Notre Dame and the Great Yellow

Like you, I watched appalled as Notre Dame burned. It felt like a complicated metaphor for all sorts of things, and a crushing visceral wound. It was amazing but not so surprising then, the fire’s embers still warm, that people, government and businesses had already pledged $800 million towards its reconstruction.

Notre Dame is a thing that can be rebuilt. It won’t be the same, of course, but it can and will happen. Other cathedrals have been rebuilt. We can understand something of the complications of that, and the scale of the project. We can agree on the importance and scale of the work. It will cost a lot of money, but not an unimaginable amount. And at the end of it there will be a physical manifestation of the generosity of donors, private and public.

Fund raisers in the environmental world would chew their arms off to be working on a project like this.

The Great Yellow, Bombus distinguendus (Credit: BBCT & Nick Owens)

Understandably – to an extent – funders ask for “measurable outputs”. Like a cathedral. Doing genetic research into a bumblebee* that’s going extinct is less attractive. How do you value its results? Are they going to have a clear message (probably not)? It’s somewhat lower key in terms of PR, as well. Science doesn’t necessarily give “value for money” in terms of “outputs” – that’s kind of the point.

In my own efforts to raise money, however, this hasn’t been the main blockage. While it’s true that the wealthy in the UK are really bad at giving, there are other problems afoot.

We still seem to have an issue with valuing nature. Giving to environmental causes, even in an animal friendly country like the UK, is under 6% of the total. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of it. If a species is going extinct you can’t just throw a few million quid at it and then guarantee its survival (a few million quid! We just need £20,000 to have a proper look at dear old Bombus distinguendus.)

In my experience, people readily buy into the evidence supporting declines in invertebrate numbers, for example. More often than not they agree on the reasons for them. They might also like the work that the charity does that I’m shaking the tin for. BUT they feel it’s hopeless.

Faced with global biodiversity “apocalypse” or climate change “armageddon” they give up. Or, rather, they don’t even start.

And it’s really, really important that they do. That YOU do.

Because the only way we can tackle these vast, complicated, worrying issues is through individual actions, translated into collective will. Our responses to them won’t be ideal – haven’t been ideal. Our financial commitment won’t have clear outcomes. Let’s give it a go, though. Together we can do this.

*The Great Yellow, Bombus distinguendus , in this case.

Martha the Passenger Pigeon

Martha the Passenger PigeonThis is Martha, the world’s last Passenger Pigeon. She died on 1st September 1914. The last wild one was seen by a boy in Ohio in 1900, who shot it. Passenger Pigeons weren’t Dodos or Pandas; 200 years ago they were probably the most prolific bird on the planet.

Flocks of millions of birds darkened the skies of the U.S., where some nesting sites were estimated to have up to 150 million birds each, spread over hundreds of square miles. In 1813 Audubon was under a flock, travelling at 60 mph, which took 3 days to fly over him. At around the same time Alexander Wilson saw a flock he estimated at over 2 BILLION birds. Why did they suddenly disappear? They were shot in huge numbers for food and their traditional roosts, in vast hardwood forests, were decimated by logging and land clearance. Sound familiar?

The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is shocking. In a complicated world it is one of the most unambiguous instances of the potential of man to do irreversible damage to the planet. Let’s not forget the power we have.


I sit here with my laptop next to my printer. I can see the box of paper for it gradually diminish. With about half an inch to go I start reminding myself that I ought to do something about it. When I’ve got a quarter inch left I make a note in my to do list to get some more paper. When the only paper I’ve got left is in the printer I ask Caroline to buy some for me. Then I run out. It’s a similar psychology to our attitude towards extinctions; intellectually we can see them happening, but for some reason we don’t actually get round to do anything about them until it’s too late. We have other priorities, usually driven by our own circumstances.

There’s also the issue of only being able to guess at the size of the pile of paper, which means we have to assess numbers of plants or animals. Unfortunately we’re not very good at imagining numbers until they get so small that in biological terms they’re irrelevant. How many hedgehogs are there left in the UK? A recent study (The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs, 2011) suggests 750,000, which sounds like a lot. It sounds very few when the same study estimates there were 30 MILLION hedgehogs in Britain in the 1950s.
I am more affected by the thought that our 13 year old, growing up in the country, HAS NEVER SEEN ONE. He has never heard a nightingale sing or seen a snake here. To him they may as well already be extinct. It’s not surprising we don’t notice the plants and invertebrates disappearing in front of us when we don’t even notice what’s happening to the bigger fauna, or what ecologists call the “charismatic animals”. You will be comforted if you read the Wikipedia list of extinctions in the UK since the Neolithic (wolves, bears, that sort of thing), but less so by Natural England’s 2010 report, identifying the 500 species lost here in modern times.

And preventing extinctions is a good deal more difficult than ordering a ream of paper. It’s invariably not just a question of banning some pesticides or airlifting a few Black Rhinos out of harm’s way. The story of the re-introduction of the Large Blue near to us in Somerset always makes me smile; its ludicrously complicated life cycle posed an enormous challenge. Last year’s Short-haired bumblebee reintroduction was only moderately easier. The cost of doing the same for the hundreds of other species which will go extinct in the UK over the next decade is mind boggling and, of course, entirely unrealistic.

We must get out of the mindset that extinctions happen elsewhere, that they only happen to “unimportant” species, and that they’re somehow fixable. Like climate change there’s no point scaring people or producing reams of uncertain but depressing sounding numbers. There’s also no point arguing with folk who say it’s a natural phenomenum. Like the paper running out it’s pretty obvious where the blame for at least biodiversity loss generally lies – with us. It’s also pretty obvious that we have to feel empowered to do something about it ourselves.