How did we get into this mess? A short book review

George Monbiot’s collection How Did We Get Into This Mess? covers a wide range of topics, including re-wilding, land-ownership, abortion, population control and even whale poo. Though these subjects are diverse, the actors that feature in them remain constant. They are the institutions such as governments and corporations whose systems continue to degrade our society. According to Monbiot, we live in the ‘Age of Loneliness’: an age in which connections to each other and to nature are being severed.

George Monbiot’s book – How did we get into this mess? Published in 2016

Monbiot’s frustrations are evident in each chapter and these frustrations are keenly felt by his readers. Throughout the book he challenges certain popular beliefs such as the notion that population growth is linked to environmental degradation. Eminent personalities such as Sir David Attenborough, Barack Obama, Charles Darwin and even the author himself cannot escape scrutiny. Indeed, Monbiot invites his readers to criticise his own actions when he discusses collecting, butchering and eating roadkill in front of a group of children, or his contentious support for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Monbiot’s book is simple to read and understand. His language and writing becomes more emotive in chapters where he talks about nature and wildlife. In these chapters, he also introduces words such as ‘landscape pornography’, ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘kleptorenumeration’ to convey the level of environmental destruction he is experiencing around him. Overall though, some readers will find the book a little jarring because he jumps from one topic to another which prevents continuity and rhythm.

This book is not for everyone. Simply put, it is a collection of fifty short articles that have already been published as opinion pieces in The Guardian. By and large, the chapters focus on the UK which may not resonate with the wider audience. If you are new to Monbiot, then I would recommend that you start with some of his other work such as Feral. However, if you are already familiar with his writings then feel free to add this to your library, particularly if you live in the UK.


The South Pacific’s Hidden Gem

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is renowned for its natural beauty and wonder. Featured in many of Australia’s tourism campaigns, the reef represents one of the archetypal images of Australia. Australians have a special connection to the Great Barrier Reef regardless of whether or not they have personally witnessed its grandeur.

So imagine my surprise when I found that there was another great barrier reef located in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some refer to it as the ‘hidden gem’ of the South Pacific. For many, it is known as the Great Sea Reef.

At 200 km long the Great Sea Reef (GSR) is the third largest continuous barrier reef system in the world. It straddles the Northern boundary of Vanua Levu, one of the two largest islands in Fiji – the country of my birth.

A rare satellite image of the Great Sea Reef located located along Northern Vanua Levu. Image credit NASA Earth Observatory 2011.

The GSR has been part of Fiji for many millions of years and has helped sustain the livelihoods of the locals since they first settled on the islands. With 80% of the population living within 5km of the ocean, the GSR and other marine ecosystems are a vital resource for Fijians. In recent years, fish has become the number one domestic export commodity and tourism remains a substantial contributor to the Fijian economy. The sea and its bounty are ingrained in indigenous and non-indigenous traditional and cultural practices.  

Kia Island nestled inside the Great Reef Sea. Image credit Jurgen Freund 2013.

As with many coastal nations, the health and productivity of the marine ecosystem in Fiji has been declining. This has been due to  a combination of factors such as an increase in severe storms, coral bleaching, agricultural runoff, urban development, unsustainable tourism, illegal poaching and unsustainable fishing practices. This has affected the livelihoods of the locals as the number of fish and other resources has decreased.

According to Tarusila, a representative of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network, more time is now required to catch enough fish to feed families and sell at markets.

“Our great grandfather and mothers used to go out to the sea and within a short period they came back with plenty of fish. Nowadays people go out for almost the day with little catch – they come back with nothing”

As the climate changes and development in Northern Vanua Levu continues, the GSR – just like the Great Barrier Reef – will become ever more vulnerable. This is particularly concerning considering that we have only just begun to study the reef. In 2004, the first ever comprehensive scientific study of the GSR was conducted. Over twelve days, 23 sites across six major habitats were surveyed with the help of the local communities, non-government organisations and government members. During the survey, the team discovered 43 new species of hard corals and 12 species on the IUCN Red List such as the green sea turtle and spinner dolphins.

Nacula Island in the Yasawa Group which is part of the Great Reef Sea. Image credit Jurgen Freund 2013.

To protect this treasure trove, the late Paramount Chief of Macuata Province – Ratu Aisea Katonivere, brought community leaders, environmental organisations and government bodies together in order to develop and implement a management program.

“The challenge is to ensure that we conserve some resources for our children and their children. We should take action now, and I am proud that we have been given the challenge to manage the third longest reef in the world.”

Conservation of the GSR was built on connecting existing ‘qoliqoli’ – a specific area set aside for each village along the GSR to create a network of marine areas. To protect the fish and marine resources, the locals implemented ‘waitui tabu’ – or areas in which fishing is prohibited.  

By establishing no-take areas, the marine ecosystem is protected and stock in adjacent areas is replenished. As fish and other marine fauna populations within the no-take areas increase, it spills-over into non-protected areas which helps to maintain food security and sustain the tourism industry.

Today there are over 400 communities working together in Fiji to establish a network of Locally Managed Marine Areas with 135 qoliqoli and 465 no-take areas. This puts Fiji on track to meet its commitment to have 30% of the marine environment protected by 2020 under the Convention of Biological Diversity.

I feel very lucky that the third largest barrier reef in the world is located in Fiji. Even more so considering that I now live in Australia where the largest (and more famous) Great Barrier Reef is located. Given that the Great Sea Reef still remains relatively unknown to science, I feel like there are many more secrets that will be revealed in the future.

Until then, I think the Great Sea Reef should be at the top of everyone’s bucket-list, including mine.

The Beak of the Finch – A short book review

In 1995, Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. As one of the most beautifully written books I have read on the topic of evolutionary biology, it is clear to me why Weiner won this accolade.

The Beak of the Finch – book cover

Weiner’s book follows Peter and Rosemary Grant – biologists, as well as husband and wife who have dedicated their careers for understanding evolution. Every year for twenty years, The Grants have travelled to Daphne Major, an island in the Galapagos archipelago in order to study the different species of finches that live there. The archipelago and its flora and fauna are significant in the field of evolutionary biology. Indeed, they may be regarded as the birthplace of this field of science. In 1835, Charles Darwin himself visited the Galapagos while travelling on the HMS Beagle. His observations and interactions with the plants and animals are thought to be the catalyst for his groundbreaking masterpiece The Origin of Species.

Peter and Rosemary Grant collecting data at Daphne Major. Image credit K.T.Grant – New York Times 2014

Over twenty years, The Grants, measured and recorded the sizes of the finches beaks as well as eating, breeding and nesting habits. Through Weiner’s evocative writing, the readers feel as if they are on the island alongside The Grants, experiencing their joys and sorrows as they spend months living rough to collect the data. The hand drawn sketches throughout the book by their daughter, Thalia Grant adds a ‘field-journal’ element to the book. Her drawing skills were honed while being home-schooled on Daphne Major by her parents.

The island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos. Image credit: Parer and Parer-Cook – New York Times 2014

The author does not ignore the significance of Darwin. Throughout the book, Weiner draws on Darwin’s own field notes, letters and quotes which provide valuable insight into how he developed the theory of evolution. So much so that it feels like the reader is having a conversation with the man himself. Neither does Weiner gloss over some of the weaknesses of Darwin’s theory, such as his belief that evolution is a slow process which manifests only after many generations.

Indeed in The Beak of the Finch, the data gathered by The Grants over the past two decades demonstrates that evolution can be a dynamic and rapid process. For instance, The Grants noted a shift in the average size of the beaks in the finches born after a severe drought or an intense wet season. Within each chapter, Weiner draws on a number of other researchers who are working with fish, moths and flies who have found similar trends to The Grants.

The reference to other research projects provides a refreshing break from The Grants and their finches as the book becomes repetitive in the middle with multiple references to the various species of finches on Daphne Major. Further, some readers have criticised Weiner for his foray into religion and philosophy towards the end of the book arguing that this inclusion is either unnecessary or superficial. Personally, I did not find this distracting as I think Weiner’s intention is to invite his readers to examine the relationship between religion and evolution themselves.  

Despite the criticisms, The Beak of the Finch is a fantastic read. Weiner writing style achieves a great balance between adventure, emotion and it serves as a masterclass for those interested in science writing. It is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly students who are interested in understanding evolution or as a gentle introduction to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species.

Cryoconites and climate change

Cryoconite refers to soot, dust and other particulate matter (such as heavy metal pollutants) that has landed on snow and ice. They can occur naturally from activities such as dust-storms, volcanic eruptions and forest fires. They can also be due to human activities such as coal mining, manufacturing operations, land-clearing and desertification. Once liberated, the small particles are carried by air and ocean currents around the world and deposited in some of the most remote polar and mountainous regions of the world.

Despite their ubiquity, the impact of cryoconites in the climate change saga has remained largely understated. However, with more and more effort directed towards mitigating and adapting to global climate change, cryoconites have started attracting the attention they deserve as a key player.

This is because cryoconites have been found to accelerate the impacts of climate change. The small particles of dust and soot reduces albedo – or natural reflectivity of snow and ice. Earth’s polar, snow and ice-covered regions act like natural mirrors by reflect incoming solar radiation back into space. Snow has an albedo of 0.9 while sea-ice has an albedo of 0.8. This mean that they reflect 90% and 80% of sunlight respectively.

Cryoconites blanket the snow and accelerate melting. Reproduced from The Guardian 2015. Image credit: Daniel Beltra

By contrast, snow and ice that has been discoloured by cryoconites can have an albedo as low as 0.2 (or even lower). The low reflectivity of the darker areas means that the absorb more heat from sunlight and melt much quicker compared to brighter areas. As the particles heat up they form small water-filled holes which further adds to the impacts of climate change. It creates a ‘positive feedback’ loop as the water (sea-water has an albedo of 0.06) absorbs more heat from the sun and accelerates the melting process. In some areas, these holes aggregate and form large pools and streams.

Known as ‘moulins’, the fast flowing melt-water carves its way through the surface of the snow and ice. Eventually, the melt-water burrows through the thick ice and reaches the bottom where it acts like a lubricant making it easier for larger bodies of snow and ice to slide, often into the sea.

The melting snow and ice can aggregate together to form large bodies of water. Reproduced from The Guardian (2015). Image credit: Daniel Beltra

Although the loss of sea-ice, snow and glaciers often happen in remote places, their loss has the potential for widespread ecological, cultural and geopolitical ramifications. Greenland, for example is losing an estimated 250 billion tonnes of ice per year. If it was to melt completely, global sea-levels would rise by about six metres. Further, the latest data indicates that the volume of water melting in Greenland caused the underlying tectonic plate to warp. On the opposite end of the world, scientists are concerned about West Antarctic Ice Sheet (known as Larsen C) breaking off. In a matter of days, the rift that is causing the ice-sheet to weaken grew by 11 km.

The Larsen C ice-shelf on the West coast of Antarctica is at risk of breaking off. Reproduced from NASA (2016). Image credit: John Sonntag

If the worst case scenario is realised, then the boundaries of many nations will need to be re-drawn. For some nations such as Tuvalu, the Maldives, and the Kiribati the rising sea-levels are already a fact of life. Wealthy nations with large coastal cities are also expected to suffer. Livelihoods which are intimately dependent on the rivers and streams that are fed by glacial melt such as the Mekong, Yangtze and the Ganges will be lost as the snow and ice retreat. And finally, considering that snow and ice account for 75% of global freshwater, their loss will undermine future resource and food security.

In light of the above, there are a number of strategies that have been put forward to drastically reduce the amount of cryoconites being produced due to human activities. Some strategies to do so include:

  • Setting higher vehicle emission standards
  • Using public transport
  • Promoting the rapid transition away from fossil fuels
  • Encouraging the government to stop the development of new open-cut mines
  • Stopping excessive tree-clearing, particularly, in NSW and QLD
  • Supporting and taking part in tree planting activities
  • Managing large-scale forest (bush) fires

Cryoconites have long remained on the backstage as the world grappled and continues to grapple with mitigating human induced climate change. However, their presence in snow and ice-covered regions of the world has been found to accelerate their loss. Thankfully, many of the strategies identified to address climate change can also have a positive impact in reducing cryoconites.

Gaia: A new look at life on Earth – A short book review

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979) is a seminal piece for contemporary conservationists. The theory grew from his work in the 1970s to develop scientific experiments to find life on Mars. Specifically, what would life on Mars look like? To help answer this question, he turned his thoughts to the existence of life on Earth.

Earthrise: The first image of the Earth from space taken from Apollo 8 in December 1968. To some, this is the most influential, environmental photo ever taken. Image credit: NASA.

According to Lovelock, Gaia is a very complex, hyper-connected entity which has natural checks and balances to help maintain a state of equilibrium. And it is this perfect harmony that is the cauldron that sustains and nourishes life on Earth. For Lovelock our actions can have unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Gaia: a new look at life on Earth is written for a general audience and Lovelock has managed to skillfully blend scientific facts with daily observations. His book is logically structured as each chapter is dedicated to a specific aspect of the Earth’s marine, terrestrial and atmospheric environments. He also uses graphs – albeit sparingly – throughout the book to support his arguments. Indeed, he manages to take the readers on a rich and enlightening journey in his short book.

Sadly, Lovelock’s grand vision of Gaia is muddied in his book. Some sections of the book are repetitive. Despite his use of simple language, some readers might not enjoy Lovelock’s over-reliance on chemistry when explaining the functions of terrestrial, marine and atmospheric environments. His choice of words, such as ‘cybernetics’ and ‘circuits’ when referring to Gaia’s invisible connections might add to the reader’s confusion.

Perhaps, the greatest flaw is not in Lovelock’s writing skills or the structure of the book. It is in the theory itself. His Gaia operates in a perfect system where many forms of pollution such as ozone and greenhouse gases will be naturally dealt with. This view runs the risk of creating a false sense of security given the immense environmental and climate challenges we are facing.

Despite his best efforts though the first publication of Gaia was not well received by the scientific community. His peers considered the theory a heresy – grounded more in theology than in science. However, over the years, his theory has evolved (just like theories do) into something more palatable – a more holistic approach to understanding life on Earth.

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979), is a polarising book. Some conservationists dislike it. Yet there are others who use Gaia as a banner to rally the masses. For me, the desire to read the book was more to get an understanding into the thinking behind Lovelock’s Gaia as well as an intrigue to see how (and if) the theory had evolved since it was first penned. At the very least, I am thankful that Lovelock planted the seeds of thinking about the world in a very different way.

The Hidden Life of Trees – A short book review

Ever wondered what stories your favourite tree was hiding? What secrets you could learn if you could just understand those whispers in the wind? Peter Wohlleben’s book; The hidden life of trees (Figure 1) brings the possibility of communicating with trees a little closer.

Cover of the Hidden Life of Trees
Figure 1: Cover of the Hidden Life of Trees

A forester-turned-conservationist, Wohlleben has spent the better part of two decades managing one of the oldest forests in Hűmmell, Germany. His daily wanderings through his forest has given him an opportunity to observe the social relationships trees have with one another. In his book, he sheds light on how trees talk to each other, how they share resources and defend themselves against pests and even care for the young and the elderly.

It turns out that trees use their root and fungal networks to create the ‘wood wide web’, an organic infrastructure that connects trees in a forest together. In Wohlleben’s book, the forests quickly become a self-regulating entity with Gaia-esk undercurrents.

Indeed, reading Wohlleben’s book makes you feel like he has spent his days exploring Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest (Figure 2). Where one day he wandered too far and too deep and found the Ents. If it were not for the light sprinkling of scientific citations about new research into how trees use sound, taste and smell to communicate, you too would be lost in this fantasy world.

Figure 2: Peter in his beloved forest. Image credit: Sally McGrane, New York Times (2016)
Figure 2: Peter in his beloved forest. Image credit: Sally McGrane, New York Times (2016)

Sadly, some audiences may find Wohlleben’s book a difficult read. There are some parts of the book that come across as being both poorly written and structured as if Wohlleben has failed to completely grasp the complexities of his forest. However, you would be more inclined to forgive him as the book was originally published in German and then later translated into English.

On the whole, Wohlleben’s book seeks to shift the paradigm when it comes to the protecting forests. Specifically, how the current approach to conservation would change if we could understand their ‘language’ and the conversations taking place within a forest. Until then, I suspect a walk in the park or through a forest will never be the same for those who read ‘the hidden life of trees’.

Cooks River hides a little secret

Cooks River is considered to be one of the most polluted urban river systems in NSW. Leaf litter, drink cans, plastics bags, oil runoff are common sights for the locals. When it rains, the situation gets worse as the rubbish snags on the low hanging branches of the casuarina trees and the roots of the mangroves that grow along the banks. The visual pollution and the associated smell can make walking and running along Cooks River an unpleasant experience.

However, despite the pollution, Cooks River hides a little secret. One even some of the locals are not aware of.

To find it, you need to start at Canterbury train station. From there, make your way south across the bridge until you reach the first set of traffic lights. From there, you need to cross to St Mary McKillop Reserve. Then make your way past the tall trees and very slowly, past the gang of noisy sulfur-crested cockatoos. Past the sails of the children’s playground, the rocking horse and the jungle-gym.

You are almost there. Just a little further.

At the end of the little path, past the tall trees lies the secret. A little green oasis known as Cup and Saucer Creek. It was developed as part of Sydney Water’s ‘bank-naturalisation’ project. Bank-naturalisation aims to replace concrete channels, pavements, storm-water drains and lawns with native trees and plants. The construction of Cup and Saucer Creek began in 2010 and took about three months to complete. Twelve months after the project began, it was handed over to Canterbury Council.

Over the past few years, the 27,000 native plants and 40 species of plants introduced around Cup and Saucer Creek have created a vibrant habitat. It is now home to a number of native birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and insects. In 2014, the Council and the volunteers (Marrickville Mudcrabs) who look after the area installed a native beehive to support the plants in the area. From the Creek, sandstones, rocks and native plants have been used to continue the naturalisation process and link the wetland to Cooks River.

Sights around Cup and Saucer Creek. The stumps make ideal spots for the birds. Sadly, rubbish gets in the wetland from time to time. Image credit, Madeline Rhodes.

The oasis comes complete with its own educational space and interpretive signs about indigenous history. These solidifies the Creek as an important, local greenspace. Adjacent to Cup and Saucer Creek are sandstone seats, ideal for those who want to sit and enjoy a snack as they journey along the banks of Cooks River.

Looking at Cooks River from Cup and Saucer Creek. The new bank naturalisation project has connected the Creek to the River. The sandstones add a great touch and add to the stability of the banks. Image credit, Madeline Rhodes

But Cup and Saucer Creek hides its very own little secrets. Not only does it provide a refuge for local wildlife, it performs another critical function. The Creek was specifically designed to reduce the amount of sediments and pollutants entering Cooks River. This is achieved through a clever way. The Creek is made up of four ponds of varying depths and sizes.

The first pond is the deepest as it receives the bulk of the incoming stormwater. The deep design helps slows the rate at which the stormwater enters the wetland. By slowing the stormwater, the sediments and pollutants begin to settle to the bottom of the pond. The aquatic plants and reeds, together with the algae and bacteria that grow in the ponds helps to break down the sediments and pollutants. By the time the water reaches the fourth pond, it is much cleaner.

One of the four ponds that make up the Creek. It helps slow down the stormwater that flows into it and the aquatic plants and reeds help filter the pollutants. Image credit, Madeline Rhodes.

From pond four, the water flows into Cooks River. The natural filtering and cleaning process is so effective, that Sydney Water estimates that 5 tonnes of sediment, 40kg of phosphorus and 130kg of nitrogen are diverted from Cooks River by Cup and Saucer Creek alone.

The Creek is a great example of the positive impacts that bank-naturalisation programs can have on local water catchments. A once grassy lawn that has been transformed into a thriving and vibrant ecosystem. More projects like Cup and Saucer Creek are needed along the banks of the Cooks River. Ultimately, they need to be connected to form a green corridor. One that not only cleans and filters the water but also provide a habitat for the local wildlife. Doing so will go a long way to help the Inner West Council achieve its goal of making parts of the Cooks River swimmable.

Until then, Cup and Saucer Creek will be one of Cooks River’s best kept secrets. One that many of the locals do not know about. And the ones that do, want to keep it a secret. At least a little longer. 

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