Earlier this month I had the chance to attend the Future of Nature conference, which was designed to start a conversation between those working in two rather different fields: synthetic biology and biodiversity conservation. Synthetic biology, I learned, is not easy to define, but has to do with the application of engineering principles of design and function to biological organisms. This has many implications for conservation, such as the possibility of bringing back extinct species (which predictably captures all the headlines). The conference provoked some really interesting debate and raised important questions. It certainly got me thinking more about what the future might look like in a world shared with synthetic organisms. I don’t have a coherent story to tell, but here are the collected thoughts that I took away from the event, starting with the mundane and working through to the serious. Continue reading
“If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life”
A few years ago while I was a PhD student I took part in a roundtable discussion between postgraduate students and academics on the impacts of Integrated Conservation and Development Projects. The general message from the academics was ‘they don’t work’. They were deeply critical, and it was all quite depressing for us idealistic postgrads. One masters student ended up asking whether there were any examples of a really good ICDP. After an awkward silence, a senior professor moved the conversation on as if the question had not been asked, leaving the student, and several of us around the room, feeling completely deflated.
Now I am an academic, and I spend a lot of my time encouraging my students to be critical in their analysis of conservation interventions and their impacts. I ask them to consider the bigger picture, and whether the latest trendy ideas (ICDP -> CBNRM -> REDD+) will actually deliver the win-wins they promise for conservation and development. I strongly believe that such critical thinking is essential, particularly for the future Conservation Leaders with whom I work. However, I am also aware that there is a point at which critical thinking becomes cynicism, leading to the kind of ‘nothing works’ perspective that I encountered in the ICDP discussion above. As a Barclays bank executive said recently on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, “cynics and sceptics never built anything”. Not building investment banks is fine with me, but cynicism in conservation creates a conundrum. On the one hand cynics can see all sorts of problems with the world as it is, but on the other hand they also see problems with just about every proposed solution. This becomes a recipe for inaction and frustration. Continue reading
The BBC Natural History Unit has done it again. Its new wildlife documentary, simply titled Africa, currently showing on the flagship channel BBC One, is an extraordinary feast of natural wonders in high definition. It is pulling in large terrestrial and ‘iPlayer’ audiences, impressing critics and setting the Twittersphere alight. The photography is, as so often before, ground-breaking: slowmo battling giraffes in the Kalahari, a baby elephant dying in an Amboseli drought, starlight camera sequences of black rhino at a Kalahari waterhole and lingering wide-angle shots that capture the grand scale of the African landscapes.
But there is a problem. The ‘Africa’ on display is missing something rather important: Africans. In 2011, the BBC was criticised for splicing footage of a captive polar bear giving birth into wild sequences for the Frozen Planet series (a standard documentary technique). This time the BBC has edited out the people of an entire continent. The first episode of Africa begins with the comforting voice of David Attenborough: “Africa… the world’s greatest wilderness … the only place on earth to the see the full majesty of nature”. His description might just about apply to the Kalahari of the first episode, an arid region with few people. But the second episode was about East Africa, a region home to over 130 million human residents. In fact, southern Uganda, in which much of the episode was filmed, has some of the densest human populations anywhere on the continent. Where were these people, their buildings, their farms, their livestock? Where were their nation states, which were not named in Attenborough’s narration? One aerial shot of Lake Mutanda in south west Uganda showed a few twinkling tin roofs, but this was the exception. Another, of the Virunga Volcanoes – mountains absolutely surrounded by smallholder farms – seemed deliberately angled to avoid showing any signs of agriculture. After watching this programme, anyone unfamiliar with East Africa could be forgiven for thinking that there is an unbroken chain of natural wildlife habitat stretching from the Rwenzori in the west to Mount Kilimanjaro in the East. There isn’t.
In Africa, the BBC is selectively editing its images of the African landscape to tell a particular story about nature. When Peter Jackson wanted to portray Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he used the landscapes of New Zealand to represent Middle Earth. To create the fantasy world, Jackson’s team had a huge struggle to find corners of land where the cameras could not see any imprint of human action. This is what the BBC has done in Africa, projecting a story onto a real landscape; a spell that would be broken if there were any sign of human residents or their creations. Continue reading
Garden centres are portals to the world of the undead. Zombies stalk their orderly aisles, moving awkwardly in a strange world of fragrances and soft music. You can see them any weekend – the near and post-retired generation, harassed parents with young children, and young couples trying out lifestyles. They shuffle past the displays, scented candles and hanging baskets, hosepipes and bird food, jams and cushions; or roaming the endless patio outside, with serried ranks of plants, all exactly sized and perfectly in flower, pallets of compost and stacks of pots, and a builder’s yard of trellis, fencing and posts. Groups of them cluster hungrily around the restaurant, eyeing up the chilli and the bakewell slices.
Garden centres in the modern sense are relatively new on the UK retail scene. Once, gardeners bought their plants from nurseries, a label suggesting green-fingered plant lovers carefully tending their charges. Some specialised and local nurseries survive, but most have changed beyond recognition. Prior to the Sunday Trading Act 1994, garden centres were one of very few retail businesses allowed to open on a Sunday in England. In Margaret Thatcher’s ‘free market’ Britain of the 1980s, consumers ruled. Garden centres welcomed Sunday shoppers with open arms, becoming outdoor superstores, selling anything from strimmers to soft furnishing, tropical fish to fashion. Many are now part of national chains, and big supermarkets and DIY stores have joined the bonanza. Continue reading
During 2012 I have found myself attending a number of events dedicated to the role of new technology in conservation. I have an interest in this area because of some recent work on computer games and conservation, and on community-based monitoring of natural resources. At these events I have heard about an extraordinary range of gadgets and gizmos, ranging from satellite technologies right down to devices so small that they can be sprayed. The great majority of these devices seem to be targeted at monitoring – that is ongoing recording of biodiversity data, including population size, individual species movement, body temperature, weight, depth beneath the seas, or any number of other variables.
Confronted with all these new opportunities for monitoring, I find myself torn between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I am really excited by how clever some of the gadgets are, and by all the things we might learn about nature through their deployment. I am, after all, a young(ish) man with a smartphone in my pocket and a slightly unhealthy interest in consumer electronics. On the other hand, I find myself quite unsettled by the implications of all this monitoring for our relationship with the natural world, and with each other. In a future blog post I intend to write something about how the development and deployment of new monitoring technologies raise political questions about how much we trust those who collect and hold the data. In this piece, I want to focus on a more basic concern, which is that all this monitoring may in some sense diminish the nature that we cherish. Continue reading
The Babel fish is one of the more inspired forms of fictional biodiversity. It features in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (sadly no relative), and allows his antihero, the ape descendant Arthur Dent to traverse the universe with only his speaking handheld digital assistant, the Hitchhiker’s Guide, for company (forget Siri, Douglas Adams got there first). The Babel fish is described as ‘small, yellow and leech-like’, and when it had slithered into Arthur Dent’s ear, he could understand anything that was said, in any language of the universe. As usual in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, this turns out not to be entirely a good thing.
Many conservationists seem to hope that ecosystem services will work like a Babel fish for them. For decades they have hammered on about how valuable nature is, and nobody has paid much notice. Humanity blithely goes on strip mining the earth’s stock of natural capital and burning it getting rich, or just keeping alive. But the ecosystem services Babel fish promises to change all that. Insert it into public discourse, and when conservationists speak of wildlife, biodiversity, endangered species or habitat loss, their listeners will hear human wellbeing, natural capital, nature’s supply chain, the stuff humans get for free. When we speak about the importance of conservation, everyone will automatically understand what we mean. Continue reading
Two weeks ago Science magazine published online an article on the financial costs of achieving some important global conservation targets. The authors, most of whom are (like me) from partner organisations of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, looked at the costs of achieving two of the twenty ‘Aichi Targets‘ that were agreed in 2010 by the Convention on Biology Diversity. These were Target 12, to prevent the extinction of known threatened species and improve and sustain their conservation status, and Target 11, to expand and effectively manage protected areas so that they cover 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10% of coastal and marine areas. The paper comes up with a headline figure to achieve these targets of $78.1 billion US per year. This is certainly a very large number, but as the paper rightly points out, it is rather small when compared to what we spend each year on soft drinks.
Calculations like this are very useful, and they can have a powerful impact on policy. The release of the paper co-incided with the CBD meeting in Hyderabad, India, which finished last week. This meeting was dominated by discussions over how to fund efforts to achieve the Aichi Targets. The meeting eventually agreed an extra $10 billion US per year to support conservation in developing countries, and while the negotiations for this deal have been ongoing for months, the Science paper can’t have hurt those making the case for more funding at the conference.