Tag Archives: ecology

On the Verge of Something Interesting.

I recently left the West Coast of Canada to visit my father in the U.K. and was surprised at how beautiful ‘the old country’ still is, despite over the last ten years, having Europe’s most rapidly growing population, essentially because more people are arriving than are leaving.

I left in 2002 and if I thought the roads were busy then, it is nothing to the way they are now – driving anywhere during rush hour is inadvisable, because more often than not, it takes ages to move only a short distance – but the biggest surprise is what is growing either side of the traffic which you have plenty of time to observe when you are barely moving. It is springtime and on the  verges a great many flowers are opening and turning the roadside into a place of beauty, or at least that was the way it was for most of the journey as I drove on backroads across West Sussex and East Hampshire to the edge of the New Forest. 

Leaving London Gatwick and driving West on the backroads travelling towards the New Forest in Hampshire the roadside verges spill spring flowers down to the roadside.
Leaving Gatwick Airport I drove west across country towards the New Forest and for most of the way the verges were spilling spring flowers down to the roadside.

When you fly north-east out from Vancouver, the landscape below is very different –

as you rise into the clouds what you see is a winter wilderness of snow-clad mountains even though it is near the end of April.

 As you fly north east out of Vancouver, it isn't long before you are over wilderness
As you rise above the mountains close to Vancouver, it isn’t long before you are flying over wilderness.

Nine hours later, at the other end of the journey, flying into London Gatwick Airport what comes into view is an irregular man-made field system, certainly this isn’t wilderness but in its own way is still very agreeable.  

London isn't so far away from Gatwick Airport and yet the fields on the approach seem oddly from an earlier time and I imagine the shadows of spitfires ghosting defiantly across them.
London isn’t so far away from Gatwick Airport and yet the fields on the approach seem as if from an earlier time – I imagine the shadow of a spitfire ghosting defiantly across this patchwork of green rather than that of an Airbus A330 .

There is no mistaking that the landscape below is far from wilderness which Britain doesn’t do on a grand scale. Although a couple of hundred years ago the Lakeland poets and a flurry of writers and painters set the tone with their representations of the great British outdoors, but this was an interpretation rather different from reality. Admittedly the Romanticists didn’t restrict themselves to rural roadside verges, preferring instead the ruggedness of largely uninhabited upland areas, but essentially their analysis was flawed – what they mostly saw were man made environments conveniently labelled as natural, and this mythology has carried through even to the present day. 

For generations, most of Britain has been heavily managed, and if somebody can get their sheep up onto the higher slopes during summer then they will do so, with the result that a great deal of Britain’s countryside is grazed far beyond anything that is natural – something that the majority of us conveniently fail to notice. The British interpretation of ‘wild’ is a construct, a romantic interpretation of the way we think nature should be after we’ve utilised it for our own ends, and that’s a far more positive approach than admitting that perhaps we’ve rather messed things up.

This is Scotand and the distant mountains are cold an inhospitable enough to be considered wilderness - so, I've been a little unfair... the foreground however is grazed by red deer without the intervention of large predators - other than of course men with guns, who will  predomonentlyt be hunting trophy animals which is not a very nature process. I am not moaning, but we should recognise the British countryside for what it is - a place to grow food and hunt animals, although most of us think it is just a place to walk the dog.
This is Scotland – the distant mountains are cold an inhospitable enough to be considered wilderness, the foreground however is grazed by red deer that have for centuries remained untroubled by large predators  – all long ago eliminated by man. The deer of course are now taken out by humans with guns, and predominantly their populations are managed by trophy hunting – a process that is far from  natural. This is not a criticism, but we should recognise the British countryside for what it is – a place to grow food and hunt animals, although of course, most of us mistakenly think that it is just a place to empty the dog.

It is certainly not unreasonable to assert that there is more ‘wild’ in Britain’s hedgerows and roadside verges during spring than can be  found in many upland areas. That seems a very odd thing to say, because roadside verges are hardly natural, but the plants that flower along them during spring are growing exactly the way they would have done in the ancient past, at a time before many environments were taken over by the formalities of agriculture.

Letting the verges go in spring makes a huge difference to the conservation of nature.
Letting the verges go in spring makes a huge difference to the conservation of nature.

The evolutionary imperative of spring flowers to show early in the year and reproduce before they are cast into shadow by leaf cover was a predominant feature across most of England before the first forests were cleared for timber and agriculture. Many of the plants that flower during spring, have evolved for millions of years alongside, or more correctly, ‘under’ deciduous trees. The fact that their best hope is now roadside management is neither here nor there. Later in the year the verges will be cut, and this will prohibit engulfment by a scrubland that would otherwise eventually progress towards forest.

My favourites are primroses.
My favourites are primroses….
Until the bluebells are underway!
….until the bluebells are underway!

It isn’t practical to have our roadsides totally engulfed by overhanging scrub and trees, and so it is by management that a suitable habitat is preserved for low cover spring  plants to thrive and spread. For obvious reasons grazing by deer is less intense along roadsides than it is in the forest, and rabbits at low density will often feed preferentially on the grass between clumps of flowers, which is all to the good.

Cutting later in the year rather than grazing is an accepted method of management and the result, during spring, along Britain’s winding country roads is a spectacular floral display that most of us appreciate.

 In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically for nature; but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has come specifically to roadside verges to gorge on spring dandelions – a non-native weed and high energy snack that is favoured by bears recently emerged from hibernation.

In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically to nature, but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has specifically come to the roadside verge to gorge on spring dandelions - a non-native weed that is favoured by bears not so long out of hibernation something you don't see very often in West Sussex.
Roadside bears are something that you don’t see very often in West Sussex, although a few hundred years ago they would have been present.

From the 1930s farming in Europe began to developed on an industrial scale and the control of pests, such as weeds, insect and rodents was beginning to be achieved by the use of chemicals, many of them toxic to the native flora and fauna. The loss of nature as a result of this intensive agricultural process has in recent times resulted in subsidies to encourage farmers to protect verges and hedgerows; in some cases broad areas of land are left uncultivated along the sides of fields to minimise the passage of sprayed herbicides and insecticides that might otherwise carry across these fallow conservation areas.

Along my meandering route on the South Downs close by the small village of Bignor a broad expanse of uncultivated land can be clearly differentiated between the growing crop and the road - a haven for wild plants and animals.
Along my meandering route across the South Downs close by the small village of Bignor a broad expanse of uncultivated land is clearly differentiated between the growing crop and the roadside which provides a haven for many wild plants and animals.

This expanse of uncultivated land provides not only a wildlife habitat, but also an interconnected corridor for many plant and animal species to move along. There are farmers keen to provide such environmentally friendly areas, but for many, a restriction of land use carries an economic penalty, and in consequence European farmers are paid large subsidies to farm in a progressive and environmentally sensitive manner, although the exact cost of doing this isn’t so easy to ascertain, but the total is self-evidently substantial.  

A recent report from ISARA Lyon however concludes that the uptake of agroecological practices has so far been low, and there has been no clear EU strategy for agroecological practices and sustainable agriculture, while the political will to move things forward remains marginal, and although the Common Agricultural Policy for 2014 – 2020 includes further elements, in addition to existing measures, which are orientated towards some agroecological practices, a broad strategy to deal with the situation is still missing.

Roadside wild stitchwort flowers.
Roadside wild stitchwort flowers.

This all sounds rather disappointing, and from a personal viewpoint it would be difficult not to have noticed a decrease in both populations and the diversity of Britain’s flora and fauna over recent years – butterflies are a good example because we tend to notice them above other insects, and consequently they have become indictors as to the health of natural environments. Their decline during my lifetime has been substantial and this can be linked to more intensive methods of agriculture, which have become increasingly reliant upon man made chemicals, in particular the use of indiscriminate pesticides.

I have only witnessed changes since the 1950s and I wouldn’t want to imply that as a child I was capable of passing value judgements on my early recollections of the countryside; but people who have lived out of town since the 1930s tell me that they have seen changes on a completely different scale, over a period that co-incides almost exactly with the advent of farming as an intensive activity, and the increasing reliance on artificial fertilisers and synthetic pesticides to improve productivity.

Celandines growing by the roadside.
Celandines growing by the side of a country lane.

97% of all wildflower-rich grassland has been lost in the U.K. since the Second World War.  Worldwide one fifth of all vascular plants are threatened with extinction – these figures are disturbing, but at least there have been small improvements in recent years: in some areas hedgerows have been replanted, and roadside verges are in many cases better managed than they have been for many years, and such improvements should be appreciated as minor steps forward.

However, many people still advocate poisoning to prohibit natural growth along Britain’s roadsides; increasingly this has become an outmoded way of thinking, with most of the changes that have so far occurred brought about by a combination of education, forward thinking councils, and European subsidies. As individuals we need to get our heads around our interpretation of what is untidy and what is natural, and until we do this, environmental problems will be a perpetual feature of our World.

When roadside  spring flowers are combined with woodland trees  - in this case oaks - the result is a reminder of how much of Britain must have looked before modern agricultural transformed Britain, although the roadway is a bit of a give away.
When roadside spring flowers are combined with woodland trees, especially oaks – the result is a reminder of how Britain must have looked before modern agriculture transformed the landscape, although the roadway is of course a bit of a give away.

If Britain decides to leave the European community it will be of interest to see how much difference a reduction, or even an elimination of subsidies makes to  the countryside, and that includes roadside verges. Certainly it is worth having a camera ready to record the changes that might occur in the years ahead, and to note whether the political will to do the right thing gathers strength or weakens.

In the end it may come down to what Governments decide they can afford to do – and often that turns out to be the bare minimum they think they can get away with. So, go ahead… take a picture and save the planet. The will to make changes is in the end down to us, and that’s not always easy unless we bear witness to exactly what is going on. 

 

 

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Is Every Rotten Tree in the Forest Really Out to Get You?

The modern world has noticeably changed. We all have rights now; should a tree fall upon us somebody else will almost certainly be  responsible, and if an appropriate scapegoat can’t be found we can at least expect to sue our local authority. There is very little left in the developed world for which we are responsible – becoming fat, having too many children, getting run over when jogging across a busy intersection whilst listening to a stereo system plugged into our ears; even spilling hot coffee over ourselves in a public place clearly has nothing to do with us. Read the warning on the cup: ‘The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot’. Personally, I wouldn’t risk it – a juice perhaps – but wait… there’s no diabetes warning – how irresponsible is that?

Whatever stupid thing we might choose to do is done with the understanding that when things go wrong it will always be somebody else’s fault – it falls to the authorities to protect us from every idiocy we care to perpetrate on ourselves; but as we pass on our personal responsibilities, inevitably a lot else goes with them, not least our personal freedom. And if you think that natural selection is no longer operating at the human level with our now near total control of the environment, you’d be wrong, because we are now maintaining all the stupidest genes within the pool by a process of litigation. Who’s really responsible when a tree falls on us? And shouldn’t it be up to us on occasions to see a potential problem before it arises?

This sort of thing isn't impossible, but it's rare - in this case I'm feeling better than appearances might suggest... and photographing fungi.
This sort of thing isn’t impossible, but it’s rare – in this case I’m feeling better than appearances might suggest… and photographing fungi.

My family and I now live in Surrey, British Columbia – we arrived around five years ago and it was then perhaps even greener than its leafy name sake in England. Both Surreys are well known for their tree filled suburbs – but something is very wrong with the one we now live in. According to a local report, the Surrey in B.C. has lost almost one fifth of its tree canopy in just over a decade and that isn’t very Canadian – most people here favour trees, which might seem a bit odd for a nation that not so long ago built an entire economy by cutting them down. Presently, it is the suburbs that are at the sharp end of the chop, and a large number of trees have been felled in recent years. Maybe fewer of us are bothered than was once the case, or it might just be that not enough people live in the same place for long enough to notice the changes.

Surrey Fleetwood Park's woodland habitat is a little gem amongst an urban sprawl.
Surrey Fleetwood Park’s woodland habitat is a little gem amongst an urban sprawl.

Not long after arriving, I was photographing birds in a local wood when a passing local stopped to talk. I told him that I had seldom seen such a diversity of birdlife in a suburban area, and he responded by saying that if I thought that this was diversity, then I should have been here twenty years ago.

In some Surrey woodlands bird diversity and numbers have decreased in recent years.
In some Surrey woodlands bird species diversity and numbers have decreased in recent years.

That’s just the way things go; we move in, then move on and hardly notice the change. Or could it be that we just allow our brains to slip into a happy state of mind. If so, this rosy thinking may have long term consequences because decreasing wildlife diversity is a clear indication that we are heading for trouble. I’ve noticed an obvious decline in woodland birds during the five years I have lived here – it’s a sad situation, but I’ve seen it happen before.

Getting older provides plenty of time for bad dreams to repeat themselves, but it clearly isn’t up to me to decide which woodlands should be protected from development, although it is obvious that this kind of destruction can’t continue at the present rate forever. Every local should be entitled to a view, but unfortunately most prefer to moan after the event, and many Canadians are so pleasant, they hardly complain at all. Fortunately, I’m not so good natured, and will comment even if it’s a little late to make a difference, but perhaps by doing so I’ll help to change the future… and we could argue for days as to whether that’s remotely possible.

Some people say we have a natural fear of the forest, and that may be so, but inn general the woods are a safer place than the suburbs or the city where people tend to be a good deal more dangerous than vegetables.
Some people say we have a natural fear of the forest, and that may be so, but in general the woods are a safer place than the suburbs or the city where people tend to be a good deal more dangerous than vegetation.

So, I’m away from the area for a week and return to discover a great many of the trees in Fleetwood Park woods have been felled along the main pathway, and on almost every occasion I return there, more trees that have been cut down. To me this seems a travesty, but I’m not sure that others share my view – I feel like the character in a 1960’s horror movie who has walked into that lonely pub on the moor thinking something is wrong, but the locals don’t want to talk about it.

The forest isn't full of werewolves and spirit bears and at least somebody in these parts thinks we should 'be happy' out in the woods - and I am. It is only red dots on trees that get me down.
The forest isn’t full of werewolves and spirit bears and at least somebody in these parts thinks we should ‘be happy’ out in the woods – and I am. It is only red dots on trees that get me down.

What is certain is that along the path a great many trees were marked with red paint and not long after, they were, and still are being cut down, probably due to a concern that one might fall onto the path, which occasionally happens, but usually this has happened at night during storms when the chance that somebody might be walking by is very low. Branches that fall directly from above in windy weather would certainly present a hazard, but there are none over the paths here, and a tree that topples directly onto somebody is unlikely in the extreme.

My wife Jenny in the woodland park waiting for a tree to fall on her... O.K. she's just bird watching.
My wife Jenny in the woodland park waiting for a tree to fall on her… Alright, she’s just bird watching.

It is surprising how long a rotten tree will stand before it goes over and when it does, you have to be as rooted to the spot as the tree once was to get hit. A tree falling takes time and is a noisy process. There is a little sign along the nature walk to make us feel good – it reads ‘Nature at Work’, and that’s exactly what this is – so the best thing you can do is step out of the way – unless you’re one of those litigious people just waiting for the right opportunity to bolster family fortunes.

There can be no complaints about cutting this one - clearly a rotter and close by the path it needed to come down for safety reasons. In praise of the local authority, the felled timber is left to rot, which is essential to the long term well being of the forest.
There can be no complaints about cutting this one – clearly a rotter and close by the path it needed to come down for safety reasons. In praise of the local authority, the felled timber is left to rot, which is essential to the long term well being of the forest.

The real concern is that many of the cut trees are not  dangerously rotten and there are a great many of them. It can take a hundred years and more for some trees to grow to a decent size, but only a few seconds to daub a blob of red paint on a trunk, with only a few more required to fell it.

This one probably could have stayed upright. When the edge of a woodland is cut, the tree line becomes irregular and there is good scientific evidence to show that the remaining trees become more vulnerable to an increase in swirling wind movement.
This one probably should have stayed upright. When the edge of a woodland is cut, the tree line becomes irregular and there is good scientific evidence to show that the remaining trees become more vulnerable to an increase in swirling wind movement.

Until recently we were lucky enough to own a small wood; and from an upper window I could watch the effect of storms on a tree line close by the house. When a large tree was blown over, disturbance to trees further into the forest was clearly noticeable and sealing the forest border produced a marked improvement in tree survival. Shrubs and trees allowed to grow naturally along the margin will substantially stabilise a forest and it is surprising how effective even a five to ten year old natural windbreak can be in sustaining the interior.

Why cut these trees? It just opens things up and makes the wood more susceptable to wind damage.
Why cut these trees? It just opens things up and makes the woodland more susceptable to wind damage.

I asked local people passing through the wood what they thought and most seemed unconcerned, and quite a few hadn’t even noticed – I can’t imagine how this is possible because it looks as if a battalion of tanks has driven through – apart from the obvious sharply cut tree bases, which didn’t seem at all odd to the man who thought the problem might have been caused by the wind. Another couple had other views: the man said cottonwoods didn’t grow nicely and  he’d like to see them replaced with conifers which he much preferred, and no matter how many trees came down the parks people would certainly replace them by planting more. His partner said she didn’t like the increasing development in the local area but the tree felling didn’t bother her at all, and in any case it wasn’t a major concern for them because they would be moving from the area. My response to this didn’t go down well.

I believe we should all engage in our local area while we are living there – otherwise almost anything goes…. and usually, quite literally, it does. I have to admit that this makes me think about what people rely want – maybe some just want different things than I do, or perhaps they don’t see the subject as important, and if this is the case, there can be little doubt that they are wrong. I accept that sometimes it is necessary to remove a tree that is in the wrong place, especially if it presents an obvious danger. Invasive species sometimes need dealing with and species that have been lost may need reintroducing: salmon berry has been re-established in some places here and its return is very welcome, but for the most part, a natural woodland that is re-generating successfully should be left alone – nature knows far better than we do where a tree should grow.

Some woodlands become waterlogged through fall and winter and there is no clear way of knowing which trees will be torn out at the roots.
Some woodlands become waterlogged through fall and winter and there is no clear way of knowing which trees will be torn out at the roots.

A tree that comes down in the interior may create a useful glade and increase plant diversity, but along the borders such an event can be destabilising and the incidence of ‘tearing out’ will usually increase in exposed locations; and a small woodland suffers from having a more exposed perimeter in relation to its area that a large forest.

I was sorry to see this old conifer come down. At the cut point it had a circumference of 14 feet and was 4 feet in diameter. About a hundred years old, the rot had set in further up the trunk,as indicated by bracket fungi, but a little rot shouldn't immediately result in a death sentence - the tree was still providing a source of nourishment for a great many species.
I was sorry to see this old conifer come down. At the cut point it had a circumference of 14 feet and was 4 feet in diameter. About a hundred years old, the rot had set in further up the trunk, as indicated by bracket fungi, but a little rot shouldn’t immediately result in a death sentence – the tree was still providing a source of nourishment for a great many species.
The same tree a month before it was felled was beautiful. Old trees with little or no top are unlikely to fall until they are very rotten and this one hadn't reached that stage. Sadly, the old trunk had been viewed with a garden rather than a forest mentality.
The same tree a month before it was felled was beautiful. Old trees with little or no top are unlikely to fall until they are very rotten and this one hadn’t reached that stage. Sadly, the old trunk had been viewed with a garden park mentality rather than considered as part of a natural forest.

A recent addition to the forest has been the introduction of information posts and these  really do need felling. There is plenty enough information that we have to absorb outside of the park; in urban environments this kind of thing is everywhere and we should be able to come to a woodland haven to get away from all of that. If there is a need to have an information board, then it should be at the entrance to the woodland walk with interior areas left free of clutter, which otherwise ruin both views and photographic opportunities.

These signs do have their uses in cold weather - I know exactly how cold it is at the point when the snow begins to slide off the top board - to reveal rhyming details for a woodland dweller, presumably with the intention of engaging children.
These signs do have their uses in winter – I know exactly how cold it is at the point when the snow begins to slide off the top board, but my preference is the snowy cover – beneath there is a picture of a woodland dweller with an accompanying description in rhyme, presumably to engage the minds of children. Sadly, the poetry leaves me feeling even colder than the snow.

Ironically the most recent information post to go up beside the path provides a description for pileated woodpecker, which is odd, because every tree along the way with even a little rot has been felled, leaving very few places for woodpeckers to feed or nest where they might easily be seen.

I didn't get the opportunity to observe pileted woodpeckers so easily before coming to Canada - these birds are a joy to observe as they hammer away at an old tree trunk, and there is a certain sadness in that I shall no longer be able to watch them so regularly in the local area.
I didn’t get the opportunity to observe pileated woodpeckers so easily before coming to Canada – these birds are a joy to observe as they hammer away at an old tree trunk, and there is a certain sadness that I shall no longer be able to watch them so regularly in my local area.
If it doesn't work out, I guess I'll just have to rely upon memories of my English childhood when I would sit and watch Woody Woodpecker cartoons on T.V. and dream one day of coming to North America to see the real thing.
If it doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll just have to rely upon memories from my English childhood when I would sit and watch Woody Woodpecker cartoons on T.V. and dream of one day coming to North America to see the real thing.

We need to be safe, but not ridiculously so. Cutting down a tree in the adjoining Fleetwood Park Garden is an altogether different consideration – a carefully laid out garden is a discipline that doesn’t pretend to emulate the wild. The woodland on the other hand isn’t just a place for joggers and people emptying their dogs, it also has a role to play in conserving nature, much to the delight of those who care about such things. When people lack transport or the necessary mobility to travel so extensively, natural parks in urban localities become an increasingly important amenity, especially as the natural world is pushed increasingly further away by development.  There is very little woodland left in most suburban areas and the last thing we need is overzealous tree cutting. A favourite mantra is that it is happening everywhere now, but that isn’t a good enough excuse to ignore the problem, we need to react.  So, when you see too much tree felling in your area – make a fuss; and remember… take a picture – and who knows, maybe one day this might help to save the Planet.

To see pileated woodpecker working an old tree in Fleetwood Park please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8anLtDmImw

More worrying red dots are showing up on big tree trunks along the Fraser Highway at the point where it passes through Surrey’s Green Timbers Urban Forest………….. Should I be shouting ‘TIMBER!!!!’

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UP, UP AND AWAY. From Ebola to Exponential and Beyond.

Perhaps the most reliable way to ‘save the planet’ is to take a picture that has been constructed by using mathematics and arithmetic; these exist in a variety of forms, but most commonly they are represented as charts or graphs that can provide at a glance, information on any subject for which there is reliable data, and graphs in particular are good at showing numerical change against a baseline of time.

I’m one of those unfortunates who have trouble adding up a column of figures – seldom do I get the same total twice – even with a calculator! That’s discouraging, but it’s not a valid excuse to give up.  And mathematics doesn’t come any easier, but let’s face it, we owe it to the planet to try, because mathematics is the key to measuring everything important that is going on around us.

A politician or national spokesman who says, ‘I’m just hopeless with maths’ or ‘math’ (depending on where they are standing) and then laughs it off, should be looking elsewhere for work. There is understandable concern when the people who represent us do not usually have backgrounds in mathematics or science – political science doesn’t count, because that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, the ‘I don’t get mathematics’ excuse is unacceptable from any elected official and we should urge them to ‘try harder’.

When I heard a health spokesman say recently that the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa was growing exponentially month by month there was obvious cause for concern. The spokesmen then gave the number of infections that occured during the previous month followed by the predicted figure for the month to follow, and the figures were exactly the same. This implied that he either didn’t understand exponential, or the increase wasn’t exponential at all. The statement was confusing: was the  rate of infection steady and controllable? Or was it expanding  exponentially, suggesting that  heading for the hills was the best possible option?

Understanding exponential growth shouldn’t be a problem. Most small children can draw it, even if they can’t describe the outcome.

Little Timmy can't say the word, but he can certainly draw it - a simple example of exponential growth.
Little Timmy can’t say the word, but he can draw a simple example. Here, a single person infects two others and if the disease is passed on in the same manner, the infection quickly gets out of control. This kind of growth applies to many things including human population growth.

In everyday life, most people don’t think much beyond arithmetic progressions, where the increase between numbers is constant.  But exponential growth is nothing like that. Once you start down the road to exponential, by doubling up, it isn’t long before the figures are mind blowingly large, and if they relate to a dangerous disease that goes unchecked, no health service on the planet will be able to deal with it.

There is an ancient Persian story that explains the process well. An inventor who pleased his king with a wonderful invention was asked to name his reward; but he at once disappointed the ruler with the seemingly meagreness of his choice. The inventor asked for grains of wheat to be placed upon a chess board in the following manner: one grain on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on, until all of the 64 squares were covered. The numbers start small and most of us don’t think much beyond the 8th square where the total hits 128 grains, which isn’t an outrageous figure. Quite a surprise then to discover that to reach the 64th square requires 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat – more wheat than was available in the whole kingdom. The tale is spun as  an example of intelligence winning the day, or alternatively, it is a story of cunning and greed –  the inventor either becomes ruler of the kingdom, or he loses his head.

In today’s world we might relate this story to pyramid selling where an investment doubles up every move it makes down the line and before long the numbers become vast, but by then, many individuals have dropped out of the scheme and never pay their contributions, while those who stay in begin to run out of suckers to sell to.

Telling a story is a great way to explain numerical change, but an artful graphs is a more visual approach. The two graphs below are free of annotation which allows the image to pass for art if you prefer it – perhaps as a late Matisse paper collage.

This could be a late period Matisse paper collage, but we might also consider it as representing two curves on a graph running along a base line of time. curves
Consider the above as two curves on a graph with a base line (or x axis) representing the passage of time, and a vertical (or y axis) representing the numbers or the density of an animal population increasing linearly as the line progresses upwards. This colourful ‘picture’,  interpreted correctly, contains enough information to save the planet .

The upper curve begins between yellow and red but continues for the most part  between yellow and green – it starts shallow, then rises exponentially before levelling off. This forms a ‘logistic curve’ first used by Pierre Verhurst  in the mid 1800s to show natural population growth where numbers are held to an upper limit by predation and availability of resources.

The lower curve that runs at first between red and yellow and then red and green takes time to rise, but when it does the line steepens rapidly – this is exponential growth that hasn’t levelled off. The world human population presently follows this ‘run away’ curve, but without infinite resources it cannot continue to grow in this manner. In a finitely resourced world the predictable result is a sudden levelling of the curve and a plummet downwards that mirrors the up. To alleviate suffering, it makes sense to control the drop – this really is a case of the higher you go the harder the fall.  Birth rates are presently falling across the developed world, but for economic reasons the numbers are usually bolstered by immigration (O.K. there will then be fewer people somewhere else, but that doesn’t regulate the population in places where people are genuinely trying to control their numbers).

The logistic curve along with the wave curve (see the predator prey relationship graphs below) apply to almost any species other than our own and they have longterm benefits for both the species and the environment – and make better models for longterm regulation than does uncontrolled exponential growth. All the information we need for responsible behaviour is contained within a couple of simple graphs, indicating that self regulation of human population is a better option than the inevitable collapse that continued exponential growth has in store .

Unfortunately, governments do not run economies with a view to longterm sustainably – they invariably opt for growth above all else, and are reluctant to make changes, preferring instead to pass the parcel onto the next generation – a ticking time bomb which they’ve chosen to ignore. Economies are run as if resources are infinite and without cost beyond extraction, refining and transportation. However, at a certain point, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain this, and if the present generation continues to charge up the steep end of exponential… future generations will be forced to pay the price, and will know that we had all the information available to make the right decisions, but instead carried on, business as usual.

 

HERE WE ALL ARE, UP ON THE STEEPEST PART OF THE CURVE.

Human population growth started off slowly.It is obvious that population wasn't a problem prior to 1800, but an agricultural revolution, an Industrail Revolution and the development of modern medicine has aided population growth and  when the graph is climbing as it is today, there is a genuine need for us to engage with the reality.
Human population growth started off slowly. Population growth clearly wasn’t a problem prior to 1800, but an Agricultural Revolution, an Industrial Revolution and the recent development of modern medicine have all helped to allow our numbers to grow exponentially and there is now a genuine need for us to engage with reality.

Things often start off slowly before exponential growth kicks in. With the human population nothing much changed for a very long time. There was even a period around70,000 years ago (long before the time line represented in the above graph), when the human population dropped so low we almost disappeared altogether.

It may well have been cooking meat and the development of  agriculture that started things moving, but there have been other set backs: the black death was a devastating pandemic and can be seen as a dip in the population graph around 1400. Prior to the plague weather conditions around the mid-1300s  were unfavourable, and throughout Europe crops repeatedly failed. It was a perfect storm of a disaster and millions died – but the loss of a third of Europe’s population did change the economy. Suddenly, there was a shortage of workers and for the first time in recorded history a more reasonable wage could be asked by those who survived the devastation. Poverty was still widespread, but many people were liberated from serfdom, and took the first steps along a path that generations later would drive the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and eventually the modern Western economic system we have today.

In the broadest sense exponential growth isn’t a disaster, it is often the way things increase in the natural world, but there are always boundaries. A fertilised ova wouldn’t develop at a rapid enough rate if cell growth wasn’t initially exponential, but once a certain functional level has been reached, cells are programmed to be replaced when and where they are needed – if they keep on dividing without control, we call it cancer.

Almost everything that relates to our rapidly increasing human population is unsustainable.  The graph below demonstrates a normal predator prey relationship where foxes are eating hares; it could equally be wolves preying on deer, or any number of other predator prey interactions.

Along a base line of time the green curve of prey animals increase, producing more food for predators which set the pattern for controlling the prey as the prey numbers decline, so do the predators. The winner is plants. Without the predators the world becomes less diverse as the plants are eaten. This of course is an oversimplification as there is a web of life, but the principal holds.
Along a base line of time, the green curve shows prey animals beginning to increase in number, thus producing more food for their predators, the foxes – shown in black. Foxes then increase in number, eat more hares and cause their prey to decline. Fox numbers begin to fall in response to the diminishing food supply and hare numbers pick up again – the process continues in a cyclical manner.

Other species also benefit as predator and prey numbers ebb and flow. Plants for example will escape total obliteration by hares and rabbits as predators reduce herbivore numbers. Without natural predation environments become less diverse as certain species are eaten beyond their capacity to regenerate. However, the predator prey graph is an oversimplification, and although the general principle holds true, the system is really a three dimensional web of life that demonstrates far greater complexity. We refer to a natural balance of nature, but the reality is closer to a series of peaks and troughs. If our human population followed closer to the logistic curve, modern technology would allow us to regulate against a roller coaster of loss and gain in a manner that can’t so easily be applied to the steep end of exponential growth.

Related closely to our population numbers is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

This graph shows the level of oil extraction (fossil fuel) and as would be expected it follows the same line of exponential growth for the human population. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but follows the same exponential growth line.
This graph shows the level of oil (a fossil fuel) extraction.  As expected it follows the same line of exponential growth shown on the human population graph. Coal extraction starts a fraction earlier on the time line, but clearly follows a similar exponential growth curve.

It is impossible for us to remove and burn fossil fuels indefinitely, because such resources are finite and as time passes, these diminish and become increasingly difficult to extract. And another consideration is the effect that burning fossil fuels has on our atmosphere should we decide to try it.

The increasing emission of carbon into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned is clearly changing the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not surprisingly Carbon dioxide emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels also follows an exponential line.
The time line starts here at 1600 – before this time, man’s burning of fossil fuels was negligible, but when the Industrial Revolution kicked in Carbon dioxide emissions began to pick up and were soon growing exponentially. Once again the sudden ‘up’ part of the curve runs close to the curve for human population growth.

Burning fossil fuels has a special place in the grand scheme of things, because it increases the levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that in turn increases global temperatures. Continuing to do so at an ever increasing rate not only changes the atmosphere, it also changes the weather and at a certain point these changes may be irreversible.

Some times politicians and spokesmen do know how to use the figures in their favour. Global temperatures are evidently rising, but what if they were to show you only the section on the red box?
Some politicians and spokesmen do appear to know how to use graphs when they work in their favour. Global temperatures are clearly rising, but what if you were shown only the section of graph in the red box?

If you looked only at a graph showing the period between 1950 to 1970 you’d consider global temperatures to be fairly stable.  There has also been a similar levelling of temperatures in recent years; these are the favoured areas for climate change sceptics to cherry pick their examples and tell us, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, but unfortunately, there can be no denying the general temperature trend is upwards – the planet is warming, which supports the idea that it is necessary to always view the whole picture.

The Ebola infection figures discussed earlier do indeed appear to be growing exponentially (at the time of writing). The curve ran fairly level through May and June, which would have been the ideal time for the developed world to have moved in and defeated the disease before it took off. To have ignored this opportunity seems careless if not arrogant. The question is, if I can manage the calculation on the back of a cigarette packet (see below), why can’t those in power do the same. It would be generous to put the terrible suffering in West Africa down purely to ignorance, but sometimes it is suffering economies rather than suffering people that elicit the most rapid responses.

Below: an ‘on the back of a cigarette packet’ calculation derived from figures freely available from news reports. This was quite tricky – not the mathematics… it’s just that I don’t smoke.

A back of a piggy packet graph for Ebola infection. Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control - an exponential doubling month by moth is almost too horrible to contemplate.
A back of a ciggy packet graph for Ebola infection shows more than 13,500 cases at the time of writing ( I drew this graph during October. Since then the figures have rapidly picked up and I’ve had to extend the graph upwards). Hopefully the infection will now begin to come under control – an exponential doubling month by moth as can be clearly seen between the beginning of October and the beginning of November is too horrible to contemplate. Potentially, there is a long way to go before the disease peaks and crashes naturally if it is allowed to spread unhindered.

 

So far there have been around 5,000 deaths due to Ebola and there will be many more in the coming months, but hopefully, now that medical help is arriving in the affected West African countries (better late than never), the infection will begin to come under control.

Whenever we hear a spokesman say that ‘growth is exponential’ it is good to be clear about what he or she means. Certainly this is important when it refers to human population growth; or the increasing use of fossil fuels; and the rapid spread of a contagious disease. In each case we need to ask the right questions, then be certain that our answers make sense, and last but not least, act as quickly as possible – and so far we have been unforgivably slack on the last one.

The ciggy packet slip aside, all of the simple ‘mathematical’ pictures shown above have been colourful, and without exception are easy to interpret – this isn’t intended purely for the benefit of small children – it is also to grab the attention of the mathematically challenged politicians making important decisions; they really do need to, ‘get the picture, act in good time’, and in so doing, ‘save the planet’.

In mid October 2014 Tony Abbott predicted that coal would be the world’s principal energy source for decades to come. It was he said, ‘Good for humanity’. I wonder if I’m living in a parallel universe – Tony Abbott must be better informed than I am… he’s the prime minister of Australia.

At the time of posting there was some hopeful news. A decrease in the number of reported cases of Ebola in Liberia. WHO’s spokesman Bruce Aylward said the response to the virus was now gaining the upper hand, but warned the crisis wasn’t over. The Head of the U.N. Mission says that ‘presently he doesn’t have the  resources to defeat the disease’. How nuts is  that?

For a perceptive and amusing view of man’s destruction of the Planet,  take a look at this cartoon:

http://laughingsquid.com/man-animated-short-showing-our-destructive-relationship-with-earth/

 

 

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