Category Archives: Environmental politics

Books Environmental politics Science

Notes from The Soil, By N.K. Davis, N. Walker, D.F. Ball and A.H. Fitter

p. 49 A mycorrhiza is a root infested with a particular type of generally beneficially fungus … The most widespread and ancient type, although not the most familiar, bears the cumbersome name of vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhiza (VAM)… form no visible external structures, so it is impossible to tell if a plant has the association without microscopic examination of stained roots. VAM are formed by a small group of fungi… can only survive in association with the roots of a plant. Their principal distinction is the size of their spores, which are quite enormous by fungal standards – in one species of Gigaspora they are over half a millimetre across, compared to a typical figure for most fungi of around 1/100th of a mm. … most plants that can form VAM do so nuder natural conditions because the fungus appears to offer a solution to an otherwise sever problem – the acquisition of the essential nutrient phosphorus… occurs in soil as phosphate ions which are so sparingly soluble that they move only very slowly through the soil… normally less than a millimetre through soil in a day … Remarkably, fossils of one of the first land plants Rhynia, about 400 million years old, have fungi associated with their rhizomes that appear almost identical to modern VAM fundgi.

p. 51 The best-known nonVAM mycorrhiza “is the ectomycorrhizal or sheathing mycorrhiza, characteristic of many forest trees, especially the Pinacae (pines, spruces, larchs firs), the Betlaceae (birches, alders) and the Fagacae (oaks, beeches).. almost all are toadstools, members of the Basidiomycetes. Some are well known and distinctive, such as fly agaric which forms a mycorrhiza with birch…. Ectomycorrhizal roots are stubby and often fork dichotomously, giving dense clusters. Each root tip is surrounded by a sheath of tightly woven fungal hyphae and other hyphae radiate away from this int the soil… The fine fungal threads penetrate the soil, picking up the immobile phosphate ions and transporting them back to the sheath. Meanwhile the fungal hyphae beneath the sheath, which are in contact with the root cells, obtain sugar from them to feed the fungal tissues.”

p. 52 It does seem that extomycorrhizal trees are better able to colonize poor soils than VAM trees, and this is probably because the former get more benefit from the more active fungi. Of course there is a cost to this: the ectomycorrhizal tree probably has to give up more of the carbon that it fixes than does the VAM tree so the latter may be at an advantage on better soils.
Another remarkable feature of mycorrhizas that has recently come to light is their ability to link plants together. .. BY labelling trees with radioactive isotopes, it has been found that materials can pass from plant to plant by means of these links… there is intriguing evidence that seedlings establish in swards more readily if they become mycorrhizal than if they remain uninfected… If this turns out to be widespread and important phenomenon t may force us to rethink our view of plant communities: ecologists have in the past tended to view them as dominated by intense competition between plants; it may be there is more cooperation than we thought.”

p. 57 Soil fauna – flatworms, rotifers or wheel animalcules, hairy backs, land nemerteans, eelworms, earthworms, bear animalcules (Tardigrada), woodlice, terrestrial sand-hopppers, mites, spiders, millipedes, centipedes.

pp. 158 Like an unpredictable genie, pesticides have proved to be a somewhat mixed blessing, for their overall effects can seldom be fully predicted. There are few if any pesticides that are completely specific to their target organisms: discrimination between harmful and harmless organisms is rarely adequate.

Books Environmental politics History Science

Notes from The Running Hare: The Secret of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel

p. 25 All farms used to have an untidy corner where machinery went to die, and where thistles and nettles grew. Intensive farming has all but done away with these little no-man’s-land nature reserves; modern farms are as obsessively tidy as showroom Hygena kitchens.”

p. 26 “The Romans, who may well have introduced the hare to Britain, were keen hare-eaters. … Pliny the Elder advocated a diet of hare as a means of increasing sexual attractiveness…. Pliny’s ther proposition concerning hares was almost entirely contradictory: he declared the animals were hermaphrodites – a belief which eventually got worked into Christianity. Hares are a recurrent motif in British church architecture, standing for reproduction without loss of virginity .. p105 As with many animals sacred to older religions, medieval Christians changed the hair into an animal f ill-omen, saying witches shape-shifted into hare form to suck cows dry. Sailors considered hares so unlucky they could not be mentioned at sea. And not just sailors; country folk refused to call the hare by its name. p. 227 Hares have large hearts to enable them to achieve such speed. Up to 1.8% of body weight, compared to 0.3% for a rabbit.”

p. 56 “how ploughmen used to tell whether the earth was warm enough to sow (they’d drop their trousers and sit on the ground: if the bare bottom could bare the earth it was warm enough.”

p. 84 To walk behind a horse and harrow is to bring one into accord with all the ages. .. In harrowing half an acre Willow [Shetland pony] and I walk five miles. No one except kings and clergy was fat in the time of the horse… I am happy harrowing, an emotional state which may, according to scientists at the University of Bristol, be enhanced by soil itself. A specific soil bacterium, Mycobacteriyum vaccae, activates a set of serotonin-releasing neurons in the dorsal raphe nucles of the brain, the same ones targeted by Prozac. You can get an effective dose of Mycobacterim by walking in the wild, or gardening. “
p. 126 “The first wildflowers in my personal ploughland … are scarlet pimpernel, and common field speedwell, both delicate bejewelled creepers over ground, one red, the other blue. Their seed has been harboured safe in the earth for years: common field speedwell can germinate after 20 years. … as common on roadside verges as it is in arable fields, and travellers in years gone by sewed the flower into the lining of their coats as a charm.”

p. 137 Corn marigold is as old as British agriculture itself, since it was probably brought here by the Neolithic people. Arable farmers, however, have never warmed to its sunny splendour, since the fleshy leaves impeded the harvest reaping. Henry II issued an ordinance against “a certain plant called Gold”, requiring tenants t uproot it, which was probably the earliest enactment demanding the destruction of a weed. In A Boke of Husbandry, 1523, John Fitzherbert included ‘Gouldes’ in his blacklist of plants that ‘doe muche harme’.”
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Books Environmental politics History

Notes from An Environmental History of Medieval Europe, by Richard C. Hoffman

p. 32 “… particulars had to be learned by human users, sometimes through processes of trial and error. Early Neolithic clearances of fields in upland Britain became moorland and peat bog under later wetter conditions. Bronze Age clearances for pasture in Denmark strained local wood supplies to the point that some pasture was left to grow back as trees.”

p. 34 Mediterranean Europe acquired its Neolithic agriculture complex from southwestern Asia during the sixth and fifth millennium BCE. At first this comprised cereal grasses, legumes, and ovicaprida… intensive hand labour by humans maintained the system until draught animals (oxen, donkey) and a simple plough arrived by the early Bronze Age…. Crops had to be adapted to the rainy cool winter and the hot dry summer: annual cereals seeded in autumn grow throughout the winter and spring to mature before the summer drought; perennial grasses, vines, olives and other plants go dormant or otherwise adapt to the heat. .. Grain, olives and vines have formed the ruling trinity of Med crops since pre-classical times, providing the ancient staple diet of bread, oil and wine. Less stereotyped legumes from field or garden could provide important supplements. Grain crops, wheat and barley, … were reared on ploughed fields (ager) on a two-year cycle, alternating crop and fallow. Resting the field one year in two and ploughing the weeds under hoarded two years of previous water for the grain. Bare fallow leaves the soil surface open during the winter rains, both absorbing water and risking erosion. … Olive trees, … sensitive to frost … on the north they tidily mark a natural boundary of Mediterranean agriculture, which mostly coincided with that of the Roman world. .. Wines and olives might be grown beside vegetables in gardens, but especially when raised for family subsistence were often interplanted in grain fields as cultura mixta. … Livestock played a secondary role … a major technical problem inhibited livestock rearing in the Med, as summer forage was sparse in agricultural areas long cleared of most woodlands and subject to summer drought. The typical response even before good written records was vertical transhumance; a semi-annual movement of livestock and their keepers … to summer pastures in the mountains. The practice moved the animals to forage at the price of depriving the arable land of their manure and the risk of overgrazing upland woodlands and turning them to grass, maquis or garrigue. Transhumance componmuded the problem of fertility maintenance in Med dry farming, an issue that much worried Roman agricultural writers.”

p. 52-54 During and after Roman fall “a long series of epidemics and losses of regional populations caused inhabitants of the western provinces to decline steadily in numbers from the 15-20 million range of the second century to 8-10 million about 600. The economy lost its urban focus… environmental forces of both natural and anthropogenic origins had some significance in this evolution, while even more can be attributed to the environmental impacts of the cultural changes themselves. … [the end of ] the relatively warm and dry Roman Optimum… by the third century, falling general sea levels reveal, and traces of volcanic activity in ice cores help explain, a general cooling that continued into the fourth century, although some regions then became drier. In the Alps, the glaciers were advancing and the tree line creeping downwards. In winter 406, the lower Rhine surprisingly froze solid, giving Germanic invaders easy passage to plunder in Gaul. The ensuing fifth century, in Europe at least, was cooler still, and in the north up to c.450 wetter, but aridity in the southern Med is blamed for abandoned North African farmland. If, as some writers now estimate, mean annual temperatures declined by 1-1.5C from the second century to the sixth, Europe outside the Med basin was becoming less amenable to the favoured crops of Med agrosystems….
Severe pandemics ravaged the Empire during the late second century and again in the mid-third, killing as much as a third of its inhabitants. Some may rather have succumbed to ensuing food shortages and famines… most modern authorities now think these were smallpox, measles or influenza rather than plague. .. most famous is the ‘Justinian plague’, named retrospectively for East Roman Emperor Justinian (527-65)… Most late 20th-century scholars accepted this as the first pandemic of bubonic plaque … less tendentious label for the entire episode is Late Medieval Pandemic. Whatever the pathogenic agent, it was new or long unfamiliar in the region, entered from Africa, probably by way of Egypt, and caused many deaths. … a possibly new endemic presence of malaria… whose several varieties had colonized the Med since at least the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. … the form most common in the western Med debilitated rather than immediately killed, leaving victims with weakened immune systems and life spans shortened by other diseases, and persuading survivors to abandon marshy areas. …
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Books Environmental politics History

Agricultural notes

Notes from Martin Empson’s, Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History

p. 144
“The census of 1851 shows that year was the peak of rural employment in Britain… Twenty years later there were more people working in domestic service than in farming. By 1880 the number working in agriculture had fallen to approximately one in eight of the working population; by the start of the Second World War the corresponding figure was one in 20.”

p. 147 On the sewing of turnip seed (lost skills!) from a contemporary account: “The sower had a small seed bowl on his chest; this was secured by a leather band which went around his neck. He took the small seed between his finger and thumb and sowed in step; that is, as his left foot came up his left hand dipped into the seed-bowl and scattered the seed. It was a skilled job to sow with both hands and keep in step as the rhythm could very easily be broken. If this happened, the sower would have to stop and start again, as a break in the rhythm meant a blank patch in the sowing. Few men, too, could judge the amount of seed to sow at each pinch of the thumb and forefinger; turnip seed was sown at the rate of half a pint an acre.. not more than one or two men on each farm could sow at the necessary rate with two hands. Most men were only able to sew with one hand.”
(quoting from George Ewart Evans, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, 1965)

p. 167
“after 1941 rationing levels meant that the average diet was better than before the war. AT the end of the war there were still 545,000 farm horses, but the 56,000 tractors on British farms had mushroomed to 230,000 by January 1946 and the number of milking machines increased by 60% between 1942 and 1946.”

p. 171
Government protection for farmers was virtually removed in India in 1991. “Before 1991 there were ‘no mass peasant suicides owing to debt’ but between 1998 and December 2008 there were 198,000 suicides and ‘specifically debt-driven suicides have claimed over 60,000 peasant lives over the last decade’. (ref: Parnaik and Moyo The Agrarian Question in the New-Liberal Era, 2011.)

p. 174 In the US 160 litres of oil are used to produce a tonne of maize. In Mexico it is less than five litres.

p. 184 One of the consequences of the Green REvolution was a tendency towards monoculture of staple crops such as grain or rice… ‘Countries with vegetable consumption of more than 100 grams of vegetables per day do not have vitamin A deficiency as a major problem… it only takes two tablespoonfuls of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables or two thirds of a medium-sized mango a day to meet the vitamin A requirements of a pre-school child. … Vitamin A deficiency in adults and children is unlikely to occur without other nutitional deficiencies”

p. 185 A 2007 estimated the lowest cost of a daily diet to meet the nutritional needs of a family of two adults and three children, one under two, in Bangladesh, Burma, Ethiopia and Tanzania … ranged from 72US cents in Tanzania to $1.17 in Ethiopia… 79% of households in Bangladesh, all households in Ethiopia and the very poor in Burma and Tanzania could not meet it. In Ethiopia a day’s unskilled work only covered 69% – in Burma it was 50%.

p. 225 “As early as 1963 one US state, Vermont, enacted legislation banning the sale of disposable bottles, driven by farmers who found their cows eating containers that had been thrown into their fields. But the packaging industry fought back. Within a few months of the Vermont legislation, the American Can Company and the Owens-Illionis Glass Company (inventors, respectively, of the disposable can and bottle) formed Keep America Beautiful (KAB). With other corporations such as Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company who had similar concerns, they initiated a well-funded campaign to persuade Americans there was a new problem in society – litter, caused by litterbugs, a term invented by KAB. KAB rapidly became a major organisation with a membership of 70 million. It produced books for schools about the problem of litter, funded anti-litter campaigns, and welcomed ‘any legislation that cracked down on individuals who carelessly tossed their trash’. … Four years after it was passed, the Vermont law banning the sale of disposable bottles was defeated.”

Books Environmental politics

Notes from Mark Cocker’s ‘Claxton’

My favourite passage …

“The first badger to appear… got down to the opening chore of the evening. A good scratch requiring all four paws working vigorously through the side and belly hair, and even from 50 metres away you could hear those razor-sharp claws raking the dried skin.
“One of the stranger biological links between badgers and humans is a shared species of flea, although perhaps a more inspiring sense of common ground arises from the abundance of historical marks that both of us leave in the landscape. Whenever I go badger watching I am always overwhelmed by the deep sense of tradition that surrounds their lives. It is not just the network of visible tracks, worn through years of passage up and down the hillside, not is it simply the tonnes of hard, red,clay-rich soil heaped outside the sett’s complex of holes.
“Some of the details at this sett are oil marks and pied hairs left on part of a lime=tree trunk where the badgers, each in turn, slump with ursine contentment to perform their elaborate groom and toilet. … every night of the year, generation after generation.” (p. 65)

The bad news …
At the end of March … “the vocal duel between two local song thrushes wakes me every morning at the moment … it is a fabulous noise that gains momentum as the season draws on, with a vocalist adding new motifs to his repertoire. A bird borrows elements from the others that it can hear, and you can imagine these scraps of melody being passed all around the country… The British Trust for Ornithology discovered that half of them have gone in 30 years…. What price should we put on the song thrush’s priceless song?” (p. 51)

And more …
Willow warblers are Afro-Palaearchtic migrants, wintering in a wide belt of sub-Saharan Africa then spreading to breed across the boreal regions of Eurasia, from easternmost Siberia to the Atlantic coasts of Ireland … the sound is an audible analogue of that wider sense of luxury and nonchalance at the heart of summer. Alas there is now less scope for complacency than there used to be: willow warbler numbers have fallen like a stone in the last 30 years, declining possibly as a consequence of habitat loss and climate change by 60%.” (p. 69)

Interesting facts..
Holly for centuries “was used as a hedgerow or boundary tree and an important part of its meaning in the landscape was a coded language of arbitrary division, ownership and power that only the human eye could decipher. Even now makers of the British Ordnance Survey maps regard old holly trees as the best guide to the course of historic boundaries between parishes and neighbouring estates or farms.” (p. 180)

“Every autumn the average jay plants 5,000 acorns to retrieve as food in the winter. .. [in the US] one blue jay was recorded to plant 100,000 beech nuts in one month. … They are the great keepers of the northern forests and are busy now husbanding that vast carbon-rich landscape in its millennial journey north as climate change begins to take hold.” (p. 157-8)

“The grasshopper discovery of my summer [2010] has been the widespread local presence of Roesel’s bush cricket, a species that until recently was listed no further north in East Anglia than Essex … on a northward march, possibly as a consequence of climate change. The first Norfolk record was 1997… the song, a long soft drawn-out reeling buzz, is one of the most resonant of all orthopteran melodies. Whenever I hear one I dig at the grasses at the roadside to reveal a weird armour-plated brute who is as hideous as he is beautiful.”

Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom by Derek Wall

p. 186-7 “Elinor Ostrum, and indeed Vincent, viewed ecological matters as fundamental to their political economy from the early days of both of their respective careers. Vincent and Elinor had observed how democratic structures had been used to manage real-life environmental problems, such as the dilemma of how to share grazing land or water basins. Yet Hardin [of Tragedy of the Commons] ac=dvocated largely top-down, and potentially authoritarian, solutions to these environmental problems… Elinor Ostrum, to her credit, worked very hard to challenge it. Bu doing so she has helped to promote environmental sustainability and the rights of collective resources owners – from indigenous people to peasant farmers to free/open source software designers.

The reality is that there is a spectrum, or kaleidoscope, of property rights. When we move beyond the idea of the binary of state and private property, the alternative is not simply the commons. The notion of commons, both as a resource and a property right, is an advance over the binary. Commons, rather than being unowned non-property, have been identified as collectively managed resources. Yet Elinor Ostrom’s work points to a conception of property beyond the commons. Items can be owned in a variety of ways and, as more sophisticated legal theorists have long understood, even privately owned items contain a bundle of rights. The insights gained from John R Commons that property systems are diverse further opens up a new economic and legal understanding. This enhances concepts such as usufruct, the right to access a resource on the condition that it is maintained and not degraded, which are essential to creating more environmentally sustainable systems of governance. ..

The norms and rules of usufruct are the norms and rules of sustainability. An economics of social sharing, whilst not investigated by the Ostroms, fits well with their research. With the social sharing of physical goods it is possible to cut the knot of prosperity versus environment dilemma, and have access to more physical goods than we need, while reducing other use of resources. Neither usufrust nor social sharing automatically solve sustainability problems, but they are useful tools that make them easier to face. More fundamentally, the Ostroms’ concern with self-governance suggests that grassroots popular design can be promoted as a means of dealing with a range of ecological problems, including climate change.

Elinor Ostrom’s approach to sustainability, therefore, cannot be reduced to a calculation of costs, or governmental regulation, or any other panaceas. Social-ecological systems are complex, and purely cost considerations, or centrally imposed regulatory measures are inadequate to their maintenance. The seven-generation rule is helpful in understanding her perspective … however, she did not believe a normative commitment to sustainability was sufficient, but that practical policies had to be worked out. Policies that were developed democratically were more likely to be effective, and people needed to see practical gains from such policies.