Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Zombies and sensitivities

Iain Climie (New Scientist, Letters, 3/10/16) is right to emphasize the need for population reductions in the resource-greedy developed countries. But why does he think that we have difficulty "accepting our own entry in the obituary column" when this is, as my Chemistry teacher remarked, the only scientific law to which there are no known exceptions?
I don't believe that lust for immortality is the reason that we can't think clearly about population. In fact I see two reasons.

One reason is the 'zombie doctrine' that bigger is always better so a large population must be better than a smaller one. This doctrine helps to explain the political obsession with GDP - when GDP per head would make better sense (though measures of well-being would be better still.)
The other is the sensitivity over appearing to tell people how many children to have. But this is a mistake - a failure to distinguish between a need for discussion and a desire to give orders. An odd failure I think since most of the policies advocated to limit population, eg easier access to birth control, actually increase human freedom.

Heathrow - Beyond belief!

Last year's airport decision and Caroline's intervention the House cause me to look for the first time at the report of the Airports Commission. The treatment of CO2 emissions is fascinating - and appalling.

The main point of the new runway is of course to increase the amount of flying and the Commission accept that this will increase CO2 emissions over the next 20 years. After that, it says, increasing fuel efficiency will reduce emissions so that by 2050 they will nearly, but not quite, be down to 2025 levels.

Now everyone (including the Committee on Climate Change and successive Labour, Coalition and Tory governments) says that UK emissions have to fall dramatically over the next 40 years so here is what the Commission's Sustainability Report says (para 16.8):
"... it is important to remember that an expanded Heathrow under a Heathrow Airport Northwest Runway scheme would still be producing .... a majority, of total UK carbon from aviation: in 2050 the carbon emissions from departing flights at Heathrow would represent 54.6% of the UK total."
So that's official. All other activities must reduce their emissions more so that we can fly more.

The real causes of wildlife losses

Martin Hughes-Games (Why Planet Earth II should have been taxed, Guardian, 2/1/17) does well to deplore the appalling loss of wildlife in the last 40 years. See, for example, my posts on apes and wilderness.

But it is ridiculous to blame Attenborough's wonderful documentaries for this and little better to demand a special tax on wildlife programmes. The losses of habitats, creatures and species are due to forces much more powerful than TV programmes. They are due to the increasing numbers of people - us - and our ever increasing demands for land, energy and food, especially meat.

Innate factors account for some of this but much is due outdated nationalism and short-sighted commercialism. Nationalist politicians - themselves a growing breed! - see a large population as a mark of national vigour and a source of economic growth. They use the power of the state and the media to play on our emotions and if that fails they try to ban abortion and contraception.

Businesses seek their own growth by persuading us to be dissatisfied with our lives and, especially, our possessions and diets. They send us to the sales and our spending feeds the juggernaut that each year grabs more and more of the Earth's resources.
This is unsustainable. It will end.
The question is whether we can restrain the forces that demand insatiable growth before they trash the planet - and us with it. Unless we do, and soon, we can say goodbye to the beautiful wild things that Attenborough has documented.
And that requires politicians willing to say stop.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Relatives face extinction

There are seven species of great ape and four of these are close to extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classes the Eastern Gorilla, Western Gorilla, Bornean Orangutan and Sumatran Orangutan as Critically Endangered. That's one step short of extinct in the wild.

Another two - the Chimpanzee and Bonobo - are merely Endangered. 

The seventh great ape - Homo Sapiens - is increasingly numerous though whether our current numbers can be sustained is another matter.

The IUCN estimates the total number of chimps as 170,000 to 300,000 so there are more people in Enfield than there are chimps in the whole world. It estimates the number of bonobos at 30,000 to 50,000 so there are probably more children in Enfield than there are bonobos in the world.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Goodbye Jumbo?

Forest elephants could be nearly extinct in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - the country that once held the largest population of this subspecies. A major study published in 2013 found that:
  • Between 2002 and 2011 the number of forest elephants in the DRC fell by 62% and the area occupied by the elephants shrank by about 30%.
  • Forest elephants have "likely declined to extremely low density over 75% of their potential
  • About 95% of DRC’s forests are likely to be almost empty of elephants."
  • [This] indicates a decline of more than 80% in less than 25 years which more than meets the Red Book criteria for listing a species as Critically Endangered.
  • Large losses also occurred in Gabon - the country where the majority of forest elephants now live.
These declines are due, above all, to poaching - itself encouraged by the absence of law
enforcement and poor governance (including corruption). But the increasing human population and physical infrastructure, such as roads, are also significant.

A simple extrapolation would have made the species extinct in the DRC by 2015! Of course, that didn't happen  - or not yet - though poachers have continued to kill elephants.

The most effective remedial action is to end the trade in poached ivory. But a more recent study has shown that even if poaching stopped tomorrow, the forest elephants would not recover their numbers for many decades. Indeed, given the other factors it's highly unlikely that they ever will.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Dissappearing ice and gulls

The Arctic ice has now passed its annual minimum and scientists expect ice cover to increase as winter arrives. The minimum was 1.60 million square miles and ties with 2007 as the second lowest extent on record.

Last week Arctic scientist Peter Wadhams told New Scientist "... the trend is so strongly downwards that in one, two or three more years, I expect ... that there will be less than a million square kilometres of sea ice remaining in September ... in one, two or three more years." Of course, one million is just a number - further shrinkage is inevitable.

The effects are already apparent. The same issue of New Scientist reported the rapid decline in populations of Ivory Gulls off Greenland and Svalbard. According to Kyle Elliott at McGill University in Montreal. “... if the ice disappears – they’re not going to be able to survive.”

Wilderness lost

Australian researchers have found that about one tenth of the world's wilderness has been lost in the last twenty years. The lost area is over 3 million square kilometers and the losses have been greatest in South America (30%) and Africa (14%).

This is, unhappily, not a surprise. It's one of a series of recent studies that shows the increasing human dominance of the planet. Indeed, it's one of the less pessimistic. Taking the crude numbers it implies that some wilderness will last 200 years.