How to protect our green and pleasant land?

A National Trust signpost at Milldale, River D...
A National Trust signpost at Milldale, River Dove, Derbyshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An environmental alert from The Independent . Comments here or at Learn From Nature 

For more than 60 years, the English countryside has been preserved from unthinking development by a demanding set of planning laws which evolved from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Too much so, this Government believes. It is taking the 1,300 pages of planning regulations and reducing them to just 52. Groups which campaign to protect the rural landscape have been fighting to prevent the Government sweeping away these laws. It looks as though they have failed.

George Osborne will make reference to the Government’s intentions in his Budget today. But the full National Planning Policy Framework is not to be published until next week, in an apparent attempt to make it look as though the changes are not primarily driven by economics. But the truth is that the planning system is being changed from an instrument that protects the countryside to one that facilitates economic growth – in two key ways. First, the system is to be altered so that the default answer to any “sustainable” development proposal will be Yes. Second, the historic recognition that ordinary countryside has “intrinsic value” will be scrapped.

These measures go way too far. There is no question that Britain needs more new homes. And we would argue that the definition of the Green Belt needs to be adjusted to facilitate more building. But these measures do not affect the Green Belt, they apply to the ordinary, unprotected countryside. The danger is that the changes will promote ribbon development between our major cities, changing the look of the country for ever.

During a three-month consultation on the changes, the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England found serious risks, but just two small concessions have been made: a recognition that brownfield sites are to be preferred, and a definition of “sustainable” that would otherwise have meant whatever developers wanted it to.

The English countryside needs more protection if it is not to be disfigured by development. We must not allow short-term economic interests to desecrate our heritage and endanger our long-term wellbeing.

Source :


The Outdoors as a “World of Wonder” for Children

From Scientific America…

Ten families hiked into Davidson College Ecological Preserve on a bright Saturday morning to get a glimpse of the kudzu-eating goats, usually off-limits to the public. The outing was part of an environmental education program, World of Wonder (WOW!), a partnership of the Davidson Lands Conservancy (DLC) and Woodland Discovery, a non-profit nature program in Cornelius, NC.

The goats were no doubt the initial attraction for families that signed up for the free program, but children were greeted by WOW! Volunteers with recipes for Kudzu salsa, candy, and jellies, along with bags to collect their fill of Kudzu leaves along the way. Immediately darting from vine to vine, choosing only the smallest, most flavorful leaves, one six-year-old girl exclaimed, “this is like free salsa!”

Happily, the kids were receiving a hands-on lesson in invasive plant identification, as the guide pointed out other invasive species like English ivy, wisteria, and Japanese privet, whose seeds are spread primarily by birds. “The reason that these open spaces have a lot of invasives,” explained Irvin Brawley, who worked as Director of Grounds for Davidson College for 40 years before retiring, “is because it’s a great flyway for birds.”

Once they reached the goats rented by Davidson College to graze on five acres of out of control kudzu, the kids saw the sheer growing power of the vine (one foot per day) verses the eating power of the goats (15-20 lbs of kudzu per day). “This is just the start of Davidson College trying to control kudzu sustainably,” said Brawley.

Like the goats, the kids quickly found new uses for kudzu. Several boys began to swing like young Tarzans from a lush, robust vine. Others pulled down dried kudzu vines to weave into small wreaths with the help of their parents. One boy was determined to fill his bag for that night’s dinner, while exclaiming “it smells like asparagus!”

The effect of the outing was different from most educational tours I’ve experienced – the children were encouraged to not only see and listen, but to touch, smell, and eventually taste nature in all its wonder. In just one hour, I watched children interact with peers and family in the outdoors without fear of the unknown, and they learned naturally and in the best way possible – without even realizing it.

Part of the success of the program is groups are kept small, 15-20 people, to allow for a more intimate learning experience and connection with nature. The idea is working, as there is usually a wait-list for families eager to participate in the program.

“Everybody gains,” explains Pam Dykstra, DLC President. “Parents are empowered because they’re learning with their children, and it becomes a bonding experience because they’re sharing the natural world with their children.”

A Childhood Reality: Nature Deficit Disorder

The concept that people, specifically today’s children, are increasingly suffering from “nature-deficit disorder” stems from Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv explains that the term was not meant to be a formal diagnosis in his 2009 blog post in Psychology Today. “Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years,” he writes.

The problem stems from the increasingly indoor, controlled and/or sanitized lifestyles that modern families lead. The environments where children live, learn, and play all have an effect on mood, growth, and overall health and well-being. With the rising rates of childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder, two problems linked to sedentary lifestyle and increased use of electronics, now is the time for parents to get their kids out of the house.

Moreover, a recent study shows the stakes are even higher. Researchers at Sydney University reported that excessive TV watching causes retinal damage in children and leads to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes in adulthood. The study also found such effects could be reversed through increased physical activity – like playing outside.

A Natural Partnership

Understanding that not all people are nature buffs able to travel for miles to nature preserves or state parks, DLC identified the need to not only preserve natural areas and make them accessible to people, but to educate families about the value of natural areas in their hometowns and backyards. The partnership with Woodland Discovery was a natural one, as they were already providing outdoor summer camps and nature programs to preschoolers and homeschoolers.

Carolyn Walker, Director of Woodland Discovery, organizes the WOW! educational booth at the Davidson Farmer’s Market, which stays busy with families participating in the latest environmental craft, activity, or concept – from solar ovens to flower printing. Last Saturday there was a line of children waiting to see a cloud of tadpoles and take some home, but only if they promised to release the frogs back into their original habitat.

Overall, Walker has seen an increase in families bringing their children to the market this year. “We have a hardcore following of families that come every weekend, and then others are pleasantly surprised there is something for kids to be interested in,” she said.

The idea that nature has an amazing potential to inspire and motivate people, specifically children, is not a new one. What stayed with me as the WOW! outing ended is the belief that similar outdoor experiences can and must be shared with children, so that future generations will care enough to save the little wild places that fondly remind us of our own childhoods.

Photos by: Patti McKinnon.

About the Author: Lilly Vicens is a freelance writer, nature enthusiast, and volunteer with the Davidson Lands Conservancy and Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists. Her science writing has been published by Coastwatch Magazine, StormwaterMagazine, and the Watershed Education Network. Vicens holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Natural Resources, Ecosystems Assessment from North Carolina State University.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those ofScientific American.

Fact or country fiction : Can Sustainable Farming Feed the World?

From ‘International Herald Tribune’ a powerful blog…

A new report proposes agro-ecology as a way to feed the world

The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world’s citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn’t working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese.

Yet there is good news: increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.

On Tuesday, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, presented a report entitled “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.” (Agro-ecology, he said in a telephone interview last Friday, has “lots” in common with both “sustainable” and “organic.”) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.”

Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.” Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)

Industrial (or “conventional”) agriculture requires a great deal of resources, including disproportionate amounts of water and the fossil fuel that’s needed to make chemical fertilizer, mechanize working the land and its crops, running irrigation sources, heat buildings and crop dryers and, of course, transportation. This means it needs more in the way of resources than the earth can replenish. (Fun/depressing fact: It takes the earth 18 months to replenish the amount of resources we use each year. Looked at another way, we’d need 1.5 earths to be sustainable at our current rate of consumption.)

Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual — much research remains to be done — and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization. Many adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable. Meanwhile, those working towards improving conventional agriculture are borrowing more from organic methods. (Many of these hybrid systems were discussed convincingly in Andrew Revkin’s DotEarthblog last week.)

Currently, however, it’s difficult to see progress in a country where, for example, nearly 90 percent of the corn crop is used for either ethanol (40 percent) or animal feed (50 percent). And most of the diehard adherents of industrial agriculture — sadly, this usually includes Congress, which largely ignores these issues — act as if we’ll somehow “fix” global warming and the resulting climate change. (The small percentage of climate-change deniers are still arguing with Copernicus.) Their assumption is that by increasing supply, we’ll eventually figure out how to feed everyone on earth, even though we don’t do that now, our population is going to be nine billion by 2050, and more supply of the wrong things — oil, corn, beef — only worsens things. Many seem to naively believe that we won’t run out of the resources we need to keep this system going.

There is more than a bit of silver-bullet thinking here. Yet anyone who opens his or her eyes sees a natural world so threatened by industrial agriculture that it’s tempting to drop off the grid and raise a few chickens.

To back up and state some obvious goals: We need a global perspective, the (moral) recognition that food is a basic right and the (practical) one that sustainability is a high priority. We want to reduce and repair environmental damage, cut back on the production and consumption of resource-intensive food, increase efficiency and do something about waste. (Some estimate that 50 percent of all food is wasted.) A sensible and nutritious diet for everyone is essential; many people will eat better, and others may eat fewer animal products, which is also a eating better.

De Schutter and others who agree with the goals of the previous paragraph say that sustainable agriculture should be the immediate choice for underdeveloped countries, and that even developed countries should take only the best aspects of conventional agriculture along on a ride that leaves all but the best of its methods behind. Just last month, the U.K.’s government office for science published “The Future of Food and Farming,” which is both damning of the current resource-intensive system (though it is decidedly pro-GMO) and encouraging of sustainable, and which led de Schutter to say that studies demonstrate that sustainable agriculture can more than double yields in just a few years.

No one knows how many people can be fed this way, but a number of experts and studies — including those from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the University of Michigan andWorldwatch — seem to be lining up to suggest that sustainable agriculture is a system more people should choose. For developing nations, especially those in Africa, the shift from high- to low-tech farming can happen quickly, said de Schutter: “It’s easiest to make the transition in places that still have a direction to take.” But, he added, although “in developed regions the shift away from industrial mode will be difficult to achieve,” ultimately even those countries most “addicted” to chemical fertilizers must change.

“We have to move towards sustainable production,” he said. “We cannot depend on the gas fields of Russia or the oil fields of the Middle East, and we cannot continue to destroy the environment and accelerate climate change. We must adopt the most efficient farming techniques available.”

And those, he and others emphasize, are not industrial but sustainable.


It’s time humans stopped to consider Earth’s health

From Michael McCarthy in The Independent today

I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come.

Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn’t happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.

I wrote about this three weeks ago, asking how much room there will be in the 21st century world for non-human creatures, using as an example the future fate of insects, which may well have to be sacrificed wholesale, if intensive farming has to be doubly intensified to feed nine billion people by 2050. I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come. There was an animated reader response to this, so I should like to return to it.

Climate change is only the most dramatic (and controversial) of these consequences. There are many others visible already, about which there is no dispute, ranging from the worldwide collapse of fish stocks to the disappearance of wildlife abundance from the British countryside. Liberal secular humanism certainly acknowledges these disturbing trends; it is greatly concerned about them, shakes its head sadly and strives to prevent them; but what it does not do, is put the whole picture together.

It does not allow the conclusion to which the rapidly increasing degradations of the natural world are all pointing: that a fundamental conflict is looming between the Earth and Man (I use the term in the biological sense of the species Homo sapiens).

This failure to recognise the fundamental nature of the clash will, at the very least, greatly handicap our response to it. I think it arises from our current creed’s greatest failing, its deficit of spirituality, by which I mean a failure to see existence as anything other than human-centred. Liberal secular humanism, which you could argue has been our belief system since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to improve human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be happy, and free from want and fear and disease, and to live fulfilled lives.

What it doesn’t do is allow that there might just be a problem, an intrinsic problem, with people as a species. That is absolute anathema.

You can understand why: poverty is terrible enough without suggesting that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality.

There was a continual problem with Man. Man was glorious, almost God-like, and continually striving upwards; yet only the Gods were actually Up There, and if Man tried to get too high, as he often did, the Gods would destroy him. The Gods represented Man’s limits.

The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn’t (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).

In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. Still less, of course, is there any trace of the more recent, Christian version of it, which is Original Sin. Just the opposite: in our current creed, Man is not Fallen, Man is Good; so, as they used to say of General Motors and America, what’s Good for Man is necessarily Good for the Planet.

Except that it isn’t. What’s Good for Man may wreck the planet, and with the mushrooming expansion of humans numbers, increasingly seems likely to. Yet so forceful is our creed that it stamps on the very formation of the thought that Man may be the Earth’s problem child. Suggest it and you will be met with a sigh, and a knowing chuckle; or even more likely, indignant confrontation. So the fundamental conflict which is coming between Us and the Earth, this major moment of history, which evidence everywhere increasingly points to, is not recognised in our dominant belief system; and thus is not addressed.

We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness. There is another reason, which is becoming clearer; we are the only species capable of destroying our own home (which you might think of as Original Sin in its ecological version).

It seems to me that moral account needs to be taken of this, in the heart of what we believe and understand about ourselves; all the indignant denial of it – as the noble struggle continues to raise so many people from misery to decent life – will not prevent it from being so.

Flying tonight? Bats under threat

Check out my Bats Myth-buster for kids

America’s bats are dying in record numbers because of a deadly fungus that thrives where they sleep. Now there are signs that it could happen here

Full of dark hollows and snug crevices, caves provide the ideal habitat for bats. But with their low temperatures and humid conditions, there’s something else they’re perfect for, too: breeding the fungus Geomyces destructans.

Since 2006, some one million bats across six different species have been killed in North America – all as a direct result of white nose syndrome (WNS), a disease brought on by exposure to Geomyces destructans. The fungus, which infects and invades the living skin of hibernating bats, turning their snouts a frosty white, is thought to be transmitted from one cave to the next by people moving between them. In some bat colonies, exposure to the fungus has produced a mortality rate in excess of 95 per cent. It is, says Alan Hicks of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, “the gravest threat to bats… ever seen”.

And it’s not just limited to the United States. In Canada, several fungus-hosting caves have been identified. Affected species include the already-endangered Indiana and grey bats, as well as the little brown bat and the cave bat. In Europe, meanwhile, five different species have been infected – though the mortality rate remains far below that in North America. How long it will stay that way is unclear.

The problem is that, aside from the disease’s gravity, scientists know very little about it. It’s not yet apparent, for instance, whether Geomyces destructans is the only cause of illness, or whether other pathogens are involved. Nor are we certain of the various ways in which the disease spreads; as well as the role of humans in spreading fungus, scientists have pointed to the typically quite-high levels of bat-to-bat interaction. In autumn, the mating season brings together large numbers of males and females, while hibernation sees bats resting in large, tightly packed groups. Indeed, as things stand, scientists are still not even confident of how and why white nose syndrome kills the affected animals. One theory is that infection interrupts bats’ hibernation, forcing them to use up precious energy reserves.

Whatever the answer, more work is needed if the world’s bats are to be saved. In a recent review published in Conservation Biology, a team of scientists led by the University of California, Davis’s Janet Foley argued for the creation of a “road map” to tackle the problem. “In the three years since its discovery, WNS has changed the focus of bat conservation in North America,” they wrote. “A national response is required.”

A landmark for UK conservation

At the very end of 2010, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced a major achievement for conservation in England with the news that 96% of England’s SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are now in favourable or recovering condition. SSSIs are the most important collection of wildlife and geological sites in the England and cover 8% of the country’s surface area, so they play a unique role in preserving biodiversity and geodiversity. The 10 year project to reverse the long term decline of England’s SSSIs has involved an unprecedented conservation effort led by Defra, and involving government agencies, thousands of farmers and landowners, and organisations from across the private and voluntary sectors. In recent years one million hectares of land have been surveyed and monitored by Natural England and conservation plans put in place across thousands of sites. Defra’s news announcement marked a fitting end to the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity.

Natural England will be helping celebrate the success of the SSSI project with the publication of the report – Protecting England’s Natural Treasures – which will be launched at a special reception attended by Caroline Spelman at the London Wetlands Centre on 27th January 2011. ________________________________________