Environmental problems are often complex and interrelated to other issues- and their causes and effects are often interregional/international (across geographical boundaries), intertemporal (across different periods of time), and even intergenerational (across different generations of people).
The use of computer generated ‘visualisations’ or ‘infographics’ has increasingly become a useful method of conveying complex information in clear and engaging ways- and the complexity and interdependence of environmental issues lends itself to being communicated by such means. The work done by The Guardian’s Data Blog has been a mainstay in the area- frequently developing visualisations to capture and communicate current issues in engaging graphical formats.
As such, the Data Blog team have produced some excellent visualisations on environmental issues- such as this recent effort on the issue of global carbon dioxide emissions. There are numerous other examples of useful visualisations and designs by different groups- a recent example being the impressive interactive website produced by the Chatham House Group to back up their extensive report on the future of natural resource use- ‘Resources Futures’ (as the title figure is sourced from).
The hidden dangers of environmental mitigation programs
The article ”Green desert’ monoculture forests spreading in Africa and South America’ in The Guardian highlights the potential social and environmental negative consequences of the large mono-culture tree plantations which are being financed by organisations which aim to offset, and mitigate, their environmentally damaging/consuming behaviour through afforestation and reforestation programs.
Environmental mitigation, as a concept, is a positive thing. It is a way of using our current systems of trade and finance to develop environmental projects that can have an overall positive effect, by compensating for the negative impacts of other environmentally damaging activities. We are all aware of organisations who, through their marketing and advertising, inform us that they undertake/finance environmentally positive projects to ‘offset’ their activities. They may be primary producers of a product that consumes or damages the environment (e.g. paper manufacturers or oil extraction companies), or service sector organisations who rely upon these primary and secondary sector products. In either case, they may either directly, or indirectly, run or finance programs which, in theory, will have a positive environmental or social effect- and help to counter their consuming activities.
Of these, tree planting projects are probably the most obvious- and one of the most popular. By planting replacement trees, primary and secondary industries (e.g. furniture makers, packaging manufacturers) may offset their initial consumption of this form of natural resource, and service industries (e.g. offices in which paper, and other timber derived products, are used) compensate for their utilisation of products that come from trees. Additionally, trees are a vital ‘carbon sink’ for the planet, removing carbon from the atmosphere, and are a way of organisations offsetting their carbon output.
This scenario, has led to a significant growth in developing large tree plantations for afforestation or reforestation projects around the world, in which large multinationals have invested capital to offset their consumption of the natural resource. As the lead article points out, while there may be an increase/replacement in overall tree numbers generated through such programs, the large mono-cultures of non-native trees that they generally consist of can cause significant problems for biodiversity, native ecosystems, and soil systems- as well as displacing local communities and indigenous people- in areas of South America and Africa in which there are increasingly focused. (On a side note- this issue directly links to a previous blog post on the potential benefits of urban green space for pollination, compared to rural areas in the UK).
I believe that offsetting and environmental mitigation using such techniques as investing in afforestation and social development programs is, in essence, a good thing- and is a way of using our current systems and methods of globalised finance and trade (which, whether we fundamentally agree with, or not, cannot be ignored) to have an overall positive effect on the environment. However, as this article highlights, there are very specific dangers when such programs are undertaken without fully understanding their impact- and it is crucial that such programs are developed so that their wider, and longer term, environmental and social consequences are taken into account.
As discussed in earlier posts, the provision of accessible green space in urban areas allows people, and especially children, the opportunity and encouragement to include physical activity in their daily lives. However, urban green spaces (whether gardens, parks, patches of woodland, etc) additionally offer some very direct benefits to the environment and ecosystems, and indirectly for our food supply systems.
Yesterday’s BBC article ‘Cities could be the key to saving pollinating insects’ discusses some pretty interesting, if surprising, reasons why urban green spaces play a particularly important role in providing habitats and food sources for a group of animals who carry out one of the most crucial jobs in the cycle of plant and crop growth- ‘the pollinators’.
Of the pollinators (and certainly in the UK), bees are the most common and obvious- and play a fundamental role in the growth of plant species, and, as the BBC article comments, consequently many of our food crops. There have been worrying decreases in the levels of pollinators globally (as well as in the UK), with the knock on consequences for the growth of crops, and consequently our food supplies, a very real threat- evidence of which has already been seen in India. This issue has a clear ecominic implications- and can be expressed in clear financial terms: with pollination worth up to £440m per year as discussed in ‘Loss of bees could be ‘a blow to UK economy’ and at $224 billion world wide.
The decrease in pollinator populations may be due to a number of reasons (and, not least, by urban growth and sprawl in recent years) but, as the lead article supports, are particularly affected by changing farming practices and agricultural methods. The rise of mono-cultures of plants and crop types which only offer short and distinct periods for pollinators to feed on, and increasing use of pesticides that can affect their health, have combined to adversely affect population trends and levels (which aligns with the situation discussed in the article on India- where while increasing amounts of land are being turned over to crop cultivation, yields per hectare of pollinator dependent crops have been falling.)
In contrast to this, as discussed in the title article, the flora that is found in urban environments tends to be a mishmash of different plant types and species- whether those cultivated by individuals in their domestic gardens, the trees and shrubs in parks and nature reserves, or the hardy wildflowers and plants which grow in urban derelict land. The fact that urban plant species are so varied, with different stages and cycles in which they are ripe for pollination, consequently offers a much wider time-frame for pollinators to carry out their work- rather than a relative short term glut of pollination opportunities offered by large, single crop, agricultural plantations.
It might seem a bit strange and perverse, but owing to our current methods of agricultural land use, it may be urban environments, rather than rural farmland, that offer the greatest benefits/opportunities for pollinators to re-establish their populations levels. However, key to this, is ensuring that green spaces in towns and cities that allow the diverse and eclectic variety of plants and flowers- whether in private gardens, parks, golf courses, river banks, meadows, nature reserves, educational campuses, business parks or even wild patches of derelict land- are encouraged, protected and maintained. By doing so we will not only receive the benefits such spaces offer for recreation, exercise and enjoyment- but also through providing havens and breeding grounds for the unheralded species of wildlife that play a pivotal role in the environment’s capacity to provide us on of our most basic of needs- our food supply.
Well, on the day that a new nation is born, so too is my blog…
I’ll be brain dumping my thoughts, views and ideas on the things that interest, stimulate, amaze, perplex, inspire, doubt, confuse, and emotionally affect me.
While my ’thing’, i suppose, is the environment- it’ll be, by no means, the only subject on my mind. It is because the environment affects the lives of everyone on the planet- and has an interrelationship with so many of the important issues that affect humanity- that I am really fascinated by it as a subject.
South Sudan is a fitting example. There is some kind of perverse and grim irony that as its people celebrate becoming the world’s newest nation, it will, according to a number of humanitarian measures of development, become one of the poorest and most afflicated nations on the planet (with the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years occuring on its doorstep). South Sudan has the opportunity to move forward as an independent nation starting from today- but looking to its conflictual recent past (often tied up with the country’s significant oil reserves), and the humanitarian crisis it borders at present (from drought and crop failure), it is quite clear that its future will be inextricably linked to the environmental issues that affect us all- climate and resources.