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You are here: Home Resources Nature and Society, Journal of the Frank Fenner Foundation 2004 Nature & Society - February/March 2004

Nature & Society - February/March 2004

The Forum's Journal

Welcome to another year of trying to improve our own and other�s understanding of humans� relationship with nature. It is a task which seems never ending and never easy, but at least it is now firmly on the public agenda. Fires, water shortages, extreme climatic events have all forced themselves into everyone�s consciousness, and the possible human causes are discussed.

Late last year Nature and Society Forum achieved two milestones in fostering such discussion. In Search of Sustainability, the culmination of the nine months long internet conference which had been run by NSF in conjunction with Australia 21 and Sustainable Population Australia. The full lecture theatre at the Academy of Science was treated to an impressively interesting, informative and entertaining day as speaker after speaker made the most of their few minutes. Congratulations to all the organisations and speakers.

A less publicised event was the running of a couple of trial workshops of the Futures Forum, proposed by Stephen Boyden and based on his PAN (People and Nature) booklet The Big Picture. The two groups who participated were very different, one consisting of students at the University of Canberra, the other a U3A group. A fasinating aspect of this was the often repeated expectation by the older group that the younger one would be more environmentally aware and knowledgeable because the environment features in school education and the media these days. Yet the U3A group, admittedly very small and self-selected, was very knowledgeable whereas the members of the UC group were often surprised by the facts and the connections made in the booklet and the course. It is not common knowledge, for instance, that almost all life on earth is dependent on the photosynthetic activities of plants harvesting sunlight. Possibly, understanding of environmental education and issues matures as an individual ages; it takes time to develop understanding as well as knowledge. As understanding of the connectedness of living creatures develops, so the individual may be prepared to alter their own behaviour and seek to change society�s behaviour to have a less adverse impact on the environment.

Continuing education and growth in understanding is important for individuals and for society as a whole. Modern societies need to learn from the past as authors such as Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery have emphasised. Recently some researchers claimed to have found physical evidence of human induced climate change starting from early farming societies. It certainly would have accelerated with the development of cities, trade and metallurgy. Over two thousand years ago parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands had been deforested, not so much by farming as by early industrialisation. Timber for building ships and as fuel for metal working and firing pottery was in high demand. Cutting of the forests led to soil loss and changes in rainfall. Demand for new forests drove civilisation out of its Middle Eastern cradle and pushed it further west and north, and ultimately to the New World. We think of human-induced climate change as starting with the modern industrialisation that took off in the eighteenth century, but indeed it had been a long time abrewing.

A similarly long gestation period lies behind many of the other deleterious effects on the natural world which we are now beginning to understand have been caused by human actions. We have been slow to pick this up, because for a long time the effect was too small to notice, or was seen as beneficial for our own species, the costs were negligible or at least quite acceptable.

The apochryphal story of the origin of the game of chess is a wonderful example of our problems with the perception of growth. Long ago, the story says, there was a prince who delighted in new games and amusements. When he was presented with the first game of chess he was so pleased that he offered the inventor a rich reward, gold, precious stones, whichever he fancied. �No� said the inventor, �just pay me in wheat � one grain for the first square, two for the next, four for the next, doubling on each of the sixty four squares�. �Oh,� said the prince, �what a poor reward for inventing such a marvellous game! Choose something more valuable�. But no, wheat was what he wanted.

To his dismay, the prince found that this poor reward was far more than he could pay. Two muliplied by itself sixty four times is an astronomical sum that works out to being more than 500,000,000,000 tonnes of wheat. So it is with any material thing that keeps doubling, whether it is population of humans, mice or bacteria, use of any material resources or generation of waste products. Eventually the cost becomes too high to pay. The system will break down and there will have to be a new beginning.

It is fun to play with numbers as in the chess board problem, but too few people understand them. It would be good if more people could do so; then surely they could understand that continous growth is something that the world cannot sustain. That realisation is needed now, while we have some room to manoeuvre, before change is forced on us by a really large scale calamity.


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Forthcoming NSF meetings

18 February, 2004

Vanessa Whelan, "ACT NOWaste, Department of Urban Services.�

Vanessa works for the NOWaste program and will be speaking about the current programs and future initiatives, as well as SHINE.

17 March, 2004

Jaye Allen, "Pollution and rubbish in Benin."

Jaye Allan teaches languages at Karabar High School in Queanbeyan. Since the Global Greens conference in Canberra in 2001 she has been writing free French-English translations for the African Greens Federation over the email. She was invited to attend a Benin Greens women�s conference 10-13 December 2003 and spent 3 weeks in Benin. She will talk specifically on major environmental and social problems in Benin: pollution and rubbish. Hopefully our members can suggest solutions that the Greens there can put into practice.

21 April, 2004

David Dumaresq, "Organic Wheat Farming".

David Dumaresq will discuss the agroecological findings of research he conducted on an organic wheat farm at Ardlethan, NSW.

Other events of interest

We would like to draw the attention of readers to the publication of a wonderful book of photographs taken by Dianne Thompson, mother of our Treasurer, Alice. It is called Ring of fire 2003, and is a pictorial record of the impacts of the fire on the natural environment around ACT and of the subsequent regeneration of vegetation. Every picture is a work of art. We congratulate Dianne on her extraordinary achievement.

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Vital Water

At the In Search of Sustainability Conference on 14th November, Professor Peter Cullen said that the health of our rivers is not an optional extra. He announced the governmental agreement of the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council returning 500 gigalitres to the Murray River, to help restore the health of the Murray River. Although that river system needs an estimated 1500 gigalitres, at least the 500 Gl is a step in the right direction after 200 years of �exploitation, and subsequent devastation. As well as restoring flows to the river, the program will also address the declining health of the river system by restoring six key ecological assets: the Barmah-Millewa Forest, Gunbower and Perricoota-Koondrok Forests, the Hattah Lakes, Chowilla Floodplain, the Murray Mouth, Coorong and Lower Lakes, and the River Murray channel.

Peter Cullen said that all Australians have a right to safe, domestic water, and we have a responsibility to use water efficiently. Urban water users need to change their habits and reduce demand. He gave projections for a study he is doing for Melbourne�s future water supply, and even with their present water restrictions there will not be enough water by 2030. He said Australians need to be more water literate.

Dr Graham Harris, CSIRO, said he thought that Sustainability should be an issue for the next election. Food, water and energy are inter-related, and climate change will impact on these. He pointed out that humans want water security, but in Australia our environment thrives on variability, and we have been wasteful of water, not just from our rivers but from underground supplies. Water from bores in the Great Artesian Basin has been wasted so much that the pressures have dropped, and although South Australia has capped most bores, all bores should be capped within two years or licences should be stopped.

He gave figures of a study done in the Eurobodalla Shire showing that with an ecological footprint of 8 hectares per person, it would be 20 years before the area reached the limit of its natural resources, but as Australians have an ecological footprint of 14 ha, those natural resources will be exhausted in 11 years!

He urged that a voice be created from the community that is heard politically. �The conflicting demands and needs in human society in relation to living sustainably with our environment raise issues of ethics, values, spirituality and different worldviews.

Report by Wendy Rainbird.

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Gold Plated Garbage

The intriguing title of our October meeting did not induce many members to join us in discussing garbage problems. Our speaker, David Dumaresq, has been involved with Sydney�s attempts to shift the city�s waste problem out of the Sydney Basin into other areas. Essentially Sydney authorities do not want their own water supply to be polluted by their garbage � someone else can have it!

David, who works in the Human Ecology program, ANU, owns an organic farm near Ardlethan, on the edge of the riverine plain between Temora and Griffith. When a proposal was put forward to rehabilitate an old heavy metal mine site at Ardlethan by filling it with garbage, David got involved and became an expert witness to the enquiry on the suitability of the site.

It was intended that Ardlethan should take class 1 waste, a horrifying assortment including road reconstruction materials, street sweepings, biosolids, lead waste, oil filters, nursing home waste, vegetable waste, night soil, food processing waste and unrecognisable body parts!

This waste was to be compacted and wrapped in Sydney before being railed 400 km to the mine site. There, one and a half million cubic metres would fit into the disused mine and the rest of 25 million cubic metres would have been mounded on top to make a hill about the size of Mt Majura. This was to be covered by soil and vegetated. No consideration had been taken of the risk to agriculture in the region, and this risk, when brought to the attention of the authorities, helped to scupper the project.

In 1995 Sydney had only enough space left for the disposal of nine years worth of putrescible waste, so the matter was becoming urgent. Attention moved to the Woodlawn mine site, another heavy metal mine that is actually big enough to take the whole 25 million cubic metres of rubbish, without building a hill, although its piles of tailings will be left as landscaped hills.

Woodlawn is to take compostable waste only. All loads leaving Sydney are to be videoed and checked. They will be machine compacted into 40 tonne blocks in shipping containers. Liquid exudate will be collected and transferred to a toxic liquid site. The solids will be railed 250 km to Tarago where a transfer station has been built.

The garbage will be anaerobically composted and is expected to produce enough methane to power a 50 kW power station.

Although the Woodlawn site is �one of the best�, sitting on an �unfractured� granite block, it also sits right on the Great Divide, with water flowing both into the Sydney Basin and into the Murray catchment. This dump will certainly not solve Sydney�s garbage problem, for there are mountains of non-putrescible waste that will have to be sent elsewhere. It had been hoped that waste reduction strategies would reduce the total load by 60% but there has been almost no reduction.

With the move away from Government responsibility for waste, private companies will be out to make as much profit as possible from the business. So Collex, the waste disposal company involved, will have no motivation to reduce waste, it may actually encourage the generation of more putrescible waste to fuel its bioreactor. Councils will be left to cope with all the more intractable waste and very expensive recycling schemes.

David Dumaresq left us with the following conclusions. To cope with waste we must have:

  • processing at the dump
  • processing at collection
  • processing before collection
  • create less in the first place

To cope with toxic sites (including mines)

  • rehabilitate existing sites
  • make the creators of the sites clean up before they leave
  • create no more such sites

Since discussing the Woodlawn site and the whole garbage problem with David it has been interesting to watch the NSW Government coercing Parliament to pass special legislation to enable the dump to go ahead. Collex needs a waste transfer station at Clyde, in Sydney�s west, for the despatch of waste to Woodlawn. Local residents took the matter to the Land and Environment Court, which rejected the facility. Parliament passed special laws in December to enable the station at Clyde to go ahead. One of the many considerations was that former miners at Woodlawn would not receive the five million dollars that Collex had promised to pay them unless the landfill project proceeded, the mining company having failed to pay off its workers.

Jenny Wanless

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Staying Young, Growing Old

Alex Barlow presented a stimulating talk to the November meeting, our first in the new premises at Weston Creek School. Alex had retired from text-book writing and launched himself into studies for a law degree. He graduated, practised and became fascinated by the contrast between his view of retirement as a launching pad into an active, liberated life and the attitude of others around him who seemed to let go and lapse into a life around the TV. He is now working on a book with the provisional title of his talk to us.

Alex drew three lessons from Lewis Carroll�s poem �Father William�:

  1. Don�t become age-addled, set in your ways, backwards-looking; stay young by thinking young.
  2. Stand up for your right to be unorthodox; have firm expectations of yourself well into the future; don�t be afraid to begin a project solely because you may not live to see it through.
  3. Don�t listen to people who want you to act your age; don�t be a slave to convention. Remain mentally and physically spry. Continue to meet strangers and establish new friendships.

His talk was illustrated by strong metaphors and catch-phrases, a feature which added to the way it stimulated us to think: we are all growing old or observing others grow old and so all could embellish Alex�s observations from our own experiences. Some of us could see that Alex�s individualistic focus appeared to ignore social and societal issues that work against the aspirations of individuals to live out their dream of an ageless old-age.

Alex told us that ageing is really about mental ageing; we stop growing up and begin growing old when our mind allows us to do so. We need to made a deliberate choice to stay young.

Alex gave us a couple of �mental experiments�: write down five things that you see as characteristic of old age; write down five things characteristic of youthfulness. Some may find this the foundation of a rewarding exercise as spontaneous answers are different from those that are well considered. If you run the experiment again, months later when you have forgotten your earlier answers, the differences can be the springboard to useful life planning.

Alex quoted the examples of Judith Wright, Jon Cleary, Laurie Daley and Malcolm Fraser to show how others have retained a willingness to change, to �keep the flame�, that we can begin again and - most importantly - that we can �move on� building on experiences and knowledge gained. Alex did not discuss approaches where beginning again is constrained by, for example, irreversible disease and earlier life choices. He did, however, alert us to the need to avoid thinking that the boundaries of our comfort zone should not be considered insurmountable.

For those coming to the end of their life of paid employment, Alex said that the removal of the structure and identity provided by employment was something many found like a death sentence. Others, however, rejoiced in the liberation from competing, timetables and deadlines. Margie said that we should begin preparing for our old age from our early 50s.

Almost everyone in the audience contributed to the discussion after Alex�s talk; a tribute to the accessibility of Alex�s stimulating presentation.

Keith Thomas

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Life in Benin

Scrambling through my mosquito net, I reached for the lever to close the louvres and stop the smoke billowing into my room. Outside behind the house, on the orange sand one of the kids had started a fire with long, thin, cream Teak trunks. The convex blackened metal pot had been set on three bricks. Fermented cornmeal porridge was bubbling away for breakfast.

While still half-dreaming around 5am I�d vaguely heard the rhythmic strokes of a bunch of short grass swishing over the concrete floor, the crows of roosters and bleats of goats. Then French radio started up loudly.

I got up, turned off the fan and glimpsed a cluster of plastic cord poking out of the concrete. I closed the louvres on the other side of the room. In the humid heat a pawpaw tree was draped languidly over the high concrete wall surrounding the house. A brown lizard with a yellow head and a long red tail scuttled past.

Over by the banana trees Ignace was pulling the tattered cloth rope strongly through the rusty pulley. The metal bucket rose from the bottom of the concrete well, passing a handful of ferns and moss. When he had about five buckets he carried them one by one into the bathroom. The black plastic barrel had to be filled, so the blue plastic bowl bobbing in the top could tip the cold water over someone having a shower. And one bucket was for tipping down the toilet bowl. At least there was one, even if it didn�t flush. (At friends� places there was a hole in the concrete floor and a moist spot by the outside wall with two bricks to stand on.) Thongs, made in China were de rigueur here, where the concrete floor was always wet. And as soon as the cool water was wiped with the towel, I was again wet, soaked in sweat.

Breakfast was sometimes boiling water tipped over coffee, sugar lumps and a drizzle of tinned condensed milk in a shallow metal bowl. And fresh baguettes for dunking. Or other times the thick, sour gruel was stirred through with tinned evaporated milk. There was a bar fridge but no fresh milk.

Anyway, breakfast was usually rushed. Each morning the kids took turns to go to school. They�d get up from spending the night in a plastic chair, on a grass mat or sharing a single bed. They dressed in their uniforms, grabbing clothes from plastic bags, piles on the floor or off coathangers on the bed. They took their books from the table in the loungeroom and swished through the material hung over the door. There was work to be done. The sandy yard under spreading fig trees had to be swept with the short grass broom. The dishes, lined up on a low wooden shelf by the well had to be washed in a large metal bowl. Every few days clothes had to be washed by hand in the same large metal bowl. You could lean down the whole time, or sit on one of the tiny wooden stools. Washing, rubbing, scrubbing, rinsing. And hanging the clothes out to dry on the lines swung along the high concrete wall and slung under the trees. Under the watchful gaze of a tribe of lizards of all sizes, ready at any time to scuttle away.

Passing two derelict cars covered in cloth, bricks and dust. Up onto the step and out through the metal door. A straggly funnel of concrete walls and metal doors. No impressive frontages or letterboxes here. The alleyway was a tumble of sandy corrugations, wandering goats and chickens, gambolling motor bikes and groups of people slowly walking, swathed in multicoloured cloth. A bundle of signs placed in a tyre at an intersection identified a makeshift hair salon doing plaits, a mechanics repair yard, an agouti breeder and an IT college.

Out on the main road, traffic was hectic. It was always hectic. Swarms of zemidjians (motorbikes) zooming along bearing people swathed in multicoloured cloth, huge bags of yams, rice, couscous, manioc and cornflour, wicker baskets of chickens and Guinea fowl, live goats, flagons of peanut and palm oil and mattresses. You just stand on the side of the road, careful not to fall into a deep open drain. In the maze of billboards proclaiming government health and environmental messages and ads for mobile phones, Guinness and Maggi stock cubes. A zemidjian driver in a yellow T shirt, or a taxi driver will take you where you want to go for a few hundred Central African francs. Mind you, no taxi goes anywhere without seven people crammed in, and more with children and babies cloth-strapped to their mothers.

After a few hours squashed uncomfortably on a sideways angle you call into a carpark. Women swathed in colourful cloth, balancing large metal bowls on their heads, dash over and huddle in a bunch proffering pineapples, green bananas, pawpaws, watermelons, mangoes, fresh and smoked fish, red cheese and yam biscuits. You settle for a green coconut, lopped open with a machete and pour the fresh juice down your neck. Then she breaks it open and you slurp the gloop. You hand her a few coins and smile at her baby, cloth-strapped to her back.

Ambling off through the markets you pass piles of colourful cloth, wicker baskets of potatoes and onions, neat pyramids of tomatoes and peeled yellow oranges, bonnet chillies, cabbage and carrots, corn cobs and a hard leafy spinach. Watch where your feet are treading for corn husks, fruit and vegetable scraps, goats poo, plastic bags and rubbish. Vendors ring bells to get your attention and continue to ring them while you browse. A young man waltzes by with a cardboard box on his head, full of toothbrushes and plastic knick-knacks from China. The crush starts to get to you, as you get shoved up against a stall where women sell artificial plaits and several wooden carts are pulled through the crowd, which erupts into a strange yelling as a fleet-footed youth slips out of the corner of your eye.

As you�re bumping back along the sandy ridges in the dark there are few lights, only small oil lamps at market stalls. Thick black smoke chokes your lungs as the driver calls into a wooden stall. A woman wraps a long scarf around one of the bottles stacked on the table in the humid heat - beer bottles, wine bottles and huge, bulbous glass amphorae and pours illegally smuggled cheap Nigerian leaded petrol into the tank. These stalls line both sides of the roads and you wonder what would happen if all the bottles exploded. A flurry of petrol and exhaust fumes whipped up with sand and glass and wood and humanity.

Back at the concrete bunker, the women have been bending over the cooking pot, swathed in smoke for hours. The family is ready for dinner, sitting as usual in plastic chairs around the wooden table on the verandah. Out of a blue plastic esky come small plastic tubs of steamed cornflour or yam puddings. Then ladled out of the cooking pot is a sauce of garlic, onion, tomato and chilli, or sometimes crushed peanuts or palm nuts, and floating chunks of liver, tripe or smoked fish. Sesame seed balls boiled in spinach, or okra cooked to a slimy green slurry make a nice accompaniment. You tip several puddings onto your metal plate, pull off a lump of pudding in your right hand and dip it into the stew. Washed down with a warm Beninese beer or fizzy drink.

Then as the young tutors come by to go over the day�s lessons with the kids, filling blackboards with chalked exercises until late at night, you go back to your room, turn on the fan, clamber under the mosquito net and sleep another night in Benin.

Jaye Allen


Books - on anything - in French and English.
For the town library in the stilt village of Ganvie in Benin. Please contact Jaye Allan on: (02) 6299 5574 or

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Quite a Year

What an interesting year it has been for us! After the usual hot and lethargic early weeks of January our house burnt down and then it all started. The disappointment at losing half a century of collected treasures was mixed with the relief of getting rid of things that have kept annoying us but that we could never make ourselves throw out. Now we�ll never more be irritated over those window closers that always broke down and we�ll never have to look up words in that awful scrabble dictionary.

The bother with lost documents and files contrasted with the excitement of planning our own house. It was to be so much better than any ready-made house on the market. The estimates of times for building approval and for construction were promising but turned out to be quite unrealistic. Instead of getting into the new house in around 6 months, we are after 12 months still only approaching building start.

There has been a combination of administrative hiccups and reluctance from builders to take on unconventional constructions. The inspiring plans for a solar passive house drawn up by an expert architect were daunting to some builders and they did not easily conform to the bureaucratic rules. It turned out to be a fact that people who don�t run a car and don�t plan to contribute to greenhouse emission in that particular way still have to have two parking places for cars, one under cover! So what on our plans is a garage will in fact be a useful room instead. The tub in the studio for washing paint brushes was suspected to be a clandestine dual occupancy feature, the appearance of the house was not residential enough and the front door was not visible enough. Some bureaucrats are not known for accepting unusual features! But approval came in the end.

For many there has been the problem of on what to blame the fires. No pyromaniac teenagers, no careless campers, no electric short-circuits were at hand, just natural lightning strikes. So the blamers had to direct their attention to the government, the fire fighters and nature conservation policies. It seems that people who afterwards know exactly what they would have done in a specific situation, also have a need to tell the world that they would have done better than those responsible.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience has been the rallying of support by society as well as by the government and the insurance company. Clothes, accommodation and furniture have been offered from friends and acquaintances; compensation and freebies have been given from fundraising events, from the government and the insurance company. It has again become evident that problems are much easier to deal with if you share them. Likewise, the joyful experiences are increased by being shared.

G�sta Lyng�

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Valuable Bats

Insectivorous bats eat half their body weight in insects each night. In Texas alone bats are considered to be worth a billion dollars a year as insect controllers.

Top Bat ABC TV 28 Dec 03

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Cooking Vegetables

A Spanish team has reported on the effect of various methods of cooking on the antioxidants such as flavonoids in broccoli. Steamed broccoli still contained about ninety per cent of its original flavonoids, boiled broccoli only twenty per cent but microwaving destroyed almost all the flavonoids. Possibly the high internal temperature generated by microwaves caused the destruction.

A Finnish study showed that the routine practice of blanching vegetables before freezing reduced antioxidant levels by up to a third. Unfortunately, for those who think eating vegetables raw would solve the problem, earlier studies have shown that the human gut is not able to absorb most of the nutrients in raw vegetables.

New Scientist 25 Oct 03

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Food or Feedback: agriculture, population dynamics and the state of the planet. By A. Duncan Brown, International Books, Utrecht, the Netherlands 2003.

�Any system in a state of positive feedback will destroy itself unless a limit is placed on the flow of energy through that system.�

Without sufficient food and water living creatures die. As humans we may have an almost endless list of needs and wants to enhance our lives, but without food and water all the rest are useless.

In �Feed or Feedback� Duncan Brown is trying to draw our attention to the most serious problem that will face us in the next few generations. That is the threat to our food and water supplies brought on us by our own actions. Members of NSF have had this warning presented to us before, in meetings with both Duncan himself and with Brian Fleay. The latter, concentrating on oil, pointed out that industrial agriculture is basically a way to convert fossil fuel into food � and of course, oil will run out.

Duncan Brown, in this book, probes deeply into the history of agriculture and shows that modern industrial agriculture is intrinsically unsustainable. In a natural system negative feedback loops are the norm, for example the predator-prey relationship where numbers are kept in check. Humans broke away from this way back, inventing agriculture and setting up positive feedback loops (vicious circles) between food supply and population growth. With a small food surplus population grew slowly, but large surpluses have stimulated massive growth.

This growth has been at enormous cost. Our vaunted efficiency has turned agriculture into a one-way mining venture. We mine the minerals in the soil and in naturally occuring deposits of fertiliser such as phosphate rock and transport them to coastal cities or then overseas where these precious minerals are flushed down sewers, causing a whole new set of problems in waterways and seas.

After his historical case studies and detailed analysis Duncan Brown concludes that there are certain conditions that must be met if we are to achieve anything approaching sustainability and avoid major ecological collapse. We must:

  1. End the positive feedback interaction between the human population and its food supply
  2. Change the structure and dynamics of agriculture to ensure that the flow of nutrients between the soil and the human population is wholly reversible
  3. Manage the global ecosystem to ensure that there is no further reduction in the genetic heterogeneity of terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems
  4. Withdraw from commercial production all land where the growth of crops depends absolutely on irrigation and all grazing land in regions of less than 300 mm annual rainfall

�Feed or Feedback� is dense with information and takes a lot of reading, but it is lightened with a sense of humour. A great deal of the information is stored in appendices and notes, to keep the text flowing. There is also an extensive bibliography.

This book should be required reading for all politicians, trade negotiators, economists and business managers, but they are unlikely to read it or understand it. The book will appeal to those who are already concerned about the problems human development is causing to the planet.

George Bush has just announced a new push to put humans into space. This is a big technological problem which can probably be solved by spending lots of money. Learning to live sustainably on earth is just as big a technological problem`, which will require lots of money, but even more understanding, good will and humility. What a pity it will be to �conquer� space but lose the earth!

Jenny Wanless

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Green Light for Walkers

The government wants to turn Britain�s traffic lights against motorists. A new plan to promote walking will allow local councils to rephase thousands of traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and other junctions to give priority to people on foot. It is a radical reworking of the principles of road engineering, which for more than 40 years have given priority to a smooth flow of cars.

Under the new scheme, to be laid out in a National Walking Strategy due for publication this winter, pedestrians will have priority in urban areas. Cyclists will have second priority, public transport will be third and motor vehicles last.

How the strategy is applied will be left to local authorities, but Department for Transport documents make the government�s preferences clear.

Measures likely to have the greatest impact include cutting the time taken for lights to turn red against cars at the thousands of pedestrian crossings and junctions where pedestrian green lights are activated by push buttons.

Pedestrians currently wait up to two minutes at such crossings, prompting many to ignore the lights and cross whenever a gap appears in the traffic.

Another would see more puffin crossings, which detect pedestrians and turn lights against cars as people approach. The most radical change, mainly for largely pedestrianised city centres, would see lights permanently switched in favour of pedestrians. Detectors would spot cars but make them wait before the lights change.

Transport department studies show that the longer the wait for lights to turn in favour of pedestrians, the higher the rate of traffic accidents.

Rod Tolley, director of the Centre for Alternative and Sustainable Transport at Staffordshire University, who advised the government on walking strategies, said: �Streets should not be just for transport. They are for shopping, doing business and living in.�

Some authorities have tested such measures already. Nottingham city council is among the most radical, and some of its schemes cited in the forthcoming strategy include a policy of filling in pedestrian subways and creating surface-level road crossings with traffic lights that stop cars within seconds of a pedestrian approaching.

Dorset county council engineers have been reducing the response time when someone presses the button at a crossing and turning the lights red for longer to give people more time to cross. A spokesman described early trials as �a great success�.

The Walking Strategy has had one of the longest gestation periods of any government policy - around six years.

The problem, say insiders, is that politicians feared becoming �the minister for silly walks�. A Whitehall source said: �John Cleese�s Monty Python sketch has done more damage than Henry Ford to the promotion of walking.�

UK Sunday Times 29 Oct 03

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Field Trials

The world�s largest scientific study of farm ecology was completed in Britain recently. Over four years researchers made 4,000 visits to 283 trial fields, collecting millions of plants, seeds and insects so they could compare biodiversity in normal crops with genetically modified crops of sugar beet, oil-seed rape (canola) and maize.

The results of the trial were remarkably consistent across the four years and different locations. The GM beet and rape harboured fewer insects than the conventional crops, but with maize the result was the other way round. However, as the researchers point out, it would not matter whether the herbicide-resistance of the crops had been achieved by GM technology or by selective breeding, the difference is caused by crop management techniques.

One very significant finding from the trial was the very low insect numbers in any of the maize plots. It is suspected that wheat fields would have similar or even lower biodiversity. The most important lesson could be that a return to mixed farming would be the best way to restore wildlife diversity in the countryside.

New Scientist 25 Oct 03

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Garlic Power

Allicin, one of the compounds in garlic, can kill the dreaded MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus, which is responsible for about 2000 deaths in British hospitals each year. What is more, allicin is also effective against the new superbugs that are resistant to �last resort� antibiotics such as vancomycin.

A clinical trial in Britain involving 200 volunteers will test the efficacy of medications containing allicin, including a nasal cream, oral capsules and soaps.

The Canberra Times 29 Dec 03

The Sliver Cell

A great new advance in photovoltaic technology has been announced by the ANU�s Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems. The new Sliver Cell uses only one tenth as much silicon as conventional photovoltaic cells use, (and less effort in processing) so will be much cheaper. The cells are long, narrow, thin and flexible. They can be used in solar window panes and architectural cladding. New uses could be in glass soundproofing along roads and in solar powered aircraft, as the cells can use sunlight coming from both sides.

The Canberra Times 9 Dec 03

Poison Peas

Legumes are highly nutritious plants, eaten by many species. For the western grey kangaroos of WA, pea plants make up about a quarter of their diet. But these pea plants contain sodium monofluoroacetate, otherwise known as 1080, commonly used in rabbit, fox and dingo bait.

The native mammals, birds and reptiles of the south coast of Western Australia have developed considerable tolerance for 1080. The common brush tail possums there can tolerate up to 150 times as much of the poison as their eastern relatives can. The presence of the poison bushes kept European stock out of some areas, thus helping to retain areas of bush. It also helped the numbat to survive in the area when it was wiped out across the rest of its wide range across southern Australia.

Nature Australia Spring 2003

Fat Bears

Wild Black bears in the USA are the latest victims of the obesity pandemic, following the bad eating habits of humans and their pets. The New York based Wildlife Conservation Society has reported that in some areas the bears can be grouped as country or city bears. Country bears live in the wild and spend thirteen or so hours a day looking for food to acquire the 20,000 calories per day they need, to fatten up for hibernation.

City bears spend only eight hours a day foraging for human leftovers, and, with the year round supply, forgo hibernation and keep on eating. Normally black bears weigh 100 � 136 kg, but some city bears weighed in at 272 kg, with a quarter of them being over 181 kg. With the bears opting for a city lifestyle they are also having more contact with humans and their vehicles. Many are killed by cars.

The Canberra Times 28 Nov 03

Dwindling Reindeer

Ten years of study by Norwegian scientists have shown that construction of hydroelectric dams, power lines, pipelines, roads and ski resorts are threatening Europe�s last remaining herds of wild reindeer. The herds keep a wary four kilometres away from development, so reindeer in south-west Norway have fragmented into 26 isolated sub-populations.

Overall seventy per cent of the habitat has been lost. Most seriously, flooding by hydroelectric dams is preventing animals from reaching their summer pastures and calving grounds. There has been a very sharp drop in breeding rates.

The Canberra Times 23 Dec 03

Unfit Salmon

The release of farmed salmon into the wild could lead to the devastation of wild stocks. Irish researchers studying hybrid wild/farmed salmon found that nearly three quarters of third generation hybrids died within their first few weeks. This could be the result of gene shuffling breaking up combinations of genes adapted to life in the wild. An estimated 2 million fish escape from Atlantic salmon farms each year, posing a possible threat to wild populations.

New Scientist 25 Oct 03

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