column| Kartel Shockington |13.3
Conservation is faddy. By that we mean that it pursues new enthusiasms vigorously and eagerly. The observation is not our own. Bill Adams and Kent Redford pointed this out several years ago. And its not necessarily a criticism either. You call me faddy, and I call myself someone who moves with the time. And I’ll call you a faddyist back.
But every now and then some conservationists can seize on an idea which is particularly bananas. Our ‘favourites’ include the plan to clone the cheetah in India (yes, having hundreds of genetically identical cheetahs would save the species), he plan to revive mammoths (we can barely live with elephants), the plan to save Swallowtail butterflies in the UK by preventing the reed cutting which in fact sustained the butterfly habitat, the management of forest ecosystems in north America by killing wolves and suppressing fire, and the plan to evict cattle from Keoladeo National Park in India when the cattle grazing actually helped maintain the wetland habitat. And then there is the time the US flew millions of endangered Kemps ridley turtle eggs from Mexico to the US and incubated them in Styrofoam boxes, releasing only males for many years (because they didn’t know yet that temperature determined sex of hatchlings).
The thing about those ideas is that they are, fortunately, isolates. But, every now and then two wacky fads come along at once. As we have previously written, the Half-Earth project is one of the more bonkers, and potentially callous, ideas out there. But now there is a new one – Compassionate Conservation.
It’s a bit difficult to summarise Compassionate Conservation. It is not the idea that, as feral cats chomp through your endemic avifauna, you should feel sorry for the cats. It is more complicated than that – but not very much. It’s not exactly that, as crocodiles crunch on fishermen, we should sympathise with the crocodile because the meal wasn’t sufficiently salty. But its’ heading in that direction. Nor is it the idea that nothing should kill anything ever – at least we don’t think it is.
It is important to tackle this thinking. But in this article, rather than engage too deeply with this approach, we propose instead to adopt it, adapt it and turn it to good use. In fact, we’d like to do that with both of these new fads in as constructive, dynamic, novel, unique and revolutionary manner as possible. So, bringing together the ‘Very Best of Half Earth and Compassionate Conservation’, we would like to offer to the world a new and improved trend which we are proud to launch here. It is: ‘Compassionate Halfism’®©.
Compassionate Halfism is the idea that there are lots of things that we have far too much of and that this world would be a much more wonderful place if these things were precisely cut in half. Obviously the two fads we have just mentioned are themselves prime candidates for such halving. But there are clearly plenty of others. And so we’d like to start a more general ‘Half It’ movement that seeks to cut a swathe through the excess of our lives.
The current list for this populist movement is given below. Additions are welcome.
- Global carbon emissions;
- Gas from political campaigns;
- The distance people travel to work:
- The distance batsmen have to run between wickets in cricket;
- The desire to measure progress in terms of GDP;
- All dependence on economists to measure progress;
- Donald Trump’s remaining term in office;
- Or failing that, just the office;
- All the characters of anything written in Comic Sans;
- The text and number of academic articles – in whatever font;
- Airlines and certainly airline food
- The US defence budget;
- Paris Hilton’s budget;
- Meat consumed by Americans, rice by Indians, soy by vegans;
- Any food called ‘British’ excepting cakes;
- The rate of our personal hair loss;
- Justin Bieber fans, but not, of course, Justin Bieber.
Oommen, M.A., R. Cooney, M. Ramesh, M. Archer, D. Brockington, B. Buscher, Fletcher, D.J. Natusch, A.T. Vanak, G. Webb and K. Shanker. 2019. The fatal flaws of compassionate conservation. Conservation Biology.
Redford, K.H. and W.M. Adams. 2009. Payment for Ecosystem Services and the Challenge of Saving Nature. Conservation Biology 23: 785-787.
Wallach, A.D., M. Bekoff, C. Batavia, M.P. Nelson and D. Ramp. 2018. Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology 32: 1255-1265.
Kartel Shockington is a failed comic book creation with special powers of rapid hair loss. He sometimes appears as Kartik Shanker, and at other times as Dan Brockington.
Kartik Shanker is at Indian Institute of Science & Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India. Email: email@example.com
Daniel Brockington is at University of Sheffield, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amit Kaikini Is a freelance illustrator, with a decade of experience in digital advertising He loves to explore Sci-Fi & Horror genres, with an inclination towards nature & a desire for surreal storytelling, he is working towards self- publishing his own comics in the near future.
column| Rohan Arthur |13.2
There is nothing heroic about turning 47. It has none of the transitional status of 40 nor is it a milestone like 50. If it represents anything, it is one more annual reminder of the general accretion of the past, you eroding gradually under its crust. You stare at the growing damp fungus on the ceiling of this tired hotel. Brief body scan from toe to head. Everything aches.
That’s normal. It has been normal for a while. Inside, your gut microbiome is in turmoil. You’ve read somewhere that, cell-for-cell, this swirling community of bacteria, protists and viruses constitute more of you than you yourself. And they are clearly not happy. They have been living on a diet of parotta, fish curry and sugary tea far too long, and it is only a matter of time before they mount a proletarian protist revolution from within. One more day, you urge. One more day and you are out of these islands. Uncheery thoughts to start the morning. Happy birthday to you.
After twenty-two years of being here, you think you are finally spent. The reefs have gone through one major upheaval, then another, and then another. And with everyone, your hopes fail, then rise, grow exuberant, then crash yet again. The fate of the reef is linked to yours, and after so many repeated batterings you seem both to be waving the flag of surrender. This time around, you promise, you will not rise again, if it will only make the pain go away. Twenty-two years. Inside you, your microbiome remind you, a trifle peevishly, that they have been at it for 47. To their credit, it has been a mostly uncomplaining symbiosis, and you cannot really tell where they end and you begin. In reality, until a few years ago, you did not even know they existed, processing your foods, keeping you healthy, keeping you sane.
“Chalo”, you retreat to the cheery vernacular, “let’s head out to sample”. The boat will be waiting at the western jetty. The morning quickly coalesces around the familiar routine. Mask: bifocals for ageing eyes. Fins: quirky duck-shaped ones that have accompanied you all your life. Booties, weight belt, blank slate, pencil, camera in the housing, PVC quadrat. Load the net bag and four tanks into the rickshaw. Ride the short distance to jetty. Unload. Load again. Consider a spritely hop on to the boat but remember that you are 47 now. You accept the outstretched hand of the boat captain and climb more gingerly on, suppressing a grunt of effort as your feet hit the deck. Start engines. Chug out of the western lagoon. You chomp a few glucose biscuits before you roll backward into the water. Give the protists something to keep them going through the dive.
You know this site well. You have come here every year for 20 years. It has had a troubled history, like most western reefs in this archipelago. This site was teeming once. Handsome stands of colourful Acropora fought bitterly for space in the light. Now the shallows are a vast rubble field, brown with turf, left to the skulkers and scrapers of the reef. It has been like this for many years now. You try not to look as you head further down to get the deeper transects done first. 14 meters We’ll start here. Place the quadrat. Rise with a breath and hover motionless. Click. Swim ten meters. Repeat. In these deeper waters, the reef is doing better and it does not hurt as much to look. There is even beauty here in among these living rocks. Transect one done. You set your mind in neutral and get ready to start the next.
The reef looks unfamiliar. You have swum slightly further than you normally do, slightly deeper. There is something large in the distance. You feel it before you see it. Damn this bifocal mask, you curse, as your eyes struggle to make sense of the shape in the blue. When your eyes finally focus, you see it in all its impossible majesty. It is a giant. A coral, but in all your years of diving these reefs, rarely have you encountered an individual so massive. It has a gravity all of its own and you are drawn to her, almost afraid to exhale should you wake her from some ancient slumber. At 30 meters away, she fills your vision, a shuddering, living ecosystem all to herself. She wears an iridescent veil of tiny anthias and chromis. Three consorting green turtles rest on her surface, one exhaling quiet bubbles through his nostrils. Below, in the shadowy crannies she creates, large groupers lurk with other regular cave dwellers – wide-eyed squirrels, deep-bodied sweepers, the inevitable banded shrimps.
You lose all sense of her size. Your vision is coral. You are on your knees before her. Porites, possibly lutea. At this distance, you can see the polyps on her surface. At this time of day, most have retired after a night-time of feeding, but a few still have their tentacles out. Impossibly, your 47-year old eyes focus in on a single polyp. It is lazily filtering the water for invisible zooplankton to crunch on. Green, but you know that, in reality each polyp is pale transparent tissue. Inside each, an army of hundred thousand zooxanthallae are busy at work, painting the coral green, but doing so much more. They are processing the sunlight that streams down to this depth through the clear waters. Impossibly, you see them through your bifocals, picking up little packets of light in their little dinoflagellate arms, mixing them up in their tiny photosynthetic kitchens, churning out food to feed the insatiable appetite of this Leviathan.
.The protist in the coral speaks to the protist in you. There is a quiet movement in your tummy, but it is not a complaint. A silent communion of shared understanding. Comparing notes, you imagine. Two thousand years. Forty seven. When you first came to this island, the zooxanthallae seem to say, we were here already some 1978 years. Your entire ‘long term monitoring programme’ barely registers in our growth. Before you there were others of course, but we were here before. Cast your mind back, further back. When the first explorers, stragglers all, lost wanderers on their way to India, drifted on these shores, we were here, a mere 500 years old, but here. Further still. Deep in our protist past, dimly remembered now, for an oh-so- brief few hours, we once traveled the waters free, hitching a ride on a tiny planua, less than a millimeter across, that is now the Leviathan you kneel before. We have stayed. Through all the turbulence of the last two decades, through all the rising and falling of our cousins in the shallows, we remain, unmoved. Our history is the history of this reef, our future is its future. And by the way, happy birthday to you, young neonate.
The moment passes. An eternity. Barely breathing, you rise and collect your things. You hover over her, unwilling to leave. The veil of anthias part briefly to let you pass. You have transects to complete. You have corals to count. Your protists are digesting their biscuits.
Rohan Arthur is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He works on ocean and coastal systems in the Indian Ocean and (on occasion) in the Mediterranean
Adira Andlay is an illustrator who works with hand-done mixed media. She explores visual narratives as a means of sharing perspectives and has an affinity for making watercolour paintings of flora-fauna. Her area of practice is in the field of Social and Communication Design.
column| Michael Adams|13.1
I am the last born and I have a long following/ Everything and everyone is my elder/
I move through the relatives in my green leaves/ I eat canoes and drink inlets…
(from Maori writer Hinemoana Baker’s 2008 poem Last Born)
At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, seven war conches are named as their owners sound them at the start of the climactic Kurukshetra battle. War conches are shankha, the sacred or divine conch that is used in Hindu and Buddhist ritual, and in sacred ceremonies in different saltwater cultures around the world. There is a three to four thousand year tradition of diving to collect shankha from the waters of India and Sri Lanka, including Palk Strait.
The conch seems an unlikely candidate to reach the level of reverence it does in India, Sri Lanka and other cultures. In scientific terms, it is a large marine gastropod, a big sea snail. They are predators, feeding on other marine invertebrates and especially species of sand-living worms. The specific animal revered as shankha is Turbinella pyrum in Latin. It lives on sandy sea bottoms, and is common and restricted to the southern coasts of India, parts of Sri Lanka and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In its living form it is not obviously attractive, the shell being covered by a dark brown mantle of soft tissue. Once processed, it is a shining white symbol of the divine.
On these coasts on both sides of Palk Strait, the material properties of the living environment of land and ocean continue to be reshaped into the built form of local human beach communities. From the land, palmyra and coconut trunks, stalks and leaves become furniture, fences, roof framing, thatch, fishing boats, paddles, bailers, shade covers, walls. From the sea, sand becomes concrete, shells become lime, coral becomes construction blocks. Local artisans have specially woven the roof thatch on our buildings in both India and Sri Lanka. There are no nails or synthetic materials, and room dimensions are determined by the bearing capacity of palm beams.
But these places are not held in the past. Threaded through these continuities, the persistent materials of modernism are rethought and repurposed, as well as discarded. Polystyrene packing becomes boat hulls, worn fishing nets become all kinds of containers and wrapping, plastic bottles become fishing floats, old clothes become flags and markers. All these same things line the tidemark on beaches. Every turtle skeleton I find is entangled in an indestructible nylon net.
Underwater, the experience changes daily and hourly. The sand is rippled by the tide, pitted and tracked by the activities of hosts of small invertebrates. Tiny fish speed through the mid and upper levels in dense and tightly choreographed shoals. Jellyfish with two metre streams of stinging tentacles drift silently. The calligraphy of tiny lives marked in the sand is layered over with dead and living animals and plants. The hard calcium carbonate of shells, exoskeletons, bones and claws persists while the soft flesh, mantle, muscle and organs are consumed by predator and detrivore.
Like all species, shankha are both eater and eaten. They hunt for the polychaete tube worms in the sand while divers, stingrays and other predators hunt for them. The divers that hunt shanka now are varied in skill levels and access to equipment. Many approaches are used: breath-hold with various equipment, scuba, scuba variants, hookah, and likely more than this as cheap innovation is applied to technologies to get divers underwater. These are all dangerous to different degrees.
The shankha is collected alive, but cannot live out of water, and likely dies while still on the boat. This is the beginning of the shankha’s journey into ritual. The large muscle comprising much of its body is kept for food by some divers, the elements of the living animal diffusing into the muscles of the living diver. The shell is processed into the ceremonial instrument, and its opercula ground into fixative for incense.
The calcium carbonate of the shankha’s exterior shell is shaped inside as a perfect receptacle for its strange yet familiar body. As humans, as vertebrate mammals, we carry the calcium carbonate of our skeletons inside, our bodies vulnerably open to the world, just our brain protected inside bone. When we die, both shankha and humans, the bone or shell parts of our bodies persist after the detrivores have finished with our flesh. Everything living survives through the deaths of others, who are all our/their relatives, close or more distant – we all eat our relatives, evolutionarily speaking, sometimes distant (molluscs, plants) and sometimes closer (mammals). Our interspecies interdependence is based not just in the biology of food but in the biology of evolutionary reproduction: both eating and sex. It is no accident that we recognise that the warm involuted whorls of the shankha reflect the human birth passage, and that both conches and oysters are aphrodisiacs in many cultures. The reproductive processes of all species are implicated and reflected in our own, including the lowly molluscs. Eating oysters increases dopamine that boosts libido, and their high levels of zinc are important for testosterone levels in both men and women. The creative generation of life on Earth endlessly recycles the available constituents on the planet, from the elements to the forms.
More than five hundred million years ago, an impossibly long time to imagine, we shared a common evolutionary ancestor with marine molluscs: our bodies are composed of the same elements, we come from the same ancient World Ocean. Humans do not just share the building blocks of our bodies, but the patterns of composition that put them together. We share this kinship with shankha and everything else living on the planet, as well as innumerable now extinct species, and they share that kinship with us.
For the shankha itself, it lives in a world we can hardly know, the sentient context of Palk Strait. Hindu belief depicts the very rare reverse turning shell, the dakshinavarti shankha, as reverently attended by hundreds of normal spiralled shells on the sea floor. Have human eyes seen this?
For shankha divers there are tactile engagements with the living animal in its underwater world, they earn their connection through skill, effort and knowledge. For people who purchase shankha as an emblem of luck and prosperity, the shining shell functions as a mnemonic, a reminder to embrace and also to transcend the mundane. For the ordained users of shankha in Buddhist and Hindu ritual, and in saltwater cultures around the world, they put the polished shell to their mouths, its shining form an embodiment of the sacred, and its sound calling the divine into presence. The shankha connects us to the universe of the ocean, and the ocean connects us to the origins of all life.
Michael Adams is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Ipsa Jain is a post-doctoral fellow at Instem. She works on scientific visualisation and communication. She treasures the beaches and the tree trash. Find more about her work at Ipsawonders.com or follow her on Instagram at ipsawonders.
column| Kartel Shockington | 12.4
Megademophobia – fear of overpopulation – has a lot to answer for. Malthus is serious enough, Ehrlich almost as bad. But now there is new problem: Marvel’s Infinity Wars. This film spectacularly unites multiple comic book heroes in an orgy of destruction which culminates in the annihilation of precisely half of the people in the Universe (including many of the weirdly abled protagonists). And all this because the Bad-guy-in-chief, Thanos, fears that overpopulation causes too much suffering.
But is this the first time this idea has been circulated? A few years ago, EO Wilson, one of the most prominent biologists of the 20th century, and an evangelist for conservation, came up with the idea of Half-Earth: the notion that half of earth was to be set aside for nature. This is based on the principle that humans are not part of nature, and that for the Earth to be able to preserve its biodiversity and sustain itself, humans had to be removed from one entire half of it.
Despite the similarity of these ideas, we don’t think that the Marvel script writers are half-earthers, or that Wilson is a secret Avengers fan (unless of course of Antman). The filmmakers and conservationists are no doubt independent, original thinkers. No one has copied anyone else.
But our views are not so important here. We understand that an irate Half-Earther has been pressing the Half-Earth movement to sue Marvel comics for plagiarism. This is, of course, absurd. First, there is no plagiarism. Second, never pick a fight with Thanos. So we would like the Half-Earth movement to distance itself from such foolishness, and release the following statement:
The Half-Earth movement would like publicly to disassociate itself from any resemblance or comparison with the Marvel film Infinity Wars. Thanos’ evil plot to destroy half of all human life, and our own cunning plan, have nothing in common. They share no affinity. Any sane observer could tell that one of these plans is a complete fantasy. It is socially (not to say politically) illiterate. It disregards the lived fabric of our lives and the role of people in creating life around us. It is only possible to conceive with new advances in computer modeling. No prizes for guessing which one that is.
Just to underline the point further we would like to point out a few of the balmier elements of Thanos’ plan compared to our own. Thanos vapourised a random half of the universe. Our plan will deliberately target the places where poorer people live. It is cheaper to move them. It is politically safer to leave the rich alone. Thanos only appeared to have human interests at heart when he abolished half of life. Our plan is not about people. It will make life better for the richer half of humanity, but, more importantly, it will also make sure that these people can continue to enjoy the best ecosystem services and the biodiversity that their wealth deserves. Also, Thanos was utterly uncompromising. We are vague and ambiguous when it comes to what sort of life will be possible in the half where people are not around.
So there is no similarity whatsoever between Thanos’ evil plan for domination and our own hopes to clear the land of people who get in the way of our understanding of nature.
To avoid all possibility of doubt we would also like to point out that none of us cheered at the end of Infinity Wars. We have not we named any of our offspring or pets ‘Thanos’ in appreciation of his achievements. Nor do we gain any succour from news that an intergalactic message has been intercepted from one Zaphod Beeblebrox to Thanos indicating that to, due to a clerical error, the wrong half was destroyed and would he accept a further 25% reduction to life in the Universe, at discounted rates?
We hope that this press release will erase all possibility of confusion and allow the rest of us to get on with the business that matters – halving all known cases of megademophobia.
For a sensible rendition of these arguments see:
Kartel Shockington is a failed comic book creation with special powers of rapid hair loss. He sometimes appears as Kartik Shanker, and at other times as Dan Brockington.
Kartik Shanker is at Indian Institute of Science & Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, India. Email: email@example.com
Daniel Brockington is at University of Sheffield, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrator: Amit Kaikini
column| Michael Adams | 12.3
I was born in India, but two years later my family were in Australia, part of the flotsam and jetsam of the British Empire washed up in a country none of us knew anything about. For the last thirty years I have lived close to saltwater Country on the Illawarra coast of New South Wales, where I can daily and nightly walk the tideline. At my favourite and secret local beach I watch the energy dissipate from waves born in ocean storms hundreds of kilometres away, and those waves, like Empire, wash all kinds of things ashore.
Beneath the bright seaworn plastic and the bodies of exhausted shearwaters, small spiral-engraved discs shine amongst the sand and seaweed. My children call them mermaid money. These are opercula, little doors, the calcium carbonate lids that marine snails make to close off their shell homes. Opercula accumulate singly or in drifts as currents and waves bring them from the ocean to the tide zone. When part of the living animal, their owners etch their daily pathways in braille across the sand of ocean floors, their lives crossing and recrossing in minute encounters. Once those animals die, the soft parts of their bodies become food for carnivores and detrivores, and their hard shell parts strew across rocky substrate and sand, to be re-used and moved and recycled.
Opercula are persistent, the hard calcium carbonate material sometimes taking many hundreds or even thousands of years to disintegrate. They are often found in Aboriginal shell middens, signs of shoreline ceremonial feasts or humble family meals. Middens in my region are most likely between 3,000 to 8,000 years old, in part reflecting the time the coastline stabilised to its current position around 8,000 years ago as the seas rose at the end of the last ice age. Saltwater Aboriginal people lived through that long period of drowning coastlines, adapting and responding to momentous changes and opportunities as the sea moved landward at rates of twenty metres annually.
One of the joys and privileges of living on saltwater Country has been spending time learning with local Aboriginal people and others who can trace multiple generations here. The deep time perspectives, the layers of more recent history traced on land and seascapes, the continuity of wild food gathering, the glimpses into a deeply storied landscape, all enrich and redefine my understandings of these coasts and waters. I also gather food here, spearfishing and diving for abalone, crayfish and urchins, and gathering edible seaweeds and native spinach on rock platforms and dunes. I have learned from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal locals about habitats, seasons, relationships, changes of all kinds and their opportunities and limitations in supporting life. This knowledge is not taught formally or abstractly, it is experiential, learned through using our hands and bodies and eyes, sharing labour across generations, walking and swimming and diving in this place.
I routinely beachcomb these shores, examining and sometimes keeping everything from rusty metal ship parts to shark egg cases to opercula. Most of the opercula I find in Australia are from the marine turban snail (Turbo undulata), commonly called conks by Aboriginal people, and turbos or turbans by others. Opercula are also found and used in India, particularly on the southern coasts, and I have found various different species on the coast at Rameswaram. The opercula of shankha, the sacred conch (Turbinella pyrum), and several other species are extensively used in incense manufacture. I have small collections of those spiraled discs on my bookshelves. They are found art, each individual operculum unique and beautiful. One smooth side has a pure and sinuous spiral, its precise geometry and form reflecting the unique conditions of its life and times; and the other more convoluted side marked by the anatomy of the gastropod muscle itself in all its diversity. Shells are the earliest jewelry, the most ancient currency, used in the first known examples of abstract art – all expressions of the relationship between our humanity and our animality.
Looking offshore, a limitless ocean reaches to the edge of visibility: vast, mobile, constant. Unknowable. The surging tidal edge where I stand is a microcosm and macrocosm of change: second by second, tide by tide, aeon by aeon, the deep constant matrix of evolutionary life momentarily expresses each unique and fleeting life amongst the great cycles of flux. Our simultaneously huge and puny human impacts are gathered and archived and neutralised by vast planetary forces far outside our knowledge. The small spiraled discs of opercula shining in my palm hold the stories of both persistence and change, of finding the appropriate ways to live on these shores.
An earlier version of this article was published on the Everyday Futures website.
Michael Adams is Associate Professor of Human Geography at the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, University of Wollongong, Australia, email@example.com.
Sagarika Bhatia is an illustrator from Dehradun. She likes books by Ruskin Bond, and music by Bonobo. In her free time, she likes to explore the country, read and catch up on some sleep.
column | Rohan Arthur | 12.2
I’m seven. I’m spending the vacations with my grandparents in a little peri-urban village that will soon be digested within the messy innards of Bombay.
The village is my landscape of summer dreaming. Outside the garden gate, down past the dirt track that leads to the asphalt road, there is an open storm drain. It collects wastewater and sewage, swilling together the private leavings of the nearby houses. It flows past our little lane but connects to a larger drain on the main street, which is connected yet again to other tributaries in a dizzying network that pours untreated waste into the ragged mangrove patches near Versova, finally trickling into the Arabian Sea. It ebbs and flows with a rhythm that links the daily ablutions of the village with the rain and the tidal cycles of the Indian Ocean. Some days, for reasons my seven-year old mind cannot fathom, it is less of a flow and becomes a thick slurry, bubbling and burping ever so slowly, an enticing, glistening black. At other times it is a clear sap soup, getting clearer each time it rains. When grease from the kitchens pour in through the drains, an oily rainbow flits on its surface and I can play with it, disturbing the vibgyor with a stick, watching it form again lower downstream. Mostly though, the stream is a dark, slightly viscous indigo.
In the neighbourhood, it is called the Gutter.
The Gutter is the subject of folklore in the village. Of lost treasures big and small – four anna coins and engagements rings. Of late night drunken stumbling and mucky ankles. Of the sad village idiot called Gutter-Bamboo, who spends his day poking about it with a pole for anything he can find. For me, the Gutter is a place of endless fascination. Each morning, I rush out the lane to check on the progress of the stream, make a mental note of its colour, its texture, any subtle change in odour.
My dad has bought me a book called ‘Origami for Beginners’. Tearing out pages from my double-line notebook, I follow the instructions. Square folds, mountain folds, unfolds – and I have my first origami boat. A trifle wonky, but I’m proud of my craft. I rush down to the gutter to float it. It is glorious in the stream – wafting on an ebony river, down to where it meets the larger tributary. Buoyed by this success, I grow in my naval ambitions. I spend the rest of the morning building an entire armada with boats of different sizes. I make small triangular flags for the larger ones, borrowing a few sticks from grandma’s broom for the masts. The tinier craft require more skill I realise, but my fingers are small and deft. I colour these little ones with felt pens in bright primaries.
By evening I have an entire fleet, including a large flagship made with a piece of chart. It has a proud mast, portholes, and, in an inspired touch, a forward cannon, made with leftover bits of paper. I sleep the sleep of a master shipwright, pleased with his craftsmanship. It rains all night and the gutter is in spate. Still, by 11 am, the floods have calmed a bit and I am ready with my fleet. One by one I launch the ships…all 17 of them, from flagship to little skiffs. They start off in a proud orderly convoy, but quickly bunch together in the centre of the stream. At the confluence, I watch the messy flotilla get taken over by a more furious flow. A few of the small skiffs overturn and sink, but the hardiest rough the waters into the distance. I’m not allowed to venture far down the main street so I watch as my brave fleet floats and bobs its way to grand adventures out toward the ocean.
I’m older now. On a small island in the snapping jaws of the Gulf of Kutch.
I’ve been here several months, and I’ve made it my home. “Are you coming?” asks Dadi. “Yes, I’ll be right there”, I say. Dadi and Dada are my adopted family on the island, and I’m helping Dadi in her daily beachcombing. Every day, the tide goes out for several kilometers. Then swarms back to shore with the force of a river, bringing with it a scattering of debris. Every evening Dadi and I walk around the beach, picking up bottles and putting them in a large gunnysack. I try to imagine how a modern-day Crusoe would construct the world from all the stuff that floated to his castaway island. Urgent empty missives delivered in a torrent of Pepsi and Bisleri bottles. Our beachcombing is not a cleanup exercise. It is a gathering expedition, a way to gain a small supplementary income. On the mainland, Dadi gets 25 paisa for every undamaged bottle she finds, more, if it has the cap on. Within a fortnight of collecting, we have enough for several hundred rupees.
Dadi has spotted something in the distance, near the lighthouse. We rush to see what it is. A small wooden crate, likely dropped from a passing ship. It’s been floating for a while because it is has algae and a few bright barnacles growing on it. I drag it to the Porta Cabin and, between Dada and I, we break it open. It’s a 12-pack of pear juice, not yet past its date of expiry. We are ecstatic. We tear into one and taste it, gingerly at first but then with greedy gulps. It is delicious. We have no refrigerator, but there’s a spot beneath the mangrove where it’s always cool. For four days we feast on the best pear juice known to man. There’s treasure everywhere.
I’m older still. We are diving off Kiltan atoll in the northern Arabian Sea, trying to take stock of the reefs after the last massive El Niño event.
The coral itself is struggling, but for the most part, the fish don’t seem to care. There’s bustle everywhere as the fish wander through their metropolis. Skulking in ambush among the boulders, busily scraping the turf, getting parasites removed at cleaning stations, angrily shooing away territorial invaders. They barely mind us, gawky camera-toting tourists. The reefs of this archipelago are climate-weary after repeated battering, but at least on this reef, things are not so bad. We are in expedition mode so we have to work efficiently. Everyone knows their job – who lays the transect, who takes the benthic pictures, who counts the fish.
Transect three. Something dark and ominous against the blue. We all spot it together and our eyes widen. A gigantic fishing net has drifted in from the deep and is trapped on the reef. It has caught on the coral at around 15 m, and rises all the way to the surface. It sways gently in the swell like a single incongruous and impossibly-large kelp, reaching to sun. It has reaped a rich bounty in its journey to the reef. Snappers, jacks, a few fusiliers, a massive tree trunk, fronds of coconut, all bound together in its gills. We abandon our transects. Despite ourselves, we are drawn to it, unable to take our eyes of its sheer majesty. We spend the rest of the dive circling the net along with schools of batfish, inquisitive unicornfish, triggers, and a host of other worshipers.
With a totem of this power, all you can do is pay quiet homage, and marvel at its extravagant, wasteful beauty.
I’m travelling on the Ganga in Bihar. The river is a clayey green and there’s debris everywhere. The Ghats are densely concentrated with plastic and micropackaging. Walking to the rivers edge, we must navigate the garbage and ritual offerings strewn along its banks. It has all the floral colours of spring, only brighter and more arbitrary. I’m sitting now on a little boat in the middle of the stream, quiet and happy. The gutka packets on the shore glisten gaily in the morning sun. I imagine the river goddess, vain, proud, self-aware in her own dramatic beauty. She is picking carefully through her vast jewelry case of intricate debris, lining her tresses with gaudy glitter, smiling at her reflection, clearly pleased with the result. A large bloated buffalo wanders past our boat. It has been dead for a while, and it floats content in its gentle passage. A river dolphin surfaces, snorts and disappears. A bucolic idyll.
I have my notebook in my hand and something inside me wants to tear a page, make an origami boat and float it down the river.
But I’m not seven anymore, so I don’t do anything of the sort.
In my imagining though, my little boat navigates its way around the dead buffalo, past the Farrakka Barrage, through the crocodile-filled waters of the Sundarbans, into the raging Bay of Bengal to find its home eventually among the eddies of some undiscovered garbage patch in the Indian Ocean where all paper boats, Pepsi bottles, phantom nets, gutka packets and dead buffaloes eventually land up, along with the rich histories that brought them there, swirling together.
ROHAN ARTHUR is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He works on the ocean and coastal systems in the Indian Ocean and (on occasion) in the Mediterranean.
SVABHU KOHLI is an independent visual artist exploring the unique relationship our planet shares with its inhabitants. His work translates observations, conversations and experiences through visual art.
column| Madhusudan Katti |11.4
It is a hard nonliving complex three-dimensional structure built by living beings, often covering extensive areas of habitat, and unlike anything else naturally found in the vicinity. It is a product of the labor of an organism which has evolved to transform the materials in its surroundings into a protective home for its progeny and itself. It is built in layers, growing upon itself as its occupants continue to build it over generations. It does the job of protecting its inhabitants well enough to outlast them, standing firm over scores of generations and thousands of years. It helps concentrate the flow of energy and materials from its surroundings to make life more efficient for its denizens, sometimes thriving even in places that otherwise seem deserted. It not only provides shelter and resources and a supply of energy to the species that built it, but also supports a wider range of other species that may come seeking its riches and adapt to new ways of making a living in this strange new construction. Its appearance, color and occupants vary from one part of the world to another. It is large enough in some places to be visible from space. It is resilient to a surprisingly wide range of environmental variation, yet vulnerable to catastrophic collapse under conditions such as rising sea levels and warming ocean temperatures. And even when it collapses and is no longer able to support its creators and main occupants, it continues to loom in its place, casting shadows deep into history, until the patient forces of water and wind and temperature wear it down and its remains wash up on some shoreline in the sands of time.
It is a Coral Reef, built by ingenious, soft-bodied, tough little creatures that can scarcely survive on their own in the vast ocean outside its protections. It is a City, also built by ingenious creatures with bodies softened by civilization, too clever by half, but creative and tough as hell and who may also struggle to survive outside the city walls.
Coral reefs are ecosystems rich in biodiversity, often concentrating biological productivity and wealth amid relatively poor waters. Coral reefs are described as rainforests of the ocean harboring as much, if not more, biodiversity underwater as tropical rainforests do on land. They stick out in the underwater landscape as distinctly as forests full of tall trees do in terrestrial landscapes, marvelously unlike anything around them, but teeming with a richness of diverse marine organisms that have evolved to be uniquely adapted to life in the coral reef, lured by its richness to tie their evolutionary fate to that of the reef itself.
It may seem odd, but coral reefs are also often likened to cities. The City, that quintessential “artificial” construction by human beings alienated from nature, symbolic of how we pave over natural ecosystems, is often used as a metaphor to understand and explain the complexity of coral reefs. There are children’s picture books full of wonderful artwork that explain how coral reefs function much like cities. Tall structures rise up from the ocean floor like skyscrapers. Schools of fish and molluscs and crustaceans scuttle about busily, commuting among productive nooks and crannies where they can feed, nest, and raise babies securely. Diverse species evolve to specialise in different tasks, much like how medieval guilds of craftsmen and workers divided up human labor to make it more efficient, enabling us to produce wonders of art, craft, and technology—diverse, creative, and sometimes horrific.
We have never debated whether coral reefs are complex ecosystems in their own right, worthy of protection. We should also be long past debating whether cities are ecosystems. Of course they are, unique ones described in much of the recent literature as complex social-ecological systems, because we like to pull the human social elements apart from the “natural” in our Cartesian ways of thinking. A much more interesting exercise is to ask what kind of ecosystems cities can be rather than worrying about how unnatural a blight they are on more “natural” landscapes.
As they stand, unlike coral reefs, cities are not founts of biological diversity amid less diverse landscapes. In the relatively short timespan of human history, cities have become known more for destroying biodiversity rather than enhancing it. More recent work in urban ecology has found a surprisingly high diversity of species in many of our cities. Do cities destroy other habitats and ecosystems? Of course. Do cities cause local extinctions of many species? Undoubtedly. We never built them as habitats for any species other than ourselves. Indeed it would seem that we build cities as places where we seek refuge from “nature” in all its vagaries and its “red in tooth and claw” horrors. Yet, we also bring a lot of that nature, and many other species, with us into the city—planting some in our gardens, growing others on our walls and balconies, feeding and watering many with intent or benign neglect, and willingly or unwittingly sharing the bounty of resources we concentrate for ourselves in cities. We know now that we depend on many of these other species for food, water and air, for our bodies and our minds, and for our culture and artistic inspiration—even though we never built cities for anyone but our own selves. Just like the mindless tiny organisms that build coral reefs.
But unlike the coral organisms, we have minds capable of reflecting on our own actions, and of imagining different futures. Imagine building cities more intentionally like coral reefs on land. The oldest cities are just a few thousand years old—an order of magnitude younger than the oldest coral reefs. That deeper span of time has allowed coral reefs to evolve into the diverse ecosystems we now celebrate and whose decline through our actions we dread and lament. Yet, to borrow that tortured phrase from urban land developers, the coral organisms simply built their little shelters, and they came: all the diverse algae and plankton and fish and mollusks and crustaceans in the ocean to evolve together into a diverse ecosystem thriving under the ocean. A growing body of research on urban wildlife is now showing us that many species on land come into our cities once we build them, so long as we leave enough of our surplus of resources for them. Recognising the value of nature and wildlife, the biological and cultural ecosystem services they provide us in the current jargon, we are also actively bringing other species into our cities. Why not go all the way and reimagine our cities as bustling diverse coral reefs on land?
Surely, if we build cities with intention, with niches full of unique resources, many other species will come on their own, and over time will adapt and evolve into unique urban creatures, tying their fates to ours just like the house sparrow or the chimney swift have already done. Even underwater, our artefacts, like sunken ships, can act as surrogates for species fleeing damaged coral reefs, and are being used intentionally to restore reef ecosystems threatened by warming oceans and rising seas. It is not hard to imagine some of our major coastal cities also turning into such surrogate reefs as they submerge under the rising oceans. So let us reimagine and reinvent our cities as terrestrial reefs, as rich and full of other species as we can learn to coexist with, becoming not just their competitors and killers, but also their gardeners and nurturers and symbionts. Let us think as deep into the future as the coral reefs teach us about the past, and turn the metaphor of the coral reef as a city into the real city as a coral reef, diverse and resilient and full of evolutionary ferment to match the tides of our changing world.
Madhusudan Katti is Associate Professor for Leadership in Public Science in the Department of Forestry & Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. He studies how an evolutionary understanding of cities as social-ecological systems can help us reconcile nature and biodiversity conservation with human development.
Illustration: Satwik Gade
column | Dan Brockington |11.4
One of the more intriguing debates conservationists have to deal with is whether they represent some sort of colonising influence. Critics of conservation will contend that some of the main ideas in conservation were imposed by colonising powers, or extended through neo-imperial influence. Defenders insist that much conservation is home grown; it’s foolish to treat it as an invasive exotic given that it is so thoroughly blended with local institutions and independent governmen
Recently, however, the whole colonialism debate took a surprising twist when an article unashamedly advocating colonialism as a good thing was published. What is worse is that it was published in the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), a journal that has long been home to left-leaning scholars. And, worse still, the ‘scholarship’ behind this piece was appalling.
There has been a vigorous response to this paper. You could almost hear the spluttering of cappuccino hitting the computer screens of indignant readers. Most of the editorial board of the journal has resigned. At one point the author himself asked the article be retracted. There have been a host of intelligent, reasoned responses to this paper: try here on clickbait, here for an intelligent commentary on TWQ itself, and here for a summary of the whole sorry affair. There may be some positive outcomes, in that the board’s resignation may see new, more just publishing initiatives emerge. There has also been some disgraceful hounding of scholars who spoke out against the article by alt-right trolls.
I don’t think further discussion on TWQ’s pages, despite the invitation to do so, provides a suitable vent for the issues this article raises. The basic problem is that the scholarship that underpins the article is so poor that it does not deserve that sort of critical engagement. We need to see how ridiculous it is. To that end, I think we should approach this problem slightly differently and ask: If ‘colonisation’ is the answer, what is the question? To kick things off I have developed one answer to that question, and am proud to launch the new Need for Colonisation (N4C) Index. This takes the form of a new miniature survey and scorecard that I believe can produce rapidly available, policy relevant findings.
The N4C Index is based on a curious but fundamental truth that is buried deep within the argument of Gilley’s article: just because a state is a state, why should that mean that it gets to govern itself? Is self-determination an inalienable right, or a privilege that is earned? We know that states are recent inventions in the course of human history. If they are communities at all, then they have to be imagined as such, conjured up by media, representation and re-written histories. Their borders are arbitrary, participation in the election of their rulers often derisory, and their governments subject to corporate whim and multi-lateral restructuring policies. No decent left-leaning intellectual in her heart of hearts deserves her cardigan if she is also a blind-to-all-faults nationalist. We may have to recognise that in some cases things are so bad that colonialism could be the answer to the problems that face our different countries.
But we need also to recognise that in today’s academic circles this cannot be a mere theoretical argument. We need applicable findings that can make a difference and change the world. Based, therefore, on an extensive review of colonial invasions, wars and imperial conquest, I have derived a colonisation score-card whereby you can determine how desperately your country needs to be colonised and by what sort of power. It works very simply—you answer the question, score your answer and add up the total. The sum will reveal how much colonisation you need.
Scores will be submitted to a major international conference— to be held in Berlin— that will demarcate the new global political geography and who will wield power over whom. I invite any legitimate government and potential colonising forces (as well as governments deserving colonisation) to participate. I also suggest that trends towards scores of zero (indicating perfect legitimate self-government) be monitored as part of counting progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
The questions are:
1. Has your country’s leadership been overtaken by a narcissistic buffoon with a penchant for media gaffes and a silly hairstyle?
There is no way that you can call that hairstyle silly–1000 points
2. Does the leadership have a penchant for military spending and nuclear weapons?
No, because they do not spend nearly enough money on nuclear weapons, who could?–500 points
3. Does your country have a great history of colonial rule and military conquest?
No, we have never sought an Empire–100 points
4. Are your country’s international borders fenced?
Not any more because someone dug a tunnel underneath the one secure border we had and anyway anyone can get in from Scotland–1000 points
Not yet and I am personally overseeing the construction of the one nearest me to the south–1000 points (if you are from the US) or 5 points (if you are from Scotland or Canada)
5. Do you already have the ideal leader?
No, there is no such thing–5 points
Yes – 50 points
I think to be ideal then we would be looking for some sort of cross between Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong-un, Robert Mugabe, Saparmurat Niyazov, Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma–50,000 points
6. Are you still answering these questions?
Over 10-good, only minor colonisation required.
You could probably still do with a short visit from a small expeditionary force given that you were concerned enough to answer these questions in the first place.
Between 100-1000–serious; urgent colonisation required.
Please invite your nearest neighbour to come and sign some quick treaties ceding territory and trading rights to them. Make sure they are signed by unrepresentative leaders, preferably in languages you don’t understand.
Over 1000-Even more serious.
Your country may or may not be alright but you are a basket case. Are you from Nambia ?
Clickbait and impact: how academia has been hacked
Colonialism destroyed the “Third World Quarterly”
Noam Chomsky defends academic freedom of pro-colonialism professor under fire
Dan Brockington directs the Sheffield Institute of International Development at the University of Sheffield. His research covers diverse aspects of conservation, agriculture development and celebrity entailing fieldwork in remote parts of East Africa and offices and events in central London.
Illustration: Kabini Amin
column| Rohan Arthur| 11.3
21st September 2017
I am on my way to Barcelona. If I squint I may just see the chimneys that signal the entrance to the city, but I know it’s just my imagination – the city is still an hour away. The train from the provincial town of Blanes to the metropolis traces the Mediterranean coastline, a sleeper-and-iron transect that wanders along its beaches and coves. After every big storm, the sand from the beaches has to be cleared from the tracks. This railway line would violate every one of our coastal regulation zone (CRZ) rules in India. This is Spain. The track was constructed a long time ago. It probably violated many environmental guidelines back then. It was built anyway. The journey is undeniably lovely.
Barcelona is in ferment. The Catalans are demanding a referendum. They want nationhood. A separation from the idea of Spain and a recognition of their autonomous economy, culture, identity and history. Yesterday they took to the streets. The government in Madrid, in a ham-handed provocation, sent in the central police force to arrest and grill Catalan bureaucrats for colluding with the separatists. It didn’t help that this was the same police force set up by the repressive dictatorship of Franco. The Catalans, in protest, took to the streets, pouring out of their houses carrying flags of an independent Catalonia, flowers to hand to the police, pots and pans, righteous indignation. They encircled the administrative buildings with loud protests. The police could only leave when, past midnight, the masses granted them safe passage.
Dissent as democracy.
I live with a Catalan nationalist. She is a strong believer in the idea of a separate nation. I have watched how, over the last decade, her vague dissatisfaction has grown to a more focused indignation and a sharp anger at the increasingly authoritarian handling of the Catalan question. So yesterday, when she heard of the protests in the city, it was the most natural thing to leave work mid-sentence, jump into the car, and drive the 140 km to Barcelona to add her voice to the throng.
Standing with her in the crowded, angry square, watching a large banner welcoming us to the self-declared Republic of Catalonia being unfurled on a nearby building, I felt a sense of profound disconnection. How was I to relate to this? The Catalans have their political heroes, their ideological wise men and women who show them the way. They may bicker over the little things, but they stand together on the important things. They seem to have a plan. And the Catalans believe them. When they call, the Catalans rise up to dissent. Change, they are assured, will come. A bright new future awaits, just there, past the next legal hurdle.
While one part of me envies this fervent energy, another – the resigned realist – cannot help smiling at the powerful belief the Catalans rest in their leaders. Our own experience in India tells how little our belief in politicians really brings. We are not ruled by a Franco – at least not yet. Still, we know better. Politicians of every stripe are an amoral, self-interested bunch of crooked power-brokers. The only thing that separates a good politician from a bad one is her ability to manipulate popular belief for as long as it takes to get what she wants. We know this in India. To find a politician that speaks with our voice is a vanishingly rare thing. And when he does, we have to look to him with growing suspicion. What’s in it for him? When is he going to disappoint? We look at every call to dissent and we smile the smile of the failed romantic. Ah, yes. How wonderfully quaint to believe that dissent can bring change for the better.
Dissent as naiveté.
The coastline outside my train window is heavily modified. Harsh breakwaters – concrete and rocks – try vainly to protect small bits of coast from erosion. The beaches behind these breakwaters are artificial. The have to be replenished every few years with sand from the rivers, smoothed down each morning for a fresh batch of tourists. To the south, without having to squint, the three chimneys of Les Tres Xemeneies rise above the September haze that envelops the city. It is a defunct thermal power plant built right on the beach, destroying vast acreage of the Bésos Delta when it was first constructed in 1970s. There were protests when it was first proposed. It will be an environmental disaster. It will be an architectural eyesore. It was built anyway. Coastal regulations were not so strict back then.
I think of our own coastal regulations in India. The year 1991 seems like a long time ago, but when plans for the coastal zone regulations were first being circulated, there was a genuine sense that this was something different. It was not so much a legal notification as a vision statement. Of the special ecological status of the coast and islands. Of the unique traditions that linked coastal communities with their ecosystems. Of how vulnerable these narrow stretches are to rampant over-development, overuse, overpopulation. Climate change was not yet the buzz phrase back then, but here was a document that did everything you could expect from a government taking cognizance of how climate change was likely to impact the coast and islands. Sure, we bickered over the details. But here was something we felt we could be genuinely proud of. Something to believe in.
We know the reality. It is the reality of most environmental legislation today. There have been, to date, more than 20 modifications to the original notification, each a rationalization, a clarification, a dilution, a workaround. If current reports are right (and a recent right to information request confirms this), there are plans to make the notification a shadow of itself. The coast, in case you hadn’t heard, is open for business. There are industrial and tourism opportunities everywhere, for the taking. This is not the 1990s. Or even the 2000s. The decades of dissent are done in India. So yes, there will be a few small protests, but they will be ignored, laughed at, labeled reactionary. Anti-national. There was a time when “environmental stories” bought eye-balls for our infotainment industry but between the raucous politics of division and celebrations of India’s neo-liberal dreams, they have other, more entertaining things to occupy themselves with now.
We have no environmental heroes in India anymore. Nobody who can get us out on the streets with our pots and pans. And while our government is not yet as blunt-headed as Madrid in dealing with dissent, the machinery of state is powerful enough. It is surprisingly easy to quiet the noisy NGO sector – show them up for the squabbling complainers that they are; magnify their differences so they make for easy pickings; remove them from all policy forums; weigh them down with bureaucratic filings; quietly threaten to revoke their legal legitimacy; squeeze their funding sources. Between fear, cynicism and plain tiredness, civil society voices are reducing to a whimper over government and big-business disdain for the environment.
Dissent is dead.
Barcelona’s skyline is getting clearer on the horizon. Once reviled, Les Tres Xemeneies, now marks where the city begins. It is stripped bare of everything except its brick chimneys, but remains an architectural statement as iconic as Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral. It stabs a coastline already much transformed. It tells its own powerful tale of dissent. Conceived in the 1970s, it faced huge opposition from environmental groups and the local government. The power company that owned the property built it against a strong wave of local anger and ecological protests. Its three tall chimneys rose as a mutant three-fingered ‘f*** you’ to the environment, the coast, the local community. The plant polluted the nearby beaches and seas with black rain. Mistreated its workers. Saw more violent protests, this time from workers, in which police intervened. People died. And in time, like other grand projects of the time, it became unprofitable and faced demolition. Once loathed as an aesthetic disgrace blotting the city skyline, the citizens of Barcelona now rallied to save the structure as a symbol of cultural and environmental resistance. It lies bare now, its future uncertain. It may become a museum.
Dissent as art. Signifying all it fails to achieve.
Last night’s crowds would have dispersed by now. They were up late, banging pots and pans on the streets and from their kitchen windows. Their dissent will continue. Will they get the change they want? And if it comes, will it be all they expect it to be?
Les Tres Xemeneies looms large.
This is my stop.
Rohan Arthur works as a scientist with the Oceans and Coasts programme of The Nature Conservation Foundation. He flits between India and Catalonia.
Illustrations: Shreyas R Krishnan
column| Matthew Creasey| 11.3
The format of this issue’s COP Watch is somewhat different to our original plan. This is because one enormously significant event has occurred since the last issue of CC, which we felt deserved our full attention. On the 1st June 2017, the President of the United States of America announced that the USA would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, claiming that the agreement “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries” and would result in “vastly diminished economic production”.
The USA is the World’s largest economy and the 2nd biggest emitter of CO2, contributing 14.9% of global emissions in 20151, so their withdrawal would have major implications for future increases in global temperature. We have three main questions:
- Can the USA legally withdraw from the Paris agreement?
The simple answer is yes. In his press statement, President Trump stated that the Paris accord was “non-binding”. This is true. Under the terms of the agreement, parties are allowed to withdraw simply by submitting written notification2. BUT, the USA cannot do this until 3 years after the agreement came into force, that is to say until 4th November 2019. What is more, once written notification has been received, it will be a full year until the withdraw takes effect, taking the date to 4th November 2020. That is the day after the next US presidential election, and many believe that President Trump is unlikely to serve out his full term. What is more, countries can re-join the Paris treaty at any point. So, the next few years will be very interesting.
In the mean-time, the United States must abide by the terms of the treaty. This does mean that they must set nationally defined emission reduction targets, pursue measures to achieve these targets and report regularly on their progress. This does not actually mean that they must actually reduce their emissions, and there is no penalty for not meeting their targets. Is the incentive to set and pursue the ambitious targets needed to slow the pace of temperate rise, undermined by a stated intention of leaving the treaty. Surely the answer is yes.
- Are there any sanctions or punishments which can be enforced, should the USA fail to abide by the terms of the treaty?
Yes. In an interview for the Financial Times3, Daniel Bodansky, a professor at Arizona State University and an expert on international climate law said “there aren’t any specific penalties for violations, but other countries are allowed to take ‘counter-measures’ in response”. These otherwise illegal “counter-measures” become legitimate tools once a treaty signatory fails to live up to its obligations. Would other countries be likely to challenge an economic behemoth like the USA by imposing such measures? Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems unlikely.
- Is there anything ‘we’ can do?
I believe the answer to this is a resounding yes. Firstly, given that for the next four years the USA is legally committed to setting and working towards targets of emission reduction, we can lobby, campaign and watch like hawks to make sure they are doing this. To achieve the latter, through COP Watch here at CC, we will do our best to keep you up to speed with developments. The website http://climateactiontracker.org/ is another great resource, detailing the actions each country is taking towards meeting their targets. And for those ready to take action, there are several campaigns already running. The Guardian newspaper in the UK listed 10 which they felt were particularly effective (more information here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/nov/15/top-10-climate-change-campaigns). A Google search of “climate change action campaigns” will bring up many other options depending on the type of campaign that appeals to you.
Secondly, given the likelihood that there will be a new President in position on the day the USA would actually leave the treaty, we must surely do all we can to convince that President to take the USA back in.
In many ways to backtrack from switching to an economy based on renewable energy sources seems like a negative economic step for the USA. Renewable energy sources are becoming cheaper by the day as the technologies for their production become more efficient and our ability to store energy for low-production periods improves. Meanwhile, fossil fuels are becoming more and more expensive. And of course ultimately, fossil fuels will run out, meaning that in the long-term we have no choice but to switch to renewables. While other major global powers, including India, China and the EU Nations, forge ahead in renewable technologies, placing their economies on a strong footing for this inevitable low carbon future, the USA’s actions seem to condemn them to a game of catch-up which must jeopardise their continued status as the World’s primary economic power. Perhaps this will be enough to make President re-think his plans. If not, all is not lost. But we must act.
Finally, in other COP news, 15 more countries have ratified the Paris agreement since our last issue. This takes the total number of ratified signatories to 157, out of 195 countries which originally signed up. Well, swings and roundabouts I suppose.
Matthew Creasey is a PhD Researcher at Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, UK, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrations: Prabha Mallya
column| Michael Adams| 11.3
The shaky video shows the arc of its tail scything through brown water as the Black Marlin swims through the creek, hunting bream and tailor. The phone camera pans around and the built structures of the Port Kembla steelworks frame the scene, heavy trucks rolling over a concrete bridge, smokestacks and factories crowding the landscape. The most polluted creek in the Illawarra region of south-east Australia, Allens Creek flows through the steelworks, its banks lined with concrete and weeds, its waters littered with plastic, broken glass and rusting steel. Recently steelworkers watched amazed as that Black Marlin hunted in the shallow waters inside the steelworks itself.
The Black Marlin is an apex predator of oceanic environments, a wide ranging ocean swimmer that can grow to 800 kilograms. Regarded as the premier game fish amongst anglers, they epitomise the oceanic wild – fast, powerful and beautiful. The waters and banks of Allens Creek are a complex amalgam of industry, abandonment, toxicity, flourishing and decline. From the position of the dominant material logics of power and capital, these are the increasingly forgotten, ignored or avoided places. The presence and agency of the Black Marlin in the middle of the steelworks bring into focus debates about the nature of nature in the twenty first century. The giant ocean fish swims into the heart of industrial Port Kembla not because it is disoriented, but because the ‘dirty ecologies’ of this human-transformed environment provide resources and shelter. Patricia Yaeger (2013) discussing the amazing film Beasts of the Southern Wild, argues
“The film’s rags and wastelands—its killing fields—become powerful emblems of the Southland’s (and our nation’s) commitment to toxic inequality…The citizens of the Bathtub practice a dirty ecology, making do with what they can salvage from other waste-making classes.”
The imagined community of the Bathtub, lost in the interstices and floodzones of the modern American juggernaut, reflecting class and racial neglect, is, like Allens Creek, simultaneously full of life and energy. Both the humans and the non-humans living in these environments thrive or struggle with repurposed elements from other ecologies. The toxic dirt and debris of the steelworks waterway are the hidden byproducts of the glistening steel towers in modern cities; the marginalised workers fishing in these waters are increasingly discarded by the processes of capital and automation.
All this of course is not so far from jugaad. Radjou et al (2012) define some underlying principles of jugaad as seeking opportunity in adversity; doing more with less; thinking and acting flexibly; simplicity and ‘heart’ – elements of these easily map onto both human and other ecologies. Around the world, many human communities approach innovation and change through the same principles that define jugaad.
The powerful presence of the Black Marlin highlights for us what water and its denizens might have to teach us. How do we learn in these interstitial environments? What are the seen and unseen processes of respect, reciprocity, generosity and humility between humans and non-humans in these liminal zones? How is the ocean water itself, covering 71% of the planet and containing 99% of its inhabitable area, a key learning opportunity for us?
In much of both popular and scientific discourse there is an increasingly insistent environmental story of damage, extinction and decline. Simultaneously, some scientists, environmentalists, humanities scholars and artists are rethinking the nature of nature. I want to argue that all environments are still whole environments, that the whole is constantly reassembled, reorganized, from whatever are the available constituent parts and processes. This idea of new ecologies emerging from pre-existing and new constituents has been discussed by a number of researchers. In 2013, the edited volume Novel Ecosystems (Hobbs, Higgs and Hall) presented a range of perspectives, Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden (2011) had earlier explored the challenge of ‘saving nature in a post-wild world’, and George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding (2013) also provocatively explored these ideas.
The spaces of Allens Creek, marine aquatic and terrestrial, have rewilded themselves. New communities flourish here, made up of both pre-existing species and new arrivals. These are the unguarded, unmanaged spaces where lives can flourish and decline often unobserved by the auditing eyes of power. The human observers of the Black Marlin are working class men, steelworkers and fishers who occupy marginalised spaces in society. These are people for whom much of their learning and knowledge is embodied; they carry their skills in their hands. Fishing is a working class recreation, but one with often very high levels of knowledge and embodied skill.
In a world where many human societies are increasingly narcissistic, where our only concern is ourselves, the appearance of the Black Marlin in the steelworks is a transcendent experience. Perhaps our task is to harmonise ourselves with these old and new environments, not continually attempt to ‘manage’ them into some other state that we in our hubris think is more desirable, whether ecologically or economically. Part of the opportunity for learning is to honour the knowledge of those vernacular worlds. Another part is to trust our own embodied, intuitive understandings, our affective and emotional responses, our ancient ways of understanding that lie beneath the more recent cognitive processes.
The waters of the Blue Planet are simultaneously and paradoxically both vulnerable and damaged, and unlimited in their power to damage and make vulnerable. The South Asia floods, almost invisible in world media next to Hurricane Irma, bring this home yet again to the world’s most populous region. Our shared material bodies: humans, the Black Marlin, the ocean water itself, are composed of the same elements: each is a rearrangement of the other, and each will be rearranged again as they die and return to the matrix from which the next lives will grow. Embracing humility, listening, slowness, might transform our practices of care through making space for others, helping others endure, moving our human selves to the edges instead of the centre.
Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E.S. and Hall, C., 2013. Novel ecosystems: intervening in the new ecological world order. John Wiley & Sons.
Marris, E., 2013. Rambunctious garden: saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Monbiot, G., 2013. Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Penguin UK.
Radjou, N., Prabhu, J. and Ahuja, S., 2012. Jugaad innovation: Think frugal, be flexible, generate breakthrough growth. John Wiley & Sons.
Yaeger, P., 2013. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Dirty Ecology. Southern Spaces, 13.
Michael Adams is Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He was born in India.
His research includes work with indigenous communities and conservation and heritage management in Australia, Arctic Scandinavia and India.
Illustrations: Aindri Chakraborty
Column|Kanchi Kohli & Manju Menon|10.4
The idea of compensation is not new to conservation policy across the globe. Payment for ecosystem services (PES), offsetting the depletion of carbon stocks, and rehabilitating livelihoods affected by wildlife protection have been concepts that both conservation science and policy have tried to operationalize for the last several decades. These compensations are a compromise that has to be struck between ecological requirements and developmental aspirations.
More recently, compensation mechanisms seem to have lost their stated purpose of reducing or offsetting ecological and livelihood losses. They have instead turned into funding mechanisms that have little or no intent to compensate for the damage to the environment or the communities who live in landscapes targeted for intensive development. In the last two years, two laws have institutionalized monetary compensation, paid by project developers to government agencies, as the sole form of addressing project impact on landscapes. These laws routinise loss of habitats and livelihoods, and displacement on the basis of such financial compensation. In addition they make it nearly impossible to hold individual projects accountable for the impacts they leave behind as it is the government agencies who receive these large funds that are vested with the responsibility of implementing projects and schemes that they consider as“compensatory”.
Recovery from Forest Diversions
Since 1980, the Forest (Conservation)Act (FCA) has legally required projects using forests for non-forest use to carry out compensatory afforestation (CA) in an equal amount of non-forest land or double the amount of degraded forestland.The objective was purportedly to reduce the loss of forests due to high impact projects such as mining and dams and also to substitute what is lost by planting an equal or twice the amount of forest.For two decades the forest departments of all state governments managed this practice while the projects deposited the money needed to comply with this requirement. Money collections under the FCA have also included deposits arising out of penalties and fines. Nearly 24000 projects have been granted forest clearance on the condition that forest loss would be compensated.Did this happen? Yes, but mostly within government account books.
Prompted by the massive failure of operationalizing CA on the ground, in 2002, the Supreme Court’s Godavarman bench directed the setting up of a centralized Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India reports and state government affidavits filed in the Supreme Court had pointed out that there were three key reasons for this failure of CA. First, no land was available for afforestation, second that the money was not forthcoming by the user agencies and finally the funds that had been collected were mismanaged. Rather than reopening the logic of CA in which lay the seeds of its failure, the solution that the SC ordered is the centralized management of CA funds and the creation of an additional offset mechanism in the form of the Net Present Value, that expanded the fund and tied it to conservation.
In mid-2016 the Indian Parliament went a step further and legislated The Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act to formalize the institutional mechanism to recover and disburse money arising out of forest diversions. It was headlined that this bold move would unlock INR 420 billion that remained unutilised. This money had been collected both in compliance and violation of the FCA, as it included money to be spent for penal afforestation to be carried out to compensate for damage caused. Even though it is established that compensatory afforestation cannot be realized due to structural reasons like the unavailability of land, ecologically valuable forests continue to be diverted under the FCA and the legal clauses for a CA fund legitimize forest loss for development.
Talabira coal mines, Odisha
Welfare funds from mining
The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation Act) 1957, amended in 2015, has enabled the creation of District Mineral Foundations (DMF) all across the country. The DMF draws its rationale from the ‘resource curse’ argument; regions rich in mineral wealth are left impoverished by the mining activity. The intent is to share the benefits accrued from mining with those who are affected by it. It acknowledges that gains from mining activity rarely reach the people who have lost their livelihoods and health and views the DMF as a benefit sharing mechanism to compensate the losses incurred by people, even as mining is carried out unabated.
Mining companies are to mandatorily contribute 10-30% of royalty from their projects into the DMF, to be used for the welfare of the people living in the impacted area. The DMF is now under the national level Pradhan MantriKhanijKshetra Kalyan Yojana (Prime Minister’s Mining Area Welfare Scheme). While the state of Odisha tops the list of national DMF collections (INR 7.56 billon), Keonjhar district takes more than half of that share at INR 3.79 billon. One reason for this is because Keonjhar tops the list of six districts in Odisha with 31.28% of its area under mining activity. The Indian Bureau of Mines states that Keonjhar holds 75% of the iron ore reserves of Odisha and makes up more than 30% of the country’s reserves.
It just takes a short walk into any of the 200 villages surrounding any iron or manganese mine in the district to see what mining does to landscapes: the shaved face of hills that were ones forested, the air thick with fine dust created by blasting and trucks carrying the ore; piped water trickling into pots even as the streams run dry or red with slurry. These are just common visuals which cloud the justification for the DMF. With over two decades of unresolved issues, the mining companies are seen as necessary to fill up the DMF. Many who have lost lands and livelihoods to the mining have already moved away from Keonjhar. Those who remain are left fighting for small jobs, drinking water, and the right to public spaces like roads. Is it not clear who will benefit from DMF funds used to ‘improve’ public facilities in a district written off to mining? Would the government consider preventing more mines and impacts when companies and state agencies can make money hand over fist through more mining?
As projects pocket approvals more easily than ever, centre and state level environmental regulators benefit from the monetization of the lawful destruction of landscapes. With so much money at stake through compensatory mechanisms, does conservation stand a chance? It is time for conservationists to engage the government and persuade them of the dangers of monetizing the destruction of ecological landscapes.
Anon. 2016. Rs 42K crore green ministry’s unused funds to finally see light of day, New Indian Express, 13th October 2016.
Banerjee, Srestha. 2016. Odisha DMF’s budget allocation lacks focus on health, other basic services, Down to Earth, 18th August 2016.
CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General). 2013. Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Compensatory Afforestation in India (Report No. : 21 of 2013)
Kohli, K., M. Menon, V. Samdariya, and S.Guptabhaya. 2011. Pocketful of Forests:Legal debates on valuating and compensating forest loss in India.Kalpavriksh&WWF-India, New Delhi.
Pradhan Priyambada and Patra Sudhakar. 2014. Impact of Iron Ore Mining on Human Health in in Keonjhar District of Odisha. IOSR Journal of Economics and Finance (IOSR-JEF), Volume 4, Issue 4. (Jul-Aug. 2014), PP 23-26.
State-wise Summary of FCA projects on http://egreenwatch.nic.in/FCAProjects/Public/Rpt_State_Wise_Count_FCA_projects.aspx, accessed on 25.12.2016
The Supreme Court’s Godavarman bench in its order dated 26.09.2005 has defined Net Present Value (NPV) as “the present value (PV) of net cash flow from a project, discounted by the cost of capital”. In simple terms, it is arrived at by deducting the cost of investment from the present value of all future earnings. If the cost of putting up a project is I and the value of earnings from the project from now till the end of the project is X, then NPV is X-I
Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon are researchers associated with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR)-Namati Environment Justice Program.
Photograph: Manju Menon
The changing climate of climate change policy since the Paris Agreement
As some of you may remember, in issue 9.4 of Current Conservation (available to read online here: http://www.currentconservation.org/q=issue/9.4), we ran an article in which we explored the implications of the COP21 climate talks, which took place in Paris in December 2015.
What happened in Paris?
To recap, in March 1994 the Rio Convention, which included the adoption of the ground-breaking United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), came into force (more information on the UNFCCC can be found by following this link: http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/ items/6036.php).
Since then, the annual Conference of Parties (COP) has met to review the Convention’s implementation. COP now has a near global membership of 195 countries.
In December 2015, representatives from these 195 countries met in Paris for the 21st COP.
As a result of the negotiations, these representatives signed a treaty which pledged them to “(hold) the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.
What has happened since the Paris talks?
On 4th November 2016, the Paris agreement was to come into force.
At the time of writing in April 2017, 142 of those 195 countries which originally signed have since ratified the treaty (i.e. they have put the terms of the agreement into national law).
In March 2017, the World Meteorological Organisation’s annual report revealed that in 2016, globally averaged temperature reached 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. So if we are to stick to the most ambitious target outlined in the Paris agreement, we now have only 0.4°C to play with.
What is predicted to happen in the future?
In terms of the rate of future temperature increases, there isn’t a single answer (1) to this question. But the key point is that there is an almost linear relationship between the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere and the increase in global temperature. In other words, when looked at simply, lower emissions = a smaller increase in temperature.
Why this fixation on “below 2°C”?
Fundamentally, the “below 2°C” target simply marks a line in the sand. It is not the line beyond which the effects of climate
change will become apparent. As we have said, any more CO2 emitted will cause warming. The next key point is that any warming will have consequences.
In fact, we are already seeing these consequences. According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s annual report,
published in March 2017, 2016 was the warmest year on record, reaching, as we have mentioned, 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. 2016 also broke a range of other climate records:
- Highest global average sea surface temperatures.
- Record temperatures in Thailand and India; the 54°C recorded at Mitribah in Kuwait, subject to ratification, is the highest temperature ever recorded for the entire Asian continent.
- For the first time during the month of November, global sea ice dropped to more than 4 million square kilometres
Meanwhile, flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events displaced thousands of people.
So even if we hit the “below 2°C” target, some regions are still likely to experience severe consequences. But, 2°C provides a realistic target, at the lower end of projected temperature increases, behind which governments and nations can throw their collective efforts.
What can we do?
The answer to this question is also very complex. There are many actions we can take at an individual level which will reduce
our personal emissions, and it is hard to underestimate the importance of these actions – if we all reduce by a bit, collectively
we’ll reduce by a lot.
But the focus of our new section, COP Watch, is governmental action in response to the Paris talks. Why? Because the challenge of climate change is so enormous that effective action, in my opinion at least, must be led by policy change at the very top of government. We need policy which fundamentally alters our current industrial and economic reliance on fossil fuels. So – we should keep a close eye on what steps our governments are, and aren’t taking, and make sure they live up to their obligations under the Paris treaty.
What is the aim of COP Watch?
The aim of COP Watch is to make it easier for you to stay updated. To help you keep this ‘close eye’ on your governments. This new section in Current Conservation will have two major elements:
- We will bring you the headline news – the policies agreed by governments to achieve their COP commitments. We will also highlight those countries who are prominently failing to make the steps required.
- We will bring you an update of whether we are on track to hit the 1.5°C target.
“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.” Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, 2009-2017
COP21. COP – What’s it all about? http://www.cop21paris.org/about/cop21. Accessed on April 5, 2017.
Creasey, M. 2015. Climate change and conservation. Current Conservation 9(4): 28-33.
Pachauri, RK, MR Allen, VR Barros, J Broome, W Cramer, R Christ, JA Church et al. 2014. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). 2015. Paris Agreement – status of ratification. http://unfcccint/paris_agreement/items/9444.php. Accessed on April 6, 2017.
World Meteorological Organization. 2017. Climate breaks multiple records in 2016, with global impacts (Press release). https://public.wmo.int/en/media/pressrelease/climate-breaks-multiplerecords2016-global-impacts. Accessed on April 5, 2017.
(1) As a guide for predicting future temperatures under different levels of emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) use the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). The RCPs, are 4 projections for possible future
global temperatures, under different levels of greenhouse gas emission.
They take into account the key factors which will influence the degree to which we manage to reduce emissions – climate policy, energy use, land use patterns, technology, population size, economic activity and lifestyle, and outline a set of
possible futures based on levels of emissions under various permutations of these variables.
- Under both RCPs 6.0 & 8.5, the baseline scenarios in which there is little or no attempt to reduce emissions, global surface temperatures are projected to exceed 2°C (in the latter case exceeding 4°C) above pre-industrial
- Following RCP 4.5 is projected to result in an increase roughly in line with 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.
- Under RCP 2.6 global warming is projected to likely stay below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, the minimum
target of the Paris talks.
Matt Creasey is a Ph D Researcher at Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, UK, email@example.com.
Photographs: Matthew Creasey
column | Madhusudan Katti | 5.2
DIMINISHED NATURAL ORCHESTRAS ARE A HIDDEN DIMENSION OF BIODIVERSITY LOSS
Deep in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, where the mighty Siang river carves its way through the Himalayas, nestled the Adi hamlet of Tuting, amid overgrown green fields, verdant mountains and the river, itself deep green. The very moonlight seemed green as it shone on the ghostly mist rising from the gorge. Nineteen years ago, a search for India’s last takin-that strange-looking, mysterious cousin of the musk-oxen-had led me (and colleagues from Wildlife Institute of India) to this remote village, amid dense rainforests that we’d only read about, us kids of the concrete jungle. We were wide-eyed with wonder.
Talom Yaying, an Adi hunter from Tuting, took us to look for takin in the mountains where he hunted regularly. He offered us his cave for the night, in the heart of the rainforest, high up on a ridge overlooking the great gorge. Such wonderful, magical country-and so hopeless my attempts to capture its rapturous beauty on a few frames of celluloid. Put that camera away!
On our way back, Talom told me he felt compelled to spend some nights every week in his cave-away from home and family. For in the village, the only sounds to awaken him at dawn were chicken, dogs and pigs. But up in his cave, he was serenaded by the songs of wild birds and animals! Even in Tuting, a village completely surrounded by rainforest, he missed the sounds of the forest! Unlike us city-bred wildlifers, he knew exactly what he missed and where to find it. Growing up amid the steady din of city life, most of us don’t even recognise those natural sounds the warbling of birds, croaking of frogs, chirrupping of crickets. How, then, can we hope to recover what we don’t even know we’ve lost?
Years later (many spent studying songbirds in wild and human habitats) I share Talom’s sense of loss more keenly as I contemplate how all the noise we make adds another, barely recognised, dimension to the loss of biodiversity that all of us bemoan. While we recognise many overt ways in which cities displace wildlife by destroying/ transforming habitats, we are only just beginning to understand less visible impacts, like the steady, growing hum of traffic and industry, which alter the behavior of animals in cities.
Like us, many animals use sound to communicate with their mates, competitors, even enemies-and birdsongs offer the best examples. Birds use a variety of sounds, from simple chirps/ whistles to elaborate songs rivaling the finest tunes on your FM radio. More complex songs are used by males to attract mates and warn territorial rivals. Typically, males with bigger repertoires and more complex songs are more successful in courting females and fathering young than those who hum but a few bars of one tune. What’s more, avian pop charts also vary from station to local station, resulting in regional dialects. Some birdwatchers can identify different bird species by their voices, even among the duller look-alike warblers (the little brown/green jobs) – while keener ears can tell apart the greenish warblers that spend winters in Andhra Pradesh from their cousins who prefer to settle in Kerala.
How well sound waves carry your message depends, of course, on the medium they travel through-and background noise seriously interferes with communication. As you must know if you’ve tried making phonecalls while stuck in traffic, or sustaining a philosophical discussion during a dinner party, the noisier the background, the harder it is to convey your message or understand what others are saying. Birds have similar problems: males are unable to show off the full extent of their vocal repertoire, especially subtle vocal modulations, if their habitat is too noisy; and females suffer because they cannot find the best males, thereby losing the chance to produce sons with mellifluous voices and daughters with a keen ear for a good song who will in turn produce the most grandchildren (for that, indeed, is what the evolutionary game is all about). A recent study found that Australian zebra finch females, given the choice between different male songs (in the laboratory where they heard recordings) were quite discriminating when it was quiet, but became rather poor in distinguishing between songs when traffic noise was broadcast alongside. Isn’t the audience always quieter-and more touchy about noise-at classical than at pop concerts?
One way birds cope with all the noise we make is by singing louder when it’s noisy-this so-called cocktail party effect is documented in some species. Urban noise also tends to be low-pitched, so an alternative is for birds to get shriller, sing at a higher pitch exactly what great tits have been found doing in Europe. A more subtle effect is for birds to simplify songs, cutting out some of the fantastic frequency modulations, harmonics, and other vocal gymnastics they are capable of-not unlike how classical music maestros may be forced to stoop to Bollywood tunes or advertising jingles to make a living! If those tricks don’t work, one must find relatively quieter times during the busy urban day to sing one’s melodies – which may be why that annoying magpie robin wakes you up at 4 in the morning.
Of course, not many species are flexible enough to make these adjustments and continue living in cities. Those that cannot cope likely go extinct locally, leaving behind a poorer urban bird community. Chalk up another reason why cities worldwide seem to be occupied mostly by the depressingly familiar contingent of pigeons, starlings and crows-usual suspects in the homogenisation of urban wildlife that’s part and parcel of the globalisation package (or so we are told-but I’ll save the discussion of this homogenisation question for another column). In the long run, if our cities keep growing, and remain noisy, we will chase away most of our more discriminating singing friends, while those that remain will sing impoverished urban dialects. And we all lose the symphony of biodiversity to a homogeneous urban cacaphony. We must all share Talom Yaying’s sense of loss-although some of us just don’t know it yet.
Madhusudan Katti is an Associate Professor at California State University, Fresno. firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Megha Vishwanath
column | Madhusudan Katti | 6.1
New land ethic for an urbanised planet
In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov invented Trantor, the center of a Galactic empire where his brilliant “Foundation” series of novels unfold. At its height, Trantor is a planet whose originally Earth-like land surface is entirely covered in metal domes enclosing subterranean metropolises inhabited by 45 billion humans. That is over 6 times as many of us as are currently jostling for space on Earth. And, like one of our megacities writ large, Trantor is an entirely urban planet with an (eventually fatal) dependence on 20 other worlds for food.
No room for bare dirt, let alone natural spaces, within that Galactic capital! Not surprising, given that Trantor sprang from the imagination of a quintessential New Yorker, in a period of technological optimism about human potential for limitless growth to conquer the universe. Recently, as humanity nears 7 billion, we passed an urban threshold: over half of us now live in cities sprawling over the Earth’s landscape. Cities whose alienated dwellers depend on food from ever distant farmlands. But we remain far from traveling to another planet, let alone establishing galactic empires. Instead, as climate change destabilises agriculture and rising oceans threaten to drown some of our most vibrant cities, we worry about sustaining even current human populations.
Meanwhile, an alternative vision of humanity is found in the writings of Asimov’s contemporary Aldo Leopold who, in “A Sand County Almanac”, also written in the 1940s, gave us the “land ethic”: a natural extension of ethics, an evolution of our moral sense of just behavior towards the rest of the natural world. He wrote:
“A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
One can see an amplification of this land ethic in the more recent notion of “Earth Stewardship” which calls upon humans to take an active role in protecting biodiversity as the planet’s only capable “stewards”.
Trantor, with its eradication of nature, would be deeply unethical. Indeed most of our cities seem to lie on the wrong side of this ethical line, containing more concrete and asphalt than biotic communities. Yet cities are also centers of human culture supporting much of the integrity, stability, and beauty of human communities. Indeed, cities are where we also grow most of our naturalists, ecologists, and environmentalists these days.
Is it possible to reconcile human communities with those other biotic communities as equal citizens of Earth? We need an urban land ethic to guide our actions, find ways to preserve the integrity and beauty of the whole, human and non-human, and avoid destroying the living fabric of Earth’s biosphere before we self-destruct.
Urbanisation is fundamentally changing the nature of our planet. Preserving biodiversity on this new urban planet requires going well beyond the traditional conservation approaches of protecting and restoring what we think of as “natural ecosystems”, and trying to infuse or mimic such elements in the design of urban spaces. Cities already represent a new class of ecosystems shaped by the dynamic interactions between ecological and human social systems. As we project the spread of these ecosystems across the globe, we must become more proactive in not only trying to preserve components of earlier ecosystems and biotic communities that they displace, but in imagining and building whole new kinds of ecosystems that allow for a reconciliation between human wellbeing and biodiversity.
While urbanisation displaces many species, we also know that others have evolved adaptive response in behavior and physiology to not only survive but thrive under the sometimes strange and rather sustained urban selection pressures. Novel plant and animal communities have evolved in urban areas, often with active manipulation and management by human society.
Urban residential gardens and parks, for example, have become an important reservoir for populations of bees and other pollinators that provide valuable ecosystem services for farmers, but find it difficult to survive under modern intensive agriculture. Innovations such as rooftop gardens and vertical forests, other structural design elements that form the scaffolding of urban habitats, and human interventions such as supplementary feeding and watering, have the potential to offer novel habitats and niches for species that may be quite different from those in more natural ecosystems. Populations and assemblages of species that evolve under such urban conditions may well represent what the future holds for much of earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. As such, human society must take a more active role in understanding and shaping these ecosystems, and assume the mantle of Earth’s stewardship in the deepest sense.
As centers of human innovation, and perhaps the most active frontier of our impact on the planet, urban areas offer enormous opportunities to re-imagine and invent a different kind of future with room for humans and other species to thrive. As humanity continues to grow and build cities, our hopes of avoiding urban collapse lie in growing movements for green roofs, urban farming, alternative materials, and landscape designs that soften our hard urban edges, and offer novel habitats for even endangered species, by making cities more permeable to nature.
Even Asimov, in sequels written decades later, recognised the hubris and ecological folly of a wholly metallic urban planet, adding farm sectors open to the air, and even dirt and trees growing atop the metal domes! It is in the nature of life to colonise and adapt to new habitats, so in the long run, the evolutionary biologist in me knows that the earth will eventually reclaim all of our novel habitats as its own, even if we kill off many species and ourselves in the process. We would all be better off in the short run, however, if we allow nature and its biotic communities some more breathing room within our urban realm.We must heed Leopold and spare our planet the fate of Asimov’s Trantor. Even Asimov would have agreed.
Madhusudan Katti is an Associate Professor at California State Univeristy, Fresno. email@example.com
Illustrations: Megha Vishwanath
Column | Matthew Creasey | 9.1
“…the mosaic and diversity of life is the living story of our planet.” — Dr LL Gaddy, naturalist & author
We live in a world of extraordinary diversity and richness. From the tangled labyrinth of the tropical rainforest to the seemingly endless ice shelves of the arctic north, and the stormy seas which surround them, lifeforms have evolved to exploit every opportunity and to fill every niche. So great is this variety that it can be overwhelming, and as a result it can be easy for some species to be forgotten, passed over and left to drift into obscurity. Especially if they are very small. But it is the species which are least physically imposing that form the silent majority, the greatest portion of life on our planet, and in many ways it is from them that we have the most to learn. As the Harvard professor EO Wilson has said, “the little things… compose the foundation of our ecosystems, the little things…run the world”. So this is the story of the little things. The forgotten species that in the seething tide of life get lost and ignored, but which despite their anonymity have a fascinating tale to tell.
If we are all sitting comfortably, I’ll ask you to take up your microscope, and we can begin. Nematode worms are the most abundant of all animals on the planet. Four out of five animals are nematodes. It has been said that if all solid material on Earth’s surface was removed, the outline of the physical structures would still be visible, from the nematodes.This alone highlights the profusion and fecundity of life on earth, but what is perhaps even more astounding is that we have only begun to peel the outer layer of the diversity onion. Until the early 2000s, scientists had formally described ~6000 species of bacteria worldwide. A great number. However, new techniques for sequencing DNA now suggest that in a single gram of agricultural soil, that’s less than a tea spoon’s worth, there may in fact be over 26,000 bacteria species, while in forests the figure may be as high as 53,000. All these species are engaged in complex ecological interactions, and the DNA they carry, ‘chosen’ as it were by natural selection, suits each to a discrete niche and mode of life. So 53,000 niches, in a teaspoon of soil. Already the mind begins to struggle.
The diversity in the world’s oceans is no less astounding. Marine bacteria of the genus Prochlorococcus may in fact be the most abundant organisms on Earth, playing a significant, if not pre-eminent role in oceanic (and global) photosynthesis. Their importance to the health of our planet is therefore hard to overestimate, and yet these single-celled organisms were not discovered until 1988.
Swapping the microscope for a lower resolution magnifying lens, a foray into the astonishing diversity of the insects represents a similarly overwhelming prospect. Take for example the beetles. More than a quarter of all species described so far are beetles.Their numbers do not simply exceed those of most other taxonomic groups; it has been estimated that there are more beetle species than there are amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species combined, 11 times over. That’s 350,000 species, many of whom, together with the other forms of tiny life which form the foundations of our planet’s ecosystems, make a living decomposing and re-constituting ‘spent’ biological matter, and so act as the powerhouse for the diversity pyramid which rests upon their narrow shoulders. And what of those other tiny lifeforms? No story of our planet’s little things would be complete without mention of the Hymenoptera, the sawflies, bees, wasps and ants.To take just the latter, the ants are perhaps most astonishing for the way, when it comes to both time and scale, they combine the inconceivably large with the minutely small. A queen black ant (Lasius niger), for example, is 1cm in length, but can live to 28 years of age. Super-colonies of the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) can contain literally billions of workers, and spread over hundreds of kilometres, but each individual worker is less than 3mm long. Dubbed the ‘dinosaur’ or ‘proto-ant’, Nothomyrmecia macrops is found in the arid region of South Australia, and has hardly changed from ancestors which were already extant 60 million years ago: that’s just 5 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct, and 59.98 million years before the first modern humans evolved.
Meanwhile, if we turn to other insect groups, certain species of termite can boast feats of architectural accomplishment which not only rival those of human engineers, but actively inform and inspire them. In the savannahs of Namibia, the spired mounds of Macrotermes michaelseni can be 12 metres in circumference and almost 4 metres high.Elaborate examples of functional design, inside the mound’s imposing walls is an intricate network of variously sized tunnels. Smaller tunnels near the surface help to reduce the effects of turbulent air currents outside. By impeding stronger gusts, air moving more gently can permeate the walls, moving in and out in wave-like currents, and refreshing the air inside. What is more, in addition to maintaining air quality, by carrying wet soil in and out of the mound the workers actively regulate the moisture levels inside the mound, keeping the humidity close to a constant 80% year round. This is not just for comfort however. It is vital for a complex mutualism which greatly increases the efficiency with which the termites can process their food. Strict vegetarians, the termites gather vegetation from the surrounding area and bring it back to the nest.This plant material is then eaten, and partially digested as it passes through the termite’s gut. However, the termites favour woody vegetation that is high in cellulose, and which the enzymes in the termite’s guts are not formidable enough to fully break down. To solve this, the termites take the excreted material and build comb-like structures, on which a specific fungus then grows. This fungus further breaks down the coarse cellulose in the plants, and makes it easier for the termites to digest on the 2nd ingestion. If the humidity drops too low, the fungi however cannot grow, so maintaining moisture levels is vital to the termites’ food supply. And all this in a species with a head no wider than 4mm.
So life is bountiful. Life is opulent. Life is quite frankly showing off. Earth’s ecosystems contain literally billions of species, a great many different modes of existence, and the ecological networks within them can be astonishingly complex.But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all? In many cases, all this diversity exists precisely because the rest of it is there. Biodiversity in and of itself may give strength. While still a controversial idea, many scientists believe that an ecosystem with more species may be more resilient to environmental changes, and its available resources used more efficiently, so that it is more productive in terms of absolute biomass. What is more, these complex communities are vital to our own species. There is strong evidence that biodiversity helps to regulate the three things which we arguably rely on most: our air, water and food supplies.Research has even shown that contact with nature is directly beneficial to both our physical and mental health. So it seems we need biodiversity.
Scientists are every day revealing new wonders of the natural world. In 2014, a single research institute, the California Academy of Sciences, described 221 new species of plants and animals alone. This number does not even consider the other kingdoms: the fungi, bacteria and protista, which are known to be far more numerous, and to which other researchers are devoting their lives to studying. The 50,000 bacteria species in a tea spoon’s worth of soil, the bees and beetles, wasps and worms. Together these organisms form the bedrock of the diversity of life, and if we allow them the space to simply exist, they will continue to flourish, to thrive, and to enrich our lives.
Matthew Creasey is a PhD Researcher at Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, UK, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Column | Matt Creasey | 9.3
It is January, and deep in the Mexican tropics, a change is coming. Shifting, swirling forces in the upper stratosphere bring another flowering season to an end, and with it a signal to one extraordinary little bird to begin one of the greatest journeys in the natural world. Almost 4000 miles, the Sonoran desert and both the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges separate this tiny traveller from its destination, but this trip must be completed twice a year if it is to breed. A little over 9 cm long and weighing just three and a half grams, the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is about to embark on the longest migration, relative to its size, of any bird in the world.
There are five aspects that make this such an astonishing undertaking. The first is simply the distance – 4000 miles one way, an 8000 mile round trip.That is a distance more than twice the length of India. To drive that distance averaging 60 mph would take more than five days. Even to travel by jumbo jet would require a ten hour flight*1! For the hummingbird this amounts to 78,470,000 body lengths. For a human to cover an equivalent distance, would mean walking around the circumference of the earth more than 3 times.
This is all amazing enough, but it is made all the more so if we consider the 2nd astonishing fact – the energy required to live life as a hummingbird. When hovering it must beat its wings 52-62 times per second, and at this time have the highest metabolic rate of any vertebrate. This means that they are never more than 20 minutes from starvation. Truly a life on the brink. To cope with such extreme energetic demands, they possess a number of physiological and behavioural adaptations. They have big hearts for their size and their blood contains a high number of red blood cells. These traits enable them to transport enough oxygen round the body as efficiently as possible. Other adaptations help them conserve energy. Fat, which yields more energy compared to carbohydrates, is burned during migration. Fat is also burned while resting, but when feeding the birds switch to burning carbohydrates. This keeps fat stores in reserve and avoids the need to use energy producing the fatty acids which are needed to metabolize fat. What is more – something I’m sure we can all relate to – these birds do everything possible to avoid cold toes.When they are feeding, , how far they hold their feet from their body varies with the ambient temperature. When it is particularly nippy, they keep them tucked up in their abdominal plumage, but when it is warmer, they dangle their toes in the cooling breeze. Finally, they maximize energy intake by being very fussy eaters, preferentially visiting flowers from which the nectar flows quickly, or in which sugar composition is particularly high.
Even with these adaptations, the locations this bird chooses to breed in are extraordinary. Their breeding range spans from the northern tip of California, through the mountains of British Columbia – where the altitude of nests can vary from sea level to 1,830m – right up Alaska, the most northerly latitude reached by any hummingbird.
And if they weren’t already burning enough energy, one additional trait exacerbates this even further. They have larger than average brains, and possess a range of cognitive abilities which exceed those expected for a bird of this size. This is intriguing, because brains take a lot of fueling, and storing information for any period of time requires significant energetic effort. Consequently, how species choose to allocate their energy resources, particularly when they must be so care-column Matt Creasey fully guarded as with the hummingbirds, gives us a hint to the most important factors influencing hummingbird survival. If their particular cognitive abilities didn’t confer a real advantage, they would quickly lose them.
This unexpected braininess has made rufous humming-birds the subject of much research investigating both their cognitive and physiological abilities. This research has uncovered a lot about these birds, and has revealed a web of relationships between the hummingbirds and other species which span a continent. We now know for example, that the birds are able to remember when they last visited a particular flower, avoiding ones they know will be empty and returning to those which have had time to re-fill with nectar, thus maximizing their foraging efficiency.This memory does not only retain information for short periods of time – individual hummingbirds return to the same breeding and wintering sites year after year, follow similar routes while on migration, and even appear to visit sites where good food sources have been found in previous seasons. This suggests impressive navigation and a spatial memory which is maintained between years.
These discoveries reveal a lot about what really matters to these little birds, but also pose a number of questions. Perhaps the most obvious is why do they undertake such an apparently hazardous journey at all? Surely between Mexico and Alaska there is enough suitable habitat to sustain the whole population of rufous hummingbirds? So why continue north?The answer seems to be that by reaching such isolated and difficult climes, they ensure that they have exclusive rights to the food supplies on offer, avoiding competition with other nectar feeding species.
The next question is how? What factors enable them to be successful in their undertaking? The physiological and behavioural adaptations which enable them to survive so far north are only part of the answer. After all, the final destination is only a small part of the whole astonishing journey, across a hugely varied landscape. To get a more complete understanding, we must consider the interactions between the hummingbirds and two other, apparently unconnected species. Firstly, along the length of the migration route, humans put out feeders containing sugar rich water to attract the beautiful birds. This provides an important opportunity for the tiny travellers to top up waning energy reserves, enabling them to survive the journey.The second interaction occurs as the birds reach the northern limits of their journey. Here, resident red-naped sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), small woodpeckers found across the upper states, move between willow and alder trees, using their strong bills to remove circles of bark, and allowing the sugar rich sap to trickle out. Hummingbirds arriving on the breeding grounds early have learnt that by following the sap-suckers, they can take advantage of this free meal when most plants are yet to begin flowering.
The delicacy of the balance which enables rufous hummingbirds to live is hard to imagine, and harder to predict. Scientists have revealed a great deal about this astonishing little bird, and the complex and intricate web of relationships which cross national and species boundaries and comprise the different ‘compartments’ of their lives. Yet it is still all but impossible to predict what effect small changes at a local level will have for a given species, or even more so, what cascading effects there will be throughout ecosystem
Take a moment to think about the species you see every day in your own garden, or that you passed on your journey to work or school this morning. How many of them were migratory? For those that were, what sort of lives, and what world do they experience during the times when they are away in other parts of the world? We get but a snapshot of the whole picture when we see any animal in a single setting, a single window into a life of many rooms and hidden passageways. In some ways perhaps, this is akin to imagining the people our parents were before we were born.What were their childhood dreams and aspirations? Did they come true, or fall by the wayside? What of our boss or teacher, what are they like when at home eating dinner with their family? We can never truly know someone until we understand the elements which comprise their complicated, messy, fascinating lives. In the same way, we can never truly understand the important elements of any organism’s existence until we recognize the multidimensional nature of it. Nor can we easily predict how far reaching changes to one small part will be… if your mother had argued with her parents that afternoon, if she had never attended that dance, then perhaps she may never have met your father, and you would not be here to read this now…
At present, the hummingbirds are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘of least conservation concern’. How – ever, numbers are decreasing, and the reasons for this are still unclear. Evidence from one study in Alaska has shown this species to be affected by timber harvesting, being completely lost from the study site after felling had occurred. Who would guess that felling a small stand of trees in Alaska could mean that the bird feeders at a house in Mexico remained unvisited? And what of the role that hummingbirds play as pollinators? The birds have been shown to be of critical importance in certain ecosystems, as their warm blood enables them to be active during the cold months of early spring when invertebrate pollinators are yet to emerge, thus ensuring the pollination and seed-set of early flowering plants which are important food sources for a variety of species. If hummingbird feeders are no longer put out in California, will this affect the body condition of bears in British Columbia? Think about this carefully and I am sure you will see how the answer could be yes.
We take the species we see, particularly the common ones for granted. But they live complicated lives, and we should not underestimate the far reaching effects that environmental damage at a local scale may have. Equally, we should never underestimate the power and influence we can have ourselves. Small gestures for conservation can have significant effects, and we are all part of the great web of life.
*1 By a 747 jet flying at 400 miles an hour
Matt Creasey is a PhD Researcher at Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, UK, email@example.com.
Illustrator: Ananya Singh
Photograph: Ross Hawkins
Column | Matthew Creasey | 9.4
12th April, 1961 – Yuri Gagarin becomes the first person to enter outer space, completing one orbit before returning safely to Earth, 1 hour 48 minutes after launch.
15th December, 2015 – the Soyuz Rocket is, at the time of writing, the latest space flight to launch from Earth, transporting astronauts to the International Space Station for a six month mission.
Today – More than 200 miles above Earth’s surface, the International Space Station is in orbit. You are aboard. Travelling at 17,500 miles an hour, you complete an orbit of the Earth every hour. Watching out of the window, your view is down to Earth. You see oceans, continents. But there is more, the image is not static or one dimensional. There is movement and texture. In the atmosphere, nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide are the most common gases, alongside less common ones like krypton, xenon and ozone. Weather systems race, eddy and swirl, like milk in a cup of coffee. The greater part of the planet’s surface is covered with water, a blur of blue, turquoise, violet, purple and black. On land, vegetation flashes green and yellow, while snow and ice gleam white at the planets poles. Even in the short history of human space exploration, this view has changed. The images you now see will not correspond exactly to those seen by Gagarin just 54 years ago. Weather systems now follow different courses. Seasons come earlier. There is less white at the poles.
Meanwhile down on the Earth’s surface, in Paris, there has been another planetary shift, this time in the world of environmental politics. Three days earlier on the 12th of December, two weeks of climate talks ended with the first truly global agreement on climate change. 195 countries committed to take action in response to recent climatic changes. During the last 100 years, the Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.5°C. The warming has not been equal across all areas however. Temperatures in the polar regions have increased by 2–3°C in just the last 50 years and its consequences are already being felt. The aim of the Paris talks was to produce a declaration, signed by all nations present, containing legally binding targets to limit further temperature increases. In an unprecedented feat of global diplomacy, and defying the predictions of many, representatives from almost all the countries on Earth ended negotiations by signing this document, pledging to “(hold) the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND WILDLIFE CONSERVATION
Although less obvious than large scale climatic change, no less dramatic are the changes for wildlife. Changes in distribution, timing and synchronicity (more on this in a moment), and consequently changes in interactions between species. Broadly, ecologists are seeing two trends. First, species are physically changing their geographical ranges, shifting both towards the poles, and to higher altitudes. Imagine the rising temperatures as a flood (an analogy all too prescient for many areas) with heat flowing out from the equator, effecting low altitudes first. As the temperatures reach new areas, some species shift northwards, or to higher ground. Some species actually follow the tide line, taking advantage of the advancing warm to colonise new areas as they become climatically clement. For these species, warming will mean a range expansion. For species whose range is restricted however, either by a physical barrier, or because they already inhabit the most northerly latitudes or highest altitudes, there is nowhere to go. So polar species and those found on mountain tops are in serious trouble and show the highest rates of extinction due to recent climate change.
The other major change is temporal. As temperatures increase, some species are beginning their yearly cycles earlier. In a meta-analysis of 203 species in the northern hemisphere, amphibians were found to be bringing their breeding seasons forward more than twice as quickly as butterflies, birds and trees. Meanwhile butterflies are advancing significantly faster than the first flowering herbs. These asynchronies may have serious consequences. For example, just because one species can adapt, this does not mean that other species in its ecological web can do likewise. Butterflies rely on particular plant species, on which to feed and lay their eggs. If these plants have not yet emerged, the butterflies will have no food. Similar issues are affecting many bird species.
In Europe, blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) coordinate the hatching of their eggs with peak caterpillar abundance. Mistiming of laying, due to rapid changes in life cycles of their prey species, is already effecting the reproductive success in these birds. Migratory species may find it even more difficult to adjust their cycles. If the weather is warmer than usual in Africa, will this also be true in Northern Europe? If snows persist in the Himalayas, will it still be winter in the high Arctic? One study found that, of 1598 species, 59% had changed their phenologies and/or distributions over the past 20 to 140 years.
CLIMATE CHANGE, CONSERVATION AND A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
So what relevance do the recent climate talks have for dealing with these ecological changes? Based on available evidence, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified 5 ‘reasons for concern’ (RFCs, described in the appendix below), or the primary ways in which the planet will be affected by climate change. Of particular importance to ecology and biodiversity are RFCs 1 and 3. RFC 1 highlights the ‘Risk to Unique and Threatened Systems.’, which includes threats to ecosystems, endangered species and biodiversity as a whole. RFC 3 addresses the ‘Distribution of Impacts’. This RFC is concerned with the unequal regional impacts of climate change, acknowledging the fact that some will experience greater harm than others, while some may even benefit. In the graph below, predictions for the worsening impacts of each RFC are shown as global temperatures increase. The temperature ranges from just below, to increasingly far above pre-industrial levels, with colour indicating the severity of effect. As the graph shows, ecosystems and regional variations are two of the greatest risks from future climate change, which will experience high levels of impact with relatively minor further increases in temperature.
At a recent international conference, another question was raised – what if different individuals of a species respond differently to climate change? My ears perked up at this point, because such individual differences are my own area of research, but I had not previously thought about this within the context of climate change. We all know that some people cope better than others when the weather is particularly hot. This individual variation in thermal tolerance is also seen in other species, and one would predict that as global temperatures rise, that the individuals that can cope will do better than those that cannot. However, we don’t have the data yet to be able to predict how variation among individuals will affect species responses to climate change. So we can model, predict, estimate, and we can have confidence in the results of these studies, as far as they go. But they will never be able to reflect the full systemic and pervasive impacts of climate change.
The only thing we can be certain of is that there will be significant environmental changes which all forms of life on our planet must overcome. There are a number of truths we must accept, which ever scenario we see:
1) Life as we know it will not continue.
a. Global migration patterns of all species will change. The distribution of human and non-human species will be forced to adapt to changes in temperature and sea level rise.
b. Many species will go extinct. We cannot hold life on the planet in stasis, even if we wanted to, and some specie will not adapt fast enough to the changing environment. But that is the nature of evolution. Since life first began, it has constantly been evolving in response to changing environmental conditions. We must decide however, how drastic are the changes we are willing to accept. This ranges from the relatively minor changes under a 2°C warming scenario, to a mass extinction, including maybe humans, and the reinitiation of evolution from simple, resistant forms of life. Under this second scenario, life will begin again, adapting to whatever planet it finds after we have gone. Given that the current rate of warming is unprecedented in the history of life on Earth, we are currently heading towards the more dramatic end of this range.
2) Continued use of fossil fuels will a) exasperate the climatic changes which we have to respond to, and b) run out anyway. How much the climate changes is down to how much we reduce emissions, and in some cases reverse the effects of greenhouse gases. Any reduction in emissions will lead to lower global warming.
It seems to me that what gives the Paris agreement the greatest chance of achieving its aims is the institution of 5-yearly reviews, to check on the progress being made by each country. The current climate policies of signatory nations are known to be insufficient to hit the 2°C target, and further pledges must be made, and adhered to if it is to be reached. The 5-yearly reviews are designed to ensure our governments are taking the required steps, and where they are not, holding them to account. One of the greatest potential barrier to success therefore will be if these reviews are not properly enforced. So how can we make sure this happens? That is where you, me, everyone comes in. How do you think we can have the greatest impact? Do you already contribute to a particular organisation/petition? Do you write to your local politician? We would love to hear from you, and hope that we might be able to start a conversation about what the most effective form of action for the general public really is. If you have any ideas, you can send them in to us via Facebook (https://m.facebook.com/currentconservation/) or on Twitter (@CurrnConsrvtion; #ClimateConservation).
Together, our voices are much, much louder.
IPCC Reasons for concern
1) Risk to Unique and Threatened Systems. This RFC addresses the potential for increased damage to or irreversible loss of unique and threatened systems, such as coral reefs, tropical glaciers, endangered species, unique ecosystems, biodiversity hotspots, small island states, and indigenous communities.
2) Risk of Extreme Weather Events. This RFC tracks increases in extreme events with substantial consequences for societies and natural systems. Examples include increase in the frequency, intensity, or consequences of heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, or tropical cyclones.
3) Distribution of Impacts. This RFC concerns disparities of impacts. Some regions, countries, and populations face greater harm from climate change, whereas other regions, countries, or populations would be much less harmed—and some may benefit; the magnitude of harm can also vary within regions and across sectors and populations.
4) Aggregate Damages. This RFC covers comprehensive measures of impacts. Impacts distributed across the globe can be aggregated into a single metric, such as monetary damages, lives affected, or lives lost. Aggregation techniques vary in their treatment of equity of outcomes, as well as treatment of impacts that are not easily quantified. This RFC is based mainly on monetary aggregation available in the literature.
5) Risks of Large-Scale Discontinuities. This RFC represents the likelihood that certain phenomena (sometimes called singularities or tipping points) would occur, any of which may be accompanied by very large impacts. These phenomena include the deglaciation (partial or complete) of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets and major changes in some components of the Earth’s climate system, such as a substantial reduction or collapse of the North Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.
Matthew Creasey is a PhD Researcher at Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, UK, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Columns | Matthew Creasey and Gabriel Yvon-Durocher | 10.2
Forecasting the future with a miniature marine marvel – the implications of climate change for the 99%.
The Earth’s oceans are getting warmer. For example, over the past century, the sea surface temperature (SST) of the Western Indian Ocean has increased by 1.2° C. This is the fastest rate of any region in the tropical oceans. Warming in this region also has implications more broadly. Due to its influence on the circulation of the Asian monsoon and the occurrence of El Niño events, this area has the largest impact of any single region on global mean SST. This link with El Niño is a subject to which we will return later.
The warming of the Earth’s seas is causing many to question what the effects are likely to be for biodiversity in our oceans. However, this is something which is very difficult to measure. The marine ecosystem is enormously complex. Oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, represent 99% of our planet’s living space and contain literally billions of species. Trying to gauge the impacts of increasing temperature on this myriad of diverse life-forms and species communities is a huge challenge.
However, recent research suggests that, as is so often the case, looking to some of our planet’s tiniest species may provide answers to some of our biggest challenges. Marine phytoplankton are measured in micrometres (μm, one micrometre = 1 millionth of a meter). However, these minute life-forms are the foundation of the marine foodweb and are responsible for 50% of global primary productivity, of which diatoms (photosynthesizing algae) are responsible for about two thirds. The energy they produce is a fundamental building block on which much of our marine (and terrestrial) biodiversity depends. Therefore, establishing the ability of diatoms to respond to increasing temperatures will provide valuable information, which in turn will enable us to predict how marine biodiversity is likely to fair if the ocean’s temperatures continue to rise.
The problem is that we currently know almost nothing about the capacity of diatoms for evolutionary adaption in general, let alone in response to changes in temperature. To observe evolutionary adaptation as the water gets warmer, those diatoms that can cope with higher temperatures must be given time to pass those enabling genes on to subsequent generations, while those that cannot are filtered out of the population. This means a (theoretically) temporary dip in the number of circulating diatoms, followed by a resurgence as the temperature resilient genes become widespread and the reproductive success of diatoms generally increases. Finding how many generations it takes diatoms to complete this process under different levels of warming is a critical first step in establishing how quickly diatoms may be adapting to temperature changes in our oceans. Scientists from the Ecological Responses to Climate Change research group at the University of Exeter are investigating this question. Preliminary results from experiments in the lab suggest that diatoms are capable of adapting relatively quickly (within 100 generations, which takes 6 weeks to 2 months) to a relatively moderate 4° C increase in temperature. However, when temperatures rise by ° C, adaptation is much slower, taking 1 ½ years, which is too long in the real world as they would be out competed by other more adaptable organisms, which do not fulfil the same producer role within the marine food web.
The next question is what are the implications of these results for the future abundance of phytoplankton under the various projections for further temperature increases we could see in the years, decades and centuries to come? As we said earlier, the SST of the western tropical Indian Ocean has increased by 1.2° C over the past century. Based on projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if emissions continue at their current level, global temperatures could rise by 3.7° C to 4.8° C by the end of the current century. However, this is a global average, and as we have seen, the Western Indian Ocean is (a) warming particularly quickly, (b) has a particularly large impact on global mean SST and (c) is of particular importance to marine food webs due to its high biological productivity. So, given the rates at which we now know diatoms can adapt to temperature increases of a magnitude towards the upper end of the IPCC’s projections, this suggests there may be cause for concern.
Researchers from various research groups have been exploring the substance of these concerns in the wild and over longer time-frames by combining two strands of data. The first looks at phytoplankton abundance over the relatively recent past. When there is a high concentration of these tiny algae, they form such dense aggregations that they actually colour the water green. Comparing satellite images of the sea surface taken over the past 16 years, scientists found a 30% decrease in phytoplankton abundance in the Indian Ocean over this period. The second data strand uses computer modelling techniques to explore phytoplankton abundance over the longer term. Their models suggest that the recent decline revealed by the satellite images is part of a longer trend, and phytoplankton have declined by 20% over the past 60 years. This is dramatic, and we are already observing effects further up the food chain. In the last 5 decades, tuna catch rates have declined 50–90% in the Indian Ocean, in part due to over-fishing, but also likely confounded by lower levels of primary productivity in the seas in which they live. This is just one example, but it is hardly a good sign.
What is more, the patterns of warming are not just bad news for life in our planet’s oceans. Firstly, the productivity of the world’s oceans spills out onto land. We need only think of the bounties we and other species harvest from the seas. Secondly, there are also significant implications for global weather patterns. Here we return to El Niño.
These events occur when temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean increase above a particular threshold, and this heat radiates out into the atmosphere. The Indian Ocean is particularly important in this process, as circular currents cause heat to accumulate, and this region is therefore believed to be playing a major role in the increasing global mean SST, and in the occurrence of extreme weather events such as El Niño. Over recent decades, El Niño events have become more frequent. Meanwhile, 2016 saw the highest temperature ever recorded in India, 51° C in Phalodi, Rajasthan. The India Meteorological Department has cited the current El Niño as the major factor behind India’s record-breaking hot summer, so increasing regularity of El Niño events suggests that such temperature peaks may also become more common. This story really is hotting up.
The 3.7° C to 4.8° C temperature rise projected by the IPCC is based on a scenario where emissions continue at their current level. So there is hope. Governments around the world are beginning to take steps to limit future emissions, and the climate talks in Paris at the end of 2015 resulted in the first truly global agreement on targets, with this target in mind. One hundred ninety five countries signed a legally binding commitment to “(hold) the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C”. So now, in theory, ‘all’ that is required is for the governments of those 195 countries to take the steps they have agreed (and in many cases going beyond them) to achieve those ambitious targets. Yes, we know, we can hear your laughter from here. But hold on a second. We would suggest that it is down to every one of us to hold our governments to account. Through campaigning, exercising our democratic rights and making our voices heard in any way we can, to make sure that their promises aren’t broken. A combination of realistic targets, carrots for those who achieve the goals and sticks for those who do not. The diatoms are doing their part. It’s time for us to do ours.
Further information on the work of Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher’s Ecological Responses to Climate Change research group can be found here: http://www. exeter.ac.uk/esi/people/academicandhonorary/yvondurocher/
Roxy et al. 2015. Indian Ocean warming—the bigger picture. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 96, 7, 1070-1071. Chassot et al. 2010. Global marine primary production constrains fisheries catches, Ecol. Lett., 13(4), 495–505. Roxy et al. 2015.
A reduction in marine primary productivity driven by rapid warming over the tropical Indian Ocean. Geophys Res Lett., 43. Myers & Worm. 2003. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities, Nature, 423(6937), 280–283. Polacheck. 2006.
Tuna longline catch rates in the Indian Ocean: Did industrial fishing result in a 90% rapid decline in the abundance of large predatory species? Mar. Policy, 30(5), 470–482.
Matthew Creasey is a PhD Researcher at Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, UK, email@example.com.
Gabriel Yvon-Durocher is a Professor of Ecology at University of Exeter, UK.
Illustration: Megha Vishwanath
Columns | GBSNP Varma| 10.3
Agriculture and overexploitation of species continue to drive the decline of biodiversity, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The authors analyzed threats facing more than 8,000 near- threatened and threatened species listed on IUCN red list.
“Quantifying the relative prevalence of biodiversity threats is important because it can help guide discussions and resources towards the biggest threats,” says the lead author, Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland, Australia, in an email.
Maxwell says the study was motivated by pure curiosity, “to actually quantify the relative prevalence of more traditional threats.”
The team, comprising researchers from the University of Queensland, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the IUCN, found that three-quarters of the assessed species were threatened by over-exploitation such as hunting, logging and fishing at rates that cannot be met by reproduction or regrowth.
The Sumatran rhinoceros, Western gorilla, Chinese pangolin—three of more than 2,700 species— are hunted for their meat and body parts or for pet trade; illegal logging is contributing to the decline of more than 4,000 forest-dependent species, such as the Bornean wren-babbler and the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Above sixty percent of the species, the study says, are threatened by land converted to growing food, fodder, fuel crops, livestock, and aquaculture.
The species include Africa’s cheetah, Asia’s hairy-nosed otter, and South America’s huemul deer are among more than 2,300 species affected by livestock farming and aquaculture. Land-conversion for growing food, fodder or fuel crops is affecting species such as the Fresno kangaroo rat and the African wild dog, two among more than 4,600 species facing a similar threat. Human-induced climate change—whose effects include extreme temperatures, drought, flooding, and severe storms—is currently affecting less than 20 percent of species listed as threatened or near-threatened.
Hooded seals-one among the 1,688 species affected by climate disruption-fell by 90% in abundance in the northeastern Atlantic Arctic, the result of warming and consequent melting of regional sea ice over the past few decades and the lack of availability of sites for resting and raising pups.
Maxwell says that he is surprised at the prevalence of threats from over exploitation and agricultural activity, “Demonstrating that 72% and 62% of near threatened and threatened species are impacted by over exploitation and agriculture means that we need serious action to minimise the impact of these activities if we are to tackle the biodiversity crisis.”
The paper, published a month before IUCN World Conservation Congress (1-10 September) in Hawaii, garnered great attention at the Congress, according to Thomas Brooks, a co-author of the analytical study and the head of science and knowledge at the IUCN. Brooks says, in an email, IUCN deliberated on the theme mentioned in the paper. He adds that two out of three themes discussed in the Members’ Assembly aligned with the most prevalent threats mentioned in the paper: “Conserving nature in the face of industrial agriculture”, “Preserving the health of the world’s oceans”, (which had a heavy focus on unsustainable fisheries) and the third theme, “building constituencies for nature”.
These themes also feature heavily in the new IUCN Programme 2017–2020, he adds, and were dominant discussions in the Forum and the subject of much attention from the Resolutions process. Although it’s obviously very hard to tie a single specific publication to discussions and debates among more than 10,000 people over two weeks, Brooks says, his “overall impression is that the threats identified in the paper based on analysis of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as the most prevalent ones facing biodiversity were indeed the issues that received the greatest discussion at the Congress, along with invasive species, given, in particular, that invasives are such a prevalent threat on islands like Hawaii.”
The most important outcome of the WCC is the establishment of a system for members to make pledges of what actions they intend to contribute to the overall IUCN One Programme 2017–2020,-the idea of operating IUCN’s Programme as a “One Programme” dates back to 2011.
“This is the first time that Members have been able to document their planned actions towards the Programme,” Brooks says.
This innovation, he thinks, will be a great step forward in understanding the extent and impact of conservation in addressing threats to biodiversity, and thus what the gaps are and how they can be filled.
Maxwell SL, RA Fuller, TM Brooks, JEM Watson. 2016. Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers, Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/biodiversity-theravages-of-guns-nets-and-bulldozers-1.20381)
Discussion of issues of strategic importance for IUCN in the Members’ Assembly: http:// iucnworldconservationcongress.org/sites/default/files/ wcc-2016-1.2-1-annex_1-rev_1_draft_agenda.pdf
GBSNP Varma, a freelance journalist, writes on science. He is based in Andhra Pradesh.
Illustrations: Ladyfingers Co
Columns | Michael Adams | 10.1
Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world. There are, likely, more than 400,000 wild horses (and millions of wild donkeys) spread across nearly all landscape types of the continent, from snow-covered ranges to tropical savanna to desert. These horses are generally known as ‘brumbies’, and are free-ranging, descended from domesticated horses either escaped or released into the wild by their owners. Horses were imported into Australia with what is known as the ‘First Fleet’ – the initial group of British colonisers landing in Sydney Cove, in 1788 with orders to establish a British colony. The British brought with them a microcosm of the Old World: animals, plants, social and labour practices, and intellectual structures – all transplanted into the very different context of the ecosystems of the island continent. The first century and a half of settlement was founded on the importance of animals – sheep and cattle pastoralism – with horses essential to these herding activities as stock and draught animals, and bred for strength and endurance in Australia’s harsh conditions.
These characteristics were valuable when armies needed cavalry mounts. Hundreds of thousands of Australian horses, known as ‘Walers’ (from the state New South Wales), were supplied to armies all over the world, from the 1830s to the 1940s. India, too, has a part in this story, as Australian horse breeders sent Walers to the British Indian Army and to allied armies in India, in both the First and Second World Wars. Some sources suggest more than 80,000 Australian horses were sent to India. The import of Australian Walers into British India had negative impacts on India’s own horse breeds, particularly the famed Marwari warhorses of the Rathore Rajputs in northwest India. Marwari horses were celebrated for centuries as renowned and revered cavalry mounts, and Marwar lancers fought under the British during the First World War. But the British occupiers preferred other horses, including Walers, and tried to eliminate Marwari and other horses they considered inferior ‘native breeds.’
Humans have, at least, a 6000 year association with horses, and there are similar deep cultural connections in many communities and countriesall over the world. The horse’s role in Australia’s exploration, colonization, pastoralism and warfare, as well as in recreational riding and racing, has given it an iconic position in Australian society. There are over a million horses in Australia, including the brumbies, and the horse racing industry alone is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
But the wild horse occupies a challenging and problematic position in Australian landscapes: cultural icon of settler, rural and Aboriginal histories, but potentially damaging to ecosystems. A species which joined humans in domestication, but then re-established wild and independent populations (in several countries ’feral’ horses are caught and re-domesticated for sale as riding mounts). The horse’s cultural charisma is strong: they are daylight animals, form easily understood social groups, and are large and beautiful. They are also often remarkably easy to approach in free-ranging situations, appearing curious and open to human interaction. Many Australians highly value the sight of wild horses galloping across snow-covered mountainsides, but conservation managers contend that these hard-hooved animals have negative impacts on native wildlife and therefore should have no place in local ecosystems.
Like Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand too have significant wild horse herds, and their presence and management is consistently controversial. Ironically, horses are also part of ‘re-wilding’ efforts in other countries, including in Europe, being re-introduced to landscapes that once supported ancestral wild horse breeds.
In contemporary debates about conservation, judgements about ‘feral’ species are complex. These debates are particularly relevant and difficult in Australia, which is the nation that has lost the highest number of mammal species to extinction in modern times, and also has an enormous number of introduced species, some of which have very significant environmental impacts. Some introduced species in Australia will never be eliminated, and in fact are barely successfully managed. One argument suggests that conservation managers see horses as an easy target, although foxes, cats, pigs and rabbits, have far greater documented impacts on native ecosystems. Out of eight priority ‘pest’ species in south-east Australia, horses are the ones for which there is least scientific evidence of their ecological impact. Also, the ecological impact of introduced species need not always be negative. The north of Australia has a feral population of Banteng cattle (Bos javanicus), which is valuable because its wild population is classified as endangered in its original habitat in south-east Asia. Elimination of the feral Australian population could hasten extinction of the species overall.
People who are supporters of Australia’s wild horses include both those who could be classified as animal rights advocates and those who are committed to a cultural understanding of Australia’s landscapes. For many of Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people, who historically formed the backbone of the pastoral industry as mounted stock herders, wild horses represent the families of the horses they rode and loved, and they feel the horses should be left to live their lives undisturbed. Horses, for them, are legitimate members of the ecological and cultural community. Many Aboriginal people are also strongly opposed to ‘shooting to waste’ – shooting large numbers of horses from helicopters and leaving the carcasses to decay where they fall – a strategy used in landscapes in northern and central Australia.
At its heart, conservation is a social activity underpinned (but not always) by science. Effective conservation in the transformed environments of the twenty first century is a much debated issue. One broad argument suggests that we need more and better of old-school Yellowstone-model protected areas and control of introduced species, to avert a conservation catastrophe. But another emerging strand argues that these ‘no analogue ecosystems’ and hybridizing populations are the new form of biological diversity, more fit to flourish in a climate-changing world, and our conservation strategies should appropriately embrace this change. How we engage with Australia’s wild horses will, no doubt, continue to be contested and uncertain, but an acceptance of this uncertainty and change, as fundamentals of the everyday, might be the basis for developing more environmentally and socially benign relationships between people, animals and landscapes.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jen Owens for her work with brumby advocates in this research.
Michael Adams is Associate Professor at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research and the Indigenous Studies Unit, University of Wollongong, Australia, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrations: Vartika Sharma
Column | Madhusudan Katti | 8.1
A blank map of the world fills the screen as 200 students look up at it in a darkened classroom in California. The blankness represent an early time in human history when there weren’t so many of us around. It is an animated map designed to illustrate the growth of the human population across the globe. As the animation moves forward in time, a few dots appear in some parts of the world, and start filling up the blank spaces. Each dot represents a significant center of human habitation, a town or city holding a large number of people. The dark dots start appearing at a faster rate as we get into recorded history, with the pace slackening only in the Americas in the decades immediately after the Old World “discovered” the “New” one. Over the last couple of centuries, the pace really picks up, even in the New World, at our post-industrial exponential rate illustrating how Paul Ehrlich’s (and Thomas Malthus’ before him) population bomb started really going off all over the Earth during the 20th century.
Alongside this map is a graph showing the rate at which species have been going extinct on Earth over the same time period as the map’s animation. At least, our best estimate of how many species have gone extinct. There is a familiar yet disquieting cadence to this dance as the line on the graph sweeps and bounces upwards to keep pace with the rhythm of the dark dots pattering across the map. The lesson couldn’t be made more obvious: as people have increased in number, so have we been pushing ever more and more species off the cliff of extinction. It is the biggest cautionary tale of this Anthropocene, one that every young student must surely absorb deeply if we are to hope that the human juggernaut can be turned around and many non-human lives saved.
Yet, as the young mixture of blank and anxious faces stares at the screen, and up at the professor hammering in the point about how the human population explosion is a leading cause of species extinctions, I can’t help but notice something different. The students have naturally focused their attention mostly on the Americas and on Africa, large land masses with which they are familiar as home, for themselves or for wild animals. These are also places where the recent population growth and extinctions are most prominent, making them more animated on screen.
Over on the Indian subcontinent, though, the dots dance to a different rhythm. This corner of Asia seems to get filled by people quite early in our history, and remains relatively more filled than most other places throughout subsequent millennia. Yet, it is not a region that has seen spectacular extinctions quite like those elsewhere. Yes, we’ve lost the Cheetah, and many other species hover at the brink, but compared to much less populated North America, the Indian subcontinent has managed to retain quite a number of even large fierce species. How has it been possible for a land so full of people as to inspire Ehrlich to write “The Population Bomb” four decades ago, to also hang on to so many wild animals crowded into this tiny corner of the world?
A recent global collaboration (in which I play a part) compiles a database of biodiversity (starting with plants and birds) in the world’s cities. As the database starts filling up with lists of plant and bird species now known to be regularly occurring in 147 (and counting) cities, a number of interesting patterns emerge, fueling further research on urban biodiversity on a global scale. As I have noted in this column before, studying biodiversity in cities and understanding how species find ways to survive and sometimes thrive in the interstices of human habitats is key to how we navigate our way out of the current Anthropocene extinction crisis.
One in five of the world’s bird species (and one in twenty of the plants) now occur in urban areas. More interestingly, over 95% of the bird species found in cities are native to the region. In other words, bird diversity in any city continues to reflect its region’s unique natural history heritage, even as cities seem more alike in this globalising world culture of shopping malls and airports, high-rise apartments and office buildings. Cities may be simpler (compared to a rainforest) or more complex (compared to a grassland) than the natural ecosystems they displace. Yet, the niches in these novel ecosystems are filled mostly by species who evolved in those displaced native habitats. Not really by design or intention, the cities we have built for ourselves somehow serve as arks for more native biodiversity than we imagine. We need to imagine better, and to improve how we design cities so even more species may find ways to cohabit with us on this urban planet.
Yet again the picture from cities in India fuels my unreasonable and skeptical optimism. For here in this land of over a billion people, a land which has always been more heavily peopled than almost anywhere else on earth, even the largest megacities contain over 300 bird species. And hardly any of them are exotic invaders who managed to gain a foothold and usurp habitat from native species. This is in part because the world’s most widespread city-slicker species (the house sparrow, the rock pigeon) figured out how to live with humans early in these parts, and along with the mynahs and parakeets, managed to invade other urban areas while retaining their hold on their native cities in India. The same may hold for primates and some other mammals. But maybe not for plants where people brought in some pretty exotic species which ended up escaping from their gardens to become the most notorious ineradicable outlaws choking the jungles and grasslands across the subcontinent.
Is it India’s mainstream culture of revering nature and finding gods in various animals which allowed so many of them to live among humans? Is it more simply that the early onset of urbanisation in the the Indus valley, in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, has allowed more time for the native birds (and other wildlife) to adapt to city life? Or is it that the collapse of those once rich cities into deserts burned some ecological lessons into unconscious cultural memory, allowing subsequent development to hang on to bits of wildlife and nature amid human enterprise?
Wherever the answer may lie, we better find it soon. Because it has the potential to help not only India, but cities everywhere in conserving more of the world’s wild species even as more humans turn to city life. Even now, even in anarchically sprawling megacities like Mumbai, something remarkable happens: mangroves come back in Thane creek, paradoxically protected by the newly urbanised populace of Navi Mumbai. And every winter a sprinkling of pink brightens the grey of the tide flats and the dark green of the mangrove canopy, when lesser flamingos by their tens of thousands show up to add color to urban life. We don’t quite know what brings the flamingos into the city, nor why mangroves grow back along the shores of Navi Mumbai’s new suburbs even as developers continue to cut them down elsewhere in the metropolis.
Perhaps it is part of that different rhythm to the dance of the urban human dots on that map in that California classroom. Somehow, both Indian culture and biodiversity have remained surprisingly resilient even as humanity transformed the entire planet. The real challenge ahead will be to not throw that cultural and natural historic legacy away, but to show the rest of the world how human development can be reconciled with conserving other species.
Madhusudan Katti is Associate Professor at California State University, Fresno. email@example.com.
Illustration: Megha Vishwanath