Sunday, 21 November 2010

Go on put another sheep on the common...

My last post was about fisheries, a resource that is held in common between people and used for many different things. The issue with holding a resource in common is not a new problem.

We used to have many commons all over the country where people could raise their livestock. In a feudal system of economics the common was vital to the infrastructure of small villages and towns, people could not afford to own land and hence land was placed in common and used by the people. People soon realised there were a few problems, as when you are sharing a resource with others you are all in direct competition. If I want to get maximum return out of the land I should use it as quickly and fully as possible. I should cram as many of my hungry sheep onto the common even if that would mean everyone else looses out.

Now if you live in a small village and everyone only has one sheep this isn't a problem, there is plenty of grass for all. In the early 16th century land owners started to realise that they had lots of sheep and didn't particularly like sharing space with their underlings. It was during this time that much historical common land was enclosed and essentially returned to the rich and powerful. We have reclaimed some of this land as time has gone by but a good deal of common land has been lost in the dingy past.

The tragedy of the commons is a great cause of concern to many of a philosophical bent. To make everything free and available to all seems ethically wonderful. Yet, everyone then struggles and competes viciously for limited resources and harms the very resource in the first place. Make people own it exclusively and then the whole problem of rich versus poor and dominant versus weak begins! It seems we are trapped between two tragedies an open access scramble in which everyone looses equally and a vicious contest in which some win, but others loose in a very big way.

It is interesting to note that the idea of contest and scramble competition has been extensively analysed in relation to animal foraging. Some small flour beetles (check these guys out below) will all share out flour roughly evenly as they all scramble to get food. Other very similar beetles will battle it out and the big strong ones will hoard all the flour while the little ones starve. This is essentially the same system that we use, in an open access resource we scramble, in our trade and business we have contest.

In nature the flour beetles that stubbornly stick to their feeding method have been shown to be a rare case. In many natural systems there is a degree of plasticity, if food is plentiful then scramble dominates and as resources become depleted then many animals shift to contest. This makes a good deal of sense, one more sheep on the green isn't a problem in the feudal village, the resource is not over exploited. When you only have a few good quality fish left in the sea then it makes more sense to shift to a more competitive system, people who own a resource tend to take care of it. The problem then becomes one of ownership, equality and access.

The real issue is that in an ideal world would we should be equitable and we would share resources evenly, everyone has rights of access and there is plenty for all. The great problems of capitalist societies and all of the misery found in them stem from imbalance and the domination of the weak by the strong. The only solution that gives equitable and ethical resource allocation is a scramble contest when the resource is not over taxed.

This is a key principle of Buddhist economics, the only way we can have sustainable fair systems is never to demand too much from our resources. We should reduce our demand, put less pressure on our supply. The aim should be efficient and fair use of resources, a moral incentive that will prevent us from putting one more sheep on the common, because when it comes down to it I don't necessarily need to put another sheep out there.

The flip-side of this is that increasing demand and requiring constant growth out of our fixed resources makes equitable scramble systems collapse. Our current economic concept of constant growth depletes resources and forces us towards contest competition. The more that the resource is demanded the more likely it is to be better managed by a few owners. The current economic system of growth does not raise people out of poverty as has been claimed, it makes it more likely that a few powerful individuals will own everything. This is a self reinforcing cycle and leads to an unethical distribution of resources and it is fundamental to our current economic model. At a very basic level our system makes the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

We should be making our desires weaker and ask less of our planet. The man who desires less very literately has more to give to everyone else.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Buzzword is Bycatch

'That which is held in common is held in the least regard.' Fiedrich Nietzsche

Fisheries have been difficult to manage in the modern age. The latest controversy to drift the British public's way is the discarding of large volumes of catch. This is not a new problem, ever since the creation of fixed quotas for fisheries there has been mass discarding. The headline the other day in the Independent examined this complex issue. Newspapers love stories like these because they highlight the shocking waste of modern society, have great celebrity tie ins (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in this case) and have stirrings of anti EU propaganda.

The idea that discarding huge numbers of dead fish, simply chucking them back in the sea, is a bad idea, is not very surprising. The key issue that I do not think has been addressed is, why do people do it? And how can we stop it? It is all very well and good signing a petition and shouting 'This must stop!', but no body seems to be offering a solution.

So why do people waste fish? I have stolen a cunning diagram to explain this:

So, fisherman go out with a big net, which catches fish of a certain size, in the North Sea these nets are mostly trawls of some kind (Beam or Otter) and these tend not to be very selective. A whole host of fish, shellfish and all sots of other sea creatures are caught. Some species will be high value and the target of the fishermen. Many other fish will be of low market value, undersized (us scientists generally consider it a bad idea to catch small baby fish before they have had a chance to make any more baby fish as this soon leads to not many more fish left) or over the available quota. These fish are thrown back. Nearly all of them in a large fishing net will be dead or dying.

So, the way I see it we have a problem that comes from two sources: the quota system and the fishing methods used.

The current quota system in the E.U. is Total Allowable Catch (TAC) this total tonnage of each species of fish is then spread out to various E.U. States. This means that they subsequently divide it amongst their fishermen. The aim of the game becomes how to I get the most bang for my buck, if I can only land 3 tonnes of herring I want the best quality freshest herring and nothing else. The fishermen do not want to be in this situation, they do not want to be throwing back perfectly good fish because the only way they can make a living is to find particular size 'golden fish'.

There are a couple of solutions to this. You could ban discarding, this would force fishermen to land everything they catch. This would result in some very poor and angry fishermen (politicians don't like this!). There is much talk of using financial incentives, reward the good guys that don't throw back fish with higher quotas or longer seasons. I think this is good in principle, but a great deal of research shows that we need to be reducing overall fishing effort if we ever want our stocks to recover.

The other side of the coin is the fishing methods used. Trawling is notoriously bad at selecting a target catch. Huge volumes of bottom dwelling life and habitat are scooped up together. The continued use of unselective trawls is a key component of this problem. Juvenile fish and endangered species are caught alongside the target species. On top of this some trawling methods destroy all of the oyster beds and cold water corals in our seas, leaving a rocky rubble that is home to crabs, worms and not much else.

The good news is there are technologies that can help, larger mesh sizes will let many fish escape. All kinds of vents, hatches and escapes have been designed and tested, many of these methods show remarkable success. If legislators want to step in, they should set incentives (and penalties too) to encourage fishermen to adopt nets with all of these bells and whistles. The uptake of these technologies in the E.U. Has been remarkably poor to date outside of Iceland and Norway.

So, what is the answer! Hugh doesn't seem to have one, he is pretty sure he wants to stop bycatch, but that is about it. I will now put on my all powerful policy hat and propose a solution based on research done by the food and agriculture organisation (FAO) of the UN and some of my own more conservation minded ideas. This is based on the following concepts:

1)We are fishing too much in Europe, the stocks are over exploited, we only have tiny minnow like fish left compared to 100 years ago. There must be effort reduction.
2)Discarding is unethical and must be reduced or eliminated
3)Sea life has inherent value, and value to non fish consumers (divers, whale watchers etc). The ocean is one of our great ecosystems and should be protected.
4)Some fishermen do a very good job. They care about the sea and work hard to play by the rules and contribute to the debate on the issue. Others are driven by short term gains, discard huge amounts and break the rules at any given chance.

Based on these ideas I propose several solutions:

1)A system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) be introduced. ITQs give each fisherman a market share in the fishing resource. They essentially own a certain amount of catch. These can then be bought and sold or traded. They would also own a particular bycatch quota. Good fishermen who stick to the rules and use selective technology will get good value returns and be left with unused bycatch quota. If they catch more fish of high value they can trade with a mate and get more quota for a particular species. Bad fishermen, using unselective gear will use up their bycatch quota and be forced to buy it, at increasingly expensive rates from their well behaved buddies. This combines incentives and disincentives in one go.
2)Small financial incentives offered to cover the cost of uprgarding to selective and conservation minded gear. Seeing as the fishing industry makes a global net loss of several trillion a year due to incentives and support I think this is a small price to pay.
3)Total quotas on offer are reduced. We fish too much, fishermen will cry, get over it!
4)No take zones established. It is mad to think that we can fish every part of the sea at all times throughout the year. Marine protected areas will offer nurseries for shellfish, crustaceans and groundfish, rebuild habitat and offer alternative stakeholders places to enjoy unspoilt oceans.

I think that good fishermen should be rewarded. I think that people that senselessly waste our resources and damage habitat should be punished. The rules must change, there is general consensus that the TAQ system in Europe today has failed. ITQs have worked well in the US and New Zealand. They need to be set by the EU and then managed locally by member states. This solution is high input, and requires a good deal of effort on the part of scientists, managers and fishermen, but it has the potential to achieve the goals we all want; more fish, sustainable fish, less bycatch and a healthier ocean.

(This is partly my plan, but borrows data and concepts from several sources including the FAO bycatch report, work by Daniel Pauley at the University of British Columbia and Kevin Crean and David Symes at the University of Hull. If you want to see the sources and documents used just send me an email or post up)

Monday, 15 November 2010

Words of Mad Men

'I hate to break it to you but there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.'

This quote is from Don Draper of Mad Men when leaving a party. I hate to say it but the man summed up everything I have ever wanted to say when leaving a certain kind of venue. So many modern day 'liberal' individuals blame a great deal of societies wrongs on some great system, some overarching lie that befouls humanities innate brilliance. As if when we were all left alone without 'the man' watching over us we would be better!

This I feel is one of greatest errors ever made by humanity, that in some previous time there was a golden era. The idea that in this time period, even in the last generation or so, some domineering (often white male) type chaps have taken control of society and imposed their will on everyone else. This concept has repeated itself in various guises throughout human history in the form of doomsday predictions and conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theorists and doomsday predictors are wrong, the universe is indifferent, there is no big lie, there is no grand design, people have always been just as self righteous, ego driven and easily lead now as ever. These aspects of society are not symptoms of some new malaise, they are part of human culture from the agricultural revolution onwards.

We as a species are fundamentally plastic, we can adapt to whatever is put in front of us. As one of my computer minded acquaintances once said, our minds are an open source programming interface. This means whatever we offer to ourselves in terms of thoughts, beliefs and experiences can, with some restrictions, be made our way of thinking. This is an amazing and liberating tool. The universe is indifferent, open and flexible, just as we are! It turns out that we often reflect the rather shallow values we are presented with rather than a truly open and indifferent universe.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Emotional Content

I am a big fan of martial arts films. I know that most of them are terrible, the acting is woeful, the plot is the same every time and any form of dubbing or subtitling is normally hilarious. Nevertheless, I cannot help myself, I have watched quite a number of these films. There are some (and in this genre very few indeed) that have risen above the rest and have been recognised as appealing to a wider audience. Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee is one such film. I watched it again the other day and one of my favourite scenes is where Bruce is teaching a young martial arts student. The clip can be found on you-tube at the following link:

The part that I like the most has very little to do with martial arts (most of the rest I like because like every martial artist I dream of being taught by someone like Bruce Lee and receiving Zen master style slaps whenever I don't get anything right!), and is when Bruce says, 'Emotional content, not anger!'. This reminded me of a way that many critics of Buddhism perceive the enlightened mind, as being without any emotion. There are people have have a great deal of fear and hostility towards meditation and enlightenment because they think that it will separate them from the world.

People attack Buddhism saying things like, 'If I am detached and not part of life, how do I fall in love? It is natural for me to want to love and hate, to be happy and sad, I do not want to be detached from these things because that is not life.' I think this is a common complaint and comes from a linguistic miscommunication.

The enlightened mind still feels, and has deep and meaningful emotional content. This is very different to the grasping emotions that we feel every day. To the enlightened mind emotions don't seize and control the entire being or whole life. The master is never burned up or consumed by rage, anger or even love and joy. These emotions come and go just the same as they do to others, but the master remains calm and centred. If anything the enlightened mind feels more, because she/he is able to be truly in the moment, but when that moment passes so does the emotional content of that moment.

Taoist masters raised children and had families, loved their wives and husbands and held down perfectly normal jobs. Becoming enlightened does not mean riding yourself of emotion. Chung Tse wept bitterly at his wife's funeral (in fact he caused a bit of scene), because that was how he felt, yet his grief did not consume him. He expressed it fully and then allowed it to pass. The enlightened mind is exactly the same mind, the enlightened heart is exactly the same heart.

Let me put it another way, all of our minds are like great bodies of water (some people have convinced themselves or have been convinced by others that their minds are small bodies of water, but they are not!). These water bodies accept all the stuff that they meet, a small pebble causes a small ripple, but a large boulder causes a big splash. Our minds are complex and have their own tides and currents. They can cause storms. The average mind is stuck to the coast, it deals with the future (the shore) all of the time and its constantly battered by waves (the past). The masters mind is like the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is totally calm and open. The currents here have stopped, any stones that fall are lapped up and absorbed by the depth of the water, the ripples pass away and they do not crash onto the shore. That is not to say that there will not be stones falling and storms trying to form. The ripples from the stones are absorbed by the deep full ocean and the calm and balance of the currents and air stops the storms before they get going. This place is free, easy and cannot be disturbed.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Tao of short introductions

I wanted to write something as an introduction to Eastern philosophy. This of course is an incredibly difficult thing to do. I was immediately reminded of this section of the Tao Te Ching:

The ancient masters were subtle,
mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is
Because it is unfathomable,
All we can do is describe their
Watchful, like men crossing a winter
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.

So as you can see I had a good deal to live up to! My brain felt like an uncarved block of wood when I felt like writing this. So I think all I will do is describe appearances and do this by comparison. It is this comparison that first very literally blew my mind wide open to a pattern of thought that I had never experienced as a child/teenager. I cannot really tell you what Taoist dogma (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) is, or what it is to be a good Buddhist. I could describe the eightfold path or quote sections from the Bhagavad Gita but I don’t think that would be very useful. These things are not useful in the same way that they are if I were to tell you about Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

Western religions work by proclamation. Orders are passed down from the throne of God and disseminated by his viziers (Priests, Imams and Rabbis) to his faithful subjects. It is a monarchy with God at the top (as a deeply male King), who passes down his very serious instructions. If I want to learn about the King and his laws I simply read and obey them, I submit myself before them (This had always been a troubling issue for me, why would anyone, let alone a benevolent God want people to submit before them).

In Hinduism, Shiva dances. This is brilliant, it is not very fitting for a deity to do this in the West, but life is a glorious dance. The Tao is described as a mysterious female, this sounds fantastic! (One because I like females and two because mysterious females are even better!) Eastern religions do not hand down orders, they work by dialogue. There is a constant exchange, using humour, insight and practice. The phrases of Eastern texts are designed to be tools to aid thought and to promote insight. Confucius in one of his more enlightened moments said: ‘I will give my disciples one corner, it is up to them to find the other three.’ Laws do not work like this. You could not expect a judge to condemn someone for a crime with the words ‘Well I expected you to figure out the rest of the rules for yourself.’

This is the great beauty of this pattern of thinking, it does not dominate, it does not control and it grows with you. This dialogue is the vital part of the way, and this is why practice is so heavily emphasised is Eastern religion. In Western religion all that is fundamentally needed is that you understand the laws and submit before the king. In Eastern religion this is meaningless. Reading an understanding the eightfold path is only the absolute beginning; it is the opening PowerPoint presentation before a debate begins. In order to really get this pattern of thought you must practice. To some extent it doesn’t matter what, painting, calligraphy, martial arts, meditation, walking, chanting and music were all considered perfectly good tools to engage in this dialogue. It is up to you to find something, stick to it and let your own understanding grow with you.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Why I am not 'Green'

I just watched the channel four documentary on the failures of the green movement and as an environmentalist but also as a sceptic I found it uniquely informing and beautifully biased all at the same time. I say that I am an environmentalist because I feel a great deal of sympathy for the environment, I am driven to see the world as one great living and organic system, where all things are connected and there are no externalities. I also say I am a sceptic, because like any good bedfellow I hate baggage. When I say I care deeply for the environment and I am concerned for the well-being of living systems that does not mean that I immediately subscribe to the plethora of dogmatic beliefs that have become increasingly associated with the green movement. If an idea is based on careful thought and evidence, calm consideration and introspection weighed equally with investigation and experiment, then it is worth adhering to both morally and intellectually. To pick a course of action based solely on either motive, pure reason with no morality ('Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds' The cataclysmic realisation of man dedicated to mental pursuits who had never considered the moral implications of his work) and pure morality with no reason (ever had a good conversation with a fundamentalist Christian) is a mistake. Sound arguments and reasonable opinions are formed from both good evidence and benevolence in equal measure. The existence of GM crops or nuclear power alone do not make them inherently bad technologies. We must use the twin tools of our understanding and intuition to decipher their purpose and place in our world. Green ideology, like any other fixed system of beliefs has caused heartache and suffering on a number of occasions, ranging from the attacks on animal welfare scientists and zoo staff to the promotion of dolphin friendly tuna (the long lining technique employed in this practice kills hundreds of species that, unlike pelagic dolphin species, actually are endangered. This includes such animals as sea birds, sharks and turtles.).

Now given that I am not a hardcore 'Green' individual, in that I do not subscribe to any formalised dogma on the issue, I feel that I can restate my initial position. The documentary was informing because like so many opinions it revealed more about the individuals and organisations representing those opinions than it did about the actual points of view themselves. The leading proponents of the video were for the most part people with specific corporate lobbying goals (anti climate change think tanks, oil company boys and industrial agriculture spokespeople), these individuals had clear financial incentives to represent the world in certain way. Furthermore, they were unclear and elusive about the organisations that they belonged to and the data that they were presenting. So, based on my earlier assessment of morality (which I assume includes openness, honesty and benevolence...pretty big cornerstones of being a well rounded individual) score one for the Greens. In comparison Greenpeace presented a clear list of their sources for any given argument and gave arguments based on ideas rooted in ethics, local custom and evidence.

My scientifically minded followers will by this point be baying for blood, give us the evidence! Well I cannot, indeed I did not have the pleasure of watching the original documentary. I watched the version that was shown after the MORI group (a survey group) filed a complaint against the documentary. This complaint was upheld and the statistics used in the documentary were removed. As such the actual evidence presented concerning the failure of the green movement consisted of interviews with people attending music festivals, reports from biased sources and some strong opinionated dialogue.

I immediately dismissed the documentary. In my mind it had failed to provide a strong ethical or reasonable argument to support its case. My concern and consideration were aroused not by what seemed to be and attempted to excite opinion (and increase ratings), but by the loaded and fiery response by Greenpeace. It claimed that channel four is against the green ideas and attacked the individuals responsible for the documentary. In a situation where there is an obvious call for clarity, reason and ethics I am disappointed that this is the road taken.

In this issue I am reminded of an old Chinese proverb. 'A young boy walks into the kitchen and smells the boiling food. He sees his mother is not around so he reaches out to the pot to grasp it. He recoils in pain, crying and runs to his father. 'The pan is too hot', he moans. His sister looks at him and tells him, 'silly boy, it is just not cold enough yet.'. The father smiles and says, 'you are both right, in order to understand hot I must know cold, and to know of cold means that I understand hot. These things are simply manifestations, it is how you interact with the world and its changes that is important.''

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

UN Biodiversity conference

I was going to write a fairly extended review and analysis of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan. This was a very important conference dealing with the issue of global and widespread biodiversity loss. The evidence for this is overwhelming; we are witness to a fourth mass extinction event similar in scale to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. The rate of species loss is vastly higher than the background rate across geological history. Fortunately this has not been going on long (again on a geological time period) so for the time being the tree of life is just getting a very vigorous pruning, but if this continues the branches are next. I read the front page article by the Independent on the conference and was initially swept up with all the enthusiasm. They hailed it as a landmark move. Yet when I probed a little deeper I was left disappointed. Now as I said I was going to write a fairly extended rant about the heavy emphasis on economic value, the poor number of leaders that showed up and the lack of any binding agreement signed. As it turns out the Guardian got George Monbiot on the case and he has beaten me to the punch. Read and enjoy/despair in equal measure.

I think he gets a bit over the top in places but the core message is exactly what I wanted to say. My favourite line is the following:

‘This approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the economy. In reality it's the other way round. The economy, like all other human affairs, hangs from the world's living systems’

I think this describes a great deal with what is wrong with this method of valuation. It strikes me that every time these evaluations are done the value placed on ecosystem services is phenomenal, billions or trillions of dollars, yet people do not really value them so. If they were worth billions in a classical sense large corporations and states would be desperate to maintain these services. Using currency to assess value of living things has been shown to give weird results. Take for example a paper by Clark (1973) that asked the question if it was economically sound to stop whaling to allow a stock to recover. This seems reasonable, save today and invest in tomorrow, more whales in the future means more profit. Alas his method showed the most economically rational decision was to harvest every single blue whale on the planet as fast as possible, then control the supply of whale based products carefully for maximum return and put the money in the bank (and live happily ever after...). Clark’s models have stood up to strong criticism and he was right to show the world its economic madness. Animals and plants have inherent value that does not depend on us, turning everything into money is part of a mindset that views the whole world as one giant resource pot to be used, abused, sold and traded entirely for our own human benefit. I want to live in a world where we desire to safeguard the planet because is the right thing to do, not because it happens to be the most profitable.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Why is ecology different?

We live in a society that is designed to conquer life, to control and restrain nature. This is not the first society to do this; I am by no means blaming Western style capitalism for this ideology (but anyone that has a good argument for this please feel free to rise to the challenge!). It has far deeper roots, monarchies, communist states and oligarchies that exist today and in the past have all shared this desire, to dominate and control nature for the benefit of man. Man is conquering space and the atom, the deserts, the oceans and the elements. According to our culture, this is what we were born to do.

Much of modern science approaches nature from this perspective. Engineers build bridges, cars and weapons. Chemists control and manipulate oil into all manner of chemicals. Biotechnology seeks to master DNA and transform organisms with the genes of others. Physicists smash atoms together and force new types of matter to emerge. All of this is for the betterment of man. Ecologists observe nature, we record what has transpired, the experiments here are carried out by nature itself. We do not induce ice ages, form clouds or purposely introduce new species (well some people do, but not ecologists these days). The Ecologist observes what is happening and attempts to predict how it will affect not just man, but every organism in the ecosystem.

Not all ecology is like this, a great deal is still human centred for example a great deal of effort is put into analysing risk and assessing the loss and damage to economies caused by biological change. Yet still there is much that sees a fundamental difference in viewpoint, that man is not the centre of creation. The world was not built for us, life will continue to evolve and to change and that our actions have far reaching consequences often beyond what we think we can control.

I think it is encouraging that many modern researchers see nature not a foe to be conquered, but something to be studied, marvelled at and enjoyed. Yes we can draw conclusions, use our large well adapted brains to explore our world, but this doesn’t mean we have to master and control our surroundings. I think our aim should be to do no harm, to each other or to the world. We need understanding and analysis to perform these feats but not radical dominating technologies.

I am not trying to say that human centred technologies are always evil and that we should give up all that we have and go to live in caves again. I just think there needs to be a shift in viewpoint to incorporate ecological ideas into other areas.