Protecting Mother Nature

“We must protect mother nature from our worst excesses” is the headline of an article in the Enquirer section of The Weekend Australian this week.

The tagline “We can raise our living standards without destroying the natural world” introduces an opinion piece about growing human numbers and our deepening psychological motivation to keep up with the Joneses. Two things that are leaving us with stress and putting strain on the environment. And yet the ”wonderland of nature” is still there to us inspire the spirit. Natural glories abound that should garner our respect and “a determination to protect Mother Earth from our worst excesses.”

All good stuff you would think.

There are posts a plenty on this blog and by many thousands of other bloggers saying pretty much the same thing. Hey, it is even the main tenet of my latest book Missing Something.

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So why mention this piece from the sunday paper? Well, the curious thing is that the article is attributed to Craig Emerson, the federal Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in the struggling Labour government.

Now if the juxtaposition of topic and source doesn’t make you smile, then it is worth remembering that the newspaper is as brown as it gets [being owned by News Limited is a bit of a give away] and is always sticking the knife into anything with a green hue.

Clearly the editor was having a laugh and providing a great gotcha opportunity to catch the hapless minister sometime later in the election year.

It is shameful that the sordid media cycle and political agendas do this to such important ideas. We do need to be more mindful of nature, more concerned about our exploitation of natural resources, and even to take time out to feel the wonder for ourselves.

What the Minister did, apart from being suckered, was miss the opportunity. It is not enough to say that there are now very many of us putting the environment under pressure, we have to confess to our dysfunctional desire to exploit and find the emotional fortitude to think before we act.

Maybe my lesson was to enjoy the chuckle I had at reading a green rant from a trade minister and leave it at that.

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It is true, I do have a new book that is all about how we perceive natural resources and those wonders of nature.

Check out a description here or better still order a print-on-demand copy of Missing Something from Amazon or download the Amazon Kindle edition of Missing Something right now.

Dangerously quiet

King Parrot, NSWIt has been 23 months since the NSW Labour government left office after more than 16 years in power.

Normally when a left leaning administration is replaced by a right leaning one the inevitable shift in attitude to nature and natural resources would galvanize the environmental movement.

When hard won conservation legislation, planning rules and funding for environmental management are chipped away there might be an objection, some resistance, or at least some verbal argument. Only there has been very little noise.

No great shouts against the inching away from protection — not even allowing shooting in national parks seemed to get a reaction.

Only the nationally significant issue of coal seam gas, particularly how it will be extracted and the possible impact on farmers, seems to have stirred the pot.

Regular readers will know that alloporus is not overtly green — a regular guy who owns a car, takes plane rides, watches a plasma TV and wrote a book called “Awkward news for Greenies” has little moral ground to claim great environmental advocacy. Yet this quiet is eerie — makes you wonder.

Is it the calm before the storm, the tirade that must hit when the environment is no longer considered?

Or is it something else? Perhaps there is no energy left. It could be that the era of loud advocacy has passed. Maybe the malaise of personal entitlement has swept across us all, even the card-carrying activists.

If it has then we have a problem. Whilst screaming from greenies is about as welcome as a crying baby in the quiet carriage of the commuter train, it performs a vital function.

It keeps the b—-ds honest

And when all that goes quiet it is dangerous for us all.

Biodiversity | Google Trends #2

Ever since the heady days of the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when we came up with the Convention on Biological Diversity I have had this feeling that we had invented a fad.

For a while though I could push that niggle aside as the new term biodiversity entered our lexicon and the sound bites of politicians.

Books on biodiversity were written for the populace and texts for students. I even got hired to develop an undergraduate course in this new subject. That it was just a logical amalgam of ecology, evolution and conservation biology was no matter — this was a great new hook to catch the awareness and maybe persuade people to do something about what was happening to the natural world under the increasing weight of human numbers.

Not too many politicians talk about it anymore, at least not to the press. There are a few stalwarts, notably in the conservation NGOs, who still hold a candle for it and a residual trickle of public funding goes toward environmental interventions with a biodiversity theme. Mostly though we seem to be back where we started talking about conservation and preservation of endangered species.

So am I correct in this hunch? Have we really forgotten about biodiversity?

Here is what Google Trends has to say about the popularity of the word in searches from 2004 to present relative to the peak search volume that happened in October 2004.

GTBiodiversityJan2013

Well it would appear I was at least partially right.

Peak search volume was at the start of the data run in 2004 to be followed by a steady and consistent decline through the rest of the noughties.

In the current decade we are running at an average of 47% of that 2004 peak.

It is a pity that we don’t know how much search activity the 1992 Rio Earth Summit might have generated [1998 was Google’s first official year]. In fact the steady increase in overall search volume makes that 47% more measly given that todays daily total search volume is more than 7x that of 2004.

Biodiversity may not have disappeared as a search term but it has waned.

As usual Google trends tells us that we can easily put aside any challenging or technical issues in order to enjoy Christmas and New Year celebrations and we are also not too worried about them when school is out for the northern summer.

The Rio+20 Earth Summit came and went without much fanfare last year. It prompted a bit of a spike in searches but not enough to catch up with those 2004 scores. It does not seem that biodiversity got a fillip from Rio+20 as any pickup was short-lived — maybe because they called it the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

Last rhinoceros

This picture I have used before in an optimistic post on Rhinos.

It was taken in 1988 in the Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe — 24 years ago. The skulls are from black rhinos shot by poachers.

At the time the conventional wisdom was that the main market for rhino horn was in the Yemen where the many princes required the matted hair as raw material for artisans to carve ornate dagger handles.

This year a new wave of poaching has hit the species that since the losses in the 1980’s is now spread far and wide, mostly in smaller reserves that are heavily protected. This time the story is that the market is Asia where ‘medicinal’ use is setting high demand.

Maybe it was Asia back in the late 1980’s too as there can only be so many Yemeni princes, but whatever it was then there seems little doubt that today it is a large and powerful market that seeks rhino horn. And market forces are hard to stop. High demand and limited supply generates prices that make for good business and, for some, small fortunes.

But there is something more. Scarcity seems to trigger something primal in us.

As consumers we go to great lengths to sooth that feeling, paying whatever it takes to be in possession of that limited commodity.

The real worry for anyone with empathy for the rhinoceros is that these markets are newly flush with dollars thanks to two decades of double-digit economic growth in many parts of Asia. This economic growth has brought many benefits and it has also dramatically increased the proportion of people with disposable income. There is vastly more money in the system than there was in the 1980’s and as we know it matters little if you come from Chengdu, Chennai or Chicago consumers want to spend their surplus cash on themselves.

Chengdu at a tick over 14 million is the 4th largest city in China and is home to 5 times the number of people living in Chicago. Given there are currently 22 cities in China with more residents than the 2.7 million that live in Chicago, there is no shortage of potential customers for medicinal products.

Protecting the rhino is now a much harder problem than it was in the 1980’s. When you live far away from the rhino and have probably not even seen one, except maybe on television, you don’t even ask the fundamental question: rhino or me?

You just say, “me, thanks”, just like every consumer has done since commerce was invented. And, as the Lilly Allen lyric in her song ‘The Fear’ so profoundly puts it: “I am a weapon of massive consumption, it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.” We simply cannot help it.

So, if you are fond of a bet there would be very short odds on the only living rhino in 2036, another 24 years after the picture was taken, being in a zoo. And maybe this is necessary. Loss on a scale large enough and scary enough will probably be what it takes to change the knee-jerk “me, thanks” to…

“me, once I have thought carefully about the consequences of my choice”.

Here is an idea for the rhino problem.

Why not ban all false advertising across the entire globe.

Any claims made by an advertisement of any kind in any media must be falsifiable according to a strict set of international rules. And the onus of the proof falls on the advertiser, the company or individual who runs the ad.

So you cannot say that rhino horn powder cures any number of ailments and promotes everlasting life unless you have evidence — good, old-fashioned falsifiable evidence.

Failure to comply would result in an on-the-spot $1 million fine payable into a national environmental fund.

This edict need not just apply to wildlife products, but any product where the seller claims it to be what it is not.

Now there’s a thought.

The last loaf of bread

Consider the situation if this delicious crusty loaf was the only one on the planet.

More than that, it is the very last loaf of bread there will ever be.

After thousands of years of grinding grains into flour, adding yeast, a little salt and some water, kneading the mixture and applying some heat, the making of bread has stopped. And this loaf is now the last of its kind.

What would you do?

What should you do?

A while ago I wrote a story about Joe who was prescient enough to realize that he had this very conundrum.

You can download Joe’s story from the free downloads page of my Climate-change-wisdom site.

If you like it, why not download my ebook Stories for a change to read some more adventures and anecdotes that will tweak your environmental imagination.

You can get a copy in your preferred ebook format at Smashwords for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Last chance to see

Stephen Fry is prolific, so much so that it is hard to avoid him. Fortunately this is entirely tolerable for the man is smart, erudite, witty, and has a passion for knowledge that is as important as it is infectious.

I did, however, find one occasion when he might have erred.

An episode of his wildlife series “Last chance to see” was filmed in Madagascar, where the unlikely adventurer went in search of the curious and elusive aye-aye, a type of lemur. The search criss-crossed the island to find the few remaining patches of forest where there might be a sighting, only to finally catch up with one in a coconut palm in a villagers back yard.

Along the way the film crew passed vast swathes of deforested land that clearly left an impression and brought forth laments on the loss of unique biodiversity once the trees are felled.

Much of the cleared land was planted to sisal that grows well in the Malagasy climate and produces a cash crop for farmers. Fibre from sisal is used in packaging in the west that is biodegradable and often labeled as green. The irony was not lost on Mr Fry.

Madagascar produces around 9 million tones of sisal, about 4% of global production, and a seemingly trivial mount in the grand scheme of things.

Surely the unique biodiversity was worth far more.

Not for the farmer, for cash is cash. And if there is, right now, a market for sisal and it is easy enough to grow then it is a profitable use of land. And if it is more profitable to the farmer than an aye-aye, then sisal it is. Not because it is the best use of the land but because, like the rest of us, the Malagasy farmer needs to make a living.

The same happened in Australia. Sheep are not the smartest use of the dry and dusty outback, but at the time there was a market for wool in Europe and wool was durable enough to travel. So like sisal, sheep production was profitable – handsomely so for some on the less marginal country.

The last chance to see is because we all want to make a living and because we make that living from the options available to us. It is hard to make a living from the sale of ecosystem services, or from forest protection or taking people to see an aye-aye; usually far too hard.

What we need to do is to be smart about the available options for making a living so that the one that is easiest does not become the default.

 

Can REDD projects address wildlife poaching?

This question came in a forum on REDD, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, the somewhat controversial mechanism to tackle global warming. The idea is that because greenhouse gas emissions from clearing of land for agriculture makes up around a fifth of anthropogenic emissions, it makes sense to reduce clearing especially in tropical forests that are high on carbon and overall environmental value.

One typical pattern is that forests are first logged for commercial timber. This opens up the forest, makes access and further clearing easier. People move in to grow cash and subsistence crops.

REDD projects aim to substitute the financial returns from clearing with the sale of carbon credits that come about from the avoided emissions when forests are protected. In short local people receive payments for keeping their trees and their forest intact.

When it works there are less anthropogenic emissions, forests are protected, funds become available to help people create local economic development. Neat idea.

Since there are a few REDD projects that seem to be working pretty well in Africa, the question in the forum was about extending the concept to address wildlife poaching as well?

A successful REDD project would also protect wildlife because the financial incentive is to retain the integrity of the forest. Local communities are paid to be custodians of the resource.

A collective will would be enough to significantly reduce poaching so long as three key things happen:

local engagement is real

sufficient financial returns from the sale of carbon credits go to the local communities and

there is some long-term certainty in those financial returns

These are the key success criteria for any REDD project and, if met, then local protection of all the natural resources should follow. At least this is my experience talking to landholders in rainforests of Asia.

People everywhere prefer to live where the environment is healthy, the air is clean, the trees are green, and the wildlife free to roam. Only we need to live. Our priority is for a good life for ourselves and our families that is free from strain, risk and uncertainty. Meet this priority and any amount of environmental protection is possible.

What we have to remember is that throughout human history the forests have been cleared to meet these basic needs. So we are asking a lot to forego the route to development taken just about everywhere.

There has to be enough money in the system to meet the needs over the long haul.

The real challenge is that financial returns on REDD projects are neither certain nor comparable with the usual alternatives. Exactly why is another, long story. But I am sure you can guess the message. If we want to save trees or wildlife we have to pay a reasonable market price.

 

New eBook – Environmental Issues for Real

Not satisfied with haranguing readers of this blog with environmental woes, I have branched out into the dynamic new world of ebook publishing.

Thanks to the amazing people at Smashwords my latest collection of essays on the environmental issues of the day is now available to download in all the usual formats.

Give it a whirl and maybe leave a review on the site. It would be great to hear what you think.

Zoological gardens

Earlier I posted a somewhat acerbic commentary on gardens.

In brief it concluded that we must have them even though we don’t really use them. I am curious to know if the same thought process could be applied to zoological gardens.

Zoos began as collections, or more strictly, menageries.

Some of the wealthy and idle rich, who often liked to collect things, developed a fascination for animals and started to collect them. The more weird, more wonderful, and wilder the better.

It is not hard to imagine the independently wealthy of the early industrial era with access to travel on the new steam ships and trains wandering off to see the wondrous wildlife of Africa, all hurrahs, what ho’s, and gin and tonics. Once they were done with shooting the lions, buffalo, elephants, rhino and leopards it was inevitable that they would want some in their copious back yards at home

It probably started with taxidermy they had done on all the trophies. But stuffed didn’t quite cut if you could have a roaring lion the other side of the rose garden.

Plus, if you could have a botanical garden, then why not a zoological garden?

So live animals became the go and menageries an inevitable consequence of wealth and travel.

And for a long while these were private collections, places where the privileged few showed off their latest acquisitions to a handful of their friends and guests. Even today, the majority of the exotic creatures held in captivity are in private collections.

Only later did the fascination spread to the general public and the notion that there might be a buck in showing the weird and wonderful to the masses.

If you have been fortunate enough to witness wildlife in the wild then even the best zoo is an anathema. You know there is something about a cage, enclosure, display (the noun choice cannot really hide the reality) that strips the zoo animal of its essence.

It does not matter that most animals are not aware of their situation as captives or that a well run zoo is no more cruel than keeping a dog or a cat at home.

And that even all the zoos in the world hold a miniscule fraction of the extant specimens of all but the rarest species. The number of captives is a blip. What is a few hundred elephants when there are hundreds of thousands still alive in the wild?

Then there are the well-rehearsed reasons in favour; various expansions on themes of

  • education
  • conservation
  • preservation
  • enjoyment value

And these all have merit.

The concern I have is an impression that we have not stretched these themes far enough.  Especially to the importance of maintaining viable wild populations of the species that we like to exhibit.

Whilst I find a trip to the local zoo to stand and admire a zebra, giraffe and even a tubby lion rewarding, I cannot escape this feeling that something’s missing.