Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

21 Dec 2011

Happy Holidays from a Hunter Gatherer

Like many others, I have returned to my home territories to glut myself for the winter holidays. What a joy to behold, a fridge and freezer crammed with Christmas goodies. I am lucky enough to be born to a European middle class family at the dawn of the 21st century, no longer burdened with the worry of finding my next meal. Indeed, the topic of this post was inspired by conversations with friends and family in bistros and pubs celebrating the season with food and drink.

Hunting for survival made Humans what we are today, evolutionary honed to track, stalk, kill and eat the meat of our prey. Some of my vegetarian friends would argue that this evolution extends to the development of our metal capacity to choose a diet free from the suffering and waste caused by carnivory. Nevertheless the hunt continues, with certain, mostly indigenous populations relying on wild meat to survive.

An inherited ancestral instinct is still felt in societies detached from this necessity. Under the sometimes necessary guise of wildlife "management", the practice is today more of a leisure pursuit. Safari hunts glorified by Hemmingway and Roosevelt, the recently challenged fox hunting and deer stalking in the UK, and the gun toting rednecks of the US all highlight the to me seemingly needless and brutal waste of life. Despite this, it is hunters who have been the drivers of the implementation of many conservation policies and the founders of national parks which today provide the last refuges of numerous otherwise vulnerable species. Furthermore, managed hunting tourism in areas such as that prevalent in Southern Africa provides a legal source of income and discourages local uncontrolled poaching. 

Hunting to provide food seems evidently moral, although with expansions in agricultural efficiency, is this really the case? This Christmas our family has gone for a wild-bird, not a battery turkey but a free range flyer. Does this show a progression of animal welfare and human hunter gatherer consciousness, or should I be sticking to nut-roast and Brussels’ sprouts? I will leave that decision to be made on the 26th of December. Happy Christmas readers!

16 Dec 2011

Svein Flygari Johansen: Am I Making Up What Really Happened? (2011)

Photo David Chambers 2011
“Svein Flygari Johansen is a creature of the forest and fjord. He spends the summer months high up inside the Arctic Circle, wild salmon fishing on the river near which he grew up in the northernmost city in the world – Alta. Otherwise he is based in Oslo engaged with the international discourse of contemporary art. A fundamental identification with nature is at the core of Flygari’s work where imagery from the organic world connects with high technology.” Beaconsfield Press Release
 "In his UK debut, Am I Making Up What Really Happened?, the fusions of art, nature and science (created with his technical collaborator, Jonny Bradley) include a giant plastic sack of fish-free Thames river water suspended from the ceiling in a low-lit, cave-like gallery. Beneath it, the twitching shadow of a trout swims across the floor as a digital projection. The effect is magical, like seeing a ghost." Skye Sherwin, The Guardian 

“As curious viewers step forward to see the fish however, it senses the movement and darts immediately away, leaving the pool empty and still.” Eleanor Shipman, This is Tomorrow

11 Dec 2011

A Sand Country Almanac: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

"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." Aldo Leopold 1887-194
City life is getting me down, and so after a heavy day calculating population genetic frequencies or writing notes on biodiversity flux models, an escape to the Americana-rich wilds of Wisconsin is a real treat. It was with a heavy heart then, that I turned to the last page of "A Sand County Almanac" yesterday, whose central message is still pressingly relevent 70 years after it was published. In his book, Aldo Leopold shares with the reader his tales of hunting game, anecdotes of natural history, and reflections on wilderness, before philosophically questioning the human-nature condition. And all of this with a savy deftness and lightness of touch.

The promotion and management of wildlife as an economic resource according to him, can only lead to its degradation. Rather than as a commodity, nature's value should be elevated to the upmost, for "humans will never be free if they have no wild spaces in which to roam". The final chapter sees Leopold proposing his Land Ethic; an extension of the ethical sphere we apply to man to include "soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land". By placing humans within the biotic community rather than above it, Leopold justifies the conservation of nature as the preservation of all life and not just our own.

Closing the cover, I asked myself whether any progress has been made in the last 70 years. Had the message been taken in, or are we still as detached as ever? As with all things, progress takes time. Leopold may have sown the seeds, but it is only now that we are beginning to see the shoots breaking the surface. Pounding the tarmac on my way home from the library, small signs of a land ethic were there, whether it was the organic fruit and veg shop, the carbon neutral bus, or the posters advertising Paris' Musée du Vivant. Change will come, not at the speed of a seasonal weed, but at the steady pace of a mighty oak.

7 Dec 2011

COP Durban 2011: The Law of the Land

The Climate Caravan of Hope arrives in Kabale in Uganda, en route to Durban.

IUCN, UNEP, CITES, and many more, these acronyms characterise the necessary bureaucracy which surrounds the field of environmental law. So too do the plethora of treaties and accords, protocols and proposals, conventions and commissions. For months at a time, cities such as Rio, Copenhagen, Nairobi and this month Durban host delegates and their entourages, filling the hotels in the embassy quarters, bumping the income of taxi drivers and leaving in their wake a general mood of anticlimax. The pace of progress for many is frustratingly slow, and the implementation of seemingly simple policy can take decades.

To an outsider such as myself, the process seems to be filled with empty rhetoric and wasted opportunity. My classes in environmental law this year had me switching from optimism to pessimism regularly. The EU court of Justice works effectively to fine France €2 Million for failing to prevent the extinction of the European Hamster in Alsace, and yet continues to allow the depletion of Mediterranean fish stocks. Grand statements made by the United Nations to halt declines in biodiversity by 2010 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg back in 2002 show the international awareness of the problem, but the results of this endeavour are laughable now.

And so to Durban, where it is hard not to pessimistic about the drafting of laws to combat climate change. The global economic crisis has overshadowed the need for a global binding agreement on carbon emissions, but it has not prevented the delegates to set up a much needed multibillion dollar green fund. This will help developing countries strengthen their defences against induced climatic conditions. However, throwing money at a problem will not solve it, and the longer we delay the implementation of comprehensive laws, the more likely we are to reach a state where the world is "locked in" to a carbon based system. The bureaucrats with their briefcases full of conventions are tied to their countries positions, and their respective governments are tied to the corporations lining their pockets. How to break the cycle?