If only plants could talk

By Hannah Pitt, University of the West of England

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

Plant scientists at Virginia Tech recently reported their discovery of communication between a parasitic plant and its host. By exchanging genetic material the parasite seemed to be urging the host to lower defences to its invasion. The researchers described it as a form of dialogue between the two, with one communicating new information to the other. This revelation adds a further form of plant conversation to others previously recognised in which plants exchange messages in the form of chemicals or electrical signals.

These quite capable forms of floral communication come as a surprise to many because plants have long been seen as the least active or intelligent living beings. In a hierarchy with humans at the pinnacle, plants sit well beneath them and other animals. But human geographers are increasingly recognising that this portrayal is misguided. The more we know about what plants do, the harder it is to see them as unintelligent. And there is an ethical imperative pushing us to recognise plants’ abilities for the habit of regarding flora as passive and insentient has allowed humans to dominate and neglect it, with serious ecological repercussions.

This is a topic ripe for geographic investigation because plants are everywhere and make a significant difference to places. Human geographers have made interesting progress with research into human-plant interactions. In my contribution to Area I explore how they tackle this, and examine some of the ways social scientists like me learn what plants are doing. I invited gardeners to act as guides and encouraged them to show me what they do with plants. Their expertise taught me much about plants’ actions and capabilities because good gardeners have to understand how they grow. Techniques such as time-lapse photography helped to show plants growing and moving. By speeding up and zooming in on processes which are otherwise difficult to perceive it was possible to see plants as active and mobile.

These methods, guided by the intention of paying close attention to plants were helpful, and ensured that plants ‘showed up’ in the research. But, unlike the team at Virginia Tech I’m not very skilled in understanding what plants have to say. In the paper I conclude that the techniques I used were limited because plants speak a language social scientists don’t understand. To really research plants as independent active beings, human geographers will need to become skilled in communicating with them or look to experts such as botanists to act as interpreters. Because plants can talk, we just need to know how to listen.

About the author: Dr Hannah Pitt is a Research Associate within the Department of Health and Social Science at the University of the West of England. Hannah is currently working on research projects which evaluate programmes related to food, public health and sustainability. 

 Pitt, H. (2014), On showing and being shown plants – a guide to methods for more-than-human geography. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12145

60-world2 Maynard, G. (2014) Prince Charles was right all along: Plants really can talk to each other Express

Understanding the 2013/14 UK Winter Storms

By Will Andrews, Aberystwyth University

This time last year Britain was experiencing the first wave of flooding and destruction caused by a storm surge along the East Coast and North coast of Wales and the heavy rain which followed (Thorne, 2014: 297). As we were to find out this was just the beginning of some of the biggest storms the UK has seen for two decades (Jones et al., 2014) and as a student at Aberystwyth University I experienced some of the storm damage first hand, see Figure 1. A recent themed section within The Geographical Journal presented a number of articles arranged around the theme of the winter storms and flooding in order to give a better understanding of the dynamics and interrelations behind them. In particular this shows the way in which the journal promotes the roles of geography and geographers in public and policy debates (Dodds, 2014: 294).

Figure 1. Storm Damage on the Aberystwyth Promenade in January 2014  (Wikimedia Commons, 2014).

Figure 1. Storm Damage on the Aberystwyth Promenade in January 2014
(Wikimedia Commons, 2014a).

The flooding initiated a number of debates, as Colin Thorne (2014) explains there were debates about blame with fingers being pointed at farmers and politicians (BBC News, 2014a; Monbiot, 2014) and debates about whether the UK is now experiencing the results of climate change, both debates are inherently geographical as are the solutions (Thorne, 2014: 297). Thorne goes on to conclude that the solutions to these issues require joined up governance, action and policy underpinned by science and engineering research (p306). This means that the Government needs to work with local stakeholders, scientists and engineers to work out long term solutions to flooding in the UK (p307). One such area of scientific research explained in detail in this issue is concerned with floodplain generation, John Lewin (p317) explains that understanding these semi-natural systems and their response to extreme events is important in contributing to mitigation efforts. Similarly Elisabeth Stephens and Hannah Cloke (2014: 310) discuss scientific and organisational developments with reference to the Flood Forecasting Centre highlighting the improvements which were utilised during the winter floods but also the challenges that remain for flood forecasting to reach its full potential. One particular challenge is for flood forecasting to find a way, “to link forecast thresholds to flood impacts and…prompt organisations involved to operate within a probabilistic mindset (p314).

Figure 2. Flooding on the Somerset Levels, February 2014 (WikiMedia Commons, 2014)

Figure 2. Flooding on the Somerset Levels, February 2014
(Wikimedia Commons, 2014b)

One of the most widely documented areas affected by the flooding was the Somerset Levels  (BBC News, 2014b), see Figure 2. above. Hugh Clout situates this devastating flooding within a longer time frame through a re-examination of ‘The draining of the Somerset Levels’ by the late Michael Williams. Williams’ book explains the struggles of “landowners and farmers to manage floodwater and reclaim land from medieval times to the second half of the twentieth century” (p338). Similarly McEwen, Jones and Robertson provide a geographically grounded discussion drawing on arts and humanities and social science research projects alongside the physical and environmental sciences to discuss our disciplines wide and interconnected contribution to flooding on the Levels (p326). This themed section in the Geographical Journal is in itself an illustration of this interconnection, whilst John Lewin’s article presents a physical science explanation of floodplain development and subsequent flooding contextualises the winter events within a longer timescale, so too does Clout’s reading of Williams’ personal account of the changing landscape. All of the articles in this themed section draw together to show the dynamic and comprehensive geographical reading of the winter storms in a way that, “…inspire[s] wider geographical reflection about how flooding gets engineered, embodied, experienced and understood elsewhere” (Dodds, 2014: 296).

Figure 3. Flooding on the Somerset Levels, January 2009 (Wikimedia Commons, 2009)

Figure 3. Flooding on the Somerset Levels, January 2009
(Wikimedia Commons, 2009)

References

60-world2 BBC News (2014a) ‘Floods: Environment Minister Owen Paterson orders action plan’, BBC News, published online 27th January

60-world2 BBC News (2014b) ‘Somerset floods crisis: How the story unfolded‘, BBC News, published online 19th March 2014

books_icon Clout, H. (2014) ‘Reflections on The Draining of the Somerset Levels’, The Geographical Journal, 180(4), 338-341

books_icon Dodds, K. (2014) ‘Après le deluge: The UK winter storms of 2013-14’, The Geographical Journal, 180(4), 294-296

60-world2 Jones, S., Mason R. & McDonald H. (2014) ‘Weather: UK’s worst winter storms for two decades set to continue‘, The Guardian, published online 5th January 2014

books_icon Lewin, J. (2014) ‘The English Floodplain’, The Geographical Journal, 180(4), 317-325

books_icon McEwen, L., Jones, O. & Robertson, I. (2014) ‘‘A glorious time?’ Some reflections on flooding in the Somerset Levels’, The Geographical Journal, 180(4), 326-337

60-world2 Monbiot, G. (2014) ‘How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes’, The Guardian, published online 18th February 2014

books_icon Stephens, E. & Cloke, H. (2014) ‘Improving flood forecasts for better flood preparedness in the UK (and beyond)’, The Geographical Journal, 180(4), 310-316

books_icon Thorne, C. (2014) ‘Geographies of UK Flooding in 2013/4’, The Geographical Journal, 180(4), 297-309

60-world2 Wikimedia Commons (2009) Flooding on the Somerset Levels in January 2009

60-world2 Wikimedia Commons (2014a) Aberystwyth Promenade Winter Storm Damage 

60-world2 Wikimedia Commons (2014b) Flooding on the Somerset Levels in February 2014

 

Commodifying Christmas

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

It’s that time of year again; the decorations are up, Michael Bublé is on repeat, and there are mince pies coming out of our ears. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But what does Christmas really look like? There are more definitions of what makes a ‘traditional’* English Christmas than there are children on Santa’s naughty list. One thing we appear to agree on, however, is what a German Christmas should look like. The romantic traditional German Christmas market has infiltrated English culture, becoming a staple of most cities’ festivities, and bringing with it Glühwein, beer, Bratwurst, sweet treats, and merriment (and, in the case of Birmingham’s market, a singing moose head!).

Standing in the middle of Birmingham’s German Christmas market, surrounded by crowds of people consuming German cuisine and buying gifts, I am reminded of a ‘classic’ paper by Peter Jackson (1999). Although 15 years old – not quite as old as the market itself – Jackson’s observations on commodification and consumption manifest in this commercial celebration of German culture. As Jackson (1999) argues, the commodification of Christmas, as well as the general globalisation of everyday life, have been strongly criticised, contributing to the somewhat marred reputation of ‘commodification’.

Since 1997, the market’s picturesque wooden stalls have spilled into Birmingham’s streets from its partner city, Frankfurt. Two recent articles on the BBC News website have, however, voiced a negative opinion of the city’s much-loved annual event. Writing for the BBC in November, Graham Young argues that despite the obvious boost to Birmingham’s economy, the city is ritually destroyed by the crowds, tourists, litter, and noise. He voices concern that in an attempt to recreate an authentic German Christmas, the traditional Nativity display is almost out of sight at the back of the Council House.

At Birmingham’s market, cultural difference is commodified, commercialized, celebrated, aestheticized, and fetishized. There is a strong visual and performative element to this; stalls are designed to ‘look German’ and stall owners shout and gesture enthusiastically, adding to the already excitable and festive atmosphere. However, in a further recent BBC article, the market is criticised for not being very ‘German’. Jackson’s (1999) article raises the question of authenticity, suggesting that it is sometimes produced rather than genuine. Birmingham’s market is clearly constructed and staged to create an ‘authentic’ experience, romanticising and exaggerating the appealing aspects of German culture. However, whilst many of the workers there are not German, the stalls are all German-owned and the products sold are the same as the ones found in Germany, creating an experience as authentic as possible almost 500 miles from home.

Birmingham's German Christmas Market captured last weekend!

Birmingham’s German Christmas Market captured last weekend whilst doing ‘research’

There is, however, one difference between German Christmas markets in England and the ‘real’ ones. In Germany, markets are more food-orientated, whilst in England the markets are altered for English taste, with a focus on alcohol and celebration. The market reinvents German culture, as Jackson (1999) would argue, tailoring and transforming it according to the ‘receiving’ (i.e. English) culture. Scrooge-like critics argue that adjusting the market to suit English taste makes it more enjoyable at the expense of ‘authenticity’, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Do we really want an ‘authentic’ experience, or do we just want to enjoy ourselves?  Geography clearly has an important role to play in addressing and challenging this notion of ‘authenticity’.

The market’s critics are, however, only a minority. Instead of saying ‘bah humbug’ to inauthentic German cuisine, Birmingham’s German Christmas market will be as busy as ever this year. And so it should be; after all, ‘tis the season to be jolly!

*I am aware this is a bit of a misnomer; many of our Christmas traditions – including the Christmas tree! – were, in fact, imported from Germany by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert. Perhaps we already celebrate Christmas in an ‘authentic’ German way?

books_icon Jackson, P. (1999). Commodity cultures: the traffic in things, Transactions of the IBG, 24: 95-108.

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham’s German Market: Singing moose and ‘ugly huts’

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham Christmas Frankfurt Market: How German is it?

60-world2 BBC 2014 In Pictures: How does Birmingham’s Christmas market compare?

Understanding land as a resource for global investment

By Izabela Delabre, University of Reading

Tanzania Independence Monument: Sold.  As part of Oxfam's 2013 Global Day of Action to stop land grabs, activists placed "sold" signs next to iconic landmarks all over the world to protest land grabs in developing countries. (image credit: By Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons)

As part of Oxfam’s 2013 Global Day of Action to stop land grabs, activists placed “sold” signs next to iconic landmarks all over the world to protest land grabs in developing countries (image credit: Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons)

On 16th November, an article in The Guardian reported how the Tanzanian government was breaking its promise to 40,000 Masai pastoralists. It claimed that the government was going ahead with plans to evict the Masai people and turn their ancestral land into a reserve for the royal family of Dubai to hunt big game. Within one week, 18,000 people had signed a petition run by the campaigning community, Avaaz, against the proposal. As the online petition gained supporters, President Jakaya Kikwete tweeted: “There has never been, nor will there ever be, any plan by the government of Tanzania to evict the Masai people from their ancestral land.”

In a following article on 25th November, Ole Kulinga, an elder and traditional leader from Loliondo, the affected district, said: “Without our land, we are nothing and this commitment from the president lets us all breathe a sigh of relief. But hunters want this land more than anything and we will only feel safe when we have permanent rights to our land in writing.” A community leader, Samwell Nangire expressed caution, noting that Kikwete said on Twitter that there had never been a plan to evict the Maasai. Nangire stated that wasn’t true.

Since 2008, we have been exposed to countless stories reporting on “the global land rush” and “land grabs.” From rising food prices, to growing demand of biofuel crops, investors are taking an interest in agricultural land as never before. In a Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper, based on her Plenary Lecture at the 2013 RGS-IBG Annual Conference, Tania Murray Li addresses the question, what is land? Entitled “What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment,” the article stresses land’s materiality, its multiple affordances and the quality it shares with other resources: its intrinsically social character. In order to address the “so-called global land grab or land rush,” she examines the inscription devices that have made land into a resource available for global investment.

Drawing on research among indigenous highlanders in Indonesia, Li states that, for the purpose of analysis, the English word ‘land’ carries cultural baggage that needs to be made strange – not all peoples have this word, not everyone “lumps together the same set of material substances under one label, nor do they assemble material and social relations into equivalent forms.” In her research area, it was only around 1990, when a new element was added (cacao), that land started to be treated like a commodity. This required the indigenous highlanders to invent a term, lokasi, for a socio-material entity that did not exist before (Li later adds that most of this cacao was later killed by an incurable virus).

Land’s material emplacement means that, usually, the people located within the geographical area will have a say on its use, be it through democratic processes or the exercise of force, such as resisting eviction. Assembling farmland as a resource for global investment uses the work of multiple actors drawing on discourses, inscription devices and modes of calculation already available, such as maps, grids, surveys and images. These devices, when pulled together, may produce an expanded capacity to envision “under-utilised” land as a globally important asset capable of producing food, profits and reducing poverty.

However, if the anticipated high returns do not materialize – licenses or funds may not being secured, or the intended crop does not grow well – investors may lose interest. The land would still be there, but it would no longer be a global ‘resource’ attracting investment. Land would therefore be considered in new and different ways.

books_iconT. M. Li 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589–602.

60-world2Tanzania accused of backtracking over sale of Masai’s ancestral land. The Guardian, November 16

60-world2Tanzania’s Masai ‘breathe sigh of relief’ after president vows never to evict them. The Guardian, November 25

Carrying capacity: the gap between theory and practice

By Yonten Nyima, Sichuan University, China

In April 2014, nearly three years after China launched its largest grassland protection program literally known as the grassland ecological protection subsidy and reward mechanism in its pastoral region, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as China’s largest grassland area reported that it had paid out six billion yuan for the program (1 ¥=0.16 $ US ). The backbone of the program is to subsidy or reward pastoralists for maintaining a balance between grass production and livestock population through the application of carrying capacity to grassland.

In grassland ecology, carrying capacity of grassland is defined as the maximum number of grazing animals that the grassland can support within a given time without degradation. However, this investment may be cost-ineffective in terms of being beneficial to the grassland as my Area paper finds that in practice the application of carrying capacity to grassland management turns out to be meaningless even though in theory it is considered as a scientific approach.

Tibetan antelopes in a fenced pasture where livestock grazing is banned, Pelgon, Tibet, July 2010 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)

Tibetan antelopes in a fenced pasture where livestock grazing is banned, Pelgon, Tibet, July 2010 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)

When carrying capacity is applied to grassland, two issues arise. One is whether the concept of carrying capacity is relevant to grassland ecosystems and the other is how carrying capacity is determined. My Area paper looks at the latter issue by examining what factors determines carrying capacity in practice, through a case study from Pelgon County in Nagchu Prefecture, the largest pastoral prefecture on the Tibetan Plateau in terms of both grassland area and livestock population, in the TAR.

The case study examines the determination of Pelgon County’s carrying capacity during the implementation of a policy of grassland use rights privatization, which is China’s basic policy on grassland management, in the early 2000s and a pilot programme of a grassland protection reward mechanism in 2010. At both times the carrying capacity was primarily determined by political and economic factors rather than ecological factors, which means the carrying capacity was not determined as it is defined in grassland ecology.

This finding is consistent with earlier research elsewhere in the world that the application of carrying capacity to grassland management in practice has proven to be infeasible even if the concept of carrying capacity may be relevant to grassland ecosystems. Thus my Area paper suggests grassland policy based on the application of carrying capacity should be reconsidered. In a broader sense, the finding is consistent with a prominent theme in political ecology that solutions to environmental problems are always driven by political-economic, social and cultural factors.

About the author: Dr. Yonten Nyima is Associate Professor, Institute of Social Development and Western China Development Studies, Sichuan University, China

books_icon Nyima, Y. (2014), What factors determine carrying capacity? A case study from pastoral Tibet. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12137

60-world2 China Daily 2014 Tibet grassland conservation effort pays out 6 billion yuan 29 April

60-world2 People’s Daily 2011 China launches large grassland protection subsidy program 6 May

Utopia and saving the African rainforest – should Bob Geldof board this train?

By Emmanuel Nuesiri, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA

Bob Geldof. Photo Credit: Eric Roset. Available via CC BY 2.0

Bob Geldof. Photo Credit: Eric Roset. Available via CC BY 2.0

Bob Geldof is in the news again attempting to ‘save Africa’ from Ebola through Band Aid. While his original effort 30 years ago against famine in Ethiopia was welcomed, his current effort has been criticized by many as ill-conceived. However, Bob Geldof is not alone when it comes to visions of saving Africa. There is a history of individuals and institutions in the developed world, inspired by a utopian impulse to save African peoples and societies from real and imagined troubles, and usher in peace and prosperity.

Take Africa’s forestry sector during the colonial era. The utopian impulse to save Africa’s ‘edenic’ and aesthetic forests led the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (SPWFE) to lobby for the setting up of protected areas. I show in my article in The Geographical Journal, ‘Decentralized forest management: towards a utopian realism’, that today, the utopian impulse to save the African forests has morphed into a discourse about reforming governance in Africa. Thus decentralised forest management, the forestry paradigm in place today, which has resulted in initiatives like community forestry, is not only presented as good for the forest, but as also necessary for moving Africa towards ‘good governance’. This utopian impulse to engineer an ideal society through forest sector reforms was given voice by community conservation advocates and amplified by bilateral and multilateral donors.

In 2006, as part of my doctoral studies investigating the transformative potential of community forests, I visited the Bimbia-Bonadikombo community forest (referred to as BB) in south-west Cameroon. During forest walk with BB forest patrol officers, we stumbled on artisanal loggers operating without license. The patrol officers accosted them and a violent scuffle broke out and the police were called in. The artisanal loggers protested strongly that from when BB was created in 2002, they have been restricted from using the forest and this has hurt them financially. So they are fighting for survival as they have no other source of regular cash income. In spite of its rhetoric of justice, fairness, empowerment and poverty alleviation, community forestry in this place provoked violent resistance.

Decentralised forest management might be aiming to produce a best possible world, a utopia for local forest people, but in countries like Cameroon, it has also produced strong opposition at national and local level. The romantic utopian might view this with resignation and even nihilism. The utopian realist would view opposition and even failure as grounds to revisit programme and project design, while not letting go of the utopian impulse for a just, fair, and post-scarcity society. Decentralised forest management programmes like Bob Geldof have taken some huge hit as it seeks to make a difference in Africa. However, its utopian and transformative power for a just and fairer society should continue to inspire. Where there have been failures let’s get back to the drawing board and re-examine our a priori design assumptions.

About the author: Emmanuel Nuesiri obtained his DPhil. in Geography from the University of Oxford. He is a research scholar with the Responsive Forest Governance Initiative (RFGI) at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA. His research interests include forests and climate change governance.     

 Nuesiri, E. O. (2014), Decentralised forest management: towards a utopian realism. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12104

 Guardian, The (2014) Band Aid 30 becomes fastest-selling single of 2014. 18 November

 Gordon, B (2014) Why Adele was right to ignore Bob Geldof and Band Aid. The Telegraph 18 November

So what sort of climate do we want? Thoughts on how to decide what is ‘natural’ climate

By Chris Caseldine, University of Exeter

With the meeting in Copenhagen to releasing the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis report produced by Working Group I  in early November, it is timely to consider not only our response to likely changes in climate but also to look at just what sort of climate we are hoping to achieve (Caseldine, 2014). Possible implementation of various climate geoengineering schemes (Hulme, 2014), especially those under the banner of SRM (solar radiation management) which seek to mimic the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions to offset anthropogenic warming, has invigorated debate on the rights and wrongs of interfering with the  climate system. The ever increasing concentration of Green House Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere (Friedlingstein et al., 2014) has though already built  climate change into the earth system for the next century so whether we like it or not choosing to reduce GHGs, or deciding to allow concentrations to rise will also impact on global climate.

Stranded iceberg calved from Dawes Glacier, Alaska, 2014. Photograph credit Chris Caseldine.

Stranded iceberg calved from Dawes Glacier, Alaska, 2014. Photograph credit Chris Caseldine.

Because of our increasing understanding of the climate system we are now in a good position to assess the likely effects not only of various forms of geoengineering but also of reducing or indeed increasing GHG emissions – so what sort of climate do we want and what do we understand by ‘natural’ climate? Palaeoclimate studies using a range of sources have provided evidence of climate characteristics before human interference and climate models can now exclude the human factor and determine likely future climate patterns should nature take its course. If however you look at the sort of climate envisaged for a low carbon world it does not easily translate into the sort of climates, and weather, that will be experienced, it is usually defined in terms of global mean temperature, levels of GHGs or increasingly in terms of climate stabilization, a term that is rarely formally defined – usually considered as the prevention of dangerous change, the possibility of exceeding some critical climate threshold or tipping point leading e.g to the total loss of Arctic summer sea ice and subsequent major reorganization of circulation patterns.

However much we manage to reduce GHG emissions or prevent the implementation of geoengineering schemes, climate, especially global climate will not though be more benign, it may not be climate as before, but can only be understood in the context of our knowledge of past climates. There is a real need to understand and explain what a move back to a more ‘natural’ climate will mean, and why if technology is seemingly available to tackle climate problems, to provide what is euphemistically called ‘climate solutions’, we should not adopt such procedures. We need a clear understanding of what we are aiming to achieve climatically, the grounds for following that trajectory and what it means for global populations.

About the author: Chris Caseldine is Professor of Quaternary Environmental Change in Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Penryn Campus of the University of Exeter. He is a palaeoecologist and has carried out research into palaeonvironmental reconstruction, principally over the Holocene, in a range of environments including Iceland, Ireland, SW England and Southern Norway.

 Caseldine, C. 2014, So what sort of climate do we want? Thoughts on how to decide what is ‘natural’ climate. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12131

 Friedlingstein, P. et al. 2014. Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets. Nature Geoscience, 7, 707-715

 Hulme, M. 2014. Can science fix climate change? Polity Press, 158pp.

 McGrath M 2014. IPCC preparing ‘most important’ document on climate change BBC