Second term?


The picture above shows myself with Taurai Bere from Zimbabwe at the Use of Algae for Monitoring Rivers meeting in Trento.   Taurai gave an interesting talk on the use of diatoms for biological monitoring in Brazil and Zimbabwe, ending with a call for better interactions between scientists and the general public and decision-makers.   It was a theme that others had already echoed (see previous post) and, for me, is a positive sign that the ecological assessment community is getting more realistic.

His final clarion call deserves repeating: “Those who want a second term need to be convinced that the environment, too, needs a second term.”   The relative indifference of politicians to the environment at the moment seems to be common both in the UK (see “A plague on both their houses …” and “The political landscape isn’t very green …”) and Zimbabwe. That is probably a comparison that David Cameron will not welcome.

But we should not be complacent. The problem is, at least in part, the fault of ecologists who are not able to move their information through the political and administrative “ecosystem” (see “The human ecosystem of environmental management”).   Sorting this one out is going to take a long time, but I’m leaving Trento with some stimulating conversations on which to dwell and a renewed impetus to make sure that everyone understands the importance of algae as a vital component of healthy ecosystems.

Is our world too complex to be trusted to politicians?

I am not the only person to comment that the environment has been largely sidelined in the 2015 General Election (see “A plague on both their houses“).   As a result, my efforts to find points of contact between the election campaigns and my life as an ecologist have taken some odd twists and turns.   What, for example, should an ecologist make of Ed Miliband’s attack on David Cameron’s handling of the situation in Libya in 2011, and on the Tories’ angry response?

But first, some good news: less focus on climate change in the election has, at least, spared us from the ranting of climate change deniers.   I have often found myself wondering why the opinions of few non-scientists have gained so much traction over the past decade or so. The answer, I suspect lies in the very nature of climate science, and the complexity of the systems with which it is concerned.   Note my use of the word ‘complexity’ rather than ‘complicated’. This is an important distinction. A car engine is complicated because there are many interconnected components. Nonetheless a good mechanic will understand how they all fit together and, more importantly, be able to diagnose faults and have confidence that any adjustments that s/he makes will solve the problem. Scientists understand ‘complexity’ rather differently and, crucially, recognise that cause-effect relationships are less straightforward.   This means that complex systems are less deterministic. Tinkering with one component will not necessarily have the effect you want and, indeed, may even make it worse.   Consequently, predictions need to encompass a range of outcomes, each with an estimate of its likelihood.

Climate scientists understand this and gone to great lengths to understand the uncertainties associated with their predictions and to publish these in the peer-reviewed literature. Unfortunately, this has, in the process, provided fuel to those who, for their own reasons, want to play down the implications of global warming. They can tug and tug at every thread left hanging out of the fabric of an argument and gleefully draw everyone’s attention away from the substance of the debate.   It is exactly the same tactic as that used by Creationists looking to undermine evolution.

No politician would be as naïve as climate scientists. All their policies are packaged and presented as neat, deterministic cause-effect relationships.   This is the case even when we know that, in reality, we are dealing with aspects of society, economics, international relations, or whatever, all of which are complex systems and, therefore, resilient to meddling by politicians elected with a five-year mandate.  We all want to believe the promises that politicians will Get Things Done; the issue is which set of policies we want, not whether they are being hopelessly naïve in offering them to us in the first place.

Ah yes … international relations.   This brings me back, neatly, to Libya.   The Conservatives, in their manifesto, claim credit for “….intervening to prevent a massacre in Libya”. This is true; however, they were dealing with a complex system, and short-term measures to prevent a massacre did not prevent the country’s political system subsequently unravelling, creating a space for militias and, indirectly, contributing to boatloads of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea.   Miliband clearly hit a sensitive nerve, because the Tory response was to attack him rather than to defend their policy.   To be fair, Cameron was dealing not just with a complex international issue but also with a British public jaded by lengthy, costly and ineffective interventions elsewhere in the Muslim world. And, as every Tory leader loves to be compared with Winston Churchill, we should remind David Cameron that he is in good company in his blunders in Middle East policy.

Though the details differ, climate science and international relations both belong to the same class of “complex problems”.   The difference is that practitioners of the former are frank about the issues that this raises, whilst politicians prove to be reluctant, time and time again, to publicly contemplate alternative outcomes to their policy pronouncements. And it is not just foreign policy where politicians and policy makers are reluctant to be frank about their practices and to put all their evidence in front of the public (see “The madness that is ‘British Values’” for another example).

All the political parties are guilty of this. It is the nature of the game that they play, the need to be seen to Get Things Done (or to show that the other lot failed to Get Things Done) before the cycle grinds round and we are all looking towards the next election. I am trying not to sound too cynical about the system but my professional life brings me into contact with many issues that require more time than a five year political cycle.   Perhaps – dare I write this – democracy has some limitations in our modern age?

Disunited Kingdom?

Alert readers may have spotted a flaw in my last post about the forthcoming UK General Election. I wrote that, in my next post, I would consider the environmental policies of the regional parties.   “But,” I hear you all shouting “responsibility for the environment has been devolved to the regional assemblies, so the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties will not be campaigning on this issue in this election.”   Correct.   However, I have tried to show in my writings on the election, that policies on a wide range of other issues has knock-on effects on the environment, so we still need to consider the policies of these parties, particularly as the likely outcome is unlikely to be an outright majority.   One or more of the regional parties could well hold the balance of power and, in the process, influence environmental policy directly or indirectly.

The two big factors are the economy and Europe.   Any sort of pact between a minority Labour or Conservative government and a regional party, whether it is Labour and Scottish Nationalist Party or the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, would inevitably involve a deal that leads to more money being spent in Scotland or Northern Ireland.   And that, in turn, would put a further strain on the finances for other sectors of government, including the environment. Just as for the other parties (see “A plague on both their houses” and “The political landscape isn’t very green …”), the manifestos of the regional parties are not short of fine words on environmental protection, so perhaps the best we can hope for is slightly more expenditure in Scotland or Northern Ireland, albeit at the expense of England.

My biggest worry, however, is UK’s relationship with Europe (see “What has the European Union ever done for us?”) and, on this point, most of the major regional parties are firmly pro-Europe. The only exception is the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland who support the idea of a referendum on our continued membership of the European Union.   I do believe that several elements of the EU need significant reform and that those countries that have opted out of the Euro may need different terms of membership to those that are in the Eurozone. But I don’t think that a referendum on UK membership is a good idea.   If I thought a referendum would stimulate a sober debate on the pros and cons of our membership, I would have no qualms. The reality, I suspect, would be that Eurosceptic elements of the Conservatives would unite with UKIP and media barons to create a feeding frenzy of scare stories that could precipitate an anti-EU victory.

Please excuse this series of posts on the election.   I am a floating voter by inclination but my constituency (City of Durham) has an entrenched Labour majority and a sitting MP (Roberta Photo-Opportunity) who has shown herself to be a loyal and ambitious apparatchik unlikely to deviate from official party policy.   So I can read every manifesto, ruminate on the budgetary implications of every pronouncement and cast my vote without ever shaking the foundations of Westminster. I am to UK politics what a eunuch is to the survival of the human race. However, having lived in Nigeria at a time of military rule when democracy was just a dream, I know that we should not dismiss the privileges that we have lightly.   So I’m typing away here hoping that someone out there who reads my blog lives in a marginal constituency and has the chance to influence things in a bigger way than I can.  Though, as you may have noticed, I am not expecting a major improvement in the state of the UK’s environment, whoever gets elected on May 7th.

The politics of pests …

My training for the Great North Run takes me along the banks of the River Wear and, since writing about Himlayan balsam recently (see “An Indian summer on our riverbanks …”) I have had plenty of opportunities to both observe and ponder the biology of this plant.   I remembered, just after posting my piece on Himalayan balsam, that some former colleagues at Durham University had done some research on this species just after I had left.   Another colleague had commented wryly that they had managed to prove that Himalayan balsam lives by river banks though, on reading their work, it is clear that this was a rather unfair judgement.  It is also wrong, as I noticed this morning as I pushed through stands of Himalayan balsam that were encroaching on the path I was running along, some distance from the river.   I have run along this path for several years but this year is the first when I have noticed Himalayan balsam in such abundance.


Coiled seed pods of Himalayan balsam, photographed on the Durham river banks, July 2014.

If you look closely at the seed pods you can see that they are tightly coiled, like springs. And, when you brush against a mature seed pod, these springs are capable of catapulting the seeds for several metres.   This characteristic, in fact, is the reason why the Latin name of the genus is “Impatiens” (“impatient”).   Each plant can produce many seeds, so all it takes is for a few of these to land in suitable conditions and the stand of Himalayan balsam will, by the next year, have extended itself by a few metres.   The predilection for river banks is partly because these are associated with fertile, moist, often shaded, soils where the seeds are able to thrive, but also because the natural flooding of the river can transport the seeds rapidly between locations.   However, my former colleagues at Durham also noted that Himalayan balsam was also strongly associated with roadsides and, indeed, Frank Smythe, in Valley of Flowers, does not record Himalayan balsam in its natural habitat as being so strongly associated with rivers.

Knowing where Himalayan balsam grows was, however, only the start, as they were able to use their knowledge of the plant’s distribution to build a mathematical model that described how Himalayan balsam spreads and then to manipulate the model to simulate various options for controlling the spread.   They concluded that, once established, Himalayan balsam would be very difficult to eradicate, regardless of strategy.   That’s no big surprise, given what we know about the biology of the plant and also from knowledge of efforts to control other invasive weeds. But that, too, got me thinking …

We are, now, less than 10 months away from a general election.   Expect many fine words about the environment to be spoken between now and then.   But, as is often the way, it will be the economy, health and education which will dominate the campaigns.   Politicians will look for environmental policies that will either give a quick and demonstrable benefit or Grand Gestures with maturation times that extend well beyond the term of the next parliament.   Control of invasive weeds fails on both counts.   The paper on control strategies concludes: “If eradication is a serious goal of control programmes then they must be co-ordinated at a regional or national scale, involve greater investment and extend over a longer duration”. In other words, they will need a bigger slice of the budget that the environment is likely to be allocated.   Moreover, how can regional or national co-ordination be achieved in governments committed to reducing the size of the public sector?   No, I’m afraid that control of Himalayan balsam is very unlikely to feature on any politician’s to-do list in the immediate future.


Collingham, Y.C., Wadsworth, R.A., Huntley, B. & Hulme, P.E. (2000).   Predicting the spatial distribution of non-indigenous riparian weeds: issues of spatial scale and extent.   Journal of Applied Ecology 37 (Suppl. 1) 13-27.

Wadsworth, R.A., Collingham, Y.C., Willis, S.G., Huntley, B. & Hulme, P.E. (2000). Simulating the spread and management of alien riparian weeds: are they out of control?   Journal of Applied Ecology 37 (Suppl. 1) 28-38.