Walls are springing up all over the world, from the borders of Europe to the deserts of Africa. This week President Trump has committed to building his wall across the Mexican border. However, that wall is already one third complete, thanks to the earlier Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama administrations who all committed huge resources to the project. What is it with walls and humans? We have been obsessive wall builders for the last twelve thousand years, since settling down as farmers. Here we explore this obsession and the most serious danger this wall culture poses, unheralded and unheard in the political corridors of power: the existential threat to our survival in the face of ecological collapse.
As Donald Trump launched his immigration policy and a more detailed outline of “the wall” across the US-Mexico border (not that it was his idea in the first place), it seems only sensible to explore why the human story has been adorned with barriers, barrages and barricades for much of its history. We, the wall- builders, may well have taken our inspiration from nature. No man is an island, but islands exist and thrive thanks to their isolation. The highest indigenous diversity is found on islands. Their separation produces hotspots of biological and social diversity. Think Madagascar, New Caledonia or Borneo and a huge range of unique extraordinary creatures rise from the mists of your imagination. Islands offer protection from the outside world, be it for religious isolation, such as Papa Stronsay in Orkney, or for fear of attack, such as North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, which has a human population that has never been contacted by modern humans. Islands can also be used to enclose as well as exclude. Napoleon died on his island prison, St Helena.
For almost the entirety of life on earth, barriers have played crucial roles in shaping the diversity of the planet. High levels of ultraviolet radiation initially prevented life from moving on to land until an ozone barrier reduced this harmful energy. Mountain ranges, water and inhospitable terrains have isolated land masses allowing species to survive in small pockets of habitats. Yet freedom of movement was also important. Many species migrate across vast distances each year, chasing the rain and its productive outpouring of food. Indeed, it is an irony that the master wall builders themselves, humans, first emerged as nomadic hunter gatherers in a world without borders, walls or fences.
And it was our decision to settle down, grow our food and launch the Agricultural Era, some 12 000 years ago, that generated the need for walls. Now we owned stuff, and that meant we had to protect it, be it fertile land, cities, access to the sea or water supplies. And early in our transition to settled ownership, the walled city began to make its appearance. The walls of Babylon, Jericho and Uruk are still with us, ten thousand years later. Walled cities abound across the world, such as in Derry and Lucca in the Tuscan hills, protecting their inhabitants for centuries.
In certain circumstances, walls have been built around cites by opposing forces, in an attempt to isolate populations. This is most clearly seen in the West Bank Wall, built by Israel but transgressing the agreed border with Palestine, often by as much as 12 miles. Some nine percent of land belonging to the Palestinian people has been enclosed into Israel by this wall. The Moroccan Western Sahara Wall, 1 700 miles long and containing the longest minefield in the world, is an even more extreme version, where Morocco has built a wall around an entire nation, Western Sahara, in order to maintain its authority over it. Western Sahara is rich in oil, fish resources and phosphate. The wall was built in the Eighties and is manned by 120 000 troops. Its mines have injured 2500 people and isolated thousands of Sarhawi refugees from being able to return home from refugee camps in Algeria. Scotland has had walls built by foreign forces, including Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall.
Walls can also appear within cities. The so-called Belfast peace walls are made up of 99 separate walls dividing protestant and catholic communities while the Berlin Wall separated communist and capitalist ideologies. Sau Paulo has thirty-three walled enclaves for the super-rich, called Alphaville, separating them from the extreme poverty surrounding them.
Another form of wall acts as a protection against the environment. The dykes of the Netherlands dating back to the first century AD, protect against flooding while also reclaiming vast areas of land through landfill, are well known and vastly developed in recent years in the form of the Delta works. A much larger but less well known sea wall is found in China. Dubbed the New Great Wall, it stretches for 6800 miles along the Chinese coastline, and is dedicated to land reclamation. Interestingly, President Trump has a less well known wall in his plans. At 13 ft high and two miles long, this is not a big wall. What is interesting is his reasons for requesting planning permission. The Application claims that global warming will lead to sea level rise, threatening his golf course at the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, County Claire in Ireland. Ironic to say the least. The plans were rejected by the An Bord Pleanála and are being re-submitted.
A different kind of protectionism from the environment can be found in the two great fences of Australia, the Dingo Fence running from New South Wales to South Australia, and the Rabbit (or State Barrier) Fence in Western Australia, both doing exactly what they say on the fence post.
The final set of barriers is the most recognized, that of national borders. This is where the so-called Wall of Trump fits in. These barriers are set in place to control movement of humans and trade, both legal and illegal. Perhaps the most famous example of all is the Great Wall of China, stretching for 5500 miles and designed to repel Mongol raiding parties. The Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier, some 2100 miles long, almost entirely encloses Bangladesh, and focuses on controlling narcotics and cattle movement. Cattle, sacred in Hindu India but staple fare in Muslim-dominated Bangladesh, fetch much higher prices in Bangladesh. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is probably the most intensely armed barrier in the world. The Evros Wall between Greece and Turkey is one of the newest walls to prevent refugees moving freely, and similar walls are being built along other European borders.
Thus, given that walls and fences are a key signature of the human race, why is the Trump Wall creating such a scramash? After all, it wasn’t his idea in the first place. In fact, it was the husband of his opponent for the presidency, that first passed legislation for the building of the wall, and the subsequent administrations of Bush Jnr and Obama that extended it. Bill Clinton created Operation Hold the Line in 1993, leading to a steel plate fence between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez along with increased militarization, and also launched Operation Gatekeeper, with its barriers and underground sensor system, between San Diego and Tijuana in 1994. Post 9/11 anti-terrorism legislation was put in place and used to further secure the border. The REAL ID Act of 2005 waived environmental restrictions contained in several US laws in order to build a triple layer fence through the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, while the Secure Fence Act of 2006 legislated for one-third of the 1950 mile border to be fenced. The Obama administration, in 2013, passed Senate Bill 744, further increasing the extent of the border wall. So this is not Trump’s Wall at all. Both democratic and republican administrations have increasingly been building a barricade across their border with Mexico.
Drowned out in this entire issue is the environmental cost of walls. Yet lots of evidence exists in scientific literature to highlight that walls are very bad for Nature, and thus, very bad for us. Nature is built along very different borders than those found on a map. Rivers, mountain ranges, coasts and islands provide the barriers for most species. Human walls rarely run along these lines. Walls cut across wildlife corridors and fragile ecosystems. The impact of climate destabilization makes these corridors all the more important, not to mention the implications for the millions of human climate refugees expected as a consequence of our lust for energy, in countries like Bangladesh (surrounded by the Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier) and at the borders of an increasingly isolationist Europe. The dingo fence has had significant negative impact on biodiversity with the removal of a keystone predator. The Delta works coastal barriers have led to an accumulation of heavy metals in the sediment along with a loss of estuarine habitat. Professor Zhijun Ma of the Institute of Biodiversity Science, Fudan University, Shanghai has calculated that the Chinese coastal works has led to a fifty percent loss in wetlands, representing US$31 billion in ecosystem services. These areas are now pollution sources rather than pollution sinks. Increased vulnerability of human coastal populations to extreme weather events is another consequence. The loss of coastal wetlands in China has contributed to the rapid decline of water bird populations in the East Asian– Australasian flyway, which currently is the migratory path for the highest proportion (19%) of threatened water bird populations among the global flyways.
Dr Matthew Hayward, from the University of Wales, Bangor, points to a number of challenges for wildlife faced with fences. These include the inability to naturally recolonise a site after local extinction, difficulty in responding to climate change, restriction of animals during ﬁres which can limit their ability to escape injury/mortality, the creation of artiﬁcial roost sites that increase avian predator hunting success and longer term evolutionary costs, wherein isolated populations are unable to participate in evolutionary processes and face a reduced gene-pool, reducing variation and thus limiting possible solution space to increasingly chaotic environmental challenges.
Add to this the impact of high voltage lighting upon nocturnal species, including bats, moths, nocturnal migrating birds and turtles, increased roadkill on roads and reduced access to important extreme-weather recovery zones such as year-round watering holes, and the wall can be seen as a terrible burden upon native species already bowed low under the chaos that we have introduced to our planet. From a human standpoint, this risks the collapse of the essential ecological services that functioning ecosystems provide for us.
The Mexican border holds an incredible wealth of beautiful but endangered wildlife. Ocelots, Mexican gray wolves, bison, road runners, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions are all threatened with extinction in the United States and cross this border frequently. Pygmy owls only fly at a height of 1.5 metres and thus a fence can be deadly. Matt Skroch, director of the Sky Island Alliance says that “If they build it [the wall], we could really say goodbye to the future of jaguars in the US”.
What is needed is a coalition between ecology and politics, where social and human dignity, justice and sustainability can be achieved. The challenges of a destabilized climate, prompting Trump to build a wall to protect his Irish golf course, will require all of the resilience that the natural world can muster if we are to continue enjoying our planet. Human barriers will only weaken this resilience, and so if he really wants to make America great again, a functioning biosphere is a fundamental foundation to any such aspirations. This isn’t his wall, but he has the opportunity to correct the errors of previous administrations of Clinton, Bush Jnr. and Obama and think beyond the human obsession with wall building.
Humans have had a difficult and fluctuating relationship with Nature. Indeed, the story of the human race has been defined by the changes in our approach to Nature. From Nature, we emerged and, as evidenced by the earliest human records, such as the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic, we had a spiritual understanding, embracing it as a deity. Early gods were often part animal part human, and the forces of nature were eulogized as traits of these supreme beings. From Thor to Gaia, the personality of Nature was celebrated, ritualized and worshipped.
Yet the story of the human journey has been one of distancing ourselves from our environment, reducing the relationship to use and abuse, rather than living within our natural boundaries. We have tamed the forces that previously held our population in check, that dealt the cards of plenty and famine, of disease and resilience, of catastrophe and opportunity, the forces that shaped us, along with all of the other members of the biosphere, for so long.
Latterly, Nature became a mentor for the green movement, with traits such as self-control, efficiency, optimization, balance and wisdom becoming foundations of modern schools of thought such as biomimicry, the circular economy and industrial symbiosis. Yet in sharp contrast to these traits are the ideas of nature raw in tooth and claw, competition and survival of the fittest in Darwinian theory, and, more recently, the selfish gene in Neo-Darwinism. How can Nature exhibit such contrasting personalities? What is the true nature of Nature? What is this mentor and what, if anything, can it teach us?
The paradox emerges because of a failure to understand the totality of Nature and what makes it tick. Nature is an emergent entity, and cannot be understood in reductionist terms. In other words, one plus one rarely equals two, and you can’t build nature from little bricks. Like any complex system, it works because each level of organization performs in a sub-optimal way, allowing the whole to function.
Nature is almost completely dependent on the Sun, with a huge torrent of energy continually flowing through it. It is not a circular economy. Ask the Flying reptiles. Hold on a moment, you can’t because they were all wiped out some sixty-five million years ago when the sunlight incident upon our planet’s surface was dramatically reduced by clouds of dust. As around sixty five percent of life on earth perished, there was no sign of a circular economy. This is because nature is extremely wasteful, converting free energy to waste continuously, and needing fresh supplies to endure.
Nature is actually designed to create energetic waste, in line with the second law of thermodynamics, because it is an open system. Increasing complexity produces more disorder, and so through time, provided enough sunlight hits our planet, we would expect increasing complexity. We should not confuse complexity with sophistication, cunning or intelligence. It is merely the response of matter and energy to the rules of a thermodynamic universe.
Nature also does not exhibit self-control, another trait we have pinned to it erroneously. When additional nutrients are added to a lake, the results are catastrophic, with algae reproducing in an uncontrolled manner, leading to anoxia as they die, and causing fish death. Ecosystems collapse given the opportunity. It is only thanks to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, where shortages of specific raw materials limit the growth of populations, that Nature remains in balance. It has no inherent self-control. Predator populations are controlled by starvation, not insight, and prey populations are saved by the same process.
So, this profligate, greedy, avaricious, sub-optimal personality with no self-control whatsoever lies at the heart of our mentor. A bit like ourselves really. Indeed, the huge population explosion in the human race is a result of us defying the limits placed on the natural world. We make nutrients by mining and industrial production. We greedily feast on the planet’s fragile resources. We use huge amounts of free energy. Temporarily freed from the constraints of limited resources, we do exactly what nature does in a similar situation: we go crazy. What then can we learn from Nature?
Nature cannot inform us on economics, efficient production, optimization, conservation, zero-waste strategies, efficient energy use nor self-control. None of these traits are found in the natural world. However, Nature is the perfect mentor for sustainable living, the importance of real-time continuous feedback, the role of sub-optimality at any given level, resilience, recovery, emergence, our re-integration into the biosphere and our understanding of our place in the grand scheme.
It is our artificial framing of Nature, filled with human invention and anthropomorphic licence, that has created the paradox that exists, where ecologists and evolutionary biologists create these aberrations to suit their own needs. This is dangerous work. Threatened as we are at present in terms of our own sustainability, the last thing we need is false prophets, proclaiming their imagined fantasies as being somehow rooted in Nature. This will only exacerbate the existential risks facing us. So, let’s listen to nature, and reference the true lessons that are there for the learning. The mentor awaits us, but finds us conversing with the mirror in the corner rather than entering into a meaningful conversation with the tutor.
Thursday, 23rd June 2016 – a date that quite possibly will become the topic of school and university examinations in history, sociology, politics and economics in the not-so-distant future. But while we examine the human-made institutions and activities impacted by BREXIT, a more fundamental understanding may emerge from the human level itself. The biology of BREXIT is worth contemplating, because humans are, after all, living creatures with an ecology, physiology and behaviour that are essentially biological, whether we like it or not. Society lies within the Biosphere and humanism is merely a navel-gazing exercise. Sure, the Enlightenment proclaimed the dominance of Homo sapiens sapiens, with Condorcet announcing that “Nature has fixed no limits to our hopes. The perfectibility of Man is indefinite”. Yet, ultimately, like all of the other living things, we are stardust, from dust we are made and to dust we shall return (unless cryogenically preserved as popsicle people). We depend on biology for our food and for essential ecosystem services. We are primarily biological, and secondarily human. So what does biology tell us about BREXIT? If you think about a landscape, you can envisage lots of patches of similar habitats, split from each other by other types of habitats, a veritable mosaic. Forest fragments may contain small populations of a particular species, say, the pink-footed purple hamster (Purpuracriceta peditesroseus – a fictitious species, in case you try to look it up). These populations will, over time, become specialized in relation to the local environment. However, if the population is small and isolated, inbreeding depression may result in damage, threatening the very existence of the population. On the other hand, often, forest fragments are not completely isolated. A limited number of individuals may be able to move to and from other forest fragments. Such a group of interacting populations is called a meta-population. The greater the movement, the more reduced is the threat of inbreeding depression, as genetic information is exchanged between each population. However the downside is outbreeding depression. Here, too much genetic movement between populations dilutes the specializations developed, making neither population suited for their specific environments. At the human level, globalization can be argued to represent outbreeding depression. As nations lose their landscape-specific cultures, while communities fall out of touch with the essential socio-environmental identity they once had, the planetary species of humans loses diversity and variation. It is important to note that this is not the consequence of immigration, but the embracing of a single dogma, Enlightenment economics. The homogenization of the human race means that local populations become further alienated from both their immediate environments and from their cultural and biogeographical contexts. The loss of commensalism, where communities live in tandem with their landscape, is a heavy loss indeed. A way back, championed by the Buen Vivir movement of South America amongst others, offers hope. Here, the economic focus is not on the global market, but rather the economy emerges from the interaction between humans and their landscapes. Yet the drive against globalization risks tilting the balance towards inbreeding depression, tribalism and racism (towards the pink-footed purple hamsters from the neighbouring forest fragment). Localism can be quickly transmuted into xenophobia. This is at least as dangerous. How then can the meta-population dynamics (i.e. the flow of purple hamsters between forest fragments) reach an appropriate balance, where cultural integrity and diversity can co-exist? To understand how this works in Nature, we must understand one thing. The Biosphere operates as an emergent system. Every level within it operates sub-optimally, relinquishing optimization for the good of the whole. Predators don’t eat all the prey. DNA correction does not correct all of the mutations. Squirrels don’t remember where they hid all the nuts. Nothing can be designed, but rather the outcomes are complex products of multiple interactions. Reductionist approaches do not work here. Central to everything is real-time continuous feedback. There are no static structures in nature. Everything constantly changes. This only works because nature is continuously listening and responding at every level of organization. It is a dynamic system. Furthermore, no single unit of organization is optimized, except for one – ourselves. Our drive towards optimized efficiency is primarily what destabilizes the rest of the system. The next central lesson from nature is that it is based on function, not structure. After every mass extinction event, completely new structures (species) emerge, but functionality is restored. Food chains are re-established, ecological succession recommences and biogeography is re-defined. The structures are merely diffusive outcomes of an increasingly chaotic genetic code (as a result of accumulating mutations through time); restricted only by energetic context, niche availability and material obtainability. Function, however, is much more conservative, dominated by thermodynamics. Thus we cannot plan towards a transition to a specific structural dream, but rather, a functional restoration. The destruction of ecosystem function is a consequence of our refusal to listen, and of our focus on the structures of human value. Yet we cannot hope to regain social dignity without environmental dignity. For we are of nature, not separated from it, and thus our social fulfilment can only be found within that context, just as it is for all of the other species on Earth. Finally, even a cursory study of island biogeography reveals that the island species-area relationship (i.e. how many species can exist on an island of a given area) is widely considered to be an outcome of the equilibrium model of island biogeography (EMIB). The total number of species on an island is controlled by the rate of successful immigration to that island, which gradually decreases with time due to niche saturation, while increasing with increasing area (a bigger target to find), by the rate of extinction of species on the island, which gradually decreases with increasing island area (due to their being more niches in larger islands), and the area of the island itself. Immigration to an island is an inverse function of distance to the nearest landmass with species present (i.e. the further away and more isolated, the lower the likelihood of reaching the island). For an island of a particular size, a dynamic equilibrium is reached in terms of total species present. I would suggest that in human terms, distance represents freedom of movement (determined by immigration policies and ability to travel), while island size represents economic opportunity (niches available). In nature, this process is based on continuous feedback in that it is a dynamic process. Importantly, in nature, greater species diversity offers greater resilience. So what can we learn from nature in terms of BREXIT and the direction ahead? Firstly, healthy populations need a balance of identity and diversity. Emphasis on either one risks the health and welfare of that population. Extremism, either left or right, will not be the basis for a stable society, nor will it bring social or environmental dignity. Secondly, nature is an emergent system, and thus it does not design towards a particular outcome. It is a dynamic process, wherein continuous real-time feedback is the key driver of change. This feedback comes not just from a particular species or population, but from the broader environment. Listening to one set of voices alone will fail to inform sufficiently. All levels of organization must contribute to the conversation. Thus the polarized political system currently practiced will never succeed in building diversity and resilience. As humans, careful monitoring of our impact on the ecosystem services and ecological processes must lie at the heart of improvement science, and provide the guidance for us. Thirdly, as James Hutton famously observed, over 200 years ago, the Earth is a super-organism and thus is best studied using functional indicators rather than structural indicators. Structure should serve function, not restrict it, and structure must be flexible enough to respond to real time feedback. It is not sufficient to have a fixed structure that responds to different challenges by altering its output. The structure itself must change to maintain the functional integrity of a state. For example, a functioning society may not need the political structures that we currently live under. Indeed, the disconnection between voters and party politics was evident in the recent referendum. Thus separating from Europe, for better or for worse, should only be the first step. We then should carry out a root and branch critique relating to the appropriateness of the structures of our state in terms of delivering a functional state. At the Biosphere Research Institute, we have pioneered the Functional Management Approach (FUNCMAP – see www.biosri.org for details). The emphasis should be on dynamic, continuously informed decision making, rather than static structural elitism. Finally, Nature relies on diversity, fundamentally, for resilience. Human societies can also find greater resilience by embracing difference and benefitting from increased complexity in terms of cultural, linguistic, artistic, creative and historical diversity. However there is a balance to be had. Diversity requires heterogeneity, and thus we must be careful to maintain our identities while celebrating our unity. Identity relates to our understanding of what and where we are, combining a sense of self, place and heritage. Landscape and culture are central to this. Nature works within its ecosystems, which marry species with landscape. Thus our relationship with the habitats within which we live must form a part of this identity, simultaneously restoring environmental and social dignity to the planet. Like any new start, be it from a peaceful or violent revolt, Britain new has the opportunity, like never before, to restore itself to a state within its proper ecological and social context. It provides a rare opportunity to press the reset button. The negotiations relating to BREXIT, including decisions taken in Scotland relating to a re-negotiation with the EU, should be taken as an opportunity to set a new progressive path, leading the way forward to a better, sustainable world, where social and environmental dignity are the over-arching canons.
It was 250 years ago that Carl Linneaus labelled the human species as Homo sapiens, the wise ones. Such a title seemed appropriate. We have always reflected on our own species as the most brilliant, perceptive, creative and logical creatures on the planet. Later, as fossil evidence indicated we were part of a more general group of similar organisms, we defined ourselves as a race, Homo sapiens sapiens (the wise, wise ones), just in case anyone had missed the point. Haekel and Darwin placed us at the top of the tree of life, looking down on the rest of it. The Enlightenment came and Homo sapiens sapiens designed an entire philosophy all about themselves, Humanism. Humans, when properly educated and free from constraints such as the church, the state and nature, could achieve anything. Everyone jumped on board: educators, evolutionists, conservation biologists, agriculturalists, the United Nations, economists, political parties and governments. All of these signed up for the mantra that humans, and humans alone could build the future. The nations who got this were labelled “developed” while those still to be converted were called “developing”. Progress would deliver wealth, knowledge and health, along with increasingly wonderful technology. This was pure science after all, so it had to be good. For we were the wise, wise ones after all, weren’t we? The combined forces of human-centric thinking and reductionist thinking have together destroyed much of the planet. Latest assessments conclude that 49% of the oceanic wildlife has been lost in just 40 years (https://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/living-blue-planet-report-2015), while river, lake and wetland wildlife has declined by 76%. These are serious numbers. We have failed, abysmally, and the damage is more likely to impact on one particular species more than all the others. The species likely to suffer most is… Homo sapiens sapiens. Why is this? Here are five reasons. 1. Increasing intellectual vulnerability The figure below shows how as we have become more specialized, relying more on technology for our existence, we have lost our ecological intelligence. Only a very few of my friends could survive without running water, shops, electricity and constructed shelter. If we stripped away our technology, a much more vulnerable scene would quickly reveal itself.
2. Increasing energetic vulnerability
I’m not talking coal, nuclear and hydro here, but food. We often like to draw our food pyramids with us at the top and the plants at the bottom (see figure below). However in reality, these pyramids need to be inverted, as the energy flows from the sun to the plants, then filters down towards us. We are at the bottom of the energy pyramid, not at the top. Energy must pass through the rest of the biosphere before we get our go at the buffet table. The problem with this is that any failure above us will have significant repercussions. McDonough and Braungart (2002) point out that the total biomass of the global population of ants is greater than that of humans, yet they do not contribute to ecological degradation. However, they fail to take cognisance of the fact that humans are warm-blooded, large mammals that require much greater energetic flow-through to maintain themselves than ants do on a weight-for-weight basis. Secondly we need to use huge amounts of energy to maintain conditions around us that lie within the narrow range within which we can survive. However as wildlife declines, so ecosystem services decline, faced with an ever increasing human population, requiring more of these services. Our efforts to increase energy flow in agroecosystems directly destroy the organisms required to supply the ecosystem services needed for our survival.
3. Increasing environmental vulnerability
While we are categorized as a species of least concern on the Red Data Book at present, this is an extremely artificial measure, because of the massive damage we do. Actually we are extremely vulnerable compared to other species. The graph below shows the impact of UV radiation on a bacterium, a yeast organism and a human. As we can see, we are hugely more vulnerable to damage than these other organisms. Yet as we destroyed the ozone layer in the last decades, we thought we would be unaffected, until cancer rates began to soar.
The lesson from this curve is straight-forward: simplicity is best. Why is this? Surely division of labour and specialization, principles that lie at the core of Adam Smith’s economics, are the most productive, efficient, advanced and progressive ways to operate? Possibly, in terms of raw economics this may be the case, but certainly not in terms of resilience. Lots of small units, communicating with each other and freely exchanging (genetic) information are far superior to huge multi-cellular organisms. The more complex we are, the more complex are our needs. Large species need large niches.
We can think of this in terms of a printed colour photograph. If you look at a photograph under a microscope, you will discover that it is made of thousands and thousands of tiny squares, called pixels. There are lots of different colours. These combine to give the impression of a smoothly changing picture. You can increase or decrease the resolution of the photograph by decreasing or increasing the size of the pixels, respectively. Now imagine that there is a picture of an apple. A large organism, such as an apple strudel monster, needs the entire apple to live on. It cannot see the tiny pixels that make up the apple. However a small bacterium can live on one of these pixels. There might be twenty different colours making up the apple, and indeed some of these pixels can be used to make other pictures, of tomatoes, strawberries and roses. However, only a particular arrangement of them in space and time will form an apple. Thus the number of possible apples is limited, compared to the number of pixels. Now imagine a catastrophe occurring. The picture is shredded up into tiny pieces, each only one pixel in size. The apple has disappeared, but the bacteria can keep living on their little pixels. The bacteria are much more resilient here than the apple strudel monster. We are not the uber-evolved superpower that we think we are, but rather a vulnerable, complex set of creatures prone to extinction if our environment was perturbed by some terribly irresponsible species.
The idea that knowledge is power, and therefore knowledge should be guarded, may work in political manoeuvring, and it certainly appears to, but it will matter not a jot in terms of our sustainable continuance on this planet. Sharers will survive, not keepers. Sharing takes trust. However, we are not being asked to trust an enemy, but, rather, the Biosphere from whence we came.
In terms of economics, there is a lesson too for large multinational organizations. Global disruption, as is likely to occur, will greatly threaten such huge creatures, whereas small, local units of industry will have a much better chance of surviving. What we need to do as a species is to reduce our pixel requirements. How can we do this? By reducing division of labour, focusing on generalism, not specialism, opening boundaries in order to share ideas and sharing resources. Resilience will increase with these qualities. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the graph.
Progress was the great battle cry of the Enlightenment. However, if we look at the graph, and judge how progress shapes up, then our modern concept of what progress is fails dramatically. It is the simplest, cottage industry that survives, not the huge, multi-national multi-cellular creature. Indeed the Enlightenment’s concept of progress has been a significant driver of the disaster that we have created, for ourselves and all other life forms on this planet. We have relinquished our options on sustainability and resilience in pursuit of this progress.
Ultimately, the conversation of the Biosphere is an energetic conversation. And if we perturb the energetic landscape, we must expect problems. Furthermore, we have recognized that resilience comes from simplicity, and so any move we make towards resilience should be towards simplicity. If someone suggests otherwise, show them the curve.
4. Increasing technological vulnerability
Technological innovation is celebrated as the greatest achievement of humankind, delivering the utopian promises of the Enlightenment. Yet recent work is indicating that this is a hollow success, and carries more existentialist risk for humans (i.e. is more likely to lead to our extinction) than anything else. A significant issue relates to the fact that many of the chemical elements upon which modern technology relies are running out. Lithium will be exhausted this century. Gallium and Neodymium are under threat. Indium (essential for LED flat screen technology) is thought to have 10 years of supply remaining, at current usage. Professor Stephen Hawking and Dr Nick Bostrom have been two of the many senior thinkers warning of another threat, that of technological failure through accident or sabotage. The figure below (from Skene and Murray, 2015. Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st-Century Practitioner) explains why. Each arrow represents an existentialist risk. Here we see the gradually increasing complexity of resource provision by humans. Initially the main threats came from nature itself, but then the industrial revolution added new risks – resource vulnerability. Finally, as technology delivered the Information Age, controlling healthcare, food production and energy supply, vulnerabilities from computer viruses, solar flares and geomagnetic reversals have become existential risks.
5. Philosophical vulnerability.
Perhaps the most pressing of all of our vulnerabilities is philosophical in nature. Because we have embraced the Enlightenment and Humanism as our philosophy, we cannot see beyond the bubble that we find ourselves in. We refuse to accept that a human-centric view not only led to all of the problems, but that it cannot fix them. Prioritizing human needs, as in the latest UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development (yes, the developed versus developing divide again) will not resolve the problems facing us. We need to build from an environmental starting point, not from a human one. Fixing the 3rd floor cafeteria will not save a building with collapsing foundations, as important as the cafeteria is. It is only by finding our place within the natural system and allowing solutions to emerge from the whole that we can save ourselves and much of the rest of the biosphere.
We are blinded by a reductionist science that says we can build and repair nature by putting together the little bits that make it up in the first place. Engineer the genes, re-introduce the species (though without their predators, because they are nasty), pump iron into the oceans to draw down carbon, cut down the rainforests to grow green fuels, replace petrol with diesel to reduce carbon emissions but poison our neighbours with nitrogen oxides. I could go on. And on. If we think the world is really made of little blocks, then we deserve to suffer a painful death at the hands of nature.
Because we are the vulnerable ones, and unless we waken up to the reality that the biosphere is an emergent system, our philosophical ignorance will deliver us to evil. We are Homo vulnerabilis. Say it out loud. We need looking after. So it makes no sense to kill the natural medics whose actions allow us to continue to survive.
Note: This blog expands on my interview on BBC World Service Newsday programme on 19th January.
Squirrels don’t have GPS and mobile technology. They’ve got to remember where they hid all their nuts. Fortunately for them, and lots of other creatures that depend on their partial amnesia, they are sub-optimal in the nut recollection front. Imagine if they had a NUTS APP! Not a nut would go unchewed.
You’d see them stumbling across the forest floor, mobile device in hand, connecting to a series of satellites far above them in space, triangulating the exact position of each nut stash. Optimized nut foraging, and all for £20 a year! The NUTS APP would transform their little lives. Yet…
…there would be no more oak trees, since all the baby oaks (acorns) would have been eaten. This means that eventually, there would be no more acorns, and…no more squirrels. Yet for the current generation of squirrels, this would not be a present risk, and so the NUTS APP might seem the only way to go. After all, when a bad winter came you could share your stash of nuts with those “developing” squirrels that didn’t have the APP, at a small cost. What would be wrong with that? And then you could teach them to use the NUTS APP, for a small licence fee.
But squirrels don’t do this, and foxes don’t eat all the rabbits either. DNA is not perfectly repaired, allowing cancers to develop but also allowing mutations to build at an appropriate rate. Nature is not optimal at any one level of organization, but rather is suboptimal at each level, for the greater good.
This is because nature can only be understood using system theory, not reductionism. It isn’t made out of little boxes and it can’t be built from genes or memes. It is an emergent property. And so we should expect sub-optimality at every level. I have written about this in depth in my recent book, Escape from Bubbleworld: Seven Curves to Save the Earth, available on Amazon.
Yet we have moved far from this approach, especially in the West. Western Consumerism has spread, becoming the global aspiration. Why is this? There are two reasons. Firstly the underlying philosophy that underpins all of the Western World’s social and economic principles, known as Enlightenment thinking, and secondly, the desire to make this philosophy the new world order, delivered globally through Development, and, in its most recent apparition, dressed up in pretty green ribbons, Sustainable Development. This is the subject of my most recent book, Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities. Let’s look at these two points briefly.
1. The underlying philosophy of the Western World.
The Enlightenment was, ironically, probably the darkest moment in recent human history, and indeed, natural history too. Just like the NUTS APP, it seemed like the greatest thing, but while ridding us of Church and State control was a good thing, ridding us of the bonds that tied us to nature was to spell our doom. Nature holds no limits to the human race, cried Condorcet, the French philosopher. Gone would be the tyranny of nature – the threats of famine, flood and disease. The old horses of the apocalypse would be laid to rest, as humans, and humans alone would solve their own problems through technology and reason. Optimization had begun, where we would all be supplied with NUTS APPS and harvest the bountiful supply of resources of the natural world. This was the optimization of the human condition, where nature, as source and sink, would be made to bow before us. Its enslavement echoed the slavery of our fellow humans. Western Consumerism was unleased, supported by a philosophy that would become so deeply ingrained that we would come to view it as our natural state.
2. The problem with Development
As if this wasn’t bad enough, we then set about enforcing this philosophy on the rest of the world. This really accelerated after World War II, where a new order was imagined, with global organizations such as the UN, IMF and World Bank delivering Enlightenment social and economic practice across the globe. Development was the term that was used, converting the “developing” world into the “developed world”. Everyone would be given a free NUTS APP, and we could all aspire to a Western philosophy of reductionist, optimized and humanist thinking.
Yet as the last oaks fall, and the final stash of nuts has been located on the APP, we may finally realize that optimizing for the human condition was folly, that we live within an emergent system, not a reductionist Legoland, and that squirrel amnesia, not the NUTS APP, would have been the best way forward.
The Paris climate meeting, COP 21, has come to an agreement. What is COP 21? Well even this is mired in confusion. COP stands for Conference of the Parties, the “parties” being those who were party to the 1992 Earth Summit (more formally, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) held in Rio de Janeiro. This was a wide ranging meeting, at its time the largest and most expensive diplomatic meeting in history. Its outcomes were published in a 40 chapter volume called Agenda 21. But, with nowhere near the $300 million needed to implement it, it neither had teeth nor legs. Furthermore the USA refused to sign.
The next meeting took place in Kyoto in 1997. Its now infamous output was the Kyoto Protocol, which introduced the devastating concept of carbon trading, which basically allowed the rich and devious to continue to pollute by buying pollution credits (see Chapter 3 of Sustainable Economics for more details). Kyoto was a mess. The idea of allowing Adam Smith’s invisible hand to sort out the environmental chaos caused by that hand in the first place was irredeemably flawed. The USA and, less significantly, Andorra, refused to sign, and Canada later withdrew.
Kyoto was called COP 3. Yet it was only the second meeting of the Parties to Rio 1992. It turns out that Rio was COP 2, with COP 1 referencing a much earlier event, the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June, 1972, when whaling was banned. However COP 2 should really be called COP 0, since it is the meeting to which the Parties meeting in subsequent events were initially party to, and you cannot have a Conference of Parties to something if the something has not yet happened!
Since COP 3, there have been another 18 COPS, the first seven slowly moving towards agreements on Kyoto, then a few more working on what Kyoto actually means, followed by a number of meetings trying to determine what should replace the Kyoto Protocol. Low points included COP 15, Held in Copenhagen in 2009, where Brazil, China, USA, India and South Africa agreed the Copenhagen Accord behind closed doors, without consulting the other 187 nations, the sweet smell of democracy. A special anniversary meeting to celebrate 20 years since the 1997 Earth Summit (COP 1, but referred to as COP 2 as explained earlier, and in reality, COP 0!) was held called RIO+20. The prime minister of the UK, the German Chancellor and the President of the USA didn’t even bother to turn up. At COP 17, India accused other nations of bullying them. COP 18 at Doha was another low point. The EU could not reach any sort of agreement on carbon emissions targets thanks to Poland, while the USA again refused to decrease its emissions targets.
And then we reached Paris, or COP 21, or 20 or 19 depending on your timeline. Paris 21 set out to replace what are called the Millennium Development Goals, eight targets set in September, 2000 in New York, to be achieved by 2015. These goals were:
1.To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2.To achieve universal primary education
3.To promote gender equality
4.To reduce child mortality
5.To improve maternal health
6.To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7.To ensure environmental sustainability
8.To develop a global partnership for development
Yet the focus of media coverage in Paris has been on almost completely focused on carbon. Agreements include prevention of temperatures increasing above 2oC from pre-industrial levels, achievement of carbon neutrality by 2100 (ie, the carbon released by humans will be absorbed by plants, soils and oceans, a calculation completely flawed as it fails to take into account changes released to ecological succession as forests age, the fact that soils and oceans are already saturated with carbon, to the point that they are releasing carbon back into the environment and that much soil lacks the fundamental structure to store carbon, due to poor management or is now to saline to produce plant growth at all), to review each country’s progress every 5 years and to set aside financial aid for poor countries worst affected.
As usual, the UN has continued its obsession with carbon, as if fixing the carbon problem will save the planet. Yet even if we fixed the carbon problem tomorrow, we wouldn’t save the planet. Soil erosion, salinization of agricultural land, habitat destruction, diversity reduction and a lack of environmental justice all spell disaster. Yet we are obsessed with carbon, a fuel source that is running out anyhow. More pressing is how we will survive when our soils stop working, we run out of phosphorus (essential for food production and estimated to be depleted within 100 years). Platinum, uranium, rare earth metals, lithium, timber, hafnium and gallium, all essential for alternative energy production such as nuclear, solar and wind, are all heading for exhaustion within two generations. Then how will we produce the energy needed to support our populations at the current levels, far above natural carrying capacity, with the natural carrying capacity shrinking rapidly due to environmental destruction?
Yet governments and the UN press on with a carbon agenda at the expense of these other areas. It dominates politics, school classrooms and breakfast tables. It’s like a family on a boat, gathered around a hole and working out how to fix it, but ignoring four other larger holes completely. This is not just irresponsible, but disastrous for our future. The COPs are ignoring a much bigger policing issue, and as a result, we may have pristine carbon budgets, but with no ecosystem services left to sustain us, we’re still heading towards environmental catastrophe.
So you have taken the reins of the major opposition party in the United Kingdom. Before envisaging a powerful government following victory at a future election, it will be more important to form powerful opposition, essential for an effective, accountable party in power, just like a strong defence strengthens the sword of justice in a courtroom (provided the prosecution is equally strong). In a post-new labour world, will you revert to a pre-new labour entity, or unleash a new vision?
The party politics of Britain has traditionally fallen into three colours – green (environment-focused), red (society-focused) and blue (economy-focused). These map on to the three areas wherein meaningful sustainability must emerge. A centre ground, currently most closely represented, though only peripherally, in Britain by the Scottish party, the SNP, occupies the sacred ground on which a sustainable future for humans can be found:
The blue argument runs as follows: money lies at the heart of the three big issues: national security, infrastructure and progress. Without money, then surely you can’t succeed. Economic growth is essential, be it through a property (mortgage), stock and shares or savings accounts. The generation of profit allows us to provide humanitarian aid. No profit, no spare cash, no helping people. It’s difficult to argue with it. Also, wealth makes people feel good. Wealth is power, but it also generates a feeling of safety – keeping the wolf from the door, protection against the rainy day and other such time-honoured pillars. Even the United Nations Human Development Index relies heavily on GDP. Economic growth has become the unit of measurement of human progress.
Yet wealth generation comes at a cost, both to those actually generating the wealth (the workforce) and to the environment. Balancing wealth generation with happy working conditions and a workable concept of a functioning, supportive society has long been the heart and soul of the red movement, the Labour Party. Workers’ rights, equality and fairness are the most common cries of any socialist political event. Since the majority of a population are workers rather than mill owners (the classic food pyramid), there are plenty of voters to support such a view. Indeed the wonder is why labour don’t always win. This is because the balance between owner and worker is a dynamic equilibrium, poisoned by each side in some form of macabre economic pantomime, each side pushing the other for a bigger slice of the pie, while appealing to the audience (the voters) for support (Oh no they’re not truly supportive of the working man. Behind you…). Consequently, when the pie falls off the table and the audience doesn’t get its rubbish collected, employment is no longer guaranteed and the electricity supply is no longer maintained, blame sometimes is placed on the side of the workers’ party.
Finally, the green movement sets out an apparently different stall, claiming that the pie, the people and the whole house will collapse if we do not have a functioning planet in which to live. Wealth creation and social well-being can damage the ecological structure of the house. Furthermore, deeper happiness is more likely to come from Mother Nature than from money. But what about the wolf at the door, and that rainy day?
So we have three distinct colours, addressing the three significant arenas within which a sustainable planet must rest: sustainable economics, sustainable society and sustainable ecology. And Jeremy, it’s clear. You are red to the core, aren’t you?
Yet both the socialist (red) and economically obsessed (blue) sides find common ground in terms of a philosophy on two levels. Firstly they embrace Enlightenment thinking, and secondly they believe in simple stickle brick science, or reductionism. The Enlightenment, or Humanism in its broader brushstroke, sets out that humans can progress to almost limitless success through education, technology and freedom. Freedom from state interference, freedom from religion and freedom from nature. Humans can run the show. We sit at the top of Darwin and Haeckel’s trees of life, like some self-important, self-obsessed, over-sized and obese fairies.
Interestingly, the green movement signs up to the same doctrine. Conservationists believe that we can sort out nature by introducing species like the cane toad and the beaver, forgetting that a predator is essential for such an introduction not to spiral out of control. The greens are obsessed with carbon as the way to escape an ecological Armageddon. This is reductionist in the extreme for two reasons. Firstly, carbon is only one of four existential threats (the others being pollution, resource scarcity and technological dependence). Secondly, the solutions to the carbon crisis actually exacerbate the other problems (e.g. wind turbines generate terrible pollution in their use of rare earth metals, while green fuels use vast amounts of water and compete with agriculture and natural habitat for land – ask the orangutans if you don’t believe me, and ask them soon, before they go extinct thanks to green fuels).
To solve a multi-faceted, interactive problem, you cannot use stickle bricks. You need systematic thinking, embracing emergence and sub-optimality. None of the three colours can dominate the palate of an artist attempting to paint a sustainable future. Each arena must prepare to operate at a less than optimal rate for the greater solution to work.
And so, Jeremy, the future of the Labour Party, if it is to address the significant issues of the day, must turn:
to pleuralism, where there are context-driven solutions, not colonial globalization;
to bioparticipation, where we solve the problems at the system level, not biomimicry, which grabs bite-size chunks of nature and then emasculates them within the human borg;
to evolution, transitioning naturally, not revolution;
and to localism, not centralization.
For the solution space relies on you recognizing that you are on a multi-armed seesaw, not in a weight-lifting competition. It is not about survival of the fittest (another Humanist dogma), but survival of the fitting.
For this is the way of the rest of the planet, each ecosystem solving its problems relevant to the latitude and longitude in which it exists, uniquely responding to the topographic, edaphic and climatic conditions present. Only by singing from this hymn sheet can we hope to find a way forward. Red, blue and green together make white in additive colour mixing. But a shade of light pink would allow you to paint the picture with your own distinctive flavour. Indeed all political parties must start with white, and find their own pastel shade, flavoured with their political ideology.
The rights of the environment, equality for all of life and a celebration of the sovereignty of all that share this planet are Labour values applied to the entire biosphere. Rid yourself of the Christmas tree fairy complex that is Humanism, and instead embrace buen vivir, where if you set your house in order (ecology), the occupants (socialism) and their activities (economics) will emerge from the system in a pure, harmonious celebration and where the party can go on for much longer. And we all love a party, Jeremy, especially when it involves life and death. Political dogma is well and good, but if it messes with the survival of the house, then it's as useful as a red rag in a field of bulls. So let's get it right, for the sake of all of us. As the last paragraph of my book, Escape from Bubbleworld: Seven Curves to Save the Earth (2011, Ard Macha Press) states: “The answers are there already, waiting for us. For the light is not something we strive towards, but rather it flows through all and unifies all. In a sustainable planet, we are all the light. So let us reconnect and shine.”
This week, Sir Timothy Hunt FRS, FMedSci, Nobel Laureate and cell cycle research guru, whose discovery of cyclins and their relationship with protein kinases has been heralded as possibly the most significant discovery in biochemistry in recent times, resigned as honorary professor in the Faculty of Life Sciences in the prestigious University College London. UCL have welcomed the resignation.
These events followed comments he made at the World Conference of Science Journalists (an excellent choice of audience) held in the Gangnam district (cue dancing) of Seoul relating to the role of women in Science. He said “Three things happen when they (female scientists or “troublesome girls” as Hunt has put it) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”. His apology was shallow: “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. I just meant to be honest, actually”. This contradicted his earlier statement that these were “intended as light-hearted and ironic”.
Obviously these comments have caused significant annoyance across both male and female members of the scientific community, and stand in opposition to a huge effort to recruit female scientists and to inspire young women to choose a scientific career. In one Gangnam moment of madness, this Knight of the Realm and much respected British scientist has undone years of work by so many. They Royal Society itself, of which Hunt is a fellow, supports the L'Oréal and UNESCO For Women in Science programme, which sets out “to promote and highlight the critical importance of ensuring greater participation of women in science” and runs many workshops on the subject. Hunt’s wife, Professor Mary Collins, is a leading immunologist and often speaks at workshops promoting women in science. They first met when Hunt was her Director of Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Professor Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, said: “Tim Hunt seems to have been speaking about his personal problems in relating to women. What he describes is not my experience and I have never had a student – male or female, straight or gay – cry when their research was criticised.”
Yet the history of great male scientists making derogatory and insulting observations upon females is a highly populated one. Some of the most celebrated scientists of the last 200 years have made extremely inflammatory comments. Charles Darwin, in his book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1896, p. 564), observed that the male attains “. . . a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on hereditary genius that . . . the average of mental power in man must be above that of women”.
Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), a leading social psychologist and author of the highly influential The Crowd, stated that “Women . . . represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and . . . are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconsistency, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads”.
James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and, after Darwin, perhaps the most famous scientist in the world, defended genetic engineering as a useful tool for a very specific reason, observing that “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great” He further elaborated, in his book Avoid Boring People (2007), that “Anyone sincerely interested in understanding the imbalance in the representation of men and women in science must reasonably be prepared to at least consider the extent to which nature may figure”.
As early as 1972, Elaine Morgan, in her book The Descent of Women, observed that the inferiority of women was a major plank in Darwinian evolution, and that in order to combat this pernicious view, the entire theory of evolution must be re-evaluated. Given that natural selection also gave birth to Eugenics through the work of Galton, described by Rudolf Hess as “applied biology”, and that by 1935, the USA, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland had sterilization laws enacted for those judged as weaker and racially impure individuals, Darwinian thinking as a philosophy has been shown to be deeply ingrained in many aspects of social engineering. And these ideas are embedded as deeply among women as men, as a revealing study from Yale University has recently demonstrated.
Corinne Ross-Racusin et al. (2012, PNAS, 109: 16474–16479) sent an identical job application to 127 academics in research-intensive universities. Each application was assigned a randomly generated name, either male or female. Each academic received one application, and were asked to grade its quality in terms of competency, hireability and how happy the academic would be to mentor the individual. Academics consistently rated the ‘male’ applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the ‘female’ applicant even though the applications were actually identical except for the gender of the applicant. The academics also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male researchers were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.
What is interesting about this study is that both male and female researchers displayed gender bias. Thus whatever the underlying issue is in terms of sexist bias, it would appear to run deeper than the chromosomal makeup of the individual. It is a societal issue, potentially re-enforced by Darwinian sociology, which is still hugely influential in so many fields, from competition as the best means of selection through to stereotyping qualities to each sex through sexual selection.
When I applied for my first lectureship in 1994, in ecology, only 3 of the 30 applicants were female, even though I was the only male in my undergraduate degree studying my subject. Having been awarded the lectureship I joined a biology department that consisted of three female academics and 18 male academics. Yet the head of my Department was female and extremely successful. Females generally outscore males in school and university examination diets. The reasons for low levels of female representation in academia are not obvious from my own experience. As a foster carer, I have noticed that almost all the social work department in my local authority are female. Our initial training course in fostering was run by an all-female team, with no male input. Primary schools are predominantly staffed by females. And so the issue is a complex one, differing across subjects.
Returning to Sir Tim Hunt, his observations, as pointed out by Professor Glover, most probably reflect more upon his own inadequacies than anything else. His comments are exeptional because they target women in science specifically. However the fact that he showed such poor judgement, in voicing such internal angst to a conference of journalists, in attempting to defend them, in his role as a Knight of the Realm and as a representative of powerful organizations such as the Nobelstiftelsen, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society (who awarded him the Royal Medal), is a serious and concerning situation. These organizations should reflect upon this and act accordingly. Hunt’s comments are simply unacceptable.
More fundamentally, the issue of sexism in science must be examined and the role played by an adherence to flawed evolutionary theory should be revisited. There is also no place for social Darwinism in today’s world. Surely we should have learnt this by now. Diversification driven by opportunity, not selection, and evolution as a diffusive process, rather than a displacement process offers so much more understanding and equality to our world.
Perhaps no resource integrates the damage upon the biosphere like water. Water is the great meeting point of chemistry, where things dissolve and enter food chains. Water therefore conveys the havoc wrecked by our activities upon the environment and ourselves. Melted glaciers raise the sea levels, encroaching upon the land; carbon dioxide dissolves in water to produce ocean acidification; our fertilizers flow down the streams into the lakes and coastal waters to rob the aquatic life of oxygen; the salt from excessive irrigation poisons the soil; toxic mine tailings enter our rivers; ballast water introduces invasive species from the other side of the planet, decimating local ecosystems; greenhouse gases destabilize the climate, producing the two-edged sword of drought and flood, killing our crops and eroding our soil in turn; dirty water delivers disease to the disaster zones and the refugee camps, when humans are at their lowest ebb anyhow.
Water truly is the conveyer of bad news. It is also essential for our survival. As the universal solvent, it is the solution space for biochemistry. It acts as a temperature regulator, preventing sudden rises in our internal temperatures. It cushions our organs from damage and dilutes our toxic nitrogenous waste as urine. In many organisms it provides the mechanical support as a hydroskeleton. Humans are particularly vulnerable to dehydration, with symptoms becoming apparent when just 2% of our water is lost, with losses above 15% being fatal in most cases.
Water is essential for agriculture. Indeed some of the earliest evidence of farming is represented by the appearance of irrigation ditches in Sumeria and Babylon. Today, crop irrigation leads to a build-up of salts, destroying the soil, while drought and flood are equally disastrous.
Deforestation has the potential to greatly disrupt water supply to the plains of Brazil. Water evaporating from tree leaves in the Amazon forest forms the main source of water for rainfall on the Brazil Plains. Removal of the forest means that water is not evaporated, and instead flows out to sea, threatening the Cerrado with extreme drought.
Civil war, increasing population, deforestation, increasing agricultural pressures and climate destabilization all play a role. In Tanzania the disappearance of the Kilimanjaro glacier will have a significant impact, as will reduced glacial melt for Peru. Many countries will fall below the acceptable minimum levels of water during the next decade. We are draining aquifers of water at a rate higher than their rate of replenishment.
Already, the withdrawal of freshwater in quantities and at rates exceeding natural renewal capacities is documented in many parts of the world including China, India, Mexico, the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, Central Asia, Australia, southern Africa and the USA. The Aral Sea, formerly the fourth largest lake in the world has dried up, due to its feeder rivers being diverted for agriculture. Its disappearance has had wide-ranging impacts, from the collapse of fishing industry to regional climate destabilization.
Meanwhile glacial melt in the Himalayas threatens water flow in the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, all of which have their sources in the Himalayan range. It is estimated that by 2100 AD, there will be a 30% decline in the Indus, the most important river in Pakistan. Agricultural losses are estimated at 8-24% in maize, soybean, wheat and rice by 2070 due to irrigation issues.
The groundwater footprint (GF) is the land area required to supply sufficient rainwater to underground aquifers in order to replace use of this water, divided by the area of the aquifer. The higher the value, the greater the area needed. Globally, 131 billion km2 is required to offset groundwater use, which is 3.5 times more area than is available. Thus we are unsustainably using groundwater. This figure rises to >20 for High Plains (USA), North Arabian, Upper Ganges and Western Mexico aquifers, indicating that these areas are at high risk of draining aquifers completely, with devastating consequences. The Ogallala Aquifer (responsible for 30% of the irrigation water used by the US) is being emptied at record rates, with an average drawdown of 4 m across the eight states it underlies, and water levels have dropped by over 40m in some areas.
Our obsession with carbon has led us to ignore almost completely the cost of our lifestyles in terms of water. We are consumed with the carbon footprint of our foods, but ignore the water footprints. Water footprints of common produce (including irrigation and processing) are huge:
Beef 1kg 15400 litres/kg
Pork 1kg 6000 litres/kg
Apple 1 125 litres per apple
Apple Juice 1 litre 1140 litres water per litre
Banana 1 160 litres per banana
Orange 1 80 litres per orange
Pizza margherita 1 1260 litres per pizza
Pasta 1kg 1850 litres /kg
Olives 1kg 3020 litres /kg
Egg 1 200 litres per egg
Cotton tee-shirt 1 2500 litres per tee-shirt
Pair of jeans 1 2500 litres per pair
Chocolate bar 100g 1700 litres per 100g
Cheese 1kg 5060 litres/kg
Wine 1 bottle 650 litres per bottle
Beer 0.5 l 148 litres per 0.5 litre beer
So to save water, drink beer not wine (or better still, drink water!), eat pork not beef, peel an orange, not a banana and stay clear of a plate of pasta, feta cheese and olives!
A final sector in which water consumption is often ignored is the energy sector. Focus has been solely on the carbon footprint of energy production, rather than the associated water footprint. The second table, below, shows the water requirements for a range of energy production methods. As can clearly be seen, green fuels such as ethanol use large amounts of water compared with other fuels. Given the already threatened water supplies, this could pose a significant threat to water security and demands re-evaluation in terms of sustainability. Hydraulic power has a different issue: methane production. When large dams are built the flooded vegetation releases large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Process litres H2O/MWh
Petroleum extraction 40
Oil refining 80-150
Oil shale surface retort 680
Nuclear power plant, closed loop cooling 950
Nuclear power plant, open loop cooling 94,600-227,100
Corn ethanol 2,270,000-8,670,000
Soybean biodiesel 13,900,000-27,900,000
A fundamental point that I have stressed in my most recent book, Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st-Century Practitioner, is that there are three horsemen of the modern apocalypse, not just one. We will fail if we focus only on carbon. By the time we solve the carbon problem (likely when fossil fuels run out), the other problems will have already destroyed us. For any hope, we must stop the reductionist thinking that has led us to the predicament that we are in, and, instead, embrace systems thinking. In other words seek sub-optimal solutions that work across all of the problems, rather than optimizing solutions to a single issue while ignoring the continuing chaos surrounding us. Ignore the manatee in the room at your cost.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO), have recently announced that glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is “probably carcinogenic to humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals. Glyphosate also caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells” (Ref 1). According to Professor Dave Schubert, head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, “There are a number of independent, published manuscripts that clearly indicate that glyphosate … can promote cancer and tumour growth. It should be banned.” Other research from the United States Department of Agriculture shows strong correlation between glyphosate application increase and increases thyroid cancer (R=0.968), diabetes (R=0.971), autism (R=0.940) and Celiac disease. Monsanto, in a desperate move essentially repudiating years of research by multiple scientists, has demanded that WHO retract the report. So why is this so important? The answer lies in one of the biggest corporate and scientific battles against public opinion, involving huge amounts of money, much of it from taxpayers, an all too common human mistake based on Enlightenment philosophy, and the ever more damaging efforts to feed a human population far beyond its carrying capacity. It all began in the early 1970s when John E. Franz (more on him later), a Monsanto chemist, led the discovery of glyphosate. This powerful broad spectrum herbicide (it could kill just about anything that was green or bacterial) attaches to an enzyme that is crucial in making three very important amino acids: tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine. By blocking the enzyme, these amino acids couldn’t be made. The impact of this is disastrous for the plant, as it can’t make proteins, which are essential for life. The good thing about glyphosate is that it didn’t affect animals, as animals rely on ingesting these three amino acids, and don’t have the magic enzyme with which to make them. Glyphosate works by absorption through leaves, and then moving rapidly to a plant’s roots, rhizomes, and meristems. Glyphosate was marketed as Roundup, and is the most widely used weed killer in the world. However it was to become a lot more important following a separate discovery. Using genetic engineering, Monsanto were able to design and produce plants genetically immune to glyphosates in order to make it easier for farmers to thoroughly spray their fields, killing all the weeds without killing their own crops. They discovered a bacterium that was resistant to glyphosate, Agrobacterium strain CP4. In this organism, the glyphosate was unable to bind to the enzyme, and so the enzyme could keep producing the essential amino acids. Monsanto moved the DNA for this special version of the enzyme from the bacteria into the cell nuclei of a number of different crops. Now the farmers could spray the fields with Roundup, and while all other plants would die, the crop would survive. Simples. And worth a fortune. These crops became known as Roundup Ready. Monsanto also engineered them so that the seeds from these plants were sterile, forcing farmers to buy new seed and roundup from them each year. It was a business dream, and cornered the market in terms of seed sales and herbicide sales. In 1994, Roundup was named one of the “Top 10 Products That Changed the Face of Agriculture” by the magazine Farm Chemicals in 1994. Current Roundup Ready crops include soy, corn, sugar beet, oil seed rape, alfalfa, cotton and sorghum, with wheat under development. The global value of biotech seed alone was US$13.2 billion in 2011, with the end product of commercial grain from biotech maize, soybean grain and cotton valued at approximately US$160 billion or more per year. As of 2009, the overall Roundup line of products represented about 50% of Monsanto's business. They earn further revenue from licensing the patent to around 150 companies, including Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that glyphosate use in the U.S. increased from about 10 million kg in 1992 to 55 million kg in 2002 to more than 140 million kg in 2012. Advocates say that they have increased agricultural production by more than US$98 billion and saved an estimated 473 million kilograms of pesticides from being sprayed. But critics question their environmental, social and economic impacts. Protests have been widespread. The introduction of genetic material from completely different species has drawn a comparison between GM crops and Frankenstein, with the label “Frankenfoods” becoming popular. Suspicions remain that this shuffling of the genetic pact may have consequences for the chemistry of the harvested food, generating toxic secondary metabolites in non-laboratory conditions. Given the huge heterogeneity of atmospheric, soil and climate conditions across the globe, it is surely impossible to test a plant in all of these combinations. Yet plants are masters of complex chemistry – they have to be as their feet are literally nailed to the ground, so they can’t run away. Furthermore, a field test showed that lettuce, carrots and barley planted one year after the soil was treated with Roundup contained glyphosate residues up to one year after. Thus glyphosate is a hanger on, and a nasty one at that. More serious is the threat to agricultural productivity. Weeds have become resistant to Roundup in eighteen countries, allowing superweeds to develop, such as Palmer amaranth. As the GM crops are given extra work to do, by producing this alternative protein all the time, they use more energy than normal crops. This is OK, as long as they have a competitive advantage over the weeds. However as that advantage disappears, the GM crops will actually produce less food than the normal crops, since they need to burn more energy making a now useless enzyme. Resistance also means that farmers will have to spray three times more Roundup on crops to kill the superweeds. This will largely negate the advantages of reduced application, although it means even more sales for Monsanto. Research on the ecological impact of Roundup Ready crops in the UK produced mixed results. In comparison with conventional cropping systems, weed and animal populations were negatively affected by herbicide tolerant sugar beet and rape seed, but biodiversity was increased with the use of herbicide tolerant maize. The focus was on the GM crops, not the Roundup, which was thought to be safe. While the European Union acted mostly to prevent the introduction of GM crops into Europe, governments continued to spend billions on genetic engineering research. Funders such as BBSRC in the UK poured huge amounts of money into labs across the country, and if you were a GM researcher, the sky was the limit in terms of promotion and new lab facilities. Governments, scientists and companies pressed the EU to change its laws. This came to a head when the former Scientific Advisor to the Scottish Government, Professor Anne Glover, left her post as EU Science Advisor in 2014, blaming NGOs opposed to genetically modified organisms for acting against her. “They portrayed me as this person that was incredibly important and that if I said something the president of the commission would do it,” she explained. “They knew it wasn’t the case that I was this all-powerful unelected individual, but it suited their arguments and I didn’t think that was very honest. They didn’t like my position on GM, which is that the scientific consensus is that it’s safe.” Professor glover had argued opposition to GMOs was "a form of madness" (Ref. 2). She might need to rethink her views on this, unless she wants to include WHO on her list of insane institutions. The carcinogenic threat of Roundup is a different kettle of fish and should lead to a halt to GM food production. This isn’t about Frankenstein. It is cold, hard science. I say “should” but we are dealing with extremely powerful companies with powerful lobbies in the halls of government. For many years the Minister of Science in the British Government, Lord Sainsbury, also personally funded the largest genetic engineering research institute in the UK, the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University. And what of the inventor, John E. Franz? He looks to be joining a rogues gallery of scientists who for the best of intentions unleashed a bad thing upon society. He is not the first. Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch invented the nitrogen fertilizer industrial production process, unleashing one of the horses of the modern apocalypse upon the planet. Eutrophication now accounts for a huge proportion of the damage done to our ecosystems. Haber also invented the insecticide, Zyklon B, which killed millions in the gas chamber of the Holocaust. Arthur Galston developed a chemical that could accelerate the growth of soybean, later known as Agent Orange. This chemical would claim 400 000 deaths and disabilities along with 500 000 birth deformities in Vietnam, when it was realized that at stronger concentrations it acted as a defoliant. Dr Gerhard Schroder invented an insecticide called sarin. Anton Köllisch developed an anti-bleeding agent now called Ecstasy, which claims 50 lives each year in the UK alone. Reginald Mungomery thought it would be a good idea to introduce cane toads to Australia, leading to a decimation of its wildlife. Frédéric Swarts pioneered the synthesis of CFCs in the 1890s. But none of these, with the possible exception of John E. Franz, matches Thomas Midgley Jnr. John Robert McNeill, the Georgetown professor, has remarked that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history." Bill Bryson wrote that Midgley possessed "an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny." For it was Midgley Jnr who gave us leaded petrol, using tetraethyllead, a powerful neurotoxin, and he also invented large scale productions of CFCs, leading to a widespread increase in skin cancers due to the destruction of the ozone layer. Interestingly Franz and Midgley Jnr were both awarded the Perkins Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry. More ironically, Monsanto set up an award to honour Franz, called the Franz Sustainability Award, for the best environmental research. It’s almost funny, but yet it isn’t at all. Glyphosate is central to the industrial agricultural landscape, used across the world and tied to the crops that governments and industry are pushing us all to grow. Yet it isn’t just weeds that Roundup is likely to kill. If you don’t like this opposition to GM crops, don’t blame Greenpeace and label them as mad, as our former Chief Scientific Advisor has done. Blame the World Health Organization. The planet is not an extended phenotype, as Richard Dawkins would have it. We can’t fix things by adding genes or cane toads or CFCs. Technology in isolation is more likely to destroy us than heal us, as Professor Hawking has recently pointed out. The Enlightenment philosophy of progress and human perfection, in isolation from nature, is a failed model, ignorant of emergence and systems thinking. Bio-manipulation and biomimicry should be replaced with bio-participation, before we completely eradicate the framework within which we exist. Ref. 1: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf Ref. 2: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/03/ec-anne-glover-gm-crops-greenpeace