The Cogs of Gaia

By Mike Maunder, Executive Director The Eden Project & GSI Visiting Fellow

I was trained as a citizen of the Holocene and spend my career working in Holocene institutions striving to consolidate their role in the Anthropocene. When I was a student it was made clear that species extinction was an aberration restricted to exceptional and fragile places like oceanic islands and restoration ecology was narrowly focussed on the return to a historical model. How things have changed and how fast they have changed.

Gaia informs us that life drives planetary systems and that we are now the species that drives ecosystem and global change. As such we are the reckless author of the extinction crisis. We also know that species, whether bacteria, plant, fungi or animal, are the cogs in Gaia’s swirling mechanism. For most people the cogs of Gaia are invisible and as such profoundly under-valued.

Let’s explore two topics at this conference in honour of James Lovelock’s Centenary.

Firstly, how can species conservation and large-scale ecosystem regeneration be better used to manage global systems? Can we use it to rebuild or bolster the recycling of elements?
In thirty or so years I have seen ecological restoration jump in scale and scope from the small fenced plots on oceanic islands to landscape scale projects such as the Everglades Restoration project in Florida or the vast rangeland restoration initiatives of the Northern Rangeland Trust in Kenya. These projects wrap together concerns about endangered species with social issues, disaster mitigation and economic growth. A few nations, such as South Korea, have to a large extent rebuilt their natural capital through reforestation, and many African nations have made impressive tree planting commitments through the Bonn Declaration (although we fear the eucalyptus may dominate these new landscapes). Perhaps what is most impressive is that these large-scale landscape improvements have been driven both by global agencies and the initiatives of local communities. An inspiring example being the transformation of degraded farmlands through agroforestry by farmers in the Sahel.

Secondly, how can the reductionist biological institutions of the Holocene work with the Gaia model to better orchestrate and inspire a prosperous Anthropocene? Historically we have created taxonomically defined biodiversity institutions and what we need are networks of institutions that collectively promote a good Anthropocene. Can we harness the expertise of the zoo, natural history museum and botanic garden to celebrate the planetary engine, life, and to influence the way we value our lives and values? Part of the problem is that current funding models for key institutions can create a domestication of the mission, where the ultimate planetary impact of an institution is undermined by a focus on income generation. Perhaps it is time to reinvent these funding models.

In the last few years two projects have given me hope. One is a small-scale community project in Baringo, Kenya, that supports farmers to convert profoundly eroded bush into profit making hay fields using native grasses. The other is the healing of the native forests and watershed of Limahuli Valley, Kauai, after the installation of stock proof fencing and the clearance of rats. Both projects have consolidated the cultural identity and wellbeing of the local communities, reduced the vulnerability of those communities to flood, drought and erosion, and they have kick-started an extraordinary resurgence of biodiversity.

Perhaps we have reached the point where conservation and ecological restoration can contribute to both improving the lives of communities and contributing to planetary scale challenges. The science is clear and the extraordinary metaphor of Gaia adds urgency and romance to the need for action. Yet we need the networked institutions who will champion the agents of a good Anthropocene, the innovative communities working to regenerate the cogs of Gaia, life.

Mike Maunder

A reflection on zero carbon Exeter, Natalie Bennett and activism – Malwina Grzesikiewicz

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the ‘What Would a Zero Carbon City Look Like?’ talk with Natalie Bennet, organised by the Global Systems Institute and Transition Exeter. The event was well attended, with the lecture theatre packed full, and some concern from organisers that too many people would turn up for the number of seats available.

It was wonderful to see so many students and residents taking an interest in making our cities more environmentally friendly. Natalie said very early on that when discussing climate problems she aims to focus on hope, and the diverse audience certainly perpetuated that feeling. It often seems as though there is no dialogue between students and the local community in Exeter, so it was great to see this common interest in tackling climate change; and a sign, surely, that collaboration between students and Exeter’s permanent residents could bring Exeter closer to ending its dependence on carbon.

The event highlighted a range of initiatives that aim to achieve this target. We first heard from Transition Exeter about the range of community projects that they oversee, all aiming to reduce Exeter’s carbon consumption. Their projects, which offer creative ways of reducing carbon dependency, are definitely something to check out. This was followed by a notice from students involved in Youth Strike for Climate, who at the time were helping to organise the Fridays for Future school strike which took place on March 15, 2019. These school strikes, which have now happened twice in Exeter, are part of a much broader movement aiming to pressure local and central governments to take more decisive action to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and prevent the climate disaster that we are otherwise heading towards.

It was then Natalie’s turn to speak, and her message was both insightful and uplifting. Without diminishing the dangers of the impending climate catastrophe, she presented its prevention as achievable. She cited studies that demonstrated the feasibility of reducing our carbon consumption and the positive effects of such initiatives on society as well as the environment. Importantly, she made it obvious that instead of framing sustainability in terms of sacrifice, we should instead look forward to the benefits that it will bring to our society.

Progress towards a zero carbon city can be gradual and organic; relying more on buses, cycling, and walking while reducing the number of cars in use, pedestrianizing roads, and shopping at independent shops that source their produces locally. Of course engagement and active support from governments would be key to the success of this initiative. We would need to insulate all homes to reduce dependency on heating, increase the accessibility of public transport, and ensure that the interests of local businesses were protected over those of international corporations.

The benefits of reducing our dependence on carbon would be immense. Apart from helping us reduce the rate of human-caused climate change, there would be more noticeable and local benefits. Anyone who has walked or driven through Exeter at rush hour will know how congested the roads are. Relying on buses or walking would reduce traffic, making public transport more efficient and our streets safer. Walking and cycling would also be beneficial to our physical health, increasing the time we spend exercising while reducing the pollution and congestion on our streets. Depending on local businesses would ensure that more capital remained in the local economy, stimulating entrepreneurship and projects that supported and were responsive to the needs of the local community. A message which I found particularly inspiring was that zero carbon cities are dependent on everyone feeling empowered to work with their neighbours and colleagues to build a city that they wish to have. This collaboration and support within the community is truly something to aspire to.

The talk was followed by a long Q&A session which helped to highlight local concerns about the viability of a zero carbon Exeter. Questions were asked about how to best encourage shopping in local and independent shops, establish a circular economy, and introduce sustainability and conservation into school curriculums. Concerns were raised over the alternatives to carbon and the problems relating to the necessity of travel and the expense and inaccessibility of public transport. There was considerable interest in how to best promote making Exeter a zero carbon city, and how viable such a project was. A dominant theme in Natalie’s answers was that progress towards zero carbon was more dependent on institutional changes than on individuals’ behaviour such as giving up meat or single use plastic. She encouraged living sustainably, but her focus was definitely on the importance of campaigning for institutional change that would make the move towards zero carbon cities possible.

Campaigning, of course, sounds difficult and time consuming, but there is evidence that getting more people involved would not be hard. The Youth Strike for Climate event, which took place on March 15, was motivated by the actions of the inspiring teenager and now a Nobel peace prize nominee, Greta Thunberg. Her solitary protest in front of the Swedish parliament has developed into a school strike which took place in 125 countries and involved more than a million students. So small challenges to institutional inaction can lead to big changes, and there is clearly an appetite for environmental change. It can be seen internationally, but also locally, in the lecture theatre where a group of people gathered to listen about how to make their city a zero carbon city. So sharing the urgent message of climate change, organising, and petitioning governing bodies for more resolute action is definitely something that the inhabitants of Exeter can and should do.

Malwina Grzesikiewicz, University of Exeter Student

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Part 2

22/01/2019 Northern Rangelands Trust HQ, Lewa

It’s just not possible in a 3 day visit to get to grips with the scale of the Northern Rangelands Trust, which comprises 35 member conservancies covering 42,000 square kilometres, let alone in a short blog post. The team here at NRT HQ in Lewa Wildilife Conservancy have been incredibly generous hosts though, and have made sure that our short time has been filled with as much as we can possibly take in.

Having read a bit about NRT’s extraordinary successes and inspiring history, I confess to feeling a little intimidated on our arrival. Flying north around the spectacular stratovolcano of Mt Kenya, over farms built on convoluted ridges of volcanic soil, I wondered what we could bring that NRT didn’t have already. The usual ‘imposter syndrome’ coupled with a sense that these guys really, really know their stuff.

Such feelings were quickly dispelled though, as we sat down with NRT’s executive group to explain why we are here, and to hear their thoughts on what a potential relationship with GSI could do for the community conservancies they support. One thing was immediately clear. There is an enormous appetite here to tell the stories of the interconnected impacts that community conservancies are having; securing peace in a previously volatile region, diversifying and increasing livelihoods in an extremely poor population, restoring degraded landscapes and building resilience against drought and overgrazing.

Managed grazing area in Kalama Conservancy

If we can contribute to understanding and quantifying those impacts better, NRT will be able to use that information in several ways. It can help to build trust with communities and show them that being involved really pays off. It can show funders that their support has had deep and long-lasting impacts. It can show governments that supporting communities to take ownership of the health of their landscapes can provide a sustainable pathway to materially improving people’s lives while promoting biodiversity. And it can help other people in other places to take a similar approach.

What is that approach? In a nutshell, rather than leave conservation to the national government, NGOs and wealthy private landowners, poor communities of traditional livestock herders are setting up conservancies of their own. The conservancies are run by a team of managers and rangers, all community members themselves, who answer to an elected board of decision makers representing a cross section of the communities within the conservancy area. This provides a mechanism for collectively managing grazing, monitoring wildlife and vegetation, deterring poaching and livestock theft, and developing wildlife tourism that brings income directly to the communities. NRT is the umbrella body that provides training, monitoring tools and financial support, and coordinates a rapid response team of rangers who can deploy in case of poaching threats and other conflicts. The management of NRT itself is answerable to a Board of Elders comprising members of each member conservancy.

At the root of the astonishing impact that this network has had is the community-led governance structure, which above all else has provided a mechanism for diffusing conflict between people of the 16 different ethnicities who live in the region. Traditionally, inter-tribal cattle theft and grazing incursions are common and with easily available illegal firearms violent conflict in the area has been a real problem. If you provide the conditions for peace, all sorts of other opportunities open up.

We’ve had a packed 3 days meeting communities, seeing an NRT training session, getting to grips with the monitoring programs and seeing first hand the regenerative power of good grazing management. The one thing I was utterly unprepared for, having read lots about badly degraded grazing land, was the incredible beauty and richness of the Lewa Conservacy where NRT have their headquarters. In two short drives after work we have seen more wildlife than I ever expected to see in my life, including the black rhino that Lewa was originally established to protect. I feel immensely privileged to be here. Lewa is where the whole thing started, and just goes to show what an enormous difference can be made by being open to new ideas and pursuing a vision.

 

Community conservation and restoration projects in Kenya – Tom Powell

Everyone should see the world from a plane window from time to time. Seeing the world from a fresh angle is like stepping back from a painting, tilting your head to the side and shutting one eye; it opens the mind to seeing new patterns and making connections that might have been missed. Images of Earth from space taken by the Apollo crews half a century ago fundamentally altered our perceptions of ourselves and the dynamic, beautiful, ostensibly fragile but surprisingly robust living planet we inhabit. Seeing the surface of the Earth from 40,000 feet remains a spectacular reminder that our home planet is a pretty special place.

Watching the sun set over the Nile as we flew across the Nubian desert yesterday evening, the ribbon of water reflecting the light seemed to physically tie the landscape together. In the absence of national boundaries drawn on a map, the river is the defining feature of Northern East Africa and seeing it like this you can almost feel the fundamental role it plays in sustaining, connecting and provoking conflict throughout the region. A patch of huge circular irrigated fields surrounded by the barren desert was a vivid reminder of the vulnerability of the whole system.

It felt fitting to be flying over one of the earliest cradles of human civilisation, of which the foundation of the entire culture was the seasonal rise and fall of the river waters, on our way to talk to people who are finding new ways to build sustainable relationships with their landscapes and ecosystems in a world in which humans have become a global force.

With my colleague Becky Stedham of The Landscapes and Livelihoods Group, I’m in Kenya to learn about two organisations who have developed models for communities to take ownership of the conservation and restoration of the ecological health of their landscapes. In doing this they are increasing and diversifying their livelihoods and becoming more resilient to climate change and other dangers.

A peaceful Sunday morning in Nairobi before heading North

First, we are travelling North from Nairobi around the flanks of Mt Kenya to visit the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT); a group of community conservancies who together cover a vast area of Kenya. Following that we will be spending time with The International Small Group Tree Planting Program (TIST), visiting members who farm smallholdings in the volcanic soils surrounding Mt Kenya and Meru. Partnerships with organisations like these are really exciting opportunities for us to work with groups having truly significant impacts in their communities and landscapes. Our goal is to get to know them better and begin to understand how they work so that we can start to explore how as a research community we can support them in monitoring, understanding and extending their impacts.

Building relationships with people experiencing the day to day and year on year challenges of environmental and social change is at the core of what we want to do at the GSI. In doing so, our intention is that we can use our research capacity to support them in understanding the changes taking place and developing useful responses. The funding for this trip, from the UK Government’s  Global Challenges Research Fund, is intended to support the development of these relationships and it’s fantastic that such opportunities exist. We also want to learn as much as we can about groups that seem to be doing really well at connecting the wellbeing, opportunities and resilience of people with the ecological health of the landscapes they inhabit. If we can understand something about why these projects are so succesful, then we may be able to help others build these kind of win-win approaches elsewhere.

So for now, we’re really excited to be heading north early tomorrow morning, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about the NRT in a few days time!