eco news

Conservation Triage And Zombie Species

March 20th, 2014.

So this is what it’s come to – figuring out the species to save and those we allow to become extinct due to a lack of resources (and will) . Which will become the “living dead” and zombie species. How will we choose?

“I’m afraid to tell everybody we’re in a terminal situation. We’re confronting a whole raft of species about to go over the extinction cliff,” says Professor David Bowman, an expert in environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania.

It seems that even with the resources invested to date and a general increase in environmental awareness, not a single Australian species has come off the threatened list for over a decade.

Professor Corey Bradshaw from the Environment Institute’s Climate and Ecology Centre at The University of Adelaide makes specific mention of one of Australia’s iconic areas.

“Kakadu National Park, our largest national park, is basically a biodiversity basket case.”

The following image shows one of the reasons.

feral catFeral cat – Image Credit: Jake Weigl

Feral cats are one of the culprits slaughtering our wildlife and pushing species over the brink into extinction. It only takes a few generations for a household cat to turn into this sort of killing machine. Even the smaller first generation ferals (the domestic cats  gone wild) are incredibly efficient hunters.

Cats have no place in Australia. However, the cats didn’t swim over here. We brought them.

But back to the grim assessment by Professor Bowman. I totally understand what he’s saying; but what a sad day it is when this has become the reality – that we now need to choose what species we try to rescue and what we allow to disappear into oblivion. It’s utter failure. If this isn’t a wake-up call, nothing is.

I look at some of the species on my patch of Australia, a couple of which are threatened; and I wonder if they’ll still be there for whoever owns the place to see in just 50 years from now – or anywhere else in Australia for that matter.

I removed most of the feral cats (I think) a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure they are back again. I can keep removing the cats; but they’ll just keep coming. It will take a concerted effort from all landholders for miles around to fix the problem and then it will still be temporarily, because while people in the region keep cats, it will just keep repeating.

And that’s just the cats – then there’s the foxes, the feral goats, etc. etc. etc .. and of course, the humans. My own impact isn’t lost upon me.

While all the little green things we do have some positive effect, it’s a band-aid covering a gangrenous wound. This is not going to fix our “basket case” way of interacting with our planet.

If we stop at the little green things and don’t properly tackle the big problems; we’ll still wind up with a planet that looks very different from today reasonably soon – and be poorer for it.

Composting Roadkill

October 8th, 2013.

I shudder to think how many animals are killed globally each year as the result of collisions with vehicles.

We’re not exactly short on kangaroos in Australia, but it still makes me sad to see one dead on the side of the road; particularly knowing that it may have suffered.

It’s a waste of life, but also a waste generally – and a single dead roo can result in other animal deaths too as creatures coming in to feed on it may also be struck.

It’s an issue just about everywhere, but the island state of Tasmania has a particularly severe roadkill problem. The lives of approximately 300,000 animals a year are violently ended by collisions (the state’s population is a bit over 500,000). That figure includes 3,000 Tasmanian Devils; which are in a world of trouble as is even without the vehicular threat.

The issue of roadkill numbers is one thing; but what about the results? That’s another problem.

These dead animals, if they are picked up by authorities, are often just treated as waste. That’s tragic on an emotional level, but also on a resource level too. These carcasses are basically one big bag of nutrients.

According to ABC News, there is now a push in Tasmania to compost roadkill. It seems if it were successful, it wouldn’t be the first place in the world to take such an action.

The US state of Montana has been doing it for years – there’s even a very detailed roadkill compost handbook (PDF) freely available from the Montana Department Of Transportation; which will be a great resource for the Tasmanian government if it decides to pursue the option.

Still, the composting of roadkill is only tackling the outcome of the problem; not the cause. As someone who has hit a couple of kangaroos during his time driving; I will never forget the look on these poor creature’s faces in their dying moments – total confusion. While this is anthropomorphising the experience; it’s almost as if they were communicating to me the concept of “what the hell did I do to you to deserve this?”.

Since getting rid of my previous choice of vehicle (mini-van) to something more suited to the conditions I usually drive in these days, I haven’t struck a single animal – roo or otherwise (touch wood). It’s a case of collateral damage prevention being better than any composting ‘cure’.

Ugly Animals Need Protection Too

September 26th, 2013.

I never was much of a fan of creepy crawlies until I started working with composting worms. They didn’t particularly repel me, but I just didn’t find them to be attractive, even bearing their importance in mind.

That’s all changed – I now think worms are beautiful creatures and I can even see beauty in blowflies – something we have plenty of here. It may not be a fuzzy koala bear sort of cuteness (btw, koalas can be cranky and smelly critters), more a beauty grounded in awe of nature’s intricate designs.

One of the challenges of preserving biodiversity is the cuteness factor. The plight of the panda gets a lot of attention and dollars, but what about something like this:

australian-blobfishImage credit: Greenpeace

That lovely looking fellow is the blobfish – recently voted as the world’s ugliest animal by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

The blobfish lives at depths between 600 and 1,200 metres off the Australian coast – the pressure at that depth is enough to crush most creatures. Gelatinous in nature and with a density slightly less than water; it’s not the most athletic of fish – it mainly sits on the bottom or floats just above it waiting for prey to come into range.

There are fears for the blobfish’s survival due to deep-ocean trawling. I know from first- hand experience that bottom trawling is incredibly destructive as I used to work on trawlers. The practice rips up the bottom and scoops up everything in its path not fast enough to swim away. Even with the zippier creatures, the clanging of the metal boards and ground gear on the ocean bottom helps drive the fish into the maw of the net; which is hidden by the cloud of muck stirred up.

I saw many weird and wonderful aquatic animals during my fishing years – many, many thousands of creatures that I would unceremoniously shovel over the side – dead or dying – as they were “trash”.

As ugly or inedible they may have been, I have since learned they are anything but trash. All play their role in an aquatic ecosystem; all are valuable – and all these species should be preserved unless natural processes dictate otherwise.

For a look at another less-than-pretty animal (in my opinion), one I’ve had the umm.. pleasure of handling, check out my post on the hagfish (you might want to put down that sandwich first if the blobfish pic hasn’t already motivated you to).

Land Use And Calories

August 30th, 2013.

Instead of growing more to meet the food needs of an increasing population (and razing even more of the planet as we do so); perhaps we just need to change what we are growing.

A recent study states more than a third of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed.

Just 12% of those feed calories wind up as part of human nutrition in the form of meat, dairy, eggs etc.

Researchers at the Institute on the Environment (IonE), University of Minnesota, say growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could in principle increase available food calories by as much as 70% – enough to feed another 4 billion people.

While my skin crawls at the prospect of another 4 billion souls on this planet, the basic points they are making are very important.

It’s not just feed for animals sucking up a tremendous amount of existing agricultural and natural resources either – the siphoning from biofuel crops rose from 1% to 4% of the total caloric count between 2000 and 2010.

“Even small shifts in our allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuels could significantly increase global food availability, and could be an instrumental tool in meeting the challenges of ensuring global food security,” states the study (PDF).

Other tweakery could have a positive impact too. For example, the researchers state shifting grain-fed beef production to pork and chicken production could increase feed conversion efficiencies from 12% to 23%. In doing so, this would represent an extra 357 million additional people able to be fed.

Personally, I’d rather see a focus on seeing that the human head count didn’t expand by X billion. But even if population did stabilize (dreaming I know), applying similar changes could provide major benefits now; not just in terms of human health but also preventing even more natural habitat being destroyed. In fact, we could reverse some of the environmental damage we’ve done.

The point the study makes about chicken is one we meat-eaters can act on now. By switching grain-fed beef from our diets to free range chicken or grass-fed beef, we can lighten our environmental footprint a little.


Tips for reducing meat consumption
Mock meat recommendations

Recycled Pet Reminder

August 26th, 2013.

A story on the plight of dogs in Detroit is a reminder to make your next pet a “recycled” one.

Times have been very tough in Detroit for some years and the situation has not only impacted its two-legged inhabitants, but the four-legged ones too. This Bloomberg report states as many as 50,000 stray dogs now roam the streets and vacant homes of the city.

The situation is incredibly tragic for all concerned – the dogs, the people that are living among them all and those that are left to try and deal with the issue.

I spend more time around a dog than people these days, so maybe that’s why stories like this really get to me – but it’s also because I used to volunteer in a shelter many years ago. I assisted in destroying many dogs and cats – and dealing with the remains.

To have a perfectly healthy dog licking your hand while you help kill it – its only crime being that it is unwanted – is heart-breaking. To then throw that limp body into an incinerator like a piece of garbage because someone else treated it as such just made it worse.

We’re such a throw-away society. People sometimes think when they abandon a pet; someone else will take care of it. Too often, that does not happen. These animals, through no fault of their own, then become a problem.

If these unwanted dogs don’t wind up in a shelter or the pound early on, they may turn feral and wreak havoc on other animals and humans. If they breed; environmental and other issues are just compounded.

Please, if you are considering getting a dog; think about a “recycled” one from an animal shelter. You’ll find many of these animals are house-trained, well behaved and eager to join a “pack” again – your family. Most shelters will observe the dog for a while first to ascertain what type of person or family it will suit and any behavioural issues.

Depending on the shelter, the cost will sometimes include spaying and vaccination. The money you spend will also help the shelter care for other animals; plus make a space so another dog may have a chance at a better life with someone that will care for it.

Learn more about recycled pets

Fracking Up The Water Supply 2

August 18th, 2013.

Fracking can screw up our water supplies – and it goes beyond contamination by fracking chemicals.

Hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is used to gain access to reserves of oil and natural gas.

Fracking involves the injection of fluids, chemicals and sand under high pressure to fracture rock or coal seams to access the fossil fuel bounty they contain or is trapped underneath.

It’s becoming clearer that fracking is environmentally destructive; exposing the claim that natural gas is “green” to be just greenwashing.

Image credit: Mikenorton

Back in 2010, I mentioned a case of water wells in a township in Pennsylvania where toxic chemicals had been detected – chemicals used in fracking. As fracking for gas and oil increases, so too do the number of incidents whereby groundwater is contaminated; not just by chemicals, but also by methane in levels high enough that it can be ignited at household water taps in some instances.

There’s another major impact fracking has on water supplies – the use of local groundwater. Townships in Texas are running out of the precious stuff to water crops and supply households it seems; and fracking operations the areas are thought to be a major culprit.

The Guardian reports in one county, fracking accounts for up to 25% of water use. The residential wells in the town of another county have run dry.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good of course – some landowners in these counties are making a motza from selling water from their deeply-sunk wells to oil companies.

However, once that water is gone – it’s gone; not just for them but those around them. Even if rain should fall, it can take a very long time for aquifers to recharge. It will also be a very long time before the communities these water entrepreneurs live in forget about what deprived them of their own supply.

Fracking isn’t just ripping apart the rock beneath the landscape, it’s ripping apart communities.

Water contamination, fugitive emissions, water consumption, sand mining and heck, even earthquakes – there’s not a lot of good environmentally speaking in fracking; nor in the products that result. Yet, we continue – and with the price of oil and gas looking set to rise; it only makes environmentally catastrophic fossil fuel extraction processes such as fracking and tar sands even more lucrative.


Natural Gas And The Environment

Big Soda Defeated In Australia

August 10th, 2013.

A small but sweet and bubbly victory for the environment and those who make a few bucks from recycling soda cans occurred in Australia this week.

As mentioned previously; a campaign led by Coca Cola Amatil to destroy a container deposit program in Australia’s Northern Territory was successful, albeit temporarily as it turns out.

A legal technicality Coca Cola and its cohorts used to can the program was countered by an exemption from federal law this week.

This means the companies must again pay deposits of 10 cents a bottle or can recycled through the Territory’s recycling system.

Kudos to the Northern Territory government during this ordeal – it kept the scheme going while it was in limbo. While it seems there are a few kinks in the program that will be re-implemented, these should be ironed out.

Coca Cola, Schweppes and Lions are of course pretty unhappy. Coca Cola says it will increase the price of its products – big deal, in fact that’s a good thing considering the types of products in question.

While the company may be worried about a loss of sales as a result; that may have already happened. Thanks to their efforts in attempting to bury the program for good; some folks (including me) now refuse to buy their beverages.

The Northern Territory will rejoin South Australia in container deposit recycling schemes in this country. South Australia’s program has been operating for thirty-six years and it’s rare to see bottles and cans lying around the place. Any that are tend to be picked up pretty quickly.

Big Soda’s battle against the scheme is probably more than just about the Northern Territory – I guess with the NT on board now, it makes it more likely a national scheme may be put in place at some point – and one should be.

I hate to think how many single use cans and bottles are cranked out each year and the volume that winds up in landfill or littered. By implementing container deposit schemes, far fewer do as it’s like throwing away money. As a result of South Australia’s program, recyclable containers going to landfill have been reduced to just 3%.

I think these schemes are really important for kids too – it shows them there is treasure in trash.


Recycling Energy Savings

Cultured Beef Burger Public Taste Test

August 3rd, 2013.

This isn’t mock meat, it’s the real thing; just grown in a test tube – and it’s about to make history.

Over 5 years ago I first made mention of efforts to create in-vitro meat. In 2009 and 2012 I published updates on the test tube burger project.

The big day has finally arrived for the cultured beef burger – a public taste test.

Monday, August 5, 2013 may mark an important milestone in the history of humanity’s meat consumption when Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University cooks and serves a burger made from cultured beef.

I doubt Professor Post will be taking this risk unless the product was ready for prime-time; i.e. it does taste the same as “real” beef or pretty darned close to it. For it to fail a public taste test would be a disaster.

How cultured meat is made:

  • Muscle stem cells are extracted from a single animal via biopsy
  • The cells are fed with a growth medium*
  • As the cells grow, they begin to bundle and are “trained” to affix to a scaffold
  • Some high-tech tweakery is applied to recreate the natural consistency of meat. Accepted food technology methods are used to improve the taste and texture of the meat if needed.

You can read a more detailed description of the process here (PDF).

For some folks, the above may sound a little (or very) gross and the “why not avoid meat altogether” reaction is logical and understandable. However, it’s not going to happen for everyone – so if there is a way to produce meat without most of the animal welfare and environmental impact; I’m all for it.

Here’s a little quiz; see if you can pick the cultured beef (answer at the end of this article).

Image credit: Maastricht University

Assuming the production of cultured beef can be scaled up to commercial scale and is affordable; this could change everything. There will always be a place for naturally grown meat, particularly small operations that care for their livestock; but perhaps in-vitro meat could mean an end to factory farms.

You’ll be able to watch the taste test event and learn more about the product on CulturedBeef on Monday.

If a test tube burger doesn’t appeal; there are always mock meat products to consider. Mock meat has evolved in leaps and bounds in recent years.

* When researching how the meat is grown, I came across a troubling aspect. The feeding regime in this case included a calf serum supplement; the basic components of which are collected from the fetuses of cows being slaughtered. However, researchers at University of Amsterdam are working on using synthetic and natural alternatives such as algae extracts.

Quiz answer – the cultured beef is the middle sample. The sample on the left is store-bought hamburger and the one on the right is plain ground beef.


Tips for reducing meat waste
Beef – grain or grass fed?

Smog Under The Sea

July 29th, 2013.

Humans have created a smog of sorts under the sea in the form of noise.

In my early teens, I used to dive in the local river – it was an amazing world full of its own sounds and I particularly remember the sound of shellfish “crackling”.

If there was a boat in the area, you’d often hear an annoying buzzing sound under the water long before you would see the boat. During tourist season, the cacophony became quite intense.

Even as a kid I wondered about the effects of the noise on fish and other creatures of the river; both in the water and along its shoreline.

In the years since, we’ve been learning that marine noise pollution is quite a serious problem.

For example, the noise of passing ships disrupts feeding for the common shore crab and raises their metabolic rate and energy needs. I can relate to that, I can feel my blood pressure rising every time some moron turns up their “doof doof” music or fires up a noisy dirt bike in my area.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, noise can “blind” some sea creatures, lead others to abandon their habitat and in some cases, die – such as in the case of squid.

A particularly dangerous source of marine noise pollution is generated by the – surprise, surprise – fossil fuel industry.

Aside from other activities, high-volume air guns used to search for oil and gas offshore can generate noise levels of 200 decibels. The threshold where pain is caused to humans is around 120 decibels – and bear in mind that 200 dB isn’t just 60% louder – but by an order of magnitude. It’s comparable to the roar of a Saturn Rocket firing. That type of noise level under the water, which carries sound so well, must be excruciating to any creature in the area sensitive to noise.

Noise pollution – either under the water or above, is a seriously underrated environmental issue.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to “go placidly among the noise and haste” as the Desiderata counsels; and I’d hate to think “remember what peace there may be in silence” becomes only that – a memory.

Fukushima Cover Ups Continue

July 26th, 2013.

Lies, damned lies and energy companies. The Fukushima saga drags on.

It’s now well over 2 years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster began and the situation is far from over.

For example; after repeatedly denying the issue, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has finally admitted to knowing about leaks of radioactive groundwater into the ocean a month before it announced it earlier this week.

Approximately 400 tonnes of groundwater is flowing into the plant daily and becoming contaminated. The company has offered another apology, but those are wearing thin; particularly given the ongoing deception. Apologies don’t fix the problems either.

Adding to this disturbing scenario is the sighting of steam rising from the unit 3 reactor intermittently. TEPCO says it’s nothing to worry about; but should they be believed given their track record? It’s been one mess after another – even rats have been causing major headaches in getting the situation entirely under control.

Thankfully we don’t have to rely entirely on TEPCO or any government department for that matter for information. Safecast is providing data too.

Safecast is a global sensor network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements. The project is designed to empower people with data about their environments.

Volunteers are sent out with Geiger counters to measure levels of radioactivity in the region. Small drones carrying Geiger counters are also now being used for the project. The readings are mapped and made available to all via the Safecast website.

I grabbed the screenshot below from Safecast, showing the 10, 20 and 30 kilometre evacuation zones and well beyond – you can see high readings extend beyond even the outer limits of the circles representing the zones.


I remain unconvinced nuclear power should play a role in a clean energy future and still prefer any nuclear reactor for power generation being situated a safe 93 million miles away; i.e. harvesting the energy of the sun with solar panels.

Aside from safety and environmental reasons, solar power can often be energy generated by the people, for the people – and not controlled by Big Energy.


Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy
Thorium vs. uranium