A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Tasty crumbs for curious mice.....

I cannot commend enough this extremely interesting and thoughtful post at the Crumb Trail blog: 'Fluxology' (June 3). This is not because the piece is kind to me, but because it adds so much more to what I wrote in my own June 3 blog, 'In ecology, we should watch our language.....'.

Particularly telling is the following passage:

"The failures of the Club of Rome cohort of ecological doom mongers have altered the thinking of more astute ecologists, and advancements in the study of complex adaptive systems (CAS) have informed others. The concept of control is now understood to be not just a quaint relic of an immature past, but an impediment to understanding systems and formulating appropriate interventions. Unfortunately, this makes policy development difficult since it takes place within antique sociopolitical contexts still mired in steam age ideologies. The same tired concepts of control are put forward though they are now sometimes tarted up with CAS language."

I recommend a full read. For intellectually-curious mice, Crumb Trail is always worth the nibble.

Philip, amazed at the quality of much of the blogging world. "I say, Mad Hatter, this is neither crumby nor crummy. Tea, Dormouse?"
Pollution: Canada and the UK - "like unto whited sepulchers" .....

When it comes to chastising the USA, the governments and bien pensant elites of both Canada and the UK should first turn to their Gospels:

"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." (Matthew 7:1-5).

And why? Just look at these statistics:

(a) Canada: the annual 'Taking Stock' report, based on the submissions of more than 20,000 polluters in Canada and the USA, shows that Canada is lagging the US in curbing toxic pollution. Although total North American emissions declined by 18% from 1998 to 2001, Canadian emissions rose by 3%. The maple leaf is looking pretty moth-eaten to me;

(b) UK: in the very week that Tony Blair tries to insist that the issue of climate change is "very, very critical" (furrowed brow, smile as wide as a tiger) and Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, claims that the UK is a world leader in reducing 'geenhouse gas' emissions, official statistics would have shown an 85% increase in pollutants from the airline industry and 59% from freight transport since 1990 - that is, if they had been allowed to be made public. And in the EU as a whole, it's up, up, up and away.....

Oh! "... for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones..." (Matthew 23:27).

So much for moral leadership! Of course, it's known as 'growth' and the whole Kyoto emissions targets are just a nonsense. But please can we drop the cant and the 'holier-than-thou' politics!

Philip, tub thumping from his pulpit. "For I see all too clearly those that talk-the-talk, but do not walk-the-walk." Cucumber sandwiches with the vicar, anyone?

Thursday, June 03, 2004

In ecology, we should watch our language.....

I think this may be a suitable moment to repeat on EnviroSpin, in a modified form, an essay on language and ecology I first published in 1998. In 2004, what I said then, seems to me to be even more apposite and urgent.....

'Language for a non-equilibrium world'

Heracleitus (fl. 513 BC): "All is flux, nothing is stationary."

As we move deeper into the new Millennium, it is my fervent belief that popular ecology is in a crisis. If the subject is to survive as a credible entity, it must experience a significant Kuhnian paradigm shift. Unfortunately, this pardigm shift is currently proving impossible because many practitioners, both professional and amateur, cannot bring themselves to recognize the crisis phase through which they are passing. Our ecological language is suffused with a desire for 'stability' and 'safety' (the so-called 'precautionary principle'), whereas, in reality, all is Heracleitan flux, and we can never "step into the same river twice". We are trying to replace human flexibility and adaptation in the face of inevitable change by god-like control and stasis, and it will not work.

The terrible experience of the Kyoto Protocol on 'global warming' has surely been warning enough. As I have watched the debate unfold, I have felt increasingly like Heracleitus himself, observing the folly of the 6th Century B.C. Ephesians from his hermit-home, high in the mountains. To hear scientists talking about 'halting' or 'curbing' climate change is deeply disturbing, but for them to try to make the world believe that this 'stability' might be achieved through manipulating just a few variables out of the millions of interlinked and dynamic factors which govern the world's climate is sinister. Let me be blunt: a sustainable climate is an oxymoron, a scientific nonsense.

In similar vein, our continuing obsession with forests - and the ever-asserted 'evils' of deforestation - causes us to ignore the whole ecological history and pattern of the Earth, not to mention of the vast tracks of land and ocean where there have never been any forests at any time. Only a New Englander, such as Henry David Thoreau, could write that "...Nature endeavours to keep the earth clothed with wood of some kind." One could go on - our subject is littered with such false 'ecologies'; but the point is made. The whole of popular ecology is warped, dated, and increasingly dangerous for the survivial of humanity. Why?

Semiotics of ecology

I believe the answer lies in the semiotics (i.e. the study of signs) and the language of ecology. Our subject's metalanguage - that is, the overarching language which governs the thoughts and expressions of us all, both professional and amateur - is deeply flawed, yet it remains so powerful that it continues to over-ride what 'real' ecology is telling us. The key signifiers of this metalanguage (the points de capiton of the psychoanalytical theorist, Jacques Lacan) have all been derived from certain historic and regionally-specific sources, well exemplified by 19th Century Germany, Thoreau and New England: the hegemony of forest ecology; the hegemony of equilibrium notions; and the hegemony of Europe and North America over the 'rest', or what Edward Said has potently termed the Orientalist 'other'. Because of the essential control exercised by such language 'signifiers', and despite the cogent critique of so many scientists from 1910 onwards, we continue to think and speak our ecological signs in terms of climaxes, optima, balance, harmony, equilibria, stability, ecosystems, synecology, and 'the exotic other', like tropical rain forests (the 'jungles') and the giant panda. (Can we please have the smallpox virus and the rat on the collecting cans of the WWF instead? They too are part of biodiversity!).

In doing this, we often ignore what we really know and what our own research should be telling us, research that is consistently opening up to us a non-equilibrium world, in which change takes place all the time, in all sorts of directions and at all sorts of scales, catastrophically, gradually, and unpredictably, a world in which means are 'meaningless', and a world in which autecology rules, both past and present, and prediction is very, very difficult. For many, the resultant tension, which is as traumatic as any that existed between 'creationism' and 'evolution' in the late-Victorian world, has painfully split personalities, so that they say one thing in public, and another before their peers. 'False ecologies', like false relics, are good enough for the faithful 'Greens', if the ends justify the means. For others, who must sadly, and often desperately, cling on to the wreckage of the metalanguage they have held so dear for so long, the 'key signifiers' have been adjectivally (and most conveniently) modified to permit their continued use, so that 'development' is now always 'sustainable', while the non-equilibrium world is reduced to 'disequilibria' of 'multiple-equilibrium states'! A virtual contradiction in terms!

Towards a new metalanguage

Much of what we write about topics, such as the tropical rain forest, is misleading, and we know in our heads that it is misleading, and people are not fooled, for they increasingly know it is misleading. We delude ourselves, and all the good folk who inhabit this restless earth, if we do not accept change as the norm and stability as an illusory, and ultimately, dangerous goal. The inevitable application of equilibrium solutions (under the guise of 'sustainability') to a non-equilibrium world may prove to be the very worst chimera of them all, and, in continents such as Africa, it could even be regarded as a criminal act.

We have to replace our Northern-derived, historic metalanguage of 'equilibrium', 'sustainability', and 'balance' with a different metalanguage, more accepting of change and comprising new 'key signifiers', including 'adaptation', 'migration', 'movement', 'opportunism', 'flexibility', and 'resilience'. We will also require a new and more radical approach to the political ecology and economics of risk assessment. The language of non-equilibrium will then come to the fore, and, like King Canute before the surging sea, we will begin once again to show some humility in the face of our uncontrollable and unpredictable planet.

In this new metalanguage, fire, drought, seasonality, and cold should no longer be seen as 'ecological stresses'; such a concept of 'stress' can only exist if we foolishly maintain a classical norm of 'stability', some Eden of perfect rainfall and equability against which all other habitats must be assessed. There is no such Eden, and, for most plants and animals, the absence of fire, cold, or seasonality may prove a greater stress than their presence. Life itself was born out of fire, and Prometheus gave fire to humans as a gift; for Heracleitus, fire was the Universal Principle of Life. The driving forces of abiotic (outside) change must therefore also be regarded as the norm, and not the internal adjustments of biological systems.

But, perhaps, the greatest 'wrong' is the fact the we ecologists so often seem to dislike 'people'; people are signified in our metalanguage as 'the problem' - that dreadful racist phrase, 'the teeming billions', who destroy the earth and upset the 'balance' and 'stability' we so desire! In any future metalanguage, people must always be 'the opportunity' and not 'the problem'.

We must watch our language much more carefully.

[Adapted for EnviroSpin from an Editorial by Professor Philip Stott in the Journal of Biogeography 25, 1998, pp. 1-2. © in Web Form, Philip Stott 2004.]

Philip, not long returned from Herculaneum. Need one say more? Breakfast. I'm off for a meeting to the famous Pinewood Studios today - "Carry on Warming (Pans)"?

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Bravo Bjørn.....

The excellent blog, Crumb Trail, has a splendid entry on Dr. Bjørn Lomborg's recent successes: 'Top priority' (June 2). Do pop over to read it.

The treatment of Lomborg by his obsessed critics has been one of the most disgraceful episodes in the recent history of 'science' and academia. Of course, for Denmark, in particular, the whole charade eventually proved deeply embarrassing. Not only is Lomborg one of the nicest people you could meet, he has consistently won the argument, his opponents hardly being able to land a grazing punch, never mind a knock-out blow. The tenacity Lomborg has demonstrated in the face of such gratuitous unfairness and vitriol mark him out as a person of courage, good humour, and integrity, while, by contrast, the ugliness of many of the attacks on him have cast a rather unpleasant light on the upturned stone of 'environmentalism'.

But today, Bjørn's hour has surely come:

+ Vindicated by the Danish Government;
+ Just declared by Newsweek to be one of the 100 most influential people of 2004;
+ Nowadays often receiving ovations when he speaks - I witnessed one recently;
+ And, finally, supported by some of the finest scholars in the world at The Copenhagen Consensus, who have declared that: "Money spent on global warming ... is 'a bad use of our finite resources', compared to solving the planet’s other woes. It takes enormous expenditure to achieve very small reductions in greenhouse gases, with uncertain results. Funding to fight, say, malnutrition with iodine pills and vitamin A is a much better use of the limited finance the world makes available for such causes."

"Vae victis!" cry I. Bravo Bjørn!

Philip, off for a well-earned cuppa.
Enough of DAfT - back to our serious poll on Kyoto .....

Well, that's enough of our Howlergram on The Day after Tomorrow. The result was, however, a howling success - just wolf it up:

No howls = 2%; 1 howl = 1%; 2 howls = 0%; 3 howls = 0%; 4 howls = 5%; 5 howls = 85%; Haven't a fog = 7%. Well done everybody. Glad to see both scientific and cinematographic standards have been upheld.

Now, I have re-activated our long-term serious EnviroSpin poll on: Is it time to ditch the Kyoto Protocol on climate change? (Do please vote if you have not done so already - on the right. Thanks.)

At the time of its re-activation [the posting of this blog], the poll stood at:

Is it time to ditch the Kyoto Protocol on climate change?

N = 1675

Yes = 91%;
No = 8%;
Don't know = 1%.

Let's keep it going.

Philip, "Oh! Why on Earth can't we vote electonically in the UK!" Postal voting is a disaster. The biggest democracy in the world - India - did it; why can't we? Where's Herr Haydn? Time for a Coffee Concert.
Quotation of the day.....

Ramon Margalef (1919 - 2004) was one of the founders of modern ecology. His internationally-renowned books played a great part in my own ecological training and teaching, especially his 1957 book, The theory of information in ecology, and Perspectives in ecological theory (1968), the latter based on a course he taught at the University of Chicago. Sadly, Margalef died on May 23, aged 85, but I was delighted to read this sensitive Obituary in The Guardian (June 1): 'Ramon Margalef'.

For our comment of the day, I would like to quote directly from the Obituary:

"For Margalef, ecology was 'a network of knowledge to understand how things are', and not a propaganda call for saving this or that animal from extinction. He could be scathing about sentimental environmental campaigners."

I empathise entirely. The hijacking of careful ecological science of the type so brilliantly espoused by Margalef himself by the untested and wild assertions of 'environmentalism' is a cause of much damage to both science and society.

Philip, hat tip to a fine scientist. Margalef's focus on the need for proper water management was also way ahead of its time.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The Government is acting correctly over Sudden Oak Death (SOD).....

Now you won't often hear me say this, but, sorry, gardening lads and lassies: the Government is acting absolutely correctly on this one - the threat of Sudden Oak Death (SOD): 'Oak rescue bid "may ruin growers"' (BBC Online Science/Nature News, June 1).

Here's part of what I wrote recently in an article, 'A new plague hangs over Britain's trees', for Country Illustrated magazine (Issue 69, May, 2004, pp. 78-85):

"In April 2002, the UK recorded its first infection, on Viburnum at a garden centre. There are now over 300 recorded outbreaks. In January 2004, the Royal Horticultural Society depressingly found it lurking in its famous garden at Wisley in Surrey, where the pathogen was noted on a Viburnum x bodnantense, growing among rhododendrons. To date, the disease has been noted in the UK on beech trees (Fagus sylvatica), Camellia, horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastum), lilac (Syringa vulgaris), Pieris, rhododendrons, sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), Viburnum, Virginia witch hazel, and yew (Taxus baccata), the last in pots. It has also, even more alarmingly, been discovered in three introduced species of oak (Quercus), namely the evergreen holm oak (Quercus ilex), the southern red oak (Quercus falcata), and the Turkey oak (Quercus cerris). At the time of writing, however, there are no reports of it having infected either of our two native species of oak, the pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) and the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), or their many hybrids. The Forestry Commission has urgently begun a survey of 1,000 woodland sites throughout the UK to establish a better understanding of the potential scale of the threat.

Meanwhile, it must be fingers crossed, although the omens are not propitious. Everything about this new threat hints that it could prove devastating. First, unlike 'Dutch Elm Disease', the pathogen is able to infect a large range of unrelated plant species from many different plant families. It is an especial worry that it can employ garden plants as 'stepping stones' and 'reservoirs' for its spread, and most UK locations where it has been found appear to be closely associated with either rhododendrons or Viburnum. In the United States, the disease has recently attacked commercial conifer species, which is deeply concerning for our forestry industry, dependent as it is on species like the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).

Secondly, the disease seems to be distributed quickly and effectively by many agents of dispersal, including water, wind, and infected timber. This again sets it apart from 'Dutch Elm Disease', which depended on special animal vectors, the two Scolytus beetles, for its spread. Phytophthora ramorum, by contrast, thrives in warm, humid woodlands and shrubberies, where it can be dispersed in rainwater, by local breezes, and through infected cuttings.

Thirdly, it is a newly-discovered organism. This means that there are, to date, no known generic cures or preventatives for the disease. These will need time to develop and to be tested for their effectiveness and safety. In America, the threat has become so serious that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation has given fast-track approval to one special experimental registration, which, however, only acts as a preventative and not as a cure. Beyond this, there is no guarantee that any currently-available general chemical pesticide or 'fungicide' will work successfully.

What then needs to be done in the UK? First, the international import of potential host plants and timbers must be strictly regulated. In 2001, when the European pathogen was established as relating to that infecting the American oaks, Britain introduced plant passports for the import of rhododendrons and viburnums, two of the most virulent carriers. The EU followed this example in November 2002. We now urgently need plant passports for a whole range of implicated garden plants and shrubs, including Camellia, Pieris, and cultivated yews. Timbers from a number of potential hosts must also be strictly monitored on entry.

Within Britain itself, immense care must be taken not to spread the pathogen from diseased plants. Local dispersal is likely to be natural, through wind and rain; long-distance dispersal of the pathogen, however, probably relies on human agency. Any infected material must be dealt with in situ and it must never be taken to an uninfected area. Cuttings should not be left by roadsides or in any location where they might be picked up. Care must be taken with the planting of any implicated garden or shrub species, such as rhododendrons and viburnums, with no new plantings at all being made near to oaks and beeches. All nurseries should be fully-informed about the disease and all current nursery stocks of relevant species thoroughly inspected. This programme must be supported by the intensive inventory of forests, woodlands, and isolated specimen trees. Landowners must also be cautious about the trimming of ornamental yews and other relevant species. It is vital to remember that the pathogen spreads locally through wind-blown or water-borne 'spores'. Finally, urgent scientific research is needed into new pesticides for prevention and cure, possible biological controls, and resistant tree and shrub strains. Genetic modification may also prove helpful in the battle."

I'm afraid it's a SOD indeed, but, as I concluded: "The thought of a landscape without oak and beech and chestnut is too painfail to contemplate."

For once, gardening and gardeners will have to exercise extreme care and restraint.

Philip, unusually totally with Government. Why worry about GM, when every disease and exotic can enter through the back door!
Questionable warming trends.....

Here is an interesting scientific paper, 'A spatial entropy analysis of temperature trends in the United States', just published in Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 31, 2004:

"The United States Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) temperature database shows a significant upward trend over the past half century. In this investigation, we calculate the spatial entropy (dissimilarity or disorder) associated with the temperature trends of 1,221 stations in the fully adjusted USHCN. We find that over the network, the spatial entropy levels are significantly and positively related to the observed temperature trends suggesting that stations most unlike their neighbors in terms of temperature change tend to have a higher temperature trend than their neighbors. These results suggest that the USHCN contains some questionable warming signals at some stations, despite the many attempts to quantitatively control for these contaminants..

Philip, always wary of trendy statistics! Tea?
DAfT is 'Undesirable', say the critics .....

One of the more user-friendly sections of The Gloomiad is its 'Review of reviews', which today (The Guardian, June 1) helpfully covers The Day after Tomorrow (aka: DAfT):

"The science might be questionable, said The Sunday Times's Cosmo Landesman, but people will flock to the film not for the ecological message, but for the destruction, 'and this Emmerich delivers brilliantly ... For once, the special effects are special.'

Christopher Tookey agreed in The Daily Mail, praising the computer-generated effects. However, 'the characterisation makes that in Twister seem deep and the dialogue is as cheesy as any fan of bad movies could desire.'

'You'd struggle to get bored during The Day After Tomorrow, but it's even tougher to keep a straight face,' added Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph.

If Emmerich was trying to emulate the great disaster films of the 1970s, said Will Self in the London Evening Standard, he had forgotten that those movies, although simplistic, were star-studded. 'When celluloid heroes were being run through such ordeals, it made a plush seat in a warm, dark cinema seem that much more attractive, while at the same time placing their onscreen travails comfortably beyond the common weal,' said Self. 'It's not that Quaid isn't a perfectly OK actor, but he is not a big star.'"

What you can't see online, however, is The Grid called 'How the critics saw it'. This analyses all reviews and allots them with a score between 1: Unprintable to 5: Unmissable.

DAfT, I'm delighted to note, averages a bathetic 2.5, just above the category 'Undesirable'. The Times is even judged to have awarded the film a desperate 1. Says it all really.

Philip, "You'd be DAfT not to get a patio heater." Coffee on the ..... Oh! It's raining.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Monday meanderings in the Metasphere.....

Lots of delightful snippets today from the Metasphere:

(1) The best acronym for The Day after Tomorrow = DAfT;

(2) The shortest (5 word!), but most trenchant, review of DAfT is here (Hat Tip to Norman Geras): Matt Welch;

(3) An interesting deconstruction of the politics surrounding DAfT is here: 'The Hijacking of "Tomorrow"' (The Daily Standard, May 28);

(4) A long, but equally thoughtful, review of DAfT, by our very own Richard D. North, is here: The Financial Times (apologies, but registration required);

(5) Do not miss Professor Fred Singer on DAfT and laying waste to the 'global warmers' here (sound on, folks): 'The Jeremy Vine Show' (BBC Radio 2. And here is 'The Jeremy Vine Show' Message Board, on which there are already lots of comments re 'global warming'. Do feel free to join the fun;

(6) And lastly, a redoubtable response from our good pal 'downunder', Barry Hearn, re yesterday's blog on my patio heater:

"So, now we know, Philip! UHIE is actually the result of affluent Englishmen attempting to control the climate! Obviously we Southern Hemispherians will have to correct the world by immediately installing patio and garden air conditioning (refrigerated, of course) to counteract the unnatural warmth generated by all you Northerners, thus restoring the natural balance!

There! Another problem solved - and in time for tea, too!"

Good on yer, mate! And we hope to be able to grow POMegranates too!

Philip, a true pomum granatum (wisdom, of course). Coffee.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Be really naughty this Bank Holiday, or "I just love my patio heater".....

First, for my non-UK readers, I must explain that we are enduring one of our ill-timed extended Bank Holiday weekends (you know what I mean: mixed weather, no trains, roads clogged, and everyone in the middle of exams, etc.).

Inevitably this brings out the puritan Greens in hordes. Today, they appear to be inveighing against the joys of patio heaters, a topic on which it is all too easy to be 'Even-More-Cromwellian-Than-Thou'. The Director of FoE is reported as saying: "It is hard to imagine a device that inflicts more gratuitous damage on the environment." [Not, pray, if they keep souls lounging at home and out of cars and planes, My Lord Protector!]

I adore our family patio heater. We have already enjoyed al fresco fun on a number of occasions when the lack of any signs of 'global warming' would otherwise have driven us indoors. [By the way, this year is clearly 'cool'. We have not yet had to turn on our bedroom fan once: is this a record? Nearly worth a letter to The Times, I deem - first cuckoo, first fan, first central heating, and so on .... Still, we may have to do so the day after tommorow.]

In truth, I've had enough of puritanical pontifications. So, may I ask you to indulge yourself in a thoroughly 'naughty', and totally un-metro PC, holiday weekend by annoying all the Green puritans, as follows? Thanks:

(1) go out and buy a lovely, large, stainless steel patio heater (here are some classic garden patio heaters and table top heaters); then,
(2) sitting outdoors beneath your new pride-and-joy (when not raining, of course), sip a resolutely non-organic bottle of fine wine ['organic' wine is a total waste of taste and tin]; then,
(3) having finished that novel you've had hanging around for weeks, lazily pen a brief letter to Lord Whitty of Camberwell, our doughty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Sustainable [Yuk!] Energy, in support of James 'Gaia' Lovelock's recent call for an immediate return to nuclear power. [James, along with patio heaters, is inevitably deep in broadsheet Green manure this weekend because of his audacity to have an independent mind - "More in sorrow than in anger", they weep - you can just watch the sea-level rising with all the crocodile tears being shed]; then,
(4) if the letter writing is going well, pen another to Sainsburys, Tesco, etc., demanding immediate shelf space for newly-EU-approved GM products. Remember you want consumer choice to buy these (no Cromwellian dictators, thank you); finally,
(5) [It is a Bank Holiday after all!] When the heavens open, pop off to your local flea-pit to howl with laughter (emulating The Times' critic) at The Day after Tomorrow (DAfT), remembering to vote on EnviroSpin's very own 'Howlometer' [opposite] when you return to the warmth of home ..... and your patio heater.

Philip: Motto: Veterascere vexare. Coffee on the patio?

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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