Tag Archives: Environment and Society

Measuring sustainability across scales

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

Sustainability, meeting present demands without degrading environments in such a way that we jeopardise their ability to meet the needs of future generations, has been a topic of interest for a great many years as the world’s environments are converted and degraded like never before. Here, I briefly discuss an article in Area, on quantifying global sustainability, alongside a recent sustainability assessment of the world’s fifty ‘most prominent cities’.

The recently-published ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index has attracted much attention in global and national media outlets (e.g. National Geographic, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Gulf Times, and the Australian and US media). In the list of fifty, European cities performed well (the top three being Frankfurt, London, and Copenhagen; Manchester and Birmingham were in the top 20), with the relatively new metropolises of Asia-Pacific (not including Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, which did rather well), the Middle-East and Central and South America lagging far behind. The USA’s cities generally fell in the middle of the list. This index combined three sub-indices of ‘sustainability’: social (‘people’), environmental (‘planet’), and economic (‘profit’). Cities’ positions sometimes changed quite a lot between these sub-indices.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr; author: Ewan Munro. Click on the photograph to see the original.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr (original). Author credit: Ewan Munro.

Elsewhere, in Area, Phillips (2015) recently described a “quantitative approach to … global ecological sustainability”, identifying the importance of population density at this national scale. The ten least ‘ecologically sustainable’ countries in this study had very high population densities (these are: the UK, Italy, Belgium, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, India, Lebanon, Israel, Netherlands, and Singapore). Of these ten that are considered as ‘economically developed’ countries, the combination of high population density, high standard of living, and high GDP are thought to have caused negative environmental impacts that affect people in the present and will affect people into the future. The ‘economically developing’ countries in the list are highlighted as being so because of socio-economic (India) and environmental (Trinidad & Tobago) reasons, and a combination of environment and political instability (Lebanon and Israel).

We therefore see some cross-scale spatial mismatches between these independent studies, whereby countries with purportedly sustainable cities (top 20) have been ranked amongst the least sustainable countries (e.g. UK [London, Manchester, Birmingham], Belgium [Brussels], Netherlands [Amsterdam, Rotterdam], and Singapore). This highlights the importance of spatial scale in sustainability science, and translating this through to planning and management. Indeed, very different approaches will be required between city authorities and national governments to ensure sustainability.

Both of the focal publications in this blog post strive to advance our understanding of ‘sustainability’ by quantifying this concept and its many components, from environmental and ecological, to social and economic. Both studies are global in scope, but the approach, data, and scales of analysis differ, with one focussing on fifty cities and the other on countries. The results, in combination, demonstrate the complexities of sustainability science, especially those regarding geographic scale. They show that quantifying and understanding sustainability across all spatial scales (towns > cities > landscapes > regions > countries > globally) is vital for future planning, targeting of resources, and understanding what we need to do not only for the people of today, but also for the people of the near and distant future.

– – – – –

REFERENCES

books_icon Phillips, J. (2015). A quantitative approach to determine and evaluate the indicated level and nature of global ecological sustainability. Area, Early View. DOI: 10.1111/area.12174.

60-world2 ARCADIS (2015). Sustainability Cities Index. Available at: http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com/.

Reconciling humans and nature through ‘green infrastructure’

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

The Los Angeles River, and its iconic concrete channels, made the BBC news last week following discussions of a ‘greener’ LA River catchment by researchers at the American Geophysics Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The idea of ‘green infrastructure’ (or ‘blue-green infrastructure’) is proliferating internationally and essentially aims to reconcile humans and nature in urban and suburban settings, as opposed to employing previously favoured ‘hard engineering’ (i.e building man-made structures) strategies against flooding and other environmental threats. Green infrastructure initiatives have already begun on certain stretches of the LA River (e.g. see this National Geographic article from July 2014), however, this recent BBC article focusses on the complexities of such strategies.

The present concrete channels are vital in protecting Los Angeles from flood events by rapidly moving water away from the city and its residents, as outlined by one of the scientists interviewed in the article. This same scientist also notes that redesigning such a huge structure in the middle of a highly densely populated area is very difficult if the primary function to prevent flooding is to be maintained into the future as storms become more intense under climate change.

About a month prior to the focal news story of this article on the LA River, there was another story discussing droughts in the wider California area, with reservoirs and ground water supplies running dry as the state endures its third year of drought. This may sound like a wholly separate issue to flooding but a more integrative environmental management agenda implementing green infrastructure can contribute towards a host of environmental management foci, not just flood prevention. Indeed, one option discussed in the LA River article is to capture more water by creating a greater number of catchment basins to replenish groundwater supplies. However, this would ‘almost certainly’ necessitate moving people, homes and businesses, thus proving costly.

Here in the United Kingdom, Jones and Somper (2014) discuss integration of green infrastructure in London, highlighting the importance of collaboration between businesses, government and local communities and of making the socio-economic advantages of such infrastructure clear to investors. Jones and Somper provide examples of such collaboration, including Camden Council, who are actively encouraging the community to engage with ‘green issues’. Of course, expert opinion from geographers and others also has a large part to play alongside such collaborations. Indeed, research within the green infrastructure theme is thriving. For example, the Blue-Green Cities project emphasises the potential of such green strategies to provide resilience to flooding through adaptive management.

Overall then, green infrastructure seems to be able to offer much towards protecting people from environmental threats both now and into the future, while also encouraging a more harmonious relationship between people and nature in presently unnatural urban areas. If the known complexities of green infrastructure can be overcome to produce environmental solutions that make for a better future for both nature and humans (both practically and aesthetically), then this should surely be encouraged.

—–

books_icon Jones, S. & Somper, C. (2014). The role of green infrastructure in climate change adaptation in London. The Geographical Journal, 180 (2), 191–196.

Badgers and bovine tuberculosis: how geographical research can help

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

If I mention bovine tuberculosis (bTB), I imagine that a badger, not a cow, would come to mind for many people. British news has recently reported a push for culling these mammals and calls from others for vaccination, with the intention of curbing the spread of bTB. Some famous faces have also engaged in the anti-culling debate (e.g. see ‘Stop the Cull’). There are strong views on both sides because of the damage that bTB can do to cattle herds and farmers’ livelihoods. All parties, of course, want to see a decrease in bTB cases; it is just the preferred means that differ. Here, I outline the debate and move on to discuss how geographical research can help.

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

First, why are badgers getting all of the press? Badgers, along with a number of other mammals, are capable of contracting bTB and spreading it to cattle, the result of which can be devastating because cows that test positive are compulsorily slaughtered. Badgers, perhaps justifiably (they can and do infect cows with bTB), perhaps not (reported infection rates vary but can be very low), are often referred to as a natural ‘reservoir’ of the disease and there is now a strong association between badgers and bTB in cattle. The Government has approved badger culls in England, whilst the Welsh Assembly has favoured a vaccination programme. .

The BBC recently reported on the decision for future culls in England to not be independently monitored as they have been previously. Naturally, this has been heavily criticised and it is disturbing considering the outcome of last year’s pilot culls. However, to many, culling generally seems to not be a sensible or sustainable solution, not least because of the high uncertainty surrounding badger numbers and the associated need for highly costly surveys to decrease this uncertainty and reduce the risk of causing local extinctions, costs which potentially make the whole process financially impracticable (Donnelly & Woodroffe, 2012). Most importantly, such local extinctions would be a tremendous natural loss to an area.

Culls in England were criticised by a Welsh Minister earlier this year who referred to ‘promising’ results from the vaccination efforts in Wales. It has been shown that only a minority (even with varying figures) of badgers actually carry bTB (see The Wildlife Trusts infographic and references therein), meaning that many uninfected, healthy badgers are likely to be killed during a cull. Unlike with vaccinations, culling can also cause badger populations to spread unpredictably (known as perturbation), making control of any infected badgers not killed during the cull more difficult, thus potentially increasing the likelihood of the disease spreading.

Nationally, the Wildlife Trusts are leading the way with badger vaccination efforts and no Wildlife Trust allows culling on its land. Given that badgers live for 3–5 years, it is estimated that herd immunity could be achieved within 5 years (see bottom) as infected animals die over time and the proportion of vaccinated animals increases. How to target vaccination efforts, though? This is where geographers can help.

A recent article in Area (Etherington et al., 2014) recognises the importance of landscape isolation and connectivity, alongside data on badger presence and abundance, in mapping the spatial variation in bTB. Such knowledge is potentially very valuable for bTB management strategies. Indeed, understanding badgers’ local or landscape scale population dynamics and their isolation or connectivity within that broader landscape could allow for more effective vaccine distribution within an area surrounding a farm, for example. Namely, if a population is likely to be connected to certain other populations and a certain farm, it follows that these populations should be vaccinated in parallel. That is of course a simplification of reality, but an enhanced understanding of such dynamics will hopefully be able to contribute to bTB management.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that bTB in badgers represents a small, albeit significant, part of the overall bTB crisis. Overall, it seems to me that targeted vaccination of badger populations in combination with enhanced biosecurity (I have not discussed this here but it is a significant part of the solution; e.g. ‘badger proofing’), is clearly a superior solution to culling when it comes to achieving long-term reductions in bTB. Such an approach also ensures the survival and welfare of the badgers that so many people deeply care about.

(For another Geography Directions blog post on bovine tuberculosis, see ‘Badgers, borderlands and security‘ (by Helen Pallett), which discusses the inherent complexities of disease in nature.)

—–

books_icon Donnelly, C. A. & Woodroffe, R. (2012). Epidemiology: Reduce uncertainty in UK badger culling. Nature 485, p. 582.

books_icon Etherington, T. R., Trewby, I. D., Wilson, G. J. & McDonald, R. A. (2014). Expert opinion-based relative landscape isolation maps for badgers across England and WalesArea 46, 50-58.

Drones for wildlife: the securitization of conservation?

By Helen Pallett

Drone_Flying_Eye

Image credit: Flying Eye (CC SA-BY)

We have come to know drones as one of the newest technologies of warfare and surveillance, a weapon central to how the war on terror is now being fought: remotely and increasingly through the use of computerised devices or robots. But another perhaps surprising use for drones has been developing in parallel, perhaps explaining why the World Wildlife Fund has been a major supporter of drone research since 2012.

On the same day last week the Guardian newspaper published two separate reports on drone usage. The first described how drones are going to be used in Kenya’s national parks in an effort to prevent poaching, whilst the second reported that in Germany drones will be used to protect young deer from being injured by combine harvesters.

These developments raise challenging questions about the development of new technologies. Do the intended purposes of a new technology matter when it is used for something different? Should we be interested in who the funders of technological research and innovation are? Can we assess and understand the uses of drones in wildlife conservation and, increasingly, research without understanding the use of drones as a technology of violence and surveillance? Is this the latest step in what some have referred to as ‘the securitzation of the environment’?

A recent themed section of The Geographical Journal, edited by Michael Mason and Mark Zeitoun, focuses on the issue of environmental security, both as a driver and consequence of increasing anxiety and apocalyptic accounts of the environment. In their introduction the editors argue that such fears about dangerous climate change or species extinctions work rhetorically to justify certain actions as urgent or emergency measures, from solar radiation management to crack downs on human behaviour and liberties.

Whilst few would doubt the seriousness of the threat from poaching to elephant and rhino populations in Kenya, by treating recent population depletion as an emergency scenario or a matter of security the Kenyan Wildlife Service and other conservationists may be serving to legitimate the use of a highly questionable conservation method. The use of drones for surveillance in Kenyan national parks represents a new method for policing ways of acting and being in a national park. The appropriate usage of national parks has long been a matter of controversy, not least because during the creation of many national parks, human populations had to be forcibly removed or regulated. Drones will potentially collect data not only concerning suspected poaching, but also other activities within the national park; all national park users can now be watched and surveilled. This may result in the management not only of poaching in the national parks, but also much more ambiguous activities such as attempts at settlement or the use of other resources.

Whilst it may be convenient to tell a simplistic story about ‘evil’ poachers and ‘good’ conservationists, such narratives can mask the more complex realities and the many negative implications the creation of national parks had for affected communities. Individual poachers may often be acting out of desperation, for example the lack of an alternative source of livelihood. Furthermore, poachers rarely act alone but rather are part of often transnational networks of capital, connecting them to infrastructures and markets for the sale of goods such as elephant and rhino horn.  So surveillance may be unlikely to act as a deterrent on its own.

The Kenyan drones project has been jointly funded by the US, Netherlands, France, Canada and Kenya, and also includes supplies of other military equipment such as firearms, bulletproof vests and night vision equipment. In the Kenyan national parks, drones are to be used in areas considered too risky for surveillance by manned aircraft, already a common practice. In the context of such efforts to radically reduce the risks faced by wildlife rangers in the field and the increasing panic about the loss of elephants and rhinos, how long will it be before it is acceptable to shoot suspected poachers on sight? Furthermore, once the infrastructures for drone use are in place it would be relatively straight-forward to substitute surveillance drones for armed drones, and this could be justified as a further means of protecting national park employees.

As we have seen with the military uses of drones, robots can make mistakes and claim innocent lives. Photos too can frequently be ambiguous and misleading, without other supporting evidence. Furthermore, these potential developments would further circumvent the justice procedures upheld by all the countries financially supporting the drones programme. In the context of albeit justified hysteria about the fast depletion of certain endangered populations, do we risk sanctioning an equally unpalatable solution? Claims of 96% reductions in poaching in some of the Kenyan drone pilots, alongside the circulation of horrifying images and statistics about the effects of poaching, also mean that other potential methods for conservation and poaching management may increasingly be ruled out and foreclosed.

books_icon Michael Mason & Mark Zeitoun 2013 Questioning environmental security, The Geography Journal, 179 (4): 294-297 (Open Access)

60-world2 Google cash buys drones to watch endangered species, BBC News, 6 December 2012

60-world2 Kenya to deploy drones in all national parks in a bid to tackle poaching, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

60-world2 Germany deploys drones to protect young deer from combine harvesters, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

Academic Writing and Geography Narrated

by Fiona Ferbrache

The ruins of Erskine Beveridge, is Fraser MacDonald’s (2013) narrative essay available as an early view article in Transactions. It tells the story of a house – Taigh Mòr, built by Erskine Beveridge on an intertidal island in the Outer Hebrides – and its inhabitants – the Beveridge family, who used the property as a summer retreat. It is also a first class piece of geographical writing.

Ruined_house_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1428145

House ruins (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Graham Horn)

MacDonald’s narrative non-fiction is unusual in style and form, and may at first appear unconventional for some geographers. This is not a style that appears frequently in published journals of our discipline, but may be situated within a renewed interest in literary geographies, including geographies of storytelling, and bio-geo-geography (see for example Lorimer and Wylie). In another way, the text reminded me of the personalised and enquiring travels made and recounted by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways. The style and methods are not dissimilar.

MacDonald’s aim in this piece is to “maintain a primary commitment to storytelling as an exemplar of geographical writing” (p.2). Yet, it goes further than this as it is inherently about (historical) geography. The deteriorating Taigh Mòr is situated at the centre of the tale, around which the lives of its inhabitants are explored and retold. The work touches at least three geographical themes: ruins, spaces of science and antiquarian knowledge, and fieldwork. The methods underpinning the ‘fieldwork’ included walking, interviewing, synthesising published sources, interpreting material remains in the landscape, and triangulating observations against other archives. Thus, the rich text is descriptive and analytical as it probes, explores and lays a thread for the reader to follow.

MacDonald argues that geographers “have some way to go before matters of form and style receive the same sort of attention currently given to methodology” (p.2). For young geographers, this commitment to storytelling, as an exemplar of geographical writing, will hopefully inspire creativity and originality, beyond geography’s more familiar writing conventions.

books_icon  MacDonald, F. 2013 The ruins of Erskine Beveridge. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  DOI: 10.1111/tran.12042

books_icon  Lorimer, H. 2003 Telling small stories: spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28, pp.197-217

books_icon  Wiley, J. 2009 Landscape, absence and the geographies of love. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34, pp.275-289

60-world2  Stylish Academic Writing – a guide

Doing flood risk science differently?

By Helen Pallett

uk flooding 2007

The Summer 2007 UK foods. Image credit: Mat Fascione

A group of scientists at the University of Oxford have launched a new citizen science project to help them better understand the 2013-14 winter storms and flooding in the UK. Flooding events over the last decade have received increasing media attention and have been the object of controversies around the official responses. Debates have centred around the contribution of urbanisation to the increased frequency of flooding events, as well as the inadequacy of flood protection and flood response systems. But perhaps the most consistent topic of public debate has been the connection between (human induced) climate change and these extreme weather events.

The Oxford University project Weather@home 2014 asks whether and how much climate change has had an effect on the winter 2013-14 storms and floods and seeks to answer this question through the use of climate models. As the Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington explains here, running climate models can be time consuming but the more runs the team has to compare and plot, the clearer any trend will be. So the scientists invite anybody who is interested to sign up and help complete up to 30,000 climate model re-runs of winter 2013-14 with different assumptions about the influence of climate change on weather patterns.

This is an innovative citizen science project in that it expects its citizen scientists to contribute to the work of scientific analysis, rather than simply data collection (though the practice of climate modelling rather blurs this distinction). And it does seem an appropriate project in what has been labelled, ‘the year of the code’ (see for example, here). As with any citizen science project, however it has its limitations, especially in the role carved out for the citizen scientists. Assuming the participants are able to code (and clearly many people cannot), they are free to run as many model runs as they like, set within the scientific and technological framework provided by the Oxford University scientists. The participants, cannot for example, come up with competing models, do runs which seek to answer different questions about the floods, or draw on their own knowledge or experience of the winter floods in their engagement with the project. The scientific framing of this project is a highly contentious one within the climate science community, with many other scientists arguing that the task of attempting to attribute extreme weather events to climate change is impossible and unhelpful. Yet the participants have no say in this.

This shouldn’t surprise us of course, and does not prevent it from being a potentially productive and enriching experience for the both the scientists and citizen scientists involved. But another group of researchers has also been experimenting with involving non-scientists in flood-risk science in a very different way. The flood scientist Stuart Lane along with an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists attempted an experiment in flood management involving scientific experts and citizens with experience of flooding, but without giving them pre-defined roles. Natural and social scientists and citizens worked together to generate new knowledge about a flooding event, and to negotiate the different assumptions and commitments of each group, in order to inform public interventions in flood risk management. Thus all members of the group were seen to have relevant and useful knowledge, and efforts were made to develop collective understandings which were not differentiated between academics and non-academics. This research project contributed to scientific understandings of flood hydrology through the creation of new models for example, and also the collection of qualitative understandings and experiences of flooding. But it also helped to overcome an impasse in the management of floods in Pickering, the area under study, where no decision had been made about the appropriate use of resources for flood risk management, by helping to reconfigure relationships between the scientific ‘experts’ and local people.

These contrasting citizen science projects, both focussed on flooding, help to showcase the wide range of ways in which non-scientists can be involved in research projects. However, they also show the importance of aims and framing in determining the outcomes of the project and the ways in which non-scientists participate. The Oxford University project was framed as a conventional scientific study aiming to show how climate change had influenced recent extreme weather events, and co-opting citizen scientists as volunteers to help get the scientific work done more quickly. In the case of the Pickering flooding experiment, the researchers had no clear scientific aim, but rather were deliberately attempting to unsettle power relations between so-called experts and non-experts, and to see if this had an impact of the flood management plans people emerged with. Whilst many will claim that the scientific robustness of the knowledge and flood models generated by the latter project are undermined by the researcher’s determination to involve non-scientists at all stages, the project’s political and practical outcomes (and therefore the impacts on the citizen scientists) were overwhelmingly positive.

S N Lane, N Odoni, C Landstrom, S J Whatmore, N Ward & S Bradley 2011 Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(1): 15-36

Citizen scientists test influence of climate change on UK winter deluge: results poor in Guardian – Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, March 24th

Weather@home 2014: the causes of the UK winter floods, climateprediction.net

Time to rethink the e-waste problem

By Josh Lepawsky

My eye is caught by a recent news headline that proclaims “U.S. Isn’t Flooding the Third World with E-waste“. In the article, journalist Adam Minter – who in January spoke at the RGS-IBG Monday Night Lecture series – reports that the export of e-waste from the US is a trickle, rather than the flood it is often portrayed to be in a variety of NGO reports, news media, and academic publications. Tracing global flows of e-waste is a challenging task, one I take up most recently in The Geographical Journal.

After an analysis of 16 years of trade data for 206 territories and more than 9400 trade transactions, I’ve found that, indeed, it is necessary to rethink common representations of e-waste flows. Instead of a flood of e-waste flowing from so-called ‘developed’ countries to ‘developing’ countries, between 73-82 percent of total flows are traded between countries designated as ‘Annex VII’ signatories (the EU, OECD, and Lichtenstein) to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal – a key international agreement regulating the trade of hazardous wastes, including e-waste. More importantly, I’ve found that flows from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ countries – the opposite of the usual e-waste storyline – grew substantially over the 16 years of available data. Indeed, flows of e-waste from non-Annex VII territories (or ‘developing’ countries’) to Annex VII territories (‘developed’ countries) climbed from just of 6.5 million kilograms in 1996 to over 140 million kilograms in 2012.

These findings offer crucial conceptual and policy insights into the issue of e-waste. Conceptually, the intense focus on e-waste dumping means that efforts at amelioration remain fixated on end-of-pipe solutions. As a consequence, insufficient effort is directed by those concerned about e-waste toward changing how the extraction of raw materials for them, their design, manufacturing, or their durability is done. Policies premised on halting the flow of e-waste from the global ‘North’ to the global ‘South’ via industrial recycling mean that a variety of environmental and economic benefits of repairing, reusing, and refurbishing digital equipment are destroyed. Moreover, trade bans like those envisioned under the Basel Convention, are increasingly irrelevant to present and likely future e-waste trade patterns – such trade is occurring almost entirely in directions that are either permissible under extant rules or in patterns not even imagined by those rules to be worthy of regulation. It is time to rethink the e-waste problem.

About the Author: Josh Lepawsky is a Professor in cultural, economic & political geography at the Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

open-access-icon Lepawsky, J. (2014), The changing geography of global trade in electronic discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12077

60-world2 Minter, A., U.S. Isn’t Flooding the Third World With E-WasteBloomberg View, 26 May 2013.

Movie Icon Minter, A., Our junkyard planet: travels in the secret trash tradeRGS-IBG Monday Night Lecture Series, 20 January 2014. [Members and Fellows of the Society can re-watch this lecture online].