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I recently had a fight with a classmate over who was to do research on invasive species (organisms that are brought into a new habitat and then harm the environment). There was only room for one of us, and the other would be stuck with climate change. Mature as we are, we decided to resolve our dispute with a good old game of rock, paper, scissors. I chose rock, he picked paper. Naturally, I tried the famous “best of three!” defence, but of course it wouldn’t do. Not only did I miss out on invasive species, but my classmate also put me on the spot by pointing out that it’s stupid to not use paper on the first go because it’s a well-known fact that most people choose rock in their first game. I’m guessing it’s a cultural thing: most Dutchies I know are scissors-people. Whatever the science behind the game, it wouldn’t do anything for me now. I comforted myself by saying that everything is interrelated and I started researching climate change.
Although I was supposed to be analysing climate change’s impact on biodiversity loss in Spain, my research soon steered me away from Spain, into the Paris Climate Agreement, to Joe Biden’s first signatures as President, to his cancellation of the licenses of Keystone XL. The Keystone Pipeline System is an oil pipeline system from Canada to the United States and has been the topic of debate for more than a decade. Environmental organisations are worried that the system intensifies our dependence on the fossil fuel industry and argue that it leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and oil leakage and spills resulting in biodiversity loss.
Now, I must admit I don’t quite understand the name of the project. It was probably aimed at sounding like it’s the most important, central line in the fossil fuel system. In a way, that definition is similar to keystone species, which are organisms that have a disproportionately large effect on their ecosystem, relative to their abundance. Examples include sea stars who are preying on mussels that would otherwise dominate the ecosystem and drive out other species. The Keystone XL sounds more like an Invasive XL: something that is not at the centre of everything, but rather an industry that has escaped from its boundaries and is now threatening the environment and driving out other industries (i.e., sustainable energy). President Biden thought the same and revoked the permits on his first day in office.
That’s where my research sidetrack ended: Biden brought me back to Paris, which brought me back to climate and Spain. In the end I got what I wanted: I did research on invasive “species”. Only I didn’t get academic credit for it and my group was still waiting for me to submit my climate change findings. Next time we’re settling disputes over a game, I’m not picking keystone. Unless it’s against a Dutchie.
Bias, backbones, and biodiversity – how slugs and other invertebrates are neglected in the popularity contest of biodiversity conservation
“Slugs are not [as] ‘sexy’ as the Iberian lynx or the imperial eagle.”
No, this is not a statement by a stuffy biology teacher trying to make his classes appealing to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds. It is an actual quotation taken straight from a European Commission Life Team report on the challenges of biodiversity conservation. And when the EC starts using words like ‘sexy’, you know they’re desperately trying to get people’s attention.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” - George Orwell said in 1945 - and though the context in which he wrote this was slightly different than mine, it also rings true in the field of conservation biology. There is a taxonomic bias: an overrepresentation of some species in research at the cost of others. Regardless of their risk of extinction, allocation of funding and projects is highly biased towards mammals and birds; with investment per species towards vertebrates being 468 times higher than that of invertebrates. All animals are equal, as long as they are pretty, charismatic, or pretty charismatic.
And it makes sense, right? That scientists are interested in researching brown bears, wolves, bitterns, and lynxes. And that people are willing to put their money towards research on those “sexy beasts”, as the Guardian likes to put it. It is easy for us to understand why these species are relevant and it brings a sense of excitement to the conservation table.
Yet by blindly following our furry bias, we miss out on the research and protection of millions of invertebrate species that are crucial to life on earth. We need to get rid of this favouritism. They may not be charismatic in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but being responsible for vital ecosystem functions makes you pretty cool - or at least worth the effort of protecting.
And to get attention to this issue, the EC is trying to glamourise its reports by adding such statements on the sexiness of slugs. But maybe it’s time to stop comparing apples and oranges, eagles and slugs - and to start appreciating invertebrates for what they are. They may not have a backbone, but then again, who are we to talk if we don’t take action to fight biodiversity loss?
PS: Don’t believe everything the EC tells you. Slugs are actually fairly interesting, romantic creatures and even “quite extraordinary and … almost beyond imagining” in the words of Sir David Attenborough (so it must be true).
The Circular Economy: Every Little Helps
Today, roughly 55% of the total population lives in urban areas. The UN estimates these numbers will increase to 68% by 2050. Unfortunately, these massive changes will come along with much negative consequences, especially in terms of sustainability if we don’t change our traditional societal methods. This is why I have decided to follow my studies in BA Urban Studies at Universiteit Leiden: to study and consequently apply systems that contribute to a sustainable environment in our ever-growing human society.
The traditional economic model is the established linear economy. It refers to a system whereby raw materials are: mined by society, manufactured, processed then consumed and subsequently thrown away after use. In other words, the linear economy follows a model of ‘take, make, use, dispose and pollute’. This is extremely unsustainable. Society is using up the earth’s natural resources without future considerations. Natural resources, of finite amounts, are being used to produce disposable goods, which typically end up in landfills or incineration plants.
The UN estimates that 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced yearly – that’s almost equal to the weight of the entire human population!
The solution to such a problem is to move towards a circular economy. This refers to an economic system of closed loops in which raw materials, components and products retain value as well as utilising renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation the concept is based on three principles: “1) design out waste and pollution, 2) keep products and materials in use, and 3) regenerate natural systems” (see figure below).
Overall, the complexities of the circular economy involve changing society’s norms and standardized processes. Nonetheless, it is becoming more relevant in contemporary world solutions as practitioners, business and policy-makers have fortunately created and implemented such models. The general population will also have to do its part, though this will involve changing certain lifestyle habits. Fortunately, it can be as simple as collectively refusing certain products or materials, like plastic packaging.
Every little helps and you can make a big difference by employing simple sustainable lifestyle habits. Start by implementing the 3 Rs in your daily life – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Follow them in that order:
- Buy less, e.g. reduce waste and carbon footprint by optimally buying local food products with no plastic packaging.
- Reuse anything that is still utilisable.
- Recycle everything as much as possible to give the materials a renewed life.
Lets talk about Eco-anxiety
It´s Sunday evening. Movie night with my housemates. We decided to watch “A live on our planet” by David Attenborough. The message is clear, we are responsible for the climate crisis and it is on us to fix it. I feel the tears burning in my eyes. I feel extremely sad, frustrated and helpless. From the faces of my housemates I can tell, I am not alone with my feelings.
The American Psychology Association describes reactions and feelings like these as Eco-anxiety. A source of distress caused by “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future of oneself, children and later generations”. A specific diagnosis of eco-anxiety does not exist but research shows that symptoms include feelings of anxiety, loss, helplessness, frustration, obsession, burnout and depression.
Eco-anxiety is manly experienced by individuals that faced traumatic climate events at first hand or scientist dealing with the issue daily. However, current media awareness to the topic shows that young people increasingly experience eco-anxiety.
So, is the climate crisis making us mentally ill?
No, says Caroline Hickman a climate psychologist from the university of bath. “A measure of mental health is having the capacity to accurately emotionally respond to the reality in our world. So, it’s not delusional to feel anxious or depressed.” Hickman says.
Problematic is, people want to avoid information or experiences that are overwhelmingly difficult, disturbing or make us to feel anxious. Doing so could hinder people from engaging in the topic and fighting the climate crisis.
It therefore sounds counterintuitive that accepting and expressing feelings of eco-anxiety are the first step to tackle it. Research on other types of anxiety have shown that people who accept their feelings, take a more positive and active approach to deal with the trigger of their anxiety.