God spaketh, but why? Part 12: Dominion

The last post ended with the idea that early human art was an attempt to communicate with the spirits of the land. Being a bit of an atheist, I tend to view ‘spirits’ and ‘gods’ as similar entities. But the spiritual is important, even to an old scientist like me. When chatting with our local theologian (Part 9), I questioned why God would give humans the right to dominate all other species. “No, God granted dominion, which is different.” OK, I always thought dominion and domination meant more or less the same thing, so let’s see where this goes.

Dominion means “control over a country or people”. The synonym given is “power to control”, which fits with the concept of humans looking for ways to prevent or lessen the impacts of nature’s vagaries. Humans are seeking the power to control nature—we stop trusting ‘the gods’ and acquire the arrogance to think we can do nature better ourselves. Domination, on the other hand, means “power or control over other people or things”, which sounds pretty similar to me! And guess what the synonym was? “Power to control”. So the difference must be pretty subtle, at least as far as the Cambridge online dictionary is concerned.

A blog I found put it like this: “Humans were given dominion over creation—that is, God asked them to take care of it.” Care? Let’s cast our minds back to Part 8 and Genesis 9:2, which says, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” How does one get from that to caring?

In Part 1, I referred to a series on BBC Radio 4 called Living With The Gods, in which historian Neil MacGregor considers the expression of shared beliefs in communities past and present. One episode seemed worth a re-listen for this post: Dependence or Dominion?

Recounting the story of Noah’s ark, Neil MacGregor refers to the biblical idea of dominion and its influence on how Western civilisation uses and abuses the natural world. What interested me most was that “…in this regard, the Judeo-Christian tradition is unusual. Most belief systems suggest a more subtle, reciprocal relationship between us and the living world; a relationship where dominion is tempered by dependence.” Ah ha, so there is something about the Judeo-Christian tradition which puts it at odds with other cultures, but let’s not get side-tracked.

Neil MacGregor tells of two traditions, one from Alaska and one from ancient Egypt—both reflecting a complex relationship between humans and their food. The Yup’ik depend on harvesting seals for food, clothing, and fuel for cooking and lighting. There is also a spiritual and social aspect to the seal harvest as the Yup’ik believe that a seal’s soul lies in its bladder. Each winter, a celebration of the lives of the animals harvested that year is held and thanks are given. The celebrations include releasing the bladders into the sea, so their kin will know that they were treated well and other seals will allow themselves to be harvested in future. It is a respectful relationship; all parts of the animal are used: skin, flesh, guts, bone, even whiskers. This is an obligation in respect of the animal; a frugal economy which honours the gift of a life.

Across space and time, in ancient Egypt, the annual flooding of the river Nile is celebrated as it is known to be essential for agriculture. Everything hinged on the proper balance of nature—too much flooding could destroy farms and settlements while too little could mean drought and famine. The balance was maintained by a god who lived and died—Osiris. Made some 2,500 years ago, the ‘corn mummy’ is a small statue of beeswax and earth made in the image of Osiris. The story goes that Osiris was a king of Egypt long ago, teaching agriculture to the Egyptians, giving them laws and civilising them. But his jealous brother killed him, cut his body up and scattered the bits throughout Egypt. Osiris’ wife, Isis, gathered all the pieces together and he was brought back to life, becoming the ruler of the underworld—the kingdom of the dead. The fundamental core of the Osiris myth is of a god who dies and returns to life, giving all mortals the hope of life after death.

The corn mummy has another secret to reveal. Break it open and it’s full of corn seeds; “it contains the fact of death and the sprouting of new life”, says MacGregor. These figures were a key part of the celebrations held around the annual Nile floods. As the waters receded and exposed the fertile silt, priests would gather seeds from the banks of the Nile, and mould the figure of Osiris. After a number of rituals, the figure is kept until the following year, when it is buried respectfully, and a new figure made. Seasonal renewal—the whole cycle continues. Osiris, the king and the god, lives, dies and lives again so the Egyptians might eat, and thereby live.

These stories come from “thought-worlds very different from our own, thought-worlds which may seem, to many, as little more than charming fictions. Yet both stories speak to truths and challenges of great importance to us today”. Unlike the total dominion assumed by Noah and his descendants, both indigenous Alaskans and ancient Egyptians, “living in radically different climates, devised practices that acknowledge their dependence on the natural world and engage everybody with the responsibility of cooperating with it. Our modern world has yet to come up with an equally coherent response to the natural forces beyond our control.”

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and will revisit the concept of thought-worlds.

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God spaketh, but why? Part 11: Art

In an earlier post, I referred to human population bottlenecks. These are periods during which a population (of any species) reduces in size dramatically, due to environmental events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, or droughts. There is more to bottlenecks than merely the number of people remaining as the smaller a population, the lower the genetic diversity within that population. If, for example, those few survivors were just lucky, say by being in the right place at the right time, then the gene pool should roughly reflect that of the larger population. But what if the survivors only survived because they had certain abilities, or potential abilities, coded into their DNA and passed on to their children? Perhaps a volcano has reduced global temperatures—a more efficient metabolism, a more highly functioning immune system, or an inherent tolerance to cold conditions could make all the difference between life and death, infusing the gene pool of the surviving population. As might the ability to communicate and cooperate. Or maybe the ability to create stories and artefacts, not useful tools but culture-building ‘adornments’ and ‘art’.

Pinnacle Point, mentioned in Part 4, is a promontory that juts into the Indian Ocean near the town of Mossel Bay in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, where early humans survived the long glaciation between 195,000 to 123,000 years ago. Numbers are thought to have dropped from more than 10,000 “breeding individuals” to just hundreds and some believe that the Pinnacle Point survivors were the only survivors, giving rise to all Homo sapiens and explaining our relatively low genetic diversity as a species.

Findings from the Pinnacle Point Caves, which were occupied between 170,000 and 40,000 years ago, support the idea that advanced cognitive abilities evolved earlier than previously thought. Excavations have revealed the earliest evidence for the systematic exploitation of marine resources such as shellfish; the earliest evidence for the use of dyes in ‘symbolling’ (particularly the use of ochre, possibly for body painting or decorative arts); the use of advanced bladelet technology (embedding smaller blades into larger strata to create complex tools); and the earliest evidence for the use of heat treatment in the manufacture of stone tools. At Blombos Cave, located about 100 kilometers west of Pinnacle Point, pieces of ochre with systematic engravings, beads made of snail shells and refined bone tools have been discovered, all of which date to around 71,000 years ago.

Hand prints are another form of art

As of 2007, the earliest pieces of jewellery are small perforated seashell beads from Taforalt in Eastern Morocco, dated at 82,000 years old. Similar beads dating back to a similar time have been found at sites in Algeria, Israel and South Africa. Such discoveries continue to push back our understanding of how modern humans evolved, and remind us that the so-called Eurasian ‘cultural revolution’ of some 40,000 years ago was merely a continuation of processes that began long before. Art was not invented by Europeans.

What is interesting is that these beads were made from seashell, yet reaching the coastline would require a day’s walk or more. So even this long ago, making jewellery was not a random, spontaneous act—it required organisation to collect raw materials. As we move through the Palaeolithic period, there seems to be an increase in production rates, as this type of cultural expression went mainstream, possibly aided by greater concentrations and networks of humans. Perhaps making art was the first sign of what Yuval Noah Harari refers to as the Cognitive Revolution, thought to have taken place some 70,000 years ago. But why?

According to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine in January 2016, “Intellectual breakthroughs in human evolution such as tool-making were mastered by other hominin species more than a million years ago. What sets us apart is our ability to think and plan for the future, and to remember and learn from the past—what theorists of early human cognition call ‘higher order consciousness’. Such sophisticated thinking was a huge competitive advantage, helping us to cooperate, survive in harsh environments and colonize new lands. It also opened the door to imaginary realms, spirit worlds and a host of intellectual and emotional connections that infused our lives with meaning beyond the basic impulse to survive. And because it enabled symbolic thinking—our ability to let one thing stand for another—it allowed people to make visual representations of things that they could remember and imagine. ‘We couldn’t conceive of art, or conceive of the value of art, until we had higher order consciousness’, says Benjamin Smith, a rock art scholar at the University of Western Australia. In that sense, ancient art is a marker for this cognitive shift: Find early paintings, particularly figurative representations like animals, and you’ve found evidence for the modern human mind.” Smith continues, “They’re not just doing it to create pretty pictures. They’re doing it because they’re communicating with the spirits of the land.”

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is away to ponder that last sentence for a while!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 10: Writing

In the last post, I ended by wondering why humans started to write. What did writing allow that oral storytelling didn’t? One thing springs to mind, well two actually—consistency (reliability or uniformity; the quality of being consistent) and constancy (the quality of being constant; steadiness or faithfulness in action, affections, purpose, and so on). Write it down and there should be no dispute. It’s there in ‘black and white’.

As human societies emerged, the development of writing was driven by pressing needs such as exchanging information, maintaining financial accounts, codifying laws and recording history. Around 6,000 years ago, the complexity of trade and administration in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, more or less) outgrew human memory, and writing became a more dependable method of recording and presenting transactions in a permanent form. While older Neolithic writings have been found in Europe and carbon dated to some 7,500 years ago, conventional history assumes that the writing process first evolved in Mesopotamia.

That said, while the Sumerians of Mesopotamia are regarded as the first civilisation to use writing, it seems that writing arose independently in Mesoamerica some 2,300 years ago. Independent writing systems also arose in Egypt around the same time as the Sumerians, and in China around 3,200 years ago, but historians debate whether these writing systems were developed completely independently of Sumerian writing or whether either or both were inspired by Sumerian writing as stories of this powerful new system of recording was passed on by traders and merchants travelling between the two regions.

As we unearth fragments and use new techniques to analyse them, there seems to be a race between the Sumerians and the Egyptians for who first invented writing. This ‘who was first’ perspective isn’t overly useful unless one understands the inter-relationships between the different people of the area. People traded over much longer distances and longer ago than we tend to believe. Debate also rages over what ‘true’ writing is. Indus script, for example, is a set of symbols produced by the Indus Valley civilization between 5,500 and 3,900 years ago. Most inscriptions are extremely short, making it difficult to judge whether or not this system of symbols could be used to record a language, or represent a writing system.

As with most things, there will have been a progression driven by need, ingenuity and available resources. Approximately 10,000 years ago, the Mesopotamians began using clay tokens to count their agricultural and manufactured goods. Later they began placing these tokens inside large, hollow clay containers which were then sealed. The quantity of tokens within each container was expressed by impressing, on the container’s surface, one picture for each token inside. In time, the tokens were dispensed with and people relied solely on symbols for the tokens, drawn on clay surfaces. To avoid making a picture for each instance of the same object (for example: 100 pictures of a hat to represent 100 hats), they ‘counted’ the objects by using various small marks. In this way “a system for enumerating objects to their incipient system of symbols” was added.

Over time, these marks developed into cuneiform script, used across Mesopotamia to record laws and maps, compile medical manuals, document religious stories and beliefs, among other uses. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means ‘wedge shaped’.

Studies suggest that cuneiform literacy was not reserved solely for the elite but was common for average citizens. Another seemingly progressive aspect of Mesopotamian culture was the rights of women. Furthermore, there were over 1,000 deities in Mesopotamian cultures and many stories concerning the gods (among them, the creation myth, the Enuma Elish), and it is generally accepted that many biblical tales, including the Fall of Man and the Flood of Noah originated in Mesopotamian lore, as they first appear in Mesopotamian works such as The Myth of Adapa and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world. The Mesopotamians believed that they were co-workers with the gods and that the land was infused with spirits and demons (though ‘demons’ should not be understood in the modern, Christian, sense). This could be an interesting area to return to—this first, complex civilisation where equality reigned and having many gods was not a problem.

One thing seems sure, writing evolved out of a need to remember numerous transactions and facts. Writing was a necessity of civilisation and this series is more interested in what came before civilisation. What made us leave behind the old ways for the new? Writing, like settled agriculture before, seems to be the result of an already altered world view, rather than the cause of it. So what tangible artefacts did the earliest humans make? Tools, obviously, but perhaps there’s something to be learned from the earliest objects of no obvious utility. Next time, we’ll look at adornments.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and welcomes all feedback particularly, as we discover more, on the accuracy of dates.

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God spaketh, but why? Part 9: Domestication

In the last post, I ended by suggesting that with self-awareness and an understanding of one’s own mortality, must come an understanding that what we eat was also alive once, before we killed it. At some point, some of us understood that animals (and plants) gave their lives so that we may live, and they thanked them for that. So stories of giving thanks for food make sense to me if we’re thanking the once-living food. I’m not sure it’s possible to know when the gods came into it.

But I remain perplexed by Genesis 9:2, the “fear and dread” thing, and wanted to put it into historical context. As luck would have it, I bumped into our local theologian earlier in the week, and asked if they knew of a reliable source on the Bible. Once we stopped laughing, I explained that I was looking for a source of information such as when the books of the Old Testament were written. I wanted the perspective of someone who didn’t believe the Earth was only some 6,000 years old. Turns out the books of the Old Testament were written about 3,500 years ago, or 1,500 BCE, although I’m sure there will be disagreement over that. In my ignorance, I thought that the Old Testament was written longer ago, but then I didn’t realise how the ‘Fertile Crescent’, where it is claimed that civilisations first flourished 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, related geographically to Mesopotamia, and other ancient lands, until I found this helpful map of the area.

Map of the near east approx. 2,500 years ago

So, roughly 3,500 years ago, sometime after one of many catastrophic flooding events, it was written that all animals would fear and dread humans. Archaic Sumerian is the earliest form of ‘writing’ (inscription with linguistic content) we know of, arising around five thousand years ago. Maybe texts older than the Bible should be considered, but which ones? Armed only with Google, I asked ‘what texts are older than old testament?’. One plausible site told of five ‘holy books’: The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia, which doesn’t seem particularly ‘holy’ to me; from Egypt we have the Book of the Dead and the Institution of Amenemope (which seems to have been the first self-help book!); a collection of Hindu hymns called the Rigveda of Hinduism; and the Zoroastrian Texts from Persia—these cover a wide area geographically, yet all are believed to have influenced the Old Testament. So perhaps wading through Genesis isn’t required after all. Perhaps it had ‘all gone wrong’ long before that particular story was told. Perhaps the fear and dread to be felt by wild animals related to their loss of freedom—domestication?

In 2009/10, I had a great part-time job taking lecture notes for a first-year veterinary student. One of the topics covered was animal behaviour and domestication. The story goes that the process of domesticating dogs from grey wolves, which took place over many thousands of years, has resulted in the dogs retaining juvenile behaviour patterns into adulthood (such as face licking, play and a general loss of ability to survive independently; somewhat reminiscent of humans today, apart from the face licking, one would hope). According to Wikipedia, the dog was the first domesticant, established across Eurasia before the end of the Late Pleistocene era (11,700 years ago), well before the cultivation of crops and before the domestication of other animals. That’s way before writing emerged but quite a bit after Harari’s Cognitive Revolution of 70,000 years ago, which started this train of thought. And, geographically, nowhere near the ‘dawn of civilisation’.

Where it all began?

Back to the cradle of civilisation. In Part 2 I referred to the dawn of agriculture being the ‘fall of man’ referred to in religious writings from the Holy Lands. I mentioned this to my theologist friend and while we didn’t have time to discuss it, a seed was planted: maybe settled agriculture was the result of an already altered world view, rather than the cause of it. If the oldest stories were oral, which of course they were, we’re not going to plumb the psyche of early humans by any means other than via their earliest writings, so we’ll consider writing next time and see where that takes us. Why did humans start to write?

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal. You can see where I was last night on Sat 3 Feb 2018, 9pm!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 8: Before fear

Is life supposed to be hard? Watch any wildlife programme based in a harsh environment, and the answer is ‘yes’. Watch animals in a rich habitat and they may enjoy many a contented day, but sooner or later a predator will come. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the inevitable hunt scene, I am shouting at the TV for the predator to get a meal to feed her young AND for the prey to escape. It seems I have a hang-up about death, despite it being the most natural progression of life.

I caught the end of a documentary yesterday morning called Snow Wolf Family and Me where wildlife photographer, Gordon Buchanan, travels to Ellesmere Island, in the remote Canadian Arctic, in search of wolves. As these wolves had not encountered humans before, they had no need to fear this small team of three. With much patience, and obvious joy, Gordon observed members of the pack before becoming trusted enough to approach the den, home to three young pups.

Gordon Buchanan’s selfie with a wolf http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ww480

Gordon does a lot of sitting patiently, and marvels at the relationship the first people must have had with wolves and, I suppose, any other animals they may have encountered. It is impossible to even begin to understand an animal unless you spend time with it. Whether horse or hamster, pets give us an insight but domesticated animals are not wild animals. Wild animals are something else. As he played ‘fetch’ with a tiny stick and two young wolves, Gordon said the words that got this week’s post going: “This must have been what it was like when man and wolf first met, when there was no fear, just curiosity”.

New Zealand
Throughout history there have been stories of species wiped out because they did not understand how to avoid new predators, such as the humans who first colonised New Zealand. Eastern Polynesian explorers were the first to discover the landmass of New Zealand, settling there from about 1280. Their arrival gave rise to the Māori culture and language, both unique to New Zealand, although very closely related to analogues in other parts of Eastern Polynesia.

Isolated for millions of years with only other birds as predators, New Zealand’s plants and animals were very vulnerable when people and other mammals arrived. For example, many native birds cannot fly, and were easily caught on the ground as their previously-successful strategy of staying very still failed to work. The Polynesians were not the only problem. The kiore (Pacific rat) and kurī (dog) they brought with them also wreaked havoc on the local fauna. Bones found by archaeologists show that Māori first hunted the largest animals: moa, geese, takahē (a large, flightless member of the rail family), sea lions and fur seals. Most of the larger birds became extinct within a few hundred years, and Māori ate shellfish, fish, eels and plants instead.

Those first people, who lived a relatively simple life, started a wave of extinctions that continues today. Before people arrived, more than 80 per cent of New Zealand was covered in forest. Māori burnt almost half of the forest within 200 years of arriving, probably to clear space for growing food and building houses. But the real problems did not begin until the arrival of large numbers of Europeans after 1840, who scaled up the destruction as only ‘westerners’ can.

Learning to fear
But back to the days of innocence. Animals learn fear. It was fascinating to see how close Gordon could get to these wild wolves in just three weeks. Imagine how much we might know about other species if we had access to populations who had never been hunted by humans and therefore had no reason to fear humans. We could interact, we could learn so much about the other species with which we share the planet; knowledge long since forgotten. And this is one of the problems we have in communicating about nature to people who really do believe that humans are above all other species. This is a myth which must have come from somewhere – the Old Testament?

I Googled for some pointers and backed it up from my little-studied Bible. Genesis 9:3 looked promising: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything”, my version says. But the preceding two verses are more worrying. Verse 9:1 says “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth'”. Check! Verse 9:2 goes on, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” So goes God’s covenant with Noah, he who saved the animals from ‘the flood’. Just what is this story telling us? We seem to have invented a very vengeful, getting-nature-back story after ‘the flood’.

There is now compelling evidence for many gigantic ancient floods where glacial ice dams failed time and again. These were not global deluges as described in the Genesis story of Noah, but were more focused catastrophic floods taking place throughout the world. They likely inspired stories like Noah’s in many cultures, passed down through generations.

Early humans hunted and I don’t know how many thanked their prey for giving up its life but it seems a very human thing to do. With self-awareness comes an understanding of one’s own mortality, so it makes sense for a human to respect any life lost so that we may live. Uh-oh, we’ll see where this leads next time!

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and loves snow! (by April, she’d had enough of it though!)

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God spaketh, but why? Part 7: Voice

After a mid-winter break to look at some of the ways we can generate different ‘truths’, let’s return to the issue of why humans, as a species, no longer live in harmony with nature. Some humans live in perfect balance with their environment but, usually, when ‘we’ ‘discover’ such people, we try to change how they live. As I said in a post entitled ‘What Makes a Fair Society?’, I do not believe that our current  ‘fast-track to oblivion’ approach to life is ‘just human nature’ for it is not a trait of all human beings. It’s a cultural defect, in my opinion, but how far back does it go?

We’ve seen that our earliest ancestors lived through many periods of natural turmoil but, somehow, they survived. I have no doubt that the ability to understand and use, if not make, fire was key to the survival of early humans. We most likely developed the ability to learn from past events through storytelling before realising that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future where nature was controlled.

Look who’s talking
In the last post of this series, we saw that there is no consensus on the origin or age of human language —our voice-based mode of communication. Last August, New Scientist ran a story on the evolution of the human voice. “Anatomy doesn’t impede primates from producing distinct vocalisations that are homologues to different human vowels”, says Adriano Lameira of the University of St Andrews, who had previously shown that orang-utans can mimic some of the sounds of human speech.

It makes sense to me that speech gradually improved over the course of human evolution but scientific evidence is a bit more reliable than intuition. There is evidence that Neanderthals and Denisovans could speak, at least to some extent. “Neanderthals most likely had brains capable of learning and executing the complex manoeuvres involved in talking, but their speech would not have been as clear and comprehensible as ours, perhaps accounting in part for their extinction,” says Philip Lieberman of Brown University in Rhode Island. “I think Neanderthals could talk, but more indistinctly than us.”

Neanderthals lived from 350 to 40 thousand years ago and, based on limited archaeological evidence, Denisovans were known to be alive 40 thousand years ago but if the temporal range is known, it’s probably behind a paywall. It is in this context that the ‘cognitive revolution’ of 70,000 years ago, as argued by Yuval Noah Harari, should be considered. Humans other than Homo sapiens could talk but, for various reasons, H. sapiens did it best.

Back to the New Scientist article. Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined DNA from two modern-day people, four humans who lived within the last 50,000 years, two Neanderthals, a Denisovan and six chimpanzees. The analysis reveals key evolutionary changes that reshaped our faces and larynxes; not major mutations in our genes but tweaks in the activity of existing genes that we shared with our immediate ancestors. The theory goes that changes in gene activity seem to have given us flat faces, and led to the resculpting of the larynx, moving it further down in the throat, allowing our ancestors to make sounds with greater subtleties. Which I assume equates to having a wider vocabulary.

All speech-ready?
While some researchers focus on similarities between different species of human, William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch III, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, says “…anatomically speaking, macaques are perfectly well equipped for humanlike speech…. And because their vocal anatomy is nearly identical to that of other monkeys and apes—and to most other mammals—these animals are also ‘speech-ready’. Anthropologists who scour the fossil record for evidence of when our ancestors learned to speak are “wasting their time” he says, because all human ancestors had vocal anatomies capable of speech. Instead, the field should focus on genetic factors known to be necessary for proper speech and language development, to figure out when humans gained ‘the gift of the gab’. Monkeys and apes lack the neural control over their vocal tract muscles to properly configure them for speech, but “If a human brain were in control, they could talk,” Fitch concludes.

So, this isn’t a debate about to be wrapped up soon, but that’s fine as I don’t think our ability to talk is important to why we live apart from nature. However, it does give us a huge advantage when creating a story for others to follow, to believe in.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal. Some might say she thinks too much but that’s not possible; it’s what one thinks about that matters!

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Measuring what, exactly?

In the previous post, we looked at mistakes made by assumption; we hear a ‘fact’ so frequently, or from such trusted sources, that we do not think to question its validity. These mistakes may be innocent, a result of sloppy thinking or having too little time to be thorough. But miscommunication can also be deliberate, devious, and I was going to look at some examples of devious miscommunications. However, now I’ve thought about it a bit, I find it nigh on impossible to tell the difference, at least without a decent amount of background knowledge. People really do believe the most unbelievable things but that is not necessarily the same as ‘lying’. We all see different aspects of any story depending on our past experiences and our current beliefs.

A news editor, for example, wants a headline to attract readers and sell papers; the quality of the calculations therein are way down the list of what makes a good news story. A recent episode of More or Less on BBC World Service queried a headline claiming that 15 of the largest ships emit as much pollution as all the cars in the world. This again? Long-distance travel by ship is absolutely key to our globalised world and, in 2016, the global cruise industry generated a revenue of approximately 35.5 billion U.S. dollars. The question of whether shipping is any better environmentally than other forms of long-distance transport is not new. But really? As much ‘pollution’?

The 15 ships figure was traced back to a Guardian article from 2009. The pollution referred to is sulphur, which cars don’t emit to any great extent because their fuels are highly refined. On the other hand, ship (or bunker) fuel is very high in sulphur and other pollutants as it is basically the residue left over from the refining process. It’s the cheapest and dirtiest fuel, and its use on land is regulated against. But if the headline had read “15 of the largest ships emit as much sulphur as all the cars in the world but cars don’t produce that much”, not only would our editor have had cause to fear for his job, the debate to clean up shipping would have lost an eye-catching headline.

More or Less delves deeper. Dr James Corbett of the University of Delaware is an expert on shipping emissions and explains, “I helped prepare that calculation using some assumptions, and a thought experiment, because at that time the shipping industry was just beginning to build these largest ever container ships”. So, in addition to the figure failing to compare like with like, the claim wasn’t even about what was happening now, but about what might in theory happen under certain circumstances. But various media outlets took this figure and ran with it. Is it a ‘lie’ to quote it back to someone?

For me, More or Less saved the best bit until last (7:00 min), when we learn that emissions from shipping in 2012 more than halved compared to 2008. As part of a cost-cutting exercise, certain ships halved their speed in order to use less fuel, and the impact on sulphur emissions was notable. This environmental bonus was a by-product of the recession, which made cost-cutting a necessity, not a switch to cleaner fuel in response to air pollution concerns. While I would feel some spark of optimism if shipping companies had heeded the environmental message, does it really matter why people change their behaviour so long as they do? By 2020, all marine fuel must have a sulphur content no higher than 0.5% (down from 3.5% today) so sulphur emissions from shipping should continue to fall.

Their incomprehensible vastness, coupled with our inexplicable belief that throwing stuff ‘away’ is dealing with our waste, means our oceans still suffer from some of the worst forms of pollution, due in part to the complexity of international laws but also the impossibility of enforcement. As long as we live in a society dominated by money, cost will lead to change that all the information in the world won’t bring. Until we change the story, of course.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, amongst other things, and has her fingers crossed for 2018!

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