Monday, 10 January 2011

Angry Panda!

There are just over 1600 giant pandas left alive in the wild, 239 in breeding projects in China and 27 outside of the country. Scotland has recently been rejoicing because this number is about to rise to 29. Edinburgh zoo with the help of our very own deputy prime minister is about to close a deal with China (Why is our deputy prime minister so interested in pandas?...more on this mystery later!) No other animal has caused as much conservation controversy as the Giant Panda, and for good reason!

The Giant Panda became the poster boy of the World Wildlife Fund in the 1960s and what a brilliant poster boy he has been. The panda is critically endangered bear that lives in isolated habitat primarily in Sichuam province and is an extreme dietary specialist. 99% of its diet is two different forms of bamboo and it needs both varieties in order to survive. The bamboo plant is also a habitat based specialist and thus the panda needs a combination of both lowland and rainy mountain terrain in order meet its nutritional needs. Just for an added bonus, the animals are natural loners, they have incredibly low birth rates, and is virtually impossible to breed in captivity (with most successes via artificial insemination).

The panda, it seems just really wasn't cut out for life in the 21st century, it would be very difficult to make up an animal with as many survival and reproduction problems as the panda. Their mating season only lasts from March to May and the female pandas oestrous cycle lasts a mere two or three days for the year! If twins are born (which would be a real boost for these guys) only one will survive in the wild. The mother will let the weaker one die as she does not store fat reserves and so cannot feed two cubs. For the first 75 days of its life the panda cub cannot even really move and the mother must leave it for 3-4 hours a day in order to feed, in this time it is totally defenceless.

Some conservationists have naturally asked the question: 'Why bother? When there are so many other species at risk, only such limited money and effort, why invest so much in something so awful?'.

I think this question comes from a legitimate feeling but is slightly misplaced. Pandas may seem to us as being awful. They cannot get used to life in fast lane, they need a specific habitat and specific food and they have obscure mating rituals. In many ways I love Pandas because we don't get them, they are aliens living among us. Their biology is so totally different to ours. We hairless apes are super generalists, live everywhere on the planet, eat everything we can get our thumbs on and mate constantly. Saying the pandas are bad at what they do is failing to understand the panda, it is seeing the world out of the eye of a generalist.

This is not actually how the world is, the vast majority of species around are not like us. They are species evolved over millions of years with very tight and specific interactions. Fish that only eat one type of algae, wasps that only pollinate one type of fig and lynxes that only eat one type of hare. We see the world from our rat eye view, we are saving only the good species right now. As our human army plunders our way across the planet we bring our camp followers with us, animals like rats, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats and weedy plants. They are made in our image, generalists who spread and wipe out all of these 'not so good' species. The panda is good at what it does..which is being a panda! It has evolved and survived for long before we got to China, when countless animals have gone extinct before it the panda pulled through living off a resource no other animal could eat.

Is the panda a waste of money? Well yes, keeping it in Zoos in sunny Edinburgh, flying the last few of these animals around the world for us to gawk at is a colossal waste of money. Playing panda porn to animals trapped tens of thousands of miles from its natural homeland, in a cage a fraction the size of its native range is 21st century madness. It is not seeing the world the way the panda sees it, is assuming that every animal in the world can and will live exactly how we a box pumped full of moving images. Pandas don't do that!

I dont like being in a Zoo!!!

Is preserving and maintaining and restoring panda habitat a waste of money? Is saving all of the other animals and plants that share the habitat with these big sleepy specialists a waste of money? I don't think so, the panda problem is not going to be fixed by trading them for economic favours with the Chinese. It is going to be fixed by habitat restoration and protection in China.

On a final note I would like to also point out the complete and utter madness of these talks with China that resulted in Scotland getting the pandas. The panda deal was a footnote to a £2.6 billion trade agreement with China (This is why Clegg was there). The single largest portion of this was the Grangemouth refinery, which struck a landmark deal with Chinas largest oil and gas firm. BP and China national oil also signed a deal committed to deep water drilling in the South China Sea, Land rover agreed to sell 40,000 more vehicles to China and Great Britain with our Great British diplomacy skips around the EU embargo to China on high technology items with dual military applications. All in the name of jobs, trade, industry, oh and two pandas. Pandas traded in oil, cars and gun parts, all the things that lead to less pandas in the long run.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book review: The philosophy of ecology; from science to synthesis

I like to mix things up pretty much all the time (none of this every once in a while nonsense) so I thought I would do a book review. I spied the Philosophy of Ecology when I was browsing the web curious to see what other individuals may have pre-emptively stolen and published my great ideas! (Or becoming aware of existing literature in the field as it is sometimes known)As soon as I saw this title knew at once this was a great idea for a book.

Essentially, the editors have gathered together a group of ecologists and philosophers all in one place, locked them in a room and didn’t let them out until they had assembled a tome of synthesized knowledge. The book is rigorously broken down by philosophical topic in true reductionist style, but also consciously ties parts from different sections together with some success in a lovely holistic way.

The various philosophical principles that relate to ecology are each approached in the same way. The section is introduced and the major trends of thought are examined by one of the editors in the form of a philosophical essay. Then several noteworthy and often historically significant ecology papers are presented, these are edited to keep the principles in focus and to downplay the experiments and data except when they relate directly to the philosophy. Finally each chapter is wrapped up by another philosophical essay often merging the ideas of stubborn scientists into one (semi) unified whole.

I very much enjoyed the idea of the book and I agree with the vast number of its conclusions. Indeed I even think it is one of the best possible approaches to the task. The book reads as a philosophy and science sandwich. Including the real papers of eminent scientists was a strong move, something I think that was close to the editor’s heart. An early complaint and I believe a legitimate reason for this book was that many people don’t know what they mean when they say ecological. Indeed most ecologists say things or do things that many in the ‘Green’ movement would not consider ecological!

The transition from scientist to philosopher feels a little bit jarring at times but I think the approach was well considered and by the end the reader is immersed not only in the philosophical but also the scientific questions that built up the new field of ecology, a field that is still growing and spreading its wings.

If I were to find one serious flaw with the book it would be with the complete domination of analytic philosophy as the method of approach. The book mentions in one line that Eastern philosophical systems possess well developed notions of direct relevance to the holism and reductionism debate and then summarily ignores all of these concepts. The scientific community is well represented with fluffy holists like Eugene Odum, mathematical powerhouses like Robert May and fence menders like Stephen Jay Gould. Yet the philosophical approach is uniquely one sided, there is barely a whiff of the idealist school of philosophy, even Deep Ecology or Ecofeminism which are directly relevant to the topic in hand. The exclusion of other philosophical approaches even in synthetic statements is the one glaring weakness in an otherwise well executed introduction to the area.

So in my final assessment I would say brilliant but incomplete. I would recommend it to anyone with a background in either ecology or philosophy that would like to step boldly into new territory. If you have an interest in both, this is an engaging read that will leave you with all sorts of new thoughts and questions.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

One Vision

One flesh one bone,
One true religion,
One voice one hope,
One real decision!

Often we speak with many voices, very rarely do they all sing together. The modern man and woman are streamlined into many separate identities (and we are lead to believe discreet), we often admire and connect with famous people who show the ability to switch from one thing to the next. Mother, financial director, athlete and lover all rolled into one what a brilliant image! The key point here is that they are indeed one, not many voices.

People often fail at New Year’s resolutions because of many voices. There is at least one voice saying go on put the cake down and four or five others saying mmmm delicious cake! The rational mind (cake hater and maker of exercise plans) and the emotional mind (cake connoisseur and lover of oversleeping) are at war, the physical body is grumbling about a lack of zinc and tension in the lower back (but gets ignored as no one is listening) and the spiritual mind is confused and upset by the whole affair (but secretly knows that everything is great!).

One of the things that all internal practices have in common is they are leading your many voices together. The key to this is awareness; lack of awareness is what leads to disharmony. Awareness is a difficult thing to train... If you can excuse a zen master moment; You must become aware of your awareness!!

Look and it cannot be seen, search and it can't be found, yet you use it all the time!

You basically have to cheat to get at your awareness, get engaged in something else with your whole being (and it doesn’t really matter what that particular thing is). Then the little bit that's left off, what some people engaged in meditation call the mind stream, starts to pop up in all sorts of places. Little funny thoughts and associations emerge, little glimpses of the other voices...practice enough and they will all be singing together. The key here is not to then run off paying attention to these voices just to let them come and go without any attachment, after all they all come from you.

So I think that a good new year’s resolution would be to really get into something that you are already into! Instead of struggling through your run, engage with it. Feel your heart beating and your breath moving (if the heart feels like it’s about to explode through your chest maybe running is not your preferred choice! Walking works great too.). Relax your mind and open up to yourself, you deserve it!

Happy New Year