Monthly Archives: July 2014

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

2012-05-31 13.57.26

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.



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

A day of contrasts

2012-10-27 14.06.12

Some students pass through the university system barely touching the sides: they arrive, they study, they graduate, and they are gone, fate and whereabouts unknown.  Other students stick in our minds, sometimes in our lives, because of their personality, their abilities, or their personal issues, and are remembered and talked of long after their graduation.  They may go on to become friends and stay in touch, perhaps via social media such as our Department’s Facebook group.

These are just two extremes of a continuum of course, and whatever type of student they were, we hope that they all enjoy their time at university and go on to lead full and happy lives.

This was on my mind last Thursday, a day of contrasts.  In the morning I joined colleagues on the stage at Northampton’s Derngate Theatre to watch as this summer’s graduands filed across the stage, shook hands with the Vice Chancellor, received their certificates, and left the stage as graduates.   The accompanying applause from family, other students, and staff was constant and genuine: everyone wishes these new graduates well in their futures.

Chatting with a group of them afterwards, it was clear that a number have a good idea of what they wish to do, though others are less sure.  One will be heading to Tanzania for a month of fieldwork with the Tropical Biology Association, an organisation I’ve become involved with over the last few years.  Others are planning to work for the summer then launch into Master’s degrees.  Some have already found jobs and are beginning their careers.  Lots of possibilities and uncertainties, an exciting time for them.  It was the kind of morning that made me realise how the work we do as university lecturers and researchers changes the lives of individuals, hopefully for the better.

These thoughts were reinforced in the afternoon when my colleague Janet Jackson and I attended the funeral of one of our 2006 graduates, Nick Wallis.  It could have been a very sombre event, but it was not, thanks mainly to Nick himself and the way he interacted with people.  Nick was a student who stuck in our minds, in part because of his intelligence, his passionate interest in the natural world, his willingness to ask questions, and his dry, sardonic wit.  Nick was also the most physically disadvantaged student we have ever taught: muscular dystrophy had confined him to a motorised wheelchair and he had limited movement of his body.  So we had to accommodate Nick’s disabilities but also had the opportunity to get to know him and enjoy his contributions to class discussions and the life of the Department.

Nick’s funeral was well attended, St Luke’s church in Kislingbury packed with family, friends, and neighbours.  His brother Tom read a moving tribute, and the reverend, who had known Nick for some time, gave a heartfelt account of his life and personality, his love of gardening and of the natural world, his sense of humour.  He also touched upon Nick’s controversial, though widely admired, decision to write about his own views and experiences of relationships, intimacy and sex as a profoundly physically disabled man.  It was a tremendously brave thing for Nick to do and aired important issues that are still largely ignored by our society.  Yes, Nick was certainly one of those students we were guaranteed to remember.

That evening I headed to London to catch up with some of my old university friends, a group of mates I’ve written about in the past.  In the pub we talked families and jobs, politics and recent news; and friendships, about how the friends you make at university tend to be the ones that remain closest to you for the rest of your life.  Twenty five years after graduation we are still able to enjoy one another’s company, something we all value in ways that we can’t always express.

So to this year’s summer graduates, the best of luck to you, and whatever you do now, don’t forget the friends that you’ve made during your time at Northampton.

And to Nick, thanks for being part of our lives; rest in peace.




Filed under Gardens, University of Northampton

7 minutes is a long time in science, 7 goals is a big win in football (BES Macroecology meeting day 2)

Grey heron in Nottingham

Day 1 of the British Ecological Society Macroecology Special Interest Group ended with a drinks reception, kindly bankrolled by the International Biogeography Society, and a stark choice: dinner in a pub with good food and no television on which to watch the Brazil v Germany World Cup semi-final; or dinner in a pub with crappy food but a television.

The split amongst meeting delegates was about 50-50.  As I get older I’m being drawn to things in which I previously had only a passing interest, amongst them bird watching and football.  So I opted for the latter, and was one of only two Brazil supporters in the whole pub, the other being our guest speaker Cathy Graham, largely because we both have more Brazilian than German friends and colleagues. We were rewarded with one of the most excruciatingly clinical dissections of a major international football team that I’ve ever witnessed.  And the food was indeed crappy, but the lager was cold and plentiful.

The next morning, impelled by an uncomfortable mattress on a steel-framed bed in one of the student halls of residence, I woke early enough to do a little bird watching around the University of Nottingham’s Park Campus, which is not unlike the University of Northampton’s Park Campus, except much larger.  There was a modest diversity of birds flying and calling, the highlight being a large grey heron patrolling the edge of a circular pond.  As there were no fish in the pond it seemed to be mainly eating the slugs crawling on the adjacent lawn.  Not a behaviour I’ve ever seen before, though this year’s BBC Springwatch showed footage of parent tawny owls bringing back large slugs for their chick, so perhaps it’s more common than we realise.

Following a mediocre breakfast and disgusting coffee, it was time for the first lecture of the day, the second keynote by Cathy Graham.  Once again she focussed on her hummingbird research and presented some fascinating unpublished data on the structure of bird assemblages along an altitudinal gradient in Ecuador.  Cathy’s team has been using cheap digital cameras which take one frame a second to amass data on infrequently visited rainforest flowers, an approach that trades off time and space: it’s possible to get a long set of data, but for only a limited number of plant species and individuals.

After coffee there were papers by Katie Leach on her PhD work on competition between co-occurring species of Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas, etc.) and from Richard Field on altitudinal effects on the endemism of plants which chimed with my experiences in Tenerife.  Both of these neatly demonstrated one of the strengths of macroecology: the 21st Century tools it can marshal to use secondary data for understanding ecological patterns and processes at very large spatial scales.

But secondary data can also be a weakness of the field if the quality is poor and it is limited in scope.  This was the subject later in the day of a polemical lecture by Shai Meiri entitled “Laziness in macroecology: a crime and no punishment” that railed against researchers who sometimes fail to augment ready-made data sets with even the most rudimentary of additional data.  My favourite of Shai’s examples was a study which had used a mammalian ecology data set in which the diet of anteaters was coded as “unknown”!  The tee-shirt Shai wore during his often very funny rant read: “If you are not outraged, you were not paying attention” and there was plenty for the audience to feel outraged about, not least his suggestion that we “ban taxonomy” and (even more controversially) get away from our computer screens and into the libraries to source information to fill in the gaps in data sets.

I’d go further and say that some field work would not go amiss as well!  In comparison with using ever more sophisticated analyses, developing better software, and building ever more complex models, collecting field data seems to be low on the list of priorities for many macroecologists, particularly some of the PhD students. Not all of them by any means, and hopefully Cathy Graham’s talks will have inspired them to get into the field, but it strikes me as a trend.  That’s worrying on many levels, and good data are hard won, but then I’m an old-fashioned, muddy boots kind of ecologist who realises that our knowledge of biodiversity is built up from a very small set of data in comparison to what we don’t know: we’ve scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg as a colleague used to say.

In the afternoon there was an unscheduled talk by Olivia Norfolk on the biodiversity of plants and pollinators of Bedouin gardens in the mountains of Sinai, which included a lot of field data.  This was followed by a second set of seven minute “lightning talks”.  I was third on a diverse bill, sandwiched within research on amphibians, Tyrannosaurus rex, North American lizards and microbial communities.  Seven minutes passes quickly and I overran slightly, but hopefully managed to convey the gist of our work on the relative frequency of wind versus animal pollination across the globe.  No one threw missiles at least and there were a couple of good questions that probed the scope and limitations of the current data, but were nowhere near as challenging as the questions in Copenhagen (though I’d had much more time for that lecture).

Following a hasty set of goodbyes I headed to Nottingham station to catch the 1810 back home, once again via the desolation of Birmingham New Street.  Reflecting on the meeting on the way to Northampton I was struck by the fact that of the forty-odd attending, I was the oldest delegate by some margin, which was even more sobering than Brazil’s loss to Germany.  I consoled myself with a bit of “train spotting” (identifying as many bird species as possible through the windows of the train), and ended up with a respectable 21 species* during the two hours or so of travel.

Thanks to the organising committee of the BES Macroecology SIG, and especially to Adam Algar and his team in Nottingham, for a great meeting.  I look forward to next year’s in Copenhagen.


*Blackbird, buzzard, swift, house martin, tufted duck, mute swan, mallard, jay, goldfinch, collared dove, wood pigeon, feral pigeon, starling, crow, magpie, grey heron, Canada goose, common tern, back-headed gull, common gull, pheasant, (22 if you count chickens in a run).


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Filed under Biodiversity, Biogeography, Birds, British Ecological Society, Gardens, Macroecology, Pollination, Tenerife, University of Northampton

Travelling west to go north (BES Macroecology meeting day 1)

2014-06-24 08.00.19

Birmingham New Street, with its subterranean platforms accessed by narrow concrete gullets, must be one of the ugliest and most unpleasant major railway stations in Britain.  It’s also, thanks to the redevelopment work currently being carried out, one of the most confusing for the traveller who only occasionally passes through.  Ugly and unpleasant I can handle if it functions well: but ugly and unpleasant AND confusing is not good.  It’s a huge contrast to Milton Keynes station which I went through last week on the way to Chester, where the open, airy platforms look out onto embankments covered in wild flowers (see the photo above).  While waiting for the train at Milton Keynes I spotted butterflies and bees visiting flowers only feet from passing high-speed engines.

As I start this post I’m sitting on Platform 9A at Birmingham waiting for a train at 0949 to Nottingham where I’m attending the British Ecological Society’s Macroecology Special Interest Group’s annual conference.  In fact I should be on the train which left platform 12A at 0919, but trying to find the unsignposted 12A, followed by a detour to pick up a coffee, meant that I missed the train by about a minute.  Not to worry, gives me an opportunity to rant about Birmingham New Street station.

The BES Macroecology SIG has been established for three years and I blogged about the inaugural meeting in London back in 2012.  I missed last year’s meeting in Sheffield so thought I’d make a special effort to get to the Nottingham event this year, even though it involves heading west (to Birmingham) to travel north (to Nottingham).

Day 1 of the meeting started with the first of two keynote addresses by Catherine Graham from Stony Brook University.  Cathy focused on her work on that most charismatic of flower visitors, the hummingbirds.  In the first talk she dealt with the importance of thinking about phylogenetic scale when conducting analyses.  Lots of thought provoking ideas and a huge amount of information to digest.

As I’m speaking on the second day I could relax and listen to some interesting talks by established and early career researchers, and PhD students, most of whom have been given 7 minutes (!) to present their work.  It’s been a challenge to whittle the final part of the talk I gave in Copenhagen last week into such a short format, but we’ll see how I get on tomorrow.  Highlights of day 1 for me included Joe Bailey talking about urbanisation, climate and alien vascular plants in the UK; Nova Mieszkowska’s work on inter-tidal species; Sive Finaly on whether Madagascan tenrecs are an example of an adaptive radiation (answer = “maybe”); and Guy Harrington on studying fossils in a macroecological manner.  But really but all the talks were good and I learned something from each of them.

As I mentioned in that post back in 2012, defining “macroecology” is problematic and there are still those who see it as synonymous with biogeography.  Perhaps one difference is that biogeography has traditionally tended to focus on patterns (e.g. how species richness changes as one moves form the poles to the tropics) whereas macroecology also seeks to explain those patterns in terms of processes, using very sophisticated statistical and mapping approaches.  But even that fails to fully appreciate biogeography which has a tradition of also trying to infer processes (for example Joseph Hooker’s 19th century work on the distribution of plants included hypothetical explanations), though without the modern analytical tools that are available to the macroecologist.  It’s a debate that will no doubt go on, though perhaps it’s a sterile one.  Does it matter what we call it as long as the science is sound?



Filed under Biodiversity, Biogeography, Evolution, History of science, Macroecology, Urban biodiversity

All pollinators are equal, but some pollinators are more equal than others

The infamous line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm asserting that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” nicely captures an ecological view of pollinators and their relationships with plants.  “Pollinators” by definition move pollen between flowers, but not all pollinators are equally good at transferring pollen of any particular plant: some are more effective than others. I’ll illustrate this with examples from the urban garden that Karin and I are developing, which I’ve discussed before.

As you can see from that link, the garden is modest in size, but nonetheless this year it contains a significant biodiversity of edible plants that require pollinators for some or all of the fruit and seed set, including: strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radishes.

Radishes?!”  I hear you ask.  “But they are grown for their edible swollen roots which don’t require pollination!”  True, usually.  But we let our radishes flower because we mainly grow them for their seed pods which, picked young, are delicious in salads and stir fries, like mustardy mange tout.  They look like this:

2014-07-03 18.14.32

The radish flowers are pollinated by a diversity of insects including butterflies, bees, and small flies:

2014-07-03 19.40.34

These insects will vary in their effectiveness as pollinators of radish, depending on the frequency of visits, how often they move between flowers, and the amount of pollen on their bodies.  This last factor is largely a function of size and hairiness (bigger, hairier insects carry more pollen as a rule), though cleanliness also plays a part: insects often groom the pollen from their bodies and, in the case of bees, may pack it into their pollen baskets where it’s not available for pollination.

The size and behaviour aspect is best illustrated by some recent photos that I took of visitors to the flowers of passion fruit (Passiflora caerulea var.).  We have a large, sprawling plant growing up a fence which is currently being visited by honey bees, hoverflies, solitary bees and bumblebees.  In comparison to the size of the flower and the position of the anthers (male, pollen producing parts) and stigmas (female, pollen receiving parts), the hoverflies, honey bees and solitary bees are relatively small.  These two images are of honey bees (Apis mellifera):



Here’s an unidentified solitary bee:


These bees were occasionally touching the anthers, mainly with their wings, so some pollen will be moved around.  But from what I observed it’s likely to be a relatively small amount in comparison to bumblebees, which are usually much larger and hairier, and don’t groom themselves as often as honey bees.  Here’s a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):


They were actively collecting pollen as well as nectar.  Much of this pollen is packed into the pollen baskets on the rear legs and will go back to the nest to feed the developing larvae, but some will be involved in pollination:


So it seems to be the bumblebees we have to mainly thank for the deliciously sweet-sour fruit we will enjoy later in the season. Of course to test this properly we would need to set up an experiment in which we excluded larger bumblebees from the flowers and only allowed smaller bees to forage, with appropriate experimental controls.  Would make a great project if any of my students are interested!  But it should give you a sense of just how complex the interactions between flowers and their pollinators are: the ecology of pollination is far from simple, despite what some would have us believe.

2014-07-03 19.40.18





Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity