Environmental sustainability is out the window…(!!?)… if Commission is cut

The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts. If the Sustainable Development Commission is to be cut, it is a blow on a nunber of fronts -logic, the environment, sustainable government, indeed the concept of sustainability – are all losers!

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband: “They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”

Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

Jonathon Porritt: As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission.


The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts.

An announcement that the Sustainable Development Commission is to be abolished is expected tomorrow, just as the environmental and sustainability watchdog publishes its latest report outlining the savings departments could make from being greener.

The report will detail how the Government could make hundreds of millions of pounds of savings over the next Parliament by reducing transport, water use, energy waste and rubbish – savings worth many times the £3 million expenditure on the SDC.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was unable to confirm today if the arms-length body, which is jointly operated by the UK Government and devolved administrations, is to be disbanded, saying no final decision has been made.

But reports of its imminent demise have raised concerns in the Welsh Assembly, where it was last week described as playing an important role in Wales’s efforts to become greener.

The SDC has helped central government departments save the equivalent of £16 million in carbon emissions reductions and £13 million in reducing water waste.

The commission has also worked with the NHS and schools to reduce their emissions and energy use and recommended the “whole-house” green makeovers to make them more energy efficient, a policy that was adopted by all three parties before the General Election.

Its advice on whether a Severn barrage could be built sustainably also paved the way for consideration of tidal schemes in the Severn Estuary.

Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge condemned the decision to axe the SDC as “incredibly short-sighted”.

“The commission has always given great value for money, cutting wasteful energy use across Whitehall and providing vital advice on how departments can slash their carbon emissions.

“You have to wonder about the thinking behind scrapping a £3 million body with a record of success while pushing ahead with the multibillion-pound Trident replacement, which the military doesn’t even want. This is muddled thinking,” she said.

Margaret Ounsley, head of public affairs at WWF-UK, said: “Everybody knows that we are facing a heavy deficit, and we should not be too prescriptive about how the Government deals with it.

“However, it would be the worst sort of mindless hacking from Government if we were to lose the capacity to measure and report on its moves towards meeting its own commitments to become leaner and greener.

“Shooting the watchdog does not make always make for savings.”

And Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

“The coalition must be held to account on its promise to be the greenest Government ever – and explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time – without the Sustainable Development Commission’s expert guidance and overview.”

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “The coalition has made some terrible decisions on the environment – scrapping the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, shelving Labour’s plan for the Green Investment Bank.

“They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”


As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission. So I’ve been working really hard to put myself in Ministers’ shoes in terms of the ‘rationale’ they’ve advanced for this reprehensible decision. They’ve put forward four justifications:1. It will save moneyThe SDC costs the taxpayer around £4 million a year, around 50% of which come from Defra. The rest comes from the Devolved Administrations and other Whitehall Departments – all of which wanted to carry on working with the SDC. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the SDC’s advice on reducing costs through increased efficiency has already saved the Government many, many times that negligible amount, and would have gone on doing so year after year.2. Sustainable development is now mainstreamed across government.Defra Ministers are now claiming that sustainable development has been embedded in every department. In other words, no specialist capability at the centre is any longer required, simply because the Government ‘gets it’.Like hell it does. To hear Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State in Defra make such a totally fatuous claim after a few weeks in power is irritating beyond belief. She clearly knows nothing of the constant slog required (of the SDC and many other organisations) to achieve the limited traction that is all that can be laid claim to today.There’s a rich irony here. The SDC is a UK-wide body. Neither Wales nor Scotland was in favour of getting rid of the Commission, no doubt because both Countries have done an infinitely better job than Whitehall on ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development.3. It will avoid duplicationThis is a bit trickier, simply because the SDC does a number of different things. It advises Ministers – and there are indeed lots of other people who do that. But rarely if ever from an integrated sustainable development perspective. It helps countless public sector bodies (from the Audit Commission to the Department of Education, from Local Authorities to Primary Care Trusts in the NHS) to make sense of sustainable development, and no other government body does any of that. And it scrutinises government performance on a completely independent basis across the whole sustainable development agenda – not just on climate change. And no other body does that.4. Sustainable development is too important to delegate to an external bodyIt’s worth recording Caroline Spelman’s actual words here: “Together with Chris Huhne, I am determined to take the lead role in driving the sustainable agenda across the whole of government, and I’m not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body.”Even after nine years working with dozens of Government Ministers, I’m astonished at such utterly brazen cynicism. The only thing Mrs Spelman has done so far as Secretary of State at Defra is publish a new strategy for the Department. This has not one serious reference to sustainable development in it. Such is the depth of her concern.If Defra’s next step is to get rid of what’s left of it’s own internal Sustainable Development Unit, then it will have literally no capacity to ‘drive the sustainable agenda’ even within Defra, let alone ‘across the whole of government’. And how can you drive anything if you haven’t the first clue what it actually means? And it just got rid of the only part of the system capable of providing you with a basic primer for beginners?So let’s not beat around the bush: their justification for getting rid of the SDC is transparently vacuous, if not downright dishonest. This is an ideological decision – in other words, a decision driven by dogma not by evidence-based, rational analysis.And the only conceivable reason for allowing dogma to dominate in this way is that the Government doesn’t want anyone independently auditing its performance on sustainable development – let alone properly-resourced, indisputably expert body operating as ‘a critical friend’ on an inside track within government.I don’t suppose the Prime Minister was even consulted about such a footling little matter. But it’s clear that his advisors hadn’t the first idea about the kind of signal this dogma-driven decision sends out, ensuring that his claim that this will be the ‘greenest government ever’ is in deepest jeopardy. It’s too early to make any definitive judgement about how the Green agenda will fare under the Coalition. But it’s not encouraging. ‘Greenest ever’ has to mean something substantive. Simply smearing a sickly ideological slime over everything just won’t cut it.


In this Year of Biodiversity, are we to celebrate or commiserate?

In this year of Biodiversity, we need a debate about the state of the UK enviromment. Here’s is a start by Michael Mccarthy of The Independent   

The tragic loss of British wildlife

Some truths are never voiced because they are virtually impossible to perceive. For example, I have never heard anyone declare how appallingly impoverished Britain’s wildlife is. That’s not the subject of a national debate (although it ought to be). That’s not even a national perception. In fact, I don’t know if it’s anybody’s perception. But it’s no less than the truth.

 I have spent most of my life hearing time and again a peculiarly smug proposition, which is that “Britain’s xxxx is the best in the world.” Fill in the exes at your leisure from a long list: civil service, dinner-party conversation, breadth of heritage, movie technology, sense of humour, overseas broadcasting, gentlemen’s tailoring, armed forces, you name it. It’s a statement which trips ever so comfortably off the tongue. But how would you like to be told: “Britain’s wildlife is among the poorest in the world”? How would that look on a tourist poster?

Not that what we have isn’t wonderful in itself, not that we don’t cherish every feather, every flower, every footprint of it. But the fact remains that our wildlife today, British biodiversity, is but a mean, miserly fraction of what its true, “natural” level is, of what it has been in the past and what it really ought to be. And we are blind to the fact.

The reason is a curious one: every generation tends to take what it finds around it to be the norm. American marine biologists have coined an evocative term for this: the shifting-baseline syndrome, first applied to the management of fish stocks. You may think that the baseline, or natural state, of a stock is what it was at the start of your career, yet actually it may once have been very much greater. And of course this applies right across the natural world – to poppies, to skylarks, to tortoiseshell butterflies, of which your grandparents saw thousands, your parents saw hundreds, you saw dozens, and your children will see the odd one and never apprehend there is anything amiss. They will gaze on impoverishment and take it as standard.

I have felt this for a long time, yet my sense of it was triggered anew this week when I found myself in the delta of the River Mississippi, covering the BP oil spill. The Louisiana marshes are swirling with sparky life, graced with clouds of exotic herons and egrets and birds of prey, even at the side of the road, and I was put in mind of the Norfolk Broads or the Fens, wildlife showpieces of our own, and thought how little they had in comparison.

Louisiana is sub-tropical, of course, and species richness increases as you move towards the equator, so let’s do a comparison in more temperate zones. How many wild bird species do you think have been recorded in St James’s Park in central London? About 65. How many in Central Park in New York? More than 200. Or we can bring it back to Europe. We have about 60 butterfly species in Britain; go to France and you will find 250. We have but three woodpecker species and one, the lesser spotted, you will be lucky to see in a lifetime now; go to France and you can find seven. And it’s the same story with mammals and reptiles and amphibians and pretty much everything.

This is partly geographical accident; since we are cut off at the end of Europe it is impossible for many species to replenish their populations from the continent. But why do we often seem to have so little of what we do have? Why is there so little abundance?

Three years ago, in a groundbreaking book, Silent Fields, the biologist Roger Lovegrove provided the answer: he revealed in detail how, for the best part of 400 years, an unremitting campaign of organised slaughter was waged against wildlife in Britain. From the time of Henry VIII until the First World War, systematic killing on a scale unthinkable today was directed at most of our familiar wild animals and many wild birds: badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, otters; green woodpeckers, jays, kingfishers, bullfinches. Millions were slaughtered, first, by country people, from about 1530 to 1800, to claim bounties under the Tudor vermin laws, and second, by gamekeepers controlling predators on aristocratic shooting estates, from about 1800 to 1914.

Besides “thinning out” wildlife everywhere, this drove to the edge of the abyss, and to the remote corners of the land, a whole series of creatures which in Shakespeare’s day were familiar to everyone in the countryside: polecat, pine marten, wild cat, hen harrier, red kite. We have never recovered; and since the arrival of intensive farming 40 years ago the situation has only worsened: half the birds in the fields of England have disappeared since the Beatles broke up. Britain’s wildlife is one of our dearest assets and a balm for our souls, but it is very far from what it ought to be, and its impoverished nature seems to me now to be its most striking attribute.

Got those Mississippi geography blues

As a one-time aficionado of folk-blues, I had heard and listened to many of the famous singers who came from the Mississippi Delta – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson – so when I got to the mouth of the great river this week I was hot to find their traces. It took me some time to realise that the delta of the Mississippi river, and the Mississippi Delta, are two quite separate locations, the latter (where the bluesmen came from) being a plain in the north-west of the state. Just thought I’d pass it on.


A race abusing an animal for its own purpose… Dr Who: humans v the environment?

Dr who saving the environment? Whether or not you are a Dr Who fan or into Sci Fi at all, it is hard not to see the parallells. After all, ‘explore new worlds and new forms of life’, often because Planet Earth has become  decimnated and is now ‘unliveable’. Sound familiar/like the environmental castastrophe at its worst case scenario? this is actually from ‘star trek’

In this episode the population of Planet UK  is living on a floating scenario, in ‘levels’ – basically skyscrapers. The ‘planet’ is travelling through space with the aid of and on the back of a giant whale-type creature.

Two issues:

1. In order to cope with a expanding population, would we be willing to live in a skyscaper? 

2. Is it, any circumstances, morally accetable to use an animal for human endeavour (essentially, ‘vivisection’)?

What do you think?

Dr Who Offical Website http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/dw

The Guardian’s response: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2010/apr/10/doctor-who-the-beast-below 

“Is that how it works, Doctor, you don’t interfere with affairs of peoples or planets unless there’s children crying?”

Amy Pond’s maiden voyage is, on the surface at least, one for the kids. It’s all broad flourishes charged with the childlike wonder of seeing outer space for the first time. And the sight of a spaceship in a far future full of London Underground logos and modern-day school uniforms is the sort of thing that gets fans past puberty into wailing paroxysms of “No! The 29th century just isn’t like that!” (Granted, that might just be me.)

The Beast Below looks for all the world like a RTD story: a Technicolor morality play light on intricate plotting and heavy on modern moral parallels. But Moffat still conjures some magical ideas and takes the characters exactly where they need to go – rather than simply going in the Starship UK and putting the bad thing right, relationships are tested and solidified by differing reactions to what’s going on in there. With echoes of Donna Noble’s “Sometimes I think you need someone to stop you,” it’s only Amy who works out that once again (and this is becoming a Moffat trope) nobody has to die. Amy’s not nearly as badass this week – although you wouldn’t be, would you?

The anti-vivisection message does seem to get lost somewhere along the way – the ship’s inhabitants seem to get off with little more than a ticking off and a promise never to be so beastly ever again. But manatees are just inherently funny. Four out of five, we’re saying.

“You don’t ever decide what I need to know!”

The rage with which the Doctor reacts to a mistake that Amy doesn’t even remember making comes as a timely reminder of the weight of responsibility he carries, and that his instincts aren’t necessarily human, or even humane – something that definitely got lost toward the end of the Tennant era. (Tennant would also have given the poor girl a chance to get dressed – and he was supposed to be the all-hands Doctor.)

Neither does the Doctor fully understand things, or even himself, right away. The whole story hinges on Amy recognising in the starwhale, as in the Doctor, “something old and that kind, and alone”. It looks like that’s how the relationship between the Doctor and Amy is going to play out – which is just as well, seeing that as well as having those space-manatee qualities, this Doctor also thinks its sensible to pickpocket little girls in corridors for clues.

Let the panda die out naturally …!?

Let the panda die out ‘with dignity’, says BBC expert Chris Packham http://apocadocs.com/s.pl?1253628946
The zoologist, who has replaced Bill Oddie as a presenter on BBC’s Springwatch, risked criticism from wildlife conservationists in an interview with the Radio Times in which he describes the giant panda as a “T-shirt animal” on which too much conservation money is wasted. “Here is a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It’s not a strong species,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s big and cute and a symbol of the World Wide Fund for Nature and we pour millions of pounds into into panda conservation. “I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go, with a degree of dignity.“… He added: “Chris has taken an irresponsible position. Pandas face extinction because of poaching and human pressures on their habitat. They have adapted to the area in which they live and if left alone, they function perfectly well. “However, he is right in his assertion that we must secure habitat in order to protect endangered species. This is exactly what we work to achieve in the case of the giant panda.’

Megafauna such as the giant panda are the key, some say, to unlocking conservation potential… But  about the animal that never gets the spotlight? Insects for example?  

Is too much money spent on large, supposedly lovable creatures – when large habitats are at risk? Should we really care about one species?

Is this all a futile argument a- should we simply live more sustainably a- anfd can we actually do that? – and let ‘nature take it natural course’ (Chris’ orginal argument, I think). 


Chris Packham – It is time to let the Panda go?

03/06/2009 16:55:25



Part One – Can we afford Pandas?

I’ve been upsetting most peoples sentimentalities again recently by saying, loudly thanks to BBC Radio and the written media, that it time we found the courage to give up on Pandas. Let them go, wave goodbye, maybe have a party, or a wake, whatever, just stop wasting money trying to ‘save’ them from extinction. I know, a bit controversial to question conservation, the great invention of all the good folk who want to save everything from themselves, let alone spout such heresy about its most sacred icon. For those of you who are not aware of my maverick musings on this matter I’ll précis them here.

An ex-carnivore bamboo muncher unfortunately ends up in the most populated place on earth. Its food predictably all dies with disastrous regularity and its digestive system is poorly adapted to its diet. It’s slow to reproduce, tastes good, but in a blind strike of evolutionary luck it is plump, cute and cuddly. That is from an anthropological point of view. So given only the latter in the formative days of conservation the pioneers choose it as a symbol and begin to investigate its conservation. Panda porn, or the lack of it, made us all giggle in the sixties and seventies and gradually the fat pied ones became greater than the sum of the sense in keeping them alive. But having spent so much it’s very difficult to stop. We are now spending millions and millions of dollars on a loser which lives in a country being stormed by the whole worlds greedy despite its horrible politics. It’s Catch 22 for Pandas and we’re caught by the credit cards despite our very own desperate credit crisis. So I say stop, save our relatively paltry funds for cases where we can make a real difference, because that’s our job.

Leopards would change their spots

Dr Mark Wright from WWF was called to comment on my outbursts and very kindly offered a voice with an opposing opinion. The trouble is that we seem to agree about much of the argument, apart from letting them become extinct of course, but it’s difficult for me to get cross about the views he outlines because they have a heritage of useful practice and a legacy of great success, and he certainly seems to agree with my view that now is a time when we face critical choices and these will come with a cost. But perhaps where we deviate a little is that I forcefully believe that we have to admit our mistakes and that times change and ideas must move with them and as the rate of that change accelerates so must the speed revision of our methods of best practice. That’s evolution, adapt to changes or die out. You see the old maxim is wrong – ultimately given time a Leopard could and would change its spots!

Conservation – It’s a business

So what’s the problem? Conservation is very, very conservative and frighteningly inflexible. For all its modernisation it still seems rooted in a time when worthiness and self righteousness were essential fuels or tools to brow beat or confound or embarrass opponents into action or inaction. Despite the massive increase in the size and consequential financial turnover of the giant national and international charities, despite their necessary but often unpalatable corporatism, they still don’t seem to realise that conservation is not a vocation, a religion, or a field where ‘being right’ is the answer. It’s a business and we’re running a little, ill respected and frequently ignored company whose managers continue to think that caring counts enough to change the world. It’s no longer even a quaint or nice idea, it’s an embarrassing naivety. It’s why we are still waiting for old ladies to leave us their small fortunes instead of being taken seriously by global corporations. It’s why we are still playing with nature reserves and Pandas instead of planning to make a real difference, now when we could, and so desperately need to.

And there’s worse… Some of conservations ‘big-boys’ do actually have a little clout, and even more importantly they have rightfully earned respect, but because they are wrapped up in their new found game of politics, and all the compromises this sorry, silly game imposes they are increasingly pulling punches which should be launched and landed to make maximum impact. They can’t do A because it will have a knock on effect with B which means C will get set back. They’ve joined the liars game and they are playing at our and the planets expense. Nice. It’s a power issue, the have a little but are too scared to use it, because then some of their new friends won’t talk to them, and some of their sacred members might get a bit upset.

Can we afford Pandas?

But here is the paradoxical truth of it. We are all right; we are all motivated by an honest desire to look after our world, even the Pandas. That’s why I wouldn’t argue with Mark Wright on Radio 5, he wants the same as me, and you, and I’m not going to undermine that through public bickering because I want a result, the best result we can afford. That’s why it’s my job to ask, ‘Can we afford Pandas?’ Think about it please.