Category Archives: environment

The Open Ground – Biodiversity, Science & the Imagination (Podcast of conference proceedings)

In June last year, Conservation Today ran a one day public conference – The Open Ground – to raise awareness of issues around biodiversity.  Rather bravely I thought, the event aimed to provoke discussion by combining a range of scientific and artistic perspectives.

Will Pearse

Colleague and fellow science communicator Emma Quilligan at the time wrote up the conference at Nature Network.  Now, browsing my archives, I’ve rediscovered the audio I made with Conservation Today as a record of the event, but which we never published.  Now for the first time, and with organiser Will Pearse’s endorsement, here are the recordings for those who were unable to join on the day.

As Emma says, The Open Ground itself is something of an exercise in diversity.  The panelists range from academic to activist, and include some well known public faces such as the scientist and TV presenter Armand Leroi, and the prize-winning poet and Charles Darwin descendant Ruth Padel.


The proceedings are split into three sessions, each comprising three speaker presentations followed by a panel discussion with audience Q&A.  The sound can be streamed by pressing the arrow on the player, or downloaded from the link below each player.  Without the speakers’ slides, some of the audio isn’t going to make sense; but for the most part it does, and as some of the most interesting discussion comes in the panel sessions, it’s less of a deal.

Clearly all the participants are speaking for themselves, and the views and opinions expressed don’t necessarily represent my own take on things.  That said, if anyone wants to strike up a comment thread on any of the content, feel free.


Introduction by Will Pearse (Conservation Today)


Session 1 – The Necessities of Conservation

Dr Sam Turvey, Dr Emily Nicholson and Caspar Henderson on the challenges conservationists face.

Caspar Henderson, Dr Sam Turvey, Dr Emily Nicholson (photo: Tim Jones)

Presentations – Session 1


Panel Discussion – Session 1


Session 2 – Biodiversity and the Imagination

Prof. Ruth Padel, Dr Jamie Lorimer, and Melanie Challenger look at biodiversity from the perspective of literature, culture and society.

Dr Jamie Lorimer, Prof.Ruth Padel, Melanie Challenger (photo: Tim Jones)

Presentations – Session 2


Panel Discussion – Session 2


Session 3 – Biodiversity Futures

Prof. Armand Leroi, Prof. John Fa, and Steve Roest on topics ranging from the trade in bushmeat to depletion of the oceans.

Prof. John Fa, Steve Roest, Prof. Armand Leroi (photo: Tim Jones)

Presentations – Session 3


Panel Discussion – Session 3


Few more photos……

Armand LeroiRuth PadelJohn FaFelix WhittonTom

(photos: Tim Jones)

Related Links

Guardian Blog on The Open Ground (pre-event)

Announcement on Zoonomian

One Forest Fire Too Close to Home

South Western California is one of the world’s most bio-diverse habitats.  The San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles and south of the Mojave desert, are home to large mammals: including deer, bear, mountain lion and bobcat.  Raccoon and skunk are stealthy night-time visitors to the back gardens of residents, who by day enjoy the company of humming birds, golden oriels and scrub jays.  Lizards scamper on sun-baked rocks, while praying mantis sway, poised – for lunch.

If this all sounds a little wistful, it’s because I’ve enjoyed this region at its best in a form that now – literally – no longer exists.  For in August and September  of this year, 250 square miles of it was destroyed in one of the largest forest fires California has experienced in modern times.  Here is  a time-lapse video of the fire spreading behind NASA JPL, and below that a picture of the local aftermath taken by my wife, Erin.

Station Fire: Brown Mountain Burning #1 from Dan Finnerty on Vimeo.

Scorched Earth in the San Gabriel Mountains
Scorched Earth left by the Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains (photo: Erin Conel Jones)

I have to confess that while many thousands of wild animals – including some endangered species – perished in the fire, my immediate thoughts were for my in-laws.  Living in the foothills north of Pasadena, they sat out their fire under a mandatory evacuation order, pondering the fate of house and home in front of a hotel TV in downtown LA.

Thankfully, save for a messy rainfall of ash in the yard, this personal story ended happily (although we remain girded for de-vegetated mudslides induced by the winter rains).  The same cannot be said for the local fauna and flora – or for that matter the carbon footprint of California.

Animals caught in forest fires may run away, bury themselves, or burn and die.  The so-called Station Fire (it started near a ranger station) was unusually intense and fast-moving, making it confusing and difficult to out-run; the charred carcasses of normally brisk bears, deer, and mountain lions were found amongst the smouldering tree stumps.

Those animals sufficiently fleet of foot to escape the immediate effects of a fire still face loss of habitat and possible starvation.  On this occasion, the local populace was put on alert for more frequent visitations from displaced animals and asked to cut some slack for the potentially more dangerous coyote (i.e. don’t just shoot it).

Smaller land animals, such as the endangered Mountain Red-legged Frog; and fish like the Speckled Dace and Arroyo Chub may yet face their greatest challenge with the arrival of winter flood-waters, when ground unsupported by vegetation, but loaded with harmful rock fragments, will wash into fast flowing stream beds.

We might stand back at this point and declare the Station Fire to be just another part of  a natural cycle that has developed over the eons.  Whether a fire is started through an act of arson (as suspected in this case) or by lightning, forest fires invigorate fire-adapted ecosystems – don’t they?

The answer is yes and no –  and this debate won’t end any time soon.  The issues centre on the degree and speed with which man has altered the region’s natural ecosystem.

Fire-suppression policies, whereby unnaturally high fuel stocks are allowed to build up (e.g. pine needles), and forest management practices – for example how densely the forests are allowed to grow – have been blamed as contributors to the intensity and extent of the Station Fire.

But there is no denying that with man on the scene there are fewer places a large cat or bear can move to when fire strikes (a mountain lion was spotted in my in-laws’ drive – and that was before the fire).

Ironically perhaps, this region of California is home to several man-made animal sanctuaries, the inmates of which were themselves threatened by the recent fire.

The Roar Foundation at Shambala Preserve, run by actress Tippi Hedren (of Hitchcock’s ‘Birds’ fame) went on standby to evacuate its collection of large cats – including Michael Jackson’s tigers; and most of the 400 animals at the Wildlife Waystation Sanctuary – including a sizeable collection of chimpanzees – were evacuated to Los Angeles Zoo.   I’m pleased to say my gibbon friends at nearby Santa Clarita were oblivious to this incident.

Now the fire is over, scientists and economists alike are poring over the barely cooled embers to assess the full impact and inform future policy.  There is still much to do, but the concensus so far seems to be that the ecosystem as far as plant-life goes will recover.   The fate of the various displaced animal species is much less certain or understood.

Besides the impact of forest fires on the immediate ecosystem and its inhabitants, incidents like this put us in mind of how deforestation of all types influences the balance of greenhouse gases and global warming.

This is a huge subject in its own right, and another complicating factor to be absorbed by those nations negotiating ahead of Copenhagen.  This 2007 article from ScienceDaily gives some indication of the scale of the impact, pointing to research showing how a single fire season in some North American States can generate CO2 equivalent to that State’s annual emissions from entire man-made sectors such as transport or energy.  And this before a consideration of the feedback effect of rising temperatures on the frequency of fires and complications associated with the impact of smoky particulates.

All in all, a fuller analysis of this aspect – on this blog at least  – is going to have wait for a future post.

Also of interest:

Sparks fly over study suggesting wild fires cut CO2 (The Guardian)

Sprinting is Good for the Heart (but not so good for the planet)

Inevitably, spring cleaning and winnowing of the paper archives throws up blasts from the past – often in the form of faded, pre-digital-age photographs.   They waft the embers of dormant memories.

Triumph Dolomite Sprint - first commercial 16v motor car
Triumph Dolomite Sprint – first production car with a 16v engine

This memory concerns a charity drive I made with my brother 19 years ago in support of the British Heart Foundation.  The Round Britain Reliability Run involved a group of car enthusiasts loyal to the Triumph brand, driving non-stop (save for pit-stop style re-fueling and the occasional sandwich break) around the UK. That’s a distance of about 2000 miles in something like 40 hours, taking a route from London to John O’Groats to Lands End, and back to London.

The Route
The Route

A number of thoughts struck me, looking at the photo of our ride – a 1981 Triumph Dolomite Sprint; but two in particular.

Firstly,  nobody in 1990 had heard of global warming, so all were oblivious to the carbon footprint of the event or any incongruity with the charitable tone of the challenge (not that heart health and global warming are directly related).

Secondly, this was a reliability run; part of the perverse thrill lay in not knowing with any certainty your vehicle would  hack the 2000 miles round trip. Alright, some of these cars were from the 1950’s, but mechanical reliability – even into the ’70s and ’80s – did not compare to today’s standards.  The Sprint in particular was prone to engine overheating – a defect which, when it occurred, could be ameliorated by driving with the heaters full on and the windows open.

Club Triumph Round Britain Beer Mug

And guess what?  They are still running these events – every two years.  What’s more, the Club Triumph Round Britain Reliability Run has from last year been carbon neutral.  The carbon impact in terms of off-setting equivalent has been calculated at £10 per car – which is duly charged to the drivers.  The beneficiary charity  seems to change with each event, but an impressive total of  £270,000 has been generated for various causes since 1990.

I never repeated this sort of stunt.  For starters, all the Triumphs in our family wore out or were sold off (we had six over the years).  And I moved on to more mature transport related pastimes, like throwing bags of flour out of aeroplanes (the science and technology of flour bombing is a post for another day).

Anyhow, a few more of these blast from the past photos were  loosed along with this one from the box file of history so, if you’re really unlucky, there could be further posts in Zoonomian’s nostalgia category :-).

Kids Leave Dirty Footprints

Want to reduce your emissions? Forget about the gas guzzler, holidaying at home, or buying local produce; cut your “carbon legacy” and have fewer children, says new research.


In recent weeks I’ve attended two public discussions dealing with the big-picture issues of sustainability and balancing development with conservation, and neither of them did much to allay my fears or educate me about the threats associated with population growth.

I may be joining the wrong events, but it seems all too easy to miss population off the formal agenda, or leave it to a brave audience member to raise the issue at question time – when it can be scooted over or dismissed with a glib reply.  A popular counter to worries over population growth in developed countries – at home as it were – is to state that growth is mainly happening in the developing world, where per capita consumption is relatively low.  For me, that seems to ignore the medium term consumption aspirations of developing countries (look at how fast China has moved) and underplays the ratio of the impact of an individual’s consumption between the developed and developing worlds.  But I suspect most of us don’t really know what to think, and lack meaningful data to work it out for ourselves.

Now that position has improved somewhat, with the publishing this month of a formal analysis of these very issues by researchers from Oregon State University.  Murtaugh’s and Schlax’s paper: ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacy of individuals‘ is published in the journal Global Environmental Change, and also  downloadable as a pdf here.  In the authors own words:

Here we estimate the extra emissions of fossil carbon dioxide that an average individual causes when he or she chooses to have children. The summed emissions of a person’s descendants, weighted by their relatedness to him, may far exceed the lifetime emissions produced by the original parent.

It’s more usual to work out an individual lifetime’s worth of carbon footprint.  But in the Oregon study, a parent is instantly given the burden of half their child’s carbon impact, and a quarter of the carbon impact from their child’s prospective child; and so forth.  When the numbers are worked through, and comparisons are made between the developed and developing world, it’s apparent that not having that extra kid is a great way to save the planet. According to the authors’ data, the impact of that decision far outweighs that of other good citizen actions – like downsizing the family car.  The figures I find most provocative are the comparisons of the impact of children born in different countries.  Take the USA and Bangladesh for example: I’d assumed just on a gut feeling that a US child’s carbon footprint would be 20 or 30 times that of a child born in Bangladesh.  The figures in the new paper, with the children’s decendents accounted for, put the ratio at 168:1 – equivalent to average carbon emissions of 56t and 9441t for the Bangladesh and US cases respectively.

The carbon reduction figures presented for the various lifestyle changes we can make, and calculated over an 80 year period, range from 17 metric tonnes CO2 saved by recycling materials, to 148 metric tonnes by increasing automobile gas mileage from 20 to 30 mpg.  Those numbers can be compared with the 9441t of emissions that could be avoided by not having an extra child.

This paper is written in the spirit of presenting data as an input for informed discussion.  The authors don’t take a moral position on human rights and population control – that’s for the politicians with the people to sort out.  And it’s not too far a stretch to make the analogy between this situation and  that which existed when the global warming debate was put on a more data-rich, objective, footing by the issuing of the Stern Report in 2006.  However the detail and assumptions in this work may be criticised, as surely they will be, it’s good to see some quantification around this complex piece of the sustainability jigsaw.


Paul A. Murtaugh a,*, Michael G. Schlax b ‘Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals’, Global Environmental Change 19 (2009) 14–20

(Originally posted at


Also of Interest

Is population growth out of control (BBC September 2013)

The Business of Conservation

Conservation, business, and the Olive Ridley Turtle.  This article was originally published at ConservationToday.Org

Olive Ridley Turtle (c)

It’s almost exactly a year since I left my job as director for procurement strategy and development at Corus, the Anglo-Dutch steel business owned by India’sTata Steel Group.  I  have happy memories of meeting Indian colleagues in Kolkota and visiting Tata’s operations at Jamshedpur.  So it’s been especially disappointing to watch over the year a progressive sickening of relations between Tata Steel, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and Greenpeace, over the issue of the Olive Ridley Turtle.

Briefly, the case concerns the potential impact on the turtles beaching behaviour of the construction, by a Tata JV company, of a deep water port at Dhamra, on India’s Bengal coast. The case is complex and unresolved to the satisfaction of all parties, particularly Greenpeace, who have criticised the nature of the IUCN’s engagement with Tata. I don’t plan to dissect the case here; starting points for that can be found at these sites: IUCN press release (2008)Dhamra Port Company StatementGreenpeace.

Rather, the case prompts reflection on  the broader relationship between business and the environment – including conservation.  My message is that a business-like and emotion-free relationship is requisite, and that negative criticisms (founded or not) of individual involvements by organisations like the IUCN should not distract from the essential wisdom of their philosophy for business engagement.

As Mohammed Valli Moosa, President of the IUCN has said:

We  are living in an era of global economic expansion.  The private sector is a major player in this period of unprecedented development.  Business has a responsibility to the global environment.  Business has to do more than just avoid prosecution.”

(source: Partnerships for the Planet)

Moosa here is not showing anti-business sentiment; indeed, he questions the way the conservation movement has traditionally engaged with business, as in this report by the New York Times on the occasion of the 2008 World Conservation Congress.

Part of the IUCN’s role is to provide a forum where traditionally divergent views and stakeholders can find solutions that don’t reject the market, but work with it, and has established the Business and Biodiversity Programme (BBP) to support its goals.

The IUCN helps businesses like Shell, Holcim, and Tata to formulate best practice standards and improved conservation policies.  The approach is consciously ‘pragmatic’ (IUCN’s term).  Dialogue does not mean an absence of criticism; the IUCN have challenged Shell on an energy  strategy that focuses on biofuels over wind and solar (link to report here).   On the Dhamra project, the IUCN have in an agreement with Tata advised on the possible impact and mitigation of environmental concerns, although not to the satisfaction, particularly, of Greenpeace.  References in the various chat forums around the case allude to ‘greenwashing’ and abandonment of the ‘precautionary principle’ – implying some kind of sell-out to big business.

Engagement with business and business management principles is far from a sell-out.  By attaching an economic value to the social cost of environmental impact, Nicolas Stern’s report on climate change caught the attention of the political and business world like never before.  Businesses are coming to realise energy efficiencies and GHG emissions reduction can be achieved profitably through technology and improved corporate housekeeping.  The motivation for these actions is becoming less a response to protest and more a simple case of delivering to shareholder approved corporate plans; manifest not only in the glossy pages of corporate social responsibility or environmental reports, but embedded in the financial plans owned by company CFOs.  It is in the conservationists interest as well that businesses make this mind-set internally sustainable, and should be encouraging businesses to include environmental expertise on their boards – maybe in a non-executive director capacity.   Governments have a critical role in removing obfuscating sudsidies and making transparent the true costs of commodities and supply chains to businesses and private individuals.

Tension between business and conservationist goals will not reduce further until a true costing of impacts is agreed and worked to.  As that develops, we must guard against the equation being muddied by subjective judgements and emotion.  In the meantime, a degree of compromise is requisite on both sides, and a recognition that more can be achieved as a team, even one working under constructive tension.

‘The Open Ground’ – Conservation Event in London

Some of you may know that in addition to Zoonomian, I’m a contributing editor at, the conservation group run by post-graduate students from Imperial College under the leadership of Will Pearse.

Open Ground - come along on 20th June
Open Ground - come along on 20th June

So it’s a great pleasure now to introduce this first one day conference organised by ConservationToday, and to encourage you to sign up and go along.

The Open Ground conference will explore the common ground between the wider arts and sciences in conservation – taking place on the 20th of June in London.

It will feature:

* John Fa – Director of conservation science at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

Armand Leroi – Professor at Imperial College London and BBC presenter of ‘Darwin’s Lost Voyage’

* Sam Turvey – involved with the Yangtze River Dolphin, ZSL

Ruth Padel – former Professor of Poetry at Oxford and prize-winning author of ‘Darwin: a life in poems’

…and many more!

You can find out more about the event and book your ticket on-line HERE AT ConservationToday.Org

And, here is the conference poster for you to download.   Spread the word !

UPDATE Feb 2010

The audio of proceedings is here.

Earth Hour – Consciousness Raised? (a bit?)

Well that’s the World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Earth Hour’ over and done with for another year.

(Artwork - Gareth)

At least that’s the cynic’s (realists?) view of this annual attempt to get the world’s lights switched off for an hour, on a rolling cycle from 8.30 – 9.30 pm, across the globe.   It’s just happened in the UK.

I’ve heard the arguments for and against what some see as a ‘stunt’.   I support it all the same.

Whatever else the organisers intended, events like this raise consciousness in those they touch – even if that excludes the worst offenders.

Against that is the view that one-off gestures make people feel good at the time, but that real benefit is lost in ‘business as usual’ during the year.  I’ve not seen any statistics, so won’t comment; maybe the WWF have done the research?

But I can’t get excited about criticism that people might actually use more power during the ‘lights out’ hour.   On balance, I hope there’s a reduction, but don’t see it as a huge deal if not.   I feel guiltier when I’m using power.

Events like Earth Hour raise consciousness; an essential ingredient in any discussion on global warming, religion, famine, conservation, or any number of contentious science-related issues.    The Earth Hour critics are right that you can’t force people to act, but you can nudge them in the right direction.   This is a preparing of the ground, warming people up gently so they don’t melt when faced with the full real cost of energy.   And rather than giving the impression that turning out lights will save the planet, Earth Hour might just spur some to follow up on the detail of the broader picture.

Next year maybe we need the ‘leave the X5 in the garage for a month stunt’, or the ‘cancel one of the two long-haul hols. stunt’?   A sustainable planet will require fundamental life-style changes –  to paraphrase Sir David King (again, sorry) at this year’s Darwin Day lecture: things won’t really sort themselves out until girls stop fancying blokes in Ferraris…… (go figure).

I did hugely exciting stuff in my dark hour.  First, I checked out the appartment building and found the lighting pattern pretty much as I remember it from any other Saturday night (no control – my not being scientific, sad, or both, enough to photograph the place over the two previous weeks).   Then to the supermarket with my re-useable plastic bag (by now I’m visibly radiating good-citizenship with my raised consciousness before me), arriving home 20 minutes early and requiring the PC be prematurely re-activated as a light source.

In that 20 minutes, I did the back-of-fag-packet calculation that a billion people (the WWF target) turning off a 100W  bulb = 100,000 MW or 200 power-stations at 500MW  or 100 at 1000MW.   My personal saving was much less than 100W, at  22W  for the 2 x 11W  fluorescent lamps we run in the lounge which, as a fraction of the power used by the 300W  TV  and 150W PC  found in most homes, supports the critics numerical case.   But if you think that’s what it’s about,  you’re missing the point.

Anyhow, off to phone my other half who’s in the USA at the mo’ – need to get those double Earth Hour Brownie Points.

It’s Gibbon Time!

(This piece originally appeared as an editorial in Conservation Today. You can see/hear it elsewhere on this blog by clicking HERE.

Check out my latest editorial for Conservation Today for a more manageable (=edited)  form of the Jones-Mootnick gibbon interview at the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita, California.

Young White Cheeked Gibbon
Young White Cheeked Gibbon

“Very Little Can Stop The Train” Sir David King On Media Reporting and MMR

I’ve just returned from the annual British Humanist Association Darwin Day Lecture, this year delivered by Sir David King at a session chaired by Richard Dawkins.

Sir David King and Professor Richard Dawkins at the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2009 (photo Tim Jones)
Sir David King and Professor Richard Dawkins at the BHA Darwin Day Lecture 2009 (photo Tim Jones)

King is a former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, and now heads up a multi-disciplinary organisation tackling climate change – The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment- at Oxford University.

His talk entitled  ‘Can British Science Rise to the New Challenges of the Twenty First Century?’ was very similar in content to one I watched him give at a PAWS event in November, and dealt less with British Science, and more with the complexities of tackling global climate change.   There were some new angles, but I’d refer you to my previous blog HERE – inspired by Sir David’s earlier talk – rather than repeat myself.   I believe a podcast of tonight’s event will appear on the BHA site in due course.

So perhaps, given the greater relevance to current debate over poor media reporting of science, and particularly that related to MMR (and the Goldacre/LBC radio encounter), you’d like to hear what Sir David volunteered tonight on that subject.  It came up in response to a question from the floor about the Daily Mail.  Sir David’s transposed response:

We’ve now got a measles epidemic growing in this country, and the measles epidemic is the result directly of a very poor piece of science from John Wakefield, somehow being published in the Lancet – should never have been published – the database was far too small.  And then gaining momentum in the media, and it’s not only the Daily Mail, John Humphreys was one of those pushing that… that the connection between MMR and autism raised real questions, and the take-up of the MMR vaccine began to fall very dramatically.  And my prediction a few years ago was that we would approach something like a hundred deaths a year from, amongst children, from measles as a measles outbreak occured, inevitably.

If you do models and you drop below 80% uptake of the vaccine, the measles must come back.  Of course the Daily Mail’s campaign was one of the instruments that got people very worried about that particular issue.  So I think that was an example where the science was so clear.  Let me tell you.  There was a Danish study of all the children born in Denmark over ten years of whom 15% had not had the MMR vaccine, and 85% had.  The statistical incidence of autism in the two groups was the same.   Now just to be on the…on the…..when I say the same within statistical error.  The nice thing was, from the point of view of those who were sceptics, that amongst the group who didn’t have the vaccine, there was a slight larger number- larger percentage – with autism.  Now any parent worrying about the situation, just needs surely to be given that set of statistics, and yet the Daily Mail wouldn’t publish it when I went to them.   What am I saying, [finding his words]well, it rarely gets their story right.  There is…there is a sort of disbelief, but I’m afraid when a newspaper is running a campaign, there’s very little can stop the train

To which Richard Dawkins, with a look of amazement and with apparent reference to the Daily Mail not printing the Denmark evidence, said – “I’m shocked

Back Pocket Big Picture

(This article originally appeared at

Over Christmas, according to the Carbon Neutral Company’s online calculator, my wife and I were responsible for the release of 4.2 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – our share of a 19000km round trip flight from London to Los Angeles.   With two such flights a year, that makes our individual emission 4.2 tonnes, or nearly half the UK per person annual average of  9.51 tonnes.


To reel off excuses for this travel (my better half hails from the US, and we like to see the in-laws in the flesh occasionally) is to miss the point, which is that I, and many more like me, at least now have some awareness and quantification of the impact we’re making; our consciousness has been raised.

We’re all part of the problem, each with our own circumstances,  and each needing a plan to address our impact.   My plan might involve paying the Carbon Neutral Company’s recommended carbon off-set fee of £35.70 in support of a Chinese hydro-electric project.  It won’t on this occasion, because while I support off-setting as one tool in the bag of control measures,  I’ve chosen instead to donate to projects benefiting animals already affected by the complex interplay of climate factors – which I’m about to come on to.

Starting the year with a  knowledge of your personal carbon footprint is only part of the story.  While sufficient perhaps for the average citizen to act upon and make a difference, policy makers, industry leaders, NGOs, conservationists, educators, and the plethora of other stakeholders and interest groups directly involved in climate change issues, need the bigger picture.

This is the bigger picture I’ll be working to in 2009, and it comes from the UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor – Sir David King.   It’s been in my head, sparking ideas and resonating with a whole range of experience since I scribbled it on the back of a business card back in November.   I saw Sir David at an environmental media awards evening organised by PAWS, where he used the diagram to illustrate the important challenges of the 21st Century, and their inter-dependency.

Examples of specific  inter-dependencies are well represented in Conservation Today articles: from unpredictable climate induced pathogen interactions impacting biodiversity, to corporate actions influencing food production, to how health and education are changing the global population dynamic.   King’s representation is helpful in encapsulating the whole smash; its something you can carry around in your mental back pocket.   Away from specifics,  it also for me informs at least three more oblique, but no less important, themes that I’ll now expand upon:

  • The importance of  not generalising
  • The imperative for interdisciplinary and international cooperation
  • An opportunity for business and an alternative to rampant consumerism?

Don’t Generalise

I’ll illustrate how generalisations are dangerous with reference to two processes: desalination and GM crop growing.

Desalination is a process that has been criticised for its energy intensity and associated CO2 footprint.  King referred to the Australian province of Victoria’s response to seven years of drought conditions, whereby a third of its water will in future come from new desalination capacity.  Ultimately powered by Australia’s plentiful coal reserves, the plants will indirectly yield CO2, which will warm the planet, which will intensify the drought, which will demand more desalination plants.   It’s a simplified picture – but you get the point; in this case technology is a short term fix to a  grim spiral.

I’ve since though found a more positive example of ‘Green Desalination’ in the form of California’s Carlsbad Project.  Here, a 50 million gallon per day desalination plant is being built to supply up to 8% of San Diego County’s water needs, involving co-location of the plant with a new power station at the coast.   The encouraging  part is that when completed in 2011, it promises to be the first US plant to have a net zero carbon footprint.

So why can the Americans do it but not the Australians?    First off – don’t generalise – every situation is different; processes and power stations are not inherently evil.  San Diego County currently imports 90 percent of its water from a distance of more than 800km, from Sacramento Bay Delta and Colorado River, and the electricity needed to deliver and treat that water is close to what the new plant will use.   The mitigation of the remaining ‘CO2 gap’ will be achieved at the site through initiatives like green building design; on-site solar power generation; funding renewables; and acquisition of renewable energy credits.  Further carbon dioxide will be sequestrated by creation of coastal wetlands and reforestation (we know how important those are, see here) – and that will impact biodiversity.  See how our diagram is working here?

We also generalise when we impose the luxury of our western standards on to less wealthy societies.  Increased desertification and flooding in some Asian regions is combining with a healthier, more educated, and therefore at least temporarily increasing, population, to demand that rice farming become more intensive.  This means farming on land that may flood, requiring flood resistant rice strains – which are readily available as GM seeds.  In practice though, farmers wishing to export product beyond their own needs refrain from using GM rice because of the negative attitude it attracts in the west.  As a result, such farms may fail to meet even local food needs.  Given my personal stance on GM crops, that amounts to a case of  “one man’s lifestyle choice is another man’s starvation”.

The imperative for interdisciplinary and international cooperation

Inter-relating challenges demand an increased coordination of the political, infrastructure, research, and educational aspects associated with each.   Global warming is possibly the defining example of a need for innovatory thinking combined with an imperative for pan-disciplinary co-operation; not only across the sciences, but involving engineering, medicine, commercial, and policy elements.   The slow progress made at recent climate summits suggests the required international policy infrastructure just does not exist.  So where are the rays of hope?   The world has high hopes of Obama, and his promised global energy forum could be part of a more mature future; remember this:

“In addition I will create a Global Energy Forum—based on the G8+5, which includes all G-8 members plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa—comprising the largest energy consuming nations from both the developed and developing world. This forum would focus exclusively on global energy and environmental issues. I will also create a Technology Transfer Program dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change”

And closer to home, encouraging exemplar organisations have emerged, such as the  University College London’s Environment Institute, who are developing a pan-disciplinary approach to global warming; and King’s own organisation, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment in Oxford, which aims to help governments, companies, and individuals meet future environmental challenges in the context of the bigger picture.

An opportunity for business and an alternative to rampant consumption

I could easily have overprinted the big picture interactions diagram with a giant $ sign, given that all our challenges are inescapably embedded in an economic and political web of capitalist growth imperative, feeding on consumption and wealth generation.     Question is – has that web, via the present financial crisis and to a background of increased environmental awareness, had a wake up call in any positive sense?

I’m going to stick my neck out and take an upbeat, even optimistic, tack on how business and the capitalist monster can become our greatest assest in tackling the century’s environmental challenges.   How come?   Because I believe there will be a significant shift of attitudes in (a) business awareness of the opportunities from environment related projects (like the Carlsbad desalination scheme), (b) increased government investment in such projects, both as a way of countering recession and addressing the underlying environmental need, (c) a less predictable re-think on the part of private individuals about the role of consumption – particularly excessive consumption in the west –  on their well-being.   I’m most optimistic about (a) and (b), precisely because the required technologies and management practices are at present so underdeveloped.   I’m less sure about the form of, or optimistic about how we might achieve, the revised international infrastructure needed to moderate individual nation’s interests.