Tag Archives: ecology

The Issue Attention Cycle

While reading Libby Lester’s Media and Environment as research for an essay, I came across a section where she writes about another author’s work which I found very interesting. Published back in 1972, Anthony Down’s book is called Up and Down With Ecology – The Issue Attention Cycle. He theorized that any ecological issue goes through a 4 stage cycle in terms of media publicity and consequential public attention. Here’s a summary:

  1. Pre-problem stage: The problem does exist but only specialists and some interested groups know about it. 
  2. Alarm and enthusiasm: After a series of dramatic events and media coverage, the public is alarmed by the issue and solving it is what everyone’s talking about.
  3. Realizing the cost: The public realize the various costs of solving the problem, and realize they may actually be beneficiaries of the continuing problem. Public concern diminishes as new issues rise up the agenda.
  4. Post-problem stage: The issue is no longer prominent but some institutions, policies and programs that were instigated in stage 2 will persist.

Downs’ adds that an issue will be closer to being solved if it goes through the cycle than not, even if most people forget about it rather quickly. An example of stage 3 is given in the form of cars… Cars cause smog, carbon emissions and infuriating traffic jams, and yet their rejection doesn’t get too much support because most of us rather like being able to nip into town in our own vehicle. If you think about it, a lot of us are beneficiaries of many of the world’s problems. For another example, if fair-trade standards were enforced everywhere, we’d have to pay a hell of a lot more for our mango juice and this season’s must-have fashions.

Lester goes on to say that ”this model can only take us so far”  because anything this linear is going to be an over simplification of the reality. This is a fair point, as of course issues aren’t neatly solved or ignored without consequence, they resurface and evolve into other problems, and undergo dips and surges of public awareness… It’s complex, because the world is complex. But I do think Downs’ offers a thoughtful way of explaining what happens with public issue attention. Perhaps we could add in a new stage between 3 and 4 –

3.5. Pointing out alternatives stage: At this point NGOs and other groups point out alternative ways of meeting the need currently filled by what’s also causing the problem. If the alternatives are workable, public attention remains set on tackling problem.

For the example with the cars, the alternatives would be a revitalized public transport system with a much more frequent schedule and much cheaper fares, subsidized by the money freed up from decreased highway maintenance and accidents.

I think this is really the crux of it- people seem to be worried that if we fix our environmental problems, they’ll be missing out. Their lives will be less convenient, less comfortable, more frugal and even backward. Let’s not be judgmental here, let’s be honest- no one wants that kind of life. Even if it’s the Right Thing To Do. Luckily, it’s actually an urban myth that life will be that way if we fix our issues. What we need to do is make it clear that there are other ways to tend to our needs. And not even just basic survival needs, but contemporary ones too. It’s not only possible to survive without pillaging the planet and exploiting other people, it’s possible to have a Youtube account and nice shoes as well. With our media, our art and our music, we need to paint a picture of what life could be like if we globally sorted ourselves out a bit. And we need to make it so enticing, that the swathes of people who don’t really care, who are are satisfied, ignorant, or are just having a hard time keeping afloat as it is, will be compelled to jump in and make it true.

Let’s break the cycle and make ”Making a Fantastic Super Awesome Future” at the top of everyone’s agendas.

The Great Disruption – a Kind of Review

I’ve just finished reading The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding. I finished it in half a week, not being able to do much else until I’d absorbed every page. It was fantastic. Kind of like a slap in the face, a call to arms and a breath of fresh air all at once.

Okay, now I’ll rewind a little and tell you what it’s actually about without getting so abstract and ahead of myself. (I’m terrible for that). It’s subtitled How the climate crisis will transform the global economy and it’s basically about how over the next few decades we will globally go through a massive transformation as we are threatened by climate change, resource peaks and other ecological limits, suffer the crash of the world economy and eventually build a new ‘steady-state’ economy based on well-being, sustainability, and a focus on qualitative improvement rather than quantitative growth.

The way he covers climate change is refreshing. Many people are still talking about it in terms of ‘if we don’t do something soon we’ll be in danger because of climate change!’. Paul instead says that was thirty or so years ago, we didn’t do anything, so now climate change is already under way. What’s more, due to the length of time it takes for pollution emitted now to take on it’s full green house effect, even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow we’d still have a large climate change problem for decades to come. The icecaps have been melting since 2008 and low-lying islands are already struggling with the sea-level rise. We didn’t listen and climate change is no longer avoidable. All we have to worry about now is adapting to and surviving its effects while not only stopping CO2 pollution but actively removing it from the atmosphere to keep average levels of warming to no more than 1 dangerous degree.

He also recognises that climate change is just one of many ecological limits we’re currently hitting up against. He says that although the environmental movement is gathering power and numbers daily, the majority of humanity will not act until the effects of ecological meltdown (e.g. extreme weather and sea level rise from climate change) are everywhere, severe and obvious for all to see. He thinks that when it comes to that point, the mass reaction of denial will quickly evaporate as we globally fly into action. He says that governments and all sectors of society, once they can see with their own eyes that all of civilisation is at stake (i.e. not just polar bears), will fully engage and act in a terribly late but impressively fast war-like fashion. …Great, so when is this magical point in history? Not actually very far away at all… He estimates around 2020 will be when we start to really buckle down and get to work on this. He artistically calls it The Great Awakening. In case you were wondering, the Great Disruption mentioned in the title refers to the combined forces of the economic crash Gilding forecasts and the ecological crash that will cause it. The reason for this is simple. Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Not morally wrong, but impossible. Economic progress is basically about using natural resources to manufacture stuff, which is transported around the globe to consumers who use it for a little while before throwing it out (usually into landfill) and buying more stuff to replace it. This is already happening way faster than key resources such as oil, timber and fish, can be replenished. This problem however is only getting worse because the population as you know is rapidly expanding, and the ‘consumption rate’ of each person is growing every year. This is actually how we measure our progress. Economic growth is supposed to bring the word’s poor out of poverty and make life even better for the ‘lucky billion’. As the world isn’t getting bigger but the demand most definitely is, it’s common sense that we’ll hit a limit to growth soon. No one can really argue about that. What people do argue about is when that limit will approach and what we can do to delay it. According to Gilding  (and many scientific sources that he quotes) that limit is now being reached and that’s why economic growth has met it’s demise. He says the economy will enjoy a temporary boom when we start to truly tackle what will then be a climate crisis with surprising innovation in business and especially huge investments in the renewable energy industry, but that it will be a short lived thing – that the death of growth is unavoidable and coming very soon.

So this Great Disruption will be a crisis with environmental, social and economic aspects. (e.g. coastal areas being flooded, climate refugees and loss of homes, property devaluation and loss of income from tourism…) Gilding says it will be a crisis like nothing we’ve seen before and will ”shake us to our core”. He says when it comes to it, we’ll have only two options. One is to descend into chaos and look on as temperatures trip over the critical 2 degrees causing runaway climate change at an exponential rate which will make the earth inhabitable for most life, including humans. The other is to mobilize the whole species into saving our selves from collapse. He argues that although humans are slow and selfish, they also want to live and are good in a crisis. He says after long periods of doubt, he is now sure that we will make it through. Not without large doses of suffering, anarchy and conflicts over resources and refugees, but that we will get through this phase and will even be able to create a new economy and social system that is better than our present model. That life will be greener on the other side. He even suggests that this transformation will be the next development in humanity’s evolution.

He writes all this in an engaging way, with a style that is intelligent yet accessible.  The tone is of realism flirting with optimism. He does not in any way under estimate the scale of the challenge ahead, in fact he emphasises it’s hugeness at every turn. However his core message is that despite the odds against us, ultimately, we can succeed.

All I can say is:

Wow, don’t we live in interesting times?

I whole heartedly recommend this book – it’s a fascinating read.

Pandas – precious cutie or evolutionary dead-end?

I want to discuss with you today the plight of the panda.

Aren’t they adorable? It’s no wonder Giant Pandas are one of the most loved species in the whole animal kingdom. Because they’re so popular they’re often used as  what’s called a ‘flagship species’ – an endangered species that is well known and well loved – often an attractive mammal such as a tiger or elephant. Its iconic beauty is supposed to capture people’s interest in a conservation issue, where something like a woodlouse, although just as important in ecological terms, might not ignite the same public interest. WWF even has a panda as its logo for this reason, and for most people pandas spring quickly to mind whenever the term ‘endangered species’ is mentioned.

Recent studies estimate the number of Giant Pandas in the wild to be just 1600, with a further 200 living in captivity*. They’re on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Animals, and they were first proclaimed to be endangered in the 1980s. The main threat to them is habitat destruction. Their wild habitat is now just a few mountainous parts of southwestern China – mostly in the Sichuan Province. As parts of their habitat are cleared away for farmland, it’s becoming fragmented and pandas find it hard to roam around and find mates. It is notoriously hard to get them to breed in captivity and they are also prone to digestive illnesses. I was always under the impression that pandas only eat one type of bamboo, but Wikipedia reckons they like 25 different varieties of the stuff!  The problem is, in their now limited and fragmented habitat, only a few of these are common.

A lot is being done in terms of conservation of the Giant Panda. In China there are now many large sanctuaries where they are protected. Breeding is encouraged, but if they’ve been captured from the wild they tend to lose interest in this… In these cases artificial insemination is often used. In the wild there is a problem with the isolated groups of pandas becoming inbred as the destruction of their habitat leaves them in little ‘pockets’ of bamboo forest and they can’t migrate very far to find mates. In captivity, conservationists are attempting to combat this issue by freezing panda sperm and transporting it to zoos and reserves on an international scale to expand the gene pool. This sounds pretty weird, but apparently they could reach what’s termed an ‘evolutionary dead end’ if they become too inbred, so it is important for their survival. What’s even more important however is the protection of their habitat…

A huge amount of money is spent of panda conservation efforts, and there is actually a school of thought that it isn’t worth it. Some people think that pandas are too fussy and aren’t interested enough in having babies, and thus they are bound to die out. They also have some quirks of biology, such as having a carnivorous digestive system and yet living almost exclusively off nutrient-poor bamboo shoots. The conservationist Chris Packham says all the money spent on trying to keep pandas alive would be better spent elsewhere, such as on rainforest conservation. He points out there’s not even enough habitat left to sustain them, and says that although he doesn’t want them to die out, we should prioritize and accept it.

Although I can see there are more important matters, I think we can all agree it’d be tragic to lose such a beautiful and charismatic creature. And it’s not exactly like pandas are dying out simply because of some evolutionary weakness – they’re threatened because humans are destroying their habitat. As their endangered status is our fault, surely it’s our responsibility to try and conserve them? And of course there’s also the point that all species are integral to the ecology of their environment… If pandas were no more then this would have knock-on effects on all the wildlife that share their habitat. Everything is connected and interdependent.

Happily, according to this news article, the conservation efforts in China are taking effect and the numbers of Giant Pandas are actually now on the rise. Although of course they’re still low, I’m glad to see some progress is being made!

*This statistic is from the first resource below. It’s clearly hard to estimate numbers of wild animals with any certainty and I have seen different figures on other web pages, ranging from 1000-3000.







All photos from Google Images.