This Film I’m Making…

HWposter1Four 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

A Bold N-EU Frontier…

Some things never seem to change… Donald Trump remains grossly uninformed, Walnut Whips are a delicious outdoor treat, and the environment’s still in severe danger.

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Original photo credit: Bethanie Francis

We’re likely to soon lose some of the highest levels of environmental protection this country has ever had – including Natura 2000 designation, Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protected Area (SPA), and other measures that intrinsically support environmental management, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the inclusive Greening Measures.

But, as so many people are saying, now is not the time to be playing Captain Hindsight and waste time blaming mistakes that have been made or dwelling on what could have been. Rather, in light of losing these things that have protected our environment for so long, we need to come together to work out how we’re going to carry on protecting the environment.

This sense of togetherness is going to be intrinsic to how we move forwards in looking after and managing the environment (though the irony is not lost on me that it was not a sense of ‘togetherness’ or unity that many recently declared their priority). However, divisions and tribalism are going to have to be put aside in the future, because that’s simply not the way the world works. When I say “The world” there, I don’t mean society; I mean the actual, living world. The Earth. The global biosphere. Gaia. Call it what you will, this environment that we’re looking to manage exists as a wide and holistic entity. Only by appreciating that we are a part of that, and sympathetically addressing it holistically, will we really stand a decent chance of managing it.

Community engagement with science and policy is going to be intrinsic to our future in the UK, and there’s a plethora of ways that that has been building momentum for some time. Now let’s get on it.

Don’t Worry, The Lynx Aren’t Going To Eat The Sheep

An organisation called The Lynx UK Trust are currently putting together a very coherent consultation to propose the reintroduction of Lynx to specific sites around England and Scotland. This is awesome. It’s awesome partly because the rewilding debate is such a hot topic with so much potential, and it’s also awesome purely for the quality of this consultation – it’s a sound and thorough read.

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Unfortunately, the awesomeness of this project rarely makes headlines; when this topic is reported it’s normally the lynx’s title of ‘carnivore’ or ‘top predator’ that’s focussed on. For example, last month I was somewhat disgruntled to see the only recent update in the rewilding story to be

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Wild lynx plan ‘threatens sheep farmers’“. Why is it never a positive rewilding headline? At least this one didn’t feature a close-up mug-shot of a particularly savage-looking lynx. And to the Beeb’s defence, the article does then explore the issue quite well. But if you as a reader don’t care that much and only get your information from headlines, there’s no way by this point you’ll be thinking that bringing in the lynx is a good idea.

(More recently I came across this stellar piece of journalism from The Telegraph, stating in it’s headline that “Releasing Lynx into the wild puts ramblers in danger of attack…
It’s even grosser extrapolation than the sheep – but worse because the views peddled in this article are riddled with inaccuracies and assumptions that are, simply,  wrong!
Lynx are no danger to humans. Fact. Nowhere on Earth are lynx considered to be a threat to humans. Lynx are only, very rarely, a mild threat to our stuff, and that is still an idea that is irrelevant in this debate, as I will go on to demonstrate.
Now, that’s all of this post that I’ll devote to that nonsense.)

Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

So there’s fear that lynx might pose a threat to our sheep – which in the BBC article is expressed by the National Sheep Association in a lengthy document of anxiety and skepticism. I can see why people might think lynx are a threat; the lynx is a Big(-ish) Cat by most people’s standards (it’s not technically a ‘Big’ Cat, at best it’s a Medium Cat) – it’s the largest feline predator in Europe, and our British sheep are hardly bred for their ability to stand up for themselves in a fight. But there is one fundamental fact that means we really don’t need to worry about this: Lynx aren’t going to eat our sheep.

It’s not that a lynx is liable to turn it’s nose up at mutton; if anything it’s simpler than that. Lynx live in woodland – they need woodland to survive, as they’re opportunistic ambush predators of small things. For that reason, we can only think about (re)introducing Lynx to pretty densely forested areas. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed on scenic drives through the Lake District or one of our other great grazing pastures / National Parks, but we don’t tend to do much sheep farming in the woods. In nerdy biological terms, these Lynx and our sheep will be functionally and physically isolated from each other.

On the continent they have Lynx, and by-and-large it’s fine. The exception is Norway, where they do have an issue of Lynx predating sheep. BUT, in Norway, they farm sheep in the forests – now do we need to wonder why Lynx eat more sheep in Norway?
Using Norway as a model environment in this debate, is tantamount to a red herring.

Now, to be fair, if we were to saturate our island with Lynx, we might have a little more to think about, and that’s really where the NSA’s objections are focussed. Their concerns relate more to farming alongside a full, genetically viable population of a few hundred. But for the time being, the reintroduction trail is to release between four and six individual lynx at very specially selected sites to suit Lynx ecology, boost ecotourism and limit any negative (sheep-related) effects. So let’s just work on getting that right for now, and if it goes well, we can use the same decent methodology to work out how a larger population might fit in.

lynx1I recognise that people don’t like that motive – the ‘let’s just try it for the sake of trying it‘ motive, without it serving a larger purpose. So why should we give the go-ahead to this trail?
One key argument is for Lynx to exert some control over our rampant deer population – which we desperately do need in our oldest forests. And while Lynx may not have quite as powerful an impact on deer as, say, a few packs of wolves, they unquestionably will make significant impacts. But I think there is an even greater reason why this trail needs to happen.

Sir David Attenborough has been infamously quoted as saying that “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” This is a very common view in conservation – experiencing nature first-hand opens your eyes to it’s importance in ways that simply hearing the facts of it never could (the same is true of many things, like my Dad’s love of his new Apple watch. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it”, he says).
All over the world, we need to start understanding and appreciating wildlife more; simply before it is too late to do so. As a pretty substantial player in global economy, the UK is in a good position to influence that, but compared to most others our little island is desperately depauperate of wildlife. We need Lynx to make a global and local point that the effort is worth making to save the life of the Earth. Lynx could potentially do wonderful things for inspiring awe in nature and biodiversity in the UK, and from the immediate delight on the faces of children to the wider global perspective, that is a great thing.

You experience ecology, your eyes open. You understand ecology, your mind opens. You appreciate ecology, your heart opens. You protect ecology, because it moves you.

Original Photo Credit: Erwin van Maanen

 

The Cartoon Conservation Crash-Course

Do you enjoy cartoons, and also want to know more about ocean conservation?
– Before we go any further, the second part of that’s not that important right now, let’s just focus on the cartoons.

Because cartoonist Jim Toomey has drawn-up this series of cartoons [about conservation] and they’re brilliant [and informative]!

Can we do this more in science communication please? Use a vessel that people love when we communicate our most important messages – rather than waiting for the media to not bring it up after they’ve talked about some sporting achievement or some foiled or successful terrorist incident, or relying on the public to muster up some curiosity and fork-out to see what’s lurking behind the infamous pay-wall? Because, as exemplified by the Cartoon Crash-Course, when you communicate serious issues through an element of joy, it can be fantastic.
Watch this:

Do you know when I first got to know about Ocean Governance? My masters degree.
As Pew state on their channel, “Ocean conservation is essential but extremely difficult to understand“. However, with Jim here it’s become fantastically accessible and – dare I say it – quite entertaining! Here’s another about Ocean Acidification – bet you never thought you’d see a jolly cartoon about that:

Jim Toomey is the cartoonist behind Sherman’s Lagoon, a cartoon strip about a great-white shark named Sherman and his marine pals. Naturally there appears to be a cross-over of his interests, from cartoons to conservation.

In this series Toomey combines a natural, comfortable style in front of a camera with his artistic flair, and manages to make complicated, serious topics – including Bycatch, Marine Reserves, Illegal Fishing and Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management – really quite engaging.

Thanks to this series, I’ve also discovered series’  producers; the Pew Charitable Trusts, who’s mission statement is to

…lay the foundation for effective policies and practices by invigorating civic life, conducting research, informing and engaging citizens, linking diverse interests to pursue common cause, and insisting on tangible results.

I think they deserve a doff-of-the-cap for that! If you’re looking for something philanthropic in almost any sector – check out their website and their work.

Now maybe I’m just too much of a jungle-lover, but I do feel that throughout the general populous there is a significant bias towards terrestrial life in conservation, and a severe disconnect from the ocean. It’s probably because most of us don’t see the sea all that much, and when we do we are struck by it’s enormity. That’s why for so long we thought, like the atmosphere, we could chuck whatever horror we liked out there and let it dissolve into insignificance. But yesterday we lost five Solomon islands, demonstrating that our interactions with the air and the ocean are not as distant as they used to seem. Unfortunately, that’s a fundamentally grim topic. So now, we desperately need some awesome, entertaining, joy-inspiring communication of such important issues. And definitely more science cartoons.

How To Discover Conservation: INTERVIEW with James Borrell

A little over a year ago, a very good friend of mine send me a link to the website of conservationist James Borrell with the words “You’ll like this guy.”

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She was right.

In that time I’ve become rather a fan of James Borrell, a PhD student from London who’s immensely passionate about conservation and has a love for communicating science that rivals even my own. James has undertaken scientific expeditions all over the planet, has received high praise for his TEDx talk titled “Is there hope in conservation?”, and when he was twenty-three founded a programme to help students experience conservation whilst telling the most uplifiting stories from the field; Discover Conservation.

James recently organised and undertook Expedition Angano – a research expedition to Madagascar to discover the mysterious future of the desperately fragmented forest there. It’s been a few years since I was out there, and with the imminent release of The Evolution of Madagascar I was incredibly keen to hear how things are out there now, and quiz James on the world of conservation in general. 


 It’s the cliché conservation question, but, what do you feel that the world of conservation needs now, most of all?

I think a couple of things. Firstly, we need to stop being so cynical about governments. The green movement is sometimes synonymous with being left-wing, and government-hating in general because it’s difficult to get the things we want. I saw a great talk by [an MP], the other day: “she said, if you don’t like it, stand to be an MP.” That’s all they are, is people who’ve got up and are having a go (most of them anyway).

Secondly, we need more ambition and to stop trying to ask for scraps. Conservation needs to make sense in an economically efficient way, that’s the only way it will be successful – at least in a time frame that matters. My pet hate is how much money we spend on crap species that are common as muck but we just happen to like – that goes for things like Elephants and Rhino as well, there are a lot of those, and while we spend money there, lesser known species are slipping to extinction. I’d like to see prioritisation on where you can spend your money and get the biggest bang for your buck I think, and there’s folks like the EDGE programme already making great progress there.

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Very fair ideas, and I totally agree that the world would be so much better if people would moan a bit less and try a bit more. I’ve seen you speak a lot about Hope in conservation before, and would always say we could do with more of that, but do you think there’s a good amount of hope in conservation already?

Yeah, I see two bunches of conservationists: There’s those that I see in their own little world, managing little nature reserves in the UK, and then there’s the ones that are trying to work internationally. I appreciate both; you need both. But I don’t think that all conservationists in the UK can visualise the big picture, and that’s where you need to project hope – out of our little bubble in the UK and out to the wider world.

That’s why I’ve never specialised you know, I still call myself an Ecologist, as I’ve been on conservation expeditions a fair few times now and you meet people who are so passionate about snakes, or so passionate about birds, or so passionate about termites. Whereas I get my kicks from seeing the way that it all works together. And I still love snakes and birds and termites. But I feel that it’s… it’s kind of selfish, to prioritise something like that, and not see it as a component of something more.

Yeah, unfortunately though, career-wise at least, it’s pretty good if you specialise. If you focus on being the expert on Boophis of northern Madagascar, then people will recognise you as the Boophis expert of northern Madagascar.

Very fair point. But anyway, tell me more about Madagascar – is there any hope out there?

I think that’s the toughest place of all. There’s still lots of things I don’t get my head around out there. You see the scale at which everything operates, the small scale of forest fragments. I can’t quite imagine how these vast bits of forest are just disappearing. I don’t know, I think there’s hope, just. There’s a couple of really amazing statistics, and that’s that in modern history, no species of lemur have gone extinct. Chytrid hasn’t wiped out Madagascar’s frogs yet. And when you still find these intact patches of forest, that can be quite surprising, when you consider how much is gone. I think there is hope, but I think Madagascar is the hardest place to sell.

It’s such a strange place, I agree. So you’ve been working out there quite a bit recently, tell me what you’ve been doing?

One of the biggest problems in Madagascar is forest loss – you end up with just ten percent of it left and that’s bad situation. But one of the things you don’t think about is the resolution of the fragmentation. On average, Madagascar has some of the smallest fragments of any country in the world. So if you picked a point in the forest somewhere, eight times out of ten, it would be within a kilometre of a forest edge and a transition to grassland.12801372_1095874970478923_5459027516276760676_n

That’s pretty close! So, it’s not just that there’s not much forest left; the bits that are left are in really small pieces. My interests are in habitat fragmentation and how that works, and one of the things you get when you get smaller and smaller pieces, you get a higher ratio of edge to interior. Forest Edge, where it meets that grassland, is a really different environment to the interior. It’s a lot hotter, a lot drier; it has shallower leaf litter and higher tree mortality, more human disturbance and so on.

What we don’t really know though, is what you call “The Edge”. Do you call it first five meters or the first fifty? That makes a big difference; if you’re looking at a satellite image and you can see one square kilometre of forest, how much of that is good, intact, original forest, and how much is subject to these different conditions?

So the edge of a forest could easily be one, two, three, four, five degrees higher temperature than the interior. So in the field what we’re trying to do is study reptiles and amphibians in an attempt to detect this transition from edge to interior. If you walk on grassland in Madagascar, you’ll see some skinks, some snakes, you’ll see species that can tolerate disturbed habitats and so on. As you go into a rainfoest, they should disappear and be replaced by ones that can’t survive outside of that original habitat, things like tree frogs, little leaf-litter frogs and that kind of thing. So basically we’ve been trying to find that transition, and see at what distance from the edge you get that change.

And you were working up in the North weren’t you?

We worked in the North because most of the research that’s been done in Madagascar has either been done in the East around Moromanga, or Ranomafana in the South, which is great, they’re both lovely areas. In fact they’re nicer areas where the forest is in better condition, but the largest chunks of remaining forest are far far up in the North. They’re very very hard to get to, and comparatively much less studied. I happened to be able to put together a team that’s capable of getting to somewhere really remote – you know, and that’s part of the fun of it.

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One of the thigns that was really interesting about your expedition – what was the name of the expedition again?

Angano. An “Angano” is a story or a fable or a legend in Malagasy. I didn’t know what to name it, I mean the name wasn’t particularly important. We didn’t know the name of any of the regions we were trying to get to, because they didn’t have names – at least as far as we knew or as far as google earth tells you. So we picked Angano because it means a ‘story’ or a ‘legend’ I was like “well, a story, that’s nice. Let’s name our expedition a story and then use stories to teach people about conservation.”All my guides then pee-d them selves because apparently an Angano, a legend in Malagasy means a story that isn’t true. I tried to argue that it’s a legend that can come true, and they were all just “Nah”.

Oh well that’s alright, you can still sell it to people in this country as Angano, it’ll be fine. So yeah, one of the interesting things about Expeditoin Angano was that you crowd-funded it.

Yeah we tried that. We got quite a lot of money from grants, quite a lot from members of the team, and then we managed to crowd-fund a little bit extra to support some Malagasy students that we took with us.

That’s awesome! I’m glad it’s all been such a success! And it’s a really great way of connecting people generally with conservation efforts.
I really love the way you’ve set up your website because it’s absolutely full of articles and advice on how to get involved with conservation, but for anyone who hasn’t yet read it all, what advice would you give to people who haven’t yet experienced conservation, and don’t yet realise how much we need it.

I think the way to realise how important it all is, is to realise how much everything depends on the environment. The value of the services that we derive from the environment, and don’t have to pay anything for as a society is massive. But that’s quite boring. I mean, it comes across as really really boring. I just can’t see a way of catching someone’s eye with an elevator pitch for something that, as much as I would love to. That’s why so many NGOs use big fluffy animals, to attract people’s attention.

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My take, I guess, is I try and mix something a bit adventurous, a good story that appeals to everyone, with a bit of purpose. That’s expedition Angano. For someone who’s not a conservationist, we could say “we had a team of fifteen people living in the rainforest for a month.” They might think “ooh that’s cool”, and then they could see what you were doing. So my take is try to mix a little bit of adventure with conservation but that’s definitely not the only angle. I really liked Monbiot’s take on the iconic idea of rewilding, that’ a great one for getting people interested.

Incidentally the reason why I love rewilding and think it’s what we should do, is in conservation we don’t have a lot of money, and rewilding should be the cheapest possible strategy. Conservation charities in the UK don’t have very much money, and they spend ridiculous amounts managing tiny reserves, stopping tree encroachment and that kind of thing. If you could replace everything that wasn’t there and makes reserves large enough they should, eventually, manage themselves. You could then spend the money on educating people instead – but that’s all a bit out there at the moment I think!

All in all you’ve just got to capture people’s imaginations with these kinds of things, but I definitely don’t have the answer for how to do it. 


My most sincere thanks to James for taking the time to talk to me, hopefully the next time we meet it’ll be in a pub with good beer and we can really give the world a thorough chewing-over. In the mean time, we may not have the answer to the world’s troubles, but I’m confident that the world of conservation –and it’s communication – is in good hands with him.

Visit www.jamesborrell.com to hear even more from this brilliant fellow.

Your Place In The World

We humans have made the biggest impression on the modern face of the Earth, but what is our place in it? Are we mere stewards, here to reside upon and use this planet as we see fit? Or are we one with this world?
Whatever your opinion, ask yourself how far removed – if at all – we are from the rest of life. Compare ourselves to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the great apes; Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans. Yes, we may have risen as dominant species, but are they that far behind us?

Original Image: Shutterstock, apple2499

It’s hard to argue that we don’t share something with our fellow apes that does set us cognitively and emotionally apart from the rest of life on this planet, when you see videos of captive chimps being released under a blue sky for the first time…

…or to see individuals like Kanzi the Bonobo quite actively blur the line around how we define ourselves intellectually…

It changes how we look at ourselves, and how we look at the natural world. And maybe we should reconsider how we act towards life like this. When our fellow apes can be so cognitively present, when they can understand and use language, when they can demonstrate emotion and even empathy, how should we consider them? Should they be granted some inclusion within our system of rights? The Nonhuman Rights Project, and a number of similar endeavours certainly think so.

It’s only fair, when we see ourselves reflected so clearly in great apes. These animals are fundamentally our history. Humans didn’t literally evolve from the species we see today, but we share a recent common ancestor – they’re the closest family we have. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. And just as importantly, as our closest relatives, they do document where we humans came from. We diverged from Orangutans (“Orang-utan”; a name which nicely means “Forest Person” in Indonesian) 15-20 Million years ago. We diverged from Gorillas around 8 Million years ago. We diverged from the Chimp/Bonobo line around 6 Million years ago (which went on to divide Chimpanzees from Bonobos a mere 2 Million years ago, as Bonobos liked to make love while the Chimps liked to make war). That evolutionary line has proven to shape the face of the planet more, and more rapidly, than any other in history.

Don’t you think it’s time we paused to respect how remarkable, and valuable these apes are? Intrinsically incredible in their own right, and also a profound testament to our own existence? There’s a project – The Great Ape Project – that’s seeking to do just that.

For the last 20 years, The Great Ape Project has been campaigning for the establishment of basic rights for our four closest relatives – Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans – a thought that I imagine has become a lot more mainstream in that time. Such simple rights would afford our cousins the protection to live in liberty; in better conditions for captive animals, and the protection of habitat without persecution for wild communities. Further to this, a proposal was launched at the end of last year to have the great apes designated as Living World Heritage by UNESCO, in recognition of the impact our genus has had on the life on this planet. From such a perspective, great apes are a cultural heritage that we cannot afford to lose.

But think of the ramifications this could have. With this simple – albeit legal – change of perspective, immense areas of land would automatically be protected from deforestation, as rainforests are the homes of these great ape species. Just see current examples from Ecuador for how indigenous people’s rights can prevent the destruction of vast areas of rainforest. That’s an incredible thing!

From a different perspective, this would have colossal impacts on, say, the Palm oil industry, and grossly f*ck-off companies like Pepsico who are currently being recognised for killing Orangutans with Doritos. That’d have significant implications for the global economy, which many (Pepsico, for example) would probably not welcome as a good thing.  But then alternatives to Palm oil are being developed readily, so that void shouldn’t be left too empty.

Personally, I think these motives to award nonhuman person rights to our evolutionary cousins, and pay homage to them as Living World heritage are wonderful ideas – as does everyone else who’s signed this petition from Rainforest Rescue.  It may seem like a pipe dream, but I’m writing this in the same week that Sea World have finally announced an end to captive Orca breeding, because they’re slowly adjusting to the fact that what they do is abominable. So there’s hope for our hominid cousins yet.

 

Your Search To Save The Planet Is Over: INTERVIEW with Ecosia.

Even in Your Save-The-World Starter Pack, most world-saving actions do actually require you to do something, to donate or give something up. Very very few initiatives out there just fit so seamlessly into your daily lives that you can save the planet without noticing. But there is a search engine out there that is beautifully bucking these trends and doing something great. I would like to introduce you to Ecosia; the way for you to save the world while you search.

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Click here to install Ecosia as your default search engine from their homepage now.

It’s wonderfully simple. You search the web with Ecosia, and the revenue generated from advertising plants trees! It even keeps track of how many trees you’ve helped plant! What I love about this most is that Ecosia are beautifully and simply facilitating greatness, with no imposition whatsoever to the user. You don’t have to think about it, but it’s brilliant, and I’m going to tell you their story.

It was a trip around the world that highlighted the issue of global deforestation for the founder & CEO, Christian Kroll, and inspired him to take action. But he and his team didn’t just set out planting trees anywhere; they had vision.
The Great Green Wall is a heartfully ambitious movement of local communities to plant 8,000km of green across northern Africa to combat deforestation and the expansion of the Sahara – think Jadav Payeng but on a continental scale – and that is where Ecosia have set to make their impact.

And what an impact it is! Such a mass of trees will have a huge impact on the climate – not just globally but, thanks to evapotranspiration, on the local environment as well.
In supporting the Great Green Wall, Ecosia (and you, by searching with them) are not only directly combating climate change in one of the harshest environments on earth; they’re proving food and jobs to hungry communities. They’re bonding communities together, promoting healthier lives, cleaning air and water. This is striving to increase environmental, social and economic prosperity. And, in the words of The Great Green Wall, they are “Growing a World Wonder“.

In November 2014, Ecosia planted their one millionth tree. To date, at time of writing, they have planted 3,523,742 trees (14 of which I’ve been responsible for, and I’ve only been searching with them for 24 hours), and they’re currently on track to reach their target of 1 Billion trees planted by 2020. Upon discovering their awesome, world-saving initiative, I was dying to speak to them. I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to have such a lovely interview with Jacey Bingler of the Ecosia team:


 

You mention online that Ecosia was formed after a trip around the world, which brought to light the problem of deforestation. How did you decide where to begin in tackling this issue, and what lead you to focus on the great green wall?

As Christian first learnt about reforestation when staying in Argentina, a reforestation/rainforest protection program in the Atlantic Rainforest (spreading across Argentina and Brazil) seemed a good starting point for his efforts in late 2009. A couple of years and two tree planting organisations later, the Ecosia team came across the planting program in Burkina Faso. We are fascinated by the idea of keeping the Sahel and Sahara desert from spreading by planting a wall of trees. Those trees don’t only absorb CO2, they also have the power to nourish communities, they can restart water cycles and stabilize economic and political situations in the region.

So how does this actually work? Who’s planting the trees? What trees are they? Who owns the land?

The land is owned and treated by the communities. The communities are also the ones executing the tree planting program with the help of WeForest, who organize the tree planting program in general and OZG, a Belgian NGO, operating with the local people on the ground. The communities do receive “sustainability training” and they must agree to certain standards in order to participate in the program, like granting women their own income from tree planting. But apart from that the program is about empowering people to help themselves and to create as little dependancies as possible. The local communities know best what trees to plant when and where and thanks to a very efficient planting technique the survival rate of the new trees and shrubs is at an astonishing 70%. We are very happy that the feedback from the communities has been very positive so far.

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Your next target is one billion trees planted by 2020. Will that be focussed along the great green wall? What will be the greater impacts of this?

We initially set ourselves this goal of planting 1 billion trees because we determined that as a number that would significantly help mitigate climate change and do a lot for the biodiversity and stability of ecosystems in the planting regions. It is a very ambitious goal but it reminds us of where we are going and what we want to achieve. It motivates us to improve our product and spread the word about this great tree planting search engine every day. Where all these trees will be planted is yet to be determined. The Great Green Wall is an amazing project we are glad to be part of, but there are surely uncountable regions all over the world that are in bitter need of reforestation.

You’re taking on Google; how do you feel about that, and how’s that been received?

Google offers great search results and user experience, otherwise it wouldn’t have become such a popular, omnipresent product. But this omnipresence and monopolist status is what troubles us. Rather than telling people what not to use, we want to show them that there are alternatives and that no one has to use a search engine or product in general just because it is preinstalled in most browsers or on most devices. Lately more and more people seem to be driven away from Google and towards us, probably largely due to the latest tax affair. This shows us that the future belongs to businesses who offer a product that benefits the user and supports a greater cause at the same time.

Ecosia seems set to be able to make a big difference, not just to the environment, but to the whole concept of corporate social responsibility. What element of Ecosia are you most proud of?

We believe that Ecosia is a great tool that empowers everyone to do good, without any additional cost or effort for the user. It capitalizes on a daily habit and turns something as abstract but also lucrative as search advertising into something as nurturing and tangible as trees. But as you already indicated, the product and the good cause it supports could really be anything. The fact that this system works in general, gives us hope, and we celebrate every new social business who joins the movement. Something that is very important to us on the way is being transparent and offering our users as much insight as possible. This is why we publish all our monthly donation receipts and business reports and are happy to answer any kind of question regarding the mechanics that keep Ecosia going.

Do you have any other advice for people wanting to save the world with something as simple as a click?

Don’t underestimate how much more you’ll be able to achieve, if you allow yourself to scale. We used to donate almost all of our total income to tree planting. This never really allowed us to employ additional team members who could help us improve our product and spread the word. Hadn’t it been for our community members who usually are so excited about Ecosia that they share us with their networks, we would have had a very hard time growing and even being able to keep Ecosia running. A little over a year ago we decided to get additional team members on board and invest in new features and product improvements. We started paying our monthly costs first and then donating at least 80% of our profits. This has helped us scale our product so much, that we are now in fact able to donate more money than before. There’s a very interesting TED talk by Dan Parlotta on how social businesses often have a very hard time explaining why and how they invest money. Christian introduced me to it a while ago and I think it’s incredibly insightful.

 


So get to it! You can install Ecosia as your default browser right now by simply clicking the link on their homepage here, and you can also download the Ecosia app for android or iPhone. It takes seconds to do, and every day you’ll be able to make huge impacts with them. Think of it – you can be proud that you’re making the world a better place, every time you fire up the internet!

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Click here to search with Ecosia. Original image courtesy of http://www.beeldkas.be

My sincere thanks again to Jacey from Ecosia, to the whole Ecosia team for their phenomenal work, and to all of you future Ecosia users🙂

How’re Those Resolutions Going?

Wehey! We’re a month into 2016, is it looking bright? Did all your Januarys stay dry? Are you holding strong at the top of your Fit Bit leaderboard? If so, congratulations, cos you’re staying strong through the hardest part of the year – the bit where the joys of Christmas like mince pies and mulled wine have been culturally removed from us, but the mornings are still as dark and drizzly as Robert Plant’s cover of Hey Joe.

Environmentally we’ve been off to a hell of a start, with an almost immediate go-ahead to build on last-year’s governmental damnation of bees, which makes as little sense now as it did last summer. But moreover, ‘we’ as a nation made some big pledges last year before Christmas, as all those other countries made huge pledges at COP21 to reduce emissions and phase out fossil fuels. It even looked like we had hope with that, as just before COP21 the UK declared that we would be the first nation to completely phase out coal – by 2025. Now, that does come with the small print that we’ll just exploit natural gas more to fill the power-void, but nevertheless that’s a big and pride-worthy commitment.

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Well, it was barely even a month after COP21 that we were fighting plans to open a Six Million Tonne COAL mine in beautiful rural Wales. There’s an on-going war around Fracking (see here if you’re a proposed site), and the fossil fuels industry has been granted £1.3Billion in tax-breaks.

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So if you’ve succumbed to temptation and had a glass of Pinot, if you’ve not had quite the handle on your road-rage you’d hoped for, don’t worry, you could be doing worse. For our government, those resolutions have not been going well.

Happily, there’s plenty of things you can get on doing to make this world a better place, things you can commit to and really will enjoy committing to. I’m still cutting about on my One Man Climate March, I’ve made you a whole list of little things in Your Save-The-World Starter Pack, but there’s something really big on the horizon, and that’s Break Free 2016.

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The gist of Break Free is to take charge of your own life, and your planet. It still baffles me why the corporate giants of the fossil fuel world – the ones with all the money and nicely established infrastructure – are choosing not to help us transition to renewables. They could use their money and power and influence and manpower to create really awesome renewable technologies, get in there ahead of these independent startups, and totally rule that industry too – but they’re not, so this is how it’s going to have to be.

Whatever start your 2016’s got off to, this is going to be a big year.

We Go Now Live To The Historic Battlefront…

Where just last week what has been hailed as one of the most monumental global agreements in history was made… but we maybe can’t relax just yet.

COP 21 is now concluded &, it would seem, the fate of our planet decided. By and large, people seem happy that we have achieved what was set out to do: To agree to a less than 2ºC temperature rise (above pre-industrial levels), by reducing our emissions, phasing out fossil fuels, wealthy, developed nations giving $100Billion to developing nations by 2020 to help them do that, and the nice establishment of a 5-year-review where everyone can get together to see how we’re doing. Hurrah!

Main-stream media seems very happy with it all. Politicians seem very happy with it all. Even 50% of the organisers of the Global Climate MarchAvaaz.org – seem happy, saying in a recent email to members that “We did it!… World leaders at the UN climate talks have just set a landmark goal that can save everything we love!
The other 50% of the GCM organisers, 350.org, seem somewhat less thrilled by the result of these talks:

And I think quite rightly so because, as much as it may be great to make this deal and have the world on board… it is still a slightly inadequate deal – mostly in the gross lack of actual targets, and that none of it is legally binding – and there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. The simple fact that the UN have agreed and produced a very vague document about it doesn’t mean that the rest of us can turn to each other and say “Wehey, that’s that then!” dust off our hands and clock-off.

For the last year, momentum has been building up for this to be huge. We knew it was going to be tough, but there was the hope that, with sufficient preparation, the world would be able to pull something together that was appreciably ambitious. Though even Barack Obama is noted as having optimistically called the very notion of agreement ‘ambitious‘. Throughout all that there was hope, and with this hope I (and countless others) watched COP21 unfold, as they steadily drafted out reems of proposals, identified disagreements and sought remedies. But, thanks to The Guardian’s live feed of the events, I was able to pinpoint the moment when the wind was taken from my sails, and the vectors of my face & palm converged…

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It was the moment the actual targets were removed from the draft. The moment apathy set in, and the points of contention – like how much reductions we were going to commit to, or by when – were, instead of decided upon, simply removed and left as fluff. I know scientists who say this is a good thing, that if we had a target of, say, 50% reduction it’d be interpreted as an excuse to still emit a full 50%… but I honestly disagree. Do we really think such lenience won’t be taken advantage of? It’s like choosing not to say to your child “You can have only have half of this chocolate bar” because you think they’ll only have 2 squares if you keep schtup.
And to make it worse, this is all voluntary anyway. No countries are under any obligation to actually do anything! At least they all agree now that something has to be done.

Of course, such dissatisfaction can be taken too far, and this is where my sympathy for activists breaks down. While it’s important that The People exercise their power, certain types of activism do ring with a bit of small-man syndrome, disguised as disestablishmentarianism. For example, I don’t agree with the message in this video by New Internationalist that the only way forward is to take the power from the hands of the corporations.

Like it or not, corporations pretty much are the developed world. They are huge, almightily powerful and influential – even to our governments. It’s something I’ve been discussing with students over my One Man Climate March – we need the phasing-out of fossil fuels but by investment in something else. Do you think we could continue to function if we just cut out all fossil fuels right now? No, absolutely not as our way of life – that we all fight for and, to certain extents, deserve – depend on that too much. Similarly, our society is made and managed by corporations; we can’t get rid of them. What we DO need to do is to help/incense corporations to change the ways they do what they do, to make the world a better place. As we know, they have huge amounts of power and money; they are better equipped than any of us impoverished eco-warriors to change the world right now.
In light of COP21, the head of Europe’s coal lobby spat his dummy out and declared that the coal industry is going to be ‘hated and vilified like slave-traders‘ now.
(“Well, Duh?” was my first thought on that)
But I seriously do wonder why these companies – who currently supply our power through one means or another – don’t just commit to continuing to do so in a cleaner way! We, the customers, don’t necessarily love them because they give us coal, it’s because ultimately they power our homes. And if they complain about loss-of-jobs – what, you think wind-turbines just grow on trees? Or couldn’t stand any improvements?? It’s a lucrative sector, get in there!

I was happy that, smack in the middle of COP21, a huge forum was also held – 2 whole days devoted to presenting sustainable solutions – the 6th Sustainable Innovation Forum. Check out their YouTube channel for what they talked about. Unfortunately this year this became a target of anti-corporate activism, and now there’s great contention around how much elements of this forum can be classified as ‘greenwashing’ for big corporations. So that bit was kind of a mess.

But, ambitious as myself and my eco-peers may be, it’s still apparently very difficult to change the world. I mean, yes, it very much is, but that’s no reason not to try. There’s huge things to consider, almost infinite ramifications of our actions, and always more people & livelihoods to consider, but the answers are out there. But still, here’s a clip of David Cameron practising telling his grand-children that it was just too difficult:

“…No-one is being asked to pre-ordain what that [5-yearly] review would say…
No-one is being asked to sign-up for automatic decreases in their carbon emissions…” 
Mr Cameron says in this pre-COP speech.

Umm, YES, Mr Cameron, that’s almost exactly – word-for-word – what we were asking you to do.

But apparently it is difficult. Apparently it is going to be a hard-slog to kick this habit – but no-one (apart from Mr Cameron there) ever said it was going to be easy. The closest thing any expert has ever got to saying it’ll be easy, is saying it’s going to be easier now than it will in the future. And we’re all going to have to pitch-in.

So that’s what I implore of you all. This is a very big issue, and we have some very big opinions on it. We have some very big hinderances to our efforts, but biggest of all is just our griping about it. Please, can we just get over ourselves and get on with the task in hand. Focus on how to make the world better, and DO SOMETHING about it, rather than distracting yourself on how it’ll be hard, or miserable, because if you do, you’ll be right.

A year ago Prince Ea released this beautiful video that, I think (hope), had the same intended message behind it as Mr Cameron’s before the UN. But from Prince Ea it was much better delivered, and is still resoundingly true today.

And if you don’t think enough has been done… if you want something to do… Then follow Prince Ea’s advice, offset your carbon with Stand For Trees, or with Saving Species. Take pride in the world that you are a part of, and consume less, eat less meat – particularly beef. Help prevent fracking. Share happiness and unity and pride and hope and empowerment. Let this impact your life now so that it will impact others less – and less badly – in the future. Act in such ways that you can take pride in the impact that your life has on this world. And if you ever think that not enough is being done, that is your opportunity to do something more.

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