Let’s Talk About Saving The World

SAVIGN THE WORLD

Artwork by Laurie Avon.

Climate change is the biggest threat to existence we’ve ever faced – the added irony being that we’ve brought it upon ourselves, yet don’t seem to care enough do anything about it. This is the eternal headache for environmentalists, and while the planet is speeding towards severe climatic change, there is still discussion between scientists about how bleak a scenario we should present. Some believe that a level-headed approach that preserves absolute academic integrity is the way forward, laying out data as if facts alone will be enough to inspire change. Others’ hearts pound and guts twist every time the weather is a bit unusual, and feel that we just need to scare people into action. These approaches don’t work. We’re still failing to connect with the people we hope – and need – to.

In order to align yourself with an audience and inspire change, you have to relate to, and with, their values. However, many of the core values held by environmentalists are intrinsically at odds with many of those held by the rest of the world. Environmentalists push for a scaling-back of industry, pollution and consumption, advocating and enacting sacrifices at individual and societal levels for the sake of the bigger picture, while the global economy is driven for a quick buck. This can be deeply annoying – at times even offensive – to those on both sides. How can we bridge such divides to bring about change?

So often, science communicators fail to inspire change because we fail to see that a transfer of knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to a transfer of values – but if we want people to feel passionately about the planet, the most important and profound impact will come from precisely this transfer. The conveyance of knowledge – and I know this grates with some scientists – is actually far less important.

Occasionally, conservation scientists will try to ‘value’ nature – that is, to contextualise the environment through qualities we already feel are important. Biodiversity Hotspots are catalogues of severely threatened ecological zones that have a high density of biodiversity. Biodiversity Hotspots are a ‘realistic’ approach to spending the limited pot of money made available for conservation: a way of delivering the most ‘bang for buck’ to investors. It’s a neat way of working with the system – but it’s not changing it for the better.

The criteria that designates Biodiversity Hotspots are ‘number of species’ and ‘percentage [of] habitat lost’. Both must score highly for a region to be classed as a ‘Hotspot’. This appeals to an inherent cultural phenomenon: scarcity drives demand. There is a clear reward to saving the last polar bear, or the last fragment of rainforest, or the most endemic-rich mountain range. By doing so, we can feel we’ve achieved something extraordinary. I get that.

We crave scarcity. Collectively, we go daft for limited-editions, fixed-term bargains and one-of-a-kinds. We prize and reward the fastest, strongest, smallest, etc. We are suckers for superlatives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: when I am telling an audience a story of climate change, superlatives are the difference between a story and a great story. They’re the difference between some polar bears and the last polar bears. The object may not change, but how we feel about it does.

When the appeal of superlatives drive conservation, however, something underpinning the approach worries me. No matter how remarkable an ecosystem is, no matter how biodiverse and pristine, or how useful a service it provides humanity – no Biodiversity Hotspot got its title before 70 % of the original habitat had been lost. Regions must be effectively doomed to qualify.

Could we reward scarcity so much that we actually wait for – or even cause – a situation to get worse before we are moved to make it better? Does a species have to be at the edge of extinction before we take notice? And if that’s how our audience currently engages with climate change, should we resign ourselves to it, pursue extreme climate scenarios for the sake of dramatic action?

Our systems of belief and our experience of the world is shaped by the words we use to define it. I hate the term ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’ because it’s unemotive and over-complicated. Defining it is an exercise in cliché, but if you’re going to talk about it to an audience, as I do, you’re going to have to. Explaining biodiversity should not simply elucidate the word, but provide the frame through which we conduct our work, our thought, and ourselves. Imagine how differently we might view the world if we understood biodiversity as:

• All the different plants and animals.

• Number of species.

• Genetic variation.

• What makes life worth living.

• What makes living possible.

How might our values and our priorities change if our definition was taken from different places in that list? All of the above are true for me, and while I will adjust the definition I use depending on my audience, I will never give an academic definition of ‘biodiversity’ without an equally emotive description. I would rather refer to anything to do with climate change as ‘Saving The World’.

Some have corrected me on this point, reasoning that we can only ‘save the world as we know it’. If you tell someone that it’s only the fate of the word as we know it that is at stake, somewhere in the back of their mind will be a little voice saying: ‘Well, change isn’t all bad… It’d be nice if it was a bit warmer…’ All you’ve given them is a get-out clause.

‘Saving The World’ conveys something more personal. To some, ‘The World’ is Planet Earth, and all the stuff within it. But to many others, ‘The World’ is their world: their home, their family, their friends; the food they eat and the things they like to do. That’s what we must recognise and respect as we communicate the need to save the world. We don’t necessarily need to scare people into action, or bombard them with science. We can connect with each other, and move people to change, using language that is true to shared values.

 

Andy Clark is an environmental filmmaker (The Top Of The Tree). His award-winning work ‘High Water Common Ground’ presents an environmentally-holistic and community-focussed approach to flooding in the context of climate change. ‘The Carbon Farmer’ deals with peatlands and climate change, and is due to be shared with UK Parliaments later this year.

 

[This article was originally published in It’s Freezing In LA! Issue 1, August 1st 2018, and has been re-posted here with thanks to Martha Dillon and Alice Attlee, and to Laurie Avon, who’s work you can see more of on Instagram.]

 

 

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That Time I Drove A Tesla…

A few months back I had to drive from Anglesey to Edinburgh and back in a day, and I figured that was the perfect opportunity to take the Tesla Model S for a spin.

Tesla vehicles are simply incredible. Ever since their first production contract in 2005, they have been setting new precedents in our expectations of what electric cars can be; from drive experience, to speed, to torque, to acceleration, to battery life and range, to safety, and basically anything else you care to care about. There is nothing on the market currently quite like Teslas.

I picked up a Model S (Tesla’s best-selling Sedan) from Manchester Airport, courtesy of White Cars (credit where it’s due), and instantly fell in love. Everything about the car aesthetically takes your breath away, from the sleek design, double-take-worthy lack of radiator grill, suave interior, very sexy driver HUD and flipping massive touch-screen multimedia system in the middle of the dash board.

It’s weird when you accelerate in a Tesla – as the above video will attest – because you hear absolutely nothing; for a *very* short time you feel the umph of acceleration press you into your seat, and then you’ve reached the speed limit and you should probably get a hold of yourself. It’s like it doesn’t bother to tell you, it just goes right ahead and is awesome.

Range is one of those big concerns with electric cars in general. By the time I’d driven the ~140 miles from Manchester Airport to Gretna Green, the Model S was telling me that if I wanted to get to Edinburgh at any enjoyable speed I should probably top up the charge, which would take roughly 16 minutes. More importantly, from my own biological perspective, I was ready for a wee and a coffee. I pulled up at one of the free(!) Tesla Superchargers, and by the time I was back at the car it was pretty much ready to go.

There’s the ‘review’ stuff out of the way, but here’s what I really love about Tesla.

A decade or so ago, when talk about this ‘climate change’ thing was starting to pick up, and we were starting to accept that we should probably start emitting less, there was a large-scale sulky reluctance to do anything. By and large the response of *most people* was to groan, kick their feet and get skeptical, mostly because we knew that we really liked most things powered by fossil fuels, and being told that we had to cut down on the fossil fuels was immediately equated with having to give up *all* those things that make our lives enjoyable.

TopGear was just getting good for crying out loud! Clarkson, Hammond and May were accelerating the public’s interest in driving like lunatics, bigger more epic [internal combustion] engines, blowing things up, laughing at caravans and environmentalists in almost equal measure, and steering firmly into perpetuating what I’m going to coin the ’20th-century dream’.

Meanwhile the call for an alternative to fossil-fuel burning automobiles had been quietly made, and while most motor-heads turned up their noses, Elon Musk (and a few partners) cooly asked “How hard can it be?” And unlike the TopGear trio, Tesla made something that worked. Really damn well.

And with that spark of mad ambition, Tesla began setting the bar on what the future is actually going to be like. Now we’ve got real-life Tony Stark, Elon Musk actually moving out of Tesla because he’s done all he can to revolutionise the world of motor vehicles, and is taking on world-saving challenges one after another, very cooly doing what no others have the ambition (or know-how) to do.

But throughout, Teslas are this incredible mark of what’s possible, and they don’t even make it look difficult. Environmentalism is still sullied by prejudice that it’s about sacrifice, strife and challenge. We environmental communicators struggle to connect with a large audience because to many, endangered lemurs stuggle to compete – in many ways – with the thrill of supercars. But Teslas have managed to embody how saving the world should feel.

And there’s the big difference: between having to change and wanting to change.

If the world carries on business-as-usual, we will have to change or we will die.
Tesla, Musk, and others are giving us ways to want to change, and that concept is a hell of a lot more appealing.

For those who are just reluctant to change and averse to progress, I proffer an analogy.
A few decades ago something came along that demanded change, and moved people powerfully to become something new. This something looked at the establishment and said ‘No More’, and in sticking-it-to-the-man gave people a feeling to aspire to and to embody. It was about breaking free of business-as-usual, it was about becoming something new, and feeling awesome.

That something was Rock N Roll. And while the music and the means evolve, the song remains the same. To hell with the nay-sayers. Stick it to the man. Be awesome.
A bad-ass new world awaits.

Saving the world should feel awesome.

Saving the world should feel awesome. Like the Tesla Model S.

 

 

[Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored, I’m just a raving fan of ambitiously making the world a better place.]

25 Years of Gove

This morning PM Theresa May, supported by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, released the government’s much-anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan.

The 25YEP is something that Mr Gove was quick to insist upon after his assignment to the role of Environment Secretary. Now, I’ll confess, I was not all too chuffed when that appointment was announced, as up to that point Mr Gove didn’t really have any track record of being an environmentalist, apart from being a publicly acknowledged climate-skeptic.

But I’m not too proud to confess that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove’s first few months in the post – from taking unprecedentedly firm action on Neonicotinoids, to committing to the concept of paying farmers for the delivery of public services. And now with the *first* (*there will be many revisions) release of the 25YEP, he seems to be doing good.

I also appreciate the nod in the 25YEP to the fact that 25 years extends well beyond one political term – noting that it’s because we’re tackling issues that are far larger than a 5-year turnaround period. One could presume that Mr Gove intends the 25YEP to be a bit of a legacy piece for him – and personally I’m a bit torn between remembering everyone else who’s had a significant hand in this movement, and remembering how relatively limp his predecessors have been on environmental progress.

So what does 25YEP say?

From a blast through the 151-page document, the 25YEP is promising a pretty new (and needed) approach to environmental management (dare I say ‘stewardship’?) in the coming years.

The theme of ‘public money for public services’ is continued throughout – this argument being that, under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (the way agriculture works throughout the EU, just about), there’s this thing called ‘Basic Farm Payments’. BFP means that a Farmer will receive money just for being a farmer, based solely on the amount of land that they own. It likely leads to cheaper commodities (like milk being cheaper than water in recent years), but is fundamentally flawed in that the tax-paying public end up paying farmers lots of money, regardless of how productive the farm is. At it’s most extreme levels of social injustice, BFP gives tonnes of money to owners of vast areas of the uplands who provide next to nothing in food commodities. The land in question will be legally classified as ‘farmland’, but the legal requirements for that are just that a very small number of sheep have to occasionally be present for grazing. (I’ll direct you to Mark Avery and Guy Shrubsole for more on this debate). But in short, you can probably see why this jars with people who think they should see some kind of public service or return on their tax money.

To some legitimate farmers who do actually farm but, through geography and circumstance, still depend on BFP for the majority of their income, the idea of losing BFP is pretty scary. However, there is the promise that something better will be replacing it – and for people like the hill farmers of England and Wales who already take a strong stewardship role in maintaining their landscape, not just their flocks, they might actually finally find those services financially valued.

Something that the 25YEP is clearly quite proud of is the fact that it’s the ‘world’s first’ to utilise a Natural  Capital approach to environmental policy.

Natural Capital is, basically, putting a financial value on Nature. This has long been experimented with by environmentalists, and also pretty divisively debated between purists and pragmatists. In it’s crudest interpretation, Natural Capital states that everything has a value that is translatable into a financial figure. That ‘Puts a price on Nature’, it commodities beauty and intrinsic value, and opens our great Gaia up to thorough a ravaging by heartless capitalists. Some purist conservationists loathe and fear Natural Capital, as it is such a bastardisation of something that to them is sacred and priceless.

However, in practice it’s not that bad. We environmentalists have to come to terms with the fact that we are trying to change a fundamentally capitally-driven society, and at the same time I’m sure wouldn’t object ourselves for a little more financial recognition for all our efforts to save the world.

So in the case of Natural Capital in the 25YEP, it really just comes down to the fact that we need to value more the actual services that the environment provides us (like natural flood risk management, storing carbon, cleaning water, providing better food for longer, even looking nice) and particularly the nation’s farmers deserve to be remunerated for being the managers and maintainers of those services.

As the example it gives in the 25YEP:
“Our farms provide so much more than just food. They provide recreational activities to an estimated value of £200m for farms and nearly £300m a year for woods. Furthermore, the way farmland and woodland filter the air is valued at £182m and £794m per annum.
Which references UK Natural Capital: ecosystem accounts for freshwater, farmland and woodland

The way in which these figures such as these are calculated is usually with a degree of subjectivity, and it’s not to say “Ok, if we invest in £794m of air filters we could do away with woodlands”, but the point there is that the *value* of these environments is presented in a ways that fits with the rest of the economy (and the minds of economically-driven people).

“What’s your favourite bit of 25YEP Andy?”
I hear you ask.

Something that’s come as a genuine and pleasant surprise to me, given that it’s not been talked about much if at all (by Gove) in the run-up to the release, is the inclusion of Peatlands! Yay Peatlands! We really need to focus a lot of effort on peatland restoration ASAP, which is what I’ll be pushing for with the release of my upcoming film, The Carbon Farmer.

So overall, 25YEP is looking pretty good, in my opinion. It’s by no means complete, as there’s still a lot to work out in terms of how we’ll actually implement the ideas laid out in the plan, and fulfil these bold new ambitions, but the important thing is that ambition itself. The brazen ambition to do something radically new and different – and built of a pretty sound consensus of what environmentalists, the general public and farmers all agree would be a good way to go – is just what I was hoping to see.

Yay for Peatlands!

Blue Planet II DESTROYS A Plastic Ocean In Under 5 Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

The Top Of The Tree on Kickstarter!

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

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

Presenting the HWCG trailer at the NFF conference in London 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Tilikum

Tillicum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tilikum was a Killer Whale. He killed three people.

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

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

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

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

This Film I’m Making…

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Alternative Xmas’ in the Calder Valley this July.

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

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#AccidentalHeroPose with this star of the film…

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

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Integrating with nature is looking better and better…

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Scientist. Star.

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

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

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

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“Old Sphagnum” Ale. Delicious!

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

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Ben patiently listening to my rambling direction…

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

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

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Susie’s Frog.

High Water Common Ground Premieres October 2016.

A Phone That Redefines “Smart”: INTERVIEW with FairPhone

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

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

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

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

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

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The FairPhone is as transparent and integrous as they come.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Now if I could only catch that Snorlax

The Cartoon Conservation Crash-Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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