The Simple Joy of Long-Tailed Tits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Film I’m Making…

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Alternative Xmas’ in the Calder Valley this July.

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

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#AccidentalHeroPose with this star of the film…

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

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Integrating with nature is looking better and better…

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Scientist. Star.

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

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

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

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“Old Sphagnum” Ale. Delicious!

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

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Ben patiently listening to my rambling direction…

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

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

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Susie’s Frog.

High Water Common Ground Premieres October 2016.

A Phone That Redefines “Smart”: INTERVIEW with FairPhone

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

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

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

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

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

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The FairPhone is as transparent and integrous as they come.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Now if I could only catch that Snorlax

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 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 🙂

We Marched Through London & I Met Bill Oddie

Humanity is at a pivotal point in our history. The Earth, including all known life in the universe, is at a similarly pivotal point as a result. Attention-hungry as all the petty human conflicts right now may be, I’m actually talking about climate change and the COP 21 conference of world-leaders that’s going on right now. That’s a big deal, and last Sunday as many as 70,000 people took to the streets of London to show quite how big a deal we think it is.

One of the things I loved most about the London Global Climate March was the unity that came in the throngs of slightly rain-dampened people – all 70,000 of them in London, and all 785,000 around the world. All there for a common cause, and a common good. All there to show that they’re willing to stand up to protect our world, and show our leaders that we’re willing to support an encourage them in making this world a better place.

And that nice element of ‘support’ is remarkable, as there was also a very strong trend among the speakers & public that the last twenty COP conferences have been… somewhat unsatisfactory. We were reminded at the finish line by three inspirational young girls from Children Against Global Warming that so far, in supposedly getting together to tackle the biggest threat ever faced by mankind, the world’s leaders have accomplished “NOTHING”. So in short – these people who give a shit about the future of the planet, they’re nice, forgiving people.

But a huge highlight of the march for me was meeting the great Bill Oddie. Apart from being an all-round wildlife-lover & enthusiast, Bill is probably best-known for bi-annually enthralling the British public with our own wonderful wildlife via Spring Watch and Autumn Watch. I can also report that he’s one of the most lovely people there’s ever been.

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We ended up chatting for a good half-an-hour about what a great event this was, and his years of both entertaining and inspiring the British public. Throughout his career Bill’s become established as somewhat of an expert on wildlife, and so it was great to be standing with him as we addressed our world leaders. An over-riding theme of the day that developed was the notion that, for quite some time now, our leaders have taken the environment somewhat for granted, and failed to represent the voices of the masses and the real experts.

“The principle to me,” Bill told me, “that really really matters, is that the politicians and the people who make the policies – in cahoots with big businesses etc. etc. – have got to start accepting that they don’t necessarily know best.”

Furthermore, he described the long-standing trend in environmental policy from our government in this country to be filled with “Great Ignorance and Arrogance”.

The attitude of the march was not one of fear, but of faith. Though at the same time, I think everyone there would have called themselves a realist as we all appreciated that the world is in danger, and things could still go very very wrong. We were there to support our world leaders, but couldn’t go without remembering that they have let us down so far… so it was with a modicum of fear in our hearts we were asking them not to do that again.

Bill was warily optimistic of the outcome of this COP21, stating “The tragic thing, if you can imagine all of these politicians getting together over the net couple of days…  if they can look at marches like this, gatherings like this, protests like this… if they can dismiss those, then we really are in big trouble.”

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Could they dismiss this?

But almost worryingly, this march has received very little by way of media coverage – though that’s even from The Guardian, and they organised the event! And sadly that’s despite a remarkably good speech from Jeremy Corbyn, and some wonderful words from Francesca Martinez – this event transcended your standard shouty activism.

Unfortunately most of the coverage of the Global March was focussed around the failed Paris March, at which those who gathered were forcibly removed/arrested – due to the recent, terror-induced ban on demonstrations in the city. Nicely that event has now been replaced by a vigil of shoes to commemorate the lost march, but we’re still waiting to see if the waves of change that were hoped from this event will amount to any more than ripples of disappointment.

Whether you were there at a Global March or not, you have not spent your chance to get involved with the COP21 conference & change the future of the planet. You can still put into action, in your own life, the changes that are being called for – to divest from fossil fuels, support renewables, eat less meat & generally practise compassion and consideration. Directly show your support by Tweeting your leader. And me, I’m off on my own, One Man Climate March.

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.

INTERVIEW with Dr Tim Coles of Operation Wallacea

My biggest personal developments in conservation have come from my time working with Operation Wallacea, which began in Mexico in the summer of 2012. I first met Dr Tim Coles, the founder of Opwall when I joined the video team at HQ at the end of the research season, and happily I must have managed to impress him with a short film I called a ‘trailer’ for their new site in Mexico. Tim is unquestionably experienced in the real-world application of big conservation dreams – in fact one of my favourite things about him is his relentless pursuit of world-changing ambitions that – he claims – don’t even approach the guise of ‘work’ because he enjoys them so much. His sophisticated Oxfordian approach to this not-work has made him & all of his endeavours remarkably successful, bolstered by an environmental philanthropy at heart. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the OBE that Tim received a mere day or two after we first met.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

My most recent adventures with Opwall took me to the heart of Madagascar.

Most recently I joined Tim for one of his talks as he travels the country being an ambassador for his brand of conservation science, and we got a few minutes before the students arrived to catch-up in this semi-formal interview:


 

OK so the first thing I’d really like to know – and somehow I don’t think I’ve asked you before – is, how did you start Opwall – where did it come from?

Well it started with a grant from HSBC in Singapore, and they wanted a project that related to wildlife, and I took them a concept of using volunteers to survey remote areas. They funded a feasibility study and we looked at the Wallacea region; that was an obvious place to look as it has so many endemic species and very very few scientists have been there, so effectively if things were going to get lost, that was probably the place they were going to get lost in. So, we came back, wrote the report up – it was fantastically optimistic – and they actually said “Go and do it!” So we then had to learn how to actually bring students, and how to get these projects to work in the field.

So did they approach you, or was it your idea looking for somewhere to go?

It was my idea looking for somewhere to go.

Ah, so where did the idea come from?

Well it’s basically just a look around in Britain – we’ve got more information about our wildlife than anywhere else in the world. And the reason for that is not because we have more scientists, it’s because we have this army of volunteers that go out weekend after weekend, doing everything from click beetles to wintering birds, and producing detailed atlases. And it was really trying to use some of that effort and apply it to the tropics, where they didn’t have that sort of man-power available, to see if we could make a difference.

That makes an awful lot of sense. Did you have a lot of experience working with volunteers before you went into that?

Absolutely not, and that was the problem. Because I could see how we could get the science working well, and how we could get academics out to build projects, and get students to learn from them and so forth, but what we didn’t know was how to attract students. So that took some learning. I thought you’d just put an advert in the paper and lots of people would turn up, but they don’t. It has to be much more active than that.

Yeah it can be a tricky thing to do to appeal to students. So how far has it come? I mean, it’s come an awfully long way, but what are the greatest things that you feel that you’ve achieved with Operation Wallacea in the 18 years that it’s been running now?

Well, firstly making it fairly stable. We had 3000 students out last year, we’re now operating this year in 14 different countries, we’re funding 200 academics, we’ve co-funded 63 PhD students already, it’s clearly working. And the science outputs – 232 papers just from the last few years have come out of this program, including a couple in Nature, and some others in high-profile academic journals. They even used Opwall data at the COP20 meeting in Lima last year – when the Peruvians were asked to produce a dataset that demonstrated the effect of climate change, they used Opwall data. So the science bit’s working very well, and the conservation outputs are beginning to come as well. Remember the whole purpose of this is not just to produce papers for scientists, or a good time for the students in the field, the purpose behind it is to gather data in a form that can then be used in conservation interventions. So we’ve had some significant funding now from the world bank, and the Darwin Initiative and GEF and others that get projects going, and we have some really big projects just in the pipeline now that are just about to come to fruition.

Wonderful. Does that include the Carrageenan farming in Inodnesia? That’s one of the most impressive stories about Opwall that I’ve ever heard you tell, it’s a great, great achievement.
[NOTE: Carrageenan is a very basic component of almost every mass-produced product in the world. Go look at anything in your cupboard – it’s very likely got Carrageenan in it.]

We’re very nearly there now. The problem is, at the moment they’re growing seaweed on ropes around the edge of the island where we’re working. At the moment they get a terrible price for it from the middleman and essentially all they’re doing is growing it, drying it and then shipping it out to the Phillippenes to have the carrageenan extracted. We met a guy who is fantastic at developing plants and processes, he came down and developed a technique for extracting the carrageenan on-site using acids and alkalis. The advantage of that technique is that, firstly, he did it on-site, so then everybody got factory-gate instead of farm-gate prices, but also because the end result of it is an effluent which is NPK fertiliser, and that’s what they’re short of on the island. So he had a process that not only added the value of the process on-site but provided the fertiliser they needed for the island. We proved this at the lab-scale, the hold-up has been getting it proved at the pilot-plant stage, and that’s now happening. It’s currently being built in Sumartra, at a university there. They have funding for 11 full-scale plants, assuming that works, and that’s all going through a group in Indonesia that’s ensuring that anyone who’s granted a licence has to link it to protection of the reefs. Because remember this whole business started because we needed a method of being able to fund the buy-out of fishing licences on a reef to try and reduce fishing effort. So what we don’t want to do is just create a process that’s going to massively help seaweed farmers – that’s fantastic, but the whole purpose is to protect the reefs. And this provides the financial clout than enables you to buy-out the fishing effort.

That’s the phenomenally cool part of it – that everything wins from it. Do you have any other such examples of really tangible conservation victories?

Yes, I think using all the information that we have at these sites and putting it together for some of these carbon-trading schemes. So, for example, in Honduras we’ve just packaged all the information together on the biodiversity, on the carbon-value of the forests, and on the societal impacts. Once that’s verified – that’s the process we’re currently going through – that can then be sold on the open market and it’s worth $3.5 Million per year, for 20 years, so that’s $70Million. That money’s going in to protect the forest, but also primarily to create income for local communities, linked to them protecting their forest.

And that couldn’t happen without students doing the work – impossible.

It’s a brilliant way of doing it; at the core of all this is that we can’t really protect Nature and biodiversity without protecting the people that live alongside it. That’s one of the most fascinating elements of conservation in my opinion, it’s the way to get the most people involved and on it’s side.
That brings me on to something I really want to ask you, and that’s what do you think is the greatest obstacle, the greatest challenge for conservation globally, in general?

Wow, that’s a tricky one isn’t it. Well, I think it’s people not realising this connection between local people needing a financial connection, needing a financial benefit from protecting their forests or their reefs or their species – they’re often very proud of them, but if you can’t feed your family then you’re going to go hunting or you’re going to go fishing, or you’re going to cut down the forest or whatever. And so, I think one of our big successes was in Indonesia, where we tried village contracts. Essentially the whole village agreed there would be no logging, no hunting, no change to the forest boundaries, and in exchange they got investment in businesses. So if they continue protecting the forest, they continue getting the investment; if they stopped doing that, the investment stopped. So there was a very clear connection. Now, we started that in Indonesia as a World Bank project, and it’s now been finished for 7 years, and that forest is still 0% cleared. 7 years on, there’s no reason why they can’t go in there, but there’s a financial incentive for them to not do it.

That’s wonderful. Are you looking at implementing a similar kind of thing elsewhere in the world?

Well that’s essentially what we’re trying to do in the rest of the forests in south-east Sulawesi. We’ve got an application in for that, and of course the Honduras project works exactly the same. People need a financial benefit. If they don’t have that financial benefit you can’t expect them to protect the forest. We didn’t did we – look at what happened in Britain and America – we didn’t do it.

Do you think there’s still a great driving for people in Britain to conserve the natural world or have we gone too far into being disconnected from it?

No I think there’s a massive drive here for people to protect their environment and to want to help on stuff like this. It’s just getting the message out and knowing that it is possible to go out there and do this sort of thing, and make a difference.

Brilliant. Something that we’re coming up to in a couple of weeks is COP21. What would you most like to see come out of that? What does the world need most of all to come out of people getting together and deciding how we’re going to save the planet?

Well, pretty well what’ve I’ve said before really. I’d like them to see this relationship between communities in poor, rural areas having a financial benefit from protecting their biodiversity.

How about in first-world applications, in terms of divesting from fossil-fuels and making people see that that is actually a very tangible, a very financially-beneficial way to go. How easy is it to get people to change their ways if you give them a financial alternative? Is there a lot of habit?

Well quite often they would actually like to protect their own forests, they’re proud of them, it’s just that they don’t have the financial incentives or even means to do that. So often you’re pushing at an open door. When we did this thing with the Indonesian villages, the biggest problem wasn’t getting them to accept it, the biggest problem was when I’d go to a village and they’d say “Fantastic, we’ll do that. We’ll stop all of our people logging – and we can stop the guys from the next village cos they’re causing havoc!” And we’d say “No no, please don’t do that” otherwise they’d start a war between villages. We were pushing at an open door, they wanted it, things were very clear for it. And I think you’re going to find that in a lot of places.

 


So there you go – there is hope. I’m very grateful to Tim for this interview, and for giving me such a great start in the world of conservation; something that I hope we will be able to continue for years to come. If you’d like to know more about what Opwall do, or how you can become one of those students that help them make such a difference, visit www.opwall.com.

Interview: Gareth Broadbent & Buy The World A Hope

I love all ambition to save the world – ’tis the most admirable of pursuits. And really, the more balls-y, the better, as nice, altruistic, enviro-conservation-y efforts can often be quickly shouted-down by the cojones of capitalism. We need balls to save the world.

So I was excited when a friend showed me the Buy The World A Hope campaign. In case you haven’t heard of it, here it is in a nicely-animated nutshell:

Get the giant that is Coca-Cola to drop advertising for a year & spend that $3BILLION on saving the rainforest instead? Yeah, I’ve told a number of people about this and been met with substantial pessimism, and I know the creators have too. There are some technicalities to it, but they wanna save the freakin’ world – nobody said that’d be easy –  & any ambition of that kind is worthy. So I tracked down the man behind this campaign, Gareth Broadbent, for a quick chat:


 

First of all, what’s your story? (Who are you?) How have you become so passionate a world-saver?

We are a group of creatives who come together to make projects that we believe could help our world in its hour of need. We need fast, efficient solutions to these, the ultimate creative briefs. We set up a non-profit foundation based in Amsterdam to put our ideas out there, but we also have team members in the UK, Paris and New York. The name we’ve given this collaboration is, Good Things. For this project we also worked with London animation team, Wizard Fingers

Our inspiration comes from the critical state of the environment right now. As the Pope put it bluntly in his latest ‘controversial’ encyclical, ’Our earth, our only home is starting to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.’ It could be argued that corporations and capitalistic thinking have put our whole planet in jeopardy. So the logical question is, what can they do to put it right? Our aim is to produce an idea that can show how we can work with capitalism to help the world. To show clearly that there are ideas that can benefit both. 

Why did we do it? Because there’s no motivation greater than the end of civilization.

So tell me the story – how did you come up with Buy The World A Hope?

The idea came about when I was working as part of the Diesel Creative Team in Italy. I was blown away by how much money is spent annually on media. 450 billion dollars was spent in total in 2013 globally by all brands – what could a fraction of that money achieve if spent differently? The most obvious opportunities for doing good, lie in the carry over brands, as they are simply selling the same product year-on-year. 

All this got me thinking, what if the biggest advertiser in the world quit advertising to help save the world. It seemed logical to repurpose the biggest advert in history and turn, ‘Buy The World a Coke into ‘Buy The World a Hope’.523463782_640

We are living in a world dominated by corporations. The 2003 film ‘The Corporationdepicts them as ‘pathologically pursuing only profit and power’ to appease their investors. It could be (easily) argued that corporations and capitalistic thinking have put our whole planet in jeopardy. So what can they do to put it right? 

Our aim was to produce ideas that could work with capitalism to help the world. To show clearly that there are ways for corporations to turn from the dark side to the light, and validate these alternatives with ideas that potentially earn more precious cash in doing so.

What do Coca-Cola think of this endeavour?

Our plan is to slowly build the campaign story and take the idea publicly to them when we have a sizable number of signatures.

We hope Coke will love it: this idea is founded on the same premise that Coca-Cola have always based their communications on, but with a few logical twists. Coke has always been about ‘bringing the world together and creating happiness’. The world has never needed to come together more than it does right now in the face of impending climate disasters. it’s a perfect opportunity for the Coca-Cola brand to re-ignite its old magic and connect again. After all, there can be no ‘happiness’ without hope.

The idea talks directly to their brand DNA and their 2020 vision to ‘refresh the world’, ‘inspire moments of optimism and happiness’ and ‘create value and make difference’. As a confident brand, they are in a leadership position and so have the opportunity to take the higher ground, break the mould and do things differently. In addition, Coca-Cola’s CEO, Muhtar Kent was famously quoted in 2009, with regards to any major business decision from now on, ‘If it’s not good for both business and planet, it won’t get traction’.

When did the movement go live and are you happy with the level of interest that’s been shown so far? Are there any major names backing it?

We went live about a month ago and so far it’s been featured on the front page of Campaign magazine, we’ve been retweeted by advertising legend, Alex Bogusky, Adbusters and supported by WWF UK and the inventor of the D&AD White Pencil and featured on the Cannes ID media website. The head of curation at Vimeo Staff Picks commented that she thought it is ‘Genius’, but we need more. A writer for The Huffington Post is covering the project this week as well as the Ethical Consumer magazine, though many publishers have responded to us saying that they don’t want to support a trend of companies switching their advertising budgets away to good causes, because advertising is a big portion of their revenue streams. We’re not suggesting that Coke quit advertising forever – it is simply a reallocation of budget for just 1 year. There will always be advertisers needing to advertise, but when the rainforest is gone, it’s gone.

(take your time thinking about this one) What does the world need now, most of all?

Al Gore for president. I think that could be the silver bullet solution which would give us a hope of reaching the plethora of mission critical goals that the world now needs to race to achieve.

People can sign your petition to get behind Buy The World A Hope, but what else would you recommend to people? How can we incorporate saving the world into our everyday lives?

Active empathy is the key. Not thinking about yourself all the time. Thinking about your effect instead. Thinking about the planet and consequences of your actions. With this mindset, everything else will become obvious. It’s obvious to recycle everything. It’s obvious to steer clear of plastic products. To read food labels. To eat organic. To plant bee loving plants. It’s all obvious, for example:

From The Guardian, via Gareth.

From The Guardian, via Gareth.

But if you really struggle to care about your actions enough to change them, you need to watch this https://vimeo.com/105412070 .


So there you go folks, just a few deeply impassioned people, their humble idea, and it’s really taking off! What I love most is Gareth’s motives in ‘Active empathy‘ – that’s something we could all do with, and I promise you it feels awesome. Remember that you have an impact, and make the impact awesome.

And if you’re on board with this, and wanna see what kind of awesome world we could make, add your name to this open letter to Coca-Cola’s CEO Muhtar Kent, and let’s Buy The World A Hope:

http://www.buytheworldahope.org

http://www.letsdogoodthings.org