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.

What has the European Union ever done for us?

There is now less than six months to go before the next general election in the UK and I am going to write a few posts over the coming months evaluating the prospects for the environment that emerge from the political debate.   The rise of UKIP means that this is going to be an election like no other that we have experienced in the UK and, inevitably, Europe is going to be high on the agenda. Add in the inevitable concerns about the economy and the health service and the environment will probably slip down the agenda to that part of each party’s manifesto where rhetoric rules over reality.

Except that the focus on Europe and the economy means that the outcome of this election will have enormous implications for the UK’s environment.   First, most of our environmental legislation derives, ultimately, from the European Union (EU) and, second, implementing environmental legislation requires a strong, well-funded regulator.   We go into the next election campaign aware that leaving the EU is a genuine possibility and, consequently, be aware of the implications.   At this stage, of course, we don’t know what “leaving the EU” really means.   The UK could, in theory, leave the EU but remain part of the European Economic Area, members of which voluntarily adopt EU environmental legislation.   Another possibility is that we leave the EU and EEA but retain the framework of environmental law that we have inherited from the EU (because this has been transposed into UK legislation).

My view is that the environment is one of the principal beneficiaries of UK’s membership of the EU. This is partly because this is an area of policy which benefits from a joined-up approach: the state of the North Sea, for example, depends on the individual environmental policies of UK and six other countries which share its coastline, plus Switzerland (in the EEA but not the EU) and Luxembourg, both wholly or partly in the Rhine catchment.   It is also influenced by the Baltic Sea, which is bordered by a further seven countries, all but Russia EU members. The UK’s use of the North Sea requires a level of agreement amongst these countries that the EU facilitates.   This is not the only example: air pollution does not respect national boundaries either, and there are river catchments in Ireland which straddle the north-south border and so benefit from a shared approach to management.

I also believe that the EU provides a better forum for discussing and developing environmental legislation. Domestic politicians have been, rightly, focussed on the economy and health service. I do not believe that the level of protection afforded by the Water Framework Directive, for example, could have been produced by Westminster politicians working in isolation because of the amount of parliamentary time it would have required.   Watching the way that non-scientists such as Nigel Lawson have hijacked and distorted the debate on global warming in the UK also makes me sceptical about whether Westminster, alone, has the ability or integrity to evaluate new environmental legislation objectively.

I use the term “Westminster” very loosely here as the environment is one power that has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.   In practice, all four administrations are implementing the same set of EU Directives which ensures a joined-up approach.  I know, from meetings I have attended, that there is a centrifugal tendency amongst the administrations, reflecting a legitimate desire to adapt environmental policy to the different conditions of each of the UK’s four constituents. The framework of EU policy, however, provides a centripetal counterweight to these tendencies.

My worry is that our country is ill-served by its politicians with respect to environmental policy. We have a largely London-based political class, a large proportion of whom have little scientific training and many of whom have reduced “Europe” to a political football.   Differences in how Scotland and England manage the environment may appear abstract to those based in London (or Edinburgh) or subservient to a wider ideal. However, these issues take on a much larger significance to anyone who lives in the catchment of the River Tweed, for example.   What happens on the north side of the river has implications for what might happen further downstream on the south side.   The same applies to the River Foyle and many other examples around the UK.

We will, I am sure, hear much rhetoric about “global warming” in the run up to the next election. Remember that the biggest danger to the environment may be the hot air produced by the politicians themselves.

The sum of things …

A recurring theme in this blog has been the enormous variety of organisms encountered at the less fashionable end of biodiversity and I thought that it would be interesting to see how the numbers of species in these groups compares with the more visible groups. I made a start at this exercise in my book Of Microscopes and Monsters but decided that I really needed to do this more thoroughly if I was to make my point about the enormous diversity of lower organisms.

Even so, I am afraid that I blanched at the prospect of counting all the insects and mollusc species recorded from Britain and (an even worse confession), I resorted to Wikipedia when I could not find a more authoritative source. I offer these numbers as a broad reflection of the diversity of the British flora and fauna, rather than as a definitive survey, and challenge readers to contribute more authoritative sources, where they think mine are lacking. The spreadsheet on which the graph is based can be found here.

The number of species of different plant and animal groups in Britain.

My original goal was to show just how diverse the algae were relative to other groups of plants and this graph makes that point very well. Seven out of every ten photosynthetic “plants” recorded from Britain, for example, are algae, and there are five species of algae for every vertebrate animal (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals). But my argument for a phycocentric focus to our biodiversity was brushed rudely aside when I added fungi to the spreadsheet. With over 14000 species (if lichens are included), there are almost three fungi for every algal species in Britain. Mammals, with just 79 native species, are too insignificant to justify more than the faintest bump on my graph.

Why so many fungi? You may be scratching your head for an explanation. Or, maybe, scratching your head is leading us, indirectly, to the answer. Several fungi cause infections on humans (athlete’s foot, thrush, ringworm) and, similarly, fungal parasites can be found on many other organisms (see “Little bugs have littler bugs upon their backs to bite ‘em”). The number of fungi on my chart equates to 1.5 for every other plant and animal species. Remember, too, that I have not included invertebrates (which would decrease this ratio substantially) but, on the other hand, there are probably bigger gaps in our knowledge of fungi (and algae) than there are for many other groups. So a ratio of roughly one fungus for every other species sounds plausible.

Does this tell us very much? The figures are rough and ready and there is often ambiguity about the geographical scope (“Britain”, “UK”, “British Isles” etc), but I hope it gives you some idea of just how much of Britain’s biodiversity is tucked away in dank corners of the country, mostly overlooked by Attenborough’s extravaganzas with their focus on the exciting, glamorous and, often, downright anthropomorphic aspects of life on earth.