Wednesday 30 October 2019

Environmental ethics in the age of fake news, oligarchy and moral relativism

Thirty years ago when The United States lead the world in the field of environmental ethics I had the opportunity to do a Masters degree in "Environmental Values".

Now with the world turned upside down and the USA  having won the race to the bottom in  valuing the environment, I wonder if it was worth the effort.

Back in 1989 I was a working farm manager with a science degree and an interest in the environment. It seemed to me that we knew the technical solutions to many of our environmental problems and that these problems were the unforeseen side effects of new technology, technologies which had been used without sufficient precaution. Studying environmental values might lead me to understand why we were so careless with the natural world. I was still rather naive and idealistic in my forties.

My first seminar in a philosophy department was a shock. The vocabulary often required resort to a dictionary, there were long and pregnant silences while people thought about the questions posed. It was a strange world, far from a science tutorial where we mainly dissected and critiqued scientific papers in front of the Prof. Gradually I got the idea, which was to discuss how the various theories  of ethics could and might be applied to the natural world.

First we had to decide if non-humans; animals, ecosystems, mountains rivers etc could actually be moral subjects because to be a moral subject you had to have intrinsic value and only humans could have intrinsic value according to the 18th century Scots philosopher and sceptic David Hume

We discussed the application of utilitarianism to the environment and it's underpinning of 20th century environment policy, animal welfare and even animal rights. Then Kant and, " The Golden Rule" which in it's crudest terms says you ought to do as you would be done unto. More up to date was  the american philosopher John Rawls and his notion of the ," Veil of ignorance"; he argued that policy ought to be made by policymakers assuming that they were completely ignorant of their own position, socially, culturally and financially in order to be completely fair.

What appealed to me most was , The Land Ethic",  first outlined by Aldo Leopold  in his 1949 collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac". Leopold appealed to me probably because he was a scientist, manager and wonderful writer. His ethos was ecologically based, he rejected the human centred approach of utilitarianism and argued that we need a new relationship with land, animals, plants and ecosystems. The real philosophers concentrated on arguing that there was no real philosophical foundation to his ethic it was basically romantic ecology. I think that's why it appealed to me and the US National Park Service who underpinned their management for three decades with Leopold's ethic.

At the end of two years studying I felt that some of my questions had been answered but far more had been raised.  The important thing is that we were discussing our values and the environment and how we might save and preserve ecosystems, species, rivers and mountains.

I can't imagine that happening in today's White House or No. 10 Downing Street where politicians and the people who fund them are taking us to "hell in a handcart" . As for the Masters course, it's long gone.

Good news on global warming and climate change.... if we plant more trees!

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, gave us some good news in  the July edition of it's journal, Science.

Global mapping of the earth's tree growing potential has shown  we could restore 4.4 billion hectares  (10.6 billion acres) of woodland worldwide, outside of existing forests and agricultural land. The global tree restoration potential, Bastin, Science, 365, No. 6448, pp. 76-79

This would increase the global forest area by more than 25 per cent storing over 200 giga tonnes of carbon over it's lifetime and 25 percent of  the current pool of atmospheric carbon.  Read the abstract here

A remnant of the Caledonian Pine Forest
In Scotland , in 2017, we had a review of our national forest strategy 2019 - 2029. About 18 per cent of our land area is covered by trees  and a further 12 per cent is capable of growing trees without  taking any prime farmland. This compares with an average  37 per cent tree cover in the countries of the European Union .

The Scottish government has set a planting target of 15,000 ha per annum until 2024/25. Two thirds of our forests are privately owned  and one third is owned by the government through Forestry Scotland formerly the Forestry Commission. Scotland's Forestry Strategy 2019 -2029

The Scottish "Crofting Counties"  cover some 750,000 hectares of land, crofts are smallholdings where the farming family earns most of the household income off the croft and many of them would welcome the opportunity to plant trees.

 It costs around £5,000 per hectare to fence, plant and establish trees, large landowners have the resources to do this and at the end of the day are presented with a valuable capital asset because the whole cost is grant aided by the taxpayer. It is not the capital cost itself that deters Crofters from planting it is their lack of capital to pay for the project over two or three years until the grant is paid. they cannot afford to do it.

If the Scottish government are serious about their ambitious planting targets they need to introduce bridging loans for smaller forestry projects. Once the trees are fenced and planted the loan would be recovered from the grant. Investment in trees would no longer be only available to the wealthy as socialism for rich landowners.

Scotland: Too many deer... too few trees
Deer fencing  comprises up to 50% of the cost of tree establishment, without fencing the trees are rapidly destroyed by marauding deer, we have an estimated 350 - 400,000 red deer in the highlands. Without them or with much lower numbers tree planting would be much cheaper and natural regeneration possible in many areas.

Please bear in mind that this report in the journal Science is based on real science using rigorous methodology, peer review and the results published in a prestigious journal of international standing.

It is not the deluded Twitter ramblings of a climate change denying politician or the propaganda of a so called, "think tank" paid for by business corporations or oligarchs ( you know who they are).

Friday 4 October 2019

The Roadkill Cafe and the Field guide to flattened fauna

In February I wrote about the now annual dinner of our old guys expedition group, "Crispy Grey Squirrel at the Roadkill Cafe".  The squirrels I  had in the freezer have gone along with the pheasants, I inadvertently switched off the freezer while working in the workshop.  Now with only three weeks to go I need replacements urgently.

Many years ago I discovered a unique field guide in the Minneapolis airport bookshop. .....Flattened Fauna, A field guide to common animals of roads, streets and highways.

The author describes 36 reptile, avian and mammal remains after compression, mainly by really big trucks. He he says that the animals are most sincerely dead, so dead that even the flies have lost interest.

Grey squirrels are very flat except for the long bushy tail which is usually the only identifying characteristic as it waves in the slipstream of passing trucks so it's not really suitable for cooking.

I won't be scouring the roads of Northumberland ( we don't have grey squirrels here) and hope that my squirrel trapping friends can  supply a fresher non flattened, humanely despatched corpse.