Monday, January 26, 2009

PETA's dangerous new campaign

Just hot off the press, this story has just gone live about PETA's campaign to rebrand fish as cute and cuddly, and what it means for children's health. I'm expecting one or two comments on this story.

Green.view: Deep-fried kittens

Jan 26th 2009
PETA's dangerous new campaign

PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS (PETA) claims 2m “members and supporters”, making it the world’s largest animal-rights organisation.

Much of its popularity likely derives from some important work it has done improving the welfare of farm and research animals around the world. But there is another side to animal-rights organisations. Many of them, PETA included, advocate that animals should not be regarded as property (no pets), and should not be used for food (even milk, honey and fish are out), clothing or research. Those who take such a hardline view are a distinct minority. (More...)

Rethinking tropical destruction

A debate has emerged about the true extent of biodiversity loss on the planet within the Smithsonian. This is because secondary growth forests turn out to be far better homes for biodiversity than had been thought.

Second life

Jan 15th 2009
Biologists debate the scale of extinction in the world’s tropical forests

A RARE piece of good news from the world of conservation: the global extinction crisis may have been overstated. The world is unlikely to lose 100 species a day, or half of all species in the lifetime of people now alive, as some have claimed. The bad news, though, is that the lucky survivors are tiny tropical insects that few people care about. The species that are being lost rapidly are the large vertebrates that conservationists were worried about in the first place. (more...)

Reader Ranko Bon, in Croatia, asks "One wonders whether biodiversity can be meaningfully measured in percentages though."

Also see these two related reports at Scidevnet. The second piece talks about the biodiversity value of agriculture, which was another theme in a recent biodiversity meeting at the Smithsonian, and in a previous piece in The Economist about the value of betel nut plantations.

One picture that is emerging from many of the ongoing discussions is that protecting biodiversity requires landscape-level management, where you plan your protected areas, buffer zones where sympathetic agriculture happens, biodiversity corridors and stepping stones to allow species to move from one part of the landscape to another. A stepping stone is a series of pieces of habitat that let airborne animals move from one piece of habitat to another.

'Comeback' forests rich in biodiversity, say scientists. Tropical forests that grow back following deforestation are unexpectedly rich in plant and animal life that can help conservation efforts.

Traditional coffee farms 'improve tree biodiversity'. Shade-grown coffee farms are rich in native tree species and are important corridors of genetic diversity linking forests, say researchers.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mars rising, and the moon on the wane

Its been a good few months before we reminded the world just what a waste of money NASA's human spaceflight programme is and how there are better ways to explore.

Mars rising?

Jan 22nd 2009

Why NASA should give up its ambitions to send men into space

AS LONG as people have looked up at the night sky, they have wondered whether humanity is alone in the universe. Of places close enough for people to visit, Mars is the only one that anybody seriously thinks might support life. The recent confirmation of a five-year-old finding that there is methane in the Martian atmosphere has therefore excited the hopes of exobiologists—particularly as the sources of three large plumes of the gas now seem to have been located. These sources are probably geological but they might, just, prove to be biological.

The possibility of life on Mars is too thrilling for mankind to ignore. But how should we explore such questions—with men, or machines? Since America is the biggest spender in space, its approach will heavily influence the world’s. George Bush’s administration strongly supported manned exploration, but the new administration is likely to have different priorities—and so it should. ... (More)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Out with the old, and in with the new

This is our first full week back at Economist towers. Last week we ran a weirdly stunted issue, very short on pages and very short on time to produce it. The entire issue was put together on a single day at the end of December, in order to avoid the bank holiday shut downs at various printing presses.

So everyone is back this week and it is a struggle to get into the editor's office for the Monday morning meeting. The talk is of recession, stimulus, manufacturing, Obama, and of course Gaza, Gaza, Gaza.

Over in the science section, we don't often have much to contribute on such worldly and weighty matters, but this week I wrote a lead note looking at Obama's science appointments and what they signal for the new administration. The bottom line is that Obama will be taking scientific information seriously, and it will become an important part of policy making. There will always be a tension between politics and science, but acknowledging the existence of data is a good start.

Looking ahead, if science is now part of policy making this will inevitably raise the profile of scientific information more generally, as well as scientists and science news.

If politicians are asking about what the science says when they form policy, it also means that when scientists discover, invent or achieve things people will also ask well if this is the science, what should the policy be?

While journalists are keenly aware of self-censorship, having a US president that refused to accept scientific data within the context of many an argument could not help but shift the news agenda. Science correspondents and journalists had less to contribute because the arguments were drawn on political lines rather than scientific ones. So for years the arguments about climate change have been booted into the political realm. Reports, facts, scientists have been suppressed. And it is very difficult to report on what isn't there.

Hopefully times are changing. That doesn't necessarily mean that scientists are going to get everything their way. If they assume that, they are in for a big disappointment. Scientific fact is only part of policy making. And there are probably some profound shakeups coming in research funding, as priorities change and economic hard times bite.

But arguing over scientific facts will be so much more satisfying. I am looking forward to 2009.

Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the Earth

Barack Obama is making good his promise to welcome scientists into his administration
Jan 8th 2009

My second story takes a brief look at the new marine reserves announced by Bush. For a fuller take on this story, check out the weekend edition of The Economist website. Next week's green.view will take a look at green New Year's resolutions.

Green Bush

The departing president tries to burnish his environmental halo
Jan 8th 2009