Monday, 25 January 2010

Conversations with a Nihilist

Why are eco-sceptics so predictable? I mention this because I was recently cornered in a bar by a chap who, knowing I was an environmental campaigner, decided he wanted to make a point.

‘I am a sceptic’, he announced proudly.

“About what?’, I asked.

‘I’m just sceptical.’

What followed was the sort of tedious conversation which will be familiar to anyone used to talking about environmental subjects, full of unhelpful contradictions, broad statements and no facts.

I won’t bore you with the details, but the main things I could distil from the argument were as follows:

  • He did not believe that humans were responsible for climate change, either in whole or in part.
  • The planet has been around for a long time before humans and would be around for a long time after us. Therefore what we do does not really matter in the long run….
  • He liked nuclear and wanted a lot of it (this was in response to my saying that we might need a bit, but surely we wanted as little of everything as possible).
  • He did not like wind turbines.
  • Humans are a cancer on the planet, and fundamentally not worth saving. This is an interesting one which crops up so often I am wondering if this is the fundamental reason why people choose not to act.
  • He did not seem to mind if 90% of humans died in a resource constrained world, saying we would adapt to a world without power. I am not sure what the point of this was as I had never suggested that we should be in a world without power. I can only assume that he is so opposed to shifting our technology and lifestyles that he does not mind it all stopping when the oil runs out. I mention it to underline the above.
  • He asked why I cared what happened after I died. I asked if he supported those who fought in WWII. For some reason this was different.
  • He had not a single fact or piece of evidence to back up anything he said, and when presented with some evidence said I was trying to bamboozle him.

Okay, enough. I don’t think he really believed most of this stuff, if only because none of it made sense. I also don’t believe for a second he would sacrifice his children to purge the planet of the human race. The point though is that this sort of reaction comes up again and again from what I would term ‘second tier sceptics’… a general sense of defeatism, apathy and nihilism. Nothing much matters, the greenies are wasting our time. The future is shit, lets just leave it that way.

I tried to explain that as I saw it, the environmental movement is about trying to build a happier, cleaner, wilder and better future. He scoffed predictably.

Perhaps it simply comes down to a lack of self worth and a sense of insecurity? There certainly seems to be a smouldering resentment against environmentalists, and even the environment, in much the same way that there is a resentment of academics, artists and scientists in much of British society. Maybe the anti-enviros are simply scared of a future which they do not see themselves as part of, or which they don't feel will value them?

If this is even partly true, we need to learn from it. Guilt is a dangerous thing, and the green movement exploits it at its peril.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ocean rubbish

Just a quick comment on the rubbish which turns up on the beaches at Ascension. We are more than 1000km from the nearest land and 1500km from the nearest mainland. The main shipping routes and cruise ships bypass the island. At the same time, there is still a fair amount of plastic washed up on the beaches. Not much, but enough to illustrate just how much debris there must be floating in the ocean. A sad thought, and one which needs to be tackled at every level. On a UK level, when I was a child there were adverts everywhere telling you not to litter, and they did seem to have an effect on casual polluters. I haven't seen those for a while - perhaps they are out there, but if not, can we have some back?

Also we have spotted some ships out at sea at night. The consensus seems to be that they are illegal fishing boats. This is a massive problem across the world, and one which is still not taken seriously enough.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Wind, fish and climate on Ascension - and do we need a green MI5?

Currently the German company Enercon are constructing some new wind generators on Ascension Island (I believe they are 5 x 330 kW for the RE geeks among you). Obviously in a place like Ascension, with its seabird colonies and delicate marine wildlife large structures like turbines can be a source of concern. Some of the birds and animals here are found nowhere else in the world, and they are only now making a tentative recovery after years of abuse .

On the other hand, the windmills are probably the least offensive towering structures on the island, since the western third is littered with radar stations, satellite dishes, transmitters and other weird and wonderful military stuff. So the fact is that the turbines are going into an area which is already pretty unsympathetically developed, and they will replace imported diesel, which can only be a good thing. In my heart I would like to see a one-in one-out policy for Ascension (i.e. you build something new, you take something old and rusting down) but I can't have everything.

The presence of new clean energy generators ties in nicely with a current 'mystery' on Ascension, and one which would potentially be a much bigger threat to the bird and marine life that any turbine. It is the absence of fish, and the changing weather. Now I have not seen any empirical evidence, but the locals agree that there are not many fish around at the moment, which is affecting the birds (and them). Similar stories are emerging all over the Atlantic from the Falklands to the Hebrides. Birds are trying to hunt different species like squid or pipefish which contain fewer nutrients than their usual diet, and chicks die as a result.

Some people in other areas are blaming climate change, suggesting that changing water temperatures are causing the movements of fish to change, or to disappear altogether. Others suspect that unsustainable and illegal fishing may be to blame, or that it may simply be a cyclical change. Still others suspect a combination of the above.

And herein lies the problem with climate change. It is hard to predict and impossible to solve with the kind of local mitigation measures which conservationist are used to dealing with. It is also a phrase which must be beloved of those causing other environmental crises. If the wildlife dies, blame climate change, which in many cases amounts to saying 'Oh well, not our problem, nothing much we can do'.

Undoubtedly CC will be the demise of many species, but I suspect that many more would be able to adapt if we keep their habitats in good condition, and don't hoover up all the fish (trees, whatever). In any case we need to be seriously investigating the health of these ecosystems - if it turns out there is no problem then great, if not it could be an early warning of very serious problems to come. Perhaps we need an agency or institute to collate information on ecological security and provide 'environmental intelligence'? Or something international to do for ecosystems what the IPCC has done for climate change?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Ascension species

Hello all. The mushypea is currently on Ascension Island carrying out some work with the conservation department. At some point I must write an article on the complicated ethics of conservation work which so heavily favours some species over others (not specifically on Ascension) but for now I want to write about something happy.

Attached is a photo of a small rock pool in one of the lava flows near the coast of Ascension (not me in picture). Incredible though it may seem, this tiny pool is home to a small species of shrimp found nowhere else on earth. It's nearest relatives are in Hawaii and the Caribbean, but here in this muddy pond it exists in its own world, along with an endemic form of algae, and probably a fair few other undescribed species.

At the most basic level, I find something truly wonderful and exciting about the ability of life to adapt and survive in the most improbable of environments. It took over an hour of clambering over rocks in the baking sun to get to this little pool, but it was worth every second.

Next time, something about windmills and climate change on Ascension.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Why is UK not making the most of its gas?

It seems that in 2010 the UK will become a next gas importer for the first time in a long time. Now I might just be stupid, but from what I had seen in the papers and heard on the TV I thought it had been a net importer for quite a long time.

So, even though the UK becomes an importer, it will obviously still be capable of producing a significant amount its own gas requirements for some time. Which begs the question as to why there is not a much more significant drive to increase the efficiency of gas use, and reduce consumption. At a time when the UK's balance of payments is worrying many politicians, this seems to be a win-win. Good for the environment, and good for the economy (okay, we need to make sure the gas is not replaced by coal or nuclear, which would be one obvious solution, but still!).

I am not suggesting that the UK should not import gas. On the contrary the relative abundance of gas is a good thing, as it is far cleaner that coal and can be used as a stop-gap, along with efficiency, until renewables can take the strain. But surely, as with everything, the country would want to use what it has as efficiently as possible first, before importing?

The money currently available for new boilers and insulation is a start (warm front), but it is not well promoted and is confusing. A simple one-stop shop for insulation / efficiency would be invaluable. There you go, dull, but practical. My idea for the day.