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.

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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

The rise and fall of biodiversity

All around the world, biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. From an all-time peak in 2003, it has lost an incredible 40% in just over a decade. Although it is clinging on in certain places, the situation seems to be dire. How much longer can biodiversity survive?

This story sounds familiar to conservationists who are bombarded daily with depressing news about the biodiversity crisis. But in fact these statements have nothing to do with declines in the diversity of life on earth – they are about the use of the word ‘biodiversity’ itself. The statistics above are taken from Google Trends, a tool monitoring relative interest in general google search terms over time. Entering ‘biodiversity’ into this service reveals a steady decline between 2004 and 2008, followed by a fairly steady state since then.

Trends

So what is going on? Why did ‘biodiversity’ become so popular in the first place, why has interest in it been declining since 2003, and what might all this mean for the future of the conservation movement? 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.

Weak yet strong: the uneven power relations of conservation

Over the summer I have been lucky enough to go to various meetings and events (particularly the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, US and the Cecil Summit in Oxford) that have exposed me to unfamiliar examples of conservation practice around the world. A consistent theme running through much of what I have learned is the importance of the power relations between conservation and other actors, and how much these affect conservation thinking and practice. This in itself is not surprising, but what has really struck me is that there are two different, and seemingly contradictory, narratives about conservation and power in circulation.   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

The myth of win-win in arguments for conservation

The last few years have seen an intensification in the long running debate about the underlying rationale(s) for biodiversity conservation. In Georgina Mace’s terminology, is conservation about nature for itself, nature despite people, nature for people, or people and nature?

Some argue that there is no need to make choices here – conservationists should simply select the appropriate tool from the menu of rationales available to them to fit their particular needs. For example, a recent paper by Richard Pearson argues that different rationales should be applied to justify conservation depending on the spatial extent and biological level of the thing to be conserved. So, arguments about the benefits to people from pollination services apply well for populations of honeybees at the local scale, whereas arguments about existence value apply well to charismatic species that are globally threatened. Continue reading