Monthly Archives: August 2012

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”.


Filed under Book review, Dark Mountain Project, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA

Flattery Gets You Nowhere (reduce, reuse, recycle part 1)

It was always my intention, when I began this blog, to use it as a vehicle to rework and reuse scraps of writing I’ve done over the years that had no real “official” outlet .  Hence the subtitle of this posting.  The following is a book review I wrote on the Amazon website in 2007, after I had read Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.  It’s a really interesting and well written piece of science history that gives a perspective to science that goes far beyond the immediate topic area of cranky ideas.  I have to confess to a potential bias: the author is a friend of mine.  But that doesn’t make the review any less genuine: if I’d not enjoyed the book I’d have kept quiet!

The pathways through which the history of scientific progress can be mapped are strewn with the remains of overturned ideas and outdated pronouncements, some cranky and (with hindsight) nonsensical, others perfectly reasonable given the state of knowledge at the time. Newtonian physics, though sensible at the human scale, suddenly fails to convince at a subatomic level, not because of any failings on the part of Newton, but because technological and mathematical advances have allowed modern physicists to probe closer and deeper.

Similarly, in biology, many established taxonomic ideas concerning the evolutionary relationships between major groups of flowering plants, mammals and other large clades are, thanks to molecular phylogenetics, shown to be erroneous. And so science advances, from the clearly wrong to the (probably) correct, leaving in its wake the cast off ideas of previous generations.  Except sometimes, when science (or at least fringe perceptions of scientific understanding) takes a backwards stride of such length that one begins to question whether scientific “facts” mean the same thing to everyone.

The concept of the Flat Earth may be a unique example of how a fact (the globularity of the Earth) could be established very early in the development of the rational analysis of nature, only to be rejected by a minor, but vociferous, cohort of “true believers”.  As this fascinating book by Christine Garwood relates, observations by Aristotle confirmed the true shape of the world, and there were no serious challenges to this idea until the 19th century.  Mediaeval scholars accepted a spherical Earth (disc-shaped mappae mundi, I was interested to learn, were symbolic, not cartographic, in intention) and the fears raised by the prospect of Columbus plunging over the edge of the world were a nineteenth century fiction concocted by the author Washington Irving.

The emergence of Flat Earth views in Victorian England as a serious (at least to their promoters) attack on received scientific wisdom has to be seen as an unusual reverse in thinking, not least because the “Zetetic” Flat Earthers sought to use science against itself to accumulate evidence to support the idea of the Earth as a plane, not a planet. In this vivid and well researched account, Christine Garwood moves easily between historical scholarship and popular science to follow the development of Flat Earth thinking from its rejection by the Ancient Greeks through to its Victorian revival, when learned men as distinguished as Alfred Russell Wallace could be convinced to take part in parochial experiments along England’s canal system to try to prove that the Earth was a globe. Darwin, Huxley and others saw little value in rising to the Zetetics’ bait, and Wallace himself regretted his involvement in later years (but seems to have needed the cash at the time).

As the author demonstrates, the death of the early major movers in the sphere of Flat Earth promotion was followed by the emergence of other, equally committed and frequently just as eccentric personalities, until eventually popular support for the notion of a Flat Earth ebbed away with the first manned space flights, and the photographs and experiences which were returned to Earth. Flat Earthism did not entirely die, however, and no amount of “proof” could dissuade the opinion of zealots such as Samuel Shenton, founder of the International Flat Earth Research Society. Like fundamentalists of all persuasions, he had an answer for everything, however contrived and paranoid.

In Garwood’s thought provoking book our understanding of the development of fringe ideas in the history of science is advanced through an analysis of the primary sources relating to an intriguing subject. The book is scholarly but accessible, at once entertaining and authoritative, and also topical in the context of the increasingly widespread anti-evolutionary views promoted by some religious groups. Unsurprisingly Garwood finds parallels between Creationism and Flat Earth thinking, not least because until recently they were promoted by groups with similar world views and memberships.

Flat Earth ideas continued to be advanced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as both an academic jest with serious anti-establishment overtones by the International Flat Earth Society of Canada, and as a continuation of Zetetic thinking by other groups. Currently these ideas are defunct and even the most literal of Biblical literalists reject the notion, making it unlikely to re-emerge. Even if it did, no modern scientist would risk credibility by debating it.

Creationism is a different matter entirely and some professional scientists (myself included) have opted to debate with Creationists despite the views of (amongst others) Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins that such exposure only provides oxygen for their cause. Unlike the Flat Earth theorists, however, anti-evolutionists are not simply going to fade away and their influence is now felt in American classrooms and textbooks. How should scientists respond? With reasoned arguments that convince the public and politicians (if not the fundamentalists, who can believe what the hell they like as far as we’re concerned) or by ignoring them and hoping they might disappear in their own infighting?

Both Flat Earthism and Creationism reflect wider social and attitudinal differences regarding the role of Homo sapiens in nature: as rapacious exploiter; or careful steward of the Earth; or as an ecosystem component in its own right. Science can provide data and theories and models, but it is up to individuals how they choose to interpret and act on such information, or whether they decide to deride or ignore it. Christine Garwood’s first book is a marvellous insight into just how deeply self-delusional beliefs can become embedded in the minds of intelligent, but blinkered, individuals, and it is hoped that her subsequent books examine these themes in more detail. Perhaps her successors 200 years in the future will be similarly taken to write about the incredulous movement that denied that Earth’s climate was changing and that the human species was fundamentally altering the biosphere through pollution and over-exploitation of resources, despite the weight of data. And let us hope that we still have a society that can appreciate the irony.


Filed under Alfred Russel Wallace, Book review, Creationism, Evolution, History of science

To Dream a River

The notion of streams and rivers as the veins and arteries of a nation, bringing life giving fluids to the country’s urban hearts, is an overplayed one for sure.  But it’s accurate nonetheless, even if these fluids contain biodiversity enough to give any blood disease specialist palpitations.   Given their importance it is therefore odd (I’m tempted to write “suicidal”)  that in Britain we have a history of our towns turning their backs, both metaphorically and literally, on our rivers, ignoring their cultural, social, biological and frankly life sustaining importance.  I’ve mentioned the brewery and sewage effluent entering the River Wear at Sunderland in an earlier posting.  As the pollution went in so there was a  gradual receding of business, industry and habitation away from the river.  There seems to be a correlation between the use and value of a river and the condition of its water and biodiversity: as rivers become ignored and disconnected from urban centres, so they become dumping grounds for whatever can be flushed or piped into them.

This process of riparian neglect was repeated throughout the twentieth century across the country and Northampton’s River Nene is no exception.  From its central place in the town’s commercial activities in the nineteenth century, with its links to the Grand Union Canal and to the North Sea, the Nene has declined in both importance to the town and in its ability to support wildlife, at least in the stretch running through the town and just down river.  Much of the ecological quality of water in this stretch is considered “moderate” to “poor” against the criteria set out by the Water Framework Directive, the main driver of European (and therefore UK) water management.

Against this backdrop of neglect and  river decline, recently a group of us went for a seven mile hike along the River Nene, from the western fringes of Northampton at Duston Mill, through the centre of the town, out to Billing Mill.   The trek was organised by a former student of ours, Neil Monaghan, now working for the River Nene Regional Park (RNRP).  The purpose of this walk was (quoting Neil’s brief for the day) “to inform the Northampton Enterprise Zone River Nene Re-naturalisation Study” by “identify[ing] issues and opportunities for works in-stream and in areas influencing the watercourse which would be likely to facilitate improvements (or at least negate degradation) through land use change or water management”.  My particular interest in this relates to the work we are doing as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project I’ve mentioned before. Also taking part in the hike were representatives from most of the groups with an interest in the River Nene’s ecology, water quality and flood risk management, including my university colleagues Duncan McCollin & Chris Holt; another former student Hugh Bunker, now working for the Environment Agency (EA); independent consultant ecologist Steve Brayshaw; Heather Ball and Oliver Burke from the Wildlife Trust; Martin Janes from the River Restoration Centre; and other staff from RNRP, the EA, Northants County Council and Northampton Borough Council.  All in all, a wide range of interests and expertise, giving their own perspectives on the River Nene.

Although I’d visited parts of the area that we walked, I’d never before hiked this whole stretch.  It was a revelation.  We passed some really pleasant stretches of river and lake close to commercial centres in Northampton that I know well, in the sense of “drive there, buy things, drive away”.  But I was wholly ignorant of just how close the river is to some of these points.

One of the reasons why it’s easy to lose track of the water courses and lakes, is that it is so geographically complex.  Take a look at the Nene Valley on Google Earth and what you’ll see what I mean.  The aerial view reveals a network of river branches, tributaries, canals and lakes, traced across the landscape.  Some of these seem to have no obvious starting point, or end abruptly.  At one point a lower lying stream passes under the river via a siphon.  It’s very confusing for a predominantly terrestrial ecologist!  The whole area is historically prone to flooding, as Chris has discussed in some of his published research and so understanding the dynamics of the whole catchment is an important task for the Environment Agency and local government.

Away from the river, one of the highlights of the trip was a guerrilla visit to a post-industrial site that is posited as the new campus for the university.  It’s actually the site of the former Northampton power station and like many abandoned brownfields across the country, it has developed its own ecological community of invasive alien plants (for example buddleia, in abundance) and native species, many of them normally at home on dry grasslands.  One section was described by Steve, half seriously, as “urban tundra” as it was dominated by a species of lichen from the genus Cladonia.   

Our main attention was the River Nene, of course, never far from the path that we walked.  Further down the course we came to the Northampton Washlands, an area of low lying grassland and flooded gravel pits that serves to store flood water when the river overtops its banks.  It’s also an internationally important site for migratory birds such as lapwing and golden plover, and is part of the recently designated  Special Protection Area (SPA).  It was another highlight in a day of exploration and surprises.

The dream of a river which can support biodiversity, provide drinking water, allow a wide range of recreation, and be flood managed, is a hugely ambitious one.  But there are many people and organisations working hard to see it flourish because the River Nene is a  vital part of the life of the town and the county.  And without dreams, what are we….?


Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity