Tag Archives: Environmentalism

If you read only two books this year make them The New Climate War and Silent Earth

My summer reading this year has included two books that I’ve really looked forward to, and which have not disappointed. These books are on the one hand very different and yet share enough similarities for me to review them together. Michael E. Mann’s The New Climate War focuses on the ‘climate emergency’ whilst Dave Goulson’s Silent Earth is about the ‘ecological emergency’, and specifically the decline of insect populations. As I pointed out in a recent New Scientist opinion piece: “the climate emergency often overshadows the ecological emergency, even though the two overlap both in their causes and their solutions”. Reading these two volumes in parallel has given me a much deeper understanding of just how true that statement is, and it’s why I’m suggesting that of the many, many books that have been recently written about our current environmental crisis, these deserve to be the ones that you read.

Silent Earth deals with the billions of small things – the insects and other invertebrates – that make the world function the way it does. These creatures facilitate the recycling of organic material, the pollination of wild and crop plants, the regulation of populations of other species, and play a host of additional ecological roles. The central thesis of the book is that the growing evidence of declines and extinctions of these small animals should give us cause for concern. In contrast, The New Climate War is about the big stuff – how the world’s atmosphere and oceans are heating up, the contribution of human activities to that warming, and what this means for weather patterns and sea levels across the globe. And how industry and politicians have conspired to deny, obfuscate, and divide, undermining efforts to decarbonise the world’s economy.

It matters not whether we view the world through a microscope or via an Earth observation satellite, both of these ways of seeing and understanding are important to our future as a species. The flap of a butterfly’s wings may only rarely be the indirect cause of a hurricane in the Caribbean, but reading these books nonetheless reminds us of the connections between the world’s biosphere and its physical domains.

The science underlying both books acts as a background to their main purpose: convincing the reader that there are urgent issues with which we, as a society, must deal. In this respect they are unapologetically political, and the point at which science meets environmentalism. The books are written by scientists who are respected experts in their respective fields, but who are not content with sitting back on their award- and citation-laden laurels, and allowing their science to speak for itself (as important as that is). Both Mann and Goulson have entered the more public arenas of politics and social commentary to argue the case for fundamental restructuring of some aspects of our societies. Their reward has been near constant criticism, much of it personal, vindictive and even threatening, by the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry (Mann) and agro-chemical & farming interests (Goulson) and the keyboard warriors who labour on their behalf, wittingly or not. That Mann and Goulson persist in voicing their concerns in this way, at the same time continuing to publish high quality science, says much about them as people and their commitment to these important causes.

The stereotype of the cold, calculating, emotionless scientist is shattered by these authors as they frequently refer to their families, especially their children, as a prime motivation for their activism. In an emotive chapter, Goulson imagines his son as an old man sitting up through the night to defend the vegetables that he’s growing with his family in a Britain that has experienced not an apocalyptic collapse of society and basic infrastructure, but “a slow unravelling over decades”. As he remembers back to the world of his youth he wonders: “Why did we fail to act? We humans do not seem to be very good at grasping the big picture”.

The Big Picture is certainly an underlying theme of both books, despite the different scales at which these scientists work, and both are revelatory in their descriptions of what’s occurring behind the scenes. Pull aside the curtain and we see the financial connections between various anti-environmental think tanks and lobby groups (Mann) and the hypocrisy of large business corporations which continue to manufacture highly toxic pesticides that, although banned in the west, can be profitably exported to developing countries (Goulson). All of these messages of corruption and environmental degradation could make the books pessimistic reads. But in fact both have an optimistic undertone, a sense that we know what the issues are, we know what’s got us into this mess, and there are routes out of it. But only if (and it is a huge if) there is the willingness of governments and large corporations to act.

Both writers share a belief in humour and personal anecdotes as vehicles for emphasising important points. For example Mann describing the fearsome and brutal attention given by climate deniers to Greta Thunberg and other youthful activists as being like the Eye of Sauron (one of several Lord of the Rings analogies). Or Goulson’s description of giving a phone interview to Australian radio while lurking in the piss-smelling toilet of a British pub. These books are brought to life by the authors’ experiences as scientists and as advocates, and their passionate wish for a better future.

Full disclosure: this can hardly be considered an objective review as both Dave Goulson and Mike Mann are friends of mine. Dave I met over thirty years ago when we were graduate students in the same department, and we’ve published a few things together. Mike I encountered much more recently, as I described in this post, when we were concurrently on sabbatical at the University of New South Wales and discovered that we were living in adjacent apartment blocks. In some respects the world of science is a very small one. Despite these personal connections I don’t think that I would have said much that’s different about either book had I not known their writers. But who knows, that’s not the way things are. There are certainly things to criticise in both books, and I don’t agree with all of the writers’ conclusions and could debate several points of interpretation with them, especially in Silent Earth where I’m in more comfortable territory. But those would be minor criticisms in light of the conclusions that these important books draw: that our world is changing rapidly, that we are responsible, and that we have a duty to act immediately. It’s not too late, but we need to listen to the science and what scientists such as Mann and Goulson are telling us.

Scientist as Poet as Scientist – from Dark Mountain 10

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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

Connecting with Nash, connecting with “nature” – reflections on a recent discussion


Last night I took a trip up to London with my long-time friend and sounding board Barry Percy-Smith (Professor of Childhood and Participatory Practice at the University of Huddersfield) to watch Graham Nash being interviewed and playing music for a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes series.  Regular blog readers may remember that we did the same thing a couple of years ago when Nash’s compadre David Crosby did a similar recording, which I wove into a blog post.

Although I had no intention of using the Nash gig as a jumping-off point for a post, walking through Maida Vale yesterday evening, looking for a good pub, I was thinking about a discussion that’s going on over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog called “Is connection with nature an oxymoron?“.

The discussion centres around a very interesting recent paper by Robert Fletcher in which he argues that “a sense of separation from “nature” is in fact paradoxically reinforced by the very environmental education and related practices employed to overcome it“.  I’d recommend that you read both the paper and the blog post, with comments: there are a number of points raised on Ideas for Sustainability, including whether or not “oxymoron” is the correct term to use here and, more importantly, that Fletcher’s paper has a very narrow frame of reference in terms of how it’s critiquing “connecting with nature”.

But in addition I think that there’s a point to be made that no person on the planet (unless they have been kept in a sealed, sterile, environment their whole life and fed artificial food supplements) is actually “disconnected from nature”.  Directly and indirectly we are all of us connected with non-human life and landscapes, whether we are aware of it or not – and most of the time we are not – via the food we eat or just the subliminal perception of the commonplace wildlife and horticulture that you can see even in the most urbanised of environments.

During our pub quest through what is a very built-up part of London – a city synonymous (at least in the UK) with the idea of disconnection from nature – I was seeing non-human life everywhere: plants were growing in the most inhospitable of places (see the images below of a large wisteria covering most of an apartment block, and a proudly tended balcony of plants in pots); large gulls were crying overhead; house sparrows were chirruping in gardens; “weeds” were popping up in the most unlikely spots.




Yes it’s common-place stuff, and yes much of it is anthropogenic, but that doesn’t make it any less “nature” or lessen our connection with it. The real question for me is about how many people actually perceive this, either consciously or subliminally. I suspect there’s far more of the latter than the former, but that if the non-human elements of “nature” were removed from even the most built-up parts of large cities like London, that people would notice and respond negatively to its removal.  Perhaps rather than trying to reconnect people with some idealised view of “nature” that is separate from their usual existence we should actually be encouraging (“teaching”?) them to think about the non-human life that they encounter in their daily lives, a process that ought to start at an early age.

On that note it seems appropriate to sign off with one of my favourite Graham Nash songs – Teach Your Children. – and a bad photo from the gig.




How do we value nature? Costanza, Monbiot and the clash of concepts

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Is nature something that we should simply value for its own sake?  Or should we take account of how nature supports our society and our economy in real financial terms?  Back in 1997 Australian academic Robert Costanza and colleagues published a now classic paper in the journal Nature called “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” that proved to be hugely influential and has been cited more than 3,500 times by other researchers in ecology, conservation, and ecological economics.  Soon after publication I began to use the paper in some of my classes, asking students how they felt about putting a monetary ($) value on how nature supports ecosystem services such as soil formation, pollination, carbon storage, climate regulation, etc.  Opinions were mixed, reflecting the fact that economic valuation of nature is controversial in theory, difficult to do in practice, and results in vast estimations of the “worth” of nature that seem to be fantastical.  The Costanza et al. study, for example, suggested that ecosystem services were worth $33 trillion per year to the global economy, a figure almost twice as large as the Global GDP at the time!

More than a decade and a half later, Costanza has published a follow up paper that updates the figures in the 1997 paper and arrives at a global valuation of natural capital of between $125 and $145 trillion per year, depending on assumptions made about changes to the area of biomes such as temperate forest, grassland, coral reefs, etc.  This last point is critical as loss of biome area due to changes in land use from agriculture and urbanisation has resulted in an estimated loss of ecosystem services of between $4.3 and $20.2 trillion per year between 1997 and 2011.  That’s a big change and, if nothing else, gives an indication of how we are altering the face of the planet at an ever faster rate, something I will come back to later in this post.

In this new paper Costanza and colleagues have also responded to some of the criticisms of the earlier work, particularly by journalist and activist George Monbiot who, as I’ve previously discussed on this blog, has a genuine, but I feel misguided, aversion to the whole notion of ecosystem services and natural capital. Monbiot’s been repeating these criticisms in a lecture, a video and text of which is available on the Guardian website.  I won’t go into a detailed discussion of his position, some of which I agree with, but I do believe that his major criticisms fail on two points.

The first is that Monbiot mixes up some very different concepts, bundling ecosystem services (a reasonable way of thinking about nature in relation to society) with biodiversity offsetting (a load of bollocks), green infrastructure (the importance of green space to urban development), carbon trading (dubious in theory and practice), and payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes (which can work on a regional scale, as in the case of South West Water’s upland catchments project), as if they were all the same thing, which they are not.  In the Nene Valley NIA Project, for example, we are using an ecosystem services approach and are trying to develop a PES, but are wholly against biodiversity offsetting.

The second is that Monbiot sees all of this as some kind of neoliberal agenda to sell off the natural world to the highest bidder.  That’s really not the case and ecosystem services are being promoted as a concept by conservationists, NGOs and scientists whose motivation is saving the natural world, not selling it.  As Costanza et al. (2014) rightly state: “It is a misconception to assume that valuing ecosystem services in monetary units is the same as privatizing them or commodifying them for trade in private markets”

In his lecture Monbiot uses the classic rhetorician’s device of using partial quotes to support his point.  For example he quotes Dieter Helm as saying that:

“The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed”.

Sounds bad, I agree.  But the full quote actually gives a very different and more profoundly “green” message:

“Over the coming decades, there will be a major programme to develop the UK’s infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Plan 2013 sets out ambitious plans – for new railways, roads, airport expansions, energy systems, water resources, sewerage investments, flood defences and a major increase in house building …….. In taking forward this major investment, it is important not to lose sight of natural infrastructure and the integral part that natural capital plays in delivering sustainable economic growth. …… the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.  Integrating the environment into the economy is hampered by the almost complete absence of proper accounting for natural assets. What is not measured is usually ignored.”

Monbiot does make some good points in relation to how power can trump any environmental monetary valuation, and how political influence works, but his solution of “mobilisation”, is most effective at a relatively small scale, for example the defeat of Derby Council over plans to develop a nature reserve.  Mobilisation by passionate environmentalists has failed to protect large swathes of Brazil’s natural environment, but arguments about the link between vegetation and rainfall, underscored by financial assessments of agricultural crop reductions, just might.

What is interesting about the lecture (which I encourage you to watch, Monbiot is a great speaker and it’s more entertaining than the transcript) is that not one of the audience questions afterwards actually dealt with the main topic of the lecture, namely the pricing of nature.  Is that because he won over the audience completely with his arguments?  Or is it because the ecosystem services approach to nature conservation is too recent a concept for its technicalities to have embedded themselves within public consciousness, and a general audience such as this might not feel confident enough to make challenging comments?  I suspect the latter because whenever I give public lectures to gardening and wildlife groups, for instance, I always ask who has heard of “ecosystem services”, and invariably it’s a minority of the audience.

If Monbiot was correct and it’s possible to sell off natural capital in the way he describes, then we would expect the coalition UK government, for one, as well as big business, to buy into the concept wholeheartedly and to invest much more than they currently do in order to make a quick buck out of biodiversity.  But they aren’t, and in fact this government has a track record that shows it has only the most cursory of interests in the UK’s natural ecosystems, and is willing to ignore scientific evidence to placate special interest groups who happen to be Conservative Party supporters (witness the recent badger cull debacle and the lack of action over illegal activity on grouse moors).

This is no doubt a debate that will continue but time is running out for the natural world and we don’t have many options: in Table 3 of Costanza et al. (2014) the authors present worrying data on how some biomes have greatly reduced in area since 1997 (e.g. coral reefs, wetlands) whilst croplands and urban settlement has increased.  That can’t go on: the natural world is too valuable, in all senses of that world, to lose, something I’m sure George Monbiot would agree with even if he doesn’t believe that monetary valuation is the way to do it.