Monday, December 29, 2008

2009: International Year of the Boffin?

Another year has whizzed passed at Economist towers. From our vantage point, just south of Picadilly, the city looks very peaceful and quiet.

Just a quick note to let you all know what I have in the Christmas issue. The double issue, packed with essays, is our single best-selling issue of the year. The lead in the science section this year is suitably Christmassy, and all about scent. The Bom chicka wah wah effect explained.

The scent of a man. To attract a woman by wearing scent, a man must first attract himself. Dec 18th 2008.

2009: International Year of the Boffin?
To round up the end of the year, I'd also like to congratulate the European Commission on its recent masterful work in December in managing to award itself unjustifiably huge bluefin quotas this year, in the teeth of scientific advice.

I'm actually looking forward to 2009, it may be economic misery for most of us, but at least the US has a serious raft of new scientific advisers in top positions in the new Obama administration.

Harvard physicist John Holdren will be the presidential science advisor, physicist Steve Chu as Secretary of Energy, and Oregon State marine biologist Jane Lubchenco will head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

It doesn't necessary mean that science will always be the final word in political decision-making, but it does show that the science will be listened to and taken seriously, even when this may be politically inconvenient.

This sort of heavyweight scientific advice has been notably absent from the Bush administrations. Consequently, science, as a result, has moved right down the political agenda. The only way for science to play its part, is to make sure that plenty of scientists get top political jobs. They see the world differently. If anything, this makes political decisions all the more difficult because you have to take in reality as a data point, rather than just try to find a compromise between the various noisy interest groups and lobbyists.

Nobody in authority ever hired a scientist because they wanted to make lots of people happy. But any administration serious about solving real world problems, rather than just politics as usual, needs boffins.

Also, a recent green.view:

Welcome to the NASQUACK. An exchange for species rather than stocks. Dec 15th 2008

Happy New Year. Don't forget, if you have a story or lead, please drop me a line.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bye bye bluefin

The news about the bluefin tuna just keeps on coming. This week we had an exclusive story with some new predictions that the bluefin tuna population in the Med and the Northeast Atlantic is about to collapse. The only way of avoiding this with any certainty is a ban on fishing. However the current strategy for conserving the bluefin tuna involves more fishing and fishing that will cause the population to decline so precipitously that it would qualify as critically endangered.

As the story details, despite fine words about a ban at the IUCN meeting a month in October, the European Union, and the UK are heading to a crucial meeting held by ICCAT with a mandate that seems to do all it can to avoid actually mention moratorium. (See our piece and also this AFP report). While WWF is encouraged by signs in Italy and Spain of interest in a moratorium on bluefin tuna fishing, it is of course the EU/EC that has the seat at the table (which is one of the most important among the 46 nations involved in ICCAT).

The EC contends that it has done a good job on managing the bluefin through ICCAT, despite all evidence to the contrary. Matters are coming to head, though, at this November's meeting.

Underscoring this was a letter from ICCAT chairman Dr Fabio Hazin which was sent on October 31st to all the delegates. He writes, "I believe that this upcoming ICCAT meeting may very well be the most important one our Commission ever faced. ICCAT credibility is seriously at stake at this moment and our fate will be sealed ultimately by the decisions we make at Marrakech".

Every year, the politicians at ICCAT ignore the scientific advice. This year, there is more talk of heeding the scientific advice. But there is still plenty of wiggle room. A EC spokesperson said "there is not only one scientific advice". Within any estimate is a degree of uncertainty, and this can typically be exploited to allow for more fishing. One of the scientists who reworked the ICCAT data, said that some of the assumptions that had been made up in their models were incredibly optimistic.

In an interview, Andy Rosenberg, a fisheries scientist at the University of New Hampshire, also questioned the degree to which the scientific committee at ICCAT were truly independent. He says the scientists do a good job, but ultimately the committee is taking its "marching orders from the various members states. The science committee is asked to analyse various options."

He adds, "it really is up to governments and governments will respond to public pressure. But it is always too slow. Its a matter of people saying that this isn't acceptable. We need public outrage, this is the common heritage of mankind and an international resource and this is how we are dealing with it".

More soon on this. But for now I'll leave you with a few more of Dr Hazin's words.

"Let's not fool ourselves: there will be no future for ICCAT if we do not fully respect and abide by the scientific advice.... our credibility will be irreversibly jeopardized and the mandate to manage tuna stocks will surely be taken out of our hands. "

"...we must be aware that this is our very last chance to prove that we can do our job properly. if we fail, other institutions will take over. And if one stock falls out of our hands, others may well do likewise."

"please make every effort to ensure that your delegation will not miss such a crucial and historical moment for the Commission".

Managed to death
If nothing is done soon, the bluefin tuna will disappear from the MediterraneanOct 30th 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Endorsement and all that

I've been intrigued and slightly mystified at the number of people from all around the world who have asked me about which presidential candidate The Economist will endorse this time round--as if our endorsement would makes the slightest bit of difference to the outcome.

Any endorsement we give involves a slightly different calculus to that of most Americans. We wonder what is best for the world overall.. rather than what is best for America. We place a far greater emphasis on foreign relations, and stances towards various foreign, diplomatic or intergovernmental issues than Americans.

The decision is always a difficult one. While we are naturally drawn to the Republicans for their right wing economics... with its emphasis on free and unencumbered trade, we are not drawn to the right-wing social views with regards to issues such as capital punishment, homosexual marriage, creationism and abortion. While the Democrats score highly here, they always lose points on the free trade issue--which is a large part of what we are about. So it can be hard to endorse a Democrat. Unless of course there is no alternative.

Last time, we gave a very grudging support for Kerry (not that it made any difference), and probably because the alternative option was so bad. Anyway, our 2008 endorsement is coming up this week. Watch out. I firmly predict that it will make absolutely no difference at all.

For light amusement, check out this round up of previous presidential endorsements from our archive.

Coming up this Thursday/Friday, even more on bluefin tuna. The story is moving on. I'm finding myself absolutely amazed at how poor the management of the bluefin tuna is in the Atlantic. It is an absolute disgrace. Yet the politicians seem to be able to get away with continuing business as usual because the world at large doesn't really get worked up about overfishing.

Also published today, my recent correspondent's diary from Istanbul.

Correspondent's diary: Science in Istanbul, day one

An odd crowd congregates in a stunning city

Monday, October 20, 2008

Out of tuna

Bluefin tuna. Incredibly valuable, and increasingly rare. This marvellous fish is being hunted to extinction in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Can anything be done? Maybe if the members of The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas manage to pull their collective fingers out. Bluefin tuna fishing needs to be banned for a period, while a real management plan can be agreed on.

For more see today's story:

Green.view: Sleeping with the fishes. High time to save the Mediterranean bluefin

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Space and more

Its been a busy month. I went to Istanbul on the 24th to give a talk on the media to a group of grid scientists. It was a challenge giving a talk to a roomful of people who were tapping away at their laptops. This, apparently, is what grid scientists do at their meetings. They multi-task by answering emails, browsing the web and listening to presentations. It will probably catch on, so watch out.

Then it was off to the International Astronautical Congress, a wonderful affair in Glasgow this year. From which I filed a piece about the latest developments in the privatisation of space travel.

Saint Anselmo's Fire. Some more steps towards the commercialisation of space travel. Oct 2nd 2008

Related to this I also sent in a green.view about the environmentally critical new bit of space hardware, the Orbiting Climate Observatory.

A is for earth. The world will soon know more about carbon dioxide. Oct 6th 2008 Web only

After this I headed up to visit a company called Oxford Nanopore, which is working on a new way of sequencing DNA. About which, more soon.

Other recent articles:

Green.view The greening of gardening. Horticulture will change as the climate does. Sep 22nd 2008 Web only

Green.view Win-win. Save the world and become a millionaire. Sep 8th 2008 Web only

Hardygrades. One small step for the animal kingdom. Sep 11th 2008

LEADER Economies of scales. A new way of saving fisheries shows it can work; it deserves more attention. Sep 18th 2008

A rising tide. Scientists find proof that privatising fishing stocks can avert a disaster. Sep 18th 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Spaced out

Just when things were getting a little dull on the space front, lots of things seem to be happening at once. Politicians have realised that there is a long gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the earliest point that the new system, Constellation, could be flying to the space station. There is talk of trying to close that money with more cash, and retiring the shuttle later than 2010. But this will be politically risky, because the chances of an accident with each shuttle mission are possibly as high as 1 in 75. In any case, at some point engineers have to stop working on the shuttle and start building the new system, there has to be a gap of sorts. Then, just as things couldn't look worse, Russian goes and invades Georgia, scuppering plans to buy Russian transport to the space station in the gap.

Enter the Dragon. The war in Georgia is prompting a rethink of America’s route into space. Aug 21st 2008

We also published a a piece that has been in preparation for a long time, on export controls in the US space industry. Not exactly headline grabbing stuff, but actually crucial if you work in this business.

BRIEFING: Space technology
Earthbound. Gravity is not the main obstacle for America’s space business. Government is. Aug 21st 2008

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Space 2.0

Last week I was in Mojave, hearing Virgin Galactic update the world on its progress in creating the world’s first commercial space line. Rolling out of the hanger was White Knight 2. This is a giant new composite aircraft that will loft a spaceship to high altitude. She looked stunning: shiny, colourful and ever-so slightly alien. The work of Burt Rutan’s team at the company Scaled Composites. A lot of work remains. Much testing and firing of engines, followed by flights that get incrementally higher.

As ever, the press unveiling was handled with just a little bit of PR pzazz by the Virgin team. Partway through the press conference, a giant curtain was zipped away to reveal White Knight 2 standing on a bit of airstrip that the press had been walking over just half an hour before. Behind her, perfectly lined up for the press photos, was one of Virgin America’s new planes. The Airbus was called “My other ride is a spaceship”.

There is less progress to report with the spaceship. She was in the Scaled hangar, covered by black dustsheets but clearly unfinished. Although she is 60% or 70% complete (depending on who you speak with) no work has been done on her for the last year. Work stopped after an explosion almost a year ago that killed three engineers and seriously injured three others.

A report on this is imminent, and word has it that work on the spaceship will resume after the report... and that the project will continue with its use of hybrid rockets.

Someone mentioned to me that the team will be modifying the engine to make sure that nitrogen oxidiser in the engine does not flow over composite material at all, only metal parts. I’ve no idea how this could have been involved in any explosion, but if any readers do--you can email me at

Links to the piece follow:

Knight in shining armour

Private space tourism is just the beginning Jul 31st 2008

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


On the face of it, writing about European pesticides legislation doesn't appear to be the most fascinating exercise. But this is a subject that is getting everyone very hot under the collar. European legislators want to remove some of the most hazardous substances from use as pesticides--because of their potential to harm people and the environment through misuse. And when they are looking at harm to people, they don't just mean consumers but also the people who apply pesticides.

Such a hazard-based approach annoys lots of people who see this as politics interfering in what was previously a scientific approach. Previously this approach was entirely risk based. A substance can be very hazardous, but in actual day-to-day use pose little risk to anyone because of the way it is used. Conceivably, something that is less toxic, may be harming more people because of the way it is applied (say just before harvest).

In any case, it seems that there is little chance of much change to this legislation when it reaches Parliament for its 2nd reading this year.

A balance of risk. Pesticides keep food edible and cheap. On the other hand they are, by definition, poisonous. Europe’s legislators thus face a dilemma. Jul 3rd 2008

Reader comments:

Random Scientist wrote:
July 03, 2008 18:26
The cost of pesticide tests will go sky high. The market will be handed over to few biggest companies, those which either have some approved pesticides or can afford tests. Did anarchic greens want to create oligopoly of big corporations? Anyway, they did it.

Fastfish wrote:
July 03, 2008 23:27
More proof that we base sustainable population calculation on an unsustainable foundation. The common tone expressed is that there is no point in considering any other option. Can the Economist provide more than a window onto Purgatory or Hell?

Aroman wrote:
July 04, 2008 04:37

I agree with Random Scientist. This "prove that this is safe" policy is the same that we have seen in chemicals (REACH) and medicine. In all cases the effect is the same: old and trusted substances are driven from the market because nobody invests to prove them safe and we are left with expensive substances that for many years will stay on patent. And the threshold for further innovation becomes nearly unsurmountable.

I don't understand why the old policy of periodically outlawing the most unsafe substances has become obsolete.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mine, all mine

The article on June 19th on the endowment effect caused a range of reactions. Some readers thought it was brilliant, others thought it was brainless. The endowment effect is a quirk whereby once someone owns something, he places a higher value on it than he did when he acquired it. I looked at the possible evolutionary origins of this phenomenon in the article:

It’s mine, I tell you, Jun 19th 2008
Mankind’s inner chimpanzee refuses to let go. This matters to everything from economics to law

The reason that the endowment effect still upsets a few people is because it undermines this idea of rational economic man, which has been the core of a lot of economic theory for some years. But behavioural economics and evolution keep chipping away at this idea.

fostercj wrote on June 23 had a different idea for why people keep trying to insist we all act rationally: "That's the endowment effect at work. I'd rather hold on to the theory I've got than trade it even if the new theory is the one I'd have chosen if offered both to begin with. That definitely has some policy implications."

But awinkle on June 22 had a different view: "The endowment effect is NOT irrational. Purchasing items requires time and resources. That is where the added value comes from. If I trade my ashtray for yours, that is a fair trade. If you pay me sticker price for my ashtray, then I have to go out and buy a new one, that is a waste of time for me!table and I'm told to pick one."

Some picked up on the more philosophical aspects of stuff. Genghis Cunn wrote on June 23:
"The Buddha explained the process by which humans develop attachment and craving, a process which with a little training each of us can observe within ourselves."

Along with the article, I co-wrote a jokey leader (op-ed):
The curse of untidiness: DNA all over the place, Jun 19th 2008
Clutter is not just an evolutionary adaptation, but also a business opportunity

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hair raising tales

Going bald upsets a lot of people, mostly men. Everyone looses hair as they get older, but some men in particular loose most if not all of it in what is called male pattern baldness.

Male pattern baldness is the number one reason (when I looked a few years ago) that men are having cosmetic surgery in America. These days a hair transplant doesn't leave you a head like a cheaply woven Chinese doll. No more giant plugs of hair in little plantations, hair is transplanted in tiny, naturally occurring little groups. It is, naturally, very costly. But it works. Hair moved from the back of the head doesn't wilt and die like the stuff that lived on the top. The only problem is that for many men, they simply do not have enough hair at the back of their heads to replace what has been lost at the front and top.

But, you've guessed it, science comes leaping into the room to offer a solution. Intercytex, a Manchester-based company thinks it can create new hair, something described in this week's article in The Economist. Don't get too excited. For whatever reason, the UK authorities have decided that Intercytex's technology is a drug treatment and it must therefore go through trials from phases I to III (it is up to II at the moment). So it will take up to five years before anything appears on the market. But it does offer hope, at last, to the world's baldies.

Regenerative medicine
Hair today, hair tomorrow. A cure for baldness Jun 5th 2008

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Drugs bust

Few correspondents liked our leader line on drugs.

Reader William Rising, from Indonesia, wrote in to raise the issues that we didn't delve into, namely how will society adapt to the changes that cognition enhancing drugs and will it be fair for people to take them in competitive situations. These are important questions but difficult to answer without knowing the specifics of the drugs available and how good they really are. We don't worry about people taking coffee or Ritalin at the moment to improve their performance in exams. Maybe we should.

Dr Giorgio Cometto, from London, says that any argument that likens the use of caffeine to the abuse of drugs that are prescribed for a specific person, reflects "a shallowness of analysis that beggars description".

Trying not to be too shallow, I'd like to point out that millions of people use Viagra every day as a recreational drug and nobody really cares because it is largely harmless. The point of the leader was that before getting upset about new psychoactive drugs, we need to bear in mind that many of them may not be harmful and possibly even quite beneficial.

Jil Hellemann from Warwick says that the question really should be about whether the increasing medicalisation of everyday life is a good thing. "You should have questioned the desirability of a society which makes drug usage a predicate to living 'useful' lives and rendering us all disabled".

Similarly Tuure Pitkänen, from Finaland, says that instead of marveling at new medical breakthroughs I should have contemplated why life has become so intensive that one has to consume psychoactive substances to keep up.

Alagbe Taiwo from Nigeria wonders whether students will simply get more lazy as a result of all the drugs available to boost their brains.

And Lynda Cord, from Australia, dislikes the fact that our leader advocates the use of cognition enhancing drugs and wonders if the person who wrote it was working for the drugs industry.

I'm not, and it is highly unlikely that drugs companies will go to the trouble of getting approval for the sale of cognitive enhancers to the general population. Too much trouble. Far easier, instead, to sit back and watch as people decide for themselves that they would like to take these drugs "off label". Off label means using using medication for a condition that has not been approved by the FDA.

Modafinil was approved as an orphan drug (one for very rare diseases) for narcolepsy, yet today has sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. There simply are not enough narcoleptics to support that kind of volume of sales. Everyone knows that off-label use is rife. Nobody is in much hurry to do anything about it.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Girls vs boys

Girls, we have been told, are rubbish at maths. Not so, says a new study. Girls are just as good as boys if brought up in a society where men and women are treated more equally, at least according to new research in Science. If they live in Turkey they don't do nearly as well on standard tests, whereas if they live in Norway, they do just as well. Raising girls in more equal societies allows them to do just as well in maths. The only thing that boys do retain an advantage at is geometry.

Education and sex: Vital statistics
Girls are becoming as good as boys at mathematics, and are still better at reading May 29th 2008

And this also may be of interest from a few years ago. Rereading it I realise the article sort of falls flat at the end and doesn't really reach a conclusion about whether biology or culture has a greater impact on differences between men and women.

In the editorial meetings, we had a lot of arguments about what all the data actually meant and many of my colleagues had strongly held views about the origins of these differences.

My feeling then, as now, is that when it comes to inbuilt differences between the brains of men and women, ignoring the sex-related ones (which are large), the differences are mostly small. I think the cultural influences, on the contrary, can be much much greater. What this means is that, potentially, a lot of the differences we see in the differences between the brains of men and women are actually derived from upbringing.

Differences between the sexes: The mismeasure of woman. Aug 3rd 2006
Men and women think differently. But not that differently

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the mind

In laboratories around the world, scientists are hard at work at making drugs to treat diseases based in the brain such as Parkinson's, Alzheimers and schizophrenia. Many of the drugs they are creating are specific to the disease, others are not and these offer to enhance cognitive abilities such as memory and learning. The fascinating thing about these drugs is that if taken by normal people, they may offer cognitive enhancement.

This is the lesson we have already learnt from drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil. Many people with no form of disease or disorder are now taking them as cognitive enhancers. In the case of Ritalin, it is reasonable to state that the drug is possibly one in which the risks of off-label use outweigh the benefits. It is an amphetamine-like drug that can be addictive. In the case of Provigil (also known as modafinil) the side effects are smaller, and people using it to maintain alertness when they are working late are likely to report far fewer side-effects than drinking a lot of coffee.

The comparison of coffee is worth bearing in mind. It is a drug that practically everyone takes, and it does have side effects. Just because it comes from nature doesn't make it any better than something out of a laboratory.

This brings us to the question of whether we should welcome or fear the new generations of cognitive enhancing drugs that are likely to arrive? And as they arrive, so will the potential for use "off label" by people who are not sick. People worry about a society where everyone is doing drugs but they forget or choose to ignore the various stimulants already used from caffeine to ginseng. While it is true that there are potentially medical risks of a new generation of cognition-enhancing drugs (as well as ethical issues), it be wrong to fear their arrival and legislate against them as a whole.

Policies need to be based on the each drug's potential for harm. If these new drugs are generally safe, and people want to take them, it would be wrong to criminalise this behaviour or even set up punitive measures. Some of these drugs may be a good thing, offering us real benefits—particularly as we age. Mental acuity starts to fail when we get older. Just because such mental failings are not given (at present) any specific medical label, doesn't mean that they don't have a legitimate use for cognition enhancing drugs.

Even if you hate the idea of a society where lots of people are taking cognitive enhancing drugs or one where many people feel obliged to take them, there is very little that can be done to eradicate it. People need to be realistic about what government legislation can, in any case, do about off-label drug use.

Taking a punitive approach to cognition enhancers pre-judges who has a legitimate use for them. In twenty or thirty years from now, many impairments of the brain will be recognised as legitimate reasons for the use of cognitive enhancers. Wouldn't it be a shame if the first generation of people who found a use for them were punished.

Cognitive enhancement: All on the mind
Prepare for drugs that will improve memory, concentration and learning May 22nd 2008

Leaders: Smart drugs

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dead in the water

It has been known for a long time that nitrogen in the water is, generally, a bad thing.

Nonetheless, every day large quantities of nitrogen run off from the fields of farms in Europe and America, and end up in the ocean causing vast areas to die off.

A couple of new papers in Science this week, document the effects of this nitrogen in the water and the air, and explain that reactive forms of nitrogen are being created at record rates and how this is cascading through the environment.

The story in The Economist looks at this problem and also talks about the idea of a nitrogen footprint, which is the amount of nitrogen produced by various activities, from beef farming to running a car. The green.view a few days later, picks up the story of the nitrogen footprint and looks at the various different footprints that exist (nitrogen, carbon, water and land) and at the concept that when products that require extensive use of these resources are traded, there is also a virtual trade.

For example, when beef is bought by Japan from America, there is also a trade of "virtual nitrogen" which is produced and emitted into the environment in America but on behalf of another country. An interesting paper which describes this idea in greater detail is Tip of the Pork Chop, last year in Ambio (see references).

The environment: Dead water
Too much nitrogen being washed into the sea is causing dead zones to spread alarmingly May 15th 2008

Green pedicure: Footprints in carbon, nitrogen and water

May 19th 2008 Web only

International trade in meat - The tip of the pork chop
Jim Galloway*, Marshall Burke, Eric Bradford*, Rosamond L. Naylor, Walter P. Falcon, Harold A. Mooney, Joanne Gaskell, Kirsten Oleson, Ellen McCollough, and others. Ambio, Vol. 36 no. 8, page(s) 622-629, December 2007.

Transformation of the Nitrogen Cycle: Recent Trends, Questions, and Potential Solutions
James N. Galloway, Alan R. Townsend, Jan Willem Erisman, Mateete Bekunda, Zucong Cai, John R. Freney, Luiz A. Martinelli, Sybil P. Seitzinger, and Mark A. Sutton (16 May 2008)
Science 320 (5878), 889. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1136674]

Impacts of Atmospheric Anthropogenic Nitrogen on the Open Ocean
R. A. Duce, J. LaRoche, K. Altieri, K. R. Arrigo, A. R. Baker, D. G. Capone, S. Cornell, F. Dentener, J. Galloway, R. S. Ganeshram, R. J. Geider, T. Jickells, M. M. Kuypers, R. Langlois, P. S. Liss, S. M. Liu, J. J. Middelburg, C. M. Moore, S. Nickovic, A. Oschlies, T. Pedersen, J. Prospero, R. Schlitzer, S. Seitzinger, L. L. Sorensen, M. Uematsu, O. Ulloa, M. Voss, B. Ward, and L. Zamora (16 May 2008)
Science 320 (5878), 893. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1150369]

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Green and blue

Lots of things published recently. If you choose only one thing to read, I would recommend the Clarke obit.

Other recently published items:

Science & Technology section

Gene therapy: Seeing is believing. The prospects for using genes as a therapy may be improving May 1st 2008

Palaeontology: Seeing the light. Palaeontologists can now look inside fossils without damaging them Apr 10th 2008

This is a remarkable story about how intense beams of light, designed to look at the structure of molecules, is being applied in palaeontology to allow scientists to see what lies inside a fossil.

Doping in sport: High hopes. An athlete's genes may help determine the results of his dope test Apr 3rd 2008

This article was picked up by the New York Times (several weeks after we ran it) and run on page 1.

Obituary: Arthur C. Clarke The relentless star-gazer who kept his feet on the ground Mar 27th 2008

Everyone absolutely loved this obituary. Although I can't say I enjoyed all of his books from start to finish, he was a great mind and a novel thinker of our time.


Paying for Caribbean diversity. May 5th 2008
Having recently traveled to the Caribbean, I was struck by the relatively low levels of environmental awareness on three of its islands: Anguilla, Bonaire and St Marteens. Islands face unique environmental threats yet no effort is made to tap the resources of the wealthy visitors that are in a large part responsible. This is the topic of this week's green.view column for the Economist.

Deciding what to save. Apr 14th 2008
Imagine a housefire. You have to decide what to save, and quickly. This is just the sort of dilemma facing conservationists.

Swimming with jellyfish this summer. Mar 31st 2008
Jellyfish are about to invade the coast of Spain because of overfishing. Maybe its karma.

Evaluating Dubai's island-reclamation project. Mar 17th 2008
New reefs are forming around Dubai's island reclamation project. But that doesn't mean that the project is environmentally friendly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wildlife conservation

Last year, I wrote an article for the magazine Conservation about the resurgence of poaching of ivory in Africa and how new technology in forensics was being applied to helping to track down those responsible.

During the research for this article, it became clear that even an improbable increase in the rate at which poachers were caught and prosecuted would be unlikely to make any real dent on the problem of ivory poaching. There are always too many people with guns who are willing to participate. Its a similar problem with drugs.

It made me ask the question, why did the ivory ban work in 1989 and not now? It was hailed as such a conservation success. It turns out that the reason the ivory ban worked in 1989, was that it was accompanied by a massive campaign that educated most people around the world not to buy ivory. This reduced the demand, and thus the incentive to poach.

Today, increased wealth in Asia (where markets never really closed down) is driving up demand again. The ban has allowed an illegal trade to become established, one that is difficult and expensive to fight, and one that perhaps cannot be won--if lessons from other parts of organised crime hold true for wildlife. In addition, one economist I spoke with also pointed out that from an incentive point of view, not being able to trade in elephant parts was also reducing the incentive for people to keep elephants on land.

While the elephant is growing at a rate of 4% in Southern and Western Africa (mostly Tanzania) where populations are well protected, seizure rates of poached ivory suggests that something more sinister is happening elsewhere. Massive, and record, hauls of ivory are being made which may translate to an offtake rate of 7% a year or higher. Some scientist suggesting that the rates of poaching could be as high as they were prior to the 1989 ban. As I completed the piece, however, the ivory ban was extended for a further nine years by governments at an international meeting of the trade ban body (known as CITES).

Earlier this year, I started talking to more people about CITES bans, as well as economists. I wasn't surprised that the economists were doubtful about the usefulness of trade bans. What surprised me was that many conservationists also felt that trade bans had a limited usefulness and they worked well only under certain circumstances. In high-profile cases, such as elephants, it might be possible to pay for a huge campaign to try and reduce demand in Asia, or to shame national governments (including America) into closing down the illegal ivory markets inside their own borders. But the problem remains: trade bans are simply a piece of paper that do not require governments to spend a single penny on enforcement. Furthermore, in cases where organised crime is involved, enforcement may be beyond the strength of individual governments.

It all raises the question of what is really being solved when governments get together and ban the trade in a species. Are they protecting it forever? Or are they providing it a bit of breathing space, after which more problems are created by a ban than are solved?

Call of the wild Is the prohibition of trade saving wildlife, or endangering it? Mar 6th 2008

The answer to the question is that CITES trade bans are a double-edged sword, and need to be used with caution. One of the reasons they fail is that governments simply spend too little money in making sure they are enforced, and in using them to control demand.

As an aside, one of the reasons that CITES bans fail is that there are land use conflicts with humans. People want to use land for something else other than "worthless" wildlife. In the sea, one economist told me, things are different. The reason that stuff is removed from the sea is only to trade them. This means that, strangely, trade bans (or in the case of whales, exploitation bans), are far more effective in the ocean than they are in the sea.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Round up

Winds of change A new kind of breathalyser. Feb 28th 2008
Sour times The sea is becoming more acidic. That is not good news if you live in it. Feb 21st 2008

The unkindest cut Cameroon wants to sell a forest, but conservationists don't want to buy it. Feb 14th 2008

Rent-a-tree Protecting the environment by leasing it.
Mar 3rd 2008 (Online only)
Eat it up and be a good boy Prisoners benefit from dietary supplements; prisons might benefit, too. Jan 31st 2008
On the mark
Ecological labelling takes off. Jan 28th 2008 (Online only)

Friday, January 25, 2008

The final frontier

This week brings a report from New York about Virgin Galactic's proposed new spaceship for suborbital tourist flights. Along with this special report is a small piece about what kinds of people will be suited for space travel, and a leader (op-ed) about the birth of private spaceflight. A really exciting story, watch out for test flights this year of the new vehicles and, if all goes well, commercial flights could begin by next year.

BRIEFING: Commercial space flight

Starship enterprise: the next generation:
A fleet of privately financed spaceships is emerging. It heralds a new business in space travel

Spaceflight medicals Suited for space

LEADER: Private spaceflight Virgin birth

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A backlog of green.views...

Point and shoot:Killing African animals may help conserve them. Jan 14th 2008

Branding land: Conservation marketers choose land over beast. Jan 7th 2008

Mind the gap: The world needs more farmed fish. Dec 27th 2007

Blue in green: It's time to put greens in their place. Dec 10th 2007

Moving on up: Conservationists have begun to broach a taboo. Nov 26th 2007