The Naming of Things

George Monbiot,
The names alone should cause anyone whose heart still beats to stop and look again. Blotched woodwax. Pashford pot beetle. Scarce black arches. Mallow skipper. Marsh dagger. Each is a locket in which hundreds of years of history and thousands of years of evolution have been packed. Here nature and culture intersect. All are species that have recently become extinct in England.

I cannot claim that I’ve been materially damaged by their loss, any more than the razing of the Prado would deprive me of food or shelter. But the global collapse of biodiversity hurts almost beyond endurance. The sense that the world is greying, its wealth of colour and surprise and wonder fading, is so painful that I can scarcely bear to write about it. Human welfare, as measured by gross domestic product, is doubtless enhanced by the processes which drive extinction. Human welfare, as measured by the heart and the senses, is diminished. We have no use for most of the world’s natural exuberance; it cannot be commodified or reproduced. Biodiversity does not belong to us: that is why it is worth preserving.

In Doha today, governments are engaged in their annual festival of frustration: the endless arguments over the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(1). They are struggling against what often looks like an inexorable assault by technology, economic growth and sheer bloody idiocy. The latter is exemplified by the battle over the Atlantic bluefin tuna. Many governments want to ban the trade in this species for several years, but Japan is resisting furiously. Whether or not a ban is imposed, the effect on Japanese industry will be roughly the same, as the species is likely to become commercially extinct next year if current fishing levels continue(2). But the government would prefer one more year of raw exploitation to indefinite supplies in the future. There is no reasoning with this madness.

But it’s the new report by Natural England which hit me hardest(3). English plant and animal species are still disappearing at the rate of two a year. All the goodwill, the billions of pounds and millions of hours poured into conservation work, the global treaties and concordats seem to be no match for the amplification of our presence on earth. If we can’t even get this right in England, where the two biggest membership organisations are both conservation groups, where does hope lie?

There were several shocks in the report, but it was a different set of names that hammered into my mind. Some of the most endangered species have very ordinary, even – if I might be so rude – common names. The common frog, common gull, common skate and common smoothhound are all in trouble. The common eel is now listed as critically endangered everywhere. I remember, years ago, sitting beside a chalkstream whose entire bed was a writhing black conveyor belt of eels moving upriver. The eel was a universal, indestructible species. It can live almost anywhere, even stagnant water in which no other fish can survive, it can eat any old carrion and travel overland between ponds on dewy nights. Nobody valued them because they were everywhere. Had someone told me, on the bank of that river, that within my lifetime they would be threatened with extinction, I would have laughed out loud. If the common eel is now critically endangered, is any species safe?…
(15 March 2010)

CO2 at new highs despite economic slowdown

Alister Doyle, reuters
Levels of the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere have risen to new highs in 2010 despite an economic slowdown in many nations that braked industrial output, data showed on Monday.


Carbon dioxide, measured at Norway’s Zeppelin station on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, rose to a median 393.71 parts per million of the atmosphere in the first two weeks of March from 393.17 in the same period of 2009, extending years of gains.

“Looking back at the data we have from Zeppelin since the end of the 1980s it seems like the increase is accelerating” Johan Stroem, of the Norwegian Polar Institute, said of the data compiled with Stockholm University.

The rise in concentrations, close to an annual peak before carbon-absorbing plants start to grow in the northern hemisphere spring, was below the average gain over the year of around 2 parts per million.

“It still confirms the rise,” Stroem said of the data from the first two weeks of March supplied to Reuters. Concentrations vary from week to week depending on the source of Arctic winds.

Carbon concentrations have risen by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution ushered in wider use of fossil fuels. A 2009 study of the ocean off Africa indicated carbon levels in the atmosphere were at their highest in 2.1 million years.

Recession in 2009 in many nations has not apparently affected gains. The International Energy Agency estimated in September that emissions of carbon dioxide would fall about 2.6 percent in 2009 because of a decline in industrial activity.

Concentrations can keep rising since each carbon molecule emitted typically lingers in the atmosphere for many years. The U.N. panel of climate scientists says the rise will cause more floods, mudslides, heatwaves, sandstorms and rising sea levels…
(15 March 2010)
The Natural England report can be found here.

Britain. A breath of foul air

Nina Lakhini, The Independent
More than 50,000 people are dying prematurely in the UK every year, and thousands more suffer serious illness because of man-made air pollution, according to a parliamentary report published tomorrow. The UK now faces the threat of £300m in fines after it failed to meet legally binding EU targets to reduce pollution to safe levels.

Air pollution is cutting life expectancy by as many as nine years in the worst-affected city areas. On average, Britons die eight months too soon because of dirty air. Pollutants from cars, factories, houses and agriculture cause childhood health problems such as premature births, asthma and poor lung development. They play a major role in the development of chronic and life-shortening adult diseases affecting the heart and lungs, which can lead to repeated hospital admissions. Treating victims of Britain’s poor air quality costs the country up to £20bn each year.

Nearly 5.5 million people receive NHS treatment for asthma, and more than 90,000 people were admitted to hospital as a result of the disease in England in 2008/09. US research has found that the lungs of children who live in highly polluted areas fail to develop fully.

Poor air quality is caused by three key pollutants – nitrogen oxides; particulate matter and ozone – where Britain fails to meet European safety targets.

Britain is Europe’s worst emitter of nitrogen oxides and exposed 1.5 million people to unsafe levels in 2007, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Long-term exposure can cause breathing problems, worsen asthma and bronchitis in children and aggravate allergies. They are by-products of burning fuel, and contribute to acid rain and make plants more susceptible to disease. Despite almost halving emissions since 1990, Britain is widely expected to fall short of the 2010 EU target for nitrogen oxides, which are a precursor to particulate matter (PM), the most dangerous of all pollutants. They play a major role in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in adults which will affect more people than heart disease by 2020.
(21 March 2010)
You can browse the report online here.

No way to treat a bee

The Stump, OregonLive
Everywhere people show renewed interest in supporting local, sustainable forms of agriculture. Grocery stores stock organic produce, farmers markets are making a resurgence and consumers question why food must be shipped around the world using fossil fuels.

There is a glaring omission from these movements, however. It’s time to start asking how crops are being pollinated.

Throughout February and March in the Central Valley of California, for example, hundreds of thousands of commercial honey bee hives from around the country have sat in almond orchards, doing the hard work of pollination.

It’s the largest pollination effort in the world, and like most beekeepers who are able, we at Foothills Honey Co., an apiary in Clackamas County, shipped our bees — about 5,000 colonies — to the Central Valley, just as we have been since the early 1980s.

The California almond bloom is one of many pollination efforts we take part in throughout the year, moving bees throughout the Pacific Northwest, from berries in the Willamette Valley to apples, pears and cherries in Washington and the Columbia River Gorge to carrot and onion fields in Madras.

The cost of the process is measured in diesel. Foothills Honey Co., based in Colton, sent 12 semitrailer loads of bees down Interstate 5 this year to almond orchards around Modesto, Calif. This is but a tiny fraction of the carbon footprint required to move the estimated 1 million beehives required for California almond pollination from all four corners of the country.

Life in mono-crop, plantation-style orchards can be trying for bees. The landscape is rich in pesticides and chemically infused dirt. Our bees intermingle with hives from around the country and vice versa, swapping parasitic Varroa and Tracheal mites and diseases like Nosema ceranae — a microsporidium causing bee dysentery — at an alarming rate.

“For diseases and pests, the Central Valley is the proverbial melting pot,” lamented Zach Browning, an Idaho and North Dakota beekeeper who sent 16,000 colonies for almond pollination this year. “We spend the majority of the year preparing the hives, cleaning them up, only to bring them down here to be re-infested.”

A discerning reader might ask why beekeepers would willingly put their bees through such a challenging process. The answer: livelihood.

American beekeepers used to be in the business of making and selling honey. Beekeepers, though, have fallen prey to the same globalization bogeyman that has wrecked so many American industries: cheap foreign goods.

Honey importation now outpaces domestic production every year, and a 2009 U.S. Department of Commerce survey of honey imports from Canada, Mexico, Argentina and China found they sold for an average of $1.28 a pound at the wholesale level. We can’t compete with that price. It’s below our cost of production.
(13 March 2010)

‘Alarming decline’ in England’s biodiversity

the ecologist
England becoming a country of ‘beauty spots rather than beauty’, and must act fast to address declining biodiversity, says the government’s environment watchdog

Nearly 500 species of animals and plants have become extinct in England as a result of human activity since 1800, according to a report by Natural England.

In the first ever audit of England’s lost and declining species, 12 per cent of land mammals, 22 per cent of amphibians and 24 per cent of butterflies were shown to have been lost.

Seven of the species, including the Irish Lady’s Tresses orchid and the Pashford Pot Beetle, have been lost in the last 10 years and some, including the Great Auk and Ivell’s sea anenome, are now globally extinct.

The populations of a further 943 species are at precariously low levels including the northern bluefin tuna, the Natterjack toad and the red squirrel, which Natural England says could become extinct in the next 20-30 years without urgent action.

Beauty spots

At a local level, biodiversity loss is even more extreme according to the study. In 23 of England’s counties a plant species is being lost every two years.

Dr Helen Phillips, chief executive of Natural England, said Britain had turned from ‘a country of beauty to a country of beauty spots.’

‘Biodiversity matters and with more and more of our species and habitats confined to isolated, protected sites we need to think on a much broader geographical scale about how we can reverse the losses of the recent past and secure a more solid future for our wildlife.’…
(11 March 2010)