Still Wasting the Rain?

It is exactly 30 years since I started to write the book that became Wasting the Rain (eventually published in 1992).  I have been thinking about this book a lot in the last couple of years, as Chris Schulz and I have been working on the history of the World Commission on Dams as part of the FutureDAMS project.  How different, I finding myself asking, is the world of dams today to that three decades ago?

When I sat down to write Wasting the Rain, I had been working for more than a decade in dam construction, river basin planning and irrigation.  I had done a PhD on the downstream impacts of the Bakolori Dam in Nigeria on floodplain agriculture, worked for an engineering company on a dam resettlement project, and studied the economy and ecology of African floodplain wetlands.  I had seen several dam projects and irrigation schemes from the inside.  I knew a little about the way development projects worked, and why sometimes they didn’t.  I had learned what the people affected by large-scale development projects thought of them, and how they responded to the changes the projects caused.

The title of Wasting the Rain was taken from the comment of a young civil engineer in Nigeria on the ways in which floodplain people used seasonal river flows.  The drylands of northern Nigeria were rainless for about nine months of the year, and the river was in spate only during the short rainy season.  To my friend, this floodwater simply ran to waste.  It seemed obvious to them that a dam was needed to hold it back, so it could be properly used, both for irrigation through the long dry season and for hydropower.  Enter the helpful engineers stage right, with hydrological models, design blueprints, the surgically accurate application of concrete and steel, their dams, canals, roads and power stations, to make all new, and better.

Wasting the Rain was written to offer an alternative view of people, rivers and development in Africa.  It looked at water and land from the perspective of the people who live in floodplains. It focused on the ingenuity of floodplain farmers in adapting cropping systems to variations in floodplain soils and flood depth and duration, and their skilled integration of agriculture, fishing, livestock and off-farm income around the annual flood.  In Africa, as elsewhere, floodplain communities and ways of life are built around, and sustained by, the seasonal dynamics of rain and river.  Floodplain people across Africa do not waste the rain at all, they use it very cleverly.  They do not build dams (at least, not large concrete ones), but they build adaptively on the opportunities offered by river, soils and rain. 

By contrast, the book argued that the true wastage too often lay in the construction of dams.  Dams are expensive, complicated and exciting projects to build.  In a country like Nigeria in the 1980s, after a decade of drought in the North, the federal government was looking for ways to invest spiralling oil revenues from the South: dams and irrigation schemes looked like a perfect development solution, a one-shot inoculation of modernity that would transform the country.  There were also rich pickings, both legal and illegal, from the many contracts to study, design and build projects. 

The Bakolori project in northern Nigeria was a classic in this respect.   Its dam was technically effective, built soundly, and more or less on time and to budget.  But the irrigation scheme that it was built to supply was (like other large scale irrigation schemes then being developed in Africa) completely uneconomic, offering far lower yields and rates of return than had optimistically been promised in the cost-benefit analysis.   Meanwhile the dam had the range of social impacts on floodplain people that have become depressingly familiar.   Those farming the floodplain upstream, whose homes and land were flooded by the reservoir, were moved to resettlement villages built on barren laterite hills above the dam, and promised irrigation water once the project was finished.  Those living for hundreds of kilometres downstream found the floods they depended on changed – floods came late (because the reservoir was filled before water was released), were smaller than previously, and unpredictable in timing.  The communities in the irrigation area itself, below the dam, had their land bulldozed as irrigation canals were put in, but had to wait until the dam and supply canal were finished before getting it back, or receiving water and staring to farm again.  It was a long hungry wait, and there were angry blockades of the dam in protest, and an undocumented number of protestors were killed.

When I look back now, I see that Wasting the Rain was romantic about the life of toil and poverty in the un-dammed floodplains of Africa.  I was young and naïve, and arrogant in presuming to write from the perspective of the people I had met working the land along Nigerian rivers.  But I think I was right to point to the effectiveness with which local people adapted to the spatial and temporal variability of environmental conditions in African river floodplains.  The way they used land contrasted sharply with the ideas that drove dam projects.  At Bakolori, the project’s designers promised economic ‘development’ (even if this never materialized), and in its name they completely restructured the landscape to fit their blueprint. They tried to lock future development into a straightjacket of concrete, and gtheir plans did not work.

This line of argument in the book owed a lot to the work of Californian Anthropologist Ted Scudder, who had studied dams and irrigation projects all over the world.  He started by working with Gwembe Tonga people of the floodplain of the Zambezi displaced by the Kariba Dam in the 1950s.   From the 1960s, he and Elizabeth Colson followed evacuees in Zambia through from one generation to the next.  In the process they, and their students, showed how long the negative impacts of resettlement could last.  In the 1980s Ted began to set out a more holistic approach to river basin planning, building in particular on studies of the River Senegal.  Ted was not opposed to dams in principle, but urged that they be used to support and improve floodplain agriculture rather than to attempt to transform it.  He argued that dam projects should be designed to address the needs of both reservoir evacuees upstream and those suffering from disrupted floods downstream.  He became very interested in the idea of drawdown agriculture and irrigation  around reservoir margins, and planned releases to provide predictable floods for downstream farmers (drawing in particular on the work of Jackie King, and what have become known as ‘environmental flows’). 

In 1998, Ted Scudder became one of the Commissioners of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), and his ideas (and his breadth of experience and charismatic enthusiasm) meant that his approach had quite an influence on the Commission’s findings.  One of their seven strategic priorities was ‘recognising entitlements and sharing benefits’.  In particular, the Commission suggested that ‘people adversely affected by a dam project should be among the first to benefit from the project ( p. 243).  That was classic Scudder.

When the World Commission on Dams’ report,  Dams and Development, was published in 2000, I felt that at last there was a clearly laid out approach to dam planning that could render unexpected negative social and environmental impacts something from the past. It did not, of course, work out like that. 

After 2000, my own research took me away from water and dams to look at the social dimensions of biodiversity conservation projects.  It has been very interesting to turn back to dams as a member of the FutureDAMS consortium.  So what has happened in the 30 years since I sat down to write Wasting the Rain?

Frankly, it feels like groundhog day.  After a short lull after 2000, dam planning and construction surged in the developing world, and there are an awful lot of new dams.  Some things have changed.   Different sources of funding dominate the sector, and different corporations (notably from China) are designing and building dams. The negative impacts of dams are better recognised, and there are new frameworks for dam planning to guide dam developers to avoid them, notably the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  There is a growing interest in the identification and management of ‘risk’ in hydropower projects from lenders and investors.

However dams are still mired in controversy.   Negative social and environmental impacts have not gone away.  Far from it.  New large dams come with all the problems familiar from the old pre-WCD world – downstream impacts unrecognised in technical planning, or ignored; people displaced by reservoirs whose resettlement left them permanently disadvantaged; grassroots movements demanding environmental justice; economists struggle to find a rule-based approach for navigating benefits and costs.  Irrigation schemes in sub-Saharan Africa today are failing to deliver in just the same ways as their predecessors: overpromising, underperforming, and expensive. 

Why has so little changed?  Every observer has their own preferred list of reasons, just as they have their own assessment of how skewed the balance between benefits and impacts of large of dams really is.  For what it is worth, here is mine.

The problem today, as in the 1980s, is that dams epitomise ‘development from above’.  They emerge from a technical development planning complex that sits outside the societies that they chiefly affect.  They are designed in terms of national or international development needs, not the needs of floodplain people.  They are conceived of as a way to increase the size of the national economy, and to bring the maximum number of people within that economy out of poverty.  Questions of the distribution of the economic pie are treated as secondary. 

Too often, riverine societies are therefore treated as eggs that have to be broken to make the omelette of development.  Dam planners essentially see the ideas of floodplain people as irrelevant to development decisions, believing that their needs and interests can and should be traded off against national need, or that by some alchemy they will be transformed into sophisticated wage workers thriving in an expanded urban economy.  To those planning dams, knowing what floodplain people think and feel about the future is only important if it is useful in negotiations to persuade them to move quietly from their land.  Their dissatisfaction, or plight, is a project risk that needs to be managed. Compensation for losses due to the project is a costly necessary evil, to be minimized to protect the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis.

Politically, many dams are built as if riverine people do not matter, because the unfortunate truth is that those people actually do not matter very much in political terms.  They are not wealthy or powerful; often they are not literate, their villages are often remote and they can often be fobbed off with promises.  If there are protests, these can easily be contained and localized (unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when groups like Narmada Bachao Andolan in India pushed back hard against the state).  It also really doesn’t matter greatly what anti-dam activists in industrialised countries think, because in the end they also have little influence on dam decisions on the ground.  Opposition and legal battles may slow dam projects down and make them more expensive, but they rarely stop them altogether.

At best, the calculation of costs and benefits is done well enough and early enough in the planning process that the dams built have a plausible chance of delivering net benefit.  But very often such assessments are formulaic, sometimes merely box-ticking exercises.  Large dams remain risky projects for fragile developing economies, dogged by cost overruns and negative impacts, and fuelling debt and inflation.  Moreover, if the benefits promised to affected people do not materialise, or are smaller than planned, while costs (financial, social, environmental) are larger than expected, nobody will know: economic assessments of completed projects at maturity are often done by interested parties such as funders, but they are rarely published anywhere that is subject to peer review.  There is much too little learning from mistakes, because such learning is painful and threatens too many vested interests inside and outside the country where the dam is built.

OK, so if I was naïve thirty years ago, I accept that I am cynical now – at least about dams (and irrigation schemes).  Nonetheless, it has been both shocking and depressing to come back to the dam world and find the same mix of problems, arguments and protagonists, the same kinds of impacts and injustices, as in the 1980s and 1990s.  Too many dams are still being conceived and planned without adequate consideration of issues such as long-term impacts on resettled and downstream communities, reservoir methane, or the long-term sustainability of growth-based economic development models.  Their legacies will be the damage they do to the long-term productivity of floodplains and the welfare of their people, the accumulation of national debt (which will trigger further grandiloquent projects in future whose supposed benefits are calculated to repay it), and the burden of costs of dam removal at the end of their lives.  This is a Faustian bargain today, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

What can be done?  Well, reading Dams and Development would be a start.  It got at least some things right.  As it said, we need an approach to dams that makes those affected into the main beneficiaries: not bought off, moved and forgotten, but treated as the key stakeholders.  We need to treat floodplains as the heart of future development, not raw material to be consumed to feed endless economic growth elsewhere.   We need joined-up thinking about rivers and their waters, not narrow attempts to find sites to build dams.  We need a river industry, not a dams industry, willing to consider rivers from an interdisciplinary perspective, and capable of holistic planning. 

We also need an approach to development that does not assume that water is being ‘wasted’ unless a river is dammed.  ‘Options assessment’ was another key proposal of the World Commission on Dams: what is the development problem, and is a dam the best solution to it?  Development planners need to stop operating as if they still believed that economies could ‘take off’ into soaring and sustainable flight (as the anti-communist economist Walter Rostow assured generations of development planners it could).  We need an approach to development that treats climate change as important, and does not sacrifice rivers and their people in the name of a pumped-up energy grid.   We need an approach that does not see development as a transitive verb, something done to people, but instead sees it as helping people bring about change themselves. 

So, cynicism married with idealism: perhaps a disastrous mix.  Nonethetheless, I see a world of dams that is as coercive and dysfunctional as it ever was. 

I am reminded of a Hausa proverb used by my old boss in Nigeria about the implications of development for small farmers whose lives were upended by the dam and irrigation project at Bakolori: hauka ne ga kaza ta auri kyanwa.  It means ‘it is madness for a chicken to marry a cat’.   The cat is the development planner: woe betide those swept aside by the cat’s paw in the name of the greater good.

Thanks to David Hulme, Chris Sandbrook, Chris Schulz and Jamie Skinner for comments.  They bear no responsibility for the views expressed. An abridged version of this blog appears on the FutureDAMS project website.

Green Development?

Recently I held in my hands a printed copy of the new Fourth Edition of my book Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World.  It had been a long while coming.  The contract I signed in 2012 set a submission date of December 2014: the manuscript was finally submitted in 2019, a cool four and a half years late.

In my defence, revising it was hard.  When I blithely agreed to do a new edition, both I and Routledge thought in terms of a quick update, with maybe a few new bits of writing to meet some of the more enthusiastic suggestions of reviewers.

It did not turn out like that.  Too much had changed – and too much was wrong with the previous edition (not least that I found it long-winded, choked with quotations that made it hard to read).  I ended up rewriting almost every paragraph, restructuring the argument and adding new chapters.  I cut words and references fiercely, like a gardener clearing brambles.  But as hard as I cut, behind me new words took root and grew.

I should have known it would be difficult to do justice to the field of sustainability and development.  I had made exactly the same mistake twice before. This was the fourth edition of the book.  The original was written in the 1980s and published in 1990.  It was written in a world without email or Internet: I spent my small advance on my first ever word processor (the remarkable Amstrad PCW).  At that time, systematic thinking about environment and development depended on the World Conservation Strategy (1980), and the Brundtland Report (1987).  The second edition appeared in 2001 and the third in 2009.  These had to respond to the 1992 ‘Rio Conference’ and the explosion in international debate and policy that followed it (not least about the UN Conventions on Climate Change and on Biological Diversity) and the Millennium Development Goals.

Everywhere there was more to say: more case studies, more theories, more contrasting ways of looking at the problems, more arguments about what ‘the problems’ were and what perils lay in particular ways of defining them.  Everybody had an argument to make about sustainability, nature and human futures. There had been endless meetings and reports, generating well-intentioned statements that ranged from the visionary to the self-serving, the heartfelt to the platitudinous.  A huge crop of new academic writing had sprung up, with new disciplines (for example ecological and institutional economics or conservation biology) flowering and new ideas setting seed (for example ecosystem services, natural capital,  resilience and governance).

In the face of this growth industry, the second and third editions of Green Development grew fatter, slower, less sharp.  By the time I finally turned seriously to the new edition, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development had taken place back in Rio in 2012, and the Sustainable Development Summit in New York in 2015.  The Sustainable Development Goals had generated their own explosion of scholarship. The challenge of dealing with all this material seemed overwhelming.

Curiously, as I hacked my way through thickets of old writing and new, it was the first edition to which I turned for the heart of the new book.  Not just because it was shorter and better written (or at least I thought so), but because of the critique of the conventional model of development that it built upon.  These were the debates of my youth.  I was doing my A Levels in 1972 when The Limits to Growth appeared, and the new Ecologist Magazine produced A Blueprint for Survival.  The following year saw publication of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People MatteredThe very title of Only One Earth by Barbara Ward and René Dubos, also 1972, summed up the impossibility of accepted ideas of growth.   Like others of the generation who watched the Apollo missions unfold, I took for granted the idea that the Earth was a unique and limited place in an inhospitable universe.

Doing my PhD on the impacts of development projects on small farmers in the African Sahel, I discovered Robert Chambers’s Rural Development: Putting the Last First, and later the works of Murray Bookchin and Robert Goodland. I realized that development as often brought problems as solutions.  And that was what I meant by ‘green development’ in the title of the first edition.  As I wrote in my first blog for Thinking Like a Human in 2014, the word ‘green’ is so loosely used that it might seem meaningless, a rough label for any kind of ‘environmental’ argument or action.  But to me the word seemed useful to draw together challenges to the conventional development model of unceasing economic growth, of unconstrained production and consumption, and the appropriation for profit of non-human nature.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as sustainability became a mainstream idea, critiques of Western developmentalism got rather drowned out in the torrent of academic and popular debate.  Now it has come into its own again.  In the 1970s, environmentalists spoke rather piously of existential challenges to human futures.  Today such challenges are unmissable, particularly in the form of climate change.  Moreover, the poverty of international policy responses has drawn attention to the structure of the world economy, to failures and limitations of governance and the pervasive inequalities and injustices that characterize and entrench them.

The standard model of development that served industrialized countries so well for so long is once again understood as a problem, not a blueprint for the future. In the 1970s, the key concept to frame this understanding was ‘limits to growth’.   This time around, attention is focused forwards,  on degrowth.  Can we build an economy of care, of the commons, of simplicity and conviviality, of cooperation?  Can we achieve prosperity without growth?  Can we rethink economics to deliver happiness?

When you are writing a book, you can keep tinkering with the text (indeed, that is one reason why books get delayed!).  But as soon as the manuscript is delivered, that window closes.  As an author you suffer agonies until publication day, watching new publications appear, and the world you have written about start to change.

So it was with the new edition of Green Development.  In the months after submission in 2019, the newspapers were full of Extinction Rebellion protests in the streets of London and other cities, and Greta Thunberg lecturing jaded politicians about their responsibilities to the earth.   The new edition of Green Development finally appeared in print back in January 2020.  Holding the finished book my hands then, I measured it against this explosion of interest about new ways of living.  I had re-centred the book on critiques of developmentalism, but I wished I had done more.

But now even January 2020 seems a lifetime ago.  The Covid-19 pandemic, with its cascade of closed economies, locked down people, and death stalking ordinary lives, has changed the debate again. Some commentators have drawn hope from responses to the pandemic, seeing vision, courage, empathy, care, a respect for science, and sheer hard work in the common good.  To some, the radical policy innovation demanded by Covid-19 arguably shows what might be done to build a sustainable and just world. Climate change may be a slower burn crisis than Covid-19, but, as Greta Thunberg points out, it demands as serious a response.

Yet radical change is scary.  The familiar exerts a huge pull, particularly for those who have been doing well out of the existing system.  Calls to re-establish ‘business as usual’, global trade, high street shopping, cheap air flights and holiday travel, are strong.  To re-imagine human futures is one thing, to lead or even follow the policy change is unnerving and takes courage.

And some Covid-19 policy-making is not encouraging, marked by short-sightedness, greed, selfishness, and aversion to risk.  We sense the pulling up of drawbridges, the closing off of sympathy for those who are different from ourselves.  The Black Lives Matter protests have focused global attention on structural injustice and inequality, and the bloody and coercive histories behind the wealth of ‘developed’ countries.

Thinking about Green Development, I recognise that it probably does a better job of explaining problems than offering solutions.   I comfort myself that if you don’t understand problems you can’t fix them, although this is an easy cop out.  Thinking about the book in the light of this extraordinary year, the Covid-19 pandemic holds up a mirror in which we can look at ourselves and our societies.  If we gaze into it, we see not a world easily remade, but a set of intractable challenges and tough choices.  Many of these are horribly familiar, even if they strike us as new.

Old entrenched problems are often the hardest to solve.  But one thing is very clear: never has bold thinking about what matters in the world been more urgent.

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.

Synthetic Biology and the Metabolic Rift

Synthetic biology is an astonishing field. Its scientific ambition is breathtaking. According to the Global Network of Science Academies, it involves no less than ‘the deliberate design and construction of customized biological and biochemical systems to perform new or improved functions’. Synthetic biologists hope to create a new industry by treating DNA as if it was computer software.   Writing in Nature, Daniel Gibson observed ‘A biological cell is much like a computer – the genome can be thought of as the software that encodes the cell’s instructions, and the cellular machinery as the hardware that interprets and runs the software’. Scientists can act as biological ‘software engineers’, programming new biological ‘operating systems’ into cells. That is quite an ambition.

Synthetic biology  has significant implications for conservation, from the speculative world of de-extinction (whether the cloning of mammoth or the summer blockbuster of Jurassic World) to the idea of fighting wildlife disease (such as white-nose disease in wild bats or chytridiomycosis in amphibians), or addressing human impacts on land and ocean. It has the potential to transform the production of food, fibre and oils, the flows of materials through the urban-industrial system, and human ecological interactions. It is likely to be a seriously disruptive innovation in many fields, from medicine or agriculture to energy supply.

In a world of Promethean environmentalism, synthetic biology offers perhaps the perfect combination of possibility and risk. On the one hand it offers solutions to global sustainability challenges in food, water and energy. On the other hand, it channels environmentalist fears about the scope of corporate control of genetic knowledge and the development, patenting and release of novel organisms.

But synthetic biology is not just another technology. It has profound implications for relations between humanity and non-human nature. As Neil Smith observes, it extends human artifice – and corporate interests – right down to the level of the genome.   So a key question is, how should we think about it?

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Conservation: we are what we eat

Living as I do in a northern European city, it is tempting to think of conservation as being something that happens ‘out there’ in tropical forests and coral reefs, with no connection to my everyday life. But on our increasingly globalised planet, the consumption choices that I and my fellow citizens make really do have a significant impact on biodiversity all around the world. A clear example is provided by the question of what we choose to eat and drink. There is overwhelming evidence that the ‘normal’ diet enjoyed by the world’s rich, and desired by the world’s poor, is highly damaging to biodiversity. Livestock are fed on soy grown on land cleared from forest. Fish are harvested using trawling technologies that devastate marine life. Tea, coffee and oil palm all replace natural forest, even when they are certified as biodiversity friendly. A recent article in Science makes the claim that “human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity” because of the huge amounts of space and energy that go into meat production. More recently it has been claimed that giving up beef would reduce our carbon footprint more than giving up driving cars.

Given all this evidence, it might seem reasonable to expect that highly damaging food and drink products are being taken off our menus and supermarket shelves through a combination of regulation and consumer pressure. But of course this isn’t happening – far from it. So what is going on? Why is there not a sensible public debate about the relationship between food and nature? I recently took part in an event at Homerton College in Cambridge to discuss this issue, organised by Luciana Leite de Araujo, one of my fantastic Conservation Leadership students. I shared the stage with my colleague Ben Phalan, who knows far more about these issues than I do. This blog is an attempt to distil my thinking after the event, and to propose some ideas for a way forward. Continue reading

Tigers or Transition?

Is biodiversity conservation part of the environmental movement? To what extent is the protection of species like tigers an integral part of wider concerns about transition to more sustainable lives on earth?  These questions came up at a recent meeting Conservation and Sustainability: Do We Practise What We Preach?, organised by the Cambridge Conservation Forum. The questions are simple enough.  The answers turn out to be a bit more complicated.

Historically, it’s a no-brainer.  The birth of the modern conservation movement in the late Nineteenth Century was strongly environmentalist, in that it was a broad-spectrum reaction to the depredations of capitalism and industrialism. In colonised territories like North America or Africa, the extinction of species (blaubok, quagga or passenger pigeon) and the settlement of frontiers drove a wave of sentiment for wilderness.  Yet in countries like the UK, conservation had broader roots: the founders of organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB and the Open Spaces Society were people who opposed the impacts of industrial pollution, urban sprawl, hunting and collecting, even if they enjoyed certain of its fruits.

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