Category Archives: Environmental politics

Books Environmental politics History

From the East Anglian fens to the fragile wilds of Chernobyl

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a title reflecting a bit of a conceit – it might equally be called “interesting natural things I’ve seen around the world”. It ranges widely from the fens of East Anglia to the horrors of nature distorted around Chernobyl, with a digression to a near-abandoned tobacco farm in South Africa to follow a honeyguide, to the American prairie and site of Custer’s last stand.

But it was the accounts of the fens I found most fascinating, possibly for their combination of history and ecology. Dee reports on the draining of Whittlesey Moor, the last fen mere to be so treated, in 1851. An iron column, 22 feet high was driven into the peat until it rested on the clay, it’s top level with the peat. “The water was pumped from Whittlesey in a matter of days. Locals strapped planks to their feet to walk on the mud and gather the fish that were dwoning in air. Eels and others were taken by the ton… the lake gave up a censer and an incense boat, which the last Abbot of Ramsey had lost in its watery flight from the Dissolution Commissioners of Henry VIII. The skeleton of a gramps (a dolphin of some species, possibly a killer whale) was also found, a leftover from more marine times. The water birds … went with its water. Previously, eight punt-gunners had made a living shooting its ducks. Three thousand wildfowl had been taken from the decoy on Holmes Fen in one week. Eight bitters or buttercups had been shot on Whittlesey in one day.” And on the column, Dee says … “its crown is now 12 feet clear of the earth, an iron-green stick in the birch-crowded day.” (p. 28) – a result of the peat soil shrinking.

Yet the earlier, pre-drained, fenland had been immensely productive, a part-wild, part-farmed place. “there were always people in every field and on every fen… reeds and sedges scythe for teaching; duck and fish tapped for food; peat dug for fuel; litter … off marsh plants for coarse hay. … Reeds grew in the wetter part of the fen. After winter frosts stripped them of their flags, old stems of four years or more were cut for roofing and younger stems were mixed with litter for fodder… Coopers sought the bullrushes on the fen, their long round stems were dried and placed between barrel staves where, on contact with fewer or whatever else was in the barrels, the stems would swell and keep the joints watertight. … Osiers from willows on the fen were cut for baskets, eel traps and foggot binds; thicker branches made good scythe handles. To keep the stick swollen and the fastening firm between harvests, scythe would be stored under the fen water, like moon-slivers of rusting silver.”
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Environmental politics History Politics

Definitely worth reading: The Village (Marinaleda) Against the World

The Village Against the World is an affectionate, but not hagiographic account of the development of Marinaleda, with a strong focus on its leader Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, a farming community in Andalusia, southern Spain that over three decades transformed itself from being a landless, poverty=stricken peasant community with 60% unemployment, population 2,700 to being a land-owning, communally run community with its own farm, processing plant, bar and much more. One of its achievements is a community that is to be eventually of 350 homes; the Andalusian regional government provides the building materials, the villagers build the homes themselves and pay 15
euros/month mortgage

Hancox is realistic about its special nature “for centuries, Andalusian day labourers have settled in … tidily-sized pueblos, rather than in big cities or isolated cottages … and this has forged a unique spirit, an ultra-local micro=patriotism,… a thriving collective personality develops of its own volition, independent of
trends outside”.

But this is no ordinary pueblo – it’s as politically sophisticated as they come. Hancox tells the story of how the village went on hunger strike to demand land, since earlier occupations had come to nothing, sometimes violently, since police can’t beat up someone for not eating. Topping it was a letter from the villages’ children, some of whom had joined the hunger strike, apparently entirely on their own initiative, to the young crown prince of Spain. Political genius.

But … “Before the land seizures, before the collective farm, before economic democracy, before virtually free housing, before the assassination attempts, before the supermarket raids, before utopia, came organisation… in 1976 the field workers’ union, the Sindicato de Oberos del Campo was founded and soon after the Mirinaleda chapter formed … a union for day labourers, focusing on direct action, with a broadly anarchist philosophy. … at that time Spanish law prohibited voting in union elections until you had worked for the same employer for more than six months, ruling out 98% of the 500,000 Andalusian field workers, severing an entire class from labour organisation.” (p. 73)

What they acquired was part of an aristocrat holding of 23,000 hectares of land … were planted with labour-light dry crops like cornand sunflowers. “The Marinaleda proposal was to sow crops that created substantially more work, like tobacco, cotton or sugar beet, and to create secondary industries for processing them. This, they argues, would instantly lead to a 30 per cent reduction in unemployment in central Andalusia.” (p. 79)

“It was land reform from below, not above, delivered by direct action, and always pacifist ; their rule was to leave when evicted (although this did not prevent countless lawsuits for trespassing, roadblocks and other related incidents.) They fell into a routine whereby the Guardia Civil would evict them every day at the same time, around 5 or 6 pm, when they would go peacefully and walk back to the village. They following morning they would walk the 10 miles back again, flags held high. In the summer of 1985, in the blistering heat,
they made the same journey every day for a month – taking only Sunday off.” (p. 97)

“In 1991 they were finally granted El Humoso’s 1,200 hectares, the Duke of Infantado was quietly paid off by the regional government… In Sanchez Gordillo’s reading … it was the first time in 5,000 years
that the Andalusian farm labourers had been given the land that was rightfully theirs.”

Well worth a read … an extract.

Books Environmental politics Science

Looking back four billion years, with a very foggy picture…

(A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics)

The early evolution of life on Earth is a subject I’ve always found fascinating, but it’s a couple of decades since I last revisited the subject in any depth, and having read Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History by Donald E Canfield I now know that pretty well everything I’ve ever read or been taught on the subject was wrong. The idea that gradually algae spread around the earth, pumping out oxygen in a steady-growing stream, well it simply isn’t true.

It’s not surprising my teachers were so wrong, for as I read in Oxygen, a big breakthrough in understanding early life on Earth came in only 1999, when a colleague and friend of the author, James Farquahar, found some highly unexpected results on a study of sulfur isotopes, in Archaen rocks aged from 2.3-2.4 billion years ago. That led to the conclusion that at this time there’d been interaction between UV light and sulfur dioxide gas from volcanoes. Today, that’s absorbed by ozone, of course from oxygen. Further studies on the form some molybdenum takes in rocks of this age from some parts of the world, however, show that in some places there was free oxygen – what’s come to be known as a “whiff” of oxygen.

What was happening was that by around 2.5 billion years ago, the production of oxygen by photosynthesis more or less balanced the consumption of it by volcanic gases. Sometimes the balance shifted one way, so the oxygen disappeared, sometimes the cyanobacteria were beating the volcanoes.

It was between 2.3 and 2.4 billion years ago that “the great oxidation event” (GOE) changed that. Quite what caused it is still up for grabs. Canfield has a favourite, not evolution of cyanobacteria but a less active mantle, as it gradually cooled, cutting the production of reducing gases. Seems entirely plausible to this interested amateur.

But the GOE wasn’t entirely even – it was Canfield suggests concentrated in the atmosphere, the oceans remaining anoxic and rich in sulfide, with more sulfur being weathered from the land through oxidative weathering of sulfides. This is now known as the “Canfield Ocean” – yes after the author, we’re in seriously expert hands here.

Related to that is the likelihood that for much of the Earth’s “middle ages” atmospheric oxygen levels were much lower than today’s. (Any time machine travellers would need to take oxygen cylinders.) The author’s theory is just 10% of today’s levels, others suggest 40-50%.
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Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from George Monbiot’s Feral

“The name, coined by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, … shifting Baseline Syndrome’. The people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal. When fish or other animals or plants are depleted, scientists or campaigners might call for them to be restored to the numbers that existed in their youth; their own ecological baseline. But they often appear unaware that what they considered normal when they we children was in fact a state of extreme deprivation.” p 69

P74 “It is all about soil disturbance with birch. It’s designed to chase retreating glaciers and ice sheets by seeding into their exposed soils before the coarse grass gets a foot in the door. It is also good at recolonizing burnt sites and places where the conifers have been felled. You just need to prepare the site with a tractor or rotavator. Or you could use pigs or wild boor to break up the bracken and disturb the soil. If we are serious about getting forests back in the uplands as quickly as possible, this has to be the way to go.”

P82 “In the catchment of the River Wye, for example, the authorities spent large amounts of public money until the late 1990s on the pointless task of dragging what they called timber blockages out of the tributaries. These great nests of branches took hundreds of years to accumulate. They were the prime habitat for a wide range of species, including the young of the salmon for which the river is renowned. … before someone realised that the policy resulted in nothing but harm.”

P83 “Beavers radically change the behaviour of a river. They slow it down. They reduce scouring and erosion. They ap much of the load it carried, ensuring that the water runs more clearly. They create small wetlands and boggy areas… Far from spreading disease… They could reduce it, as their dams filter out the sediments containing faecal bacteria.”

P84 “One of the most fascinating discoveries of modern ecology is an abundance of trophic cascades. … When the animals at the top of the food chain – the top predators – change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down through the food chain,in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape, and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.

The best know example is the dramatic change that followed the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Seventy years after they had been exterminated, wolves were released into the park in 1995. When they arrived, many of the stream sides and riversides were almost bare, closely cropped by a high population of red deer (which in North America, confusingly, are called elk). But as soon as he wolves arrived, this began to change. It altered their prey’s behaviour. They deer avoided the places – particularly the valleys and gorges – where they could be caught most easily. In some places, trees on the riverbanks, until the constantly suppressed by browsing, quintupled in height in just six years. The trees shaded and cooled the water and provided cover for fish and other animals, changing the wildlife community which lived there. More seedlings and saplings survived. The bare valleys began reverting to aspen, willow and cottonwood forest. One apparent result is the number of songbirds increased… The regrowth … Allowed populations of both beans and bison to expand .. The beavers … Created niches for otters, muskrats, fish, frogs and reptiles. … by hunting coyotes, the wolves allow the populations of smaller mammals, such as rabbits and mice, to rise. Scavenging animals such as bald eagles and ravens feed on the remains of the deer the wolves kill. The return of the wolves appears to have increased the numbers of bears. They eat both the carrion abandoned by the wolves and the berries growing on the shrubs that have sprung back as the deer declined.”

P120 “Not all reintroductions succeed. Dr Hetherington offers this handy tip for avoiding disappointment, don’t do what the Italians did in Gran Paradiso. Only released two lynx. Both male.”


P165 “I am told by a senior civil servant that an insurance company recently investigated the possibility of buying and reforesting Pumlumon – the largest mountain in the Cambrians – on whose slopes both the Severn and the Wye arise. It had worked out this would be cheaper than paying out for carpets in Gloucester. It abandoned the plan because of likely political difficulties.”


P192 “Some 150 years ago, just 30 percent of the Kocevje region, 95 per cent of which is now forested, was covered by trees. Much of the forest was preserved by the Princes of Auersperg as hunting estates. They were so obsessed by hunting, as princes often seem to be, that they and the other great lords of the Hapsburg monarchy in Slovenia and Croatia drew up a official declaration of friendship with the bear, signed and stamped with their gat seals, in which they agreed to sustain its numbers so they could continue to pursue it. The role the bears played in this negotiation was unrecorded.”


P198 “The impacts of the American genocides might have been felt throughout the northern hemisphere. … Recovering forests drew so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere – about 10 parts per million – that they could have helped trigger the cooling between the 16th and 17th centuries known as the Little Ice Age.  …. Native American civilisation may have begun with a similar impact. The biologist Felisa Smith proposes that the extermination of the American megafauna by Mesolithic hunters may have been responsible for another mini ice age, the Younger Dryas, which began 12,800 years ago and lasted for 1,300 years … The wild herbivores of the Americas were, like sheep and cattle, magnificently flatulent. Smith calculates they produced around 10 million tonnes a year of methane.”

P244: “The Scania herring of the western Baltic … Became extinct inthe Middle Ages as a result of improved netting technologies. Significant ecological change may go back even further. The excavations at Bouldnor Cliff, on the Isle of Wight … Suggest that the Mesolithic people who lived there 8,100 years ago could have been running a oat yard. The woodworking techniques they used were previously believed to have arisen on Britain only 2,000 years later, in the Neolithic. … This suggests a fishing capacity gather and more sophisticated than previously imagined. Whenever a new fishery opens, the largest animals tend to be caught first. Who knows what monsters might have been extracted then? Ours is a dwarf and remnant fauna, and as its size and abundance decline, so do our expectations.”

P.246 “The world’s continental shelves are being trawled, destroying their sessile life forms – the trees of the sea – at 150 times the rate at which forests are being cleared on land. … Every year half the global continental shelf is trawled. … It is impossible for the delicate animals destroyed when nets, beams, rakes and chains were first dragged over the to re-establish themselves. … Until recently, much of the seabed was protected by the fact it was rocky, and would damage nets dragged over it…. But the rockhopper equipment developed in the 1980s and now used widely has made almost every hidden corner accessible…. Trawlers turn over boulders of up to 25 tonnes, either flushing out or smashing the fish and crustacean s they harbour, destroying the habitat as effectively as a bulldozer in the rainforest.”

P. 248 “In 2002′ at two world summits, governments promised to protect at least 10 per cent of the world’s seas by 2012. In 2003 the World Parks Congress called for at least 20 or 30 per cent of every habitat at sea to become a strict reserve by the same date. … A the time of writing less than 2 per cent of the world’s seas has any form of protection, and only in some places is fishing wholly excluded.

In 2004″,the British government’s official advisers, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, proposed that 30 per cent of the United Kingdom’s waters should become reserves in which no fishing or any other kind of extraction happened. In 2009 an environmental coalition launched a petition for the same measure … Which gathered 500,000 signatures… A the time or writing we have managed to protect a spectacular 0.01 per cent of our territorial waters, five of our 48,000 square kilometres. This takes the form of three pocket handkerchiefs: around Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran and Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. The are plenty of other nominally protected areas but they are no better defended from industrial fishing than our national parks are defended from farming…

When fishing stops, the results are remarkable. On average, in 114 marine reserves studied around the world, some of which have been I existence for only a few years, the total weight of animals and plants had quadrupled since they were established…. bigger fish produce more eggs, and the quality of the eggs improves as the parent mature, so the offspring are more likely to survive… The suppressed life of the sea awaits only the chance to reemerge.”

Books Environmental politics History

A wander around the wilds of Britain

I’ve been reading The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane, and learning a lot.

Some words:

Holloway (from the Anglo-Saxon hola-wed, a sunken road. Always at least 300 years old, worn down by the traffic of centuries, some dating back to the early Iron Age. Many were drove roads – paths to market, some pilgrimage paths. Mostly found in the soft stone counties of southern England, the chalks of Kent, Wiltshire and East Anglia, the yellow sandstone of Dorset and Somerset, the greensand of Surrey and the malmstone of Hampshire and Sussex. Some 20 feet deep.

Turlough – a temporary lake that forms in limestone country after heavy rain, the water rising from beneath the rock. Also in limestone country flat pavements – e.g. on the Yorkshire moors, divided into clints, the glacially polished horizontals, and grykes, the fissures worn by water that divide the clints.

About animals…
Intelligent squirrels – “His phone line had gone crackly, then dead.. the engineers had found that squirrels had been nibbling the phone line. Apparently, Roger explained, this was becoming quite a common occurrence. Squirrels are highly intelligent, agile enough to tightrope-walk along telephone wires, and poor conductors of electricity. Somehow they have realised that by biting through to the bare wires and short-circuiting the 50 volts that run through them into their own bodies, they can heat themselves up. In this way, Roger said, each squirrel becomes a sort of low-voltage electric blanket – and will sit up on the wires with a stoned smile for hours.” Any telephone engineers out there that can confirm that?

About plants
“The devastation of the elm, when it came, seemed to some a prophecy fulfilled. For the elm had long been associated with death… It was ascribed maliciousness; if you loitered beneath it, branches would drop on you from the canopy. The tree’s habit of throwing out one strong side branch also made it a popular gallows tree. Elmwood was for a long time the staple wood of the coffin-maker.”
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Books Environmental politics Science

How does a hedgehog give birth?

Originally published on Blogcritics

How does a hedgehog give birth, given that the babies are born already with spines? The kind of question that mightn’t regularly pop into your head, but certain one that sticks there when you think about it.

The answer is that the babies are born swollen with fluid, so the prickles are beneath the surface of the skin. After birth, the fluid is absorbed and the prickles (which are evolutionarily speaking modified hair) emerge.

That’s one of the many fascinating facts that I learnt from A Prickly Affair: My Life with Hedgehogs by Hugh Warwick, a man who clearly doesn’t only live and breathe hedgehogs, but has certainly spent a lot of wet, cold English nights tracking them around the countryside.

I learnt that their ancestor is thought to have emerged in Asia during the Eocene, although there are ancestors dating back 70 million years, into the dinosaur age. In Britain we have Erinaceus europaeus, the western European hedgehog, although there’s species distributed throughout Eurasia, and down through North Africa.

They’re closely related to shrews and voles, being predominately insectivorous (Hugh watches one consume a large juice slug, having first wiped much of its slime off on a handy road surface – although it still chews a strong tasting leaf afterwards, presumably to cleanse its palate), unlike the American porcupine, which is a rodent. (And of course the Australian echidna, which is a marsupial.)

But this book is far from a collection of facts about hedgehogs. What it is mostly is a exploration of the author’s relationship with hedgehogs, and his meetings with some of the many people obsessed with them. (No wonder they’ve just been voted Britain’s national animal.)

We watch Hugh’s relationship with them and love of them develop as he takes on jobs tracking individuals around the countryside – primarily on projects to see how rescued ones fare when released back into the wild. Against all the rules, he develops, entirely understandably, a personal relationship with his subjects, giving them names and admiring their individual characters. (Although I suspect he’s wrong when he says voles and shrews aren’t similarly complex – look at them in the same detail I think you’d find the same complexity.)

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