This is an extract taken from my new book, written with Alan Murray, Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st Century Practitioner. Due out on 15th April, 2015, you can find it at Stylus Publishing in the Americas or Greenleaf Publishing in the UK. The history of humankind has been a journey of change, as all journeys are, but the drivers of change have altered. The Hunter-Gatherer Age, in which our race has spent 95% of our time on Earth, was shaped by the environment, and our existence relied on our relationship with nature. The feedback loops were simple, rapid and direct, stemming from the sun and the rain. The rest was the outcome of the particular food web of which we were a part. Our energy was mostly dedicated to acquiring the food and water needed to sustain us. We existed in an egalitarian relationship socially and with the environment. Human capital represented the only limit to human economic development (e.g. the number of fishermen limited the number of fish caught), if economics even existed. The environment was a source. The Agrarian Age still relied on the sun and water, but we began taking control of the food webs, altering them to suit our needs. Soon these outcomes formed the basis of profits, allowing trade, and settlements facilitated the development of trade routes and export/import. Our energy was spent creating agricultural surplus, or trading this surplus, as an economic system developed. Inequality entered not only human society, but the human-environment relationship. In the Agrarian Age, the environment was now a source and a sink. Man-made capital limited economic development (e.g. the number of fishing boats limited the number of fish harvested). While the industrial revolution has often been observed as the most significant transition in human history, in fact the transition from the Hunter-gatherer Age to the Agrarian Age was much more elemental, laying the foundations for all that was to come. Three developments in particular would pave the way to the modern world:
The population underwent division of labour (food producers and those not involved in agriculture), and with a sedentary, trading race, social stratification emerged. With the basics more than taken care of, wealth, power and tokenism prevailed. This lead to wider uses of renewable and non-renewable resources, and with an increasingly large trading floor, industrialization of production emerged, ushering in the Industrial Age. Our energy was spent creating wealth either for ourselves or our employers, and inequality increased at both the social and environmental levels. The Industrial Age superseded the Agrarian Age by industrializing agriculture, while colonialism all but wiped out the remnants of the Hunter-Gatherer Age, except in areas where the colonial powers could see no exploitative advantage. In the early Industrial Age, man-made capital limited the potential for economic development (e.g. the ability of an automobile factory to make lots of cars), but in the later stages, it is the natural capital that limits that development (e.g. insufficient lithium to make enough batteries for the new generation of electric cars). It is fossil fuel deposits, not the number of refineries that limit oil production; it is the area of forest, not the number of saw mills, which limits forestry. Yet the Industrial Age was merely an intensification of the Agrarian Age. The Information Age now controls the financial, industrial, agricultural and cultural domains of our existence, and we live in a largely controlled world. While improving our social interactions and enhancing industrial efficiency, the Information Age has so far not altered our relationship with the environment in any meaningful way. Its replacement of humans in the workplace may also erode social structure while enhancing economic growth. It is yet to be seen if this will change, but at present it merely contributes to the source and sink exploitation of our existence, while introducing new risks due to our increasing dependence upon technology. While the Information Age excludes environmental considerations within its solution space, then its solutions will continue to fail nature, and further erode the natural capital of our planet. Yet again, the information age is merely an intensification and optimization of the Agrarian Age in principle. The path of the last 12000 years has been one of increasing intensification and optimization of our race at the expense of everything we used to hold dear as hunter gatherers. The ghosts of our past still walk with us in the form of the indigenous peoples of our world. Each age has brought a population explosion, as technology has raised the carrying capacity by allowing access to greater energy resources for humans. Through the ages of humankind there has been a shift from using portable utilitarian, easily acquired, replaceable, easily recycled artefacts to using heavy, elaborate, multi-resource artefacts requiring prolonged manufacture, maintenance, and increased waste. From the Agrarian Age onwards, with the advent of economics came the age of possession, inequality, envy, greed and individualism: the age of the plastic crown.
- The onset of agriculture
- The onset of urbanization
- The onset of economics
The problem with building your house on the backs of four elephants is that you have got to keep feeding them. Elevating our carrying capacity, by increasing the flow of energy through the Biosphere, in order to produce the food and recreational energy needed to sustain our energy-expensive lifestyles, means that we are no longer living at our natural level. Many people seem to think that if we freeze the population at where it is today, or even in twenty years time, then there will be no problems. Wrong on two fronts. Firstly, we will still need to maintain the massively exaggerated numbers of people. Secondly, the current global development programme is based on increasing the energy demands of the bulk of the world's population, referred to as the "third" or "underdeveloped" world, in order to make them more like the model, "developed" citizen, the western world. Thus even with a decreasing population, resource abuse will spiral out of control.
Professor Joel Cohen (Cohen, 1995), from Rockefeller University, New York, writing in Science, has calculated that between 1860 and 1991, the human population quadrupled. Over that same period, energy usage increased by ninety-three-fold. So the problem isn’t actually the number of people, per se, but rather the amount of energy needed to maintain us in the way that we have become accustomed to.
The per capita energy use is escalating rapidly, exacerbating the problem of a geometric rise in population. And, as resources run low, we must work harder to keep the population elevated. Of course if any kind of large scale disaster should strike, we will be much less resilient to the trauma than if we were living on the ground. Elephants can die of starvation.
The energy flow, upon which we are so reliant, leaves behind some rather unpleasant side-effects. The three greatest causes of extinction at present are global warming, habitat destruction and eutrophication. Each one of these is directly a consequence of our attempts to maintain the human carrying capacity on the planet.
Global warming stems from our use of fossil fuels, in industrial processes, including the Haber-Bosch process, used to produce fertilizers for agriculture, on which some forty percent of the world’s population depends for their very existence. The industrial revolution, hailed by adherents to the Enlightenment philosophy of Hume and Condorcet, has set in motion a technological spiral of consumption.
Habitat destruction is carried out to clear areas for crop plants and animal husbandry. Rainforest in the Amazon, equivalent to the area of France, has been cleared for cattle ranching alone. Swamps are drained and forests felled to convert land for industrialized food production. Habitats are also fragmented by human infrastructure. Meanwhile our desperate need for water leads us to dam rivers and flood areas of important biodiversity.
Eutrophication is a silent killer. Here, the powerful fertilizers used to force the soil into greater productivity, leach out into the water, and horrifically distort natural habitats, leading to huge species loss and the crippling of sustainable ecosystem function.
And so instead of the three horsemen of the Malthusian apocalypse, famine, disease and war, we have introduced these three new destructive characters: global warming, habitat destruction and eutrophication. It is ironic that in our efforts to free ourselves from the original Malthusian checks, we have engineered three equally blood-thirsty killers across the globe.
What have these deadly dragoons, unleashed by humans in pursuit of that utopia, done to our Biosphere? David Woodruff (2001) estimates that current extinction rates are fifty to five hundred times higher than background. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2001) reported that over fifty percent of animal species are vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. A quarter of all mammals, a third of all fish and up to a third of all plants are predicted to face extinction in the next few decades.
Please take the time to read this last paragraph again, slowly and out loud. If there is someone else in the room or on the bus, don’t be put off. They need to hear it. Gary Snyder, writing in 1990, summed up the appropriate reaction powerfully when he wrote “The extinction of species, each one a pilgrim of four billion years of evolution, is an irreversible loss. The ending of the lines of so many creatures with whom we have travelled this far is an occasion of profound sorrow and grief. Death can be accepted and to some degree transformed. But the loss of lineages and all their future young is not something to accept. It must be rigorously and intelligently resisted.”
This week's blog is taken from Chapter 87 of my book, Escape from Bubbleworld Seven Curves to Save the World. It examines the danger of optimization. Efficiency measures, more from less, optimizing production and design and increased technology are mantras of the Enlightenment, where we view optimization at the human level as central to our own progress. Yet we are not alone, but part of a much greater whole, the biosphere. Systems require sub-optimality at each level for the greater functional good, as we shall see if we go down to the neighbouring woodland...
He’d buried them somewhere around here. Hundreds of acorns carefully gathered and secreted away for the winter, each one chosen with a feast in mind. And now, this snowy morning, waking to the feeling of overwhelming hunger, all Mr Squirrel had to do was remember where he had hidden the damn nuts. This was getting ridiculous. Squirrel Nutkin indeed! More like Squirrel Nothing, with the “nothing” referring to the substance of his memory and the content of his belly.
And this wasn’t the first time either. Just a couple of days ago, it had taken him three hours to track down one of his caches. Maybe he was being too cryptic, placing the tasty morsels in more and more obscure hidey-holes. If only he had some way of recording exactly where and when he had hidden these nuts. Maybe some kind of hand-held global positioning system device or...
Then, from nowhere, a magical cloud appeared in front of him, full of sparkles and fireworks, and out of it stepped a rather muscular little wood mouse, oozing attitude and zeal.
“You see,” the wood mouse proclaimed with a flourish of his paw, “it’s the way it’s meant to be!”
Mr Squirrel just stared at this flamboyant little chap, and was about to try to think of something to say when the mouse took a stick from the ground and sketched out a rectangle in the air, which transformed into a flat screen monitor.
“Let’s take two scenarios here, Squirrel. First, you remember where all the nuts are. You become the recall rodent himself – not one acorn escapes your crystal clear thinking. And you eat them all. Year after year, you keep eating them all. What do you think will happen, eh, big guy?”
“Well,” said Mr Squirrel “I suppose I’d be nice and full, and a lot less frustrated, and I’d be much more operationally optimized too – think of the efficiency savings! I could start studying again for my Master of Business Administration with the Open University. I’d have more time for my family too...” “And there’d be no more squirrels in the woodland.” interrupted the wood mouse, in a monotone that cut across his bows. “Take a look for yourself; it’s all on the screen, this forest, in one hundred years time, with your perfect recollection and kernel collection.”
They both stared at the screen, which flickered into life. It was terrible. The trees were all dead, as were almost all of the animals. There was no bird-song, no chirruping of the grasshopper, no buzzing of the bees and no rustling of the squirrels. There were no squirrels.
“What...happened?” stammered the squirrel.
You and your sort ate all the nuts, that’s what happened. The trees were unable to reproduce because you ate all their babies. So the forest died, and you lot starved to death.”
There was silence. The screen flickered and went blank.
“Of course, you could have forgotten where all of the nuts were hidden...” and the screen flickered back into life. The forest looked relatively healthy, although there were a lot of birds around... too many birds. The place was covered in birds. And there were no squirrels.
“What’s with all the birds” Mr Squirrel asked, honestly puzzled by this Hitchcockian scene. “And where are all the squirrels?” he added, more tentatively.
“Well you couldn’t remember where any of the nuts were, so you all starved to death. Remember in the spring, you eat bird eggs? Lots of them. Without your predation, the bird populations spiralled out of control. They’ll all starve eventually. A population explosion. And then, a population crash –Malthusian Mayhem, they call it!”
The wood mouse made the screen disappear, and started to walk off into the forest. Turning to look at the stunned squirrel, he said “You see, the optimal way for nature to operate is with each of its components acting sub-optimally. If you try to strive for efficiency, the whole house will come tumbling down.”
From our earliest times, humans have solved problems, as many other organisms do. However the manipulation of our environment has increased rapidly over our history, and central to this has been the process of design. Victor Papanek, the Austrian philosopher of design, defined design as “the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order”. Alex Steffen comments that “Design is also about the way things are used; how they are committed to the world, and the way they are produced”.
While design has delivered solutions to humans, the implications of design products upon the rest of the planet have often been problematic. Schmidt and Donnert, writing in 2009, stated that “Everything was fine in the ancient past. Nature produced no embarrassing shapes and colours, humans were busy struggling for survival and had no time to decorate their first wedges with scrolls. Everything was fine, because in the ancient past there were no designers”. Papanek has further observed that "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them...Today, industrial design has put mass murder on a mass production basis". The late, great Nigel Whiteley, Professor of visual Arts at Lancaster University, argued that designers have a moral and ethical obligation to be responsible for their designs, and the social and environmental impacts of their work.
Edwin Datschefski, founder of Biothinking, reports that “most environmental problems are caused by unintentional side effects of the manufacture, use, and disposal of products. For example, according to one source, over 30 tonnes of waste are produced for every one tonne of product that reaches the consumer and then 98 percent of those products are thrown away within 6 months”.
Yet the history of design is the history of our relationship with the environment in many ways. No clearer example of changes in design can be found than on the now deserted St Kilda archipelago, far off the northwest shores of Scotland. This World Heritage Site (unusually listed under both natural and cultural criteria) is the remnant of an extinct volcano, rising, some 60 million years old, from the surrounding 3 billion years old Lewisian gneiss.
Home to the largest northern gannet population in the world, 300000 puffins, 90% of Europe’s Leach’s Petrels, 40000 guillemots, 10000 kittiwakes and one of the largest populations of the northern fulmar, it is truly an ornithologist’s paradise. The Soay sheep point to another life form: humans. Soay sheep represent the last link to the original Neolithic sheep, and some of the earliest experiments in animal breeding by humans. The Soay sheep are thought to have been on the islands for some 4000 years. These sheep moult rather than needing shearing, and wool is gathered by plucking.
Since the sheep didn’t kayak to St Kilda, humans must have occupied these islands for at least 4000 years. The men were notably different than mainland men in one interesting way. St Kilda men did not have facial hair growth until the age of thirty years. This all changed in 1726, when a male St Kildan died of smallpox on the isle of Harris. His clothes were of good quality and were returned to his family. The result was a smallpox epidemic that killed almost all of the ancient people. The island was repopulated from the mainland with “bearded” males.
But it was to be another mainland import that would serve as a lesson in the history of design. Prior to the 1860s, St Kilda existed in glorious solitude. In 1838, Lachlan MacLean wrote "Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda“. The people survived on birds and their eggs and plumage, sheep and fish. They paid their rent, under a feudal communalism system, to the MacLeods of Skye, in wool, feathers and fish. The local parliament consisted of all of the males on the island and met every morning.
Their houses, blackhouses or taigh-geal, were double walled dry stone structures with the cavity packed with earth, with turf roofs covered in cereal straw. These structures were well insulated against the atrocious winter weather, and heated by turf fires. The St Kildans were self-sufficient. As early as 1698, Martin Martin observed: “The inhabitants of St Kilda are much happier than the generality of mankind, being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty”.
In the 1860s all of this would change. Corrugated iron was introduced onto the island as a new roofing material. Much lighter and easier to assemble, the material became very popular. The only problem was that it meant less insulation. Soon coal had to be imported in order to heat the new house designs sufficiently, as peat didn’t release sufficient heat. Coal imports required money, and so capitalism finally reached this outlier of the British Isles, requiring an intensification of exploitation, and the spiral of increasing imports.
Thus a change in design led to a radical transformation of life on St Kilda. This is a lesson on several levels. Early humans designed within their environmental context, and lived sustainably as a result. Although the earth was relatively underpopulated and full of resources, man's ability to exploit these resources was limited and nature constrained our activities and design approach.
Thus design was sustainable long before any school of eco-design was established. Recycling, appropriate use of limited resources, the relationship between society, economics and environment – all of these things were understood by our forefathers. Design emerged from a conversation between humans and their environment, as it does with all other organisms who design things. Design was an organic process. As humans overcame the barriers imposed by nature, their design activities were freed to create an easier life (for surely, laziness is the mother of invention today, not necessity?), while exhausting natural capital and spiralling ever more quickly towards ecological crisis. A form of entrapment and enforced alignment with the rest of the planet took hold, akin to much of the sustainable development dogma currently at the heart of such organizations as the United Nations.
Yet is the northern, western model really the best for global sustainability, be it social economic or environmental? And surely all three of these aspects can only be resolved together, with sub-optimality expected in each one in order to maximize the outcome for all. In organic design, inefficiency plays a central role, whereas humans strive for perfection for themselves, with no thought for the greater whole. This, of course, is because humans are experts in self-denial, refusing to accept that their survival relies on context and compromise, and compromise requires sub-optimality at the human level.
As a Christmas blog, we thought that we would do something different for the holiday season. Here is the first chapter of Escape from Bubbleworld: Seven Curves to Save the Earth, by Keith Skene, released in 2011. This chapter is a short story based on the real life events of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as part of the Birdman Cult. We wish you a very happy Christmas and a new year where you realize dreams.
Musings on a Rock Face
"Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are boundless sea and sky, infinite space and a great silence. The dweller there is ever listening for he knows not what, feeling unconsciously that he is in the antechamber to something yet more vast which is just beyond his ken.” – Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919
Evolution can be a very cruel thing, she reflected, as she looked down at the misshapen heap of flesh and bone lying at the bottom of the rocky crag. He’d lost his grip, and lay defeated, exhausted from days of dragging his heavy torso over a terrain completely unsuited to his design. Having said that, there were not, really, any habitats that this odd-looking beast could properly call home. For he represented a mishmash of ideas borrowed from many inspirations, none optimal for its task, and ruled over by a brain that spent more of its time consumed with the past rather than the future, and with competition and control, rather than with context and community. So many neurons, so little understanding!
Yet the broken body lying far below was a relative of hers. Their families were one, far in the distant past. Of course, all of life could trace its lineage to the sea originally, for it was in the oceans that life had begun, protected from the damaging radiation of the Sun, surrounded in water and bathed in nutrients. From the chaotic world of the amino acids, to the arrival of an ordered coding system, and from the creative power of bacterial gene-swapping syndicates through to the much more conservative domain of the Eukaryotes, the bulk of the journey had been made under water.
Dramatic changes had occurred in this watery realm. Organisms had turned their gaze to the Sun for energy, instead of relying on hydrothermal vents. The splitting of water to drive photosynthesis, releasing oxygen, was another huge event, in hindsight, which ushered in the protective ozone envelope around the Earth, thus opening access to the planet’s surface, while catastrophically poisoning many anaerobic organisms at the same time. Oxygen was the classic waste product, the first and greatest life-driven pollution event, and the liberator of a new direction for life all at the same time. One anaerobic prokaryote’s toxin is another aerobic prokaryote’s oxidative respiration.
Their joint lineage had survived five mass extinctions, and many more minor ones. Together they had acquired a nucleus, requisitioned a notochord, transformed their gills from feeding organs to breathing units and replaced cartilage with calcium. They had evolved a vertebral column and crawled onto land on four limbs. Together they had transitioned from amphibians to early reptiles, and together their ancestors developed the amniotic egg. They had solved the problems of air breathing in different ways, each with lungs, but, of course, the bird lung was structurally and functionally far superior to the mammalian lung.
Eventually they had gone their separate ways, subtly at first, then more dramatically. Yet because their history was shared for so long, functionally they remained very similar. Differences in form can mask a unity of purpose, the common ground lost in a fog of shape-shifting shadows. Both became bipedal. While one went for hairs, another went for feathers, and while one went for beaks, initially with teeth but later toothless, another continued to explore dentition. Yet both of them became warm-blooded, and both were crowned kings and queens of the terrestrial world.
The massive destruction at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago, provided both of their lines with the opportunity to take centre stage, expanding and diversifying into the liberated ecological space cleared by this vast erasure of other lineages, particularly those reptiles, both flying and terrestrial. The dramatic, climatic disruption of the Late Eocene and the onset of the Great Drying at the end of the Miocene, bringing with it the expansion of the savannas and the disappearance of shallow coastal seas, had significant impacts upon both of their evolutionary directions.
So much shared history, and yet here on the rocks of Moto Nui, a kilometre south west of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), they stare at each other in the bloody end-game for this particular pair of distant relatives. One of her eggs is held in the grasp of his magnificent pentadactyl forelimb, with its ingenious opposable thumb that, together with his swollen cerebral cortex, represent his greatest gifts and his most deeply cutting flaws.
The ability to think in such an isolated way, to ignore all the pleading calls of the Biosphere that urge patience, compromise and non-intervention, and to single-mindedly set out on paths that inevitably lead to destruction, in combination with the hand to translate these thoughts into deeds, is a devastating combination. The hand can rock a cradle, but that same hand can set a spear on its deadly trajectory. This is the hand which strikes a slave, which comforts a child, which fells a forest, which plants a vineyard, which drains a wetland, which sketches a bauplan, and which poisons an entire planet.
This hand, so perfect in its engineering, so sensitive and tactile, so capable of consolation and so able to lift up the weary, has been wired into a control chamber, separated from the rest of the building, bridges burnt and all portals firmly shut. Humans have become like a city on a hill, whose decision-making is terminally compromised by its denial of its context, like some cancerous growth, whose success in replication and expansion seems to signify achievement and progress, yet whose existence poses a significant threat to the greater whole. It was no surprise that the kin of this wretched beast would one day claim that genes themselves were selfish.
The only selfish beings on this planet are those who have rejected their part in the scheme of things, who have denied their true identity, and who now suffer under the illusion that selfishness is a foundation stone for life. You cannot be selfish unless you consider yourself as separate from the rest, and this, sadly, is a condition unique to the creature, one of whom lies, bleeding below. Separation leads to selfishness, and selfishness leads to destabilization.
Even as the veil of death approaches, he cradles the fragile shell from the savage impact of the rocks that have ripped and crushed the rest of his body, placing the egg above his own welfare and survival. This unfortunate creature at last finds some peace, the pain numbed by a surge of enkephalins and endorphins, as his internal pharmacy prescribes a final dose of morphine mimics.
He allows himself a smile. The smooth ovoid trophy that he grasps allows him to release himself to the entropic universe, his battle over, his target achieved. He was, after all, the first one to find the egg of a Manutara bird on the islet of Moto Nui. And just before he fell, he had yelled across the one thousand metres of shark-infested sea, to the ceremonial site at the village of Orongo, perched high on the edge of the Rana Kao volcano on the main island, where most of the human population had gathered to see who would win the race.
It was the ultimate challenge of strength, agility and, it had to be said, luck, both in terms of evading the great white sharks during the twenty-five minute swim each way and in stumbling on an egg before anyone else. Some said that ancestral spirits would lead you to the egg. He had never really believed this. Of course, he had not voiced this heretical thought to anyone!
No, there was a slice of luck in the whole thing. Indeed the more he thought about it, as he often had, there was a slice of luck about almost everything in life. Mind you, he never had won the egg race. And he wasn’t feeling all that lucky in his present state. A dying voice in his head diffidently reminded him of this. Maybe the spirits were needed?
So for the last two weeks, having swum out with all the others searchers to this small remnant of the great volcanic event that, millions of years ago, had created this islet, and to where the birds now had returned on their annual migration, he’d set out each day in an attempt to be the first of his cohort to find that illusive prize, the egg of the Manutara. As he’d searched the rocky surface of this small islet, at first trying to allow the spirits to speak to him and guide him to the treasure, he reverted to a more logical, systematic search, covering the surface in a grid-like way.
And that’s how he’d found the little tern, sitting on her egg, in a shallow indent in the rock. Unlike many of the other birds who had nested on the grassy slope, this one had found a spot on the edge of the cliff face. The white ovoid jewel peeped from under the bird. It was neither the spirits nor luck that had taught him to look for the tell tale sign of the soft feathers scattered around the nest. The mother bird would rid herself of the fluffy down feathers on her underside in the area of her body that would be in physical contact with her eggs. It is known as the brood patch, allowing the heat of her blood vessels just under the skin to transfer more efficiently to the eggs.
And when you saw these feathers, you knew an egg was there. His father had told him this family secret, and, indeed, it had been passed down through his lineage for generations. In fact the observation had been first discovered by his great- great- grandfather, and had given his line the edge in many a hunt. The reputation of his family was such that they were always chosen to take part in the annual event.
The screams of the thousands of birds around him slowly faded. They had returned from the land of his ancestors, and affirmed the continuity of his lineage, reborn since that first primeval creation, returning each spring equinox to nest and lay their eggs, part of the greater picture of nature’s birth, death and resurrection.
For though he had been born into a place, in time and space, where his race had damaged nature, he knew, deep down, that he was part of a much more all-embracing dance, where identity was not found in him or his species alone, but rather in the entirety of nature, and in the creed of the Cosmos. The invisible hand, not of macro-economics, but of the wider universe, reached into each of its members, and ordered each as they should be. He finally understood his part in all of this, and the part of all of this in him.
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The results of the recent beaver re-introduction in Knapdale, Argyll, have just been released. I remember being interviewed by John Craven at the site for Countryfile in 2009 at the outset of the trial, and I have followed it with despair since then. While the report contained little of interest other than arguing that it attracted tourists and discouraged anglers, the biggest shock is that this very meaningless and ecologically foolish enterprise had the backing of Scotland’s leading zoology institution, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and a leading environmental guardian, Scottish Wildlife Trust, as well as 2 million pounds of funding that could have been much better spent saving the Scottish wildlife that is still clinging on to our shores and hills. Shocking because of the very basic biology that was ignored. While we can more easily forgive the amateur do-gooders around the Tay and in Devon who have illegally and irresponsibly released many beavers that now form a feral population of 150 individuals, ecologically educated members of these two institutes should really know better. Resitting Population Biology 101 is advised. There are three reasons why re-introducing beavers, and any other single organism to an existing ecosystem is insane, and a single reason why the ecologists in SWT and RZSS, as well as the Taysiders and Devonians, got it so badly wrong.
1. Philosophical reasons or The Garden of Eden Fantasy
What I also refer to as “Golden Age environmentalism”, the compulsive yet foundationless desire to recreate some habitat from the past, by “re-wilding” is rampant among conservationists. This is a very strange concept, given that you cannot go back in time. What is Eden, and when was it? 15000 years ago, for example, most of Britain was covered in ice. So should we kill everything but the snow algae and spread the country with liquid nitrogen to re-wild it back to this stage? It’s a bit like plastic surgery – it may make you look 20 years younger, but beneath it, you’re still the same age, and getting older by the day! Unfortunately, some of our leading environmental organizations practice this cosmetic approach to conservation. Scottish Natural Heritage, for example, appears to be playing a game of King Canute at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve, where they cut down birch and willow in an attempt to “freeze” the dune system.
We live in a changing world: communities have evolved away from what they were 400 years ago, when the beaver was last in Scotland, and from 800 years ago, when the beaver was in England. The industrial and agricultural revolutions, human population expansion, urbanization and climate change have made this a very different place. More essentially, its natural predators no longer exist here.
The European beaver is actually made up of 8 sub-species. The decision to move one of these, the Norwegian sub-species, to Scotland is extremely dubious. At the end of the last ice age, the most likely sub-species was the French one (Castor fiber gallicus), because the land bridge was to France, not to Norway. Norway was covered in ice just like Britain, and so the Mediterranean refuges were much more likely to form the source of our beavers. DNA analysis of beaver pelts from British beavers could be carried out to check this, but, surprisingly, this hasn’t been done.
A study in the journal Molecular Ecology by Walter Durka and his colleagues (leading experts) stressed that geographically nearest forms should be used, and that there was a huge danger related to re-wilding in terms of the future evolution of the beaver. In evolutionary terms, species start off as sub-species, and to intervene in this process by moving groups around the continent, we are potentially impacting on the future direction of beaver evolution.
The context of an organism is everything. Every species needs food and a predator for a natural balance to be achieved. Without the predator, the population will, always, spiral out of control without culling. In Germany, beaver culling must now occur every year following beaver re-introductions in the 1960s. But what is the point of bringing the beaver here just to be culled? There is a moral issue here. Beavers are advanced mammals, and so if our actions deliberately lead to us needing to cull, then this is not a positive approach. Culling is also not a simple process. By killing particular beavers, we will not necessarily replicate the natural force of predation (for example those that disperse most). This can lead to a genetically altered population, and thus to all sorts of evolutionary problems.
Beavers that wandered too far from Knapdale were tracked and, literally, driven back in taxis to the site, in order to convince neighbouring land owners that there would be no threat to their property. This is also extremely worrying. For example, after 2 years, juvenile beavers migrate from their natal site. They can travel up to 150 km. The reasons for this are to reduce population load at a particular habitat, and, even more importantly, to prevent inbreeding. If we do not allow these migrations to happen, inbreeding depression will occur, and this can lead to terrible deformities. Do we really want this? To avoid this, we would need to allow these migrations. If we do this, then there can be no control on the spread of these creatures, and they are likely to encounter roads, probably acting as a significant hazard to drivers at night.
As we have seen, re-wilding is not a sensible idea. Neither is the use of the beaver for tourism. First, they are basically nocturnal, and in a British summer, this will mean 10pm. Shortly after seeing them, it gets dark. So safety concerns will come into play. Tourists have to try to get back off the water or river bank in dark conditions. Secondly, the moral issue of disturbing a shy and reclusive animal must be considered. The beavers do not want to be seen, and ecological tourism will be very detrimental to them (as it is for most wildlife), stressing them, and suppressing their immune system, due to an increase in cortisol levels. This will increase their susceptibility to a range of diseases, potentially leading them to become disease vectors. This has been widely researched, for example with mountain gorilla tourism of the 1980s.
One beaver family destroys 300 young trees in a single winter. Tree regeneration is difficult enough with rabbits and deer already putting unacceptable pressure upon young saplings. However the beaver removes bark, which contains the main transport system for sugar, thus killing the tree. Grey squirrels also do this, and so in combination, this is an unacceptable problem.
To use the beaver as a means of terraforming (changing a habitat into one that works for us) is an extremely risky strategy. Living trees are far better water controls than dead trees in a beaver dam. The Harlequin ladybird was introduced to act as a predator on aphids, and now its population has run out of control in the UK and threatens many of our native ladybirds. The cane toad, introduced to Australia to kill insect pests of sugar cane, didn’t eat the pests, but instead ate many endangered insects, and has greatly damaged the other species. Biological control and biological engineering are never likely to work because the ecology is usually too complex to model and predict. It is like a car mechanic attempting brain surgery. In fact it is like a brain surgeon attempting brain surgery – the outcome is not secure.
So why did these ecologists get it so wrong? It is because reductionist thinking pervades modern science. Little boxes made out of ticky tacky (to quote Malvina Reynolds) that can be inserted wherever we want to insert them, building what we want. Nature doesn’t work like that. Ecosystems emerge, they are not built. If you don’t have the wolf, then you have a beaver population in exponential rise, with little to curb it other than self-induced habitat destruction. How foolish can you be not to see that nature is a system, not a Lego set? Quite clearly, you have to be as foolish as the two organizations running this shambolic waste of resources. But hey, it brings in tourists.
The collapsing value of a barrel of oil has been the most significant economic event of the year. From a high of US$112 per barrel in June 2014, we now sit on US$69.62 on 4th December, 2014. The chief executive of Russians largest oil company, Rosneft, Igor Sechin, predicts prices will continue to fall to less than US$60 per barrel. The CIO of Ayres Alliance Securities predicts the possibility of a sub-US$40 barrel.
This drop has very significant consequences for the environment. While prices remained high, the non-carbon energy sectors, such as wind, tide and solar, all of which are more expensive to produce at present than oil, could be seen as feasible, in terms of the government subsidies needed to cover costs involved in research, development and cost to the consumer. However as the gap increases between oil and non-carbon sources, increased subsidies are needed for alternative energy sources to remain even slightly competitive,. There have been many conspiracy theories related to the over-supply of oil on the market (resulting in the dip in price), and while not wanting to add another, this current slump delivers a death knell to any chance of a competitive alternative energy supply anytime soon, a plotline reminiscent of Cars II!
As the cost of running our cars declines (though this is delayed as usual as the oil companies rake in the profit, since fuel prices have declined only 10% while oil prices have declined by almost 50% in the same period), we will be less likely to cut back on the amount of driving we do. Indeed, cheaper oil will impact on many consumer choices, since the price of oil underpins the price of many highly polluting products. Cost is the most successful controller of consumer decision-making. Large increases in the cost of alcohol and cigarettes has seen decline in sales and improved health. Increased oil costs means less damage to the environment.
The option of utilizing public transport and rebuilding canals for commercial transport becomes less economically preferable. Meanwhile, the oil industry itself is threatened by low prices since exploration for more complex sources of oil becomes less financially feasible. A recent report points to the crisis facing Brazil because of the huge, one quarter of a trillion dollar investment it has made in oil and gas based on prices at their peak. They now face financial crisis at these new low prices. Closer to home, our own economy will suffer as nuclear plants currently being built will be far from cost effective, and the need to import cheaper gas from overseas may become a necessity. Further development of the North Sea resource will also be challenged. On the bright side for some, the cost of fracking in the UK, a process just beginning, may well be too expensive.
Ultimately cheap oil is good for heavy carbon-based industries such as manufacturing. However given the diminishing supplies in many countries, including the UK, with what little oil we have left we would rather sell it at a good price in order to be able to invest in replacement technologies. Cheap oil also discourages smaller nations with oil reserves from separating from larger nations.