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.

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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

 

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 🙂

INTERVIEW with Prof. Stuart Pimm of SavingSpecies

I recently published a post stating that, to adequately offset the carbon emissions, a flight to Mallorca ought to cost £4,000,000. Now it turns out – and I’m happy to say that – I was wrong… by about one million times! I won’t hide my original error – see it here – but this is very much a retraction. Being wrong every now & then is a wonderful and fundamental part of science.

My error came in a simple assumption I made about the organisation Saving Species, with whom I encourage you to offset your carbon. I made an ass out of u-&-me be by thinking that the 30-year leases with which they operate were a necessary duration of the sequestration process, when in reality, they’re not. Their system is actually as brilliant and efficient as it seems.

Now the best thing that has come about from this misguided error is that it put me in touch with Stuart Pimm, the founder of SavingSpecies – he happily corrected my math and I found myself with the opportunity to interview one of the most go-getting and innovative conservationists working today.

Beyond Stuart’s credentials as founder of SavingSpecies – through which he has helped save a number of charismatic species from extinction, discovered a number more, and aided the mitigation of global emissions and facilitated reforestation – Stuart has worked as a consultant on An Inconvenient Truth and appeared in 11th hour – two of the most impactful films on climate change ever made. He is also a teaching Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, who introduce him as “a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them.”

This is someone I was excited to talk to.

There’s a brilliant article that Stuart wrote for the British Ecological Society about the birth of Saving Species, in which he applied island-theory to forest fragmentation in Brazil and managed to convert cattle-pasture into rejuvenated forest thereby saving the Golden Lion Tamarin from extinction. It’s a beautiful story. However, when I sat down to interview him over skype, we were both keen to crack-on chatting about the way that things are now, and how unbelievably easy and affordable it is to do your part to offset carbon and save the world:


 

“…Not everybody finds it easy to do this, but the remarkable thing is how little it costs to offset carbon. There’s a new movie coming out, it’ll be shown worldwide on the Discovery Channel on the 2nd December, by a chap called Louie Psihoyos, called Racing Extinction. Louis said he’d like to offset his carbon, and he tried to do loads of complicated calculations. I said “Just tell me how many millions of miles you flew, how many thousands of miles you drove, how many days were you in the studio with electricity.” And we came up with a number. He said “Is that all?!” and I said “Yeah, that’s all.” So he ended up giving us more money than that, as he just felt embarrassed that it was such a small sum of money.

It basically costs, probably about £40 or £50 a year to offset an average American emissions – even if you, like me, travel a huge amount.

It’s probably an obvious question but, why don’t we do this more if it’s so easy?

 Well, I really think that’s a good question, and I wish I had a better answer.

You really can do things in places that make a difference, and more really importantly, you can do it by funding people who make a difference. I basically founded SavingSpecies because I was very unhappy with the way that big conservation groups were doing things. Because they weren’t supporting the wonderful people who I meet in places like Columbia and Ecuador and Peru and Brazil and Madagascar – really passionate local people who are just good at taking care of their local problems. I just felt that we needed to have a mechanism for funding them.

The model is inspirational. One of the things I really admire about it is the way that it’s a fantastic bridge between that abstract, relatively dull enemy that is climate change & carbon, and brilliantly tangible conservation victories – like Golden Lion Tamarins, which are adorable. So, along those lines, what other tangible conservation victories are you really proud of?

Well obviously that was the first one and we’re very proud of that. We did that in a couple of ways – we didn’t pick that area because it was the Golden Lion Tamarins, we picked that area because we thought it was probably the most important place for birds. If you’re picking areas that are really rich in endangered birds then they’re going to have endangered mammals, endangered plants, endangered amphibians, so that all made good sense.

One of the things that happens when you have these isolated patches is you lose the top predators. And when you lose the top predators, all sorts of bad things happen underneath. So, Britain has lost it’s wolves, and with lots of wolves we now have plagues of red deer all across the highlands keeping the forest down. So you get all these knock-down, cascading effects.

One of the things that happened much earlier than we thought it might, is that mountain lions – Pumas – started moving across the corridor. Mountain lions came back into the isolated fragment, from which they’d been gone for a while. There’s a smaller predator called a Tayra – it’s sort of a big weasel – and it does an enormous amount of harm to birds, and to the Tamarins. And when the Pumas came back they beat the hell out of the Tayras, and so they keep the Tayra numbers down and so the Tamarins and the birds come back. So there were some really good knock-on ecological changes.

The next project we did was one in Columbia – it’s in the western Andes of Columbia, another area with exceptional numbers of species. It was an area of about 1000 square kilometres – a hundred thousand hectares – and it was about to become isolated by deforestation coming up valleys and pinching it off from the forest elsewhere in the western Andes. So we’ve been reforesting that, and it’s a place of incredible biological diversity. A couple of years ago a couple of friends of mine, including one here in North Carolina, discovered a new mammal – a new species of mammal, called the Olinguito. And the photograph of this baby Olinguito being held by somebody that went viral – well that somebody was one of our grantees. So as soon as we heard of it we thought, “well, we’re in the right kind of habitat” so we went out and we found the Olinguito.

THE baby Olinguito; the new species of mammal first described in 2013.

THE baby Olinguito; the new species of mammal first described in 2013.

So here’s a newly discovered mammal – it’d basically been overlooked. It’s not desperately rare but, on the other hand, if it were common we would have known about it a long time ago. So that’s sort of the poster-child of that particular project. But again we picked that project because it’s got spectacular numbers of orchids, there’s a new species of Dracula Orchid – I just love Dracula Orchids. I mean you love the name but they get the name because they’re bizarre-looking and they’re black and purple. We found a few years ago a new species of Poison Dart Frog, a glorious red and black one, so this is a place where you can go and still discover new species.

So where have you got your sights set on next?

We’re just about to fund two projects, one of them is in Ecuador, the lowland coastal forest in Ecuador again is an area of exceptional biological diversity, and it’s been very badly beaten and deforested. We’re funding a great local Ecuadorian organisation. There are two existing reserves – one in forest at about 2000m, one in forest that’s near sea-level – and we’re helping them buy and restore the intervening forest. So again we can create a large area of forest. The main interests there are that there are a bunch of frogs that are found nowhere else, and I rather suspect it’s a place with a lot of interesting bird species as well. I went over this year for about a week and added a lot of bird species to their list that they had not seen, and this was not an area where I am an expert. It’s got some interesting mammals, it’s got ocelots and things like that.

And then the other project that we’re going to fund any day, is a project in Brazil. It’s in the San Paulo state, a bit further to the south of the first project we did on the Golden Lion Tamarinds, and it involves the Black Lion Tamarin – a different species. But again it’s a fantastic group of local people who are working with the local communities to involve them in the restoration and in caring for their local environment.

That’s absolutely brilliant. So in your experience as a conservationist, what’ve you found to be the biggest challenges to conservation? And what are the best ways – in your opinion – to overcome them?

Conservation is like politics – it’s all local. You’ve got to engage local people. You know, people destroy forests, they destroy big predators like Lions because they threaten them; the first thing you have to do is understand why people do that. And the second thing is you have to work with them to find them an alternative future that’s not so damaging. And you can’t do that sitting in an air-conditioned office, inside the Washington DC beltway. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to engage with local people. So the reason we founded SavingSpecies is we wanted to empower local conservation. We wanted to empower people who you’ve never heard of in Madagascar and Columbia and Ecuador and other parts of the world where local people were doing a really great job, they’re part of the local community, they send their kids to the local schools, they’re hiring people from the local villages.

There’s a book by an economist called Jeffrey Sax, it’s called ‘The End Of Poverty.’ He asks why has developmental aid failed in Africa? He says if you look at the amount of money that’s been given to Africa for development by the US, the EU, it all only ever amounts to a few dollars per African. And the second thing is that 90% of it is spent on consultants who never go anywhere near the problem. I’ve always thought that to be a very perceptive remark. One of the tragedies that I see, working in Africa, is I often go to villages where I see small children who are probably not going to live more than a few days because they’ve got malaria. Now, what does it cost to stop malaria? It costs a couple of dollars for a bed-net. A million children a year should not die of malaria. But it’s not the amount of money, it’s the difficulty of getting that aid – those bed-nets – to the places that matter. Some of that is that you’ve actually got to go there, you’ve got to turn up and get into those villages. Some organisations do that well and some organisations never get their feet wet. It’s exactly the same with conservation.

That makes an awful lot of sense. So, talking politics and conservation, and how they may or may-not get on; in a few weeks there’s COP 21. A lot of noise is being made about that. What would you really like to see come out of it? What do you think people need?

Obviously the meeting in Copenhagen a few years back was an unmitigated disaster. I do think there’s a chance for some very serious commitments being made in Paris, and that is the sort of thing where it’s important that the politicians make those commitments. How we implement those commitments is clearly going to involve some very large-scale changes. I mean, the United States spends a staggering amount of our tax money on the military. The reason we Americans went to war in Iraq — with your nice Mr Blair— was not because their principle export was broccoli. We went because we wanted the oil. Well, the moment we start getting serious about developing alternative sources, the moment we start saying ‘No we really don’t want to invest in these oil companies’. The moment we get serious about this and the sooner we start moving towards a more sustainable economy the better. I think there could be things that come out of the COP that might move things in those directions.

What I see in China is certainly very aggressively developing wind energy and solar energy. There are some technical solutions. The adoption of solar energy in the US is incredibly poor, and that’s entirely a political solution. The energy companies are fighting alternatives as viciously as they can. Recent disclosures that companies like Exxon have known about global warming for a long time are similarly helping to generate a sense of disgust for these companies for the way they manipulated the political system. And that is something where good political leadership could make a difference.

That’s what we’re all hoping for. And then, what about on the smaller scale- the rest of us ‘normal’ people. What do you think is the best thing that we can do to save the world? Apart from flying less, or giving to SavingSpecies more-

[laughs] Just give to SavingSpecies more!

The reason I’ve been pushing this Saving Species model is to empower people. Far too much of the news is unbelievably depressing. You know, you look at Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, he says ‘species are going extinct 1000 times faster than they should’, you may wonder where did he get that from. He got it from me. There’s a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio called the 11th Hour, I was in that – again, unrelentingly depressing. But there are a lot of things that we can do. And I think it’s that sense that there are things we can do as individuals. We can live more lightly on the landscape, we can eat sustainably harvested fish, we can eat less meat – I’m not vegetarian, but I’m thoughtful about what I eat. I’m careful how many miles I drive each year, I offset my carbon. There are a lot of things we can do as individuals. And when it comes to conservation, there are many good things going on, and we can support that. We can support them with our efforts. We can support them with what is, in fact, a very modest amount of money. I’m sitting outside the university centre here at Duke, looking at students who I am certain probably spend more in Starbucks in a month than they would need to offset their carbon for an entire year.

It seems so breathtakingly small – the amount of effort that we do really need to put in. I think there’s definitely hope there. Once we can get the word out and people change their behaviours just an amazingly little bit.
So, just as a final thing, talk me through quite how Saving Species works. Cos I made some assumptions before that were kind of wrong, so talk me through quite how carbon sequestration works.

So, if you imagine a hectare of land that’s been deforested in a warm, moist country – in Columbia or Brazil or Sierra Leone or the Western Ghats of India, some place where there’s no frosts and it rains on and off for most of the year. You can work out how fast forest grows in a place like that. And you can work out even easier how much forest will be there, because you can go to a nearby patch of forest and look at the trees. You can do this with high-school students. I remember with Bemrose School in Derby, being taught that the volume of a cylinder is πr­2l, so for a tree you measure it’s length and you work out how much wood is in it. From that you can work out it’s weight and how much carbon it contains. Well, those kind of calculations, straightforward as they are, tell you that a hectare of growing forest – forest that’s coming back over an area that used to be a cattle pasture — will soak up somewhere between 5 and 10 tons of carbon each year for about 30 or 40 years. Let’s say an average of 7 tons of carbon per year.

So it’s quite a constant rate then?

In the early days, it keeps on sequestering after that but once it gets to be mature it slows down a bit.

So it’s actually better to have juvenile, growing forest than to have a mature forest?

Well, yeah but you still want to keep the mature forest.

Of course!

But in terms of soaking up the carbon, the first 30, 40 years is going to do most of the work for you. Even in cold, damp places like Britain, the forest comes back. There are places that I knew when I was a kid, hiking around north Derbyshire, around the reservoirs up there that were planted in forest. Those trees 50 years later are now really quite magnificent. They haven’t grown quite as fast as 7 tons of carbon per year but they’ve still sequestered a fair bit of carbon.

So let’s take that 7 tons per hectare per year average. If you wanted to sequester your carbon, for 30 years, you would need to buy 1 hectare of land in the tropics. That will keep you going for the next 30 years. 7 tons this year, the next, the year after that.

You can ask what is the average American’s carbon emissions – we are much more profligate than the average Brit – the average American, as it happens, puts out about 7 tons of carbon a year.

That’s mathematically, wonderfully convenient!

All the US emissions, including houses and industry and cars, planes – total US emissions, works out at about 7 tons per person per year. So what this means is, if I buy a hectare of land, and trees come back onto it, that will keep me going for another 30 years. And of course I probably won’t be around in 30 years time so I’m helping offset some of my kid’s emissions as well. And that’s about what it amounts to.

And so the question is how much does it cost for us to buy a piece of land in Columbia or Ecuador. It’s often less than $1000 a hectare. Sometimes it’s more, and sometimes it costs extra money to do the reforestation, sometimes not. But a very rough estimate, is that you buy up a hectare — two acres — of tropical land and reforest it, and you’ll offset your carbon for 30 years.

Wow. So the land that you buy with Saving Species has a lease of about 30 years?

Well we hope – in fact we require that people keep the forest as a permanently protected area. And a lot of that comes from how we work with the local groups. The project in Brazil, for example, we raised the money, transferred the money to a local conservation organisation, they bought the land, and within 2 or 3 days the land was transferred to the Brazilian Park Service who manage it all. In Columbia, there is a very well-established network of private nature reserves, so that particular area is managed by a registered charity which is also a registered non-profit within the United States called Fundación COLIBRI – it manages that land. The land in Ecuador is being managed by a non-profit organisation there. So we fund these organisations. We pick organisations that have been around for a decade or more, they’re well established, they have a model for remaining on the land and continuing to engage people. So we do our due diligence, and that’s how we make our projects work.

That’s fantastic. It really is very simple as well – it’s a very elegant solution. You must be immensely proud of it.

I am., I’ve had a very successful career as a scientist, but you know what, Science for me has always been a matter of making a difference. And this is making a difference. And it’s making a difference using science to direct what we do so it’s most effective.”

 


I am immensely grateful to Stuart for getting in touch to correct my assumptions first of all, and then for taking the time to talk to me. I’m now even more amazed by the incredible work that he & SavingSpecies are doing, and I can’t implore you enough to offset your carbon with them & support more of this kind of work. You could even follow the lead of Louie Psihoyos, and give them a figure closer to what your gut tells you this should cost, rather than the 2 caramel-macciato’s-worth that it’ll actually set you back.

The Slightly Terrifying Cost Of Flying To Mallorca…

SCIHARD


[NOTE: This post has since been proven error-laden and has been gratefully retracted. The calculations are based on mis-assumptions and the carbon-offsetting offered by SavingSpecies is actually as good as it sounds. Please click here for more information.]


Earlier this year I attended a very enjoyable, 2-week-long field-course in sunny Mallorca – I know, it’s a hard life as a scientist. But this was actually quite hard for me to commit to, as it involved flying, which is something that I try to avoid for the same reasons that I try to be vegetarian. Don’t misunderstand me, I love that air-travel can take us to awesome tropical places as much as I love a good steak – or bacon – but the unfortunate truth of it is that we can’t do either of those things too much if we want to hang on to this Earth.

Happily I was able to satisfy my enviro-needs when I was turned on to Saving Species – a group who’s working with great impact, largely in South America, and offer carbon-offsetting services. Essentially, you buy land for them to reclaim as rainforest and, through the magic of carbon-sequestration into the trees that grow there, the emissions from your budget flight or year’s-worth of steak is absorbed & neutralised. Through this work they’ve done really great things, including establishing huge areas of rainforest & saving 2 species of primate (and many other species under that umbrella) from extinction!

So I was delighted when I heard about this, and eagerly paid my whole £1.37 to offset the 0.53tons of carbon that my presence on the flights would incur.
£1.37!!!!!!!! that’s incredible! It is actually brilliant, and the calculator on there will help you work out what all your emissions are & how much it will be to offset them, working on the price of $4 per ton. Apparently the standard total emissions per year for an adult american is 7tons, so you’re probably on less than $28 to offset your entire year’s worth of activity & emissions. Awesome!

Then, the other week, I was lying awake in the black of night thinking to myself, “it’s brilliant what Saving Species are doing, and they pride themselves on being cheeper than anyone other offsetting schemes. How do they do it?” Well the land that you help them buy sequesters carbon at a rate that continues for ~30 years… so it actually takes 30 years to offset your carbon. “hmm…” I thought. 30 years is quite a while, in which time I’ll be doing a load more polluting and my carbon will keep having effect in that time, and long after. What if I actually wanted my flight to be immediately carbon-neutral? What if I wanted those emissions sequestered in real-time? How much land would I need to sequester those 0.53tons of Carbon?
Well, like a scientist, I did some calculations and, like a good student, I’ll show my working:


30 years sequestration = 30 x 365 days (+8.5 for leap-years) = 336,150 days.

24h/2h40mins flight time = 9 flights a day

336,150 x 9 = 3,025,350 equivalent flights to Mallorca in 30 years.

3,025,350 x £1.37 = how much it would cost to sequester that 0.53tons in real-time…

= £4,144,729.5


. . .

Four. Million. Pounds?! That’s how much land we’d have to cover with mid-aged rainforest to soak up the CO2 released by one little person on one little flight to Mallorca as it was released? Enough so that we wouldn’t have to worry about those emissions exacerbating the greenhouse effect, we wouldn’t have to worry about it acidifying & warming the rising oceans over the next few decades?
Shit, I don’t think I can afford that.

So that may be a rough calculation, but even if you take out minimal labour costs I hope you can still agree it’s an astronomical amount of land. And the only thing I can actually think of doing about this, at least while I wait for my jaw to un-drop, which seems to be happening rather slowly, is… “I think maybe I’ll not fly for a while. Slash ever, until I can afford my own rainforest.”

And what should you do? Reconsider your holiday destinations, but I know you won’t want to do that drastically so what I emplore you to do more than anything is give to Saving Species. It may take 30 years to offset your carbon, but you’ll still do it. Or if you want to feel extra-good, just pay twice as much and see the results in 15 years – such is the wonder of maths. Please please, do what you can to save the world. Don’t just stop doing things. Start doing more great things.

And if you’ve really enjoyed the calculations in this post, please see papers by  Constanza et al and Macarthy et al for some seriously mind-blowing figures.


[NOTE: This post has since been proven error-laden and has been gratefully retracted. The calculations are based on mis-assumptions and the carbon-offsetting offered by SavingSpecies is actually as good as it sounds. Please click here for more information.]


Planting Flamingo Land

 

I’ve just discovered one of the best things ever – TREE PLANTING! Aside from the obvious environmental and economical benefits, planting trees is fantastically rewarding and fun!

The other week I went over to Flamingo Land – probably the greatest Flamingo-based amusement park in the land – in North Yorkshire, to help them plant trees around the periphery of some of their to-be-expanded land. Here I am proudly with my first tree:

Me & My First Tree

Me & My First Tree

The weekend was organised by some wonderfully enthusiastic characters, including Dr Andy Marshall of the University of York, to whom I’m very grateful for getting me involved. As a team we made our way down the field planting little tree after little tree,

our trees

on a beautifully sunny winter’s day. It’s cool that these trees will grow and make new woodlands and all that in the future, but there was something extra-nice just about taking a little Cherry Tree, or Birch, or Holly, Ash, Wild Rose or fuzzy little Scot’s Pine, digging it a home and tucking it in, to give it the best start you possibly can. I know you shouldn’t have favourites, but I did have a particular fondness for the little oak trees.

The Little Oak

This was the 4th year of Flamingo Land tree planting, & every year – in just a weekend – their volunteers have planted 2000 trees! Some of which will be moved to other areas of the park as they grow, and some of which will stay for potentially ages.

I’d like to say a huge Thank You to everyone involved, it’s a great thing you’re doing, and I never imagined something so seemingly simple could be so satisfying.

As the sun set, we all looked back along our line of little trees and were right chuffed with what we’d done 🙂

A Good Day's Work :)

A Good Day’s Work

 

 

 

The Mo Show 2014

 

I’ve had deadlines – more on them later. For now, something far more important: MOVEMBER has happened, & with it was held The Mo Show of 2014!

I was first awakened to Movember a year after my Dad suffered through prostate cancer – which thankfully was caught early enough & removed. I can’t do his story justice, so please hear it from the man himself in this short, inspirational video: (Ok, so I may be a little biased, but objectively I still think it’s inspirational, & I’ve seen it inspire plenty of people before)

The Mo Show was born in St Andrews in 2012, which I put together with my band of the time Retrophobes. That one was a smash hit, creating the biggest student live music show St Andrews had ever seen – so you can see why I was keen to recreate it now I’m in York.

Me, looking a bit weird, performing the opening to The Mo Show. Photo credit: John Seddon.

Me, looking a bit weird, performing the opening to The Mo Show. Photo credit: John Seddon.

The Mo Show of 2014, York University, pulled in 9 fantastic acts from the York student body; the melodic and looping Sam Price, the delta-blues strumming Leo Hancill, the fantastic Night In July, the angry-walrus-esq Hypnotic Eye, the gorgeous & crowd-pleasing Ben Jancso, the tight awesomeness of Luxo Jr., and the bootie-shakin’ jazz/funk of Dysfunktion, complemented even further by the beautiful ambience provided by Marco Basaglia and the simply awe-ing magic of David Wu, and tied together by a newly-formed band I’m immensely proud to be a part of, The Pride Of Lake Street.

Overall it was a fantastic night, and I want to extend HUGE thanks to everyone involved, & to the uncountable audience for making it such a great night, and also to everyone who donated to this deeply good cause.

The Mo Show is about fighting cancer; that thing is a serious bastard, but as my Dad and so many others have shown we can beat it. And that’s damn important. During his fight, my Dad found immense strength from the words of Kalidassa who, in the 12th century, wrote this;

Look to this day, for it is life

the very life of life.

In it’s brief course lie the verities and realities of our existence;

the bliss of growth,

the glory of action,

and the splendour of beauty.

For yesterday is but a dream,

and tomorrow is only a vision,

but today, well lived,

makes all our yesterdays Dreams of Happiness,

and all our tomorrows Visions of Hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.

and at The Mo Show that was how I felt, and what I wished for everyone else there; because The Mo Show is not about being cowed by the struggle of cancer. The Mo Show is celebrating doing something about cancer, and damn did we celebrate well. The Mo Show was a day well lived.

The Mo Show of St Andrews, 2012

The Mo Show of York, 2014.

The Mo Shows of St Andrews, 2012, and York, 2014.

Thanks again to everyone involved:

Marco Basaglia

Marco Basaglia

Sam Price

Sam Price

Leo Hancill

Leo Hancill

Night In July

Night In July

Hypnotic Eye

Hypnotic Eye

Benjamin Jancso

Benjamin T Jansco

Juxo Jr.

Juxo Jr.

Dysfunktion

Dysfunktion

& hosted by The Pride Of Lake Street.

& hosted by The Pride Of Lake Street.