Sunday, 29 November 2015

Local heroes: helping the ecosystem – with or without leaving your backyard

Thomas Henry Huxley, A.K.A. Darwin's Bulldog and the man who coined the word 'agnostic' (and less-than-incidentally, my hero) once remarked that "We live in a world which is full of misery and ignorance, and the plain duty of each and all of us is to try to make the little corner he can influence somewhat less miserable and somewhat less ignorant than it was before he entered it." With this years' UN Climate Change Conference about to start in Paris, there have been around 2000 marches around the world as current generations advise their governments that cleaning up our planet cannot be postponed any longer.

Meanwhile, like something out of a typical piece of Hollywood schmaltz, New Zealand law student Sarah Thomson is taking her country's government to court over lack of progress on climate change. Unfortunately as this is the real world - and since the UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets aren't legally binding at nation-state level - the outcome is unlikely to provoke a Spielberg-style public cheer when the case is decided.

From a New Zealand-centric view, we may seem removed from the overcrowded, polluted hell-holes scattered around the world, but there are plenty of problems in store for this little corner of paradise, and not just from climate change. New Zealanders have only recent begun to understand that far from the '100% Pure' tourist brand, there has been a long-term degradation to their ecology, primarily from invasive species and an unsustainable level of development.

But although we may seem powerless in a wider context, individuals in any nation can still make a difference to help maintain or even restore their local environment without a great effort and at minimal cost. You might think: why bother? One household can't help an entire planet! But then, if everyone dropped one piece of litter every day we would rapidly become swamped with rubbish, so the antithesis holds true. Whilst the following are tailored towards New Zealand, the majority of actions can be undertaken anywhere. So enough proselytising: on with the show!

1) Reducing your carbon footprint. This week the New Zealand Herald website launched a climate action tool to show where households could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. I'm never fond of quoting statistics, but if the country's emissions really have increased by the quoted 21% since 1990, then clearly something is going very wrong. Among the most basic methods - that at the same time can reduce household spending - are reusing bags when grocery shopping; and cutting down on food waste (which in New Zealand equates to half of household rubbish) by buying less and then having to bin out-of-date food. It's not rocket science!

2) Careful consumerism. Stop being a slave to fashion and don't just upgrade to a new smartphone when the old one still works perfectly well. It may be difficult to cut down on methane-hefty dairy products, but it's easy to avoid items that contain environmentally unfriendly materials, such as nanosilver or palm oil that comes from unsustainable sources. After all, two American girl guides spend five years on a successful mission for clear food labelling and the introduction of palm oil from deforestation-free sources. If they can do it, why can't we all?

3) Reduce, reuse and recycle. I discussed this back in 2010 and think that all the points are still relevant. Again, this can actually save money. If you have a garden, then a tiger worm farm is a pretty good way to get free fertiliser and soil conditioner from the likes of vegetable peelings, egg shells, tea bags and even discarded hair.

4) Encouraging wildlife. Talking of gardens, you can easily help the local fauna with the right type of vegetation and feeders. Of course, it's not all plain sailing: although I feed native silvereye birds during the winter with fruit, my seed feeders are most likely to be utilised by non-native species imported to New Zealand from the UK in the late Nineteenth Century. You win some, you lose some.

5) Discouraging invasive species. From marine fan worms on the underside of ships' hulls to pet cats, New Zealand's native species have long faced the onslaught of aggressive outsiders. Current biosecurity regulations are very important, but in NZ sometimes have the ring of the stable door about them, in this case with the (foreign) horses having bolted into the stable - and promptly munched their way through much of the local biota. One simple thing I have done is to discourage South African praying mantises by methods such as changing garden planting and moving hatchlings to more conspicuous places in the garden where birds might find them. In this way numbers have reduced from hundreds of individuals three years' ago to seeing just one hatchling this year - and no adults - despite carefully examination of the garden. As for cats, don't get me started! NZ has over 1.4 million of them, and whoever can prevent them catching native birds and lizards would probably deserve a Nobel prize.

6) Eco-activities. Talking of trees, various local groups are more than happy to accept volunteers for tree-planting, pest trapping and litter removal schemes. In New Zealand, Tiritiri Matangi has gone from being a denuded patch of scrub to an island sanctuary for endangered bird species in just three decades, largely thanks to volunteers planting over 280,000 trees. As for litter, volunteer beach patrols are unfortunately a necessity, as an example from 2011 shows: 130,000 pieces of rubbish were collected from the uninhabited island of Rangitoto in just one day.

7) Joining organisations. There are plenty of societies ready, willing and able to use membership funds for ecological activities, from global giants such as the World Wide Fund for Nature to local groups such as New Zealand's Forest and Bird. As a member of latter I've been pleased to study their new 25-year strategic plan, aimed on raising important environmental issues and presenting detailed information to the NZ Government in support of campaigns. The good thing is your subscription money is being used positively regardless of how much or how little active time you yourself can dedicate.

8) Armchair petitioning. Even for people unable to get out and about you can also petition your local politicians and other relevant figures without leaving home. A good example in recent years has been British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's fish discards campaign, which gained massive public support and succeeded in less than three years in not only gaining an update to European Union by-catch legislation, but had positive knock-on effects in other aspects of commercial fishing within the EU. Nice one, Hugh!

9) Citizen science. A fairly recent definition, this encapsulates an enormous range of passive and active methods. The former includes crunching science project data whilst your home computer is idling, whilst a painless example of the latter would be participating in wildlife surveys; recent New Zealand examples include one-off garden bird and butterfly counts, through to monthly assessments of a single square metre of rocky beach. There are numerous projects that are suitable for children to participate in, so a side-effect is to encourage children to accept science as an integral component of their lives, not just something to do at school.

10) Education. Talking of school...saving the most difficult to last. I was recently accosted on the street by an admittedly junior employee of a petroleum giant whose argument - if I can dignify it as such - was that snowfall in New Zealand in October was clear proof global warming isn't occurring. Clearly, there is a severe lack of public understanding of basic science, this particular case relating to the fact that climate change can include local cooling at the same time as warming on a global scale. Thanks to the ubiquity of information channels from climate change-denier News Corp (now the proud owner of National Geographic, for crying out loud), it seems certain that grass-roots environmental education needs to be the way forward, considering how much misinformation and nonsense is being spread by global news networks. So don't be afraid to talk - spread the word!

I'd like to end on two quotes: the first is by American cartoonist and author James Thurber, who said: "Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness." The second comes from a decorative plate that hangs on my wall: "Other planets cannot be as beautiful as this one." Let us hope we can leave a legacy such that our descendants continue to think so.