Nature matters

Nature matters

Many years ago now I was blessed with great fortune. Alone, I stood less than 50 feet from a wild African elephant and watched as she calmly consumed the leaves of some bauhinia bushes.

I had no phone or camera to capture the image but I can see her now in every detail. Strangely it only takes a moment of contemplation to also feel what I felt then — awe, respect and humility in equal waves.

Not everyone can sidle up to elephants but there is evidence from around the world that nature is a part of people’s sense of self and an integral part of what constitutes well-being.

This is not so easy to feel in our increasingly virtual world where success is a synonym for well-being and measures of progress are mostly economic.

We report the monetary economy and use its growth as a core indicator for doing well individually and collectively. As Judith Schleicher and Bhaskar Vira recently point out, even the alternative measures of poverty and well-being still ignore the environment and there is growing evidence that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.

The rhetoric here is that it is the poor who suffer most from this failure to account for nature, especially those who depended on nature for a living. And the implication is that this is somehow immoral or at the very least unfair.

We have also tried the valuation and commodification of nature in an attempt to squeeze nature into the economic metrics — capture the externalities and we can balance the books.

But both of these arguments miss the point.

The solution is to reconnect the billion or so people who are doing well out of capitalism, particularly the tiny percentage of these people who are appropriating most of the economic wealth, to what I felt on that sunny afternoon in the Zambezi valley when the elephant connected me to the truth.

Only then will nature matter.


You can still download my ‘How to love nature when you live in the city’ tips free from Smashwords.

 

 

 

Leadership for the environment

Leadership for the environment

Be curious and humble

Be courageous and confident

Kat Cole, the 30 something president of a $1 billion brand believes that great leadership requires just these four key qualities.

Makes good sense.

Curiosity is essential for anyone leading the way along new paths into unknown territory. It implies a willingness to learn and anything genuinely new always supplies a steep learning curve.

Humility is self-restraint, self-understanding, awareness, and a good sense of perspective meaning that it is not about me. This is a true leadership quality.

Courage seems obvious. Someone must be the first to step out into the unknown to take on the curve.

Confidence is contagious. It energises those who have it and everyone they meet. It is a powerful attractive force that gathers and holds people together to deliver more than the sum of the parts.

There are few leaders who do not have these qualities. Absence or even a shortage in any one of them and a would-be leader couldn’t move forward and bring others along.

What do these qualities mean when it comes to environmental leadership?

Anyone with a smidgen of interest in the natural world usually has some curiosity. Variety, the unusual, and the strange are present in everything from trees to termites, and not even Sir David has seen it all.

Stand close enough to a wild elephant to hear her stomach rumble and humility will cascade over you to wash away your awe. Put a spoonful of soil under a microscope and the life teeming across your vision should make all your first world problems melt away. Once seen for what it truly is, nature can humble the mightiest ego.

They don’t call them environmental warriors for nothing. There is a fight on that demands courage enough to stand against convention and take on the reality that modern living exploits nature. It is hard for even the simplest sustainable action to be easier or cheaper than business as usual.

So far, so good as we can expect that most environmentalists are curious, humble and courageous.

Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance usually arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities — the expression of self-belief.

Now here I would argue that environmental leaders have a problem. Many are strong, articulate and outgoing individuals for sure. And they are often passionate, sometimes fearless, advocates.

But these traits are not confidence.

Confidence can be very hard for environmentalists because at some level they all participate in the actions that exploit resources. They drive cars, fly in aeroplanes, consume the products of commercial agriculture and feed their dogs. They live a life that they know contributes to most environmental problems.

Only true narcissists can overcome such incongruity to be truly confident. Normal folk cannot overcome the flaw and appear fake or overly aggressive.

Subsistence

Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic

 

Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.

 

Accumulated knowledge

damselflyIf you wanted to read all that humanity knows about damselflies it would take you a while.

A Google scholar search on ‘biology of damselflies’ provides a list of nearly 9,000 research papers and this is just the start. Not every paper will have biology in the title, so search ‘damselflies’ and we are up to 13,000. Dig a bit more and there are over 68,000 publications containing information on damselflies and their charming cousins the dragonflies.

Suppose you really like these flying denizens of forest glades and decide to become an expert in their biology. By allocating 10 minutes to each publication — time to scan the abstract, a graphic or two and the key points of the discussion — then you would be at it for over 11,000 hours.

Make than 6 years of full-time work with no holidays.

In the good old days of the gentleman naturalist you might actually have taken on this herculean task. Your passion for damselflies would make the work a pleasure and independent wealth afforded you all the time in the world.

There was no need to produce anything from your all those hours in a wing chair by the fire. A mind brim full of detail on mating rituals, prey selection and peptide inhibitors was enough. That you could bore the pants off your dinner guests was simply a bonus.

Not so today.

Anyone afforded the luxury of 72 months with the accumulated human knowledge of damselflies would need a product at the end — a research thesis at least. And that thesis would only pass muster if it added to the already huge body of knowledge.

Your studies could not be completed in front of the fire surrounded by a library of leather bound books with the whiff of coal smoke across your nostrils. No sir.

After just a small amount of reading you would be donning a white coat and spending the rest of time in the laboratory dissecting the tiny abdomens of Diphlebia nymphoides, a pretty blue species native to eastern Australia. How else would you discover the true variability in digestive efficiency?

Only if you were really lucky would you have first donned hiking boots and trekked to the streams and creeks with a butterfly net to catch a few specimens for your analysis.

Even when the body of knowledge is vast our job is to add to it. Human endeavour is all about adding to the pile. We are addicted to making things bigger and better.

And boy is this mountain of human knowledge growing. The 869 papers on damselflies published in 2014 is double the number published in the entire decade of the 1970s.

Clearly damselflies are not central to any of the many economic or social challenges of our times. At best research might provide some details on how to avoid their extinction. So why do it beyond bald curiosity passed down the generations?

The reason for the burgeoning knowledge is simple. There are many more people than there used to be.

More people means there is more education, more universities with science faculties, and more students in attendance. The law of large numbers does the rest. Even the most esoteric topics will have more people interested in them than in the past.

So the body of knowledge grows, even for damselflies.

Pause for a moment to consider what this process of knowledge creation means. It is nearly impossible for any one person to have read everything we know about damselflies. Even if they were given a decade in the drawing room they might not get to all of it.

We have a searchable repository of the knowledge in the cloud that makes it easy to find specific facts. This is fine if you are already an expert and know what you are looking for.

But most people simply wouldn’t look. And if nobody spends any time in the winged armchair only the cloud will have the accumulated knowledge.

Sounds Crazy #10 | Pest control means getting on with it

DeerFeral animals are pests in large parts of rural Australia. The list of culprits is long with foxes, cats, feral dogs, goats, rabbits, pigs, deer, and camels all causing problems for farmers and conservationists alike. In production terms the cost is estimated at billions of dollars a year.

Not surprisingly there are pest control programs all over the country with poison baits, mustering, hunting, trapping and a host of other control tactics in place.

In 2005 some scientists became curious to see if any of these control programs actually made a difference.

They interviewed as many of the pest control organisers as they could in all the states and territories for control programs that had a conservation focus. They established that the majority of over a thousand programs they identified, 68% in fact, had no form of monitoring in place at all. The pest control teams did not know how many pests they had removed or what had happened to the species or habitats the pests were affecting.

In short they were operating blind.

Now a pilot in Papua New Guinea on a stormy afternoon, if he had any sense, wouldn’t take off. Flying blind is dangerous.

Except that the only immediate danger in pest control is to the pests. The operators simply get on with control. Indeed the researchers found that there was some monitoring of person days spent tracking, numbers of baits released, and helicopter logbooks full of hours mustering sufficient to show that the job was being done — but nothing on the outcome.

After habitat loss, pests and weeds are the next most significant threat to biodiversity in Australia. In many places they are the main cause of biodiversity loss and attempts at control make sense.

What is crazy is to have no idea if control measures have made a difference. We have no idea if they are worth all the effort.

Perhaps it is that distinctly human trait where being seen to do the right thing is just as important as doing it.

Sounds crazy to me.

Google Scholar can link you to the original research

Reddiex B, et al (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. I. Patterns of control and monitoring. Wildlife Research 33, 691–709

Reddiex B. & Forsyth D.M. (2006) Control of pest mammals for biodiversity protection in Australia. II. Reliability of knowledge Wildlife Research 33, 711–717

Sounds Crazy #8 | Wild Planet: North America

Fallow DeerWe all know that Sir David Attenborough has cornered the media market on all things natural history. Especially his TV shows that shine with balanced content, unique delivery and cutting edge camera and sound, all combined expertly to let nature show off.

So anyone trying to compete has to find another way.

We have had the ‘awww, so cute’ approach with every second shot a frolicking offspring of something furry. These shows inevitably spill over into ‘animals are so like us’ commentary to anthropomorphize the world and make us all feel safe and special.

Then we have the ‘OMG its so scary’ take. In this version the world is wild with sharks, lions and venomous biting creatures tugging at the dual thrill of fear and courage in the face of it. This is pretty easy stuff to sell given our innate and now everyday aversion to anything not wrapped in plastic. Nature cannot be anything other than scary from the inside of a McMansion.

Wild Planet: North America is a new natural history series that went to free-to-air in Australia recently. The first episode had more than enough cute and cuddlies with images showing but not telling us that bear cubs are still oh so lovable when they ‘smile’ [don’t get me started].

The narrative, however, was more about the courage and tenacity of nature that, even in the face of extreme hardship, always succeeds without any apparent effort — qualities that humans [or more specifically Americans] also possess in abundance.

Funny enough it was almost believable and I can hear the whoopin’ and hollarin’ along with backslapping and sounds of patriotic zeal bellowing from the lounge rooms of the mid-west even now.

So far so good, especially as some of the footage was excellent [camera technology really has made nature more accessible] and included plenty of unedited raw stuff made with tooth and claw.

Then came the crazy part.

The initially subliminal but in the end overt message of the first episode was that all this nature was out there on our doorstep, wild, untouched, and free. It was still all there doing its thing without threat or risk other than from the teeth of a mountain lion.

Of course I may be jumping the gun here and in fact the producers are softening us to make the punch line stark — nature is in great peril and we need to pay attention to it as we sprawl our cities and fields ever wider. Traditionally of course this ‘save the world’ message is saved for the final episode.

Only I couldn’t help thinking that actually they meant it.

Those who coughed up the cash [perhaps card carrying members of the tea party] really wanted the whoopin’ and zeal they engendered to feel secure. The images of wilderness and wildlife were permanent no matter what. We could go just outside our doorstep and capture such images any time we want — there is nothing we could do to ever lessen Mother Nature.

No need to worry folks, she is still wild and free, just like she has always been.

Now that really is crazy.

Environmental values | A national park should be a national park

EucalyptusForestMany years ago I was driving along a dirt road in rural Zimbabwe.

We had been following a game fence for several miles, a formidable veldspan barrier between a tired looking patchwork of withered maize fields, goats, and clusters of rondavels out the passenger window, and the intact open woodland of a game reserve on the driver’s side.

Dirt roads allow plenty of time to take in the scenery and I couldn’t help but notice how one of my fellow passengers, a former student recently appointed to the wildlife department as a trainee scout, was so captivated by it. Not the savanna with its prospects of a kudu bull framed by an acacia thicket, an elephant ambling along ready to tug at the sweetest smelling grass tussock, or maybe even a leopard draped across the bow of a marula tree; no he watched with great intent the farmland.

“Which do you like best,” I asked him, “the savanna or the lands?” He looked back across at me with eyes wide, forehead furrowed and cheeks raised and said nothing. He turned back to his left to look out of the window and said softly “the lands”.

It was not the only time during a decade in Africa, that included the great fortune of visits to half a dozen countries, where the locals made it very clear how important agricultural land was to their very soul. Fields and pastures are, after all, the source of sustenance to us all and a place of protection and community. Human modification of the wild and dangerous savanna into safer and more comfortable countryside is the achievement that founded our ongoing numerical and lifestyle success.

In the west we sometimes pretend that the wild mountains, forests and windswept moors are our places of true beauty, but actually we too have quite the soft spot for farmland. Countryside would end up as a more popular choice for most than wilderness. Even the words themselves evoke opposites: cozy comfort aside inglenook fireplaces with a slice of apple pie, or gray skies, damp smells and wind that howls.

Given these deep and innate responses it’s no surprise that there is a conflict over what to do with wild areas. Should we set some aside and then keep out of them to be what they are as unfettered cauldrons for nature? Or should we designate them and, with a calming hand, mollify all that that wildness? After all we are under more pressure that ever to make every hectare of the land productive and available to yield fuel and raw materials for our voracious economic engines.

Australia is slipping into the midst of this conundrum.

After many decades of increasing environmental protection with laws set to slow or stop landscape modification, restrict pollution, and set aside close to 7% of the land [529,380 km2] as conservation areas, change is afoot. State governments in Victoria, Queensland, and NSW are variously allowing areas designated as national parks to be used by recreational hunters, mineral prospectors, graziers and even foresters.

Whatever your politics, hunting, livestock grazing, digging big holes and cutting down trees do seem rather odd activities to allow within a national park. Remember that the majority of these areas are either rugged and remote [part of their initial charm] or unproductive for all the usual commercial things we like to do. Allowing them environmental value seems to make perfect sense.

There is also the important ecological reality that once an area of land is grazed by livestock, or cleared, or a road cut through it, or big holes dug into it, then it will never again be as it was. Our modifications are irreversible.

We can [and should] restore landscape after the effects of our worst excesses but, by definition, we cannot return a landscape to pristine wilderness. All we can do is set areas aside for nature to be and preferably areas that we have not messed up too much already.

Recognition of environmental value, so that each set aside area has meaning, is a really smart thing to do.

Yet in doing so we are at odds with our instinct for the safe place that is productive. We all want to look to the left of the dusty road at the brown stalks of the harvested mealies just as the young wildlife scout did, because at core we are all control freaks. We are desperate to keep the nastiness of nature at bay and make the land safe and productive for our families — something inside says that that wild wood must be tamed. Let’s send in the guns, the herders and the chainsaws.

Only we are better than this. Surely there is enough in us to recognize that we do not have to be afraid of lions or wolves anymore and we can let some small proportion of the planet be close to what it was before we swarmed across it.

And surely we don’t have to go back to the trenches of environmental warfare where passion to protect and equal passion to exploit creates sides that throw dirty grenades at each other and the only winner is the peddler of vitriol.

For goodness sake let a national park be a national park.