Conversations about Conservation

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The Department of Zoology of the University of Otago held a conversazione mark the end of the year at the Hutton Theatre in the Dunedin Museum.  Four topics for discussion were introduced: Natural neighbourhoods for city children; Sea lion bycatch in New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Squid Fishery; Water worries: hot, rich, dirty and dry;  and Species restoration using reintroduction and de-extinction.

Natural neighbourhoods for City Children

Urban areas are diverse, ranging from nature rich and creating environmental awareness to nature poor.  Children tend to have a high level of access to green-space with biodiversity.  Of course, children are allowed a restricted freedom of movement.  The study looked at kids from Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.  Gardens encourage a connection with nature and children spend 40% of their time in them, along with sports grounds.  Children avoid woodlands, such as green-belts, and  streets, spending about 10% of time in those areas.  The social and economic status of households also affects the access to biodiversity.  Density reduces biodiversity.

Sea Lion Bycatch in New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Squid Fishery

Squid fishing occurs around the Auckland Islands.  Sea Lion population has recovered to the point that a colony re-established itself on the Otago Peninsula since 1993.  Between 1992 and 2009 it is estimated there have been 1322 deaths, especially females.  The death of each sea lion female means the pup she was raising at the time would starve to death, and no replacement pup would be born.  Escape devices to allow sea lions to escape from drowning in drag nets have been introduced.  The government and the fishing industry have declared the issue resolved.  More evidence is needed to establish this as true.  We only have to kill a few adult sea lions to wipe out a population.

Water Worries: Hot, Rich, Dirty and Dry

Farmlands have gone from tussock to sheep and beef, and now to big dairy.  Important to keep sediments out of streams.  The amount of water removed from the lower river for irrigation means only 10% of the trout in that part of the river survived.  Predators such as ferrets and feral cats eat well.  The proposed minimum flow for streams is 450 litres per second.  A more realistic amount required for connection in streams is estimated to be 750 litres per second.  There is a balance between between economics and environment that needs to be discovered.

Species Restoration using Reintroduction and De-extinction

New Zealand is an extinction hot spot.  Recovery is not impossible.  264 Pateke (Brown Teal) were released into the Coromandel Peninsula have grown to a population of 800 birds.  Pockets of birds are focused within an area.

The last thylacine froze to death in a zoo.  Much of this talk was covered in the inaugural professorial address Reintroduction Biology.

After a brief break for refreshment the audience broke up into discussion groups.  I was tempted to stay and hear more, especially about urban biodiversity.  I left during the break and headed home for tea.

Reintroduction Biology

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Another inaugural professorial lecture, this time for Philip Seddon.  I arrived in time for the lecture after visiting my flat to get my washing in before dusk, and ominous clouds.  The lecture theatre filled up, with the overflow watching in another of Archway theatres on live-streaming.  This was a popular lecture.  The benefits of becoming a professor is that you end up on a lot more committees.

We are becoming alienated from the natural world.  More people live in urban areas, over 50% of the world’s population.  The example was sighted that in a survey of school children done while Seddon was in Saudi Arabia 50% of the pupils described the desert fox as ‘dangerous’.  Yes, really!

This puts pressure on wildlife populations.  September 2014 is the centennial of the death of the last passenger pigeon.  She was called ‘Martha’.  It is dangerous to be named as the last of a species.  Ask Lonesome George who was last of an island of Galapagos Tortoises.  The last of mainland Kakapo, died 1987, was Richard Henry Kakapo, named for Richard Treacy Henry.  The human Henry unsuccessfully established Resolution Island as a sanctuary for native birds.  It was too close to the mainland and the stoats got in, a fatal winter.

This was not the first attempt at conservation translocation.  At the same time Edward McIlhenny, famous for his ubiquitous tabasco sauce, founded the sanctuary Bird City in Lousiana.  In 1907 the American Bison Society began the restoration of bison on the great plains, having previously shot as many as possible to break the hold on land by the Plains Indians.

A little over quarter of the translocations happen in New Zealand.  Species cannot be restored to the state that they were previously.  It is a dynamic state.  Species cannot be restored to environments where preditors now exist.  Climate change will also make a difference, like to what a tuatara’s gender will be.  Species are introduced to non-historical habitats to allow them to survive and flourish.  There has to be a balance between the wolves and the elks.

Sometimes we need to make ecological substitutes.  After goats and pests were removed from Galapagos Islands giant tortoises were reintroduced to graze on weeds and allow indigenous plants to flower.  They were not the same sub-species there before, now extinct.  The ecology was put back together again.  Good to have all the pieces.

Can we resurrect species? Through breeding, cloning and splicing?  Technically yes.  They won’t be the same species.  Do we need new giant rattites in New Zealand?  How about we save the kiwi!

Like in industrial fishing the baselines are shifting as the ecologies become poorer.  We are dealing with limited resources.

Gone: by Isabella Kirkland, a still life of extinct species

Gone: by Isabella Kirkland, a still life of extinct species

The fate of the Antarctic Ice Sheet

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Enough of the elections already.  The big lecture of the week was visiting professor Rob DeConto talking about climate change and its effect on the Antarctic ice cap.  Looking ahead 500 years proved to be more important than looking ahead to the next election cycle.

Sea level rise is beginning to accelerate.  More melt-water is coming off the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica  In the Southern Ocean relatively warm water is hitting the Antarctic ice cap.  A loss of the glacial ice from Greenland will lead to a rise of sea levels to 7 metres, the West Antarctic Ice sheet 4 metres, East Antarctica 50 metres.

There’s not much action on the East Antarctican front yet.  There was a week in July 2012 when the entire Greenlandic Ice sheet was above freezing point.  It was effectively raining in a dry land.  Greenland is a robust ice sheet that survived the last inter-glacial period.  The mass of the Greenland Ice sheet is dense enough to pull water to it.  The loss of water from Greenland won’t affect the surrounding North Atlantic coast line, from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland and Scotland.  Instead, further away, in the South Atlantic will be most affected.

Likewise the Antarctic melt-off won’t be felt in the Southern Ocean.  It will be felt in the mid-Pacific gyre.  The West Antarctica melt affects North America, centring on Washington DC.  Scientists call this the Karma effect!

Most of West Antarctica is sitting on bedrock below sea level.  It is sensitve to ocean temperature.  Ice flows down, off the ice cap, to the ocean.  Where it flows of the West Antarctica into the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea the ice shelf is buttressed by the limits of the land that encloses it, and obstacles that it encounters, like sea mountains.  Warm water thins the buttressing and the ice flows faster into the ocean.  At the ice shelf’s edge it calves off into ice bergs and floating sea ice.

If the Ice sheet is not buttressed it loses mass.  The edge begins to float and the grounded ice sheet moves back.  The ice cap rests in a bowl of bedrock that is above sea level.  The slope of the ice sheet mirrors the slope it is grounded on the bed of the continental shelf.

The last time carbon emissions in the atmosphere is as high as they are now was during the Plyocene period three million years ago.  During that period there was no West Antarctic ice sheet and sea levels were 20 metres higher then the current Holocene period.  See I’m back to reporting on climate change again!

It turns out that as well as the underwater basin in the West Antarctic ice sheet that there are deep basins in East Antarctica, and these are the thickest parts of the East Antarctic ice sheet.  The grounded ice sheet cannot contain its own weight.  Floating at 100 metres above the sea the Ice cliff will break up under its own weight.  Ice cliff failure will retreat the ice sheet until its supporting weight will re-stabilise. 

We are beginning to see melt water on the Ross ice shelf, standing water above freezing point.  Eventually vulnerable basins in East Antarctica will show the same warning signs.  It will take 500 years for Antarctica to reveal its new coast-line.  However our ‘business-as-usual’ policy towards carbon emissions shows that we are on schedule.  By the end of the century we will see sea rises of 1-2 metres, and an encroachment on our coasts that will be measured in centimetres per year, not millimetres as it currently is.  Coastal properties may not be a good investment.

Warning: sea levels can rise quickly making the return trip difficult and dangerous.

Antarctica showing ice sheets sitting below sea level marked in blue

Antarctica showing ice sheets sitting below sea level marked in blue

Limitless Living

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This week’s lecture was Future Visions: Ecology and Economics at the End of the World, by Andrew Shepherd.  Notes, thoughts and reactions follow:

We are closing our borders to migrant Pacifica refugees who want to escape the loss of island nations to global climate change to come to New Zealand.

In 15 years, about half a generation, 1 in 4 human beings will be living in metropolises.  Many of theses will be Blade Runner-esque mega-cities.  They risk being zombie towns: lurching forward, but economically dead.

The sixth great extinction of world history is now underway at the hands of human beings.  Natural sound has been archived, some of which cannot be reduced in the wild now.  The chorus of life  praising the creator is systematically killed off.  God may have words with us over that: Wait, after doing that to your first planet, you expect a free pass to my new creation?!

Nature is unconscious to our depredation.  There is no negotiation as we exploit nature.  It is supine.  There will be no negotiation with nature as it changes on us.  We live in a closed system.   Advocates of the market place policies argue we must adapt.  That could prove a rather harsh adaption when the time comes.

Our fantasy, our utopia, may be to image we could return to a pre-scarcity society.  We have become so alienated from place we are talking to each other through remote access, each one of us in our own private cubicules.  Detachment is at the heart of greed.  We want to engage with the simulacrum, not the immediate person.  Our finances have become abstract, numbers on a screen.  Our place is no longer where our feet are standing, it’s a rung up the social ladder.

Our actions are embedded in our grand narratives.  Our survival relies on a consensual response to our crisis.  Who makes the product you buy?  Who recycles the product you dispose?  Build an adequate local culture.

I left wondering.  The new Jerusalem is a dream of the new world, with adequate housing, a just god, life-giving water and an endless supply of fruitful growth.  It is also uninhabited, just out of reach, in the realms of potential.  I am not certain I see the initiative and the dynamic response that could come from communities of faith.  Those who do act remain isolated.  The scale of change to the narrative remains overwhelming.

Lunch in Guiyu, China, where cell phones go to be recycled.

Lunch in Guiyu, China, where cell phones go to be recycled.

Fluke of Nature

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And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on; and so did I

Some local sectarians left a tract on the steps of Manono House last year.  I flicked through it a couple of times before leaving on the front porch’s pew.  One page caught my eye.  To paraphrase it was about the whale’s fluke and how it is so beautifully adapted to it environment that engineers study it to learn about hydro-dynamics.  Therefore there must be an intelligent designer behind creation.  This can’t have happened by itself.

Laying aside the arguments for and against intelligent design I was struck by a thought that I would be tempted to ask a helpful door-knocking evangelist one day: What is your sect’s doctrine on whaling?

Think about it.  If a missionary’s sect does not actively oppose whaling then they are complicit in destroying evidence for the Creator.

Imagine the scene on the Last Day when Jesus comes back and he says, “Hey, shouldn’t there more whales and dolphins in the oceans than that?  I spent a good hour on the first wet Thursday afternoon of creation week designing those.  They were a cool design!”  There may be some re-thinking on who’s a sheep and who’s a goat after he says that.

Instead we have become comfortable in a technological world.  Invented by human hands and science; not reliant on a sectarian god.  It’s comfortable, and the cost is hidden from us that is our own consumption of the world’s resources.  We turn a blind eye to the sin that undergirds our society.

A Visit of Atossa Soltani

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Amazon_Watch_logoThe Runanga o Ngai Tahu and the Hilary Institute hosted a visit of Atossa Soltani to Dunedin.  I received an email for the event from one of the University Chaplains.  The Hilary Institute was established by Sir Edmund Hilary in his last years on the planet to support leadership in mid-career leading to change.  The event was held at the Centre for Innovation Indigeneity.  While the group was small and fitted comfortably in the room there was a good representation of the local iwi.  I recognised that I was sitting among people with whom I don’t interact regularly.

Atossa Soltani is an Iranian migrant living in America, the founder and executive director of Amazon Watch.  Iran is a country with only 2% of its original rainforest left.  Modern Iran is a dry country.  20% of the world’s rainforests are in the Amazon basin.  The Amazon  rainforest isn’t just the lungs of the earth’s biosphere.  It also releases fresh water into the atmosphere to circulate around the planet as rain.  20% of the rainforest in the south Amazon has been deforested.  It’s turning into savannah.  This deforestation is pushing  more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than US car emissions as plant life from the deforestation decomposes.

The parts of the Amazon that are surviving are under indigenous title.  That’s a quarter of the Amazon basin.  It holds 80% of the diversity found there.  There are oil reserves we can’t afford to burn.  50% of known oil reserves and 80% of coal need to stay in the ground to keep our climate safely below 2°c of global warming.  We have 10 years, the years around the date 2017, to move beyond a carbon fueled culture that will decide our climate for the next milennium.  Seven Quechua tribes under women leadership kept the oil companies out of their tribal lands for 10 years.  The projects always come back.  We can elect our governments, we can’t un-elect our plutocrats, we are stuck with them.  The oil companies will fight to exploit until hell freezes over, and then they will continue the fight on its icy landscape.

There are people who are sitting alongside the indigenous people.  They are waiting on them to make their decisions and support them into protecting their tribal lands.  They sound like interesting people to watch.

As soon as you awaken to the power you have, you begin to flex the muscles of your courage.  Then you can dream bravely; letting go of your limiting beliefs and pushing past your fears.

Atossa Soltani

Enough! Challenges to a Post-Growth Economy

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An enthusiastic audience came out to hear former Green Party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons present the Quaker Lecture, a lecture to the Annual Meeting of Quakers which is being hosted by local Quaker groups around the country.  Jeanette Fitzsimons was born in Dunedin, and even once appeared on the cover of the Outlook, the old Presbyterian magazine.

Her lecture was available as a booklet for $5.  I decided that making notes and reporting them here would fit into the spirit of the lecture.  No doubt a copy can be obtained through the Quaker Website.

Continued growth is not sustainable.  The earth is full.  Wednesday 21 August marked World Overshoot Day for 2013.  That means  we have used up the resources that the world supplies for 2013.  Any further resources we use we borrow from the future.  And I haven’t started on my Christmas shopping yet!

The Club of Rome predicted that an end to growth leading to a collapse of society back in 1971.  We have delayed it, but the prediction is on track.  How do we manage a post-growth economy?  How do we manage ourselves living in Ecotopia?  How do we create a sustainable well-being when growth has not made us happier people?

Sustainable growth is not possible based on interest-bearing debt.  Economic culture is having to change its language.

The richest economy cannot provide decent healthcare for all its citizens.  Let’s not go down that path.

  • Less stuff and more time.
  • Less work but shared equally.
  • Less travel and strengthen local communities.

As an aside Fitzsimons noted she had needed to buy a new charger for her laptop.  A packaged charger cost her $160; an unpackaged charger cost her $90.  We are paying $70 difference for a box and plastic wrapping we are going to throw away!

Working hours would have to reduce and be separated from income.

If there is no growth debt is stealing from future generations.

Banks must be restricted to loaning only what is deposited.  Currently mortgages are funded out of imaginary currency.

Our cultural values and sense of identity hold back a sustainable economy: I shop therefore I am.  Emotions guide our logic.  Once you have food, shelter, means of transport and secured education for the next generation what more do you need?  Margaret Thatcher worked out that once you change the heart and soul of the nation then economic change will follow.  It’s time to back off her vision of the future.

How do society’s values change?

  • Take back advertising money.  I understand it’s not taxed.
  • Change the conversation to talk about quality of life: let’s talk about the arts, sports, our low crime rate, public health, the environment.  A lot of these things we do well.

Economists are starting to get it.  A generation are waking up to a power shift.  We are the 99% and the 1% control half our nation’s wealth.  It’s time to put a check on corporate greed and corruption.  The answers are not in technology, the answers are in our minds and in our thinking.