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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Animals in the fraternity of universal nature

Have you read any poems about animal rights lately? Or perhaps attended a talk or exhibition on this or another environmental topic? Andrew Kelly, director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, has aimed to inspire discussion on controversial issues for the past ten years through public lectures and commissioned art, this year focusing on the theme radical environmentalism. On 26 March Kelly himself gave a lecture entitled “Animals in the fraternity of universal nature,” where he argued that poets and other artists have been drivers of cultural discourse on radical environmental issues, and specifically on animal rights, since the time of the romantic poets. He suggests that Bristol’s exciting cultural line up for 2015 can give us inspiration as a city to improve our relationship with nature in an urban environment.

Kelly’s literary lens on the history of animal rights showed how the romantic poets, and in particular Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who the whole lecture series this year is named after) and William Wordsworth, brought a relationship with animals and philosophy of universal rights for all creatures to a mainstream audience in the 18th century. These poets represented changing times – the growth of industry, the French Revolution, and challenges to the slave trade all changed people’s perceptions of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. In addition, the increasing use of animals as pets or companions, demonstrated that animals had personality, could feel pleasure and pain, and show loyalty.

The lecture struck a difficult balance between inspiration and excitement on the one hand and depression and pessimism on the other. I’d like to believe that art really can make political change – but issues the romantic poets raised in the 1700s are still considered radical today. For example, hunting for sport was decried by the romantic poets as cruel, although at the time hunting was seen as a symbol of courage. It was not until 2004 that hunting (only with dogs) was banned in England under the Hunting Act. Today, public support of this ban stands at 76%. However, other forms of hunting, and wildlife culling, are perfectly legal.

One of the primary animal welfare issues that we face today, and that the romantic poets might never have imagined, is the growth of intensive factory farms for meat, dairy, and egg production. We also face the rapid destruction of rainforest and other habitat for wild animals for production of palm oil and livestock feed, and the rampant poaching of highly endangered rhinos for black market traditional medicines. Kelly feels that the decimation of the natural world that we see today would have greatly saddened the romantics. His pessimism about the future came through as he quoted a vision of the future from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, written in 1895:
“I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained … But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct … I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock.”
Is it possible to make cultural and political change quickly enough to stop the rampant environmental destruction and exploitation of animals that feels inevitable? Can art and discussion convert the human connection with nature into political will? As Kelly described, the romantic poets wrote about cruelty to animals with quills plucked from live geese; today, we debate the badger cull while eating hamburgers from factory farms. After 250 years, will art finally be able to bring radical environmentalism into the mainstream and into policy?
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member and PhD student Josephine Walker in the School of Biological Sciences.
Josephine Walker

Monday, 30 March 2015

The promise of the Anthropocene?

London lights by NASA Earth
Has the Holocene come to a close? Don’t tear up your geology textbooks just yet; the experts are still to decide whether the Anthropocene is a new epoch or merely a device of journalistic rhetoric. However, the symbolism of the christening of this new geological era may provide an important opportunity – presenting a lens through which we can transform our understanding of nature, its processes, and our role within both.

The coming of socionature?

The recasting of Homo Sapiens as a geological actor, as well as a historical agent, finds its roots in the hypothesis posed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000.   When this paper was released, the authors could not possibly have understood the dominance that the idea would later assert. We are now enthralled by the debate – with the concept transcending academia and entering popular discussion. The dawn of this new geological epoch may have devastating consequences for natural scientists – for, if we live in this Anthropocene, we can no longer say anything meaningful about the natural world without including an understanding of its social, political, economic and cultural characteristics. It asserts that nature is socially produced – that the environment is made, transformed and destroyed by us exclusively.

Luckily, you do not need to be a post-modernist to understand the social production of nature. All organisms transform their habitat to some degree. Woodpeckers make holes in tree, creating sites for nests; rodents burrow; and beavers build dams. However, human society has taken it to a new level. Over half of the planet’s large river systems have been fragmented by our dam-construction – with over 45,000 large dams disrupting two-thirds of natural freshwater flows across the world. We have drained entire marshes and aquifers. We have altered the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the acidity of the oceans. We have created urban areas whose dominance and environmental consequences extend well-beyond their peripheries. Close to 70% of the world’s forests are at a distance of less than half a mile from the forest’s edge, and the civilisation that exists outside of it. The concept of wilderness is now an historical artefact. The extinction of many species has come as a result of our own actions. Virgin nature has ended; we have harnessed it and constructed our physical environment in such a way that it has become unrecognisable.

A question of symbolism

Notably, the debates surrounding the new epoch has involved those from across the disciplinary spectrum – with debates incorporating teachings and views from the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. The Anthropocene shakes our current understandings of nature to their foundations – with the concept affecting the very idea of what it means to be human in this previously natural world. All disciplines have something to contribute to this debate. The Anthropocene does not just represent a change in our relationship with our planet but also a transformation of how that relationship must be understood. 

Significantly, if we co-produce the physical nature of this planet – climate change ceases to be an environmental problem that can be solved by legislation and technological advance. It becomes a problem of choice, of politics and of conflict – we are forced to place the process within the wider trends of accumulation, consumption and excess.  We retreat from the characterisation of climactic change as a coming naturalised catastrophe and transform it into a politicised process. The role of carbon as the political enemy ends and it becomes a pathological symptom of something wider. Our relationship with nature may appear technical and scientific but it is inherently political – enabled and driven by political action. Politicising nature allows for us to question our relationship with the natural world and to detect political issues, social inequalities and the gross power asymmetries that guide it.

In many ways, the dawn of the Anthropocene can be seen as a development of semantics that many will not accept. However its symbolic nature provides an important opportunity. It is not everybody that has caused this transformation of nature. This new era is not the age of civilisation; it is the era of man. Ironically, this notion of the Manthropocene is even noticeable in the makeup of the Anthropocene Working Group, which consists of 31 men and five women. Furthermore, it is not even all men – it is a specific type of man, conducting a specific type of economic activity. In the contemporary system, ecology and nature is located as a branch of the greater political economy. As Jason Moore has argued, perhaps we need to rechristen this era further – it is not the Anthropocene that we entering, it is the Capitalocene. This provides an important opportunity for critical research. 

In contemporary debates regarding climate change, we have succeeded in environmentalising politics; however, we must push further. We must politicise the environment, situating the natural world within the wider terrain of political processes and conflict. Environmental issues and conflicts can never be understood in isolation from the political and economic contexts from which they emerge. Take the respective droughts currently faced by California and southern-coastal Brazil – which are just as much results of human decisions as they are the consequences of natural processes.  If we understand these ‘natural’ problems as issues of our own making, we can become aware of our own collective responsibility in the health of the planet we inhabit.

As Christian Schwägel has stated, “the Anthropocene should be the age of responsibility, cooperation, creativity, inventiveness and humility.” It forces a departure from the social assumptions of the Holocene – that there is an inexhaustible expanse of space out there that we can utilise, harness and exploit to our heart’s content. For ecological movements to succeed, they must illustrate the intertwined nature of the environment and of people and offer routes to the health, sanctity and development of both. If this is achieved and society is forced to question our role within nature, the Anthropocene could be a very short geological period indeed.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Ed Atkins, who is currently studying on the Environment, Energy and Resilience PhD at the University of Bristol.
Ed Atkins

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

European Green Capital 2015: How student projects are engaging the city

We had great success with the Cabot Institute pilot of the Dissertation Partnership Scheme that saw seven students working with local community partners in Bristol to answer a real world problem as part of their dissertation on the Environmental Policy and Management MSc course at the University of Bristol.

Two projects that stuck out were a study on how to improve biodiversity in Bedminster
and an investigation of Green Deal delivery by local authorities.  Both these projects produced some great findings which should be of value to the organisations that they worked with, as well as forming part of their academic work.

Feedback from all partner organisations who answered a follow up survey were very positive finding it a ”rewarding experience”.  Outcomes for partners working with students included being able to ”feed experience into the academic world” and obtaining a “different perspective” on their work; they also felt that the ”enthusiasm of the student energised different partners they interacted with”.

This academic year the Cabot Institute and the Centre for Public Engagement who have run previous pilots in Engineering and Social Policy have teamed up to expand engaged learning as part of the University of Bristol’s commitment to European Green Capital. The Environmental Policy and Management MSc has just allocated 15 students to partners including local, governmental, international and consulting organisations.  The scheme has also been rolled out to the Climate Change Science and Policy MSc also in the Geographical Sciences department and to the Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health MSc based in the School for Policy Studies.

A slightly different scheme is underway in the International Development MSc in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies.  Students on this course can undertake a unit where they create a business plan for an NGO or small business.  In the past, organisations have been taken from a database of past examples or have been fictional.  We sent a call out for real organisations that have a need for a business plan but not the capacity to create one and 20 organisations requested student support - way more than the course had the ability to undertake.  11 groups involving 43 students are about to meet with their organisations.  At the end of the unit students present their business plan and this will be recorded and sent to the partner organisations.

The hours students put into these partnerships will contribute to the University of Bristol pledge to provide 100,000 hours of student engagement with the city in partnership with the University of the West of England as part a HEFCE grant to encourage student involvement in Bristol during its year as European Green Capital.  We are also looking for volunteering opportunities for our talented students.

If you are an organisation with a research question you would like answered or a volunteering need, or an academic interested in engaged learning, please do get in touch.  It’s an exciting time to be in Bristol!

This blog is by Hannah Tweddell, Sustainability and Engaged Learning Coordinator at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol.  More about Community Based Learning at the Cabot Institute.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Insights from the Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session

The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session (NSPPS) is a University-wide poster session for postgraduate students within the Faculty of Science aimed at increasing inter-departmental connections within a relaxed and informal environment. This year’s event, which was hosted within the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building, was attended by ~90 PhD students from a wide variety of disciplines and hundreds more visitors came from across the University to view the posters. Most participants were interested in tackling the challenges of uncertain environmental change with an emphasis upon climate change, natural hazards and human impacts on the environment.
The Natural Systems and Processes Poster Session 2015 in the Great Hall
in the Wills Memorial Building (Image credit: D. Naafs)
Adam McAleer, a final year PhD student working in the Department of Earth Sciences, is interested in measuring the flux of greenhouse gases from restored peatlands within Exmoor National Park. The Exmoor Mires Project seeks to raise water levels via blocking of old agricultural drains in order to re-saturate the peatlands and recover its peat-forming biogeochemistry. This will potentially lead the mires to become carbon dioxide sinks and methane sources. As wetter plants were found to have a strong association to higher methane emissions, certain plant species have the potential to be used as a proxy for methane fluxes and restoration success. Mark Lunt, a third year PhD student working within the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group, is interested in the fate of other greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Hydrofluorocarbons are organic compounds that contain fluorine and hydrogen atoms and are used as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire retardants in the place of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). Although HFCs do not harm the ozone layer, they can contribute to global warming. In developing countries, demand for HFCs are increasing rapidly; as a result, both the USA and China have agreed to begin work on phasing out hydroflourocarbons.

Felipe (left) discussing his research to staff and students  (Image credit: D. Naafs)

Catherine McIntyre (1st year) and John Pemberton (1st year), based within the Organic Geochemistry Unit, presented work from the NERC-funded DOMAINE project. This project aims to look at dissolved organic matter (DOM) in freshwater ecosystems and public water supplies and will focus upon the fate of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Phosphorus, for example, is used to make fertilisers and can be incorporated into lakes and streams via terrestrial run-off. As phosphorus is a key limiting nutrient, it can also stimulate algal blooms and lead to eutrophication (i.e. oxygen starvation). Indeed, the global phosphorus cycle has already been highly perturbed, as shown below. As very little is known about organic phosphorus, the DOMAIN project will investigate this further using via high-resolution molecular techniques. 

Four of the nine planetary boundaries  have now been crossed (Steffen et al., 2015; Science)

Other students are using the past to explore the future. Matt Carmichael, a final year PhD based within the School of Chemistry, is interested in understanding how the hydrological cycle varied during past warm climates. Of particular interest is the early Eocene (~48 to 56 million years ago), an interval characterised by high atmospheric carbon dioxide, high sea surface temperatures and the absence of continental ice sheets. However, the impact of these changes on the wider Earth system, especially those related to precipitation patterns, vegetation and biogeochemical cycles, remain poorly understood. This is achieved using climate models which can simulate changes in the atmosphere and the ocean during the Eocene. Future climatic change will also have a profound effect upon the hydrological cycle with the potential to make floods and droughts more extreme.

How the East Antarctic coastline might have looked during the early Eocene (Pross et al., 2012; Nature)
Collectively, the NSPPS highlights the wide variety of research undertaken with the Faculty of Science and is a great opportunity for PhD students to present their research in a relaxed setting.

This blog was written by Gordon Inglis (@climategordon) a final year PhD student within the School of Chemistry. Additional thanks to Adam McAleer, Matt Carmichael, Mark Lunt, Catherine McIntyre and John Pemberton whose work is highlighted here. 
Gordon Inglis

Monday, 16 March 2015

Unravelling the mysteries of the subpolar North Atlantic

Why should we care about what is going on in the cold and stormy subpolar North Atlantic? I can give you at least three very good reasons:
  1. First of all, the dynamics of this region are crucially important for modulating climatic conditions in North-Western Europe. So basically this is what keeps the UK’s weather relatively mild for its latitudes.
  2. Secondly, deep-water is formed in the Labrador Sea and this is a key process within the global thermohaline circulation. 
  3. The transport of heat and freshwater by the Subpolar North Atlantic has an impact on global climate, marine ecosystems, hurricanes, and even on rainfall in the African Sahel, the Amazon and parts of the US.  
Main circulation patterns in the North Atlantic. Orange-yellow lines are
surface, warmer currents and blue lines are deep, colder currents.

How do we know what is happening up there? 

Up until now, the subpolar North Atlantic has been inadequately measured and climate models largely fail to represent its features accurately. Last week, Dr Penny Holliday from the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton) visited Bristol to give a departmental seminar in the School of Geographical Sciences, titled “Circulation and variability in the subpolar North Atlantic”. From her talk we got to know more about the importance of long-term monitoring of the circulation in the subpolar North Atlantic and about two major ongoing monitoring programmes. These are providing precious observational data that will help scientists understand more about the interannual to multidecadal variability in these regions, in order to improve the skills of our predictions.

OSNAP (Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Programme) is an international programmed that started in 2014 and includes partners from USA, UK, Canada, China, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. OSNAP is designed to provide for the first time a continuous record of measurements across the entire subpolar North Atlantic, similarly to the RAPID observational system at 26°N which has been monitoring the subtropical gyre since 2004.  Within UK-OSNAP, Penny is leading the observations being made in the deep western boundary current near Greenland.
Penny Holliday on the first UK-OSNAP (plus Extended Ellett
Line and RAGNARoCC) cruise in summer 2014
The Extended Ellett Line is a project led by the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton) and SAMS (The Scottish Association for Marine Science). It represents one of a small number of long-term, high-quality physical time series in the North Atlantic Ocean. This hydrographic section was started in 1975 by David Ellet, initially only in the Rockall Trough. In 1996 the section was extended up to Iceland. The expedition now runs once a year and the data collected includes physical (e.g. temperature, salinity, velocity), chemical (e.g. iron, nutrients, carbon) and biological (e.g. phytoplankton) measurements.  Penny is one of the two Principal Investigators for the Extended Ellett Line.

Most recent findings 

While some more time will be necessary before seeing the first results of the OSNAP project, the most recent significant discovery from the Extended Ellett Line is the importance of the episodic southward flow of the Wyville Thomson Overflow Water. Recent observations highlighted the necessity to include its contribution in the calculations of the heat transport through the Rockall Trough.  In addition, after four decades of observations, it has been observed that the top layers (0-800m) of the ocean in these regions have warmed and exhibit shorter timescale variability.

Data from the 2014 cruise has also shown that temperature and salinity in 2014 were lower compared to the previous 10 years. This suggests that the North Atlantic subpolar gyre would have increased its circulation and expanded, bringing cooler and fresher water into the eastern regions.

Life at sea in the subpolar North Atlantic

The oceanographic cruises organised within these two programmes also offer the chance to several students and early career scientists to get a taste of what life at sea really means.
Penny was one of my supervisors during my MSc in Southampton, where for my research project I was analysing the results of a new simulation with a high-resolution ocean model in the North Atlantic subpolar regions (we have recently published those results). One year or so later, Penny was recruiting some extra people for one of the Extended Ellett Line cruises and she must have remembered our conversations about how I had always wanted to go on a research cruise. So there I was, ready to board the RRS James Cook as part of the physical oceanography team, sailing from Scotland to Iceland. It was such an amazing experience: I think I will be forever grateful to Penny for making my wish come true!
Myself (left) and Natalia Serpetti (right) taking sea water samples from the CTD
(conductivity-temperature-depth instrument) and looking very happy
during the Extended Ellett Line cruise in 2013.
Life at sea is actually pretty hard work and definitely not a holiday. Initial sea sickness aside, and ignoring the fact that I was waking up a 4 am every morning (yes, I had the unluckiest shift ever!), the memories that I will cherish the most are about all the things that I learnt, the awesome people I met, the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets over Iceland (at least due to the unlucky shift I got to see both of them everyday!), the pilot whales occasionally following the ship, and the power of the ocean which makes you feel so small and insignificant. Probably I will also always remember the entire night that some of us spent scooping up and sieving mud from a deep sea sledge, while listening to pretty bad club music: that was actually great fun!


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Alice Marzocchi, School of Geographical Sciences, at the University of Bristol.  Follow Alice on Twitter @allygully.
Alice Marzocchi

Twitter contacts: @np_holliday    @uk_osnap    @osnap_updates  

Read Alice's other blog: The conference crashers! What are a geophysicist, a climate modeller, and a geochemist doing at a Social Sciences conference?

Friday, 13 March 2015

My ‘Climate Shock’ from a talk by Gernot Wagner

Sadly, the climate change rhetoric can sometimes feel a bit like the announcements at an airport; a little monotonous and irrelevant. Most of us have been guilty of tuning out, turning a blind eye and continuing with our life thinking the announcement isn’t really for us; we’re getting a different flight.

Sitting down for the hour long talk by Gernot Wagner at @Bristol on Tuesday evening was a little like hearing the last boarding call when you’re at the other end of the airport in a day dream. It was a shock.

‘Climate Shock’ was an hour of uncomfortable truths and mind boggling economics. As a scientist I am regularly exposed to the raw figures: Temperature in degrees, CO2 in parts per million, mean sea level increase. Never before had I been faced with the human implications of climate change in such stark and uncompromising terms.

The talk was run by Bristol Festival of Ideas and supported by the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute and slotted in comfortably with Bristol’s position as green capital of the Europe. Gernot Wagner walked us through his recent book ‘Climate shock’, co written with Martin Weitzman. At each turn of the page (or change of the slide) there was a new, fresh perspective on the climate change debate. Instead of seeing the problem and solution in science, Wagner saw it in economics.

With the cool detachment of a mathematician, Wagner attempted to communicate the uncertainties in our climate change predictions. Despite a considerable accumulation of knowledge, we are still powerless to predict the exact effect on our fragile planet. Wagner pointed out that, should temperatures rise by 6 degrees, the effects would be catastrophic. We are only a fraction of the way down the slippery slope of temperature increase and despite an escalation in extreme weather we still aren’t digging in our heels and climbing back up. With any other predictable, large-scale disasters we work tirelessly to insure and mitigate. Why, Wagner asked, are we not doing the same for climate change?


Using economics to convey the potential impacts, Wagner stated plainly that for every $1 we spend on CO2 producing activities, it is actually costing us $0.40 in future damages. We are already a planet in debt.

Wagner’s solution was atypical. Instead of sending us forth from the room as eco warriors, recycling like our lives depended on it, he emphasised a different message. He said the way to mitigate global warming is to harness the economic power of supply and demand.


His case study was Sweden. He introduced it with a single figure: $150.

This is the Swedish tax on each ton of CO2: as the price of CO2 went up, demand went down. Now, Wagner claimed, Sweden is nearly carbon neutral. His argument is that policy is the way to save the world- far more so than individual effort.

The realism of his suggestions made his talk fascinating. For the first time I not only grasped the terrifying toll that climate change is taking, but also felt hopeful that there might be a solution. While the solution might be unpopular in our short sighted capitalist society, it is absolutely essential for maintaining long term economic stability.

The moral of the story? The best investment you will ever make is in our planet.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Conserve the past, but the solution is in future

Conservation is certainly a hot-debated topic in the modern era.  On Thursday 5 March 2015, Professor Roger Scruton, a renowned philosopher, given a lecture titled ‘Love thy neighbourhood’ at the  Cabot Institute, University of Bristol as part of the Coleridge Lecture Series run by Bristol Festival of Ideas. Originally advertised as ‘The only true conservationist is a conservative’, the lecture sparked a great deal of controversy. Nevertheless, it also offered an interesting angle of observation to the topic.

Thy neighbourhood is thy home, though it must be beautiful

Scruton opened the talk by pointing out that most humans (rational egoists) have the tendency to externalise their costs while retain the profits. By doing so, damages accumulate in the surroundings of humans and causes the deterioration of our environment (‘Uglification of the world’).

To curb the tendency of externalisation, the speaker suggested promoting the recognition of neighbourhood community. By recognising the bigger community instead of just his personal circle as his ‘home’, and due to people’s innate reaction to love and defend their home (oikophilia), one may be more aware and more active in maintaining the quality of his surrounding environment.

However, he argued that, a person’s attachment to his home is stronger when his home possesses a certain amount of aesthetic value. When the home is not beautiful, its residents feel less obliged to protect it. Wind farms were listed as a bad approach to solve today’s energy problem. They are unadaptable, causing irreversible damages and an offence to our inheritance.

Professor Scruton also used plastic as a classic example of externalisation. He thought that the prevalence of plastic is largely due to the hidden subsidiary like the conveniences in transport and storage brought by either policies or technology. For example, supermarkets lobby for packaging legislations to drive their smaller local competitors out of market as they generally are unable to afford packaging. To solve this, Scruton proposed that the cost should be returned to the externalisers through taxations and encouraging local markets for grocery shopping.

Professor Scruton talked about urbanisation, and ‘failed cities’ with dead centres and that people keep moving towards the edge. He argued that such situations are caused by cities lack of aesthetic values, and ‘failed cities’ were built to solely serve their very limited functions. When the function no longer exists, the cities die with it. He suggested that cities should apply more restrictions to ensure only beautiful houses can be built so the aestheticism can be upheld.

Art thou Conservative or not? Art thou conservationist or not?

Despite his ‘Conservative’ self-branding, it is not hard to notice the obvious conflicts between Professor Scruton’s value and the Conservative Party’s current mainstream ideology. For instance, I wonder if the taxing solution to plastic problem would unsettle a few nerves of a lot of Conservatives; and regrettably, the ‘beautiful cities’ idea might be just too utopic.  During the talk, a few photos of ‘help to buy’ scheme housing were used to prove that modern cities are ugly. However, I don’t think that beautiful houses come cheap.  In Britain, cities brood opportunities, and serve as platforms for people with very little savings to realise their dreams. Inevitably, all major cities contain a considerable amount of low income population. To make the ‘beautiful homes’ affordable to them, we either need to use administrative forces to cap the housing price or use administrative forces to bump up personal income. Both ways would be deemed unacceptable by any free-market prone Thatcherite.

I also noticed that the speaker emphasized the conservation of human settlements rather than the nature, or emphasized the function of nature as aesthetically pleasing to humans rather than any scientific or ecological essence of maintaining its diversity and integrity. Also, by continually referring to Coleridge as the founder of conservationism, I sensed that the speaker’s idea of conservation still largely based on the romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and that it is more of nostalgia rather than science.

Time will solve thy problem

In some sense, I feel some problems mentioned were relatively subjective. For instance, Professor Scruton found wind turbines ugly and dismal, while me, along with many of my friends finding them elegant and pleasant. He argued that wind turbines cause irreversible damages and create a lot amount of waste, but modern technology ensures that most metals are recyclable and the rate of recycling will only increase with progressing technology.

Another example is the medieval cities. Although they look beautiful and lovely nowadays, it is well documented that such cities were heavily troubled by lack of infrastructure, their hygienic states were bad and would not have been regarded as ‘beautiful’ in any sense. Thanks to the modern planning and sewage systems, their residents no longer pour their waste into streets and old cities can be well illuminated at night, which not only gives them another layer of charm but also excludes reasons for curfews.

The speaker even provided evidences himself that his problem is only periodic. He mentioned that the Victorian railway to the Brecon Beacons was thought to be ugly back then but regarded as beautiful now. If this can happen to Victorian railways, why can it not happen to wind turbines and skyscrapers? In fact, humans’ aesthetic value is constantly changing with time. In a small scale, impressionism was deemed ugly when it first came out, Manet’s Olympia had to be hung very high so people could not destroy it. On a large scale, New York City is full of skyscrapers that serve as tourist attractions but not repellents.  All the things Professor Scruton found ugly now might be regarded as beautiful in the future - it is just the time hasn’t come yet.

Of course, one cannot predict the future, but one can look into the past. However, it is not evident that we should be pessimistic about the future and indulge ourselves in the past. Roger Scruton offered an exciting discussion on conservation, which were largely based on his personal views. All in all, I appreciate his broad knowledge and deep thinking, and certainly welcome his advocation for conservation. In the end, when coming to finding the solutions, I can only hope that people rely more on science and technology, less on ideology and nostalgia.
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Dan Lan, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Dan Lan

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Alps and the atmosphere

Grenoble.  Image credit Rebecca Brownlow.
In it’s 23rd year, the European Research Course on Atmospheres (ERCA) is notorious amongst atmospheric scientists. PhD and Masters students made their way to Grenoble, France from as far afield as Australia, Bolivia, Russia and India to spend five intensive weeks learning about everything to do with the atmosphere. Grenoble seemed to be the perfect place to hold this kind of course; an alpine city surrounded by mountains we felt very close to the physical interactions of the earth system.

The first four weeks were packed full of lectures with topics ranging from city air pollution to the changing climate mechanisms, from the formation of clouds to the environmental impacts of hydropower. Every day brought a new perspective or entirely different subject to focus on. My own PhD research is about estimating the greenhouse gas emissions of the UK so I really got a great sense of how my work fits in with the wider field of atmospheric science. Luckily all of these hours of lectures were interspersed with copious amounts of food from the university canteen and delicious pastries at break-time. We were in France, we were never going to go hungry!

Getting the bigger picture

ERCA 2015 group, taken from
the ERCA website.
One of the most interesting aspects of these first four weeks was the emphasis on the social science side of the work that we do. It is really impossible to separate atmospheric science from an understanding of the politics of climate change and the attitude of the general public towards ecological behaviour. The opening speech of ERCA was by Michel Colombier, from the IDDRI. Michel has taken part in many international climate negotiations and he summarised the current situation leading up to the Paris climate debates in December 2015. He had a warning for us scientists: we were likely to be very disappointed with the seemingly unambitious climate targets of international governments. However, Michel was adamant that we should still see the outcome of the Paris Conference of Parties (COP 21) as a very important step in the right direction.

A couple of weeks later we tried to simulate our own version of the Paris 2015 debates, each person on the course chose a country to represent, and it was a complete disaster! We definitely didn't come to any agreement and a lot of the time allocated was taken up with Chile suggesting it wouldn't matter if Tuvalu ended up under water – so, not a very serious discussion! However, this exercise was designed to put us in the shoes of politicians, to recreate their dilemmas, and in fact we weren't far off. We realised that it is impossible to focus the discussion when every government has its own agenda. We realised that the concerns of the most and least developed countries are worlds apart. And most importantly, we realised that any global climate agreement will be enormously difficult to obtain.

Image credit: delegfrance-unesco
My role in the debate was the UK and it was very interesting researching the UK’s position for Paris 2015. The government has produced a great document that outlines all aspects of their expectations from a climate deal. I have to say, I was fairly impressed with what they are proposing. For example, the UK is prepared to push for an existing EU emissions reduction target to increase from 40% to 50% reduction by 2030 (from 1990 base levels). The UK is also proposing an agreement that really understands the needs of the least developed countries and is creating projects such as BRACED to improve the resilience of developing countries against climate change.

Snow, stars and science

The final week of the course was a weeklong visit to the Observatoire d’Haute Provence. This is really a magical place, a haven for scientists with dozens of little astronomical observatories poking out of a forest of oak trees, made even more magical when the whole place was covered in snow a few days after we arrived. As well as making space observations here they also have a tall tower for making greenhouse gas measurements, several LiDARs (giant green laser beams) that measure various geophysical properties of the atmosphere and an ecological research centre that looks at the impact of climatic changes on oak trees. We were able to catch the comet Lovejoy on an 80cm telescope while we were there, a once in a lifetime opportunity, as this blurry ball of light won’t be seen for another 8,000 years.

Observatoire d'Haute Provence. Image credit: Rebecca Brownlow

Having just started my PhD in September 2014, this winter school experience has been a wonderful introduction to the ins and outs of the field of science that I now work in. It’s given me an international network of friends and fellow atmospheric PhD students, as well as having been a fantastic opportunity to learn from some leading researchers. It’s left me with lots to think about and lots of ideas about science in general, ready to get stuck back in to my project.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Emily White, a PhD student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Fog Bridge and the Coming Storm?

Fog Bridge. Image by Freya Sterling.
This year, as part of its contribution to Bristol 2015, European Green Capital, the In Between Time Festival commissioned the Fog Bridge  by internationally renowned artist Fujiko Nakaya. She shrouded Pero’s Bridge in fog, eliciting a combination of delight and introspection – as well as befuddling the occasional commuter.  The Fog Bridge stimulated debate, criticism, celebration and interest. The most interesting of those debates, that I hope are only starting, revolve around its impact. Like all great art, Fog Bridge should be and is a bit dangerous, in that it causes us to consider – if even for a while – some alternatives to our perspectives.  But who saw it and engaged with it?  Has it affected belief systems and values?  Has it changed behaviour and, if so, of whom?  And is that all a bit too much of a burden to put onto a single piece? 

Nonetheless, it certainly stimulated discussion and that was its primary aim. It was my good fortune to be asked to reflect on Fog Bridge and be involved with an event of this stature.  Some of those conversations contributed to the themes explored during the Festival: Enter the Storm, including a focus on living with uncertainty.  And part of that was my participation in the Festival’s Uncertainty Cafes (see more here).  I was asked to throw out ideas – some well informed and some more adventurous – and then partake in the fascinating conversations this artwork had stimulated.  In that spirit, I share the following unabridged transcript of what I spoke about at the Uncertainty Café on 13 Feb

Our world has always changed.  I have spent over 20 years studying the history of our planet’s climate and environment, and one of the most recurring themes is that on long enough timescales, change rather than stasis is the norm. But the coming changes to our climate, arising from our lifestyles and consumption, are distinct in their speed.  They are nearly unprecedented in Earth history and they are certainly unprecedented in human experience.  The Earth is warming, the oceans are acidifying, sea level is rising, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent – and we as a people are being challenged to adapt to these changes.  One of the most profound challenges is not the higher temperature of more frequent flood but the uncertainty associated with those.  Change, almost by definition, imposes uncertainty and we must discover how to live in this increasingly Uncertain World.

We live our lives informed by the power of experience: the collective experience of ourselves, our families, our communities and our wider society.  Our weather projections and crop harvesting, our water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation that inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. Now, however, we are changing our environment and our climate, such that the lessons of the past have less relevance to the planning of our future. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing value every day.
Fog Bridge.  Image by Freya Sterling.
This is how I am provoked by all of Fujiko Nakaya’s art and especially  her wonderful Fog Bridge.   Yes it makes me think about our changing weather. Yes, it serves as an enigmatic warning of the Coming Storm. But more, the image of fog, the obstruction of our vision, the demand for a more careful navigation over a bridge that is normally one of our most reliable paths, makes me think of an Uncertain World.
Fog Bridge. Image by Freya Sterling.

Uncertainty is a challenge.  Uncertainty makes it harder for us to live with our planet and with each other. But there is something gentle about the uncertainty evoked by the Fog Bridge that invites alternative perpectives. Is an environmental disaster the only possible outcome of the path on which we walk?

Fifty years ago, between 1962 and 1966, J. G. Ballard wrote a trio of seminal environmental disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.  That is why one of the Cabot Institute’s themes this year is The Uncertain World. But there is a more nuanced lesson from Ballard when it comes to change: ‘I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.’  In many ways, that statement, like the Fog Bridge, challenges the idea of uncertainty being solely negative. I think much of what is embedded in that statement is reflected in Ballard’s post-disaster novels – from Crash to High Rise to Cocaine Nights, all dealing with the tedium of late 20th century, bored lives, gated retirement villages on the Costa del Sol, manicured lawns, 99 channels with nothing on.  

And what a tragedy that is for our species. Our most unique and exceptional characteristics are adaptability, imagination and creativity.  Most of our achievements and many of our sins are a direct consequence of our incredible ability to adapt and create.  We can live in the desert, in Antarctica, in space.

If we return to Ballard’s environmental disaster novels with this perspective, they take on new shapes.  The protagonists in those novels – and especially the Drowned World – are not destroyed. Nor do they overcome.  They are awakened and they are transformed.  And in the end, they embrace those transformations:
By day fantastic birds flew through petrified forests, and jewelled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown.”   – The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard
Catastrophic change can be beautiful and it can startle us out of complacency, it can challenge us, it can demand of us that we embrace the entirety of human potential.

But there are limits to this train of thought.

Taking that perspective towards global environmental disaster is the rather unique luxury of the upper middle class, privileged western European.  Those who might die in floods or famines or whose way of life is not changed but obliterated by rising sea levels will have a different perspective.  Let us never forget that those bringing about climate change and those likely to suffer most from it are not the same.  That is true globally and it is true in Bristol: if the price of food doubles, I will grumble; others will be unable to feed their families.

And in that is a deep and unsettling irony.  Those of us who perhaps would benefit most from embracing the challenges we face are profoundly reluctant to accept any change, whether that be to our sources of energy or food, to our way of lives or to our growth-based economy. And our inability to envision societal change is imposing potentially catastrophic environmental and climatic change on others – those who are most poor and most vulnerable.

That is why the Green Capital conversations must focus on issues of inclusion, empowerment and social justice. We must avoid unfair, unequal, unethical change. But if we can do that, then maybe change can be a catalyst for something fresh and exciting.  Fujiko’s Fog Bridge is beautiful. Fog is beautiful.  A storm is beautiful.  This does not have to be a Disaster Story.  We can change how we live, thereby mitigating the most dangerous aspects of climate change.  And when we fall short and change does come… we can fight it a bit…. But we can also embrace it.

And what might that look like?

We must be radically resilient. If radical uncertainty is on the way then our response must be radically flexible. Our buildings and roads must be able to change.  Our railroads and our health service. Our laws. Our jobs.  Our economy.  Our businesses.  Ourselves.
Our response must be fair and equitable. Those who can barely afford the rent or who work two jobs to put food on the table have less capacity to be flexible. Some of us will have to bear more of the burden of change than others.  Ultimately, I believe we will have to achieve a more fair and balanced society: It is difficult to imagine how grand challenges of resource and planetary sustainability can be achieved if billions are held back by poverty. [NB. This paragraph was the most difficult to express in only a few words during the Uncertainty Café and I want to expand on this here. I believe that everyone in society has great assets of imagination and creativity.  All communities and all individuals can make a positive difference and should be encouraged to do so – and supported in doing so. And in the future, as throughout history, some of the most exciting ideas will come from some of the poorest on our planet.  But overall, I think that poverty steals time and lost time means lost ideas. And that is a tragedy at a time when we need a proliferation of new ideas, and especially those that run counter to ‘conventional wisdom’.]

And we need political inclusion.  If difficult choices are to be made – if our sacred cows are to be sacrificed or compromises are to be made – then we must rebuild a universally owned political system.  We will not weather any storm by hectoring and lecturing nor if mired in apathy and cynicism. I sincerely hope a new platform for more inclusive decision making is a major outcome of Bristol 2015.  It is certainly the ambition of the Green Capital Partnership.

If we share these risks and the costs, then perhaps we can collaborate with our changing planet to achieve something exciting and new – lifestyles that embrace rather than stifle the very best of our creative, dynamic and resilient nature. Maybe we walk across the Bridge a bit more slowly, maybe we don’t cross it at all, maybe we just stop and stare. I don’t know.   Nor do I know if we will make such dramatic changes. But I know that we can.
This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost

Friday, 6 March 2015

George Monbiot: Shouting about socially constructed silences

Cabot Institute director Prof Rich Pancost ended his introduction by telling the audience how George Monbiot made him angry. Not having read much of Monbiot’s work before (except his Rewilding ideas,, I assumed Rich was talking about his reporting of the ridiculous state we have made of the planet.

A few minutes into the talk, I wasn’t angry… I was nauseous.

The evil twin of the Climate Change Act

Monbiot began by describing the recently passed Infrastructure Act 2015. As he writes about in his Guardian blog, this Act is stuffed full of unrelated policies, forcing MPs to make a sweeping yes/no vote across a huge variety of issues.

What really got me was his revelation that after the Act had been debated for some time another policy was added; the legal obligation to “maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum”.

Cooling towers at Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station.
Image credit: Alan Zomerfeld
He called it the “evil twin” of the Climate Change Act, 2008, the result of a big movement involving hundreds of thousands of people working to get the government to set a legal obligation to minimise the UK’s greenhouse emissions. The Climate Change Act was, he said, “democracy at its best”, uniting all the major parties and the general public consensus. Unfortunately, Monbiot said, the Infrastructure Act “smuggled in” a law binding us to do the polar opposite; maximising petroleum production and therefore petroleum burning.

Socially constructed silences

This is just one of the many “socially constructed silences” Monbiot highlighted in his talk. Governments around the world are signed up to significantly reduce their CO2 emissions and attempt to do this by regulating the global population instead of targeting what he described as the source of the problem; in this case, the extraction of fossil fuels by big oil companies with huge political power. Monbiot said that if governments really meant to do anything about climate change they’d tackle CO2 emissions at the fossil fuel production side of the scale, instead of making small wins trying to regulate consumption.

Monbiot put a lot of the blame on the mass media, arguing that they focus on specific issues while completely ignoring others. One stark contrast he made was the issue of benefits. Claimants of benefits like Job Seekers Allowance and Housing Benefit are regularly depicted by the media as those tiny minority of people who abuse the system, while in reality the money they can receive is capped at £26,000. At the same time, the UK government campaigned to prevent a £260,000 cap on the amount of farm subsidies a landowner can receive.

Despite Monbiot’s insistence that this would not affect farmers, I was concerned that this cap could affect friends back in Cornwall who are small dairy farmers. A quick look at their information on (a site with information on all recipients) shows that they all received around €10,000 - 25,000 in subsidies a year, and so small UK farmers would not be affected. The issue, Monbiot said, was that our government blocked the cap not to benefit farmers but huge landowners, who siphon off millions of pounds/euros each year without sowing a single seed. This isn’t a political blog so I’ll leave it there, but you can read more about it in his own words here.

A call to action

Monbiot’s talk was about what a green government can do if it really tries, but he said that really it’s about what green citizens can do. It seems that the media and the politicians are not willing to open up dialogue around socially constructed silences, so it’s time for grass roots movements to take charge. Monbiot encouraged everyone in the audience to think about what you really want in the world, as unlimited ambitions are the big ideas needed to engage people with politics. We can be the new media, leading from the bottom and speaking boldly about the changes we want to see in the world.
George also met with the Bristol 2015 campaign to discuss Bristol’s role at the European Green Capital this year. Check out his interview below.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.