Friday, 30 November 2012

Who is paying to keep our drinking water clean?

When I was walking in the countryside in the south of England some years ago I came across a river where half a dozen cows were wading upstream, grazing on the reeds that were growing in the water.  I'm an unreconstructed townie and the scene struck me at the time as both bucolic and charming.  It was just like a Constable painting.  I didn’t consider for a moment the damage that those cows might be doing to the river, or the ways in which they might be polluting the water.  That was in another life.  Since then I have worked with scientists on the Demonstration Test Catchment projects and learnt something of how cattle poach riverbanks, resulting in sediment entering the stream, affecting the whole ecosystem of the waterway.  I know that those cows were also depositing their urine and faeces directly into the river, and that this encourages the growth of some organisms at the expense of others, with effects that cascade through the food web, with serious consquences for fish and mammals.   From a human perspective, if water was being abstracted for the public supply, it meant there were added costs for the water company and their customers.  So perhaps this wasn’t such a charming sight after all.  Should the farmer have allowed the cows to access the river?  Wouldn’t it have been more responsible to fence them in?  From the point of view of the consumers who have to drink the water, that’s probably true.  I don’t much like the thought of water that has been polluted by cattle coming out of the tap in my kitchen, even if it has been purified.  But fencing is expensive, and if the cows can’t drink from the river, they will also need a drinking trough.  Who is going to pay for that infrastructure?  It’s a big investment for any farmer.  But, at the moment, the water company is paying to cleaning up the supply and passing the cost on to consumers.  Perhaps it would be more efficient and sensible for the consumer to pay for some fencing to keep the cattle out of the river?  As with most things in life, somebody somewhere has to pay, and perhaps we need a more high-profile debate on where the costs should fall for this kind of public good.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Tell me a story and don't make it too scary...

When I was a child nuclear war seemed like a very real possibility if things were to go badly between the powerful nations of the world.  Although I was too young to understand all the implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we all knew something serious was happening.  Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, it was a threat that bubbled up regularly into the public consciousness.  Although there might have been disagreements about the likelihood of nuclear weapons being deployed, people seemed to accept that if they were, the consequences could be life-changing and might lead to the devastation of the planet.  Would any country take on responsibility for such terrible actions?  The effects of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still resonated and the Aldermaston marches provided a focus for protest. 

When I was at the Living With EnvironmentalChange conference this week on “Supporting the Journey to Adaptation”, I was struck at how environmental concerns have filled that “fear niche” for some of us while others seem to remain oblivious.  Although more countries now have nuclear bombs, the end of the Cold War has removed that most immediate threat.  Dystopian literature has moved on from nuclear to environmental disaster.  The difference in the present situation is that perceptions of such a threat, and any notion of responsibility, vary so much across the population.  In the conference hall few would, I think, have denied the seriousness of the situation.  We saw stark statistics laid out in powerpoint slides by distinguished climate scientists.  Although probably not everyone agreed on the likely speed of environmental change, there was no denial of the need for action, for a journey towards both mitigation and adaptation. 

However, we also heard from social science researchers who played us some clips of interviews with “real people”.  They were confused, unconvinced, unwilling to buy into action that the scientists saw as essential.  Uncertainty expressed in scientific results, and taken for granted by researchers as part of the scientific process, is viewed by the public with frank suspicion.

We see this every day in the media and in life.  Recently I encountered one obviously intelligent man who maintained that climate change is a conspiracy by scientists to create jobs for themselves.  It is difficult to counter this kind of world view.  So how can we hope to change behaviour and, as a society, embark on that journey to adaptation, let alone achieve any mitigation?  For me, the most encouraging session at the conference was a session on digital storytelling.  This was a shining example of the benefits of bringing arts and science together, to tell real people’s stories.  By bringing global climate change to a local level, through personal experience, we might help the wider public to understand the part everyone plays.  I have not met many farmers, for example, who would deny that the climate is changing.  Even if they might argue about the causes, they see the consequences in their everyday experience.  Personal testimony isn’t just a fluffy and non-scientific, anecdotal approach.  Stories are always powerful and, as communicators, we could make more use of them.  They make big realities more manageable.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Is ash dieback the wakeup call we need for biosecurity?

Trees are suddenly high on the public agenda.  We take them and their contribution to our landscapes and ecology very much for granted, until they are under threat.  For anyone old enough to remember the ravages of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, the current debate about ash dieback has particular resonances.  But why have we been taken so much by surprise?  Ash dieback is one of many diseases that are currently affecting our native woodland and moorlands.  Policymakers and stakeholder organisations have known for several years that these problems are increasing.  The first interdisciplinary research into plant disease was carried out by researchers working within the Relu programme and “Growing Concerns: animal and plant disease policy for the 21st century” was published just over a year ago.  Several themes emerged very strongly in this policy briefing paper: animal and plant diseases are also spread by people, so we need to understand human behaviour as well as the science of pathogens; public awareness of these problems is low and consequently there is little willingness to pay for biosecurity measures; environmental change is likely to exacerbate the problems; international trade poses particular challenges.  It is also very unclear where responsibility for either implementing precautionary measures or meeting potential financial losses should lie, particularly when the horticulture industry is very disparate and involves many small companies.  Global supply chains are often long and complex, with many stakeholders involved, so it can be difficult to pinpoint failings.  But the paper does make the point that we have sources from which policymakers can learn, including experience gained in dealing with animal disease.  Researchers have urged a more rounded response, including a thorough analysis of socio-economic drivers and how it affects human behaviour, alongside technical assessments of diseases.  We know that stakeholders’ responses may, sometimes unwittingly, exacerbate risk or limit the effectiveness of precautionary measures.  Flexibility is also called for, as threats change all the time.  It may be, as some commentators suggest, that we are already too late to save our ash trees.  A more optimistic response would be that at last we do have the level of public awareness we need in order to have an effective debate about the wider questions of plant biosecurity. Perhaps we need to seize that opportunity now and decide where our priorities lie: free global trade, protection of our native flora, or crop and food security.  We also need to decide who should take on responsibility for biosecurity and its failures.

Memory and Prediction in Tree  Disease Control PPN 25

Plant Disease Risk, Management and Policy Formulation PPN 31