Ariadne's Thread

Environmental Studies at the University of Essex

All things bright and beautiful

by ariadnesthread101


The Tree of Life
Gustav Klimt, 1909

Over the last few sessions of Ariadne’s Thread, we’ve been trying to relate all the lectures and disciplinary insights of last term to key overarching global challenges. The aim of these discussions is to get a comprehensive overview of the challenges themselves, and to explore how the different discipline-specific lectures of the last term-and-a-half have illuminated the causes, consequences and solutions to these challenges.

The week before last, we covered climate change. The group put together a presentation, and then we tried to talk back and forth between the natural and social science aspects of the problem and possible solutions. ‘Tried’ was the operative word – it took us a while to get into it, and of course, with a subject so complex, we quickly ran into a number of unknowns and any number of confounding variables.

This week, we are going to use a different approach (we’re trying things on for fit) to explore biodiversity loss and conservation.

I’m posting here 3 papers on various aspects on this topic. We’re going to discuss these on Thursday, and I’ll come back here with a summary of our discussion.

At first glance I was quite tempted to come up with a crisply-edited list of references 20-items long. But that’s not going to happen, and given the scale of the problem, it’s absurd to think that 20 references would cover anything anyway. We might do a ‘further reading’ section later if we drill down to particular themes that are of interest.

So here goes. The following three papers make a good starting point for a broad discussion on the subject.

1. Hooper et al. 2005. Effects of Biodiversity on Ecosystem Functioning: A consensus of current knowledge. Ecological Monographs 75(1): 3-35

(Fulltext available from the University of Essex library)

From the abstract: “Humans are altering the composition of biological communities through a variety of activities that increase rates of species invasions and species extinctions, at all scales, from local to global. These changes in components of the Earth’s biodiversity cause concern for ethical and aesthetic reasons, but they also have a strong potential to alter ecosystem properties and the goods and services they provide to humanity. Ecological experiments, observations, and theoretical developments show that ecosystem properties depend greatly on biodiversity in terms of the functional characteristics of organisms present in the ecosystem and the distribution and abundance of those organisms over space and

time… The scientific community has come to a broad consensus on many aspects of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, including many points relevant to management of ecosystems. Further progress will require integration of knowledge about biotic and abiotic controls on ecosystem properties, how ecological communities are structured, and the forces driving species extinctions and invasions. To strengthen links to policy and management, we also need to integrate our ecological knowledge with understanding of the social and economic constraints of potential management practices. Understanding this complexity, while taking strong steps to minimize current losses of species, is necessary for responsible management of Earth’s ecosystems and the diverse biota they contain.”  

2. Tscharntke et al. 2012. Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation 151(1):  53-59.

(Full-text available from the University of Essex library)

From the abstract: “Under the current scenario of rapid human population increase, achieving efficient and productive agricultural land use while conserving biodiversity is a global challenge. There is an ongoing debate whether land for nature and for production should be segregated (land sparing) or integrated on the same land (land sharing, wildlife-friendly farming). While recent studies argue for agricultural intensification in a land sparing approach, we suggest here that it fails to account for real-world complexity. We argue that agriculture practiced under smallholder farmer-dominated landscapes and not large-scale farming, is currently the backbone of global food security in the developing world… A major argument for wildlife friendly farming and agroecological intensification is that crucial ecosystem services are provided by ‘‘planned’’ and ‘‘associated’’ biodiversity, whereas the land sparing concept implies that biodiversity in agroecosystems is functionally negligible. However, loss of biological control can result in dramatic increases of pest densities, pollinator services affect a third of global human food supply, and inappropriate agricultural management can lead to environmental degradation. Hence, the true value of functional biodiversity on the farm is often inadequately acknowledged or understood, while conventional intensification tends to disrupt beneficial functions of biodiversity. In conclusion, linking agricultural intensification with biodiversity conservation and hunger reduction requires well-informed regional and targeted solutions, something which the land sparing vs sharing debate has failed to achieve so far.”

3. Turner et al. 2012. Global Biodiversity Conservation and the Alleviation of Poverty. Bioscience 62(1): 85-92

(Full-text here)

From the abstract: “Poverty and biodiversity loss are two of the world’s dire challenges. Claims of conservation’s contribution to poverty alleviation, however, remain controversial. Here, we assess the flows of ecosystem services provided to people by priority habitats for terrestrial conservation, considering the global distributions of biodiversity, physical factors, and socioeconomic context. We estimate the value of these habitats to the poor, both through direct benefits and through payments for ecosystem services to those stewarding natural habitats. The global potential for biodiversity conservation to support poor communities is high: The top 25% of conservation priority areas could provide 56%–57% of benefits. The aggregate benefits are valued at three times the estimated opportunity costs and exceed $1 per person per day for 331 million of the world’s poorest people. Although trade-offs remain, these results show win–win synergies between conservation and poverty alleviation, indicate that effective financial mechanisms can enhance these synergies, and suggest biodiversity conservation as a fundamental component of sustainable economic development.”

Beyond the Bubble – Ice, Shale and Raindrops

by jacobbhunter

Soap Bubble with Sky by Brocken Inaglory

Image: Brocken Inaglory. License: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today, while taking a moment away from listening to deadlines crash about my ears, I watched an episode of the Simpsons. In it, Lisa turns to the internet to research her latest school report ‘Springfield, 50 years from now’ and becomes utterly despairing at the dire predictions she finds. Unable to live with the vision of environmental apocalypse now filling her mind, she submits to mood-altering prescription drugs.

Hopefully nothing I pull from the big cabinet of news this week will cause quite such disquiet for you, but there’s nothing quite like a crisis to focus the mind.

Vincent van Gogh - Wheat Field With Crows (1890).

Vincent van Gogh – Wheat Field With Crows (1890).

Reports that British flour mills are importing around 2 million tonnes of wheat, more than double last year’s figure, certainly provide food for thought.  A dire harvest naturally follows a very poor growing season and we were gripped by unfavorable weather for much of the year. As climate change alters global rainfall and temperature patterns I’ve often wondered what that will mean for our monoculture-based agriculture. This collection of articles from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research is full of interesting stuff, including a discussion of food security in the face of changing climate (page 63).

Arctic ice by Pink floyd88 a, licensed under  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arctic ice by Pink floyd88 a, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The first liquified natural gas transport ship to pass across the Arctic region on its journey from Norway to Japan did so this month, and its progress had a somewhat chilling effect on me. Reduced ice cover and the changing gas market has made the trip viable. It’s not the only way in which the polar region has become relevant to fossil-fuel exploitation – rising prices and thinning ice have presented opportunities to exploit the Arctic’s large reserves, despite the risks. Hunting around, I also came across this article which while a little old touches on some of what this new Arctic usefulness might mean for its indigenous people.

Citizens of the UK too have hard choices to make about the way they choose to exploit their fossil-fuel reserves. Growing support for fracking, rising prices and significant reserves in Lancashire mean that the chancellor is poised to ‘put shale gas on a fast track’. Who knows what his constituents will make of that.

Beyond the Earth, there has been a bit of excitement from NASA’s newest and most impressive Mars rover. Curiosity appeared to find organic compounds in a recent soil sample, which could have come from life on Mars. Or it could just be contamination left on the rover from closer to home. We won’t know for a while, sadly.

Not the fossil raindrops in question. Image by Verisimilus. License: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not the fossil raindrops in question. Image by Verisimilus. License: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Before I sign off I think I will mention one further story, simply because it amused me. Often, great scientific progress comes about because of what in retrospect seems like beautifully simple insight or experiment. I’m not sure if estimating the density of the atmosphere from the impressions left by raindrops some three-billion-years-ago counts as beautiful insight, but it’s certainly a neat idea.

Upcoming events week 10

by sabrinakuehn

Essex Sustainability Institute Seminar – Antonio Ioris (University of Edinburgh) and Rafael Kunter Flores (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil): ‘Neoliberalism, Socionature and Water Problems: The Multiple Scarcities of Lima, Peru’. Room 5N.3.2. Tuesday, 12.30pm-2.00pm. This event is free to attend and no prior registration is required. For more information on the talk and the speakers please visit:

Environmental Protection Society in conjunction with the Essex Sustainability Institute (ESI) Film Screening – Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast (2011, 52 min). LTB 6. Tuesday, 6.30pm with follow up discussions in Top Bar.

Cycle maintenance on Wednesdays, Square 5 between 9am and 3pm every Wednesday in term time. The service offers help and advice to cyclists and can do a free cycle maintenance check on your bicycle. Other services offered, please see price list.

Summary week 9

by sabrinakuehn


In our Politics and Society lecture the topic of democracy and its implications for environment has again been discussed, this time the focus was on how democratic processes work for policy making. The efficiency of negociations was analyzed by looking at corporatism and pluralism, pointing out that in terms of negotiating environmental topics corporatism has a good chance to be successful.

In the Environmental Issues lecture we got to know the role of Natural England and the Environmental Agency and how they monitor for example Great Britain’s water quality. This should help us with planning the Melchester-on-sea assessment at which we are supposed to deal with a chemical explosion and its consequences for the environment.

Aquaculture has been introduced in Natural Resources. The main aspects were about how aquaculture has developed over time, from fisheries to intensive aquaculture, the latter often being associated with impacts on the environment. With environmental concerns of aquaculture in mind, this article might be interesting

Beyond the Bubble – Lessons from History

by jacobbhunter

Soap Bubble with Sky by Brocken Inaglory

Image: Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

This week has seen a great deal of rain and flooding across the UK, and inevitably these extreme weather events stimulate discussion about the reality of our changing climate. Certainly I have perceived an uptick in flooding reporting over the last decade, but I’m cautious to draw conclusion from that, as we’ve become more aware of the other effects we’re having on the world, and hence such stories are bigger news. Certainly a bit of searching around the web didn’t uncover any really convincing statistics, has anyone else had more luck?

The Xingu River From Space

The Xingu River from space, 1997. At this point deforestation was just encroaching (top right corner). Source.

I was emailed an interesting story by one of the other students on my course this week (thanks Leticia!) about the construction of a huge system for producing hydroelectric power using the water of the Xingu river, in the Amazon rainforest. The story isn’t about the construction per se, rather the indigenous people affected by its construction, and their attempts to prevent the project going ahead. There has been a bit of a back-and-forth in the courts, mainly dealing with the effectiveness of the consultation process, but it seems that the project is now set to continue.

I realise I’m supposed to be rounding up the week’s environment news, but I’d like to digress slightly to mention an episode of ‘The Long View’ I happened to hear on the radio this week. It looks back at the Dutch elm disease that struck trees in Britain in the 1920s and draws comparison with the recently emergent ash dieback fungus. A nice gentle discussion of the issues involved, but I will admit that every story I hear like this makes me a little more afraid that increasing globalisation means increasing transport of unwelcome biological material.

Scarlet Waxcaps in a lawn. Image by ceridwen, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

With all this talk of fungi as the enemy, it’s important to remember their integral role in our ecosystems from the mycorrhizas that make up the ‘wood-wide-web’ of nutrient assimilation and transfer, to their value as foods and decomposers. Knowing that it’s hard to hate something attractive, the BBC have put-together a gallery of really beautiful fungi, well, their visible bits!

To round off with one more bit of old stuff (sorry David) the BBC have a new series ‘Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild’ which looks like it will be really interesting, reflecting on how the planet has changed during his long career. Given that he’s seen more of it than anyone else I can think of, it promises to be a really interesting watch (… though I’ve not got to it yet! Something for the weekend I think).

Chances of urbanization

by sabrinakuehn

Alex Steffen addresses an interesting aspect when talking about urbanization. Some of the projects mentioned are already established in several places of the world. Anyway, in our last Natural Resources class we covered “sustainable behaviour” – and especially from this point of view, these projects seem to be an important part of future urban development: “enormous amounts of our energy use are predestined by the kinds of communities and cities, that we live in”. Therefore, it probably makes a big difference in future urban planning, when people are made “surrounded by places, that make them feel at home”.

Upcoming events week 9

by sabrinakuehn

Environmental Protection Society in conjunction with the Essex Sustainability Institute (ESI) Film Screening: Who Killed the Electric Car? It begins with a solemn funeral…for a car. By the end of Chris Paine’s lively and informative documentary, the idea doesn’t seem quite so strange. As narrator Martin Sheen notes, “They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust and ran without gasoline.” Paine proceeds to show how this unique vehicle came into being and why General Motors ended up reclaiming its once-prized creation less than a decade later (2006, 93 min).
LTB 6. Tuesday 6.30pm with follow up discussions in Top Bar.

Cycle maintenance on Wednesdays: Square 5 between 9am and 3pm every Wednesday in term time. The service offers help and advice to cyclists and can do a free cycle maintenance check on your bicycle. Other services offered, please see price list.

Essex Sustainability Institute Seminar – Alison Acton: ‘The Lies of the Land? Foxhunting, Landscape Policy and the Cultural Appropriation of Space’. Room TC.2.10. Thursday 12.30pm-2.00pm.This event is free to attend and no prior registration is required. For more information on the talk and the speaker please visit:

Summary: Week 8

by jacobbhunter

Bike, Jakarta Indonesia. Picture taken by Jonathan McIntosh, 2004. cc-by-2.0

The purpose of this series of posts is to provide an accessible reminder of the week’s compulsory classes. As such it’s of most interest to current students on one of the environmental master’s courses.

Disclaimer: as I’m writing this week do watch out for clanging errors!

Read the rest of this entry »

Visiting and Volunteering

by jacobbhunter

A hoverfly on Sisyrinchium flower at an RSPB Garden.

Some of us have been talking recently about visiting interesting places and doing some environmentally-oriented volunteering. Although I’m not an expert on either subject, I do think that there’s little more inspirational than people actually DOING SOMETHING GOOD, and being one of those people is great fun. Hence, I thought I would take a moment to pass on my experience of these things and maybe in the process encourage others near and far to share their favourite green spaces and fun places.

So, I’m going to start by talking about my own voluntary work, because it’s what I know best.

Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond the Bubble – Climate Change and Corals

by jacobbhunter

Soap Bubble with Sky by Brocken Inaglory

Image: Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

I’ve decided to have a look at climate change stories this week, partly because we are discussing it as a class, but mostly because we’re only a week away from the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference in DOHA.

Aside: Before we begin it might be worth reacquainting yourself with the soon-to-expire Kyoto protocol, as it gets brought up whenever the possibility of international agreement on climate change arises. Fortunately the Guardian have a brief and handy guide as part of their ‘ultimate climate change FAQ’  it reflects, sadly, that “the two biggest emitters of all – the United States and China – churned out more than enough extra greenhouse gas to erase all the reductions made by other countries during the Kyoto period. Worldwide, emissions soared by nearly 40% from 1990 to 2009”. There is more information here and a brief article on criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol here.

Construction in Doha

Image of Doha, April 2009, by Amjira, sourced from the Wikimedia Commons under the creative commons attribution share alike 3.0.

Climate change is undoubtedly the biggest collective action problem of them all, and this Reuters article outlines some of the problems facing this round of negotiation, and this Guardian piece includes some more, while arguing that a global treaty is still worth fighting for. The Guardian’s catch-all-page on climate talks will be worth checking over the next couple of weeks to see how things pan out.

What would it mean to give up on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, or to just not do enough? Surely not coincidentally there have been various reports issued this month, including one by the World Bank reported in The Independent and an analysis by PwC – a huge accountancy firm – neither are exactly positive.

A Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata) resting on hard Acropora coral. Lighthouse, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef

Image of a section of the Great Barrier Reef including some Acropora coral. By Richard Ling, sourced from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence.

I included FOX news in my search for climate-change related stories, and while I didn’t find anything of interest on that topic, I did find a story on human influence upon the Great Barrier Reef.   To (mangle) a quote from the paper on which it’s based:

“[the authors] report a previously undocumented historical collapse of Acropora assemblages at Pelorus Island central … this collapse occurred between 1920 and 1955 … [p]rior to this event, our results indicate remarkable long-term stability in coral community structure over centennial scales”

The paper demonstrates much of what was discussed in one of our recent classes, it’s well worth at least a glance!

On the subject of Proceedings of The Royal Society B you’ll find the current issue useful for its review of the methods by which climate change causes extinction. Even if you only read the abstract it still highlights the complexity of ecosystems, and the inherent difficulty in predicting how such systems will respond to change.

One final thing – a design competition “High Line for London”  released its results recently. It aimed to stimulate green infrastructure ideas along the lines of the Manhattan High Line park, which was converted from a disused railway line. I really like the idea of bringing innovative green spaces into cities, for all kinds of practical reasons, but also because bringing people into touch with green and pleasant land is key to encouraging people to care about nature, and the spaces can be real sources of community well-being.