A Certain Future

‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. So it is claimed said Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories to the American Constitution in 1787. But is it — was it ever— true? A certain future may not include taxes for all, but none of us will escape death. Fast forward four billion years or so and all life on earth will cease when our sun becomes a red giant and fries everything organic out of existence.

Although today’s world appears embroiled in more uncertainties than ever, there is much else we can be sure about. It seems certain that war and its associated conflicts, conducted both by barbarians and the supposedly civilised, will continue to afflict too much of humanity for decades to come. We talk of war crimes, but it’s difficult to see how we can consider ourselves a civilised species until we come to treat the act of war itself as a crime, certainly in so far as the instigators are concerned. The Geneva Conventions, highly laudable in their way, in a sense may be seen to reduce armed conflict between nations to the moral gravity of a cricket match – it’s okay, so long as you play by the rules! Yet as Franklin also said, ‘There never was a good war, or a bad peace.’

Then there’s the lack of serious political effort to address the continuing, unsustainable growth of human population, in itself a prime factor in wars fought over territory and resources. It’s certain that some resources are finite, and certain too that a continuing unchecked expansion of our numbers will cause ever greater problems, until comes an eventual adjustment by man or nature, perhaps even leading to an existential threat. It should never be forgotten that we are already the last surviving human species!

And the changing of our climate is certain, of course; sorry, Mr Trump. Some say it always has and always will, because of the dynamic nature of meteorology. I’m sure that’s true. But it’s now beyond reasonable doubt that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at record (human) historical levels, due in large part to our vastly increased use of fossil fuels (that linked of course to our population rise from around 1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion today). The resultant warming of the planet involves, it again seems certain, great and in some cases unpredictable consequences for all life on earth.

Another of the great certainties is that religions will continue, in all their manifestations and nuances, to affect human behaviour — for better and for worse.  Religion, a force for good, say its advocates. It often undeniably is; yet it’s equally undeniably a major factor in various conflicts. Many are certain of the existence of a supreme being, others believe the opposite. All that’s certain to me is that while no-one can possibly know, the rapid advance of scientifically based knowledge is answering more and more questions about human existence and evolution. Set against many of the superstitions and myths of past ages, that has to be a positive thing.

What’s also certain to me – to conclude on another positive note! – is that we have the capacity and resourcefulness as a species to overcome our primitive instincts and cooperate in solving the many problems that threaten us. Whether or not we will succeed in doing so depends ultimately on all of us. In the meantime, I wish you a happy and healthy new year.

Poaching To Extinction: Why?

Photograph: Morgan Trimble/AP

Photograph: Morgan Trimble/AP

The answer is clear enough: a profitable trade in products sourced from endangered animals. The sale of various animal parts is the prime reason why a minority of the human race may be on the way to poaching to extinction a number of species, the elephant and rhinoceros being two of the most iconic and obvious examples.

Those doing the killing are guilty of a vile deed, of course, but one may feel a touch of sympathy in the case of poor and uneducated individuals doing so to provide for themselves or their families – though not for the criminal gangs said to be involved in organising and distributing the spoils. Culpable too are the often wealthy people creating the demand – the customers for animal products bought for generally spurious medical benefits, or to use for personal or home decoration.

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, actually lists over 5,000 endangered animal species (and, even more incredibly, 30,000 plant species). It aims to ensure, by agreement between governments, that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Click here if you want to know more about what it does.

The key word here is trade, and its regulation, as opposed to conservation by other means, and, as Matt McGrath says in a recent article for the BBC, CITES is not an organisation, it is a treaty – if it ‘succeeds or fails’, it is because of what happens at a national level to implement the provisions of the convention, in and of itself it can do very little.

So much for the good work being done at an international level. It’s helping to preserve biodiversity, but on its own it’s not enough; the phrase in and of itself it can do very little resonates rather vividly with me, as does Mr McGrath’s observation that its the only show in town.

On one (governmental) level that may be true, but can we let it rest there? Most would agree that the loss of certain species transcends normal processes, whereby extinction is a natural component of evolution. It may be subjective, and unfair to smaller critters, but for my money some creatures set themselves apart by their sheer magnificence.

It’s easy enough to feel helpless in the face of such complex problems, to conclude that it’s virtually impossible for any of us personally to make a difference, but it’s not true. The internet and social media have created unparalleled opportunities for us all to invoke the power of numbers.

If you agree that losing such animals would be a disaster, you may well ask: what can I do?

The first and most obvious action is to get involved with a campaign such as Save The Rhino.

Beyond that, we can all do some very simple, practical things to help, such as:

Not buying products sourced from endangered, non-farmed wildlife species, whether that be skins or products with claimed, though generally spurious, medical benefits.

And of course, if it’s possible where you live, don’t buy products made from ivory or rhino horn!

Ok, you may say, you don’t do any of those things now. But perhaps you live in a part of the world where products from endangered animals are sold, or you have relatives, friends or colleagues in such places? If so, why not try to educate them?

Ask them: do you really want to play a part in the extinction of the elephant or the rhino?

What Is Our Future?

A perfect storm? Photo AFP/Getty Images

A perfect storm? Photo AFP/Getty Images

The various topics of this blog, and in Mother Earth, all lead to the biggest and most fascinating question of all for humankind: what is our future?

That can be broken down further, to ask whether the multiple dangers facing our present civilisation will lead to its collapse, and, since that eventuality throws up further, potentially existential threats, if we as a species can continue to ride our good fortune and survive at all. If that sounds fanciful or unduly pessimistic, consider the fact that we homo sapiens are already the last of a number of human species that have lived. The neanderthals and others didn’t make it this far.

In the (very) long run we’ll probably share their fate. If we remain on this planet, and don’t succeed in colonising other worlds, we are unquestionably doomed. Eventually. The earth is around 4 billion years old, and life as we know it is only made possible by the energy of the star we know as our sun; but, and here’s the rub – in another 4 billion years or so it will enter its final phases and turn into a red giant, becoming big enough to reach, and possibly engulf, our earth. Nothing will survive the heat of that encounter, and after about another billion years the dying sun will arrive at its own end in a spectacular explosion known as a supernova, scattering all the atoms making up us, and our little world, back into the vastness of space from whence they came.

I quite like the symmetry of that, since returning to the space dust from which we originated seems to round things off rather neatly, but like you my principal focus is of course more immediate. And of course  the young people of today are entitled to ask: What is our future? That question was the subject of a partly NASA-funded study in 2014, which is becoming ever more urgent if our present civilisation is to survive. It addresses the need for urgent action:

“….to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth: Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

That strikes me as a good way forward, particularly since we can all play a part by doing as much as we can to reduce our own consumption of energy and resources. If you agree, and would like to read more about this interesting study, here’s the link to the article:

What is our future?

The UK Referendum

Oh God… not more bloody propaganda! 

(With apologies to non-British readers – this is not the type of post I usually place here; it’s more overtly political. The reason I’m doing so is because the UK referendum is a significant point in Britain’s and Europe’s history; possibly a key turning point that will determine the future direction of the EU – if it survives – and have wider ramifications around the world.)

Here’s what I’ve said on Facebook:

“If you’re British you’ve probably made up your minds already, but in case not here’s why I’m voting to leave the EU – as briefly as I can make it! 

Firstly, I love Europe, and Europeans. I worked for many years for a major German company, in the course of which I travelled to most countries on the continent. My wife is half Irish; I’m one quarter Welsh; my son-in-law is a Frenchman.

However, Europe and the EU are not the same thing. In or out of the EU, we remain a major European country. We have the world’s 5th largest economy, and I believe passionately that we should leave the increasingly dysfunctional and undemocratic EU now – while we still have the chance.

We will not be isolated from the world. Our European neighbours will still trade with us, for the incontestable reason that they need our business – we’re the EU’s largest export market (source: EU help Desk).

We can still cooperate on whatever is in our interests, such as security, and we’ll be freed from EU restrictions on trading with the rest of the world. This is important because the EU’s share of world GDP is in long-term decline – from 30% in 1980 to less than 16.5% in 2015 (source: IMF).

And most vitally, we’ll be largely independent again, having taken back control of our own sovereignty, borders and money.

1. Control of our sovereignty

The EU is woefully undemocratic, with unelected bureaucrats proposing laws, rather than our own parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, whom we did not elect and cannot vote out, has said that “There can be no democratic choice against the European Treaties.”

Lord Mandelson has said that we’re “entering a post-democratic age.”

Politicians of all parties have lied for several decades, telling us it’s all about trade – i.e. what’s now called the single market – when the real reason, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, is ‘Ever Closer Union’. This means that we’re being gradually subsumed into a new Superstate – in which Britain will be no longer great, but instead little more than another EU region, among dozens.

I think we’re much better than that.

(And I do not believe for one minute the claims following Cameron’s recent farcical non-agreement on reform that we could remain uninvolved in ‘Ever Closer Union’ – that we have an exemption that will be anything other than temporary. As Angela Merkel says, revealingly, “It’s alright to go at different speeds” – carrying the obvious inference that the destination is the same.

Already, as Jeremy Paxman recently showed, EU law has primacy over British law – how the hell did that happen without our consent?

For these reasons I strongly believe that we must take back control – returning legal powers from the unelected officials in Brussels and Strasbourg to our own elected MP’s and parliament in London.

As Lincoln said:  “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

2. Control of our borders

I love the different cultures and national identities within Europe, and I believe immigrants from the EU, and elsewhere, are beneficial, make a valuable contribution, and enrich us in very many ways.

However, under EU freedom of movement rules we have no control over our borders – however much Cameron may insist we have. Stamping passports at Dover is not control, and we’ve never been asked if we agree to unlimited numbers of new arrivals. It’s a ludicrous and in my view ultimately socially divisive way to run a country.

(I’d invite anyone who thinks it’s a good idea having no control over numbers, and also qualifications, to try throwing a party at home and posting an open invitation on Facebook!)

It should be in our power to decide how many people we admit, and from where.

A controlled number of invited newcomers can be welcomed, assimilated and, critically, helped to integrate. That’s surely a win win situation!

And of course we’ll still be welcome in European countries, because they need our tourist dollars.

3. Control of our money

Amongst all the hot air, it’s generally agreed that the gross cost to us of EU membership is about £350 million pounds a week – reduced to about half that figure by our rebate, and what we get back in grants with strings attached – i.e. the EU has a big say in how the money’s spent.

I think we should decide how we spend all this money, be it on the NHS, as some have suggested, or whatever else we choose. It really is none of Jean-Claude Juncker’s business how my taxes are spent!

I’ll fully respect your decision, if, astonishingly, it differs from mine, but I’ll be chuffed to bits if you join me in deciding to vote leave from the EU, and thereby regain control of our borders, our trade, our laws, our money, our democracy, our independence.

Let’s be proud of our country, and believe in Great Britain’s place in the modern world.”

Women Are The Key

people_walking

Women are the key, but to what? Well, one could think of many answers, but there’s one in particular that, according to two eminent authorities, not only deserves to be taken seriously, but requires acting upon at the very highest levels. That answer is sustainable population, the need for which is manifestly unarguable since our future as a species depends on it.

It’s clear that our numbers on this small planet are growing at a rate that already prevents any real quality of life for billions, and threatens what quality is currently enjoyed by the rest of us; as Gaia Vince points out in her excellent book, Adventures In The Anthropocene: “It took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion, but just the last ten years to add the latest billion” (my italics).

Quality of life is one thing, the other is that this population explosion must ultimately jeopardise our very existence if not corrected. But why, you may wonder, are women the answer to getting our reproduction under control, when it takes two people of opposite genders to produce another human being? The answer is that experience shows that generally women are the key, for several good reasons linked to personal knowledge and autonomy. As Sir David Attenborough has said:

You’ll discover in countries where women have control over their own bodies, where they have education, where they have birth control, where they have facilities and where they are literate – when those things happen, the birth rate falls. Always. Always.” 

In much of the developed world, where women have the benefits of education, birth control and choice, birth rates have fallen or stabilised; it’s mainly (though not entirely) in less developed countries that the problem applies, where major problems are both poverty, which can cause children to be seen as an essential resource to support the family, and the fact that some cultures and religious practices unfortunately still treat women as second class citizens, with access to education and/or birth control being either restricted or prevented.

In the developed world a perhaps partly interlinked combination of birth rates, migration and cultural factors can also result in an ultimately unsustainable population growth. This is currently the trend in the UK, as a recent Population Matters briefing outlines: “Population growth in the UK will drive up the future cost of living. The UK is already among the top 10 most expensive countries in the world, but a coming scarcity of construction and energy resources is likely to increase this still further (and) population growth is putting public services under untenable strain. We argue that, while technological improvements and better lifestyle choices can improve the situation, ultimately, population size needs to stabilise.”

It’s arguably the case that here, too, education and female equality are major factors in addressing the need to bring about this stabilisation.

As individuals, if we want to do something to help – apart of course from limiting our own family sizes – we might do worse than supporting the inspirational Malala Yousafzai in her drive to bring education to young women everywhere, or by supporting the following two bodies:

Population Matters, who have as their vision: “A future with decent living standards for all, a healthy and biodiverse environment, and a stable and sustainable population size.”

The Population Institute’s vision is: “a world where girls and women have achieved full gender equality; all women have access to reproductive health services, every child is a wanted child, and where global population is brought into balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.”

We do need to act: the net global population is rapidly approaching seven and a half billion, and just during the drafting of this article is estimated (by Population Matters) to have increased by more than 50,000!

 

The Elephants Need Help

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Kenya’s Ivory For Burning, Saturday 30th April 2016.   Photo: Ben Curtis/AP

It is to be hoped that Kenya’s April 2016 burning of poached ivory – around 105 tonnes of the stuff, from about 6,000 illegally killed elephants, together with 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn – will make headlines around the world. Everything that can be done to raise awareness of the existential threat to these magnificent species must be worthwhile.

No-one can doubt that the elephants need help, against a background of near-catastrophic decline in recent decades. In the early 1980’s, when I  visited Kenya, the African elephant was already in serious trouble. A population that had been estimated at 1.3 million in 1979 was on a slide that would descend to about half that number by 1989. Today the figure is down again, to around 400,000. Yet poachers are currently killing more than are being born, in spite of determined efforts prevent the slaughter, and the serious penalties in place for illegal ivory trading.

This destruction of Kenya’s ivory stockpile is part of an ongoing drive to cut down poaching and reduce demand, the latter surely being the key factor, and it’s not the first time such a bonfire has taken place. In 1989 Kenya destroyed a symbolic 12 tonnes of tusks, in the same year that CITES (The Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of flora and fauna) banned ivory trading.

So far, so good, you would have thought, but mistakes were to be made. In 2008, under pressure from various governments, the ban was ‘temporarily’ lifted to allow countries to sell the stockpiles they held. The British government, for one, believed that this would help reduce poaching by flooding the market. However, it did no such thing, but seemed instead to stimulate demand and, in consequence, a resurgence in illegal poaching. According to Will Travers, the President of Born Free, more than 200,000 elephants were killed in the subsequent years.

It remains a serious problem.  A proportion of the killings, as highlighted by a recent BBC program, are by poor people attempting to support their families,

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photo: Zdenek Malu/Alamy

and for them we can all feel some sympathy; but the majority are the work of organised, international gangs, as evidenced by Interpol’s estimate that the annual world trade in illegal wildlife products amounts to between 10 and 20 billion pounds.

What can be done? A new worldwide ban on ivory trading is needed, and Kenya’s President Kenyatta has reportedly said that he will press for one at a forthcoming CITES meeting in South Africa, in September. We can support him in that by making sure that our political representatives are aware that he needs the backing of all our governments.

In addition, if you’d like to help elephants by getting involved on a personal level, you can support the Born Free charity simply by becoming a member, or by ‘adopting’ an elephant for yourself, or as a gift – especially to children. What child would not be thrilled by that, especially knowing that they will be helping to protect the worlds largest and most magnificent land mammal from extinction?

For Information about World Elephant Day, which is in August, and about other elephant charities, see also the World Elephant Day Website. Here are the links:

http://www.bornfree.org.uk

http://worldelephantday.org

New Mother Earth Giveaway

Thanks to all of you who entered my previous Goodreads promotions. If you weren’t lucky then, or have never entered before, there’s another chance now to win a free copy of Mother Earth.  

Here are extracts from what some Amazon readers have kindly said about the book:

A good read… worth downloading…

Definitely worth a read… instantly absorbing…

A very well researched first novel… certainly worth the read – you may well be surprised!

Do try this book. I am enjoying it, and want to pick it up to see what happens next.

To reiterate what I said last time, “The novel deals with a number of themes concerning the future of us, the brilliant but also flawed species known as Homo sapiens. The name means ‘wise man’, but are we going to be wise enough to deal with the challenges ahead? Some of them are likely to grow and threaten our very existence if the right decisions are not made in time.”

If you’re interested in nature, and the future of humanity as one of its integral components, you may like a chance to win the free signed copy of Mother Earth in my latest Mother Earth Giveaway promotion.

Entries cost nothing and run until midnight on May 6th 2016.

If you’ve never entered one of these before, it’s simple. All you do is apply to become the “winner” of the free copy, who is then selected at random by Goodreads.

You can apply now by clicking here:  Enter Giveaway

Good luck! This is for a paperback version. If you’d like to download the e-book, it’s available by clicking on this Amazon link.