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!

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A Bold N-EU Frontier…

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

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Original photo credit: Bethanie Francis

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

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

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

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

Your Place In The World

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

Original Image: Shutterstock, apple2499

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How’re Those Resolutions Going?

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

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

Alyson Chris

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

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

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

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

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

We Go Now Live To The Historic Battlefront…

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

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

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

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

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

guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

What’s Missing In This Picture?

Quaint, rural Scotland. But something's missing...

Quaint, rural Scotland. But something’s missing. Want to know why?

I grew up cutting about in the woods and along the shoreline of the west coast of Scotland. It was magical – so easy to escape to wonder & fantasy of another world, away from the concrete & structure of ‘real life’. In those woods I would encounter mysterious beasties & monsters, and back in Nottinghamshire I would be regaled with tales of Robin Hood & Sherwood Forest. Now, if I could go anywhere in the world, I would go to Britain, but back when it was all wild forest & woodland.

Now I’m an Ecologist I’ve learned that it’s not just fantastical romanticism, but there are actually many practical reasons for wanting to return to a wilder Britain. And I’m not the only one who feels like this. The concept of ‘re-wilding‘ parts of Britain – of reintroducing species that used to roam here but have long been displaced by people – is steadily gaining some momentum and, whilst still brandedcontroversial‘, has some sound support from some very influential players. In fact, species are starting to sneak in that I bet you hadn’t realised were truly natively British.

Something that we lost most dramatically in the UK, and that has had huge recurrent effects, were the large carnivores – Wolves & Lynx. Now, however malevolent the Brothers Grimm may have painted wolves to be, they are what’s known as a ‘keystone‘ species in ecosystems that still have them, and no-one illustrates that better than George Monbiot:

About a year or so ago I really got into the idea of bringing Wolves back to Scotland – you’ve seen Monbiot’s video – how could we argue with that? The simple, ecological fact is the Wolves benefit EVERYTHING. Most of Scotland, currently, is how Yellowstone used to be. Uncontrolled Deer have grazed it desolation, and where the ancient Caledonian forest still stands – like at Glen Affraic for example – no young trees are able to grow through that grazing pressure. That iconic, magical forest is ageing, withering, dying, without hope of a new generation. Trees For Life are having a good go at sowing the seeds, but Wolves could do an awful lot to rejuvenate the land.

As Innes MacNeil, Reserve Manager of Alladale Estate, told me on the phone when I started researching this, the problem is that Scotland’s been without wolves for so long, there’s now no way it could cope with them. The infrastructure is all wrong – they don’t really do fences up there. Where I’ve spent so much time on the west coast, huge flocks of sheep are able to wander & graze over immense estates of land, unfenced. If you put wolves into that equation, it doesn’t end well for the sheep. There’s small concern for people’s safety around these large carnivores, but surveys have shown that to be a really minor concern, and that humans who do live in ecosystems with wolves almost never have any negative interactions.

So we can’t just throw Wolves back into Scotland – it wouldn’t work, as people would almost certainly kill them once the first sheep was taken. But we need them in certain places… so the solution surely is to put them in a really big fence!

One of the most ambitious efforts in re-wilding is being undertaken way way up North on Alladale Estate. There, the owner & his team are attempting to take the model of the Southern African fenced nature reserve & apply it to Britain. Fair enough – apart from a few exceptions – the fenced-reserve structure in South Africa works very well. Alladale’s idea is to create a huge, strongly-fenced area and return the glen to it’s ‘original’ state, by reintroducing Wolves and, ultimately, wild boar, Elk, Lynx and Bears. They’ve done the ecology & the maths – conceptually their vision totally checks out. And the main purpose of that – apart from awe-inspiring aesthetics, or a sense of steward-ly duty to return the land the the way that nature intended – is to control (predate) the deer that eat the forest.

I’ll be honest; I think that’s a brilliant idea. I spent months researching how this could be followed up on different sites last year, and I could not find a problem with it.

Cut to my time batting with the GWCT this summer. I was lucky enough to work alongside a woman called Alison, who’s one of the most dedicated environmental researchers I’ve ever met, and who also was on the advisory team for the Scottish Bear Trial. In short – there’s nothing Alison’s not clued-in with when it comes to Scottish environmental policy and activity. Over a good blether on ‘ideal world’ scenarios, we got on to wolves, and she broke my heart a little as she broke some news to me:

“When you put wild animals within a fence – which we agree we’d have to do in this case of using wolves to control deer numbers – it falls under the Zoos Act. And under the Zoos Act, you’re not allowed to let large carnivores predate live prey.”

…But that’s the point. That’s why we want Wolves – to eat the deer! It sounds cruel when you put it like that, but that’s nature for you.

And so however perfect our dreams, however sound our ecological theory, however much we manage to get the National Farmer’s Union and general public on-side, one simple fact remains. Wolves have been absent from this country for so long that our legal system can’t account for them. Our laws were made without the presupposition that we’d ever have to consider wolves when enacting them.

So there’s the solution to it all: make new laws. And how easy do you think that’ll be?..

The good news is that there’s a great number of committed people working to steadily bring big wildlife back to Britain. And they’re laying strong foundations so that hopefully, one day, we’ll be able to re-write the law of the land to include our oldest best-friends.

My One Man Climate March

OMCM1

COP 21 is just around the corner, and to environmentalists, scientists and people who think life on Earth is OK, that’s a big deal. Essentially, our world-leaders are coming together to decide the fate of the world as we know it. Over the 2-weeks build up to COP21, starting on 28th November, everyone else is banding together in a huge global effort called the Global Climate March – in association with 350.org and Avaaz.org – taking to the streets to show support for the world’s leaders in their thousands, and reassuring us that there are a huge number of people out there passionately committed to saving the world.

In the build-up to COP21, I’m doing things a little differently and undertaking my own One Man Climate March. Something that I’ve learned in the last few years of conservation & environmental management is that the world is facing some serious threats right now, and that actually doing what’s needed to be done about that is very very difficult. Saving the world is going to be about a lot more than blustery promises and lower emissions. About a lot more than shouted protests and activism. It can only be done by properly understanding the issues and finding great solutions to them. My One Man Climate March will tell that lesser-known part of the story.

With jungle-grown anecdotes, loop-hole-laden legislation and a strong dose of environmental fanaticism, I’m going to be visiting schools, sharing my experiences and  engaging students in debates all over Nottinghamshire and beyond. And together we’ll be standing with our world-leaders, understanding what needs to be done, and changing the fate of the world.

The BEEg problem in the UK right now

In certain parts of the UK, the bees may be screwed. This is because a few weeks ago now Liz Truss (our Environment Secretary), an “Expert Committee on Pesticides”, and the chief scientific advisor of DEFRA, opted to lift an EU-wide ban on Neonicotinoid pesticides across 5% of the UK oilseed rape crop area. These pesticides are highly dangerous to our very beloved – and environmentally crucial – bees. Rather understandably, this lead to sizeable outcry in the environmental community, including among other things the circulation numerous petitions, and The Rise of UglyFaceBatMan.

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Sign this SumOfUs petition now

The Government have just responded to an official governmental petition, and I thought I should let you know what they said in their defence. In short, all over the country they’re putting into place numerous measures that will benefit and protect our incredibly important pollinators – they get that bees are important, thank you. In the area – which is only 5% and they’ve turned away requests for larger areas – where neonicotinoids are to be allowed – and it’s only temporarily and for certain seasons of Oilseed Rape – they’re doing so because of agricultural necessity. They state that they have to allow neonicotinoids “to address “a danger which cannot be contained by any other reasonable means”” (The National Farmer’s Union says it’s getting impossible to grow Oilseed Rape without Neonicotinoids. Personally I’d suggest a nice bit of GM, which can be pretty cool). So essentially it’s a calculated risk deemed necessary that shouldn’t have too wide or deep an impact. (Read their whole response here, if you’re really interested).

So we’re not happy that the Gov’ are threatening bees. DEFRA and friends aren’t happy that their Oilseed Rape harvest is threatened. But why are they in such a panic anyway? Don’t we have enough land to just work around the problem on? Well, yes and no, it seems.

Trace this back, and there’s one shocking and fundamental cause of this new necessity to use such toxic pesticides. 71% of the UK’s land area is devoted to arable crop production… but do we make the most of it?

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“An enormous quantity of vegetables are rejected by supermarkets on cosmetic grounds”

We WASTE a colossal amount of food in this country – and as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is kicking up a big, justified fuss about, a terrifying amount of wastage occurs before we even get the chance to consider buying or eating it. As Hugh describes in a recent Viewpoint article, and in his War On Waste series, one-third of the food we produce in the UK is never eaten. 50% of food waste in the UK is domestic. Much of the rest goes in some fantastical perception of what sellers think buyers think a parsnip *should* look like. The irony is that we end up having to use such intense fertilisers and pesticides to sterilise our crops because we demand so much from it. And it is nothing less that demonically absurd that we should poison and kill our environment to demand such high yields, purely for the luxury of throwing half of it away!

So what’s the moral of this story? Don’t be so bloody picky! That’s not to say that you, reader, are picky – it’s a general address to the country that I may suggest to the Queen before her speech this christmas. We can all get very het-up and chastise people for making wrong decisions / doing their jobs, we can thrust petitions and ‘umm’ and ‘agh’ over policies and legislations and trying-to-make-the-best-of-it. But really, the best thing you can do to save the bees? Buy the wonky carrots. Take pleasure from peculiar parsnips. DON’T WASTE PERFECTLY GOOD FOOD. How do you do that? APPRECIATE WHAT YOU HAVE. If we do that, our economy will be better off and our ecology will be better off, as we’ll actually have the efficiency of space to cater for a slightly bad batch, or to really look after our pollinators and natural pest-controllers.

Buy Local Food. Do Not Buy More Than You Need. Be Aware.

Here’s a story from a friend of mine called Vicki. Thanks Vicki 🙂

As I’m writing I’ve received another petitioning email, this time for a different type of bee-killing pesticide that’s recently snuck approval. You can sign it here, as something to tide us over until we start actually appreciating what we have.


Update: 6.11.2015

People are really starting to take action on this. Activist organisation 38degrees has just launched this petition calling UK supermarkets to stop wasting perfectly edible food, and show that rather like onions, their beauty is much more than skin deep. Please sign that petition here:

Sign this petition now.

Sign this petition now.