By Douglas Drake
The environmental importance of reducing meat consumption is filtering through in the mainstream media. Knepp Castle provides a beacon of how farming could change if people are willing to embrace the transition
Walking along a rough track dug out by off-road vehicles, dense shrub either side, game eyes weighing me up from a safe distance, I could have been in the savannahs of Africa. Could have, but wasn’t. I was in the wilds of West Sussex.
Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex has been transformed, rewilded to be precise, from a standard – and environmentally nightmarish – intensive farm to a unique sanctuary for fauna and flora. Deer, flowers, pig, trees, cattle, pony, rabbit, hare, owl, bat, birds of prey and much more are flourishing. Each individual species benefits the wider ecosystem. Whilst freely strolling around the 3,500 acres you are transported back to a time when animals were abundant in our countryside and able to coexist with humans and agriculture. Sadly, it is a unique experience in England and I thoroughly recommend a visit.
The rewilding recipe is simple; remove fences, reintroduce a variety of herbivores, allow natural grazing (as far as possible at least), provide a little bit of cultivation, a dash of herbicides, pinch of wild flow seeds and let nature take over. The recipe provides a platform for nature to reinvigorate itself naturally and the result is an abundance of wildlife that simply could not be created by humans.
From a business perspective things seem to stack up. Produce is sold at a premium due to the quality and origin. There is a fantastic campsite (where I pitched up) in a wildflower meadow and some luxurious glamping accommodation, both with access to the onsite shop which sells local produce including meat from the Estate. A separate safari business provides guided tours around the Estate with specialist photography versions available. It is also an ideal research base for those looking to study the behaviour of ecosystems left to their own devices.
The bulk of conservation in the UK is a fallacy; the question of what is actually being conserved needs to be asked. More often than not a state of land – overgrazed, barren and lifeless – which has already been blighted by humans is the gold standard. In a very good talk George Monboit addressed the National Parks Conference on this issue. For my money rewilding is the way forward, not the glorified preservation of an already sad state of affairs. It is like restoring a 16th century church in stunning art deco style; it doesn’t matter how nice the G Plan altar is.
The recipe is close, so very close, to perfect. It is agonizingly only one ingredient away. The trouble is what happens to all the herbivores? They are in this green wonderland of food, so they eat and eat. They then reproduce and consume even more. The wonderland then becomes overgrazed, turns less green and less flourishing, like most of the UK’s National Parks. Not only the herbivores but the wider ecosystem suffers.
Paul Lister has a dream to re-introduce apex predators – previously native bears, wolves and lynx – at his Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland. That is the missing ingredient. Food webs not only work from the bottom up, as my recollection of school biology dictates, the presence of predators can also create trophic cascades down. Carnivores reduce numbers of certain species in the trophic (level) below which has knock on effects. The re-introduction of wolves has had a transformative impact in Yellowstone National Park. One simple illustration; once reintroduced wolves hunt elk, the weaker elk are killed and the population reduced, the knock on reduction in elk reduces overgrazing, and the increased vegetation then allows other animals like otters and birds to prosper. American wolf hunter Aldo Leopold first acknowledged such relationships in his brilliant 1954 essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’.
In the absence of predators, grazing is bound to be a key issue at Knepp Castle. There is never going to be a natural balance of herbivores, meaning human intervention is needed to estimate the correct levels. This also creates an interesting contrast, at Knepp Castle animals are raised and culled in order to create and protect the ecosystem, in stark comparison with the bulk of traditional farming in which animals are raised and culled in spite of the damage caused to the ecosystem. The implications of this difference are huge.
The re-introduction of predators ignites a primitive excitement and would be brilliant to see but as it
stands currently Knepp Castle is a fantastic project. The environmental importance of reducing meat
consumption is filtering through in the mainstream media and I deem the arguments incredibly
strong. Knepp Castle provides a beacon of how farming can change if people are willing to embrace
the transition. Settled down for dinner in my tent, after a long cycle down to West Sussex and a walk
around the Estate, the venison steak from the farm was mouth watering. My first piece of meat in
two years; I find the case compelling.
By Sam Hubble
'Keystone species’. This simple, two-word term evokes images of Jaguars skulking through Amazonian jungle, Sea Urchins grazing their way over coral reefs and Beavers towing freshly gnawed branches across a dammed stream. As a concept that is taught to A Level biology students (in the UK) and regularly features in natural history television productions, most people with even a passing interest in conservation are familiar with the basic premise.
Indeed, the concept has been popularly used within conservation circles since it was introduced by Robert Paine in 1969. Whilst some argue over whether focusing on individual species is appropriate, and others use multiple definitions of the term, most uses refer to a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Put simply, specific organisms are attributed elevated importance within an ecosystem. For example, apex predators such as the Jaguar help to keep prey species populations in check, and ecosystem engineers such as the Beaver alter the physical environment which influences the ecological niches within which species have to adapt and survive. Conservation efforts can then be targeted to attempt to simultaneously protect or even re-establish populations of the identified Keystone Species and the ecosystem within which it exists.
The purpose of this blog is not to critique or discuss the merits of the traditional use of the Keystone Species concept, but to introduce an alternative way of framing approaches that highlight the importance of individual species and the role that they perform.
Psychology and – perhaps more importantly – sociology are often not given enough consideration within conservation. This contrasts with other topics within the broad ‘environment’ sector, such as energy use, travel habits and sustainable living. Traditionally, research and policy-making relating to conservation has been grounded in the natural sciences and focused on the interactions of ecosystems to environmental changes or stresses, particularly those caused by human actions. However, there has been a growing acceptance that whilst understanding the ecological and biological context is crucial, it is also important to understand the role that individuals and wider society have in both the degradation and protection of the environment. Furthermore, it is important to consider the cultural context(s) within which people live their lives, to better understand and anticipate the challenges and opportunities for conserving nature.
One such approach was introduced by ethnobotanists Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner in 2004, who researched the cultural importance of plant species to indigenous peoples in British Columbia. They devised a concept that they termed ‘Cultural Keystone Species’.
Cultural Keystone Species can be understood as organisms that shape the cultural identity of people. For example they may play important roles in people’s diets, medicine, rituals or spiritual practices. In short, they are species that are culturally significant to people’s lives and sense of identity. This concept thereby assumes that if such species are lost or damaged – or for other reasons access to them is restricted – it can influence the way that people think about themselves and can have negative impacts on individuals, families and communities.
Indeed, the idea resonates with attempts to identify cultural components within ‘Ecosystem Services’ approaches to assessing the ‘value’ of the natural environment. The concept opens up potential avenues and ‘hooks’ for policy-makers to gain a broader sense of the role that specific species perform, in an ecological, social and cultural sense.
Grounded in ethnographic research, ways of identifying culturally significant species necessitate engaging with local people. Asking them about specific plants or animals and observing the role that these have in their lifestyles, whether this involves daily practices or occasional rituals, inevitably helps to increase interest and public participation in conservation, which is arguably one of the most important – and often most difficult to achieve – goals.
Whilst the concept was originally devised through local-level ethnographic observations undertaken with indigenous peoples in British Columbia, it could conceivably be widened out to regional or national scales. For example, species such as Badgers, Bluebells, and Oak trees could be considered as culturally important in a UK context, or indeed species such as Robins or Holly that are intrinsically and nostalgically linked to Christmas could perhaps be emphasised or targeted in conservation strategies.
The idea certainly provides an interesting and different angle to considering which species should be attributed more importance. This approach seemingly fits in well with recent moves towards Citizen Science projects and public engagement in conservation. Projects such as The ObservaTree programme highlight the cultural role and heritage associated with ancient woodland as a way of moving beyond their purely ecological value, which is then used to raise interest of specific, species that are being studied.
However, there are also important aspects that arguably make this approach inappropriate for informing conservation practice. Basing strategies on cultural understandings of key species may inappropriately prioritise species, and also misses the point that cultures and the role that nature plays in them evolves over time. For example, cowboys, ranching and other equine practices are engrained in Latin American culture, yet horses were absent from this area before the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.
There is also the issue of promoting or prioritising species that over-dominate and destroy ecosystems – such as the deforestation of tropical forests for bananas or coconut plantations. Immigration – both historic and contemporary – inevitably results in the introduction of cultural keystone species, as people transplant their favourite species for the production of food and materials. Also, people may grow attached to species that have been present for longer than living memory, but are actually in ecological terms invasive. For example many Californians are passionate defenders of Eucalyptus trees that often locally dominate the environment and form dense groves, despite the fact that Eucalyptus trees reduce biodiversity compared to ‘natural’ forests. Furthermore, they promote and tolerate wild-fires as part of their natural cycle, which causes havoc for some Californian species that have not evolved this tolerance, along with the more obvious economic and social impacts of fires destroying landscapes and everything else in their path. Indeed, such is the level of attachment that attempts to remove and manage these ecologically-devastating species are often delayed and hampered by campaigners opposed to their removal.
Responding in 2005 to Garibaldi and Turner’s ‘Cultural Keystone Species’ concept, Martin Nuñez and Daniel Simberloff highlighted the coevolution of culture and ecology, and warned that trying to base the management of ecological systems on ever-evolving interactions between cultural and ecological systems is a difficult and perhaps futile endeavour. Furthermore, they suggested that whilst attempting to encourage increased engagement from individuals and communities should be encouraged, it is not necessarily a given that the protection of a species deemed to be culturally important will necessarily be ecologically important (or indeed even appropriate) or protect the natural ecosystem that it is situated within.
This response helps to highlight the limitations of the Cultural Keystone Species concept and raises legitimate questions for its application towards researching cultural-ecological interactions. However, the debate can also be interpreted to suggest that in specific circumstances when a species is deemed to be both ecologically and culturally important, this approach can help to strengthen the case for protection as well as increasing public awareness and support, and therefore is a useful addition to conservationists’ tool kits.
An example is the Pacific Herring. This species is commercially important and plays a key role in the marine ecology off the coasts of British Columbia. For this reason achieving the sustainable management of the fishery is a key priority.
Furthermore, ethnographic accounts of the preparation of culturally important dishes such as K’aaw (which involves harvesting and frying kelp covered in Herring roe) and other academic studies have helped to raise awareness of the need for Herring populations to be sustained.
Whilst there is arguably less of a direct link between UK cultural customs and local flora and fauna species than those found in Canadian indigenous peoples, it is still interesting and potentially useful to consider the Cultural Keystone Species approach.
Perhaps future conservation efforts should aim to adopt more nuanced understandings of the cultural importance of nature in the UK.
By Gisela Sepulveda
With the release of Finding Dory, questions have been raised over the detrimental effect this could have on the population of creatures seen in the film, in particular the Blue Tangs, and the consequences for reef habitats. Instead of understanding the films conservation message to enjoy nature’s beautiful marine world, but keep the likes of Nemo and Dory in the ocean where they belong, a growing number of people have been coveting these striking fish species. It is estimated that over 20 million marine creatures are taken from the wild to be sold on for use in public and private aquariums.
What Are Blue Tangs?
Blue Tangs otherwise known as Regal Tangs or Palette Surgeonfish are Paracanthurus hepatus which is a species of Indo-Pacific surgeonfish. These can be found in reefs along Japan, East Africa and the Great Barrier Reef amongst others.
Unfortunately Dory and her friends seem to be too popular and too beautiful for their own good. Australian conservationists are warning that this surge in popularity may result in the Blue Tangs following the same fate as the Clownfish following on from the previous film; being abducted from their natural habitat and put into an aquarium. In 2012 over 400,000 Clownfish were taken from the wild from places such as the Philippines and imported to America. Regrettably America has one of the highest demands for these marine fish. Thus experts and conservationists are cautioning viewers not to take the ‘wrong message’ from the film.
Blue Tangs unlike Clownfish cannot be bred in captivity, commonly those that are sold in shops have been taken from the wild. Due to the difficulty in replicating breeding habits such forming harems and as they cast their eggs into the water column, it has been highly complicated for scientists to breed these in captivity. In fact around 90% of marine fish found in aquariums and pet shops are imported from the wild. The fish collection process is often harmful to the fish populations but also damaging to coral reef habitats. Marine fish harvesting techniques can be very cruel, destructive and have high mortality rates. Unfortunately, cyanide poisoning techniques are often used to collect the fish. This technique is a form of stunning or anaesthetising the fish to knock them out to and allow quicker and easier collection. The cyanide has many negative knock-on effects not only on the Blue Tang but on the surrounding coral and other marine creatures nearby, disrupting the delicate ecosystem balance of the coral reef and fish.
Once subdued the fish are then dragged in to cleaner water and revived. However, this fish harvesting technique usually has high mortality rates with observed statistics indicating up to 90% of fish may die before even being sold to an aquarium keeper. Marine fish populations are already struggling due to the effects of global warming with ocean acidification and increasing sea temperatures, not to mention pollution and over-fishing. This objectification for aesthetics and ornamental use is the cherry on top; the wildlife and reefs walk a fine line which could easily be tipped over the edge by such abuses.
How Can We Help?
Fortunately conservation work such as the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund has been set up by the University of Queensland and Flinders University since the release of the first film, helping to promote awareness, protect marine aquarium species and lead scientific research in conservation in this area. The best thing to do is not buy ‘wild-caught animals’, educate yourselves on where these fish are being sourced from and join the conservation efforts of charities such as the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund.
By Rachel Fritts
Picture a land cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. It is lush and green, with food aplenty. There are no natural predators – in fact, the animals that do live there have grown so accustomed to living in peace that they have lost any natural defensive capabilities. You might think of this place as a sort of real-world Hobbiton. Which, in 2016, is exactly what it is.
New Zealand broke off from the super continent Gondwana 65 million years ago. Some species were carried out to sea, others flew to the island over its long period of isolation, but no matter how they got there, all who stayed evolved far away from mammals (give or take a bat or two). Consequently, the islands became dominated by birds and bugs. For 65 million years New Zealand was completely devoid of mainland threats like large reptiles and mammalian predators. This created a unique situation. Over time, the very thing that had allowed birds to colonize the islands in the first place became redundant. Flight – their one distinct advantage over other large vertebrates – had become unnecessary. It was in this environment shaped by isolation, limited space, and an absence of things that might want to eat them, that one particularly exceptional parrot evolved – the kakapo.
Also known as the night parrot, the kakapo has a lot to recommend it to the imagination. It was a favorite animal of the late Douglas Adams, and is basically the bird version of a hobbit (which is fitting considering their shared homeland). The kakapo is plump, awkward, and largely solitary. It has long since traded its ability to leave New Zealand for the capacity to eat large amounts of delicious food and live in relative comfort. Outsiders are not something the kakapo has much experience dealing with – when it has to deal with them, it does so exceptionally poorly. There are female kakapos, but you’ll have to take my word for it because you’ll probably never see one (this analogy can be extended to Entwives, dwarf women, and really Middle Earth females in general). Nevertheless, this stout flightless parrot does have one very un-hobbit-like characteristic. The kakapo has never learned to fear.
Unfortunately, this is a trait many native island creatures share – like the kakapo, they have not been able to cope with the influx of outside predators brought by the modern world. The creatures of New Zealand lived far away from predatory mammals for millions of years, but about 1000 years ago, the most destructive predator of all found its way to the islands: the human. Some flightless birds, like the moa, have long since gone extinct. Kakapos are currently the subject of desperate conservation efforts.
While still not as widely recognized as the bizarre little kiwi bird, kakapo awareness was given a valuable boost in 1990, when Douglas Adams published his conservation travel book, Last Chance to See. The narrative follows Adams as he travels around the world with zoologist Mark Carwardine, attempting to find and raise awareness of the plight of highly endangered animals. Adams would later cite this as his favorite of all his works, and the kakapo as his favorite of the nine animals he and Carwardine were able to track down. The book even managed to gain enough popularity that in 2009, eight years after Adams’ death, Stephen Fry retraced his steps in a BBC TV series, again enlisting the help of Carwardine.
The knock-on effect of this was that Carwardine found himself being accosted on camera by the very parrot Douglas Adams had himself become so fond of twenty years earlier. That Carwardine was able to become so well acquainted with a kakapo (which was itself perhaps a bit too fond of him) is indicative both of strides in kakapo conservation since 1990 and the species’ prevailing inability to understand how reproduction works.
Kakapo conservation still has a long way to go, but considering what the kakapo has had to deal with for the past thousand years, it is a small miracle there are any around to conserve at all. Ever since the Maori arrived on the scene, bringing with them dogs and rats, the slow flightless birds of New Zealand have had the odds stacked against them. By the time Europeans got to the island in the 1800s, kakapos were already confined to densely forested mountainous regions. Others, like the Haast’s eagle and the moa, were long since extinct. Europeans released cats and stoats onto the island, raising the number of introduced predators still higher, and hunted more aggressively than the Maori before them. Kakapo numbers plummeted.
In the mid twentieth century, search and rescue missions scoured the New Zealand mainland looking for individuals to re-locate, but no females were found. Then, a small breeding population was located on tiny, stoat-free Stewart Island. The kakapos weren’t in danger of extinction yet, but their slow and ineffective mating rituals meant that the population continued to decline. When Adams went looking for the elusive parrot in 1989, it really did seem as though it would be the last chance to see these lovable trundling creatures. Then, Kakapo Recovery was founded. With new funding and redoubled efforts, the kakapo recovery program has managed to establish kakapo populations on three small islands (the mainland population is effectively extinct). The total number of kakapos is currently around 150 and growing. While the kakapos have been pushed out of their historic grounds, they have a chance at a new sort of survival, aided by the very species that nearly drove them to extinction in the first place.
So, if kakapos are the hobbits of the bird world, let’s speculate for a moment about how hobbits would fare if the humans of Middle Earth were to suddenly colonize the Shire. I would hazard a guess that they would not survive long. Their small size, insular ways, and close-knit community structure would break up entirely, and they would either have to get out or die out, unable to function in a world suddenly built for and by a larger, more destructive, and more aggressive people. On the other hand, if hobbits were to become more like humans, they themselves would no longer be well adapted to live in the Shire. Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the the biggest, the strongest, the bravest. Rather, it means that those who are best fit to their particular surroundings are the ones who thrive. The long, slow life of a kakapo was perfectly well adapted to the environment in which it evolved. Now, humans have brought about changes so drastic and so sudden that kakapos have had no time to adapt and nowhere to run. This same story is playing out on islands around the world, affecting hundreds of species whose homes have been suddenly and drastically altered beyond recognition.
That humans have, in New Zealand, constructed an artificial fantasy world on a deforested landscape formerly populated by fantastical birds is a bitter irony. Instead of harkening back to an idyllic but non-existent past, we could embrace the wonderfully diverse strategies of surviving, thriving, and coexisting displayed all around us. Humans are a remarkably adaptable species. Perhaps it is time to begin adapting ourselves to new environments instead of forcing our environment to adapt, or die, around us. Otherwise we could end up a very lonely species indeed.
By Jamie Perry
Nature has been inspiring technology since the renaissance period, but a scientific discovery has never had such humble beginnings as the blue-rayed limpet. Here’s how a simple sea creature inspired the minds behind some of the latest tech.
No bigger than a 5p coin, this tiny mollusc inhabits kelp forests along the coasts of northern Europe. The vibrant blue stripes on the limpet’s shell that attracted researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When viewed at the right angle these blue striations appear to flash intermittently; a display that is thought to ward off potential predators. What is unique about this is that it is one of few displays in the animal kingdom that is created via inorganic substances, as opposed to organic structures. But what’s the difference? Organic structures such as keratin and chitin (found in feathers, fur, and scales) are used to create bright colours for impressive visual displays, such as those seen in peacock feathers, chameleon scales and butterfly wings. Inorganic structures manipulate minerals and elements from an animal’s diet or surroundings to do the same job.
Using 3D analysis software to look closely at the limpet’s shell, researchers found that their blue stripes were being created by two distinct structures embedded deep within the inner layers. The first is a horizontal zigzag pattern formed by the calcium carbonate layers of shell. The second is a space below the zigzag structure that contains randomly placed spheres made of complexly arranged minerals. Working in unison, the zigzag structure is used to reflect blue wavelengths of light, and the spherical structures are used to absorb all other light that passes through. This makes the reflected blue light appear more vivid. It is these carefully arranged mineral compounds that have inspired the blueprints for transparent interactive displays that require no light source. Innovative new technologies such as Google Glass, Sat Nav’s that are projected onto car window screens, and transparent mobile phones are all capable of applying the same optical mechanism seen in limpet’s shell.
However, this isn’t the first time we have seen a species inspire new technology. US navy researchers have invested millions into the creation of a material that reduces drag in the water. Modelled from the sleek scales of sharkskin, this tech is being put to use on boats, planes and even tyres. A more commonly known example is spider silk. This remarkably durable material is nature’s strongest organic structure. It has recently been put to use for its sticky properties, acting as a thin adhesive tape suitable for delicate surgery.
But it’s not just animals that have had a hand in innovating some new tech; plants have had a shot too. Burdock, a bulbous hairy plant that we often see growing in fields, was the inspiration behind the creation of Velcro for Swedish inventor George de Mestral. When out for a walk, George saw how the burdock buds stuck to the fur of his dog. This influenced him to create a material that can reversibly bind to another through the hooked fibres (Goodrich, 2013)
Inspiration for exciting new technology is scattered throughout the natural world. From rock pools to mountaintops, from minute molluscs to one-tonne sharks, we are creating a better future for ourselves by learning more about how these organisms work. And if this is not reason enough to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of species, then what is?
By Gisela Sepulveda
Ever heard of diatom? No? You're not alone. These beautifully patterned, unicellular phytoplankton (a group of algae) are often overlooked, literally. Diatoms are small (and when I say small I mean microscopic) with the cells ranging from 2 to 500 microns (or 0.002-0.5 mm). However, although
they are small they have a massive impact on our lives.
The Art of Diatoms
Diatoms live in aqueous environments; from rivers and oceans to bogs and damp rock surfaces. They
are nature's own artwork coming in a range of weird and wonderful geometric shapes. They have even been used in art, an example of this is Klaus Kemp's work which uses a beautiful arrangement of diatoms to create a large variety of patterns. Kemp has revived this Victorian era art form using updated techniques and microscopes to arrange diatoms on slides, creating a stunning kaleidoscope of these phytoplankton. Diatom art has also seen a revival in the recent documentary by Matthew Killip, who has been able to capture these inspiring patterns of natures work.
Thomas Comber continued the examination of diatoms developing a large collection of slides, bottles and notes that can be viewed online and at the Natural History Museum. As a young man he took up microscopy, travelling far and wide from collecting diatom samples from a variety of aqueous environments. In a recent volunteer programme - Making the Invisible Visible - Thomas Comber's diatom specimens were set up in the specimen preparation area of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum to convert each of these slides and notes into an online database for worldwide use.
Diatoms are more than just nature's mobile art gallery, playing an important role in helping to predict
climate change. They are used in palaeoclimatology, the study of past climates, as they are great environmental indicators, being very sensitive to environmental changes and ecological conditions. As they have silica cell walls, which are deposited and preserved in sediments, they can record past changes in climatic environments which can actually be measured and studied, a useful trope in predicting future climatic changes. They can indicate sea temperatures, acidification levels, river quality, the amount of oxygen or carbon in the atmosphere and much more.
They don't merely act as beautiful indicators of change, they impact on it also. As diatoms are phytoplankton they use photosynthesis to live. This means they produce oxygen, in fact, they contribute to the production around ¼ of the oxygen we breathe. As they take in carbon dioxide from the ocean, infiltrated from the atmosphere, they are also key players in carbon fixation. They can even fix the same amount of carbon (per day) as a forest of plants. So you can breathe easy
now thanks to our small friends!
You may be surprised to know that the diversity of uses of diatoms or diatomite (a white silica rich mineral). It can be found in everyday items from nail polish and paint, to insecticides and fertilisers. Alfred Nobel would not have been able to create dynamite without them, the cats eye road markings are lit up by the reflecting diatom shell and that nice glass of wine at the end of the day
was purified by diatoms. What pearly whites you have, thank diatoms! The silica from diatom cell walls has mild abrasive properties due to which they are sometimes used in whitening tooth pastes. They can even be used in nanotechnology, swimming pool filters and are useful in forensics as well.
So don't overlook our friends; The Diatoms
By Douglas Drake
In 1839 Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, prior to that figures from Shakespeare to Thomas Jefferson expressed the same idea. All early acknowledgers of a shifting power base, from those with a capability for violence to those with a mastery of words.
Gone are the days where problems can be solved by a slap with the glove and duel to the death. No single factor has caused this transition but undoubtedly the growing complexity of the world has played a big role. It is very hard to fight a way through a refugee crisis or a credit crunch. After all, George Osbourne is not snuggling up to the Chinese government because of the strength of the Red Army. It is because of their increasing political and corporate power.
Throughout its ascendance the pen has been the realm and tool of politicians. Whether you like what they are saying or doing, the pen is their weapon of choice. But the power base is shifting. Capitalism is driving deregulation and a power transfer from governments to corporations. As the UK votes to reclaim sovereignty from the EU with one hand, it dishes power and influence out to big business with the other. The irony of the Brexit debate is that the negotiation of TTIP – backed strongly by David Cameron, which will transfer vast power from national governments to corporations – is likely to be a far more important long term issue and distributes wholly undemocratic power but gets no air time.
The corporate take-over of the western world has been well document and, for better or worse, is hard to dispute. With it comes a stark difference, politicians (in theory) act on behalf of their electorate, corporations act to maximize shareholder value. As control moves from governments to corporations, the role of the consumer and their shopping trolley becomes more and more important. Rather than voting with a ballot paper, we increasingly vote with our consumption.
But with power, comes responsibility and this is where it falls apart. A great disconnect exists between cause and effect. Everything we consume has a direct impact on the world around us. If we choose to consume cheap meat it is likely we are supporting animal cruelty. If we choose to eat vegetables grown by big agriculture using vast quantities of pesticides, it is likely we are incentivizing the destruction of bees and all the benefits they provide. A good illustration of how broken reality is occurred to me recently; between mouthfuls of Foie gras someone was telling me how much they ‘loved animals’.
Following a recent report, Prof Maarten Hajer, UN expert on food production and the environment, has called for governments to tax meat consumption because of the environmental damage the industry causes. The report shows 24% of greenhouses gases and a staggering 60% of species loss is driven by the industry. It is clear that meat consumption has far bigger implications than just the welfare of the animal eaten. The links are there and need to be made.
Companies respond to consumption - if their goods are purchased they produce more. As the UK government continually steps back from every environmental policy it can, the power inevitably shifts to corporations. However, consumers can wield this power if they choose to. The real danger comes when our consumption is purely driven by price, or even worse inertia, and capitalism produces a ruthless race to the bottom, with environmental, humanitarian and societal interests given no protection and being torn to shreds.
It is a double edged sword; our consumption can be hugely positive or hugely negative. Many people ask what difference one person can make, so decide they won’t bother to take an interest or change their consumption. The simple response is that if everyone takes this view, then the free-market model that the western world is currently flogging is in the long term a dead horse.
As power bases change, so do the mechanisms for exercising power. The strength of consumers to wield power is increasing but until the cause and effect of our consumption is properly considered, the world is left in a perilous position, because sadly, you can’t have your Foie gras and be an animal lover.
Are we prioritising the aesthetic?
By Asher Collins
Everyone loves a panda; it’s very hard not to. According to Simon Watt, a British evolutionary biologist, conservation charities may be biased towards a few of the most visually appealing animals and not focussing equally on the protection of some of “mother nature’s more aesthetically challenged children”. A study from the University of Kent backs up this finding -of the 1200 or so threatened mammalian species in the world only 80 are used by conservation NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) to raise funds, nearly all of which “can be described as large, furry, and cute” .
It seems this desire to protect the animals we find aesthetically pleasing is hard wired into our brains. Janek Lobmaier, a psychologist at the University of Bern tells us “the reason we are so attracted to cute animals appears to be the same mechanism that drives us to protect our babies”. The mechanism Lobmaier is referring to is the brain’s reward system, a complex combination of chemicals and neural pathways that when triggered make us feel good. Typically, when we see a baby this system is triggered; neurones activate and chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin are released into our brain. The positive feeling this produces makes us want to stick around and care for our offspring. Daniel Langleben from the University of Pennsylvania has observed how our brains react to cute pictures using an MRI scanner. The results showed that the ‘cuter’ the image the more our reward system is triggered and the more we want to care for the subject.
It’s this system that can leave some animals left out despite a strong scientific case for prioritising their conservation. Take for example the Cape Vulture. This creature fulfils a vital role in its eco system; removing carrion and in so doing preventing the spread of disease to some of Africa’s larger more photogenic wildlife. Yet, despite its endangered status it receives very little conservation funding. Another case is the Aye-Aye, a type of lemur found in Madagascar. It helps protect the island’s forests by keeping the population of wood boring beetles in check, however, to put it kindly, its good looks take a while to appreciate. Again, the Aye-Aye is endangered but receives relatively little attention.
Ernest Small, an agricultural scientist from Canada, sums up the case for a more rational approach to conservation funding very nicely, “the things we find unattractive still have roles to play in nature. We need to learn to make our conservation decisions on scientific facts and statistics rather than visual cues. While some animals’ looks might not seem particularly attractive to us, the world would be a much uglier place without them".
The story behind Kenya’s 105-tonne destruction of ivory.