Category Archives: Dark Mountain Project

Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?


Over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog Joern Fischer posted a really interesting piece on 1st January called “A new kind of hope” about the current state of the world and whether, from an environmental perspective, there’s really anything to be optimistic about.  If environmental collapse via climate change and over-exploitation is inevitable, the collapse of civilization is not far behind.  Joern’s piece is well worth reading, lots to think about in there, and I highly recommend that you take a look.

I posted a comment there which I’m going to copy here and add to because I think it bears repeating.

Going back to at least my student days I always thought that there was only a slim chance of our civilization making it to the end of the 20th century without some kind of catastrophe wiping us out.   So it was a surprise to celebrate the millennium as December 1999 segued into January 2000. Since then, whilst I think there’s lots to be optimistic about such as the increase in renewable energy, large-scale habitat restoration in some regions, and a growing recognition of the environmental damage of biocides and plastics, there’s also the nagging fear that it’s too little, too late.

These days I alternate between wild optimism and deep depression over the fate of humanity and of the planet. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of negative environmental narratives and ignore the positive ones. Especially so if you actively use social media.  So I try hard to be optimistic and resist the urge to just give up, but the political situation across much of the world makes that difficult. As I learn more about the natural world through my own research and that of others’, and as world events such as Brexit and the rise of the Far Right unfold, I realise how little any of us really know about anything at all. Thus I have a deep suspicion of anyone who spouts certainties, whether they be moral, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, or artistic. All we can do is feel our way into the future, cautiously.

With respect to the question that Joern poses of “If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be?”, this is the rationale behind the Dark Mountain Project, a loose collaboration of writers, artists, thinkers, etc., who are trying to look for new narratives for humanity and the planet we depend upon. I’ve written a couple of pieces for their journal, most recently for issue 10 where I discussed the role of poetry in science.  And although I don’t buy into their certainty that there will be a collapse, I think it’s an important project for understanding where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we might be going to.  Here’s a link to the project’s website.

The discussion over whether we should be optimistic about the future of the planet that supports us, and how that optimism will play out, is important for scientists, and society at large, to be having.  By coincidence as I was writing this post the map above started circulating on Twitter.  It’s a Russian teaching aid from 1928 showing the different biomes of the USSR and can be downloaded from this site.

What really struck me about this graphic was the certainty with which it represents the natural world, as if all of this could never change. There are polar bears on ice flows and a frozen tundra in the far north; water still fills the Aral Sea, hyenas feast in the steppe, snow leopards haunt the mountains, Siberian tigers prowl the pine forests.  And an optimistic looking whale heads towards Japan.  Some of this is gone, some will almost certainly change, but a lot of it we could save, if we want to, saving ourselves in the process.

Scientist as Poet as Scientist – from Dark Mountain 10

Dark Mountain on Tenerife 1

What follows is the text from an article that has just been published in Dark Mountain issue 10. Click on that link and you can read more extracts from this volume of poetry, prose, and illustration, and even purchase a copy.  Dark Mountain 10 focuses on “poetics”, hence the title and topic of my contribution.

The Dark Mountain project is a fascinating, vibrant, loose network of writers, thinkers, musicians and artists, whose work and ideas I’ve discussed previously (see:  Up a mountain darkly and We are so very ‘umble).  It’s a great achievement that they (we) have made it to ten issues; here’s to the next 10.


Poet as Scientist as Poet

For as long as I can recall I have been a scientist. Early memories as a child include turning over rocks and probing under bushes in search of elusive insects, dissecting knowledge from road kill, and splitting it from fossil-rich shale. But also, for as many years as I can remember, I have created poetry. Sometimes this has been permanent written text, other times only thoughts and fragments, committed to temporary memory and ultimately lost like the bugs I studied in jars and released back into the wild. Over time the science has become public-facing as hobbies were turned into a career. The poetry remained turned inward, written for myself, only occasionally on show to lovers or to audiences at local spoken-word events.

Perhaps the idea of scientist as poet is too contradictory to bear serious scrutiny, but both of these aspects of my life relate to a deep, enquiring curiosity that has always been present. Both reflect a need to understand something of this complex, confusing world we inhabit, and the place of people and their relationships with one another, and with the environment in a wider, encompassing nature.

In the first volume of Dark Mountain I stepped out as a scientist-poet and contributed an essay-with-poetry entitled ‘W(h)ither Science?’, which was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century. This piece was framed within the context of Uncivilised ideas of ‘what happens when it all goes wrong?’ I prefer to think of it as ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ because, as I originally put it, ‘knowledge is not predictable’. In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, so we can only prepare for a range of outcomes. If we take the best of the sciences and of the arts, and of the education they generate, perhaps we can survive as a species and as a set of communities.

Was that really only six years ago? So much has happened in the intervening period; the science has turned ever more outward, with more writing for scientific journals, magazines, my blog, and more presentations of the research undertaken by my group to other scientists, to policy makers and NGOs, and to the public. The poetry, meanwhile, has remained private, which led me to consider whether it was time to give up a little more. The two short poems in this essay were both written more than ten years ago, though they have been revised and polished periodically. Even as I began to construct this piece I was revising words and reconsidering sentence structure, much as I might revise the analysis of a data set or reconsider its interpretation when writing a scientific paper. One of the things I love about producing poetry is that its form is malleable, it’s never complete, I can change it when I wish. This malleability is also a feature of science: we revise our ideas when confronted with new evidence, rejecting previously supported hypotheses in favour of more accurate notions of the universe.


Chains of Copper, Locks of Lead

Mention a river:
I may have heard of it,
Or talked to a woman who has gazed at its bed.
Cage its waters, bind its banks,
With chains of copper, and locks of lead.

Ultimately bending to time, eroding
The surge and the volume sustaining, removing.

Weighed down, I lay down,
And the river unconscious
Passed over my body and on to the sea.
While my lover cast stones from the bank to the current.
The banks of my body, the river of me.


Due to their inherent chemical properties, both lead and copper are relatively ductile, weak metals: they cannot withstand the force of a river indefinitely. In the same way, no matter how much we believe we can tame rivers or seas or any other component of the natural world, ultimately the environment will prevail. It just takes time. We might canalise a river to prevent flooding or dam it to provide hydro-electricity, but not realise that in its untamed state the river is more valuable, as it provides food, allows travel, brings fertility to flood plains. What, then, does it mean to ‘know’ something about a river? Whose knowledge is more valuable, which expert do we trust? The internet is awash with information, but knowledge, first and second-hand, can both enlighten us and sometimes prevent us from really understanding.


Ordinary by Choice

She chose the route and chose her topics,
Modular waypoints across years of work.
Decisions based on the balance of a gyroscopic
Pursuit of life, work, and an honours degree.
Finally, she elected to be
Ordinary by choice.


A student who chooses not to complete a final year dissertation
module – and so graduate with Honours – but rather exit university with an Ordinary degree, is described as ‘Ordinary by choice’. The phrase strikes me as both poetic and prophetic. Could anyone choose to be ‘ordinary’, and even if they could, is such a thing desirable? Is the course of a simple, ordinary life preferable to one that is complex and extra-ordinary? Does anyone truly believe that their experience of our rich, intricate world, in which decisions are made about priorities and ‘balance of life’, is ordinary, no matter how they make a living or what they do to fill their days?

Education in its widest sense, both formal and informal, taught and autodidactic, is a constant and destinationless journey that takes us from ignorant to less-than-ignorant. It is no coincidence that we use the same word (‘course’) in education, and to describe a river, and a life. A river’s function, as far as people are concerned, depends on choices that we make as to its course and fate. But even without human intervention that course naturally shifts over time and its destination is not necessarily the sea: much depends on geological events and the resulting topography of the land, at time scales uncaptured by the course of an individual’s experience.

The scientific research that I undertake is an attempt to capture truths about the ecological functioning of our planet and how it underpins human societies, no matter how technological or industrialised. It takes collected, often hard-won, data, internally scrutinises it for meaning, and externalises the findings into tables, graphs and written texts, that may influence other scientists or emerge in government reports or policy documents. My poetry takes ideas, emotions, feelings, and projects that mix of internal and external worlds into forms that sometimes, but not always, make sense to me. Empirical truths and emotional truths are not the same thing, and in fact may be contradictory and counter-factual. But empirical rationalism and emotional construction can coexist, and often do within the minds and personalities of scientists. Most do not produce poetry, but every scientist I know is emotionally invested in their subject and openly describes their science in terms of delight, rage, obsession, elation and disappointment, every bit as intense as any poet.


The full reference for this is:

Ollerton, J. (2016) Scientist as Poet as Scientist  Dark Mountain 10: 185-189

We are so very ‘umble

Studying biodiversity can be a humbling experience.  It is humbling to contemplate the intricate ecological context in which species exist, embedded within a matrix of other organisms with which they engage in competition or cooperation or feeding relationships.  It is also humbling to learn that, for some scientists, the focus of their research into ecological complexity and biodiversity is on a single system of species interacting in a single place over a period of decades.

A recent article by Professor Tim Birkhead on the Times Higher Education website illustrates this nicely and conveys beautifully the long term passion and commitment demonstrated by some field biologists and ecologists to research projects.  However I disagree with one of his statements that “….long-term studies are rare. In total there aren’t many more than a dozen or so”.  I suspect that Tim is talking about long term studies of breeding success and population dynamics of vertebrates in the UK.  If one broadens both the taxonomic scale (to take in plants and invertebrates) and the geographic coverage, then there are many, many ecological studies that have continued for decades.  The Park Grass plant community experiment, for example, begun at Rothamsted in 1856, is the oldest ecological experiment anywhere in the world.

Other long term studies are documented in the recent edited volume by Ian Billick and Mary Price – The Ecology of Place.  Highly recommended for its demonstration of the scientific and conservation value of long term ecological research.  Ecology of Place was one of the books I took with me to Tenerife during field work earlier in the summer and I’ve been working through it ever since, absorbed by its chapters more than I can recall in any other edited volume of research.  Some scientists have committed their professional (and sometimes personal) lives to the study of a single locality for over 50 years and the ecological insights from such work have been enormous.  It’s a commitment to the science that I could not possibly mirror; I’m not that kind of scientist.  Whereas I am capable of building up “long term” datasets that span up to 16 years (and counting) these are not the kinds of highly focused, in-depth studies that Mary and Ian have picked for their book.  Perhaps my problem has always been a short attention span and a desire for novelty, like a kid in a toy shop wanting to pick up and play with all of the exciting things on offer.  There’s no single right way to be a scientist (though there are lots of wrong ways).

But back to Uriah Heep and his expressions of ’umbleness.  It’s always been my opinion that  as a society we require some humility when we consider how reliant we are on the processes and resources provided by the biosphere, something that has come to be called ecosystem services, and which I’ve discussed before in a number of blog posts, starting here.  The fact that we rely on the natural world to provide soil nutrients, fresh water, carbon storage, crop pollination, and a whole range of other goods and services, is beyond dispute.  More controversial, however, is the valuation of ecosystem services: how (indeed, should) do we put a monetary value on what nature provides?

A lot of words have been written about these questions in the past few years and recently the writer and environmental activist George Monbiot has weighed into the discussion with an article for the Guardian newspaper that argues that the whole notion of valuation of ecosystem services “diminishes us, it diminishes nature. By turning the natural world into a subsidiary of the corporate economy, it reasserts the biblical doctrine of dominion”.

Now, I have a lot of respect for George, whose writing is always provocative and pulls no punches.  He also puts his money where his mouth is, not least in publicly declaring his earnings.  And on a philosophical level I don’t have a problem with George’s thesis that valuing nature in terms of money is fundamentally wrong; it is wrong, but it’s also the best wrong strategy amongst a whole set of strategies for biodiversity conservation.  Before I explain why, I should also say that I don’t think George argues his case very effectively.  He begins by setting up something of a journalistic straw man in his article by initially claiming that at “a cost of £100,000, [the government] commissioned a research company to produce a total annual price for England’s ecosystems. After taking the money, the company reported….”.

George is presumably referring to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment which as its website clearly states: “was an inclusive process; many government, academic, NGO and private sector institutions helped to design the assessment, contribute information and analyses, review the preliminary findings, and promote the results.”

Not a “research company” then.

George Monbiot also misses the point that spiritual and cultural ecosystem services are explicitly valued within this framework, making a lie of his claim that in the future we won’t ” be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight”.  Yes we can, it just so happens that the argument is being framed in economic terms.

Clearly George believes that valuation of ecosystem services is just some neoliberal government/big business conspiracy to rip off the public.  But that’s not its purpose, even if it may be one possible outcome, and one which we must guard against.  As environmentalist Tony Juniper recognises in a response to George Monbiot’s article,  ecosystem service valuation is a serious attempt to value something which has been dismissed by big business as valueless. Regardless of whether the actual monetary values are in any way accurate, it’s backed up by some very sound science and scientists, including some who have the kind of long term commitments to ecology that I discussed above.  Ecosystem services valuation is not perfect but it’s a way forward that should not be dismissed.  It’s an approach that we are using within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project that I’ve talked about previously, most recently with respect to the River Nene.

Those of us who have had an interest in environmentalism and ecology for many years have noticed a slow shift in public attitudes to “green” issues.  What was once the preserve of hippies and tree huggers is now mainstream.  Most people “get” that the environment is important, even if they can’t articulate what that importance is.  There are some, including those good folks currently climbing the Dark Mountain, who believe that despite this mainstreaming of environmentalism, we are still going to hell in a handcart and the future is bleak.  Perhaps we are and it is, I don’t know.  But the valuation of our natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides may be our last chance to save the natural world, including our society and our species.  You will note that I wrote “including” not “and”.  That’s important:  I don’t distinguish between the two because Homo sapiens is part of “nature” – we evolved within and are shaped by this biosphere and nothing that we do is therefore “unnatural”.  Some of our decisions and activities may be perverse and misguided and against the long term interests of both ourselves and the planet we inhabit.  But it’s not against nature.  How can we be against something of which we fundamentally are a part?  Understanding that we are saving ourselves by conserving the biosphere is a more humbling conclusion that any pretence that we have stewardship, or worse dominion, over “nature”.

Walking the turkeys to London

The March 2012 issue of the British Ecological Society’s quarterly Bulletin contains an article by Bill Sutherland and colleagues entitled “What are the forthcoming legislative issues of interest to ecologists and conservationists in 2012?”  This is the second of their annual “horizon scanning” exercises and provides a very useful map of UK, European and international developments that relate to the conservation of biodiversity.   The article identifies 35 (THIRTY FIVE!) separate conventions, policies, legislative tools and reviews that we need to keep at least half an eye on over the next 12 months.  These include high profile international events like the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development; European initiatives such as the proposed reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy; and UK developments of more (The 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity) or less (Reform of the House of Lords) direct importance to biodiversity.

After reading the article I was left feeling over whelmed by it all.  It’s no wonder that many scientists don’t engage with the societal impacts and implications of their work and stick squarely to the science.  Nothing wrong with that at all and a few years ago I would have agreed with them:  I was happy to keep away from the touchy-feely politico-gabfest end of it all too.  But after 20 years of doing science that was relatively “pure” in the sense that it was concerned with the fundamental aspects of the biodiversity of species interactions (particularly plant-pollinator relationships) my research seems to have shifted more towards work that feeds into biodiversity conservation.  Of course I always argued (and will continue to) that conservation requires a sound scientific underpinning if it is to be effective: it’s hard to conserve what we don’t understand.   But much of the research that’s taken place in the LBRG over the last five years or so has been more or less directly conservation focused.  For example, some of my current and former postgraduates work on topics such as the biodiversity of restored landfill sites (Lutfor Rahman and Sam Tarrant) and the management of small fragments of habitat on commercial sites (Gareth Thomas).   In part this has been purely pragmatic: it’s easier to convince organisations to fund research if you say: “This has important implications for conservation” rather than saying: “This is an interesting scientific question”.  But one should never lose sight of the science that makes the work meaningful in the first place.  Getting that balance between applied conservation (and potentially policy) and the fundamental science can be hard.  Articles such as Bill’s, important though they are, can make one feel like a migrating salmon swimming against the river’s current and trying to make headway in a stream of oncoming information from NGOs, government and international agencies, not to mention the scientific journals.

Overwhelming, as I said, so it’s nice therefore to have some down time.  I’ve been on leave most of this week apart from a couple of meetings on Wednesday, and have caught up with various tasks relating to car, house, life and family.  It’s also been good to get into the garden and plant potatoes and other veg.  We only moved into this house at the end of January so the garden has been slowly evolving from its original state of 90% lawn and 10% side borders, to something a lot more interesting.  Whilst planting I’m keeping track of the number of species of bees and other pollinators I spot in the garden and will report back later in the year.

As well as gardening the Easter break is a good opportunity to reconnect with some real biodiversity rather than just talking and writing about or teaching it.  With this in mind on Thursday Karin and I took ourselves on a six mile round trip hike from home, up through Kingsley and on to Bradlaugh Fields.   Named after 19th century radical atheist politician Charles Bradlaugh, this urban park is one of my favourite places in Northampton, both for relaxing and as a site for teaching and research projects.  As well as a system of very ancient hedgerows, some of which may be at least 1000 years old if you apply Hooper’s Rule, Bradlaugh Fields also includes two ecologically valuable Local Nature Reserves that are managed by one of our graduates, Ian Wilson.  Over the years we’ve visited them with students to look at how different grazing regimes can be used to manage grasslands and how the underlying geology affects the local mosaic of plant assemblages.  Published research from the site includes work on: the function of floral traits in wild carrot (Daucus carota); pollinator sharing between a parasitic plant and its host; and how natural selection may be shaping the flowering times of plant species.  There’s more data to be published in the future including a 15 year (and counting) phenological study of flowering time in the parasitic plant/host system.

The day was rather cold and grey but the fine weather during March meant that quite a lot of plants were in full flower including great swathes of ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), an important early nectar source for solitary bees, bee flies, queen bumblebees and other early emerging pollinators.

It was a really pleasant walk and set us up for a nice cup of tea when we returned.  But what, I hear you asking, does the title of this blog have to do with biodiversity or conservation or ecology?  Or anything for that matter?  Well, “walking the turkeys to London” was an expression that Karin and I dreamt up on our Bradlaugh Fields walk.  We were chatting about a TV programme we’d watched the other evening about traditional ways of producing food in Britain.  One of the items featured was about black turkey raising in Norfolk.  Following the fattening of the birds on recently harvested grain fields, the birds along with sheep, pigs, and other livestock were transported to Smithfield Market in London.  On foot.  The drovers and their animals would average only 3 miles a day and take several weeks to travel to the capital.  It was all redolent of a slower paced way of life, before there were 35 (THIRTY FIVE!) things to bear in mind before we consider the science.  It seemed to us that “walking the turkeys to London” could be the next catch phrase to follow on from clichés such as “thinking outside the box”, “running it up the flagpole and seeing if it flies” and (my current bête noir) “going forward” (what other bloody direction are events likely to move in?).  Only thing is, we are not sure what “walking the turkeys to London” might refer to.  It could relate to the opening of this blog; the idea of the slow slide of science from the labs and research groups towards informing action and policy in the centre of things at Westminster.  Except that “turkey” has such negative connotations: how many scientists, keen to show that their research has impact, are likely to say “let’s walk this turkey to London”?

Whatever it means, the phrase is out there now; it will either be picked up and used or fall flat.  That’s language and it evolves, or stays static, just like the rest of biodiversity.