The Great Re-Think Videos

The Biosphere 

We must of course look after ourselves – create convivial societies and foster personal fulfilment — but we also need to look after the natural world. This needs good ecology: excellent science and technique underpinned by the moral/metaphysical sense of “oneness”.

Session II

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Session II – The Biosphere

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Ian Rappel: Colin, in this session, we wanted to talk about the flourishing biosphere. And there’s two crucial and closely connected questions. Can we really live with nature? And can humanity in the natural world really coexist and not just live with but actually adapt to it? 

Colin Tudge: Well, I like to think the answer is yes. Partly, it’s a matter of hope, rather than expectation. But you can’t give up hope. But I don’t see why the answer isn’t yes. I mean, we can’t recover what we’ve lost, that’s for sure. And it’s pretty sure that a lot of what is now with us is, in fact, going to disappear, because we’re not doing enough to protect it. But also when populations get very low, or not necessarily very low, but below a critical point, they will just disappear. There’s nothing much you can do about it after that, because, you know, they lose viability if they’re too small. And also, we don’t know enough, as I’ll get on to later, we don’t know enough to rescue them, even if we had the will to do so. And in any one ecosystem, you don’t really know what is really important and really [think it] doesn’t matter that much to hold the whole system together. So you can lose particular species and not think they’re important, but they are, and you didn’t know that ‘til afterwards. But I think at the moment, the point is, well, to some extent, we don’t know enough, that’s true. But also the will isn’t really there. And so long as for example, you start off with the idea that the environment is just our surroundings, and that really it’s just real estate, then I think you’ve more or less lost. You’ve got to have a much better attitude to that. But I’ll come on to that. 

The second thing is, of course, that we are given that we’re bound to lose a lot of what we’ve got, even with the best bit of the world. The question is, if you’re actually trying to make an effort to save what’s left, what should you focus on? And to some extent, we’ve got to, at this stage realistically, apply the principle of triage, which of course, they are forced to do nowadays in hospitals and medicine. Decide what is the most important thing, what have you got to concentrate on, because you can’t concentrate on anything. And there’s various things you can concentrate on. And to some extent, they work together synergistically. And to some extent, they’re at odds with each other. For example, you can concentrate on habitats, whole habitats. You can concentrate on some particular habitats or a variety of habitats. You can concentrate on hotspots, which are the places where not only there are the most species, but there are the most species being generated, which is an interesting concept. In practice, we tend to concentrate on what are called charismatic mega vertebrates – gorillas, tigers, lions. I think, why not to some extent. And I think these really are in an aesthetic sense and other biological sense are pinnacles of what might for want of a better word called creation or evolution. But also, many of them are keystone species, which is again a concept we’ll come on to. And if you are concerned to do what’s necessary to conserve, say, chimpanzees, you will also be conserving the forest in which they live, and therefore you’re being carried along by other species that live in that forest that also depend on it. So there’s a case for protecting the charismatic mega vertebrates, apart from their obvious appeal. Then again, if you want to, you can’t conserve every species there is, because there are – well, we’ll come on to that again – but there are millions of species in the world. You can’t conserve them all. Given that you’re only saving a selection of them, what should your selection be? And should you be looking for the maximum taxonomic range – you know, some reptiles, some mammals, some nematode worms – or should you be looking for eco types? Eco type being a kind of creature that lives in a particular habitat, like two species of mice – not only would they be related to each other, but they would be the same eco type living in the same sort of place. Which of these should you focus on? And it’s different depending on where you are.

A very good conservation biologist – and I know you’ll have views on this too – say, Okay, go and have these criteria, but in reality, the world is in such a mess, and it’s so carved up and so full of vested interest, that you basically do what you can. So one might say whatever one does is going to be far short of what one would like to have done. But one can say that whatever you do is better than doing [nothing] – if it’s positive, it’s easy to get it wrong. But if it’s positive, it’s all worth it; it’s better to have a little bit than nothing at all. And one piece of hope is that you can conserve the species, if you’re lucky, and there might be only a few left. And you think, what’s the point of saving just a few? And although in general, if the population is too low, you’ll lose the species. It’s also true that nature seems to have remarkable powers of recovery. So that, for example, a bison in North America was reduced, I think, to I don’t know, a few 100, you probably know, or less. And now there are 1000s. And it was brought back from a very, very low base. Take the opposite example – also from North America – the passenger pigeon, which at the end of the 19th century was so common and so abundant that they would, for example, there were reports of them sitting on trees and the weight of them causes the branches to break – there were that many – and people were shooting them at will. They disappeared within a couple of decades. The whole lot, you know, the species just died out. And there are lots of examples of that. But there are also examples of species recovering from a very, very low base. So it’s all was worth doing. 

One of the things to me that’s very interesting about conservation is that both fundamental principles come into play. I mean, you’ve got to get the morality right. You’ve got to care about the animals or the plants wherever they are. And I think this overlaps at least the principle of compassion, which I regard as a basic moral principle. But it goes beyond that into the metaphysical principle of oneness, which is very common in most religions. Less in Christianity than in many others. But for example, in Hinduism, or Shintoism, very much the feeling that one is one with nature. And I think this is a feeling that has to be cultivated, so that damaging nature is damaging ourselves. And again, it shouldn’t just be a self-sentencing. Sounds like it in that context, but it’s acceptance that the living world, we are very much a part of it as they say. There isn’t really a proper word in English for oneness. Well, there is – oneness – but there’s a Sanskrit word, advaya, which I think is a very important word. And one of the things that strikes me is that when one is looking for these metaphysical concepts, you often find that in order to express what they are, you actually have to go to languages such as Sanskrit, such as Hindu, in order to find just the word that fits the concept. We don’t have them, which is an indictment, I think of our own selves. When it comes to the attitude: the attitude that we normally adopt towards everything really is anthropocentric. In other words, human based, the only thing we really care about is the human species. But what we need is an attitude that you might call biocentric, which is regarding the whole biosphere as being the centre of concern. One might also eat, say, eco-centric. One might also say Gaia-centric, which I like as a word. The word Gaia, I think being a very, very important concept to bring to bear both in a moral and an ecological context. And the point about ecology: it is a proper science, it’s quantified and all that stuff – testable hypotheses, all that stuff – we’ll come on to that. But it also deals directly with a reality. It’s rooted in natural history, what’s actually happening. And it’s this combination of reality and theory that makes it very strong and also makes it very difficult. So I would like to say not that ecology is a sort of dumbed down sience for the kids who aren’t good enough to do molecular biology. I would like to say it was the Queen of Sciences. Thomas Aquinas talked about theology being the Queen of Sciences, so I’ll borrow the expression. But actually, it’s ecology as the Queen of Sciences, and it should be right at the top of what people are thinking about. And it isn’t, of course. It isn’t. All the things we should really be thinking about are never at the top of the list. 

Ian Rappel: So the idea of ecology as the Queen of Science is, I think, a very attractive one, because the ecology is a sort of catch all of nature, isn’t it? You can drill down to the species, you can even go into behaviour, and then you can come all the way back up and find generic patterns, and that kind of stuff. One of the things that I think is quite often missing, or when – and this relates to everything we’ve been talking about so far – is that human beings are often sort of excluded from the mix. So there’s a temptation, I think, in ecological science, and especially ecological science around conservation, that treats the human being as if it’s some kind of external force within nature, rather than a fundamental part of the ecosystem. And I think in a way, that kind of abstraction is a bit of a curse, because we can generate ecology as a queen of science, but actually has a very strong social element to that as well. 

Colin Tudge: Can I address that? I mean, I don’t disagree. Let’s just say I agree, in essence. But I think the idea – I’ve talked to philosophers who say, really, there’s no such thing as nature, because everything that happens is nature. And everything we do is natural, by virtue of the fact that we have done it, and we are animals too. This seems to me to remove any meaning from the word nature, because you could say that Heathrow Airport is natural, because it’s made by us. I don’t think most people would agree that Heathrow Airport is natural, despite what some philosophers might like to argue. So what I like to argue is that there is this thing called Nature, this concept called Nature, which is a rough and ready definition. All these definitions should be rough and ready; they should be loose, but they express an idea that you feel in your bones is right. And I like to say that nature is what would be there, if human beings weren’t consciously trying to change it. So there is this thing called nature. And I quite like the idea that you have some areas of the world, which, broadly speaking, you can call wilderness, which you leave as far as possible in a pristine state. I accept that that’s more or less impossible, because there are pesticides in penguin eggs and all that kind of thing, even miles from way where you grow and apply pesticides. But that is a kind of ideal that is worth keeping in mind. However, in most of the world, where in fact, in all the world, what you’re saying is true. I mean, human beings are part of the whole thing, and should be considered to be part of the whole thing. So I half agree. Well, I do agree, but with that reservation. Does that makes sense? 

Ian Rappel: It makes sense. Yeah. I mean, I think it’s whether or not we – in our attempts to resolve the nature of the biodiversity crisis – when we’re trying to pose solutions in the nature of crisis, it’s whether or not we pose humans in the mix of those solutions.

Colin Tudge: But could I say that, to me, you know the idea of sort of treating the world as a mosaic? You know, there was somebody who was doing that – well, the way the idea is used is usually pretty gross, for example, to talk about land sharing. And it’s often applied in the concept of agriculture. So you say let’s have some areas of the world that are devoted to intensive agriculture, and they produce all the food we want. And we’ll have some areas of the world that are just, as near as possible, wild, in other words, wilderness, as I’ve been saying, without any human beings. Now, what I would say is that that is a very crude idea. And we’ll talk later about the idea of land sharing, rather than land sparing where human beings and other creatures live together in harmony.

But the idea of land sparing seems to me to be not entirely stupid. And I would like to see as much of the world as is reasonable and possible treated as nature’s domain, where human beings have minimal contact, set, perhaps as scientists just to study it, or possibly, some people might be allowed to look at it, but not too many at any one time, see what I mean? So but wilderness, some areas that really are intensive where you say, other creatures can’t go.My example of that my sort of favourite example, would be the intensive care unit, where you really don’t want any species in there apart from the person who’s being treated. But most of the world, I would agree, should be land sharing — human beings and animals and plant other plants or other creatures living together as far as can be managed. That is the biggest challenge, but it’s not the only challenge.

Ian Rappel: One of the things that we need to be mindful of when we’re talking about conservation, whether it’s lands bearing on land sharing, is the history of interrelationship between groups that we would perhaps these days call Indigenous and the land itself. I mean, I always think Western conservation is cursed by the concept of Terra nullius, no man’s land. The idea that European just discovered vast areas that had nobody there, and therefore, you know, made decisions over the way that land was being used. Which either didn’t reflect the very diverse ways in which Indigenous people use the land, or actually ignored the fact that, in many cases, the Indigenous were wiped out in advance of European by disease and slavery and those sorts of things. But it does mean if we’re thinking about conservation, and if we’re thinking about species recovery, and all those sorts of things, placing the Indigenous and the traditions of humanity back in the core of that consideration is very important, isn’t it, otherwise we’re ignoring swathes of history and replacing it with a very kind of Western dualistic science.

Colin Tudge: So while I agree with you entirely, and one of the encouraging things of let us say, the last 30, 40 years, since I’ve been writing about science, is I think there’s been a significant change in mood. And when I first started writing about it, it was just kind of assumed that sort of Western models of how things worked were right, and that the Indigenous methods and ideas were passe, and probably should be done away with as quickly as possible. And there’s been a significant change of mood; I’m sure you’ll agree with that. Since then, more and more people are thinking, you know, no, actually, Indigenous knowledge is extremely important. And we should learn from it and all those things. It isn’t that kind of realisation hasn’t got through to people who have real power – hasn’t got through to Bill Gates, for example, as far as I can see, who really does think, for example, that genetically engineered crops are infinitely better than the traditional ones, even though the traditional ones grow in very difficult conditions and the engineered ones require very special conditions on the whole. But what one might call enlightened people are beginning to see that what you’re saying is absolutely right. You must take Indigenous knowledge very, very seriously. Actually you need modern science, which is critical – that’s the point, not that it’s right, but that it’s critical – as well as the Indigenous knowledge, which you can’t replace. I mean, that’s the people that live there know their own problems and know how the creatures work and so on and so on. A nice little tale about that: I wrote a book about book about trees, which we might allude to, at some point. There was a nice chap I met who was actually Welsh. And this was in the Amazon. The point is to make he wanted to make a key that would enable people to say, What was one species, what was another. Now in effect, he pitted the wits of specialist, modern biologists of a specialist kind, he knew what they were up to, against the knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, of the local people, who were known I think as materos, for whatever reason, but they were the guys who just worked in the forest. And he said, once they done this identification, they would send the plant -whatever it was, a bit of tree – to Kew or somewhere like that, where they couldn’t get it wrong, because they, you know, they had all the references and so on. And he said, quite a lot of the time, the experts, the Western experts, were wrong. And the materos were never wrong. Every single time they got it right. And don’t forget, when you’re identifying a tropical tree in a place like Amazonia, where there might be 100 different species in a hectare, the only thing you can actually see is the bark. You can’t necessarily see the canopy at all, because it’s mixed up with all the other trees. They’re all close together. And you can’t necessarily see the fruit and flowers because the flowering is very sort of erratic, really, in the tropics, or at least it seems erratic to the visitor, to the observer. And therefore you have to identify them by the bark, in effect, and by the feel. And it’s the people that live there that know them. They get it right. It’s like identifying faces, actually. You can’t really pin down what makes your face your face and my face my face. It’s a sort of, what’s the word, Gestalt?

Ian Rappel: I think that’s what I mean about if we’re to make ecology as the Queen of Sciences, which we should for lots of reasons, then then an element of it needs to be humanized, I think. And that’s what I was driving at. That if we’re going to genuinely grasp ecology, and really come to understand the ecology of the planet, then it needs to go through beyond just Western science. And certainly the Western science has got us to this point. I mean, it’s especially important for conservation, I think. Bill Adams, the conservationist said one of the problems that conservation has, is that the people that were doing it are biologists, and conservation is mainly concerned with people. So conservation in a way is a sort of art form, rather than rather than a science because it’s where ecology meets humans both in good and bad ways. 

Colin Tudge: I don’t disagree at all. So the question arises, what is a flourishing biosphere? How do you judge that it’s flourishing? And the sort of new simple numerical way of saying it, which is very fashionable, is to say, well, it’s to do with biodiversity, the number of species living in a given space. However, that’s a very useful measure for all sorts of reasons – a healthy biosphere tends to be a diverse biosphere – but it’s by no means the only one. The most diverse assemblages of creatures would be – for example, in a botanical garden, or in a zoo, where you just get lots of other species, you put them together, but you wouldn’t call an ecosystem, because they’re not interacting, and it’s the interactions that count. So on its own, that’s not enough. You also have to take into account the abundance, if you’re trying to assess whether it’s flourishing or not. Because you might have a quite a diverse ecosystem, but it might be on the way out. You’re measuring the remnants. Because it seems to me that you could talk about an ecosystem flourishing more or less in musical terms. I mean how would you assess a great symphony, or any symphony? You would say, well it’s got tonal variety, lots of different instruments making different noises; you’ve got melody, of course; you’ve got rhythm; you’ve got harmony; and also, very subtly, you’ve got counterpoint, some things doing one thing and some things doing another, all fitted together. And these kind of criteria, which you would bring to talk about music, actually apply very beautifully to ecosystems. And I don’t think there’s particularly any scientific term that does the same job. So I think that’s an example of getting beyond mere scientific thinking. 

Ian Rappel: What instrument would humanity play in an orchestra?

Colin Tudge: Probably something very, very loud and very simplistic. Yeah, possibly a kettledrum or a big drum, what might be a kettle in the 1812 aperture.

Ian Rappel: Certainly nothing subtle. So, I mean, again, going back to the concept of ecology is that the Queen of Sciences, which I think is a lovely notion. What other ways can we capture ecology? So we’ve said it goes beyond Western science, that’s fine. But what how can we capture ecological worth? I mean, if we take it on the basis of all of the big meta data studies that are coming out now and showing you a 70% reduction of life effectively since the 1970s, there’s a very depressing statistical narrative. And I just wonder if there’s other things that we could put into the mix that might still reveal quite distressing pictures, but would reveal more about life, reveal more about ecology? 

Colin Tudge: Well, I think, the nearest I can come to answer that would be the point I made about you know, do you have an anthropocentric view of the world? Or do you ever biocentric or Gaia centric view of the world? And, yeah, what you could bring to it is – I think the concept of Gaia is most important, don’t you? And that sort of quasi scientific inquiry and quasi metaphysical concept put forward by Jim Lovelock, as you well know. And Jim Lovelock during his life, because he wanted to be known as a respectable scientist, tended to underplay the metaphysical side of it. But in your private life, apparently he didn’t. He was perfectly happy to talk about the metaphysical implications. The basic idea of Gaia is that the world, the earth, and all the creatures that live on it act as if it were one big organism. And indeed, the solar system as a whole acts as if it were one big organism. And the thing about an organism or living organism that makes it different from a stone, or a piece of metal, is that it has this quality known as homeostasis. And what that means is that whatever you throw at it, it will try to reestablish the state it thinks it ought to be in. I mean, the most obvious example of homeostasis is the quality that we have on mammals in general have of warm-bloodedness. So even if the world’s very, very cold, we don’t get cold like a piece of brass or a piece of rock. We counter that, and we maintain a constant temperature. And all animals or plants seek to maintain what the French biologist, Bernard, called constancy of the internal environment. As a point about the world as a whole, the Earth, the whole ecology, is it does act in many ways in the way that an organism does. It does act in many ways to maintain homeostasis. So whatever you throw at it, it will try to get back to the state it thinks it ought to be in. It’s anthropomorphic an anthropomorphic way of putting things, but actually, it’s difficult not to put it in those terms. It returns to where it thinks it ought to be. And the point about what we’re doing now is that we’re pushing the earth beyond the point where it’s possible for it to restore itself to where it ought to be. Anyway, was Jim Lovelock’s concept of Gaia, regarding the earth in some respects, as an organism, and therefore I like the idea. This is where I like the idea that our attitude towards nature as a whole should be Gaia centric. In other words, we’re thinking about restoring the earth to its normality status.

Ian Rappel: One of the topics that’s relevant to Latin is the issue of resilience, isn’t it? Because it’s especially noticeable at the moment, I think, that there’s a lot of pessimism around the environment, biospheres, the general flow, and everything else. But so I wonder how much of that pessimism comes from a misunderstanding of ecology. That they don’t, you know – that the most extreme forms of environmental pessimism are about the end of life, rather than, you know, that actually life has some resilience built into it. And as you say, if we only attended to our own house as it were, and allowed life to flood back around us, then it would prove itself to be resilient. Is it a useful concept or is it counterproductive because it might lead some people say, Well, if it’s all resilient, who cares about it? 

Colin Tudge: It’s what? Counterproductive?

Ian Rappel: Well, the concept of the resilience of nature.

Colin Tudge: Oh, no, I think it’s an essential concept. One point that Jim Lovelock himself made, is that actually it’s impossible to eliminate life. Because it is intrinsically extremely resilient. It’s built into the fabric of the universe, really. And that one’s thought that one can cling to. When we’ve done our worst on this planet, there will still be creatures on it. And the question is, what kind of creatures? And what potential will they have to develop into something else? There may be only microbes left, but there’s quite likely there’ll be cockroaches and water bears and possibly moss and a few things like that. And the question on rise, what, given that we’ve got another billion years or so to go, could they evolve into? So I think the idea of resilience, you know that’s one approach to the idea of resilience, which I think is really quite relevant.

Ian Rappel: I wonder how much it helps humanities, because I want to sort of turn our to the discussion to the feature now, and to look at the prevailing attitudes towards nature that we get from neoliberalism and the solutions that neoliberalism throws forward for the biosphere. But just, if we have an appreciation of resilience underneath it, then it opens up the field for the alternatives, doesn’t it? Things that opens up the possibilities of things like agroecology as being proactive ways that we can encourage resilience and not just have simplistic narratives about conservation, but there’s much more at play than we perhaps realise. But what’s the current state of play? Because I mean, there’s no point, we can’t talk ourselves around the state of the world. I mean, we’ve seen a general worsening and much more dramatic rates of loss since the 1970s. And that falls very neatly across the neoliberal era, the theory of free markets and everything else. How much do you think neoliberalism has sort of forced to the latest phase of the crisis? And what about the solutions that it’s putting forward?

Colin Tudge: Saint Paul, in his letter to Timothy, who was basically his disciple, said, you know, the love of money is the root of all evil. What neoliberalism is basically about the love of money. The more money you have, the better it is, et cetera, et cetera. And everything. Success can be measured in terms of how much money you’ve got, and so on. So I think by that token, we could say neoliberalism is isn’t exactly the root of all evil, but so long as your economy and therefore your life is dominated by neoliberalism, neoliberal ideas, you’ve got very little chance, I would say. It’s just not the right economic model for the modern world. So I would say it’s a key importance and until we wean ourselves off it, everybody’s in trouble, including the wild world.

Ian Rappel: So one of the other elements of the environmental debate and so on is notions of certainty. And the kind of belief I suppose that we know enough to recognise that we’re in a lot of trouble and the biosphere is in trouble. But is there a problem in the first instance, with the idea that we know enough?

Colin Tudge: If you look at the ecological literature, which, as you very well know, it’s huge. And the amount of detail that people know, these days, is, I think, quite incredible. Details of all the insects that live in this country, for example; I don’t know how they do it. But if you actually ask What do we really know?, you’ll find it’s miniscule. And it was this tension between, on the one hand a huge amount of information, and on the other, very, very little compared with what there is to know. It’s rather like Socrates. So you know, at the end of his life, the one thing I’ve concluded is I don’t really know anything. And it’s almost like that. And for example, there are very basic questions you might ask, like, how many species are there in the world? And not only do we not know, but we don’t know to within an order of magnitude. And there are people who will say, Well, what we know, we’ve named less than 2 million different species, I believe. And it’s also known that that list is a bit strange because probably the same one has been named several times, probably several species have been lumped under one heading. 

An example of that would be the crossbill in Britain, where, as you know, it’s now recognised that there are two species. There’s a Scottish word and there’s the English one, which wasn’t recognized. A better example of that would be the – what are they called? – bushbabies is a very good example, where people have recorded that there were about half a dozen species of bushbaby. And a friend of mine called Simon Bearder, has been looking at them very carefully. Not just looking at what they look like, but looking at the noise they make, and looking at their – because they’re basically auditory creatures – and looking at DNA. And he reckons there’s about 40 different species. The trouble is, he said, every time you look – because he goes back to West Africa whenever he can – you find that one of them, or two of them, or several of them have gone, because they all tend to be localised. And the particular wood or forest where they happen to live has probably been felled to make way for some fatuous piece of agriculture or something else. 

Well, the point is, we just don’t know how many there are. And we don’t know to within an order of magnitude. And there are people who say there’s probably about 5 million, wherein, you know, two, but there might be about five. And there are other people who say no, actually, especially if you count in the microbes, which are species too or parallel too, you could have, you might have 100 million. And there are some very good studies done a few years ago, which, on the basis of which it was calculated, that there are probably about 30 million different species. But the other thing is that even if you did have a complete inventory of all the trees, or of all the insects or everything else, that’s not what really matters. What really matters is the interactions between them. And there could be an infinite number, and that’s obviously impossible to calculate. 

Can I give you an example of that? When I went to see, I went to look at trees in Central America when I wrote my book about trees. And one of the trees we looked at was in Panama and is called the almendro. The almendro is a leguminous tree, which means that related to [insert – laburnum?], and therefore it fixes nitrogen and is very useful sort of tree. Now the almendro tree comes into flower in spring, produces a load of seed, lots and lots of animals come and feed on the seed, which doesn’t usually do the tree any good at all, including things like squirrels and monkeys and things like that. But there’s a few tree animals that do do the tree some good, including notably the fruit bats, which take the fruit, the whole fruit, from the tree and carry it away. And the reason they carry it away is that if they hung about on the tree, they’d be killed by hawks. So they are very cautious; they take the fruit, they fly off. The fruits have a bit of hard wooden husk with the seeds inside, and round about the outside of the husk is a sort of pulpy bit, and the bats which are not very strong jawed, eat the pulpy bit round the wooden husk and then drop the wood with the seeds to the ground. Now that means that the seeds of the almendro tree are dispersed, but only up to a point because they’re encased in this wooden husk that lies on the surface and it’s okay, not bad, but not quite there. Along comes these little rodents which are sort of big guinea pigs in fact, of the kind they have in South America, known as agoutis. The agouti eats the whole thing, it crunches its way through the wooden bit around the outside, and eats the seeds. Also doesn’t do much good to the tree, but it doesn’t eat them all. It buries a lot of them in the way that a squirrel does. So we’ve now got buried the almendron seeds. The trouble for that is that when the seeds germinate, obviously there’s a shoot coming up – the agoutis will eat the shoots. So the agoutis don’t look like good news at all for the tree. But there’s another player in the whole story, which is the ocelot, you know, the spotted cat. And the spotted cats, the ocelots, eat the agoutis. So they eat a lot of the agoutis, which have buried the seeds, which means that some of the seeds live to germinate. So the tree depends on the bat through the dispersing, the agouti, and the ocelot. Now it took this chap called Edmund, I don’t remember his surname, anyway, it took him, Edmund, about 30 years to work this out, because it’s not easy to observe these creatures in the world. But the point is, it’s incredibly complicated or not incredibly, but pretty complicated. But by no means the most complicated life cycle that you’ll see in these trees. But the point is, it took ages to work it out. You got 30,000 different species, some of the more complex than that. You will never, if all the biologists there ever were worked all the time there is, they would never get to the bottom of what’s really going on. And that’s not counting what on earth is going on with the bacteria. And then fungi, and all the other little creatures that are absolutely vital players. And it’s not looking at the whole concept of keystone species, that some species you take out, the a lot will collapse, and so on, and so on and so on. So if you actually ask the question, well, what do we really understand about all this? Next to nothing. Although it looks like a tremendous amount. And it’s possibly about – it certainly is enough to be able to make sensible ecological decisions, if your mindset is in the right place.

Ian Rappel: We have discussed the resilience of nature, and we’ve discussed ecology as the Queen of Sciences, and the fact that actually, we’ve barely scratched the surface of that entire knowledge base. So our understanding of the planet and its life, we are only just the beginning of the journey really. But nonetheless, we find ourselves in this sort of point of tension with life, which is that the dominant kind of social force out there is almost completely destructive. Where do we see hope come into the picture from the from the sort of human angle, if you know what I mean? Because it’s sure life will survive. But how can we, as humans ensure that we survive?

Colin Tudge: How can we show we survive? Well, we need a complete change of mindset, which is where I come in with a whole thesis. One sign of hope, obviously, I think, is more and more people are aware of this. I mean, there are lots and lots of often very well directed environmental movements, or called environmental movements are on the side of nature. People like Greta Thunberg. The point there is the realisation that if we’re going to get anything done in this world, it has to be done – I mean, probably anything useful in this world – it has to be done by us, because the powers that be are not going to do it. And this is the tension that’s going on at the moment with the discussion about, you know, stop oil. I mean, whether you, the government is now saying we’ve got at this moment is saying we’ve got to clamp down on this, because we can’t have these people being disruptive and so on. But we’ve got to the point where the problem is so great. And it’s absolutely obvious that the powers that be are not going to cope with it. Because not in a sense, it’s just not their priority. And they don’t really know what to do anyway. And they know that if they do stop oil, it would put a pain to their own position as their own kind of economy. So you’ve now got people I think, who are more and more better and better informed, and who care enough to put their lives on the line, and realise that you can’t get anything done unless we do it. And that, to me, is what’s going to happen. That is the way forward. That’s the only way I can see, really.

Ian Rappel: But what about plausible scenarios from where we are today? I mean, some of the pictures are awful. Some of the potential is amazing. What, how does it sit? How does it look to you and how in particular do you think it relates to your ideas of renaissance?

Colin Tudge: Well, I’ve written down eight possibilities here, which I have to read because I can’t remember eight. But one, is the idea that all life on Earth is wiped out. We’ve already said that is not really going to happen. Go wipe that one off. According to Jim Lovelock. 

The second kind of scenario says, Well, life will continue, but our own species will disappear. And that is just about possible. Not likely, actually, but possible, because we will – well, it’s obviously possible. 

The third possibility, which you get in many sci fi and all that dystopias is that we revert to some kind of stone age. That there’s only a few people left a few tribes which don’t go here, very difficult conditions. And they just do the best they can and go back to being Aborigines and pull it up again, from there with luck. 

Another possibility is a distinct possibility, which we often seem to be heading towards, is that you have a kind of high tech totalitarianism, which is the Orwell 1984 scenario, where the whole all the technologies are basically geared to keeping the power groups in power. And I don’t know if you remember the last chapter, I think it’s the last chapter of 1984, where he asks the chap, he meets effectively Big Brother and says, What are you doing all this for? Or what’s the what’s the point, creating this horrible society? And he says, it’s power. That’s it. Nothing more to it. And you look at what’s happening in the world right now. And you think, actually, that’s what it looks like. Why aren’t they doing it? Power. 

Another possibility, which is in a sense of what Orwell said, although the book was written before Orwell, is the Brave New World scenario of Aldous Huxley, where you have a society which is ostensibly benign, looks okay, but actually, it’s completely controlled. And it works only insofar as people do exactly what they’re supposed to do, and don’t deviate. If you wanted to be cynical, you would say that a lot of United States looks like that. It will be a very good, middle class and rich and all the rest of it, provided you do what society demands of you. So there’s that possibility. 

Then there’s the possibility, which isn’t really a possibility. But people in very high places talk about it, which is that we, the human race, have to leave this planet and spread ourselves through the universe and occupy, started off with Mars and hop off of from there to other places. That seems to me to be quite ridiculous. But as I said, you know, people who should know better talk about it. What’s his name? Stephen Hawking used to talk about that scenario, as if it was inevitable and good. Why anybody should think that we ought to spread ourselves through the universe when we made such a mess of this place, I don’t know. And it seems to me that the scenario, you could call it the March Hare scenario – do you remember Alice in Wonderland? where the tea party that’s also known as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, but just to be pedantic, was actually the March Hare’s Tea Party – but the idea was that you made a tremendous mess of wherever you were at the place he was sitting at. And then he moved on to the next place. 

My final kind of idea is, well, the final possibility is remote, but it’s the only one that’s tolerable, and it’s worth going for. It’s the one I suggested at the beginning, which is that we set out to create convivial societies in which there’s personal fulfilment and in which we live in harmony with the rest of nature as part of it.

Ian Rappel: Thank you very much. I think that’s one we’d all go for.

Colin Tudge: That’s the one we’d all go for, and there’s a chance. There’s not much of a chance, but because it’s the only one that’s really acceptable, we ought to go for it. 

Ian Rappel: Thanks, Colin.