Exponential Growth

In the economy

We are all aware of compound interest.  Essentially if we assume a steady interest rate over a long period of time and the interest is added to it each year, there is an ever increasing growth of the investment. For example if we consider a 7% interest rate the investment would double over about 10 years.  Therefore it would quadruple over 20 years, and become eight times the original in 30.

The idea of identifying a period of time in which a doubling takes place is called exponential growth.

This forms the basis of the economic policy of our government and of most governments. The declared target of growth in the UK is 2% per annum.  This, if met each year as planned would result in a doubling of the economy, (also known as the gross domestic product) every 33 years or so. During my life time of approximately twice that time then the economy has roughly quadrupled.

Governments depend on such growth to pay for their current spending. They borrow today, with the expectation that in some years’ time the larger economy expected then, will pay for the interest on the current spending. So we potentially have more to enjoy and all could be well.

However there may be more of us to share this increase of disposable money in the economy, and it may be that it is unequally shared. Even if there was a steady population and all was shared equitably there may be problems of scarce resources to make the goods and environmental costs with the use of these goods.

Some economists argue that these problems can also be dealt with.  This is the attitude of most of our politicians and our leaders, a static economy cannot work and we can handle the regular 2% per annum growth.  I am not an expert in economics and I am at odds with the thinkers and movers in nearly all of our political parties and business people but I believe this idea is flawed.

Let’s look at a similar model, the growth of yeast cells in a suitable medium. Yeast cultures consist of  uni-cellular fungal cells, which when placed with water, and an optimal level of sugar for food will divide, doubling their numbers in a time depending on temperature. These indeed go on doubling their population but eventually they either run out of food, or get poisoned with some of their waste products.

In the case of economics the demands have torn vast holes in the environment, maintaining this 2% exponential growth. People argue that we can develop the technology to isolate the environmental damage from the growth. If this is possible, I do not think there is time.

Is there an alternative to the exponential growth model of economics?

There are books:

 The Limits of Growth, ISBN 0-87663-165-0

Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, ISBN: 8601404351532

These present discussion about the form a steady state economy might take, which I think would be torn apart with scorn by our present brood of politicians. In my view the gentler fairer possibilities, which could provide for people’s needs throughout the world are largely understood, achievable if we found the will, would be far preferable from the building of walls to exclude people, deregulation to undercut our competitors and stirred up division to project all the systems’ myriad problems on to others.

I suspect that readers may say, “well what about exponential population growth?”. I will try to write another blog about that hopefully fairly soon.

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A foundation of Science And Technology

I studied science, physics to be specific, and it has always intrigued me to know what underlies everything that happens around us.  I have more recently been involved in computer science, which is rather an example of technology. During my lifetime of some 64 years most societies in the world have experienced an increase in disposable incomes and many other positive goals, but perception of well-being is mixed with many people not content with the way things are. There is more to a good life than more and more ‘stuff’.

Science is an expensive process. It consists of:

  • collecting data
  • analysing it
  • Formulating theories that explain the observed data
  • Using the theory to exhaustively test all available, current data
  • Predicting outcomes of the theory which can be tested
  • Collecting more data
  • Refining the theory

Trying to cut the cost of science should not be a priority; any savings are likely to actually lead to more expensive problems. Decisions about food, health, the environment and social matters are decided by politicians and economists. I think that the world owes most of its prosperity to science and technology, not politics or economics.

This is a time when decision makers and the media openly challenge some results of science.  This they have a right to do but only in terms of the process outlined above, not the expression of gut extinct, often portrayed as an argument equivalent to the scientific one. It is not. It must not be accepted because it is convenient for decision makers or resonates with vested interests. If new events challenge the current view the current view must be further investigated. Decisions must be based on the best science available, imperfect though it may turn out to be.

Here is a principle which I believe the world needs

International regulations should be agreed and put in place and policed to make them equivalent across the world, according to best possible practice, based on independent scientific research.

Nature wild and Nature managed

I recently read a blog entitled, ‘The taming of nature’ by Steven Robinson. I have a lot of sympathy with the views he expresses. An area of disused gravel pit that I had frequented long ago was acquired as a nature reserve, and I was enthusiastic about it from the star but when I was invited to join a work party, I was confused as to why we were cutting down trees. Fifty years later, I am leading a similar work party, and explaining to volunteers and visitors what our rationale is that includes the activities listed by Steven.

 

The natural state of Britain if left without human intervention would gradually move toward a largely wooded landscape, and after many years would no doubt produce wonderful results, but the time scale would be extensive. A yardstick for identifying ‘ancient woodland’ is that, which has been continuous in the records for more than an arbitrary 400 years. In my early days at the reserve I thought that we should embark on a non-interventionist rewilding that would take many human generations in our reserves in order to become wild and inspiring, progressing to the legendary wildwood.

 

I soon came to see that habitats are not stable. In a dell with 50 common spotted orchids one year, there was just one amongst a lot of nettle and elder a few years later. Nettle and elder are fine but such things would dominate widely over time, so over the years we have maintained glades, used various techniques to maintain some grassland, dredged out ponds, and coppiced one or two plots, in order to maintain conditions for some of our extant animals and plants. In this we have been reasonably successful.

 

I am confident that if we had done nothing, the only open ground left would have been along a track which is a right of way for a farmer.  He would have pushed back fallen and encroaching trees, which would have maintained a small proportion of our species, those that need the light. This would have been offset by an increase of opportunity for other species, mostly those associated with closed canopy scrub. Given the passing of more time, some colonisation may have increased the range of what was present, but in my view this would be a rather dull habitat.

 

Britain has been largely deforested for around 5000 years, since the Neolithic age. The places where the species of the wildwood have persisted are few and far between. Probably most of the species in Britain depend on the areas of warm micro climate created by open pastures, coppiced woods and heaths.

 

The great majority of woods are no longer managed at all. They only exist because of their importance in past rural economic activity, which is no longer practised. The effect of non-management of woods can be observed in the great majority of private woods already. A de-facto rewilding is already happening on my patch, and on almost every nature reserve, because there are seldom enough resources to manage every part; usually management and non-intervention go hand in hand.

 

The area of Chernobyl in the Ukraine, set free from the constant intervention of humans has according  to all accounts been spectacular. This is a big area, and there has been scope for the trophic cascades caused by having wild boar to disturb the soil, beavers to create marshes, and wolves to disperse the deer. In the 15 or so hectares of my patch, no amount of non-intervention is going to achieve similar results.

 

I have mixed feelings about the infrastructure of reserves, because paths, boardwalks, hides and notices indeed detract from naturalness, and they also require maintenance, but they do have the advantage of channelling reserve visitors to defined places. We need as many people as possible to become interested, so some public facilities for people who don’t like their trainers to get wet in the dew, are probably a worthwhile feature.

 

I am however extremely enthusiastic about rewilding. The organisation ‘Rewilding Britain’ aspires to create some landscape schemes dispersed in the four provinces of the UK and in the seas. These will need to have the scale to enable natural processes to take over. This will not be cheap, and will almost certainly not be near me in lowland eastern England.

 

The broad principle of management of nature reserves should be that existing long term practice should where appropriate be maintained., but a hands off approach would be very worthwhile in all sorts of sites, for example, on the edges of old wood pastures such as Epping forest, where at least some of the species of the wildwood may be able to colonise.

50 years; a personal thought about nature

Young children given the opportunity love to dabble in nature. I believe that in most cases adults, in the developed world at least, have lost that tendency, so why?

 

In common with most children of the 1950’s I spent many hours outdoors. Nearly all my fondest memories were concerned with outdoor activities. Some extensive cow pastures on the edge of town, complete with streams, a river, and nearby gravel pits were a common setting, and as the bike became an option, places much further afield provided an opportunity for fishing and encounters with various natural things. Encouraged by parents, TV presenters, including Graham Dangerfield, Peter Scott and a young David Attenborough, and even at school, I came to love the natural world; and so did many of my fellows.

 

I changed school at the unfortunate age of 14, and though I may have been the tallest in my year I was not the most confident. I have little diaries with many entries expressing my hatred of the school, this caused by bullying. Years seem long at that age, but eventually my school fellows and I emerged from puberty, and the hormones started to settle down. However my brain had yet to go through the usual reconfiguration process, following puberty which in everyone takes years to complete, and though I did well through school and managed a physics degree, I really emerged with no sense of what to do and too little confidence. After a number of jobs I tried teaching, which was not good, and after too long, with help and effort, started to stand up for myself, became more content and eventually  became a lecturer in universities, and settled down to enjoy my work.

 

Throughout my childhood, these difficult adolescent and young adult times, and indeed through to now, I have retained my relationship to nature.

 

I think that this is an instinctive thing, strong in every child, but usually squeezed to the margins or driven out altogether by most adults, as they strive to fit in to the complex conformities of the modern human world.

 

Many people involved in conservation seem to struggle with full conformity to modern expectations.  Like some of my fellow volunteer reserve wardens and helpers I am unusual; but that’s OK. Following social media, I am surprised and impressed that many young people openly share their concerns, their doubts and their lack of confidence.  It is better to express this than to retain it as I did.

 

Research confirms that nature is good for one’s state of mind. I believe that the instincts that we have relate to the fact that we are not very many generations removed from our ancestors who evolved and depended on the savannahs of Africa. People usually learn to cope with, and sometimes even excel in the complexities of modern human societies. In my life through a lot of effort I have learnt to navigate my way around these things but the pleasure of hearing running water, seeing the sun rise, or observing an unexpected animal , pleases me, while the excesses of modern life do not.

 

Can societies return to their instinctive relationship with nature? I think the instinct is always there, but there would need to be a social revolution, a conscious reassessment of what is fulfilling to an individual. Maybe it would require a new generation to emerge who would reject the emptiness of pointless consumerism.

 

Let the children play!

A vision for nature in 2050

An organisation recently formed which brings together people aged 15 to 30, who are interested in nature, called ‘A Force of Nature’ or AFON, and they have been encouraged to share their “Vision for Nature”, a series of blogs which are available on:  http://www.afocusonnature.org/ .

In the year 2050 I will be fewer than two years from being a centenarian.  I have pondered whether I had a vision for nature when I was of the required age, and decided that though I was not aware of it at the time, I probably did. I still have a vision for the sort of Earth I would like to inhabit then.

Science

Science is the basis of the material improvements people have enjoyed over my lifetime and before, and it is providing an increasing understanding of our wildlife populations with their needs, and how they may be conserved. It is also the foundation of our consumer economy which is in tension with the natural world.

Science should be cherished as an independent activity, to enable cleaner and more efficient ways to improve our lives and to put right the damage and the ugly exploitation of land, the living world and the people that prevail now.

Inspiration

Many things serve to inspire people; art, music, and literature. The natural world also inspires. This is probably a function of our hunter gatherer ancestry; our thought processes are tuned to the sky, the seasons, and the sound of running water . Few people demonstrate joy through having numerous possessions above a certain level of need. Future generations may yet return to an interaction with nature.  The air may be fresh, the walks may be safe and the rivers may be clear enough again.

Technology

This will continue to make strides, and may be a force for good. An ‘internet of things’ is already taking shape. While the ability to control our central heating on our mobile is a modest service indeed, this concept could be used to monitor all sorts of pollutants, our energy use and it could greatly reduce our waste.

There are choices. Transport can be made cleaner, or faster, food can be cheaper or produced in a more efficient way, we can choose to work harder, play harder, or know when to take a rest and breathe the clean air.

Citizen science

Gadgetry will increase; it has already resulted in a surge of recording of animals and plants, by means of miniature cameras, camera drones, satellite tracking and on line reference opportunities.

Meanwhile social media, smart phones and computers have enabled us to engage in publishing, filming, communication and education in ways not envisaged in the past. People will be able if they choose to engage in the natural world, and will have the opportunity to process their data in a potentially worldwide community.

Economics

This is driven by growth, one in which people are encouraged to consume ever more. This results in a feeling of wellbeing to a point, beyond which increase of contentment is diminished as affluence increases. There are people all over the world who are right to expect however to achieve these basic standards of life.

Our present economic outcomes are mixed. In 2050 I hope that societies will have chosen to stop using exponential growth based on borrowing, to be paid for by future generations, with yet more growth.

Global

The world effectively has become smaller and connected, and will never be at ease with itself while people in some areas do not get fair deals. In 2050 I hope global trade will be free, but standards of human rights and the environment will be uniform, and based on respect and science.

A new generation

Jesuits are credited with suggesting that people’s ideas are set by the age of 7; some commentators say younger than that. Einstein is said to have quoted,’ Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.’ This would suggest that even the members of AFON may be too old. However this is not a counsel of despair, fundamental changes in the aspirations of society can change and have in the past.

My vision for nature

In 20150 the people of the world will be as enthusiastic about nature as I am.

Green Hairstreaks, and a new bypass

The Green Hairstreak was not recorded in my district of north Essex during the early 1990’s. It was long known just across the River Colne estuary, and at a handful of other sites in Essex such as the Danbury Ridge. I visited the Sandlings of Suffolk in those days to see Green Hairstreaks.  They however started to appear in more sites in the county including some in the area.  In 2005 there were several reports of new colonies.

A bypass was constructed for the villages of Weeley Heath and Little Clacton, in the early 1990’s and completed in 1995.  A deep cutting was constructed through a watershed, and a high embankment was built in order to cross a railway and stream. Local naturalists were pleased that intrusions into good wildlife habitats were few and indeed new features linked some of the previously isolated ones.

The other welcome innovation was the establishment of vegetation on the banks.  Wildflower seeds, along with seeds of Gorse and Broom were splattered on to the road-side banks, possibly in a slurry mix. Though some of the flowers were not of local provenance, and in some cases were not native to the area, the result was pleasing. Visitors to Clacton were very impressed with several miles of seasonal yellow blossom of Gorse and Broom.

Green Hiarstreak 2

In 2006, spurred on by good weather on the way home from work, I stopped in a lay-by in the deepest cutting and was delighted to discover several Green Hairstreaks, along with several other species. In 2007 on May 1st, in this same spot there were at least 20 individuals in the immediate vicinity of the lay by, and on both sides of the road.

In 2008 I discovered a similar density of Green Hairstreaks on May 9th, which prompted me to investigate the entire five kilometres of the road. I took the cycle stopping off in suitable looking spots and was surprised to see the butterflies along nearly the whole length, the only exception being the northernmost part which was being thrashed by a cool wind at the time.

In my text books, it was suggested that Gorse was likely to be the main food plant in areas such as Tendring, but several cases have been observed of Birdsfoot Trefoil, being the usual food plant.

The key to the success on the bypass has been the way that vegetation was established. Already after about ten years there has been a dieing off of Broom, though this has in places germinated again.  However there are signs of habitat succession with establishment of tree saplings in places. It is hoped that resources may be found to maintain this useful wildlife corridor in the future.