot of coal smoke, the bogs of the Pennines started to acidify (peat bogs are naturally acidic places, but this was too much for them), and the vegetation that forms the foundation of life on the peatland basically died.

Peat Degradation in the Peak District

Some seriously degraded peat in the South Pennines, taken from the shoot for High Water Common Ground – which was actually the inspiration for The Carbon Farmer.

Elsewhere in the UK the peat’s been even more actively damaged from some retrospectively poor decisions a few decades ago. Around the 50’s-60’s it was observed that there was all this land ‘going to waste’ in the uplands – a whole load of bog not doing nothin’ for nobody. So the official government decision back then was to cut big drains into the peat in an attempt to dry the landscape and make some viable agricultural land out of if.  *Unfortunately* that didn’t go to plan; the land has never become really viable agricultural land, even for grazing sheep. All that’s happened is the drains have got bigger, and the bog has stopped functioning.

A 'grip' (drain) cut into peat a few decades ago.

But really, why’s that all a bad thing? Who cares about bogs for their intrinsic bog-ness?

Honestly, many of us won’t realise it, but bogs do a lot for most of us. Bogs naturally filter impurities from water that we like to drink (which degradation messes up, cos if you’ve got bare peat then rainwater washes that peat away and then utilities companies have to spend lots on filtering it out). Bogs provide recreation space for walkers and habitat for ground-nesting birds, wading birds, predatory birds, (loads of birds, really), supports insect communities on which many birds feed, and loads of other wildlife (which degradation messes up, as who wants to nest or wade or graze on a big swathe of rubbish bare peat?).
And my personal favourite – healthy bogs naturally ‘clean’ air and actively sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy peat bogs are carbon sinks.
But of course, degradation colossally messes that up too, as when peat becomes degraded it swaps from carbon-sink to carbon-source. Yep, once the water level drops more than just a bit below the surface, millennia of built-up peat starts oxidising and actively releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

Because peat is so easy to overlook as a bog (as I’ve said, it’s only 70% of Scotland and a huge chunk of the rest of the UK); because peat is not a uniform depth across the UK and is in different states of degradation; because it’s a little bit challenging to put a number on how much damage is done by degraded peat, it’s never actually been calculated or included in national (or global) carbon budgets before.

Until now. Recent research, commissioned by DEFRA and supported by the IUCN NCUK Peatland Programme, has put the first figure on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from UK Peatlands, and here it is:

UK Peatlands currently release 16 Million tonnes of CO2(equivalent) every year.
It’s “(equivalennt)” CO2 because it’s a mixture of Greenhouse Gasses, and Methane has a more potent effect on climate change than CO2, but less of it is emitted in a molecular sense.

I’ll put that figure into some context. For the last few years the UK government has been committing to reducing our annual GHG emissions, and the current figure is that the UK is currently cutting emissions by a total of 32 Million tonnes of CO2(equivalent) per year.
So to rephrase; half of our national annual efforts in reducing our emissions are completely undone by the degraded state of our peatlands. We’re seriously taking one step back for every two steps forwards. In my personal opinion, any campaign that’s targeting cutting emissions from any major source – such as the energy sector, which is still the biggest emitter – is seriously lacking if it’s not simultaneously addressing peatland restoration. And I will respectfully note that no current big campaigns are because we’ve never taken this into account before, but a new revelation like this should provide the opportunity to revise some strategies. There are always opportunities to do better, and peatland restoration promises serious bang-for-buck in the Carbon game.

The energy sector is still the largest emitter, but we are addressing that.

It’s not that we could create some hugely powerful carbon-sequestration system if we restored health to UK peatlands, (I mean, that is what we’d create through peatland restoration, but the rate is sequestration is very very very slow). Rather, what we will make an impact by doing is halting a substantial emitter that we have the power to completely shut down – and in so doing effectively double our annual efforts in reducing GHG emissions from all sources.

Arguments against combatting climate change through peatland restoration:

  • “It’ll take attention off the energy sector and other GHG sources – particularly if you create anything resembling a carbon-sink”.
    Right. When Henry told Liza there was a hole in his bucket, was she concerned that if Henry fixed the hole he’d stop collecting water? Did she tell him not to get distracted form the task at hand, and to compensate for the hole by putting more water in? No, everyone on the farm agreed that the best thing to do was to fix the hole, then they could all carry on with their lives.
    I know we’ve had some big-business emissions-apathy to overcome in the past, but we’ve worked damn hard to overcome that and gain momentum on sustainability, climate action and emissions reductions. Reducing emissions from all sources will still be unquestionably important, and frankly we’ve done well up until now at reducing emissions from the energy sector by increasing efficiency – but that’s a finite transition. We need to find a new way of reducing national emissions soon, because the only way the energy sector could become much more emissions-free is if we were to start investing in renewables more. Say………….
  • “It’s traditional management that’s been practised for generations.”
    Let’s dig into that statement; are we saying that “being a farming family in this area, primarily rearing sheep (or surviving through other methods)” is traditional, or is it “Actively destroying healthy peat” is traditional? – Because those things are not the same, nor are they to be confused. The core of this issue is that most people can carry on doing what’s good for them and what they identify with if we can just get this peat-health thing right – and odds are that they could be mutually supportive with a bit of practice.
    But if you’re just that much of a conservative that tradition-for-tradition’s-sake is all the discussion I’m going to get from you, then I’ll have to bring up the other traditions like slavery, recreational opium, pillaging and hedonism that have (by and large) fallen out of fashion, despite decades of practice.

There are other arguments surrounding peat and moorland management, but I’m not going to go into them – in part that’s because, rather like peat emissions used to be, they contain blurry bits. They’re also volatile issues that tend to polarise a debate, and are their own entities that I’m not going to make this project a part of. The Carbon Farmer is very much a ‘common-ground’ project, and the fact is that there isn’t anyone out there saying “Peat degradation is a good thing” – from any perspective. That’s what we agree on, we’re happy to do so, so that’s what we’ll work on.

So what’s the plan?

We have before us a time of great potential change for environmental management in the UK, looming towards us in the form of Brexit. It’s true that, for a long time now, EU regulations have been the highest level of environmental protection available in the UK, but there’s now good reason to hope that we might be able to actually make things even better. Secretary for the Environment Michael Gove has been making some very promising noises since taking office about “Managing land for public benefit” – and there’s a great swell of support for that notion from all relevant communities (which, just to be clear, is basically everyone – as what greater public benefit is there that combatting climate change?). Of particular note, the agricultural community is very open to the idea of managing land for greater public benefit – they’re just waiting to be given the means to do so and to still manage viable farms.

Proof-of-concept artwork for The Carbon Farmer, in production.

The Carbon Farmer is being produced to present the concept of facilitating peat restoration through agricultural subsidies to the general public, the agricultural community, NGOs and UK parliaments, in the hopes that we can keep this focussed as a priority over the next couple of years of policy revisions.
To do so, at time of writing I’m working with the IUCN Peatland Programme, Scottish Forum on Natural Capital and Moors For The Future, and I’m establishing collaborations with a number of other organisations to bring this project – and this future – to life.

Mooooooooove Over, Dairy.

It’s been a loooooooooonnnnggg time coming, but it’s finally crossed the pond! Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Ice Cream is finally available in the UK!!!

I’ve just had my first bowl of both of the below flavours (there is a third, it may have sold-out) – they’re awesome. Go and buy some now.

Ben & Jerry's Non-Dairy Ice Cream in Peanut Butter & Cookies and Chocolate Fudge Brownie Flavours.

I have no qualms with telling you I bought this in Tesco. When other supermarkets in my local area (Anglesey) start providing as many non-dairy options as Tesco, I’ll praise them as well.

I’ve been waiting for this day for what feels like an eternity – why?
Because frankly, cows suck, and dairy-based ice-cream sucks. I’m not saying that dairy-based ice-cream isn’t delicious, but the meat and dairy industry is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, exacerbating climate change even more severely than almost everything else, and our collective love of it is one of the greatest driving factors in the over-exploitation of the planet. (If you’ve not already, go watch Cowspiracy on Netflix, it’s remarkable).
From a global perspective, ice-cream sucks.

So is that why Ben & Jerry’s have given us this gift of non-dairy ice-cream?
Here’s their answer as snapped from their website:

"We asked you. Lots of you. Some of you were committed to a vegan lifestyle, while others can't or would rather not eat dairy. And all of you are missing the indulgent frozen delights you wish you could enjoy. We knew that with some hard work and experimentation we could deliver the taste and creamy texture you've been craving. So we did."

and they’re nice and humble about it too.

So… kind of a variety of sort-of reasons, none of which anyone can argue against, they’re just not giving one solid answer to why they’ve branched into non-dairy.

And nor should they, to be honest. Because this isn’t about one-thing. There are a multitude of reasons why dairy sucks and why non-dairy is a good idea, and it’d be  unnecessary for them to dwell on one over the others when something so undeniably good is happening.

So I don’t care why they’ve done it – I’m just delighted that they have!
This is how change happens people!
Look around you – how many people, even when confronted with the facts, are going to be happy to give up something so deeply brilliant as ice-cream? (Surely only weirdo’s right? And I am saying that as one of those weirdos, but I don’t expect many other people to follow suit).

But what is it about ice-cream that people love? Is it that it’s made from stuff that comes out of a cow? Unlikely.
Is it that the dairy itself is so harmful to the planet? Probably not.
Is it the experience, the sensation, the flavour, and the delight? Yep, that’ll be it (in most cases).

The small print about what it’s actually made from is immaterial, really, from the point of  view of the consumer. (*Insert several morbid examples about how people don’t care about the negative repercussions of the things they buy).
If you keep the elements that people love, you can provide positive, viable alternatives for the elements that facilitate the things they love.

That’s how we’re going to save the world; by keeping people happy.
That’s how we’re transitioning from combustion-engines to electric cars.
That’s how we’re stopping over-fishing in Indonesia.
And that’s how we’re doing dessert.

Thank you Ben & Jerry’s!

The Simple Joy of Long-Tailed Tits

I recently had the pleasure of tagging-along for a day with a friend on her PhD field research on Long-Tailed Tits, and discovered that they are utterly delightful little beings.

Caitlin Higgott, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, is now in her second year of studying the nest-building behaviour of Long-Tailed Tits. However, on the day that I met her (and tried not to interrupt her science too much whilst making a video of her working), she was focussing a lot of her attention of a wider monitoring project on ‘Helpers’.

If one bird’s breeding attempt fails [ie. chicks get eaten by crows or similar], then that bird and it’s breeding partner can either try again and lay a new clutch of eggs, or they can go and help their relatives in providing food for their nieces and nephews” she explained.

This is very cool, and helping to nurture another’s young is a pretty rare behaviour to see out in the animal kingdom, beyond the the most social animals (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, some monkeys such as Spider Monkeys and pack animals like Lions or Wolves – but even then it’s rare to find simply helpful animals without it being some hierarchal structure thing where everyone just looks after the Alpha’s offspring), and ‘Eusocial’ in the case of colony-forming insects (Ants, Wasps, Bees etc. – and that’s because they’re all more related to their siblings than they are to their own offspring!).

In short, Long-Tailed Tits aren’t just adorable to look at; deep-down they’re just lovely characters.

But one of the most impressive things that I soon discovered while out with Caitlin, is that Long-Tailed Tits can freaking HOVER!

Hovering is a very impressive talent, that again, is very rare to see elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The only birds with a real reputation for being able to *truly* hover are the Hummingbirds (of course), and the Kestrel (one of the most delightful things to commonly see on the roadsides of rural Lincolnshire).

All said and done though, Caitlin may be right in her research that one of the most simply brilliant things about Long-Tailed Tits is the way they build their nests.

It’s like something out of a fairy tale.
(a Disney one, not a classic Grimm one).

Before Caitlin started working on Long-Tailed Tits, I’d never even really heard of them. Since discovering them and all of their wonderful quirks, I think they’ve become one of my favourite British birds. They’re just utterly lovely, and in a world that is such a mess, it’s nice to find these spirits of pure joy flitting about our towns and countryside.

How To Fight Climate Change

Happy #EarthDay and #March For Science!

In short, here’s how to fight climate change (and save the world):

  1. Vote conscientiously. Get informed on different parties’ policies on climate and environment and how they intend to tackle them.
  2. Offset your carbon emissions with Saving Species.
  3. Reduce the amount of plastic that you use and throw away.
    (Watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix if you want to know why).
  4. Reduce the amount of beef and dairy in your diet – or cut it out completely (Watch Cowspiracy on Netflix if you want to know why).

and check out everything else in Your Save-The-World Starter Pack 🙂

But here’s a big question that people often ask:-

WHY SHOULD YOU BOTHER???

Amidst all the chaos in the world, the sheer magnitude of the climate change problem, it can be very easy to ask “What kind of a difference can I really make?”
You are, after all, just one person. How can one person’s lifestyle change actually do anything to change the world?

My old answer used to be that even if it seems inevitable, can you really be comfortable knowing that your actions are personally and directly contributing to the destruction of everything you love? (take rainforest destruction, the bleaching of the great barrier reef, or the threat of food and water security for your children and grandchildren as examples). Can you contentedly be a part of that? Or will you take a stand and say “No, I will do what is in my power to not be a part of that“?

That old answer is fairly powerful, in that it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, but there’s no assurance that you will actually make a difference – and that’s what you understandably really want.

Here’s my new answer:

We’ve recently seen the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump.
How many people said those things could never happen? How many people cast their votes the way they did because “they never thought it would actually happen“; because they “Just wanted to make a point“?

In the last year the world has been completely turned upside down, and we’re desperately close to irreparable damage on a host of issues – not least of which is climate change.

It’s a bizarrely bitter-sweet assurance that’s come out of the last year’s of turmoil:

IF YOU BOTHER TO TRY,
YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.

(now go change it for the better 😉 )

 

The Top Of The Tree on Kickstarter!

For the last year nearly I’ve been producing this film about flooding and what we can do now, and it’s nearly finished! But to really finish it off well, and to spur this ever-growing High Water project into an even greater resource, I’ve just launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and, well, take a look:

I spent the last week touring the country, taking to the stage and presenting material from High Water Common Ground at the National Flood Forum’s Conference titled “Are We Planning To Flood?” in London, at the CERT Cumbria Flood Expo in Carlisle, and at the ‘Sniffer‘ conference in Edinburgh #FRM2017. What a week!

Presenting the HWCG trailer at the NFF conference in London 🙂

Thus far I’ve received a seriously positive response from the people I’ve been speaking to and sharing sneaky in-production cuts of HWCG with, so it’s looking good for this film to make a good impact when it’s released later this year.

But what about this Crowdfunding? Please support the campaign, by sharing it and spreading awareness – but also, it’s a crowdfunding campaign, so like all of these things, if you’d like to see it brought to life then please pledge (even a small amount) to make it real.

Here’s the thing – I’ve realised over this production that one film’s just not going to cut it. There’s a huge amount of information and personal stories that need sharing in HWCG, but there’s so much more to the flooding picture. There are more examples to learn from, more research to explore. And there’s also this fundamental principle (which does feature quite heavily in HWCG) that one size does not fit all. This is not a panacea. Ultimately, to solution to flooding in any catchment is going to be bespoke to that catchment. So how do we find that solution? Partly it is a case of learning from others, but recognising what will work in a unique situation.

To that end, I’ll soon be creating a full library of short films to cover every aspect of flood risk management, of course told from the perspectives of the people who live and work alongside these solutions. http://www.highwaterfilm.co.ukthe ultimate flood risk management resource!

And that’s really what this crowdfunded’s about – it’s about connecting people, to help them to understand the issues faced by flood-threatened communities. To learn from other’s mistakes, and other’s best-practise.

Innovative and engaging science communication, on a subject that readily effects thousands of people’s lives every year. If you think that sounds like something worth having, like something that could make a difference, then please please, support High Water Film on Kickstarter.

RIP Tilikum

Tillicum

Of all of the losses or great, loved and impactful figures of the last year, one most recently has left me struggling to know how I feel. Tilikum, the Killer Whale, has died.

Thousands of people worldwide are familiar with Tilikum from his star status at SeaWorld, where he has entertained and enthralled audiences for years. However, the spotlight was really shone on Tilikum a few years ago in the feature documentary Black Fish – which, if you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch it now. You see, Tilikum – more than any other Orca in history – lived up to his “Killer Whale” title.

(Critical note: it is *almost* completely unheard of for Orcas, aka.“Killer Whales”, to attack humans in the wild.)

Tilikum suffered a frankly horrible life. Abducted from the wild and from his mother’s side at an inhumanely young age – something which those involved confess in Black Fish as being one of the most heart-breaking experiences of their lives – and forced into captivity and public entertainment. This is not something which is ever good for marine mammals like whales, dolphins, etc. and it often manifests in obvious ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and physical symptoms. But in Tilikum, this trauma manifested more powerfully than in most. When he was 10 years old, he took his first human life, that of Keltie Byrne, in the middle of a public show in Canada.

Despite this event, Tilikum was kept in captivity, and would later be responsible for the deaths of two more people – one civilian, Daniel Dukes, and one trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during his time at SeaWorld.

This story so far is bleak, it’s morbid. And that’s the way that it was set to continue until Gabriela Cowperthwaite made the documentary Black Fish and revealed Tilikum’s tale to the world. Tilikum’s heart-wrenching story made him the poster child for captive animal abuse the world over. The use of captive marine mammals for public entertainment instantly received massive and unforgiving public attention – and none more so than SeaWorld.

It has been a long fight, but in the last year SeaWorld finally agreed that they would cease breeding further animals in captivity. Essentially saying that, when their currently captive animals die, that will be the end of their live shows.

Globally, wonderful progress has been made – almost entirely as a result of inspiration from Black Fish – in the regulations on transporting and keeping animals for entertainment. The power of Tilikum’s tale has been transformative to the modern world. And that is why I don’t know how I feel about his death.

Tilikum was a Killer Whale. He killed three people.

He also lived a utterly horrible life, suffering conditions that no sentient creature should be subjected to.

But because of his life the world is a powerfully better place for his kind, for humanity, and for every other creature that we interact with. Tilikum has done more for cetacean conservation than any other non-human in history. To me, his death simply brings to light the impact that he has had.

I am glad that SeaWorld have one less Orca to exhibit. I’m happy for Tilikum that his suffering is finally over. And I mourn him, out of sadness for his life, and for what he has inspired people to do all over the world.

As we go into 2017, renegotiating new-years resolutions and hoping for a year generally brighter than the last, please join me in raising a glass in Tilikum, the Killer Whale. Remember that from atrocity we have the power to act with overwhelming love, respect and kindness, remember that we can learn from our mistakes, and remember that you can change the world.

This Film I’m Making…

Four months ago I thought “Let’s make a little film about flooding. That’ll be a nice quick job.” Cut to now, and High Water Common Ground has evolved into a much larger project than I ever imagined. And I must say, it has been one of the most rewarding, enlightening and enjoyable things I have ever done.

The film focuses on ‘Natural Flood Risk Management’ – something with a plethora of benefits for people, climate and ecology, so naturally I’m a huge fan – and also on the communities behind these innovative schemes – so it’s involved speaking with a huge range of wonderfully passionate and fascinating people. Through that journey, I have learned so much – but here are two big things that really stand out:

1. Flooding is a genuinely awful thing.
I have been the first to admit that, as a lad born and raised in Nottinghamshire, I have no idea what it’s like to be hit by a flood. But from speaking to so many people who have lived it – and continue to live with the constant threat of flooding – I now appreciate how severe it can be. Businesses, Homes and Lives can be ruined. The damage done by watching your possessions – your most cherished belongings, heirlooms and memories be swept away or stained by flood waters is a cruel and deeply cutting natural disaster. After the initial shock, it can take months for insurance to clear, for properties to dry out, to clean, to rebuild – to actually live again. When or if a person or community does get to start again, there lingers the cloud that it is only a matter of time before it happens again.
It doesn’t matter whether the actual peak of the flood lasts ten minutes, ten hours, or ten days. Long-lasting damage is done in far more ways than we can articulate through any stock-check, or insurance claim.

2. Community is a phenomenally beautiful thing.
From the devastation of flooding I have seen the most admirable and inspirational community spirit emerge. This film has re-defined “neighbourliness” for me. A flood event poses a severe threat, in the heat of the moment and for months afterwards; I have found people rise to that with the most glorious acts of love and stoicism. I don’t wish to downplay the destruction of the floods last winter, but there is a seriously wonderful silver-lining to that dark cloud. It’s not even my place to praise the people who have acted so admirably for their communities, but I can’t help it – I am genuinely grateful to everyone for their example and their efforts. I can only hope to pay homage to that in this film.
As this then moves into the context of flood risk management, one fact profoundly stands out: schemes are so much fuller, and more effective, when we work together as a community, compared to schemes that operate divisively, or with imposition. And this year particularly, this is really coming to the fore.

Throughout the last few months I have got to know some really wonderful characters from all walks of life and from all around the UK. I can’t begin to name them all here because they are so many, and their work is so remarkable I could never stop writing about them. But I will say this: they are a wonderful, diverse, passionate and charismatic community.

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‘Alternative Xmas’ in the Calder Valley this July.

As much as I have found new peers and colleagues through this process, I have made new friends. I have made connections with people that I deeply value and I will be honoured to work with them further in the future, should we get the chance. The film itself would not be half of what it is going to be without the great help and support of the contributors to knowledge, and fundamentally important are the official sponsors of the film with whom I am working to make this truly beneficial and impactful. To them I extend my most sincere gratitude – but for now, I can’t yet tell you who they all are…

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#AccidentalHeroPose with this star of the film…

As I have learned more about this sector within the environmental management industry, I have become more sympathetic to their foibles, and more aware of their needs and ambitions. I have realised that writing environmental policy (particularly in the midst of a Brexit) is astronomically difficult, and that is because it is largely a task of fitting mixture of social science and ecology to a system grounded in the hard facts of engineering and economics. Now, you can probably name examples of people who are an endless and perplexing enigma shrouded in mystery, but consider biological science. Watch The Big Bang Theory, and you’ll find Biology ridiculed as the softest of the sciences. While it is unquestionably the cuddliest, it is also the hardest to define or quantify. We can’t even keep track of our variables enough to not reduce any model of the environment a crude papier-mâché caricature (Fellow scientists, I am over-simplifying and sensationalising to make a point). Seriously, try to make a solid predictive model of something as notoriously unreliable as the weather, whilst considering the entire planet of things that continually interfere with it. It’s difficult.
The nice thing that we can take from that is that there is always room for improvement; we can always get better.

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Integrating with nature is looking better and better…

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Scientist. Star.

We are getting better. With intrigue comes investigation, and a number of great scientists have been answering the call for evidence to back natural flood risk management that emerged a few years ago – a call founded in the fact that a ‘natural’ system is far more saturated with uncertainly than a man-made system. We can now model and predict our impact on the environment better than ever before, and we are nowhere near reaching a pinnacle in our ability. As this foundation grows stronger, more time, energy and funding is being devoted to strengthening that foundation. Finally, now, we are on the cusp of having the right combination of ability, opportunity, and inclination to put more holistic flood risk management schemes into action. And we can accept that we cannot stop flooding full stop – particularly as climate change pushes back against our efforts more and more every day – but  there is so so much that we can do to make so many things better.

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Peter taking his job seriously, and recording a babbling brook. This film is going to sound exquisite!

Overall I just can’t get over what a good time I’m having with this. I’ve seen utterly beautiful parts of the country that I’d never have seen otherwise. I’ve developed skills that I’d never have learned otherwise. I’ve drunk beer that I’d probably not have tasted otherwise…

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“Old Sphagnum” Ale. Delicious!

And throughout visiting all of these wonderful places and meeting these fantastic people, I’ve had a couple of utter stars by my side – the other two thirds of my production team, Ben Sadd and Peter Baumann. They have both contributed phenomenally to the beauty and success of this project, and they have both been brilliant companions throughout this journey (apart from that time Ben left us to go to the Galapagos, the lucky sod).

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Ben patiently listening to my rambling direction…

There is one final lesson that has been imparted upon me (mostly) by the scientific community over this production – Natural Flood Risk Management is not the panacea!! That accepted, ‘NFM’ is an incredibly valuable component of any flood plan, it is worthy of greater attention, and there exists plethora of benefits that it can provide to us all – from cleaner water to increased biodiversity, healthier ecosystems, improved fish stocks, carbon sequestration, protection of rare species, recreation, improved health and well-being, community inclusiveness, collaboration, more cost-effective environmental management, improved agricultural techniques, environmental resilience to climate change, community resilience to flooding, reductions in flood peaks, and the simple fact that a lovely woman called Susie now has a frog living in her pond. It is not the panacea, but it is great.

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This is Susie; we were utterly delighted when we found a frog in her sustainable drainage pond 🙂

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Susie’s Frog.

High Water Common Ground Premieres October 2016.

A Phone That Redefines “Smart”: INTERVIEW with FairPhone

Now thanks to PokémonGo, fewer people then ever are managing to prize themselves away from thier smartphones for any length of time – even when out in the great outdoors. Technology, and smartphones in particular, have become deeply integrated into our lives. They are for work and for play. They open up a universe of information, and eons of hapless distraction. Ask most people now if they could function without their smartphone either for work or for their general lives, and most will concede that it’d be an awful lot harder if not impossible.

[I would like to suggest here that, at some point, you get off to a jungle and leave your phone in the rest of the ‘real world’. It is a gloriously freeing experience. Then return to society refreshed, work with the system to make it better, and look forward to your next opportunity to get out in nature.]

But where do these miracles of technology come from? What is the cost of something that enables and provides so much? A fundamental component in most technological goods is heavy metals – particularly things like gold, tungsten and tin – and if you look at where these metals generally come from things start to look a little darker than even your favourite Instagram filter could brighten up. The smart phone industry is an incredibly wealthy one, though one still very tied into market forces and all too-often cheap raw materials come with some sombre hidden costs. The fact is that almost all smart phones are currently produced with non-fairly traded raw materials. That might not sound like the worst thing in the world, until you realise that for many people around that world, that is a distinction between life and death at the hands of industry.

This injustice has not gone unnoticed, and the call to produce tech that has a positive impact on the world has been enthusiastically answered by a great bunch of people from Amsterdam; the team behind FairPhone.

FairPhone, “the smartphone with social values”, tackles four major issues in standard product development and distribution; the mining of raw materials, the way a product is designed (they don’t really agree with the concept of “inbuilt obsolescence“), the manufacturing of the product, and the overall lifecycle of the product. The result is a fantastic smartphone that is responsibly and fairly sourced from the moment it’s components leave the ground, is built to last and also built to evolve – you’re in control of your FairPhone, as it’s modular design makes for easy repairs and upgrades as technology develops. And there’s a kick-ass recycling scheme built in there too.

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The FairPhone is as transparent and integrous as they come.

I recently received my very own FairPhone2, and I must say that I love it. Habitual iPhone users may sneer that the camera’s not yet as clear as theirs, or that there’s no virtual butler to dictate text messages to, or that it doesn’t automatically sync up with your new Apple Watch;  but frankly, if we can’t produce Apple level of slick-ness without ignoring human rights and the environment, then I’m not interested.

I dropped the team a line and asked if I could get to know a bit more about them as – and I’m sure you’ll agree – they deserve some praise for taking on the challenges faced by modern society in such entrepreneurial and altruistic ways. When I got in touch, Daria from Fairphone was more than happy to chat:


You’ve just launched Fairphone 2, how’s it been received? (I should point out at this point that I’m a big fan of mine, so as far as I’m concerned it’s been received very well).

 Over 40,000 have already bought the Fairphone 2, around 17,000 of them crowdfunded the phone last summer to kick-start the production and had to wait for their device for around half a year (now we finally have the phone in stock and for the new customers the delivery takes place within a week). We are very thankful to all these people for joining the community of 60,000 Fairphone 1 users who enabled us to take this next step towards fairer electronics and invest in the Fairphone 2.

The phone has also been received well by many technology and sustainability experts. For example, the Fairphone 2 has been the first smartphone ever to receive 10 out of 10 reparability score from iFixit. We’ve also received the highest rank among electronics manufacturers assessed by Rank a brand recently.

But we’re just getting started. In 2016, our goal is to focus on growth in order to create even more impact in our supply chain (with higher volumes we can become a more interesting and important partner for suppliers). We aim to sell 100,000 phones this year. This is a very ambitious target and in order to reach it we need to appeal to a more general public as well as to corporate clients and expand our distribution network. It is challenging but we’re working hard on it. This is why this year the support of our community and buyers is by no means less important than previously, but perhaps even more important than ever before.

 What kind of impacts have you already achieved through your design, and what are you hoping to tackle in the near future?

 We designed the Fairphone 2 ourselves (as opposed to the licensed design used for the Fairphone 2) in order to gain more transparency in our supply chain, build deeper relationships with suppliers and be able to choose materials and influence the production processes. It has enabled us to work closely with partners such as Fairphone 2 PCB manufacturer AT&S (second-tier supplier) and, for the first time in consumer electronics, we managed to integrate Fairtrade gold in our supply chain. Furthermore, recently we’ve announced that we’ve established a supply chain for conflict-free tungsten from Rwanda – again, thanks to working together with our suppliers (such as the mine and the smelter) behind the first tier. However, these are just the first steps and in the future we want to engage with more suppliers to increase our impact.

From the product perspective, with the Fairphone 2 we have managed to increase the reparability of the phone – users can replace the most commonly broken parts of the phone easily, without any technical knowledge. We sell spare parts that are needed to replace broken ones. Modular architecture also allows interesting upgradeability possibilities. We’re going to continuously improve the device doing incremental upgrades so that the product lives longer in the market commercially. As the first step, we are going to refresh the camera module as it’s one of the most utilised features of the phone.

In addition, we included an expansion port in the back of the transceiver. This expansion port gives us the option to build alternative back covers with integrated additional functionality.

 The big thing that I really want to ask, is Why is Fairphone special? By which I mean – why are more devices not like Fairphone? It’s great that Fairphone is special because it is fair, but obviously it’d be great if everything was fair, so why is it not? Why is it not just the expectation that we operate fairly?

 It’s a philosophical question. I think that one of the key reasons is that there is not enough visible demand for more ethical and long-lasting products, especially in electronics. Why is there not enough demand? There is a lack of awareness: people just don’t know where their stuff comes from, who makes it and in which conditions.

And this is exactly why we created the Fairphone – as a means to build the movement for fairer electronics and inspire the entire industry to tackle issues across the value chain: from mining to design and from manufacturing to life cycle. The Fairphone is a storytelling object. By making it we can open up the supply chain and bring its stories all the way to the consumer. By using it users can spread these stories further. Together we can show that there are people who care, that there is a market for more ethical products. This can motivate the industry to act more responsibly.

 Along such lines, what do you think that we could all do to improve our practise? Both on the large scale of corporate social responsibility, and on a personal level in the things we buy and our approach to the world.

Apart from what I’ve described so far, there are many actions that we as consumers can take to push towards a fairer economic models.


My sincere thanks to Daria and the rest of the FairPhone team for all that they’re doing to make the world a better place. Everyone else, get yourself a FairPhone and make some positive changes to global industrial practise.

Now if I could only catch that Snorlax