Listening and loss

Recently, on a run in the fields around the village where I live, I realised that I could not hear a skylark. At one level, this is not surprising, because the agricultural landscapes of Cambridgeshire are as species-poor as any ecosystem short of a car park. But this was a place where I had heard skylarks last year, and the year before. A farm access track through wheat had created a kind of accidental skylark plot, giving the kind of open weedy ground cover that scientists have shown that skylarks like, providing a slim toehold in the sea of pesticide-perfected arable crops.

My first thought brought a familiar lurch of anxiety – were there perhaps no skylarks this year? Was my rather barren corner of England not to be enlivened by the lark’s heart-stopping seesaw song, rising above the agricultural prairie below? It seemed all too possible. Skylarks have been declining in the UK since the 1970s, and no amount of agri-environment spending or skylark plot design has made much difference. Skylarks are simply disappearing from our skies and fields.

But a second thought followed, almost equally unwelcome. Was the problem with me and not the landscape? Were there in fact skylarks singing away, but I simply couldn’t hear them? This was, unfortunately, also quite likely. In recent years my hearing has deteriorated. I have struggled to hear quietly spoken students in lecture halls, and indistinct colleagues in meetings. More depressingly, I have stopped being able to hear birdsong.

For me, hearing loss was a gradual process, an imperceptibly slow change that involved a narrowing and a thinning of soundscapes. My mind did not register the change, and my brain adapted. I got good at listening, I got quite good at lip-reading, and found myself choosing to sit so that peoples’ faces were not shadowed. I did a lot of guessing what people said from context (not always successfully I have to say). And I no longer heard many of nature’s sounds: the subtle chuckle of stream water, the thick whisper of wind in poplars, bumblebees on the rosemary.

With birds, it was hopeless. Vaughan Williams did his best with the violin in The Lark Ascending, but the reality is more varied, more exhilarating, and to me almost completely inaudible. I found myself scanning the sky for singing birds so that I could cup my hands behind my ears and maybe hear a faint wisp of song: a mug’s game. In Nature Cure, Richard Mabey describes movingly the sense of loss he experienced when he could no longer hear birdsong. I felt some measure of the same loss, a small extra sad erosion of my sense of nature.

Last year I bit the bullet and was fitted with hearing aids, courtesy of the National Health Service. They were brilliant.  Indeed my hearing was at first too brilliant, and I was deafened by the running washing up water, disturbed at hearing conversations across coffee shops and on trains. I also discovered that meetings are not necessarily more interesting when you can hear everything.

I thought I would be self-conscious about having hearing aids, and surprised myself that I wasn’t. They were an unwelcome indicator of senescence, but they felt like just one more age-defying prosthetic. I like to think of them as enabling devices that offer new powers – like a wetsuit, binoculars or a bicycle.

The big win of having hearing aids has undoubtedly been that I can hear birdsong again. Back garden songbirds have been a deafening delight this spring, and I have started once more to hear birds before I see them. But last summer it was undoubtedly the endless improvisation of the skylarks that gave me the most delight.

Losing and regaining hearing has made me more sensitive to the sound worlds people live in. I learned how impatient people can be at those who cannot hear, or hear badly. And I realized how many people choose to live in a world of curated noise. People walk the streets, talk to friends on the trains and run the bare footpaths between Cambridgeshire fields, with earphones plugged in place. Their phone, podcast or music streaming service is a constant companion. The continuous stimulation of ear and brain seems a necessary prop a sonic backcloth to life, a kind of aural comfort blanket. What drives this dependence on recorded and transmitted sound? A concern that without stimulation we will die of boredom? A fear that that incoming sound will be disturbing, or discordant? A refusal to have our sound world will be penetrated and spoiled by that of someone else? Do we have a fear of silence?

The natural world is never silent, any more than it is ever truly empty. Acoustic ecologists analyse the complex soundscapes that life creates. Clever algorithms tease apart different species from their sounds, calls or song, separating and identifying different species and sometimes individuals from the apparent chaos. The machines work perfectly happily beyond the human register, as anyone who has played with a bat box knows.

But acoustic ecologists also tell us that we live in a world that is gradually losing natural sounds as species are lost from familiar landscapes and populations shrink. Soundscapes are as vulnerable as smellscapes, and almost everywhere more transformed. Human made sounds overlie all others. Traffic, garden machinery, aeroplanes provide a roaring carpet of mechanised sound, against which we pour endless music into our ears in search of pleasure and meaning, not knowing and not caring what we listen to, happy to have the streaming algorithms curate and armour our sonic defences.

Every spring, I suffer what I have come to anticipate as a regular anxiety of the turning year. I sense a fear that the natural world will not kick-start itself again after the short cold days of winter, that bumble bees will not re-appear on the rosemary, that swallows will not turn up by the pond, that swifts will not burn their way through the skies above the streets.

There isn’t a word for this anxiety, although I think many people attuned to nature suffer from it. It reflects the stress of ‘living in a world of wounds’, which Aldo Leopold described. I think of it as a kind of ‘spring fear’ (perhaps something of it is captured by the delightful German word torschlusspanik, the fear of time running out). It is a consequence of knowing too much about the homogenisation of ecosystems and the destruction of natural diversity in the modern world.

My gradual loss of hearing has taught me something about the gradual loss of biodiversity that we are experiencing. Year by year, non-human life is thinned out, losing numbers and diversity, leaving only the familiar co-habitants, the tough and hyper-adaptable, the parasitic and the domesticated. These changes seem unstoppable, endless, a slow decline of a vibrant world into some shadowland of uniformity.

The opening paragraphs of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the world refashioned by organochlorine pesticides in terms of lost sounds. She wrote of ‘a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh’.

I usually don’t wear my hearing aids when I am running. So, there I was, on a field corner, with no skylarks to be heard, and two questions running round my head. Were skylarks really singing, and I simply could not hear them? Or were they missing, marking one more step in their long decline? Could my prosthetic ears conjure skylarks back into life, or were they gone? Was this spring perhaps to be the first of many such springs, or even the first of all future springs, without the skylark’s song?

Silence, and how we deal with it, are key challenges for conservation. In a world of wall to wall noise, we need to take time to listen. We must talk about what we can hear, and what we are missing. Otherwise we will remain oblivious to the growing silence around us. And we may miss the fact that no neat device exists to bring lost soundscapes back, except in sad recorded archives of a once rich natural world.

Earth Algebra

It is the time of year when newly arrived students gather around the university in uneasy groups, shuffling like swallows waiting to migrate. All have passed, quite recently, through the trial of school exams. Meeting them, I remember all too well the shock of exam papers whose questions bore little relation to anything I had learned. The key thing my teachers told me was not to panic: read the rubric on the paper, check you know how many questions to answer, and finish each question off as best you can.

I had a particular dislike of maths tests at school: complex questions constructed around unlikely scenarios such as a baths with running taps and the plug out, or a weightless block sliding down an inclined plane with strange frictional qualities. Who could arrange such a thing, and why would they do it? That was not, as successive maths teachers explained, a relevant way to think. It was the units, the numbers and the equations that mattered.

The New Scientist Feedback column has had a lot of fun over the years with the odd units people use – lengths expressed in double decker buses, or weights in whales (clearly a highly variable unit), or areas as multiples of Wales. Their correspondents rejoice in the bizarre, but the underlying message is always the clarity that sensible SI units and a bit of careful thought would bring.

Environmentalists love to cite statistics of all kinds, and they too like striking metrics. They too have fallen in love with a new mega-unit: Earths. Ever since the moon shots of the 1960s, the idea of Only One Earth has been at the heart of environmentalist argument about the shape of human economy and society (a ‘one world environmental ontology’ as Chris Sandbrook calls it).   But the current fashion for the earth as unit is a little more specific. Two framings have become particularly dominant.

The first is the idea of ‘Half Earth’. Nature, we are told, needs 0.5 Earths. The 20% of land in protected areas that comprises the CBD 2020 target is too little: conservationists are urged to place 50% of the earth in protected areas. As Chris Sandbrook has pointed out, and as the wider literature has discussed, this wonderfully disguises a lot of tricky politics (since people already own and live on most of the land conservationists want, so ‘saving’ those areas is likely to be expensive and unpopular as well as being unfair and unjust).

The second is the idea of measuring human consumption in Earths. Humans, we are told, are using 1.7 Earths a year: the Global Footprint Network calculates that ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ was 1 August in 2018. The idea of Global Footprint provides a metric of the ecological resources and services consumed by the economy through pollution, overfishing, unsustainable agriculture, overharvesting of forests, and emission of carbon dioxide.

The metrics behind Half Earth or Earth Overshoot Day are complicated, and you probably have to be a bit of a science geek to dig in to the algebra.   But in a sense the detail does not matter greatly. Neither is really intended to be scientific. They are both metaphors, framing devices in environmentalist arguments about future actions.

The problem is the mathematics pushes in two very different directions – the two ‘Earth’ metaphors reflect very different ideas about the future direction of human society and economy.

Half Earth proposes a separation of nature and human society, half an Earth of dense human settlement and efficient production, and half of biodiverse ecosystems and little human presence (an essentially ecomodernist vision). The Global Footprint proposes a reduction of the energy and material basis of production and consumption with a redistribution towards poor countries (a kind of degrowth vision).

The tricky thing is that both these equations need to be solved at the same time. It is no good trying to pretend that one is more important than the other. Conservationists running the numbers and supporting the idea of Half Earth are doing the arithmetic right. But so are other environmentalists calculating the Global Footprint.

There is only one Earth to play with. Nature needs space, but it also needs a significant reduction in human consumption. Space where non-human lives can flourish needs to be doubled. But net consumption (in all its forms) also needs to be halved.

The calculations we need to navigate forwards are much more complicated than either crude ‘Earth Unit’ headline might suggest. Earth mathematics is going to be complicated: tessellating economic production and countryside, trading off reductions in energy and material use and the restoration of ecosystems, the integration of human society with non-human nature at every scale from the biotechnology vat to the productive ocean, the garden to the biosphere.

The Twenty First century offers a tricky exam paper for humanity, and we need to get the answers right if we are to make it through with any space for human and non-human flourishing.

The alert student would be well advised to tackle more than one question.

 

The Cyborg Conservationist

Haze from the 2015 forest fires in Southeast Asia may have killed about 100,000 people. It was also really bad for wildlife. Benjamin Lee and colleagues recently showed these effects by measuring acoustic activity on an ‘eco-overpass’ between two areas of forest in Singapore before, during and after the haze event. The data showed that acoustic activity dropped by 37% during the haze, and had showed only partial recovery 16 weeks later.

I learned of this research through the excellent BBC World Service Inside Science Programme on 12 October 2017. What caught my attention was the serendipitous nature of the study. Lee was supposed to be surveying bats to assess the effects of the overpass. But the haze triggered his asthma, and he had to stop work: but his acoustic recorders stayed in place. And hence a dataset was collected that spanned the haze event, recording not just bats but also birds and insects, and showing how they were silenced by the conditions.

This neat paper highlights the extraordinary power of remote devices to record biological data. Digital acoustic recording is widely used to survey bats (e.g. the iBats programme) and increasingly birds and insects. Moreover, archived sound recordings made for one purpose can be mined later for another. Citizen science recordings of bats in the UK have been used to identity stridulating bush-crickets. Continue reading

The Conservation of Smellscapes

Recently, I cycled back late from town. There was no wind, almost no traffic, and no moon. I was struck by the power of smells in the dark: first some splashed diesel near the garage, then lilac in a garden, pine trees at the motorway bridge, and the warm ammonia of bullocks at the farm. Finally, home, and then, suddenly, the smell of my neighbour’s washing, hung out overnight: an overpowering and entirely artificial scent, a radical shift of smellscape.

I first came across the concept of ‘smellscape’ in a paper by the cultural geographer Douglas Porteus in 1985. He pointed out that smells tend to be place-related, and that the nose perceives smellscapes just as the eye sees landscapes. Porteus describes sampling smells on ‘smellwalks’, not unlike my cycle journey home. Different continents, countries, regions, neighbourhoods and houses have their particular smellscapes. As Victoria Henshaw pointed out in her book Urban Smellscapes, cities have characteristic smells.   Kate McLean, an artist and designer, makes ‘smellmaps’ of cities around the world. Continue reading

Conservation Over There

Recently, I was talking about Conservation International’s Nature is Speaking videos with some PhD students and postdocs. I recalled that long before Harrison Ford brought his gravel toned menace to voicing The Ocean, he did another video for CI, dear to the heart of fans of his knowing self-parody and sense of timing. In it, Harrison Ford has his chest waxed, while talking about tropical forest loss. Slap on the wax and cue the last line, straight to camera: ‘Every bit of rainforest that gets ripped out over there’ … rip of chest hair; wince … ‘really hurts us over here’… rueful smile.

In the past, I have often used this video with student groups. It lasts 31 seconds, and usually gets a laugh. It raises a serious issue in forest loss. More usefully, there is another perhaps more significant story behind that, in what it reveals about the view of the world that dominates western environmentalism.

The wax job narrative has obvious problems. One thing those who object to it (aside from those allergic to Han Solo or Indiana Jones) focus on the selfishness of its message. The reason it gives to stop tropical forest loss is not because of its significance to local people, or the wonder awakened by its coevolved diversity, but its role in locking up surplus carbon. The video buys into the mainstream international approach to anthropogenic climate change, which is built on the idea of a single global pool of carbon. This allows carbon burned to run chiller cabinets, warm poorly designed houses or allow commuters to queue in their cars to be directly compared with the carbon in a tree or a peatland or plankton.

From this seed grows the whole jungle of carbon offsetting. There is too much carbon in circulation: should we stop producing it? No, too difficult, too disruptive and too expensive. We need to find a convenient (and cheap) way to lock some up. Why not ignore our own carbon use and put our money into stopping forest loss instead?

Harrison Ford outlines the classic ‘carbon colonialism’ of global climate management: let us stop their forest being lost or it will hurt us over here (real people, such as spaceship pilots, archaeologists and actors, who would otherwise have to cut back on their own fossil fuel use).

But Conservation International’s core concern is not carbon as such, but biodiversity. Its website declares ‘CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of humanity’.

The same sleight of hand works for biodiversity loss as for carbon: the problem is constructed as global, and so too are the solutions Biodiversity is everywhere: we just need to find the fastest, cheapest and most convenient way to save as much as possible. Where do we get most bang for our buck? In the tropics, where biodiversity is highest, land is cheapest and people most need money. And where does CI work? In the tropics: it website shows offices in more than 30 countries, all of them less developed and almost all in the tropics.

Although the battered ecosystems of the developed world also have their passionate supporters, such as the Wildlife Trusts in the UK, all the world’s biggest conservation NGOs (and the scientists who advise them) share CI’s concern for tropical biodiversity. All of them aim to raise money ‘over here’ (from people in industrialised countries) to protect species and ecosystems ‘over there’ (in the tropical developing world).

Conservation is increasingly globalised. Its websites and magazines have come to look like travel brochures: rich colours, vibrant ecosystems, charismatic species (and sometimes quaint natives). Some conservation organisations even organise tours for their supporters, so they can see protected and threatened nature for themselves. A niche travel product has developed around ‘last chance tourism’. It is as if love of nature has become a love of the exotic: a documentary series, a holiday brochure, the immersive experience of 360o video.

Loss of natural diversity in the face of human consumption has become standardised, treated as a single problem, just like carbon. The problem with this is that conservation is not presented as depending on my actions (except in reaching for the ‘donate now’ button). More generally, the implied message of calls for tropical conservation is that global biodiversity loss has little connection with actions in the developed world, or the lifestyle and energy use patterns into which everyone is locked.

This is simply not true. The general links between global trade and biodiversity loss have been recognised for some time. Now a new paper in by Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto has mapped the links between consumption in specific countries (such as the USA or the EU) and hotspots of species under threat in the tropics. These connections are entrenched, destructive and near universal. The new Trase transparency platform (Transparency for Sustainable Economies) uses production, trade and customs data to show flows of globally traded commodities such as palm oil, soya, beef and timber through supply chains from source, through trading companies to consumption. Whether we like it or not, transparency about the connections between consumption here and impacts ‘over there’ are going to become much harder to ignore.

Conservationists feel the destruction of nature as a hurt – we live, as Aldo Leopold said of ecologists – in a world of wounds. But the globalisation of biodiversity loss offers dangerous solace. It means that we mourn, but we do not have to change. If the real problem is over there, it is not us but those people who must change. Our job as conservationists is therefore to persuade them, or sometimes indeed to force their hands, with our donations and our buying power, our ideas of nature and our friends among their elite.

The problem is that the actions that cause the hurt are not just over there, they are also much closer to home, in excessive consumption (beef, soya, diesel, plastics, air conditioning: the list is endless), and in our acceptance that global supply chains that meet our every want are normal and inevitable (indeed – because we love our consumption – that they are basically good).

When CI talks about climate change, it presents ‘nature’ as ‘humanity’s biggest ally in the fight against climate change’. The idea of a global pool of carbon links the survival of that forest to our carbon consumption. So, as Harrison Ford argues, if tropical forests can indeed deliver ‘30% of mitigation action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change’, protecting them makes sense.

After all, the only other alternative would mean tackling the systemic dependence on fossil fuels of the capitalist system of production and consumption. And that would strike at the heart of the way the people live in the world’s richest countries – which would be really scary for all conservation’s key supporters, not least space pilots and Hollywood stars.

Its Rhino Time!

For international conservationists, the turning of the year is marked not by changing seasons but by international travel opportunities – and this year September is a bumper month. It opens with the IUCN World Conservation Congress in the hyper-remote Hawai’i, and ends with the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg.

Looking at the website for the CITES COP, I was greatly struck by its logo. Hats off to the graphic designers, who have created the unmistakable outline of a white rhinoceros from the silhouettes of other species, pangolin, eagle, hammerhead shark, elephant and lion to name just a few. Moreover, it is all in savanna orange, with the African continent as its green heart, deep in the rhino’s chest. The choice of the rhino outline works at several levels – because the recovery of white rhinoceros is one of the great South African success stories of the twentieth century, and because the debate about trade in rhino horn is currently a key issue for CITES.

CoP17_Rhino_hp

Continue reading

Spiders, Zika And The Love of Nature

Most conservationists I know take it for granted that the love of nature is ingrained in the human psyche. John Muir speaks for them, when he writes ‘there is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties’. They might perhaps accept Edward Wilson’s notion of ‘biophilia’, the idea of an instinctive bond between humans and other forms of life. Whatever humans do, we conservationists feel sure that they love nature really, underneath.

Two news items that caught my eye recently made me think about this comfortable certainty. The first was a video clip of a weatherman on West Virginia’s WOWK 13 News, scared by a spider on his monitor screen. The presenter, Bryan Hughes, flinched, swore, and then began to crack some rather tense jokes. Bryan obviously really did not like spiders. In this he is not at all unusual.

The spider-on-camera-lens visual joke has become a staple of the internet. It works because lots of people are phobic about spiders, as they are with snakes. It is not hard to imagine a good evolutionary basis for this fear, since many species of both are venomous. Horror movie directors know the fear of spiders very well: watching the first James Bond film, Dr. No last week, where a fine specimen of a (apparently not very venomous) pink-toed tarantula apparently crawls up Sean Connery’s body, reminded me how effectively scary spiders can be.

But it was not the spider, or the weatherman’s immediate response, that unnerved me, but what Hughes said once the incident was over. In his slightly nervous patter, as he tried to move back to the job in hand, he said: ‘oh man, saints alive, we gotta get out there and kill those things’. Like James Bond, with his instant and fiercely wielded slipper, Bryan Hughes clearly has no truck with arachnids. I wondered how many people would share his feelings? Quite a lot, I concluded, especially in countries where spider bites can be highly painful or deadly. For many people, scared or simply cautious, spiders are better off dead: so much for the love of nature! Continue reading