Thursday, 23 February 2012

The 'peaks' beyond peak oil

We've just held a Good Lives weekend on 'preparing for peak everything' and one of the topics we looked at was soil - the stuff on which we all depend.

Mark Kibblewhite, who was one of the contributors to the weekend, is a member of Hitchin Quaker Meeting. He is a Professor at Cranfield University and President Elect of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers; his research supports the development of policy - by Defra, the European Commission and national and international organisations - for better protection of soil resources.

Below are two short 'think pieces' he has written to help us rethink our attitude to the earth beneath our feet.
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Who owns soil?

The idea of land as property probably emerged as soon as human beings became pastoralists and started to leave behind their hunter-gatherer cultures. And the concept of land ownership will have evolved further alongside settled agriculture and crop husbandry. However, who owns soil?

Increasingly, we are recognising that soil delivers much more than support for food, fuel and timber production. Moreover, its contribution to water and atmosphere regulation contributes to a common wealth while, conversely, soil degradation incurs costs for the whole community as well as the land owner. This suggests that at least part of the value of soil resources is in a commons. It turns out that the parallel with water resources is quite close – individuals and organisations have rights of exploitation over surface water in streams and rivers but no strict ownership and so perhaps it should be with soil resources.

Land ownership is a central tenet for our institutions and an important part of the legal framework for our society. However, we need to re-think the ownership of soil and bring it more in-line with that for waters. After all, with rights of exploitation go duties, and arguably the duties required at present in relation to soil use are inadequate – particularly if the societal goal is long-term sustainability of resources for the use of future generations.

For example, while there has been lots of focus on the impact of soil-derived sediment on aquatic habitats, the actual loss of soil resources by erosion is often just a secondary consideration in the regulatory world. Meanwhile, it could be argued that when a land owner sells land for building the common value represented by soil that is sealed is expropriated. So should land owners be required to be stewards of soil resources rather than just being 'encouraged' to take on this role? Should there be a proper national monitoring programme for soil resources, especially the most versatile and valuable ones, that provides society with objective information about the state of its soil resources?

Moving towards new regulation is not a current priority for the Government but dare we suggest that we need an OfSOIL?
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Soil opinion - Let’s start a revolution!

Our construct of soil systems has developed rapidly in the past two decades. Now we see soil as a ‘biological engine’ that does a variety of work delivering services. Our understanding of soil biology has grown in strides and is advancing quickly. So far, however, this new knowledge has not been exploited much to deliver increased agricultural productivity.

Current agricultural productivity is inadequate to feed a mushrooming global population – better application of existing technologies, derived from advances made in the 20th century in soil chemistry, physics and the plant sciences, can still increase yields, and there is still some scope for extending the area of farmed land. Nonetheless the consensus is that we need innovative technology to increase yields dramatically. Moreover, this yield increase has to be achieved with a shrinking environmental footprint; greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are too important to be left out of necessary global reductions, and much more efficient water use in agriculture is essential if we are to avoid urban water shortages. And our agricultural systems are reliant on oil and this commodity looks set to become increasingly costly and potentially limited as more easily exploited resources are used up.

In summary, it appears we may be approaching what has been described as a ‘perfect storm’ in our food production unless we can make a technological leap. Current agricultural technology is based on substitution of functions of the ‘biological engine’ mainly by oil-supported interventions, for example nitrogen supplied from the Haber process. This is all rather crude. It is also leaks resources, especially nitrogen. Our new knowledge of soil biology needs to be exploited to make soil a better medium for plant growth with less reliance on oil-derived inputs.

How can we manipulate soil ecosystems via carbon management? What opportunities exist for nitrogen fixation and management that remain unexploited? Are there fundamentally different designs for soil-plant systems that better exploit ecological principles? Why are we wedded to planting single crops in straight rows and would mixed cropping in regular but relatively complex ‘tile’ patterns better exploit soil biology, water resources and solar radiation?

Agricultural science and engineering has been in the doldrums for a couple of decades but fortunately biological science has been ascendant. The new biology offers prospects for a radically different soil and field management and the science and engineering communities need to grasp the present opportunity and deliver an agricultural revolution.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Human beings and other animals - the re-enchantment of nature

How do you think about people in relation to other animals? When the naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell published his famous book My Family and Other Animals in 1956 the title was a bit startling - science was at that time busy distinguishing humans from other animals and we didn't really think of ourselves, then, as one among the animals.

By contrast, a saying attributed to Chief Seattle tells us:
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
In many traditional societies, and in Europe prior to the seventeenth century, most of the ordinary people saw Nature as full of Spirit, as something quasi-personified, something to be in relationship with. The rise of science and Enlightenment philosophy produced a progressive 'disenchantment of nature', whereby the natural world came to be seen as a machine - impersonal, mechanistic, soul-less. And animals came to be regarded as mere automata, without feeings or the capacity to experience pain, leading to terrible vivisection experiments and thence - by the nineteenth century - to campaigns to ban the practice.

As teacher and author David Kinsley puts it in a groundbreaking book in the field of spiritual ecology:
The disenchantment of nature, viewing nature as primarily matter in motion, as mechanical, as soulless, led to the disengagement of human beings from nature. Nature has been objectified. Lacking subjecthood, the various nonhuman species are reduced to objects to be studied, manipulated, modified, and exploited for various purposes
(from Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Prentice Hall, 1995, p. 130).

One of the strands of the modern environmental movement has been for the 're-enchantment of nature': can we, as a whole culture, as the whole human species, return to regarding nature as full of Spirit, nature as soul-stuff like us, and ourselves as part of nature . . . so that we cease despoiling it?

For many decades, the thrust of research on animal cognition was towards what animals couldn't do, compared with us - to examine what the characteristics were that distinguished humans, that made us unique. One by one these have fallen. 'Man the tool-user'? Many animals use tools. 'Toolmaker'? Some aninals make tools, and show creativity and innovation in doing so. Language? It's clear that animals have sophisticated communication among themselves, and between species, and that they can learn to communicate very effectively with us, using language. Some animals have a sense of self (they recognise themselves in a mirror), they have theory of mind (they know that what they know can be different from what another animal knows) - and this means they can lie and deceive (so, just like us!). Animals can co-operate on complex mechanical tasks to gain a desired reward. They teach their offspring complex information, vital for survival. And they can be creative and original.

Of course, some individual animals are superstars - just as among humans, there is a range of intelligence; and some animals trainers are also superstars, spending years working with an animal to enable good communication, and thus revealing what these animals can do.

Two patterns emerge: that social animals have the biggest brains and the broadest abilities, required (as with humans) to live in a complex social world; and hard lives drive bigger brains - a simple evolutionary imperative. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, long-lived animals show greatest intelligence.

The BBC has recently screened a two-part series showcasing some of these developments. Called Super Smart Animals, it gave a populist but accurate introduction to this whole field.

We saw a chimpanzee with prodigious visual perception and spatial memory.

We saw one particular pod of humpbacked whales that have invented the co-operative 'bubble-net' method of fishing, enabling them all to catch more fish than they ever could by hunting alone. Their method clearly shows communication, role distribution among the group, planning and careful shared timing of movements.

We saw Tilman, the skateboarding bulldog who had taught himself to skateboard - he's not been trained or rewarded to do this. He's seen many humans skateboarding, and just decided to try it - he appears to be doing it, just as humans do, for the sheer joy of it.

Corvids - birds of the crow family - are very clever; some call them 'the chimps of the bird world'. Carrion crows have worked out to drop hard-shelled nuts at traffic lights - the cars drive over them and crush the hard shells, and when the lights turn red, the birds swoop down and retrieve the nuts. Caledonian crows invent new and unique tools to crack problems they've never seen before. Scrub jays hide their food in caches; but if (and only if) they realise they've been observed by another bird, they will return later and move the food, unobserved, so the watching thief can't find it. And the twist in this tale - it's only the birds who themselves thieve that do this. Non-thieving birds don't consider that others might steal their food!

Magpies recognise themselves in the mirror. And corvids recognise faces - they will recall human faces they dislike (because of something that human has done) for up to five years.

In the BBC programmes we saw captive dolphins, trained to respond to gestures that correspond with movements . . . but the real surprise of this was that they'd been taught a sign that meant: 'be creative, invent something new', and each time they were given this gesture they'd display some new, never seen before, move. Amazingly, there was a pair of dolphins who did this together - told to 'be creative', they swam away, somehow decided between them what to do (something new each time), came back and performed it in perfect synchronisation. Can we possible maintain that these creatures don't have language?

And the programme gave us a brief glimpse of Alex, the African grey parrot, and of his trainer/companion Irene Pepperberg. Parrot intelligence can be studied in a unique way, because the birds can be taught to speak. And what has become clear is that this isn't just copying sounds ('parrotting'), but understanding nouns as labels, adjectives as descriptive properties of an object, and sentences implying structure and movement.

Alex - now sadly deceased - could identify and correctly name particulr objects, colours, shape, and the material that an object was made of. He could count. And he could obey simple instructions. So, for instance, given a key and asked what it was, he would say 'key'; then asked 'what matter?', he would reply 'metal'. Given a plastic shape he could answer correctly whether it was a square, circle or triangle, and tell you its colour. Given a selection of pastic shapes and told to find, for example, the 'blue square', he would correctly pick it out. He could correctly recognise children's plastic letter and number shapes, and had a vocabulary of well over a hundred words. He had the concepts of 'bigger' and 'smaller'. He could correctly respond to the instruction: 'put the red circle in the blue square box'.This is conceptualisation that would challenge some human toddlers.

Since Alex's death, Irene Pepperberg continues her work with two other African greys called Griffin and Arthur.

The list of animals and their abilities goes on and on, and not only with the familiar charismatic large animals. Meerkats show complex phased teaching of their cubs in how to catch, handle and eat dangerous scorpions. Laboratory rats will refrain from gaining their favourite food to protect another rat from pain. Squid have enormous brains distributed through their whole body, into their tentacles, and show impressive spatial intelligence. Crabs, small finches, sea otters, pigeons, dogs, monkeys, prairie dogs, horses . . . all reveal extensve mental abilities, once we humans start looking for it, instead of looking only for what they can't do.

A recent publication about work with dolphins shows the possibilities. Diana Reiss has been working with dolphins for many years and her book The Dolphin in the Mirror presents her work to the general reader. The author describes her work, her conclusions, and the stories that aren't yet ready to make it into the scientific papers. It's clear that dolphins display mirror recognition and theory of mind.

One of the difficulties with dolphin research has always been that - unlike apes, say - the have no hands with which to manipulate the world. Reiss invented a big keyboard that hung in the water, that the dolphins could operate by tapping with their beak. The keys had non-representational symbols on them. Working with this device clearly demonstrated that they could conceptualise, they could relate symols to objects, they could carry out instructions to do particular actions with particular objects, they could initiate communication as well as respond to it . . . and Reiss also describes how these highly social creatures show as much lively curiosity about her as she has about them.

It's a deeply engaging book that enlarges our appreciation of our place among - not separate from - other animals.

Other reading
Irene Pepperberg, Alex and Me
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and and Roger Lewin, Kanzi: Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind
- The Hidden Life of Dogs
- The Tribe of Tiger
- The Old Way

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Is it time to look at tithing again?

As bankers’ enormous bonuses are in the news again, a charity called Giving What We Can aims to bring back tithing (giving 10% of your income) to raise the living standards of the world’s poorest people.

How do we respond to this? It’s an interesting question for Quakers who have a historic opposition to the imposition of tithes to support the established church. But this is different – it’s voluntary, not imposed; and it’s for the poorest of the poor, not for an established institution. And, tellingly, this is a secular, not a religious initiative.

Here’s what the organisation’s founder says about himself:
I realised that by donating a large part of my future income to the most efficient charities, I really could save thousands of people’s lives. Since I already have most of the things I really value in life, I thought — why not?
Toby Ord
And here’s what they say about what they’re doing:
The members of Giving What We Can are people who have realised how easy it is to do large amounts of good in the world and who have made a commitment to give 10% of their income to the most effective charities they can find. For a person earning £15,000 per year, this would mean saving 5 lives every year, or leading to 100,000 fewer missed days of school due to illness. These incredible sounding feats are within most people’s reach.
Giving What We Can is built around two simple ideas:
• Giving away a significant portion of one's income is easier than most people think. Far from making their lives miserable, members say that taking the Pledge to Give has made their lives happier and more fulfilled.

• Giving to the most cost-effective charities massively increases the power of one's donations.
So, they’re being quite pragmatic and hard-headed about this. They’ve done their research into the effectiveness of charities, and recommend certain organisations. The also have a resource bank of background information and reflections on the philosophy and ethics of giving.

The Pledge to Give is aimed at people of working age, and is quite a serious commitment:
I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good in the developing world. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from today until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to fight poverty in developing countries. I make this pledge freely, openly, and without regret.
They have other arrangements for people who are not earning, who are retired, etc. and have created an gentler way in for those who feel ‘not ready yet’.

One of the very important pages on their website is about ‘Giving 10%’:
We chose 10% because it strikes a good balance. On the one hand it is a significant proportion of one's income: it recognizes the importance of the problem and that we must be prepared to make some real sacrifice to prevent it. Yet it is also within reach of almost everyone in the developed world. Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing. It may seem impossible to give 10% of your income, but it rarely is. After all, there are a great many people who are living on substantially less than 90% of what we currently earn.
They show this graph of the global distribution of income:

and point out that we are accustomed – of course – to comparing ourselves to those around us. Their calculator invites you to discover how you compare with the whole world. It’s very revealing: I work part time and earn a pro rata fraction of what would be a modest (in UK terms) full-time salary . . . but I’m still in the top 3% globally. Try it for yourself.

This bold, simple, and challenging idea has received varied and interesting press coverage:
- in the Catholic paper The Tablet
- in the Financial Times Magazine
- in the BBC News Magazine
- in Psychologies Magazine
. . . and many others.

The Guardian has followed the story closely. It first appeared on their Money Blog in 2009, and they followed it up a year later in the printed G2 supplement. At the end of last year they published an interview with the founders followed by an editorial comment a month ago.

You can follow Giving What We Can on Twitter @givingwhatwecan and on Facebook.

Look out for their 10% logo.

Background on tithing

Tithing – giving one tenth of wealth, produce or income – has a very ancient history. It pre-dates the period of the Hebrew scriptures, although that is probably the most familiar source to us, and Orthodox Jews today continue a form of tithing because it is seen as a biblical commandment. Christian churches adopted similar practices, and in England - following Henvry VIII’s secession from the Roman church - tithes were compulsorily levied from the whole population to support the new English church.

In Islam the giving of zakat is a religious duty on individuals and an Islamic state has the duty to collect zakat and distribute it fairly. It is akin to charitable giving and is primarily used as welfare contributions to the poor. Significantly, zakat applies to accumulated wealth and assets as well as to income. Ushar is the contribution to the upkeep of the mosque and the support of the imam.

In Sikhism, dasvand (literally ‘a tenth part’) refers the act of donating ten percent of one's ‘harvest’, both financial and in the form of time and service to the Gurdwara and to charitable causes.

In many evangelical Christian churches today there is an expectation of tithing to support the upkeep and running of the church, and paying the pastor.

In the 17th century George Fox, founder of what became the Quaker movement, opposed compulsory tithes to support the Anglican church, and many Quakers were fined or imprisoned for refusing to pay them. For Fox, his objection was part of a wider challenge to many of the practices of his times. The Quaker movement was marked by: opposition to flattering speech or behavior, regardless of the social class of the person being addressed; refusal to bow or curtsey to others; refusal to pay tithes, (the early Quakers said any priest or minister who asked for money was a false prophet); refusal to remove their hats to honour people; and refusal to swear or take oaths. They also testified strongly against fashion and extravagance, condemning unnecessary ribbons, feathers, scarves, fancy buttons, jewelry and anything worn for pride, ostentation or adornment.

The testimonies to simplicity, equality and peace are significant aspects of modern Quakerism, whereas tithing is discussed only as a historical matter. Modern Quakers make voluntary donations to the upkeep of their Meeting Houses and the continuation of the Quaker organisation, as well as donating to various charitable, social or political causes.