A Natural History of Seeds
The Glass Half Empty
This is intended to be a conservation book with a difference. While most others concentrate on the gloom and doom, my aim is to explore the glimmers of good news. There is no doubt that nature is in grave trouble and that time is fast running out. The year 2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity, during which the world’s governments admied they had failed to meet internationally agreed-upon targets to slow nature’s disappearance. But is nature’s continued loss inevitable, or are there grounds for hope?
This book tries to answer that question through a global journey in search of places where conservation efforts mean things are getting beer, not worse—an attempt to understand conservation success, celebrate it, and learn from it. On each continent I discover what’s working and begin to learn why. I find out that while effective conservation sometimes depends on locking nature away in well-protected reserves, other, fresh approaches are yielding positive results too. The key players are no longer just government and conservation organizations; local communities, private landowners, businesses, and consumers can all make a big difference. And although each success story is different, they offer some consistent insights—into how projects elsewhere can score more hits and fewer misses, into what ordinary people can do, and about the prospects for wild nature as a whole.
It’s a moody-skied day in August, and I’m traveling across the English countryside in the company of an exceptional octogenarian called Norman Moore. Tall and thin with high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes and usually wearing a tweed jacket and tie even in summer, he cuts a striking figure. Norman is one of the founding fathers of the conservation movement and the most knowledgeable naturalist I’ve ever known. Over a 60-year career, he has helped set up dozens of nature reserves and performed pioneering research on habitat loss and the pervasive environmental side effects of DDT and other pesticides. Along the way he has become a world authority on dragonflies as well as an inspiration to countless young naturalists (my two sons included). Norman is also passionate about heathland—a globally rare type of vegetation more or less confined to sandy soils around the margins of western Europe, southern Africa and Australia.
Wherever they are, heaths are special. In Britain, they’re little patches of southern warmth—misfits in a muted, edge-of-the-Atlantic climate. Places where the openness of the vegetation means that (unlike in woods and wetlands) the sun reaches down to the ground. Places where heathers paint somberly clad slopes in flamboyant shades of purple and pink. Where yellow-flowering gorse fills the air with the exotic scent of coconuts, rare sand lizards and smooth snakes bask on sun-bright banks, and a host of cold-sensitive birds and insects reach their northernmost limits.
Yet Britain’s richest heathlands—the Dorset heaths celebrated as the hauntingly beautiful backdrop to the novels of Thomas Hardy—have largely disappeared, victims of over two centuries of plowing, plantation forestry, and urban sprawl. Where Hardy wrote of bees that “hummed … and tugged at the heath and furze-flowers in such numbers as to weigh them down” while “in and out of the fern-dells snakes glided in their most brilliant blue and yellow guise,”1 there are now housing estates, fast roads, and featureless fields. By 1960—as Norman documented in the first-ever study to quantify how quickly people are destroying habitats—Dorset had lost three-quarters of its heathland.
Stoborough Heath, the focus of much of Norman’s early work and where we’re going today, is no exception. With his lanky frame folded in the car beside me and the green uniformity of the farmscape beneath the scudding clouds as passing backdrop, Norman recalls Stoborough’s singular treasures: its rare Dartford warblers and secretive nightjars, its golden-ringed dragonflies and emerald wartbiter crickets. Then delight turns to sadness as he recounts witnessing even this precious remnant being needlessly put to the plow.
Farming has always been unrewarding on this infertile land, but in the 1960s a government subsidy scheme suddenly meant it made financial sense to replace the complex and the vibrant with ordered fields of ryegrass and docile herds of Friesian cattle. The government, concerned about the country’s reliance on imports, compounded the damage by instructing the Forestry Commission to plant the heaths with pine trees—even though the soil was so poor it couldn’t possibly yield commercially viable timber.
So after years of walking it, marveling at it, and unraveling its intricacies, Norman watched as Stoborough too disappeared. Another downward step on his graph of sustained decline.
This book, however, is about good news. About conservation’s successes. About places where a combination of graft, wit, and luck are starting to turn the losses around. But to appreciate how remarkable these stories and the people that have made them are—to fully understand the significance of the hope that they represent—we need first to take stock of where we are and how we got here.
As a conservation scientist, I am deeply moved yet unsurprised by the sad story of Stoborough Heath. There has always been turnover and change in nature—contrary to popular notions, its balance is only ever ephemeral; things move on. And nature is of course resilient too—some species flourish under mankind’s influence. But looked at as a whole, the natural world is changing exceptionally quickly, and the overwhelming direction is down. And, just as in Dorset, people are, by and large, responsible.
Since the advent of farming, we’ve cleared most of the land that’s suitable for crop production. Good for us—vital, even—but not so great for the umpteen million other species with whom we share the planet. We’ve taken over most tropical grasslands, cut down over half of the world’s temperate forests, and even converted more than a quarter of the deserts. And habitat destruction is only part of it.
Through overhunting we’ve reduced the populations of great whales by at least two-thirds, cut wild tiger numbers by over 95 percent, and eaten more than 99 percent of the Caribbean’s green turtles. We’ve compounded the havoc of habitat loss and overkill by moving species to new places where they’ve variously eaten, infected, or out-competed the indigenous animals and plants. The accidental importation of Asian chestnut blight fungus to New York in the early 1900s unleashed an invasion that killed nearly every adult American chestnut in just a few decades. The rats and cats that European sailors spread around the world’s islands are thought to have wiped out at least 35 species of birds. And a suite of introduced mammals—foxes, cats, rabbits, and sheep—are between them responsible for the extinction of at least 18 native Australian mammals.
Species have always gone extinct, of course. The difference is that now our actions have elevated extinction rates to roughly 1,000 times the average, so-called background level seen in the fossil record. At least 1 in 5 of all our fellow species are reckoned to be in danger of extinction in the near future—in some groups, like frogs and corals, the figure is higher still. And our impact is growing.
Since 1970, populations of Africa’s spectacular mammals—its elephants, buffalos, lions, and antelope—have halved, and that’s inside the parks set up to protect them. Outside, they’ve often all but disappeared. Over the same period overfishing has seen numbers of most large shark species off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States fall by 90 percent or more. After a decade in which global leaders pledged to significantly reduce the rate at which nature is being lost, the 2010 report card made grim reading. All five measures of the pressures we put on nature were still on the rise, and 7 out of 10 indicators of how much is left showed no letup in how fast we’re draining the glass.
Overall, and as a very rough rule of thumb, since the Industrial Revolution people have reduced wild habitats and populations of the species that live in them by around half, and for the past 30 or 40 years we’ve been removing the remainder at between 0.5 and 1.5 percent each year. The main means by which we’re wrecking wild nature—habitat loss and fragmentation, overharvesting, and alien introductions—are well known. But new mechanisms of destruction are emerging too.
People-driven changes to the climate can be held responsible for between a fifth and a third of all species to extinction by 20502 and have already caused 1 in every 25 populations of lizards to disappear, unable to cope with us turning up the heat. The catalog of introduced aliens now includes newly described disease-causing organisms like the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, thought to be responsible for dozens of frog extinctions over the past 30 or so years. Industrial-scale drenching of Europe and North America’s forests, wetlands, and farms with nitrates and other so-called reactive forms of nitrogen has caused algae to proliferate; triggered widespread declines of mosses, lichens, and fish; and created immense oxygen-starved “dead zones” in coastal waters.3 And extraordinarily, our emissions of carbon dioxide—a quarter of which are absorbed by the sea, where they form carbonic acid—are now on such a scale that they’re shifting the pH of the oceans. By 2050 the water may be too acidic for many creatures to build their calcium carbonate shells. Much marine life—from reef-building corals to photosynthetic plankton—might quite literally dissolve. We face the prospect, as marine biologist Jeremy Jackson puts it, of a world without seashells. Try explaining that to the grandchildren.
So why is it all happening? Why is one species—our own—in the process of precipitating an extinction spasm of a magnitude not seen since the last mass extinction event 65 million years ago, when an asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, wiped out all the dinosaurs that hadn’t evolved into birds, and ushered in the age of the mammals? The underlying causes of today’s crisis—the drivers, in the jargon—fall in four main groups. Most obviously there’s the size of our population—which took almost all of human history to reach the billion-mark (sometime in the early 1800s) but which, staggeringly, has recently been growing at around 1 billion people every 12 years. That’s equivalent to a new Athens- or Nairobi-sized city every month. Growth is now slowing, with world population probably peaking at 9 to 10 billion in the second half of this century, but many argue that’s still many more than one planet can sustainably support.
Second, there’s our unquenchable demand for higher standards of living—essential for much of the world’s population, yet far more questionable among the rest of us. The numbers show that this is probably an even bigger factor—though less comfortable for the comfortably off to contemplate—than population growth. Humanity’s combined demands on the planet can be thought of as population size multiplied by per capita consumption. Yet while total population is likely to rise by roughly 50 percent between 2000 and 2050, per capita incomes are forecast to grow more than threefold—so their effects on individual consumption are likely to far outstrip those of growth in the total number of people doing the consuming.
Next on the list is intrinsic human selfishness. When we make choices we tend to put ourselves above people elsewhere and above future generations. This is bad news for conservation, because the benefits of conserving somewhere—say, of keeping a wetland as it is rather than draining it for agriculture—are often what economists term externalities: they accrue mostly to people other than those in charge of it. Downstream villagers may gain from the clean water the wetland provides, distant naturalists may feel happy that its rare birds continue to thrive, and so on. But because these benefits are not experienced by the would-be farmer deciding whether to drain the wetland, they’ll tend to be ignored. And by the same token, because the benefits of conservation often build up only over the long term, people will typically discount them—not just in their heads but on their balance sheets—in favor of more immediate returns. Our narrow, short-term decision making generally penalizes the rest of the planet.
The last root cause is our growing disconnect from nature. We live in a rapidly urbanizing society, where for the first time more than half of humanity now works, plays, and sleeps in towns and cities: no longer immersed in the natural world and attuned, for our own survival as farmers or fishers, to its patterns and rhythms. Instead we spend our lives indoors, in cars, and online in places like Brooklyn, Bangalore, and Brussels. As a consequence, many argue, we’re losing touch with wild creatures and wild places. We can no longer tell our lady’s mantle from our lady’s slippers, our frogbit from our froghopper. We no longer know what phase the moon is in, let alone how high the next tide will be. And there’s the problem. How can we be expected to care about what we no longer experience, what we no longer know? Nature’s erosion may ultimately be driven as much by our indifference as by our direct actions.
Yet wherever we live—however removed—the current collapse of the living world affects us all. For many people there is a fundamental moral argument that says such loss is simply unacceptable. Some express it in religious or spiritual terms. Some are motivated by the realization that all living things are related to us, that we are family. e distinguished photographer and biologist Roman Vishniac once said, “Every living thing is my brother. How wonderful that is.” Others are driven by a sense of duty to hand the world on to future generations in no worse a state than we found it. Theodore Roosevelt summarized this argument when he wrote, “ The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” 4
For me, alongside respect for relatives and responsibility to be good custodians, there’s another motivation: a sense of wonder in nature’s marvels—whether that’s in witnessing a cuttlefish change colors almost instantaneously as it glides over the kaleidoscopic busyness of a rockpool; or in learning about the extraordinary life of eastern Queensland’s gastric-brooding frogs, which swallow their eggs (to protect them from predators) and then develop them inside their stomachs;5 or in getting my gravity-bound brain around the notion that the common swift fledglings that take their first flight in my garden each summer will literally not touch ground again (not to eat, rest, or even to sleep) until they themselves return to nest as two- or three-year olds. Nature is jammed full of such wonders, and what makes me an ardent conservationist is the desire that my children and the generations that come after them can have their own opportunities to be enticed, amazed, and humbled.
I appreciate I may be a little unusual, but for those who might be less moved by the moral or aesthetic case for conservation there are powerful material arguments. We all gain from what are now labeled ecosystem services—benefits provided for us, for free, by nature. The problem is that like most things that we get for nothing, we often overlook these services until there’s a crisis. A canopy of trees can protect hillside soils from erosion, and wetlands can store immense volumes of water. Large predatory fishes often keep in check smaller predators that might otherwise eat things we want for ourselves, and wild scavengers dispose of dead animals safely and quickly. But they all do so unseen and unnoticed.
Until, that is, mudslides in the Philippines remind us of the perils of deforestation, and the dreadful impacts of Hurricane Katrina illustrate what happens when we drain swamps that normally buffer people from storms and floods. Until the removal of those east coast sharks triggers a population explosion among the rays they used to feed on, which in turn chomp so many scallops they destroy a century-old fishery in Chesapeake Bay. Or until a newly available veterinary drug inadvertently poisons tens of millions of southern Asia’s vultures, leading to a buildup of cattle carcasses and grave fears about outbreaks of disease and escalating numbers of feral dogs.6
But crises aside, even in our everyday lives we all rely on wild places and the creatures that live in them. Despite falling stocks, half of the fish we eat is still caught in the wild. A third of all crop production depends on pollination by animals, many of them wild insects. And the great planktonic soup of the world’s oceans (much of it living in those pH-sensitive shells) helps stabilize our climate, not just by soaking up carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, but in some cases by directly reflecting sunlight back into space and even releasing into the air particles of a chemical called dimethylsulphide, which in turn breaks down into tiny sulphate droplets around which clouds then begin to form.
Given the myriad threads of our dependence on wild nature, it’s no surprise that the damage we’re inflicting on it is having a significant impact on people. The supply of wild-caught food is going down, so too are clean water and wild-harvested timber; pollinators are declining, as are populations of many birds, frogs, and insects that help control pest outbreaks on farmland. As shrinking natural habitats become less able to shield us from storms and cushion us from climate change, insurance companies are passing on the escalating costs of flood damage by raising insurance premiums.
A recent, UN-backed initiative called TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) argues that the impacts of nature’s erosion are especially severe for the world’s poorest people, who rely on ecosystem services for up to 80 percent of their incomes. The report’s authors warn that unless such benefits are valued and factored into economic decision making, continued environmental degradation will risk livelihoods, lives, and even the global economy. Many fear that if we carry on this way, living on the ecological never-never, spending down the planet’s natural capital with little regard for when or even if it can be repaid, then the recent turmoil caused by overspending our financial capital may come to seem like a minor hiccup.
In material as well as moral terms, then, our ongoing erosion of nature really matters. Yet faced with the global litany of loss and our manifest ability to ignore the stark warnings of its consequences, one could be forgiven for submitting to a sense of hopelessness. Of giving up. Of deciding that, essential though changing the way we treat the rest of the planet may be, our behavior is simply too entrenched and the momentum behind the drivers of nature’s demise simply too great.
I confess to feeling exactly that way when a developer bought up one of the last few fragments of nature in Ely, the tiny city where I live. Since being abandoned by industry, a flooded clay pit had become home to shy otters and nationally threatened bitterns.7 The new owner promised to convert it into a residential marina. Local politicians backed his proposal as being good for jobs. Planners seemed reluctant to risk legal action and talked of development and compromise. People who treasured the area as it was began to despair, to believe there was nothing they could do. And perhaps that makes sense. Maybe nature’s loss is inevitable and the best course of action is to hide under the covers. Globally as well as locally, maybe conservation is simply too difficult.
Yet back in Stoborough the story has a rather more positive twist. As Norman and I draw close to the once-wild place he witnessed being destroyed, in place of the expected regularity of fields and ordered ranks of pine plantations I see the olive and purple of heathers and the perennial yellow of the furze. We park, Norman unpacks his 80-something-year-old legs, and we start to wander a recreated patchwork of habitats: not dull, managed uniformity, but wildness once more. As if on cue, the sun breaks out from behind a cloud and the colors sharpen. Within minutes we’re watching a rare Dartford warbler, tail cocked and crest raised, singing defiantly from a gorse bush. A female sand wasp carrying a paralyzed caterpillar quarters the bare ground ahead of us, searching for the hole where she will lay her egg and stock its larder with her prey. Nearby, white tufts of cotton grass brighten the fringe of a small bog, where sticky-leaved sundews supplement the meager rations they draw from the soil by trapping small flies. Norman is soon reeling off the scientific names of passing dragonflies like other people talk of old friends. He sees my enjoyment too, and smiling, explains the reason for Stoborough’s dramatic turnaround.
“Back in the 1960s, while the government was urging its foresters to plant uneconomic pines, I made friends with a sympathetic forest officer. He sent me information about which tracts were due to be planted, and I was able to persuade him to spare some of the most precious bits of the heath.” A holding operation: conservation by stealth. Fast-forward another 20 years, though, and attitudes had changed completely.
“The government had by now decided that public access and enjoyment were more important priorities than unprofitable plantations, and so its foresters began working with conservation organizations to turn large areas of conifers back into heathland.” Trees were removed and the sunlight let back in. Seeds, long dormant in the seedbank, started geminating, and clever ecologists learned how to help them on their way. Birds, insects, and reptiles spread out from the nuclei that Norman’s foresight had saved. The dizzying, intricate machine of heathland began working once again.
Encouraged by an unprecedented alliance of conservation organizations, local and European governments, foresters, firefighters, and even the UK Ministry of Defence (which owns much of the land), a similar process of renewal has since got underway across a large swath of what was Hardy’s great Egdon Heath. Altogether, some 1,200 hectares—around one-sixth of what is left—have been restored by clearing scrub and culling pines. Reinstating traditional grazing keeps the renewed heathland open and mimics what wild grazers and wildfires would once have done. My friend Norman, the first man to chart the decline of a habitat and one of the first people brave enough to speak out passionately against it, has lived long enough and worked hard enough to see the curve of loss just starting to tilt upward.
And despite the global gloom, Stoborough is not the only bright spot, of course. Not far down the road in Somerset, pioneering ecologist–cum–insect detective Jeremy Thomas has painstakingly rescued the large blue butterfly from nationwide extinction. This dazzling steel-blue species disappeared from Britain in 1979, a casualty of the cessation of traditional sheep grazing and the resulting encroachment of scrub into its grassland habitat. The key to its successful reestablishment (using insects from Sweden) lay in teasing apart the details of its extraordinary life cycle. It turns out that the butterfly not only has to lay its eggs on wild thyme (itself a rather picky plant), it also needs a nearby colony of a very particular species of red ant (a beast by the name of Myrmica sabuleti). Why? Because this innocent-looking animal is in fact an obligate ant-killer.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-13 of Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success by Andrew Balmford, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)