National Trust consultation on forests

31 01 2011

I just posted this comment on the National Trust’s Outdoor Nation blog,

which is inviting views on the Government’s proposed sell off of forests:

Many thanks for opening up this conversation to help people articulate thoughts about the commercialisation and/or communisation of forest ownership.

I have a particular concern about the terms of the debate used to evaluate (or summarise the value of) forests. We now have a number of local, regional and specialist campaign groups (from Forest of Dean, Scotland, Woodland Trust etc) and now, it would seem that your helpful intervention is providing the platform for an alliance, a strong advocacy voice.

The terms used by the existing campaigns to advocate the value of forests focus on:
– the health/wellbeing benefits of amenity access
– economic value of tourism and other activities in forests
– conservation of local ecosystems
– the conservation of beauty and local character

By far the most important reason to protect forest on a global scale is that deforestation is a major cause of climate disruption. Although the UK’s forested land is relatively small, I believe it is vital that our Government shows leadership with other countries. They must do all they can to protect our forest assets as a global public good, to demonstrate to Indonesia, Brazil, Canada etc the absolute importance of forests in maintaining a life-sustaining planet. As some of the UK’s forests seem to be beset by species-jumping Sudden Oak Death and potentially other diseases and impacts of climate change, it is vital that the work of the Forestry Commission continues in this area. I just don’t believe that a number of distributed local trusts can step up to the required challenge of tackling climate impacts on forests (and increasing diverse tree cover to mitigate climate change). One might also ask the question, can we be sure of the commercial value of forests if they become increasingly beset by climate change-related problems?

In summary, I would urge the National Trust to first prioritise raising awareness of the global value of forests, and the changing responsibilities Governments have to maintain them in the face of climate disruption. Then, it may be appropriate to support moves to convert some forests into community assets. If the Forestry Commission is abolised, then bodies such as the Woodland Trust and National Trust and others (CPRE etc) would need to be resourced adequately to form a Forest Conservation Alliance, with greater capacity than the Forestry Commission ever had in order to face these challenges.

Onwards and upwards

19 01 2011

The more we know, about the rapidity and devastating impacts of climate change (which you can discover if you dig into science journals and obscure blogs, because you wouldn’t know it from many public media sources) and about the mindboggling corruption of big business, especially fossil fuel companies (which you can now discover from newspapers like the Guardian thanks to Wikileaks) the more obvious it is how the attempt to tackle the former is being derailed by the efforts of the latter. As Bill McKibben said the day after COP16 at Cancun, ‘we cannot rely on our Governments to do the job, we have to do it ourselves’ and that the biggest task is to tackle the influence of the ecocidal businesses who are now bigger than nations.

Polly Higgins in this audio slideshow about why and how ecocide should be made an international crime against peace, provides statistics from the 2010 UN report on the value of biodiversity. This report expresses environmental damage in financial terms so that it can be comprehended by the dominant culture which only acknowledges financial value.  It explains that in 2008 the top 3000 companies caused $2.2 trillion damage, in 2009 that doubled to $4 trillion and in 2010 that is expected to double again.

Ray Kurzweil, author of Singularity and maestro of the Google University, demonstrates with utopian verve the law of accelerating returns, creating an exponential curve of technological progress. This uptick, with innovation feeding innovation and computing power acting like rocket fuel, will lead us to a point of singularity where machines and humans are integrated for mutual benefit. He sees climate change as a positive driver for rapid innovation so I appreciate his thinking. However, I wonder, what are the side effects and what is the fuel for this upward curve of technology?

If we see Kurzweil’s big uptick alongside two other global big upticks, the hockey stick curve of runaway climate change and the annual doubling of environmental destruction, two questions arise. The first reflects ‘pessimism of the intellect’ and the second reflects its corollary, ‘optimism of the will’.

The first: Does this widely shared optimism about the rapidity and potential of technological progress, based on the current trend of exponential progress, arise only because of a related exponential increase in environmental destruction? I’m not suggesting that we couldn’t innovate rapidly without exploiting the environment. (In fact I believe our only option IS to innovate rapidly without exploiting the environment.) I’m suggesting that the current trend of progress has depended on exploitation, which has taken us to the brink of ecological collapse. If the trend of progress does depend on exploitation, the grounds for optimism based on the upward trend so far are very shaky, because our only ‘grounds’ are earthly.

I have placed hope in our ability to learn, helped by the massive opening up of information with the internet. For 25 years, there has been serious concern about climate change and widespread understanding that ecocide causes climate change. This knowledge has intensified every year along with the evidence in the form of human suffering. However, it is hard to keep this faith when you see how companies double their destruction annually in the face of this evidence. The media today brings us news of climate-change related devastating flooding spreading down Eastern Australia. In the same news we hear that BP has negotiated to exploit Arctic oil fields of Siberia, potentially yielding vast amounts of hydrocarbons.

No connection made. In the context of this continuing behaviour, it’s hard to see how humans will develop the right technology to overcome mass loss of infrastructure, food supply, biodiversity and human life in the right timescale.

This video from NASA intends to shift our frame of reference to look to a distant future to see space colonisation as human destiny. It’s very impressive but it glosses over a major issue while also somehow making much of it. The video opens by saying that humans are incapable in their current state of evolution, of being stewards of their planet. It says that we need to evolve in order to colonise space, implying that we first need to evolve in order to stop ecological collapse and discover resources that will make them capable of space travel. Putting my project manager’s hat on, how will this work in terms of scheduling I wonder? Perhaps NASA and the technological elite imagine that some of us will be able to retreat to a number of high tech biosphere arks or bunkers whilst simultaneously evolving, restoring Earth’s ecosystems and in turn developing the capacities to travel to and terraform other planets. But the video leaves such details to the imagination.

The second question is the more optimistic one: Is the combined challenge of attaining exoplanetary space exploration and arresting global ecological collapse enough to make us overcome the weaknesses which have mildly slowed the former and rapidly accelerated the latter? In my view, the most fundamental political global split is between those who believe we must restore the health of the planet and those who believe we must focus on human prosperity. On the whole, the ruling elites who focus on the extrinsic goals of prosperity are also inspired by the potential of technology, and in many cases, by the possibilities of the colonisation of space.  Perhaps the goal of human enlightenment and subsequent evolution with the promise of going into space is more motivating as a common enterprise, than the challenge of tackling the environmental collapse per se. Perhaps this combined challenge is what it would take to unite people with different views.

By asking this question I’m not saying that I believe in a positive answer. But, it’s a more optimistic view than I’ve had in the past. It’s in keeping with the publication of Mark Stevenson’s book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Mark is my co-founding director in Flow Associates and over the past 5 years we’ve had many discussions on these topics. I think a bit of his optimism has rubbed off on me.

Reviewing Atmosphere

6 01 2011

In December I visited the new Atmosphere gallery at London’s Science Museum, which is their new permanent display about climate change. I used the opportunity to see the new galleries to meet up with a colleague, James Aldridge, who I’d not met in real life before that day. This meant that, although we were both really interested in the exhibition, we were a bit distracted by discussing work projects. Since then I’ve been meaning to do a post on it but I didn’t have full presence of mind to make helpful sense of my vaguely critical thoughts. On our visit, though we did walk round the whole thing we didn’t spot any opportunity to leave our thoughts, to have any dialogue with the Museum about questions or solutions but apparently there are Tell stations where you can leave comments.

I will need to return to do a more thoughtful analysis, and next time will take my 10 year old daughter as a guinea pig. In the meantime, you can read a comprehensive description of it on Lucy Veale’s project blog, which is all about museum collections and their potential for public engagement about climate change. And below, a very brief summary of my first impressions:

I definitely enjoyed the exhibition and really commend the Science Museum for doing it and thinking so hard about the difficult issues involved. I liked the links made between the in-gallery interactives and the web. I liked the depth of the information.

There are a number of elements that I’m more critical about. The criticism is not necessarily negative. It’s more that I was aware of certain decisions that had been made and wasn’t sure if they were quite right. Perhaps this is because it seemed to be designed for a very particular audience which didn’t include me.

It seemed to be a kind of game-like environment aimed at 14-25 year olds. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite as targeted as the Science of Survival touring exhibition which is a much more youth-oriented involving narrative. So it seemed to fall between two stools of being for everyone and for a certain kind of person. The designers had consciously created an area that felt like a virtual world up at the top of the Wellcome wing. It felt rather like having been abducted by a spacecraft and injected with knowledge. However, at times, the pace of injection wasn’t accelerated but rather slow. It took some time and patience to listen to many of the presentations and to work out how to play some of the games, especially as the exhibition progressed.

The science seemed to be scrupulously researched in the first three sections, and I suspect the exhibition team were more confident in this area. However, the final two sections ‘What Might Happen?’ and ‘Our Future Choices’ seemed to be rather bland, decorative and reassuring, perhaps because it is so difficult to confront the severity of the crisis and to portray such variable predicted scenarios. For example, a rather pretty mosaic screen (a Natural User Interface) invited us to move around until a square opened up to give more detail about the impacts of climate change on the planet. It took some time for this to work so we only revealed one square. This told us that a particular kind of bird in Italy was changing in size. You might think ‘so what?’ and move on at that point.

Overall I felt that the exhibition lacked both poetics and politics. So, I’ll return to this review and explore my thoughts in more detail. If you’ve visited I’d be interested to know whether you think it is effective in engaging people, in terms of the use of objects, visual design, storytelling and involving people in dialogue.

Celebrating UK Forests

4 01 2011

‘A culture is no better than its woods’  W.H.Auden

2011 is the UN’s International Year of Forests, celebrating people’s action to sustainably manage the world’s forests. This recognises the importance of conserving forests in tackling all the Millennium Development Goals, in particular mitigating climate change. Forests are the primary habitats for biodiversity. The sustainable management of forests helps tackle poverty. People need access to forests for their wellbeing and they are vital resources for outdoor learning. They are also important sites of cultural heritage too.

Unfortunately, the UK Government sees fit to introduce a policy of selling off all of the forests looked after by the Forestry Commission. This includes prime heritage forests such as the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Sherwood.

I’ve always loved trees, and am addicted to photographing them. There’s nothing that makes me feel happier and more well than a walk through a wood. That in itself is a good enough reason to visit forests but I want to learn more about their stories, their heritage and ecologies. So, as a kind of resolution for a creative project, I want to spend the year celebrating the UK’s forests. I’m going to plan one weekend a month when I (or we as a family) visit a UK forest, camping or staying in a youth hostel. I’ll advertise the dates here in case anyone wants to come with us and join in the celebration, photographing, filming and writing about the forests. In particular, I want to record the ways that people are sustainably managing the forests and also to explore how children feel about them. Do get in touch if you have suggestions for places to visit, places to stay, any great visitor centres or festivals, the best times to go, and people to talk to who have special knowledge about trees. In the meantime, I’m going to read Wildwood by Roger Deakin, as an inspiration for my own writing about forests this year.

And to end with a tiny bit more from another poet: “…And Forest, Great-Breathing-Spirit, rooting to the very end for the life of this planet.” Grace Nichols, From For the Life of This Planet.


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