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Shanidar Z: what did Neanderthals do with their dead?

Tue, 18/02/2020 - 12:11
Shorthand Story: 4a6AN5Rq3cShorthand Story Head: Shanidar Z: what did Neanderthals do with their dead? " + "ipt>"); } })(navigator, 'userAgent', 'appVersion', 'script', document); //--> */ Shorthand Story Body:  SHANIDAR Z Traces of pollen among a cache of Neanderthal skeletons discovered in the mid-20th century led to contentious claims of a ‘flower burial’ and human-like death rituals. Now, the legendary site has been re-excavated, revealing a further body – the first articulated Neanderthal skeleton to be unearthed anywhere in 25 years.  The opportunity to use latest technologies on this new find could help answer a much-debated question:
what did Neanderthals do with their dead?  In the foothills of northern Iraq is a cave that has sheltered shepherds from winter winds for generations.
It concealed Kurdish families during the reign of Saddam Hussein. As well as aiding the living, Shanidar Cave harbours the dead...

A graveyard of 35 people lain to rest over 10,000 years ago was uncovered in Shanidar Cave by archaeologist Ralph Solecki in 1960.

This cemetery was found at the end of four seasons of excavation, during which time Solecki discovered something more extraordinary: the partial remains of ten Neanderthal men, women and children. Mid-20th century techniques could only date them to over 45,000 years ago.

Stockier than us, with heavy brows and sloping foreheads, it had long been assumed that Neanderthals were primitive and animalistic: subhuman. Evolutionary losers ultimately rendered extinct by their own deficiencies.

Illustrated reconstruction of a Neanderthal man. Hermann Schaaffhausen, 1888.

Illustrated reconstruction of a Neanderthal man. Hermann Schaaffhausen, 1888.

However, Shanidar Cave suggested a far more sophisticated creature. One male had a disabled arm, deafness and head trauma that likely rendered him partially blind. Yet he had lived a long time, so must have been cared for. Signs of compassion.  

Four individuals were found clustered together in a “unique assemblage”, with ancient pollen clumped in the sediment around one of the bodies. Solecki claimed this as evidence of Neanderthal burial rites: repeated interments; the laying of flowers on the deceased. Human-like ritual behaviour.

Controversy ensued, and still lingers. Does Shanidar Cave show that Neanderthals mourned for and buried their dead? Were they far closer to us in thought and action? What does this mean for the evolution of our lineage? 

“Undergraduates across the world studying pre-history get asked a version of: Neanderthals were nasty, brutish and short – discuss. The Shanidar flower burial always comes up,” says Prof Graeme Barker, Fellow of St John’s College and former Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

“Shanidar Cave is iconic in 20th century archaeology.”Graeme Barker

One such student essayist at Cambridge would eventually be among the first archaeologists allowed back into Shanidar Cave for more than fifty years. “I stood at the bottom of the hill leading up to the cave and thought: how am I getting to do this?” says Dr Emma Pomeroy, now a lecturer at the University.  

She first heard about the cave while studying at St. John’s College. “It was mind-blowing. School hadn’t taught us about human evolution, and I was fascinated by what Neanderthal behaviour might tell us about our own species.” 

Ralph Solecki didn’t finish excavating at Shanidar. He tried to re-excavate several times – reaching the foot of the hill in 1978 – but was stymied by political unrest, and his neglected trenches filled with rubble. Solecki died in March last year aged 101.

Shanidar 4 (the 'flower burial') in situ in 1960, with Ralph Solecki on the left. Credit: Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution .

Shanidar 4 (the 'flower burial') in situ in 1960, with Ralph Solecki on the left. Credit: Ralph S. and Rose L. Solecki papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution .

In 2011, Barker was invited by the Kurdistan Regional Government to re-excavate Shanidar. “Most archaeologists would jump at the chance,” he says. “The fact that Solecki was enthusiastic was a clincher.” Initial digging in 2014 stopped after two days when ISIS got too close, but resumed in earnest the following year. Pomeroy joined the team in 2016 as the project’s palaeoanthropologist.

The Neanderthals had been found by Solecki between three and seven metres down, and the idea was to reopen the trenches to get samples of soil, in the hope of pulling new evidence for age or climate from microscopic mineral and animal fragments.   

“We thought with luck we’d be able to find the locations where Solecki had discovered the Neanderthals, and see if we could date sediments with techniques they didn’t have back in the fifties,” says Barker. “We didn’t think we’d be lucky enough to find more Neanderthal bones.”  

In 2016, down in the “Deep Sounding” of the Solecki trench, while working on the eastern face, a rib emerged from the wall, followed by the arch of a lumbar vertebra, then the bones of a clenched right hand. Archaeologists would have to wait until the following year to begin excavating the delicate remains from beneath metres of rock and soil.

During 2018 and 2019, the team uncovered a seemingly complete skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment, and upper body bones almost to the waist – with the left hand curled under the head like a small cushion.

Quick sketch of the Neanderthal body position by Dr Emma Pomeroy.

Quick sketch of the Neanderthal body position by Dr Emma Pomeroy.

The first articulated Neanderthal skeleton to come out of the ground for a quarter of a century is over 70,000 years old. Sex is yet to be determined, but it has the teeth of a “middle- to older-aged adult”.

The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Neanderthal skull, flattened by thousands of years of sediment and rock fall, in situ in Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The bones are “heartbreakingly soft” says Pomeroy. Barker describes the consistency as akin to wet biscuit, and soil had to be slowly and meticulously scraped away, sometimes using bamboo kebab sticks. “Emma’s got an eye for where the various protuberances of bone are likely to be,” says Barker. “It took her weeks of intense concentration working in what is pretty much a sauna in terms of heat and humidity.”

Dr Emma Pomeroy at work in Shanidar Cave.

Dr Emma Pomeroy at work in Shanidar Cave.

A glue-like consolidant is then brushed on, soaking in to bolster the bone, before sections are lifted out and wrapped in foil. But the bones are just the headline act. Scoops of surrounding soil are also ferried to camp where they are washed and picked through. Barker says they collect everything larger than two millimetres.  

The painstaking work of excavating in situ is risky as the bone is so fragile. An alternative is “en bloc”: to coat the area in plaster and extract it wholesale, then excavate fully in the lab.

“We considered en bloc, but it can be quite brutal,” says Pomeroy. “Crucially, it risks destroying precious evidence that may determine whether the Neanderthals were buried in a purpose-dug pit – a grave – or not”.  

In the 1950s, Solecki opted for the en bloc excavation of the ‘flower burial’. Pomeroy thinks it was this extraction that left the latest Neanderthal find chopped at the waist. “In their notes they describe bones trickling out of the block. Solecki numbered the individuals; we think we have the top half of Shanidar 6, but until we can confirm this we call ours Shanidar Z.”

What thrills both archaeologists is the wealth of evidence to be gleaned from Shanidar Z, using technologies unavailable to Solecki. “In the Neanderthal burial debate, archaeologists are always going back to the reports of finds from sixty or a hundred years ago, but that only gets you so far,” says Pomeroy. “Now we have primary evidence.”

She is currently CT-scanning each segment of Shanidar Z in the lab at the Cambridge Biotomography Centre, and will rescan them once the layers of silt – the “matrix” – are removed. Ultimately a digital reconstruction will emerge.

Members of Ralph Solecki’s team, Dr T. Dale Stewart (right) and Jacques Bordaz (left) at Shanidar Cave in 1960, working on removing the remains of Shanidar 4 (the ‘flower burial’) en bloc. This block of sediment was later found to also contain the partial remains of 3 more individuals.  

Members of Ralph Solecki’s team, Dr T. Dale Stewart (right) and Jacques Bordaz (left) at Shanidar Cave in 1960, working on removing the remains of Shanidar 4 (the ‘flower burial’) en bloc. This block of sediment was later found to also contain the partial remains of 3 more individuals.  

Ralph Solecki’s excavation team carrying the block containing Shanidar 4 (the flower burial), 6, 8 and 9 down from the cave to be transported to the Baghdad Museum for further study.

Ralph Solecki’s excavation team carrying the block containing Shanidar 4 (the flower burial), 6, 8 and 9 down from the cave to be transported to the Baghdad Museum for further study.

A 3D rendering of the in situ positions of the Neanderthal left hand and torso as it emerged from the sediment of Shanidar Cave. Credit: Ross Lane.

A 3D rendering of the in situ positions of the Neanderthal left hand and torso as it emerged from the sediment of Shanidar Cave. Credit: Ross Lane.

Scans have revealed the petrous bone to be intact. Named for the Latin petrosus, or ‘stone’, it’s a wedge at the base of your skull, behind the ear, and one of the densest bones in the body. The petrous is a grail for hunters of ancient DNA, as it can preserve genetic data for millennia.

We have ancient Neanderthal DNA from the North, where colder climates aided preservation. That’s how we know they bred with modern humans at some point. All non-African people still carry an average of 2% Neanderthal DNA, and a study from Princeton last month suggests most Africans also have around 0.3%. 

What we don’t have is Neanderthal genetics from hot and dry South West Asia, where this interbreeding most likely occurred, as modern humans spilled out of Africa. Shanidar Z might be the best hope yet.

Cross-sectional CT image showing the petrous part of the temporal and inner ear (within red box) of the new Shanidar skull.

Cross-sectional CT image showing the petrous part of the temporal and inner ear (within red box) of the new Shanidar skull.

Many argue that competition from our species was the catalyst for Neanderthal extinction. Other theories include an inability to cope with changing climates. In the office above Pomeroy, PhD student Emily Tilby is sifting through shards of shell and bone from Shanidar snails and mice, searching for traces of temperature shift.

“Small animals are particularly sensitive to climate change,” explains Barker. “Greenland ice cores give us a general global picture, but these tiny bones can tell us about changing climates in Kurdistan at the time when Neanderthals were roaming its mountains.”

Some estimates suggest that – despite ranging from the Atlantic coast to the Urals and South West Asia – there may have only been around 20,000 Neanderthals at any one time, says Barker. “Living in widely dispersed small clans yet somehow staying connected across the landscape.”     

Part of that connection may have been locations of cultural significance to which they returned again and again – places like Shanidar Cave. “We have Neanderthals at different levels, as well as this cluster of bodies next to a very large rock, perhaps some kind of marker,” says Pomeroy. “Not only are they returning to the same cave, but they appear to be putting bodies in the same spot.”

“While it’s common across human cultures to have places in the landscape earmarked for the dead, maybe we are seeing traces of this behaviour in a different species.” Emma Pomeroy

Time between deaths is a mystery. Solecki proposed that some of the Shanidar Neanderthals were killed instantaneously by rockfall. Pomeroy thinks this unlikely, but whether the bodies are separated by weeks, decades or centuries is a major challenge for the new research. “Getting scientific evidence for this is going to be one of the hardest nuts to crack,” says Barker.

Terms like ‘cemetery’ and ‘grave’ are problematic for the researchers. “We can’t yet be absolutely sure if Neanderthals were actually digging holes for the dead, then covering them over,” says Pomeroy, who prefers the phrase “mortuary behaviour”.

Early evidence from the new excavations suggests that some of the Neanderthals had been deposited in natural dips in the cave floor created by water, but also that “intentional digging” around the bodies had occurred.  

If Neanderthals were living in the cave there may have been practicalities (“you don’t want decomposing bodies to attract hyenas”), but Barker cautions against modern mindsets – death as medical fact – when considering their behaviour.

“In many traditional human societies, death is a long process, with stages of interment and ceremony. And funerary rites can sometimes be more about making sure the dead really are dead and are not coming back than helping them with their onward journey, ” he says.

He points out that isolated groups spread across Europe and the Near East over many thousands of years won’t have left a single Neanderthal “way of death”. “Between a body being dumped and elaborate funerary activity involving items such as flowers, there’s a vast range of possibilities.”

The pioneering pollen work of paleobotanist Arlette Leroi-Gourhan in the 1960s, which led to Solecki’s ‘flower burial’ claim, has been criticised in the years since (although Pomeroy and colleague Lucy Farr have uncovered documents in the Smithsonian they believe may rebut the rebuttals).

Some argue it was animals dragging flowers into burrows that caused pollen clumps. Others say Solecki’s workers tramped in petals from their daily cave commute. With colleagues at Liverpool John Moores, the team are reopening the case of the flower burial by analysing resin-imbued sediment from the scene, sliced wafer-thin.

Micromorphology thin section through the cut feature containing the new hominin remains. Credit: Lucy Farr.

Micromorphology thin section through the cut feature containing the new hominin remains. Credit: Lucy Farr.

Shanidar Z came back from Iraq as hand luggage. When Pomeroy moved from Liverpool to Cambridge in 2018, she drove the Neanderthal down packed in a suitcase, in a car that also contained the remains of John of Wheathampsted, a 15th century abbot of St Albans (“I introduced them to ‘80s cheese on the radio”).

Analyses of bones and sediment from the excavations are now in full swing at Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Liverpool John Moores University. “An archaeological project like this involves an ever-growing circle to help with specialist analyses,” says Barker. “The current list includes colleagues at Belfast, Bordeaux, Copenhagen, Leiden, Liverpool, London, Orléans and Oxford Universities.”  

“We also depend absolutely on the enthusiastic support of local Kurdish people and the Kurdistan archaeological authorities, for both of whom Shanidar Cave is core to Kurdish identity.”

In the intervening decades since Solecki described the flower burial, mounting evidence of Neanderthal culture and cognition suggests a species much closer to humankind than the “brutish cavemen” of common conception.

Just the last few years have seen use of decorative shells and even specific cave daubings attributed to Neanderthals. However, the repeated ritual interment of the dead within a site of memory, possibly over long periods of time, would suggest cultural complexity of an even higher order.     

“The questions are big, and go to the heart of what makes us human,” says Barker. “But determining the death practices of these Neanderthals will be far from easy. It’s as if we’ve got ten or eleven bits of a million-piece jigsaw, and we haven’t even got the picture on the top of the box.”

Inset image credit: View looking out from Shanidar Cave, taken in October 2016. Credit: Hardscarf from Wikimedia commons.

Dr Emma Pomeroy on site at Shanidar Cave.

Dr Emma Pomeroy on site at Shanidar Cave.

Professor Graeme Barker onsite inside Shanidar Cave, with the emerging Neanderthal behind him. He’s holding a soil block to be analysed microscopically in Cambridge.

Professor Graeme Barker onsite inside Shanidar Cave, with the emerging Neanderthal behind him. He’s holding a soil block to be analysed microscopically in Cambridge.

TopBuilt with Shorthand Summary: 

Archaeologists have unearthed a Neanderthal skeleton in a famous cave in Iraqi Kurdistan. They say the new discovery provides a unique opportunity to use modern technology to try and understand Neanderthal “ways of death”. Did Neanderthals dig graves? Over the next few years, Cambridge researchers will be trying to find out. 

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of ArchaeologySchool of the Humanities and Social SciencesPeople (our academics and staff): Emma PomeroyGraeme BarkerSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): ArchaeologyNeanderthalprehistorySection: ResearchNews type: News

Rainbow flag to fly over University of Cambridge to mark start of LGBT+ History Month

Sat, 01/02/2020 - 00:01

Apart from the University flag, no other flag is normally flown over the building, although the flags of the Sovereign or other Heads of State have been raised when they have visited the Old Schools or the Senate-House.

“LGBT+ History Month provides an opportunity not only to remember the struggles faced by LGBT+ communities around the world, both in the past and the present, but also to celebrate the contribution they have made to society,” said Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope.

“Our university comprises a diverse range of nationalities, religions and opinions. Many of our members come from countries in which to be openly LGBT+ would result in discrimination, violence, imprisonment or even execution.

“I hope that flying the rainbow flag over the Old Schools will send out a message that we are committed to helping create a society where everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is able to reach their full potential.”

Professor Toope is a strong advocate for civil and human rights and has been publicly supportive of the LGBT+ community, speaking on the main stage at last year’s inaugural Cambridge Pride.

In recent years, an overwhelming majority of colleges, as well as University departments and institutions, including the University Library, have shown their support for LGBT+ History Month – and for their LGBT+ members, their friends and families – by flying the rainbow flag as well as hosting a wide range of events. At Trinity College this year, Dame Sally Davis, the College’s first female Master, will raise the rainbow flag to herald the start of the month.

Dr Miriam Lynn, Equality and Diversity Consultant, added: “It’s wonderful to see so much support for LGBT+ History Month across the University and its Colleges. This year’s nationwide theme is Poetry, Prose and Plays. Cambridge LGBT+ alumni have made a huge contribution in these fields, from playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and writers including EM Forster and Ali Smith through to acting giants such as Sir Ian McKellen and Miriam Margolyes.”

The rainbow flag – the international symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community – will fly over the Old Schools, at the heart of the University of Cambridge, for the first time on Monday to mark LGBT+ History Month.

We are committed to helping create a society where everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is able to reach their full potentialStephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellorsps1955Cambridge - Old Schools (rainbow flag added)This year’s LGBT+ History Month events include:LGBT History Month Lecture: 'Sex, Laws and Violations' – Gay rights from the 1960s to the present day 

5.30-6.30pm, 26 February

Faculty of Law, University Of Cambridge

Martin Bowley, QC, was called to the Bar in 1962 and served as a Recorder from 1979 to 1988, when he had to stand down after being outed by the Sun newspaper. Since then he's been a passionate advocate for gay rights and supported the campaign group Stonewall from its earliest days. In the late 1990s, he served on a government committee which led to the reform of the UK's sexual offences legislation. Martin will be in conversation with Paul Seagrove, Communications Manager and former BBC broadcast journalist.

Book here

Diversity cinema

12:30pm – 1:30pm, 13 February

Norwich Auditorium, University Information Services

Celebrating LGBT+ History Month with a selection of films looking at queer trailblazers from the past.

Book here

Rainbow crossings: safe spaces for LGBT+ at home and abroad

4.00-5.30pm, 19 February, Michaelhouse Cafe, Trinity St., Cambridge CB2 1SU

An enduring search for safe spaces has defined the precarious movement of the LGBTQI+ communities and minorities. Organised by Newnham College, this event seeks to discuss safer spaces within Cambridge. The panel and workshop will bring together activists, artists and academics to create a map of safer routes and spaces for LGBTQI+ people in Cambridge.

Details here

LGBTQ+ Engineering Coffee Morning

10:30-11:30am, 24 February, North Room, Department of Engineering Library, Trumpington Street

Join us for a coffee to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. All welcome!

Killing Patient Zero UK Premiere and Q & A

7:30pm – 10pm 28 February 2020

Cripps Court, Magdalene College

The UK premiere of Killing Patient Zero, the new Canadian documentary feature film directed by Laurie Lynd and winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at Sydney’s Queer Film Fest 2019. The film is based on the award-winning book, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, written by Dr Richard A. McKay, a Magdalene College Lecturer and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. 

Notoriously (and erroneously) known as “patient zero” of the North American AIDS epidemic, Gaétan Dugas has often been portrayed as a psychopath, wilfully infecting other gay men with HIV during the early 1980s. By exploring how Dugas’s infamy came about, this powerful documentary challenges that stereotype and paints a portrait of how gay men and women challenged rampant homophobia during the worst years of the epidemic. 

The event is free to attend.

Book here

CamQueerHistory

Throughout February, CamQueerHistory – a group of Cambridge undergrads, grads and staff – will be running a series of events on topics including: Queer activism and the rise of the right, Queer Clothes: Sartorial Non-Conformity and Gender Expression, Essentialist Epistemology and the Exclusion of Bisexuality from Islamic Theology of Same-Sex Desires and Acts, and Rebel Dyke Histories.

Details here

Bridging Binaries: LGBTQ+ Tours at Cambridge Museums

February – June 2020

From queens, emperors and divine beings, to scientists, artists and global communities, explore the spectrum of identities that exist across time, place and culture in Cambridge collections. How do labels and categories affect the stories we choose to tell, or how we connect with each other? How do they affect our interaction with the natural world, and how we imagine the future?

With tours running across an impressive seven museums, volunteer guides will share their personal selection of fascinating stories about gender and sexual identity through a range of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-related objects.

Details here

For the full line-up of events across Cambridgeshire during LGBT+ History Month, visit the Encompass Network website.


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Police platform patrols create ‘phantom effect’ that cuts crime in Tube stations

Thu, 16/01/2020 - 15:02

A massive experiment that deployed regular police patrols on platforms in the London Underground has shown that four 15-minute patrols a day in some of the capital’s most crime-ridden stations reduced reported crime and disorder by 21%.

Researchers from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology worked with the British Transport Police (BTP) to conduct the experiment across six months in 2011-2012. The findings have been published in the journal Criminology.

The team identified the 115 London stations where reported crime was highest. They randomly allocated 57 of these stations with four daily “doses” of platform patrols – two officers on foot for quarter of an hour – four days a week, and compared the effects to the remaining “untreated” stations.

The researchers found that, while the experiment was running, a total of 3,549 calls to police from the platform came from stations without patrols, compared to 2,817 in the stations receiving a policing “dosage” – a relative difference of 21%.

The team also looked at crime data from the six months prior to the experiment, and found that recorded crime fell 14% overall during the experimental period in those stations treated with the new patrols.

Strikingly, they discovered that the vast majority of reduction in both crime and calls for assistance occurred when these police patrols were absent – some 97% of the measured effect. The criminologists have dubbed this the “London Underground paradox”.

“The total crime prevention benefit of police patrols may be greater when they are absent than when they are present,” said study co-author Prof Lawrence Sherman. “In the London Underground experiment we see a huge residual effect of brief appearances by patrolling officers after they leave”     

“This phantom effect suggests that crime declines when potential offenders are apprehensive about a possible police presence based on recent patrolling patterns – even when there are no police in the vicinity,” he said.

“In London stations, it may be that more professional kinds of offenders are particularly sensitive to changes in police presence, such as pickpockets and distraction thieves.”

“The London Underground paradox could have implications for debates on police priorities in an age of austerity, such as the benefits of investigating past crimes compared with the benefits of preventing future crimes,” Sherman said.

London’s Underground opened in 1863, the first underground railway in the world, and provides more than 1.3 billion passenger rides per year.

The majority of crime in the transport network occurs on the trains and in concourse areas. Crime on platforms constitute 11% of the total, and historically platforms have had no regular police patrols.

As such, platforms offered an opportunity to conduct an experiment on spaces within a major metropolis that had never seen proactive police presence – ideal for gauging patrol effectiveness without previous “contamination”, say researchers.

“Platforms are small, stable and confined places with finite entry and exit points. These characteristics make them optimal for measuring the localised deterrence effects of police patrols,” said first author Dr Barak Ariel.

“We wanted to measure what happens when police patrols are introduced into an urban environment for the first time in over 150 years.”

The team targeted “hot spots” – areas where crime is more concentrated, and preventative patrols can have greatest effect – by ranking stations based on the previous year’s crime rates, and including the top 115 of Greater London’s 270 stations in the experiment.

Researchers also narrowed the experiment’s focus based on “hot hours” and “hot days”. Previous data showed the sample platforms experienced more crime and calls to police from Wednesday to Saturday between 3pm and 10pm.

Twenty uniformed BTP officers were selected and trained to work exclusively on patrolling the platforms of the “treatment” stations during “hot” days and hours. Each two-person unit was allocated between three and five stations, with platforms patrolled for fifteen minutes four times a day.

Officers were asked to conduct these patrols in a random or unpredictable order within the “hot hours”, and encouraged to engage with the public while patrolling.

Police were most effective at preventing platform crime during periods and days when patrols were scheduled – but just 3% of that reduction came when officers were actually scheduled to patrol.

The researchers also found “regional” effects: crime in the rest of the station fell almost as much as crime on platforms during the four days when regular patrols were deployed.

“Our findings indicate that consistent patrols can cause large reductions in both crime and emergency calls in areas that have never before been proactively patrolled by police in this way,” added Sherman.

“The more that uniformed police have been there, and the more recently, the less likely future crimes may be to occur.” 

A major experiment introducing proactive policing to Underground platforms finds that short bursts of patrolling create a “phantom effect”: 97% of the resulting crime reduction was during periods when police weren’t actually present. 

The London Underground paradox could have implications for debates on police priorities in an age of austerityLawrence ShermanMarco ChileseLondon Tube station


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Dr Jane Goodall on the environment: "My greatest hope is our young people"

Tue, 14/01/2020 - 12:18

At the age of 26, Jane Goodall travelled from England to what is now Tanzania, Africa, and ventured into the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. Among her many discoveries, perhaps the greatest was that chimpanzees make and use tools. She completed a PhD at Newnham College in Cambridge in 1966, and subsequently founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to continue her conservation work and the youth service programme Roots & Shoots in 1991. She now travels the world as a UN Messenger of Peace.

Her words below (from the latest issue of Horizons magazine) continue our focus on Sustainable Earth, looking at how we transition to a carbon zero future, protect the planet's resources, reduce waste and build resilience. See also the newly released film here

“In 1986, I helped organise a conference on how chimpanzee behaviour differed according to the environment. There was a session on conservation and one on conditions in captivity – in both cases, it was utterly shocking. I went to the conference as a scientist, and I left as an activist.

Since then, I’ve been travelling the world raising awareness not only of chimpanzee conservation and welfare, but also of wider environmental issues.

We have just one home, one planet, and we’re destroying it very, very fast. The human population is growing, but on a planet with finite natural resources, and we’re using up these resources faster than nature can replenish them. We’re polluting the air, the water and the land. We’re recklessly pumping out CO2 into the atmosphere and, at the same time, we’re destroying our forests and oceans – the two great lungs of the world. If we carry on with business as usual, in 20 years’ time, we may have a planet that’s virtually unliveable.

We must not give up hope. Every single day that we live, we make some impact on the planet. We have a choice as to what kind of impact that is.

I see reasons to be optimistic. Nature is resilient. If we work to restore those places that we have destroyed, if we give them time, they will recover. A bleak, destroyed area can become beautiful again as the insects and
birds and other animals come back. Animals on the very brink of extinction can be given another chance.

I truly believe we have a window of time during which we can begin to heal some of the damage we’ve inflicted and at least slow down the climate crisis. But we have to act now.

My greatest hope is our young people. There’s a saying, ‘We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children’. But we haven’t borrowed our children’s future – we’ve stolen it. In my travels, I have met so many young people who seemed depressed, angry or just apathetic, feeling that their future has been compromised and that there’s nothing they can do about it. That was why we started our Roots & Shoots education programme in 1991, to empower young people to make the world a better place.

Cambridge, like all universities and schools, can play a role in shaping the attitudes of young people. We need to educate and inspire them, to teach them to respect each other and to respect other living organisms. We need environmental concerns to be taught not just in science, but in every discipline.

We are finally beginning to use our intellect to come up with technological solutions that will enable us to live in greater harmony with our planet – electric cars and renewable energy, for instance – and to think about our own ecological footprints. We need the scientific endeavour for which institutions such as Cambridge are famous to be directed towards doing something about the mess that we’ve made of our planet.

The human spirit is indomitable. Throughout my life, I’ve met so many incredible people – men and women who tackle what seems impossible and won’t give up until they succeed. With our intellect and our determined spirit, and with the tools that we have now, we can find a way to a better future.

But do we have time? I don’t know.”

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

In a new film released as part of Cambridge University’s focus on Sustainable Earth, Dr Jane Goodall DBE talks about the environmental crisis and her reasons for hope. 

Every single day that we live, we make some impact on the planet. We have a choice as to what kind of impact that is.Jane Goodall Dr Jane Goodall DBE


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesRelated Links: The Jane Goodall Institute Roots and Shoots

Pigeon slippers, Nobel weirdos and cakes at dawn: 24 things we learned in 2019

Fri, 13/12/2019 - 08:50
Shorthand Story: 4yEBA5e67pShorthand Story Head: Pigeon slippers, Nobel weirdos and cakes at dawn " + "ipt>"); } })(navigator, 'userAgent', 'appVersion', 'script', document); //--> Shorthand Story Body:  Pigeon slippers, Nobel weirdos and cakes at dawn

24 things we learned in 2019

1. Slim people were born lucky

Image: rauschenberger

Image: rauschenberger

Ever wondered why your co-worker spends all day eating and never puts on weight while you only have to look at a biscuit to gain weight? It might be that you’ve just been dealt a bad hand, genetically speaking. A study of some 14,000 people found that thin people have fewer genetic variants that increase their chances of being overweight.

As lead researcher Professor Sadaf Farooqi put it, “Healthy thin people are generally thin because they have a lower burden of genes that increase a person’s chances of being overweight and not because they are morally superior, as some people like to suggest”.

Read more

2. Picking salad leaves really is rocket science

Airachnid on some mixed-color lettuce (Image: Jacquelyn Orenza)

Airachnid on some mixed-color lettuce (Image: Jacquelyn Orenza)

Who’d have thought that picking up something as simple as lettuce was so difficult? Every lettuce is different, so how do you teach a robot not to crush the vegetable as it tries to harvest it? The answer: machine learning.

Researchers have developed the ‘Vegebot’, which has now been successfully tested in the field, though at this stage the robot is nowhere near as fast or efficient as a human worker.

As for others uses of robots in agriculture, we think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Read more

3. Blade Runner buildings could finally become a reality

He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard (Image: Solo)

He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard (Image: Solo)

2019 was the year in which the original Blade Runner was set, but very little of its futuristic cityscapes has actually come true… yet.

Now, scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory have created the smallest pixels to date by trapping particles of light under tiny rocks of gold. They say this technology, a million times smaller than the pixels in a smartphone, could be used for large-scale flexible displays, big enough to cover entire buildings.

Read more

4. A 16th century doctor might offer you a dead man’s hand or some pigeon slippers

A painstaking project to study and digitise some 80,000 cases recorded by two famous astrological physicians has given us a unique insight into the worries and desires of people who lived 400 years ago. It reveals knowledge of how celestial movements influence our lives and how, for instance, a dose of the clap could be pinned on conjunctions of malevolent planets (a likely excuse).

Some of the cures they offered were questionable to say the least (pigeon slippers or the touch of a dead man's hand, anyone?).

This knowledge has fortunately been long forgotten.

Read more

Image: Astrologaster, or, The figure-caster. John Melton, 1620. Credit: Wellcome Collection

5. Butterflies would probably swipe right if they saw their own profile

Image: Mika Baumeister

Image: Mika Baumeister

Male butterflies really are in love with themselves – they actually have genes that give them a sexual preference for a partner with a similar appearance to themselves.

Researchers took on the role of matchmakers, introducing male butterflies to female butterflies of two species and scoring them for their levels of sexual interest directed towards each. When a hybrid between the two species was introduced, the male tended to prefer a mate with similar markings to itself.

Read more

6. Toy cars can teach us how to drive faster

Image: Wetmount

Image: Wetmount

An undergraduate student project has shown us that a future of driverless cars talking to each other could make travel move over a third faster. Even throwing in a less-than-cooperative human driver wasn’t enough to put the automated cars off their journeys.

Rather than relying on computer simulations, the students used scale models of commercially-available vehicles with realistic steering systems, adapted to include motion capture sensors and a Raspberry Pi, so the cars could communicate via wifi.

Read more

7. If your mind goes blank when it comes to splitting the bill, you might suffer from maths anxiety

Image: ulleo

Image: ulleo

'Maths anxiety' is a very real thing. It's that feeling of stress and panic when faced with even a simple maths problem. Even people who score well at maths tests can suffer from the condition. Researchers have found that it can be infectious, too – parents and teachers might unwittingly pass on their anxieties to children.

Read more

8. The earliest known example of fake news promised cakes at dawn

Bulldog with Dog Cakes (Image: Personal Creations)

Bulldog with Dog Cakes (Image: Personal Creations)

Everyone’s at it these days, but maybe we have the Babylonian gods to blames for fake news.

Cambridge archaeologist Martin Worthington thinks he may have spotted the earliest known example of fake news, in the 3000-year-old Babylonian story of Noah and the Ark (widely believed to have inspired the Biblical tale). In this story, the god Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news. He tells Uta–napishti (the Babylonian Noah) to promise his people ‘At dawn there will be kukku-cakes’. What he really means is ‘At dawn, he will rain down upon you darkness’.

The Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the right. (Image: The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the right. (Image: The Trustees of the British Museum)

If only the Babylonians had had access to the Bad News ‘fake news vaccine’.

Now, fancy some covfefe with your kukku-cakes?

Read more

9. We’re teaching robots to feel pain

Robot Repairman (Image: DocChewbacca)

Robot Repairman (Image: DocChewbacca)

“Cyborgs don’t feel pain,” said Kyle Reese in Terminator. But he could be wrong.

Researchers are using machine learning to teach robots to feel pain. This isn’t some cruel experiment or to prevent them taking over the world, but rather so that they can detect when they are damaged and heal themselves.

Read more

10. Ely used to be a hotbed of crime – witchcraft, theft, highway robbery, not turning up for church

Two centuries of court records from the Isle of Ely have revealed a colourful and often brutal picture of the crimes and misdemeanours taking place in this Cambridgeshire city.

The courts, which tended to be overseen by professional judges rather than the local gentry, survived until 1972 when they were replaced by Crown Courts. Cases heard in Ely and Wisbech over the centuries often featured the gravest offences of the day including: murder, witchcraft, theft, highway robbery, rape, assault, coining, forgery, trespass, vagrancy, recusancy (failure to attend Anglican services) and infanticide.

These days, the most criminal thing about the city is its ever-increasing house prices.

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11. Plants can tell the time

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Despite not having a brain, it seems that plants are able to tell the time. Okay, so they might not be able to tell you it’s 5:10pm, but every cell in a plant has its own internal clock. They manage to coordinate these by talking to their neighbours, helping the plant ready itself for whatever the day has in store.

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12. Some restaurants serve food items with three days’ worth of calories in them...

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Restaurants that provide nutritional information on their menus tend to sell food that has less fat and salt in it. The researchers behind the study argue that if government policy made menu labelling mandatory, it could encourage restaurants to produce healthier options, leading to public health benefits.

But they also found huge differences in the number of calories in individual food items, including this monster with almost 6000kcal - that's about three days' worth of calories.

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13. ...But if you want to wean people off meat, just Offer an extra vegetarian option

Vegetarian (Image: Alexander Cahlenstein)

Vegetarian (Image: Alexander Cahlenstein)

We’re all being encouraged to eat less meat because of its impact on the climate. This year the University Catering Service announced that it had removed beef and lamb from the menu and slashed its carbon footprint as a result.

Canteens and restaurants that don’t want to take such drastic steps can still make a difference by increasing the number of vegetarian options. An experimental study showed that this could increase the proportion of vegetarian and vegan food sold by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales.

Read more

14. A day’s work a week is enough to make you happy

High five! (Image: LoozrboyFollow)

High five! (Image: LoozrboyFollow)

Being unemployed is bad for your mental health. Aside from economic factors, paid employment brings other benefits – often psychological – such as self-esteem and social inclusion.

But it turns out that you only need one day a week of work to improve your mental health – any more makes little difference, but leaves a lot more time for Netflix.

Read more

15. Don’t worry if people think you’re a weirdo – it could get you a Nobel Prize

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Professor Didier Queloz, as well as two others. It’s almost 25 years since he and co-laureate Michel Mayor, spotted the first planet outside our solar system, an exoplanet.

“Back then,” said Didier, “exoplanet research was a very small field. I think there were about fifty of us and we were seen as weirdos.”

Read more

16. The Renaissance hipster was a dedicated follower of feathers

Recreation of Matthäus Schwarz's headdress. (Image: Graham CopeKoga)

Recreation of Matthäus Schwarz's headdress. (Image: Graham CopeKoga)

Take a look at this beauty, measuring over a metre in width and almost half a metre in height, resplendent with 32 red and white ostrich feathers and a bonnet of felt, satin and velvet.

It’s a recreation of a real hat as worn by Matthäus Schwarz, a 24-year-old German fashionista, on 10 May 1521. But Schwarz wasn’t alone in this fashion – feathers were quite the craze at the time.

Read more

17. Bamboo grows a metre a day

Image: StockSnap

Image: StockSnap

Bamboo is an incredible material - and very fast growing. It’s just one of the natural materials that might replace concrete in the future.

Renewable, plant-based materials such as bamboo have huge potential for sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. Their use would dramatically reduce emissions compared to traditional materials, helping to mitigate the human impact on climate change. This approach would also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere by diverting timber away from being burnt as fuel.

Researchers already say that we could soon be living in wooden skyscrapers within the next decade.

Read more

18. Margaret Thatcher had a very famous ‘we’ in 1989

Margaret Thatcher meets George Bush in 1989 (Image: White House)

Margaret Thatcher meets George Bush in 1989 (Image: White House)

“We have become a grandmother,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1989 upon the birth of her first grandchild, Mark Thatcher's son Michael - the first time she used this expression. The term had previously been restricted to royal use. As Queen Victoria would no doubt have said, “We are not amused”.

Thatcher's apparent conceit led to her being described as “a legend in her own imagination”.

Read more

19. Women at Cambridge were encouraged to behave badly in the Eighties

Jane Tillier, the first woman Lay Chaplain at Jesus College in 1984, was given a badge by renowned historian Lisa Jardine encouraging her to behave badly. Jardine handed the badges out to her female friends, encouraging them to wear them. One of these badges is now on display in The Rising Tide exhibition at the University Library.

Men – particularly those trying to stop women being admitted to the University in the late 19th century – didn’t need much encouragement.

Read more

20. 2019 was the year of upcycling

Image: vorsprung

Image: vorsprung

Cambridge Dictionary named ‘upcycling’ – the activity of making new items out of old or used things (just like this article, really) – as its Word of the Year. It reflects the momentum around individual actions to combat climate change — from going vegan to taking your own cup to Starbucks.

Read more

21. Forget the floss – it’s time for the quantum dance

Image: Alexas Fotos

Image: Alexas Fotos

Cambridge researchers have found a way to get the atomic nuclei in semiconductor quantum dots (crystals made up of thousands of atoms) to dance in unison, in a quickstep towards quantum computing. Lasers cool the nuclei to less than 1 milliKelvin, or a thousandth of a degree above the absolute zero temperature - it’s certainly no disco inferno in there.

Read more

22. Your PlayStation could hold the key to better brain health

Hellbalde (Image: Ninja Theory)

Hellbalde (Image: Ninja Theory)

Not only has gaming technology been used to accurately portray mental health disorders, such as in Hellblade, the story of a Celtic warrior guided by the voices in her head, but researchers are now looking at how it might help people improve their mental health in future.

In fact, gaming technology is opening up mental and cognitive health research. Cambridge researchers say virtual reality could one day help us spot the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, as problems with navigation are one of the first clues that something is going wrong.

Read more

23. If your cearc fhrancach brachaid this Christmas, don't eat it

Christmas 2012 (Image: Mike Fleming)

Christmas 2012 (Image: Mike Fleming)

Researchers in Cambridge and Belfast have identified and defined 500 Irish words, many of which had been lost, and published them in a free online dictionary of Medieval Irish.

Among the 500 words rediscovered and translated by researchers in Cambridge and Belfast are the festive ‘cearc fhrancach’ (turkey hen) and the less Christmassy ‘brachaid’ (oozes pus).

Read more

24. Beer before wine, wine before beer – it doesn’t matter, you’ll still feel ill

Image: Couleur

Image: Couleur

Ignore the age-old sayings about “Beer before wine, you’ll be fine”. Researchers got a group of 90 (very willing) medical students drunk on different combinations of beer and wine and measured their hangovers the next day. Their conclusion: no matter how you mix your drinks (or even if you stick to the same drink), if you drink too much, you’re still going to get a hangover.

So this festive period, enjoy your Christmas and New Year - and always drink responsibly.

Read more

Banner image: Artist's impression of the exoplanet BD+14 4599 b. View from the surface of its hypothetical moon. (Image: M. Mizera / PTA / IAU100)

From previous years... 2017: Dodgy robots, fake news and smart sheep 2018: Plucky underdogs, sausages in space and the winter that never ended Top Summary: 

From lettuce-picking robots to feathery hipsters, we look back at some of this year's biggest research stories.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): School of Arts and HumanitiesSchool of the Biological SciencesSchool of Clinical MedicineSchool of the Humanities and Social SciencesSchool of the Physical SciencesSchool of TechnologySection: ResearchNews type: Features

Ecosystems Overload

Tue, 10/12/2019 - 09:48
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Overload








We are laying waste to the biosphere. If we're serious about saving millions of species, then it's our own that must change how it thinks about, lives off and values the planet it inhabits.

Overwhelming.

That’s how a 15-year-old work experience student described the task facing her generation to Professor Bhaskar Vira – the task of preserving diverse life.  

We bequeath our children a mass extinction unlike anything the world has seen in 60 million years. A United Nations report in 2019 claimed a staggering one million species now face annihilation. “It’s easy to feel disempowered by the scale of the problem,” says Vira.  

The mosaic of ecosystems supporting life on Earth – each one of us included – is being exterminated at ferocious speed. Habitats that evolved over deep time are decimated within decades, and populist leaders overturn what little protection species are afforded.

Vira points out that relatively young people these days have experienced tangible biodiversity loss in their lifetime; the absence of butterflies they chased as a child. “The timescales are collapsing,” he says.   

If the headlines induce existential dread, then the exuberant bustle that greets visitors to the David Attenborough Building – known to its denizens as ‘the DAB’ – offers something of a salve. Welcome to the fight back.   

David Attenborough Building, New Museums Site. Credit: Sir Cam.

David Attenborough Building, New Museums Site. Credit: Sir Cam.

Named for the legendary naturalist and Cambridge alumnus whose films inspired its occupants, the building is home to the largest cluster of conservation organisations in the world. Part of the UK operations of nine charities and NGOs share the space with researchers from several University departments.

Vira currently heads up the University side of things, as Founding Director of the University’s Conservation Research Institute, where he works closely with Cambridge Conservation Initiative Director and founder Dr Mike Rands. Vira is a political economist by trade, and studies the ‘ecosystem services’ through which nature sustains humans.

“Conservation messaging can get stuck on cuddly animals,” he says. “But biodiversity provides us with basic sustenance through fisheries or through the bees that pollinate crops. It is richness of life that regenerates the soil and regulates water and flooding, not to mention the cultural and spiritual values that enrich our lives. These losses leave the planet a far more difficult place to inhabit.”

Vira's colleague Professor David Coomes uses remote sensing technologies to monitor carbon storage in tropical forests – a key ecosystem service that contributes to climate change abatement.

Coomes recalls taking kids to an exhibit at the Cambridge Science Festival where they crawled into giant flowers searching for nectar (sweets) and emerge covered in pollen (glitter). “You can teach very young children about ecosystem services and they get it,” he says.

Cambridge Science Festival. Credit: Sir Cam.

Cambridge Science Festival. Credit: Sir Cam.

Vira had his own ecological awakening as a boy in the Himalayas. “My classmates and I saw mountainsides dug up for limestone quarries. We heard of a local campaign – so we joined in, planting hundreds of trees.” The campaign went to India’s Supreme Court, who banned the quarrying, and Vira learned that “action must be taken”.

He still works in the region to understand how its communities value ecosystem services. “We are just beginning to comprehend the fragile link between snow-capped mountains and water supply, hydroelectricity, agriculture and the lives of one billion people nearby. It’s a simple question: where does your water come from, and what is that worth to you?”

Prof Bhaskar Vira talks about the need for conservation education and research, and some of the work taking place at Cambridge, during the launch of the University's new environmental initiative 'Cambridge Zero' in November 2019.

Earlier this year, social scientist and DAB resident Dr Chris Sandbrook published data from the largest survey of conservationists yet undertaken. Ascribing monetary value to nature emerged as one of the field’s most contentious issues, with some 61% believing economic arguments are risky.

Responses from 9,264 conservationists from around the world to the question: Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes

Responses from 9,264 conservationists from around the world to the question: Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes

However, many see it as a necessary tactic for persuading humanity to overhaul the systems driving destruction, and ‘natural capital’ is starting to permeate policy lingo. The UK government now believes the country’s pollinators are worth £680m in improved crop productivity.

The Treasury has commissioned the eminent Cambridge economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta to lead a major review of the link between biodiversity and economic growth to be released autumn 2020.

“My overarching aim is the reconstruction of economics to include nature as an ingredient,” says Dasgupta. “Vast intellectual energy is given to estimating Gross Domestic Product, but there is little quantitative data on human demand for natural goods and services – and the biosphere’s capacity to sustainably meet it.”

A basic example of the gaping hole in our accounting might see woodland destroyed to build a shopping centre. GDP records increase in produced capital but not depreciation of natural capital. National economies are judged to be thriving as their biological assets fall off a cliff.

Dasgupta takes his cue from Dickens when he argues that we live in the best and worst of times. Since 1950, life expectancy for the average person on Earth has increased by 25 years, and the average per capita wage has more than quadrupled. 

“If God gave me the option of being dropped into any point in history, I would still choose a time in the last 70 years,” says Dasgupta, who advised Pope Francis prior to the papal encyclical on the environment. “We have done so well in so many ways, but it has been at the expense of the future.”

He points out that if you take GDP to be a rough indicator of the extraction and pollution that accompanies production and consumption, there has been a more than 12-fold increase in our impact on the biosphere since 1950 – a year often designated as the start of the Anthropocene.

During this time, the planet’s population has leapt from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion. A significant aspect of his work is the development of an economic demography rooted in nature, culminating in his 2019 book Time and the Generations. Dasgupta explored these ideas at the University's 'New Malthusianism' event in December 2018 (watch below).

In 2017 he published a paper with UN demographer Dr Aisha Dasgupta (his daughter) in the journal Population and Development Review, in which they attempted to calculate the number of people the biosphere can sustainably support with a degree of comfort. The conclusion was 3.5 billion, the population size of the late 1960s.        

“This is far from a definitive answer, and more a way to concentrate attention on the question,” says Dasgupta. “The numbers we used are crude, but there’s so little available. Ecosystem services are simply absent from most national statistics.”

Ballooning populations bring ever-greater demand for food. Expanding the footprint of farming – which already covers half of all agriculturally useable land on the planet – is now the most significant threat to endangered species, as ancient wilderness is converted to monoculture crops and cattle feedlots.

The question of how to feed the world without costing the Earth goes to the heart of conservation. Many say farmers must share their fields with wildlife – reinstating hedgerows and ponds, reducing chemicals – even if output is curbed. The biologist Professor Andrew Balmford argues differently.

“Measures that lower farm yields mean ever more land has to be farmed to meet food demands,” he says. “Our evidence shows the least bad approach for biodiversity is to wring as much food as sustainably possible from the land we already farm, and in doing so spare more habitats from the cow and plough.”

One study led by Balmford suggests that if land spared in the UK through intensive farming was used for woods and wetland, the resulting sequestration of carbon could potentially offset almost all national emissions from farming by 2050 – alongside providing a massive boost to biodiversity.

How to meet UK government targets of 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 for the British farming industry using land spared through high-yield farming.

How to meet UK government targets of 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 for the British farming industry using land spared through high-yield farming.

"As conservationists, we can’t afford to be overly ideological"

Another study looked at agricultural sectors across four continents – from Asian rice to Latin American beef – and concluded that, per portion of food, high-yielding was often better than alternatives (e.g. organic farming) for environmental outcomes such as soil retention and nutrient pollution.

“As conservationists, we can’t afford to be overly ideological,” says Balmford. “We have to be agnostic and compare options based on what counts.” More recently he has been researching the European problem: a continent with such deep agricultural history that some species now rely on low-yield farmland.

“Some areas require a three-compartment approach, where concentrated farming buys space for both natural habitats and some very low-yielding farmland. But humanity cannot afford the space that nature needs unless conservation is allied to high-yield production.”

His group is building profiles of policies that can tie increased yields to habitat protection – mechanisms such as land-use zoning, reformed farm subsidies, and access to credit made conditional on strong environmental stewardship.

Watch Prof Andrew Balmford explain the ideas behind his work on land sparing in a film commissioned for the Department of Zoology's 150th Anniversary in 2016.

Some intensively farmed crops do contain opportunities to aid biodiversity without affecting yield. Oil palm, for example, is much maligned for its massive plantations that encroach on rainforests.

Dr Ed Turner points out that oil palm is far more productive than most other vegetable crops – “it needs five times less land than almost anything else to produce the same amount of vegetable oil” – making it a vital one for meeting food demand while sparing land.

He works with major growers in Sumatra to run experiments that help industry understand how much biodiversity can be injected into plantations while maintaining – and even increasing – yields. “It’s about managing crops with the right amount of untidiness.”

Turner and team found that boosting the range of understorey plants led to more predatory insects and leopard cats acting as pest control for crops. It also helped with soil nutrients, reducing the need for expensive herbicide. These are all ecosystem services at work. 

“We need to feed people in ways that are economically and ecologically sustainable, and oil palm can be part of that. Plantations must go on already degraded land, but those that exist can harness nature for the benefit of farmers and biodiversity.”

Leopard cat in a Malaysian oil palm plantation. Credit: Guo Qi.

Leopard cat in a Malaysian oil palm plantation. Credit: Guo Qi.

The central dilemma of food security stretches well beyond number of mouths. What each of us chooses to eat is part of the drumbeat that dictates natural devastation rates, and gargantuan tracts of wilderness are lost in the name of meat-heavy diets.

PhD researcher Emma Garnett would “love to be in the jungle counting butterflies. But I think we need to be studying people instead to protect nature. We’re causing the problems.” So she fulfilled a different wish familiar to academic reveries by experimenting on students.

Garnett – who is supervised by Balmford, Sandbrook and public health expert Professor Theresa Marteau – worked with several Cambridge colleges, gathering data and testing dining hall arrangements to see if she could ‘nudge’ undergraduates away from meat and toward vegetarian. “We’ve got to make the right choice easy,” she says.

The collegiate set-up in Cambridge enabled Garnett to conduct one of the largest studies on sustainable food choices. She found that upping vegetarian options cut meat consumption without denting sales – particularly among the most carnivorous – and identified the optimal positioning of dishes to bolster plant-based eating.

Two vegetarian options in the cafe of one of the Cambridge colleges which took part in Emma Garnett's research.

Two vegetarian options in the cafe of one of the Cambridge colleges which took part in Emma Garnett's research.

Inspiring the next generation of conservationists, “giving them the intellectual and applied skills to be effective agents for change”, is one of the most important things Cambridge can do, according to Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope. 

Nestled underneath the DAB is the Museum of Zoology. PhD researcher Kate Howlett works with the Museum team to build a picture of biodiversity in UK schools, how it relates to kids’ mental health and physical health. “I'm also interested in whether actively involving children with research affects their engagement with science or nature,” she says.

Many DAB researchers guide undergraduates through their own investigations. For example, Imogen Cripps has stayed on after graduation to see her work on food pricing and ecological damage become her first publication. Every spring, the DAB hosts a student conference on conservation science.  

"We want to create a global community of conservation leaders who support each other"

But perhaps the essence of this future-building philosophy is the flagship Masters in Conservation Leadership. This one-year course, open to those with at least three years’ experience in the field, is hatching the pacemakers of biosphere preservation.

“Conservation has long been run mostly by biologists who find themselves in leadership roles, taking decisions on things like strategy, communication and lobbying without effective training in such areas,” says course leader Chris Sandbrook. “The Masters was created to fill that gap.”

Every partner organisation within the DAB helps to teach and train each cohort of carefully selected students, including placements and one-to-one mentoring. Since starting in 2010, the course has 144 alumni from over 70 nations. Most hail from the global south, returning home to promote conservation after their year-long dip in the DAB.

The first major gathering of the alumni network of the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership, in 2018. Dr Chris Sandbrook stands to the left of Sir David Attenborough at the front of the picture. Credit: Sir Cam.

The first major gathering of the alumni network of the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership, in 2018. Dr Chris Sandbrook stands to the left of Sir David Attenborough at the front of the picture. Credit: Sir Cam.

Alumni such as Odacy Davis, who became Deputy Commissioner for Guyana’s protected areas after leaving Cambridge in 2016. She is now developing conservation courses for the University of Guyana. Two-thirds of current Masters students receive on full or significant partial scholarships, and applicants from countries rich in biodiversity but poor financially are given priority.

Odacy Davis at the COP meeting in 2014.

Odacy Davis at the COP meeting in 2014.

For Sandbrook, this diverse group often feels like the soul of the DAB, “lifting up the rest of us”, and the course’s strength lies not only in lessons learnt from conservation heavyweights, but also from each other. “The first thing we do with a new cohort is take them to the Norfolk Broads for three days,” he says.

“We introduce them to a UK protected area, but also start a bonding process that lasts long after they leave us. We want to create a global community of conservation leaders who support each other, sharing stories of failure and success.” Last year, 121 course graduates returned to Cambridge for the first alumni conference.

Some of the Masters students on the Norfolk field trip in 2018. Credit: Rosalind Helfand.

Some of the Masters students on the Norfolk field trip in 2018. Credit: Rosalind Helfand.

A focus on climate change as the principal ecological emergency has encouraged thinking around technological fixes. But, while technology may help us find smarter ways to live, the species extinction crisis will not bow to a Deus ex machina.

Dasgupta argues that incentives for innovation work against nature, a free and seemingly limitless resource. Think of the bulldozers and fishing trawlers that brought us fast and cheap food and material while exhausting the biosphere.

To preserve the diversity of species we need to change the way our own thinks. It means changing how we operate our systems and institutions. It means recognising models for coexistence, rather than domination and exploitation. It means rethinking how we value nature. It means changing our approach to growing and eating food. And it means training and championing the future protectors of the planet. 

Snapshot: The human geographer

Dr Rachel Carmenta’s research takes her to an Amazonian ‘RESEX’ area, where people who have been there for generations are allowed to farm. “They have smallholdings to grow bitter manioc, they hunt and fish, and every interaction revolves around the landscape.”

Carmenta’s research project analyses the forest cover associated with different conservation and development interventions in the Amazon. Her focus is expanding performance measurements to capture the wellbeing of those living on the land.

“Identities, attachments and relational values are derived from interactions with place,” says Carmenta, from the UCCRI/Geography Department. “If you fish every day with cousins, and teach your children, it’s not just food but your social fabric.”

A RESEX is ‘zoned’ land where small-scale traditional agriculture is permitted. The team is also working with people in buffers of “fortress-style” protected areas, as well as those who find themselves “surrounded by a sea of soy” when big agribusiness encroaches.

The local graveyard of a settlement in the Amazon is today surrounded by a sea of soy after small-scale farmers sold land to agri-business stakeholders.

The local graveyard of a settlement in the Amazon is today surrounded by a sea of soy after small-scale farmers sold land to agri-business stakeholders.

“We want to understand the impact of strict protection, intensive farming and integrated approaches on deforestation – but also how these interventions impact people’s relationship with the land.”

Carmenta also studies the social impacts of uncontrolled tropical wildfires. “The fires are a burden to people and nature, incurring lost crops, devastated landscapes, and impaired livelihoods and wellbeing. Recognising this humanitarian dimension is not only an ethical imperative, but could be part of a more emotive and powerful language for change towards fire-free futures.”

Image credits (in order, and unless otherwise listed):
  • Destruction in the Amazon. Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images
  • David Attenborough abseiling down the 'green wall' during the opening of the building bearing his name. Credit: Sir Cam.
  • A logger in Fresno County, California, in 1972. Credit: US National Archives.  
  • A Philadelphia junkyard in 1973. Credit: US National Archives.
  • Amazon forest. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
  • Sir David Attenborough with former Cambridge V-C Prof Alison Richard at the launch of the building bearing his name. Credit: Sir Cam.
  • Kid dressed as bee at 'plant power' event in the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. Credit: Sir Cam.
  • Rachel Carmenta. Credit: Nick Saffell
Top Summary: 

We are laying waste to the biosphere. If we're serious about saving millions of species, then it's our own that must change how it thinks about, lives off and values the planet it inhabits.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Cambridge Conservation InitiativeUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI)Department of ZoologyFaculty of EconomicsDepartment of GeographySchool of the Biological SciencesSchool of the Physical SciencesSchool of the Humanities and Social SciencesPeople (our academics and staff): Bhaskar ViraDavid CoomesPartha DasguptaAndrew BalmfordEd TurnerEmma GarnettChris SandbrookSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): Biodiversity conservationconservationEcosystemeconomicsagricultureGlobal food securitySustainable EarthSection: ResearchNews type: News

Cambridge Zero

Tue, 26/11/2019 - 09:29
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Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today. Cambridge Zero, the University's ambitious new climate initiative, will generate ideas and innovations to help shape a sustainable future - and equip future generations of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

Cambridge is the brand-new holder of a dubious record. On 25 July 2019, the temperature at the University’s Botanic Garden hit a new all-time record high for the UK: 38.7°C.

Few expect this record to hold for long. As temperatures rise globally, extreme weather events – floods, storms, droughts and heatwaves – are becoming the new normal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly articulated that, if this continues, we risk venturing into a world of climate-driven food shortages, water stress, refugees, species loss and catastrophic shocks such as the collapse of the vast polar ice sheets.

Scientists have been warning for decades that man-made climate change is happening. But with a few exceptions, we have done little about it. In the past 18 months, however, there has been a noticeable shift.

“The basic science hasn’t changed: what is starting to change is public opinion,” says Dr Emily Shuckburgh (pictured), one of the UK’s leading climate scientists. “As the impacts of climate change are starting to be felt around the world, it’s finally cutting through that we need to do something and we need to do it now. If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today.”

Shuckburgh recently joined the University from the British Antarctic Survey to lead an ambitious new programme: Cambridge Zero. The programme will harness the full breadth of the University’s research capabilities across the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences to respond to climate change and support the transition to a resilient, sustainable future.

Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener fuels, technologies and materials. It’s about addressing every aspect of a zero carbon future: the impact it will have on our lives, our work, our society and our economy, and ensuring decisions are based on the best available knowledge.

By developing a bold programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange focused on supporting a zero carbon world, the initiative’s ambition is to generate and disseminate the ideas and innovations that will shape our future – and to equip a future generation of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

Its launch comes a few months after the UK became the first major world economy to legislate for net zero emissions. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will mean a fundamental change over the coming decades in all aspects of our economy, including how we generate energy, and how we build decarbonisation into policy and investment.

CLEAN ENERGY

“The challenge is how to develop the technologies for the energy transition at the scale, and on the timescales, that we need,” says Professor Sir Richard Friend, Director of Energy Transitions@Cambridge, which brings together over 250 Cambridge researchers working on areas such as bioenergy, batteries, photovoltaics, carbon capture, propulsion and power, and cities and transport.

Friend is one of the UK’s leaders in the development of next-generation solar cells and super-efficient LEDs, and has founded several spin-out companies based on his research. Since the 1980s, his group at the Cavendish Laboratory has been developing materials for low-cost solar cells that could surpass silicon’s efficiency in converting sunlight into energy.

Through initiatives such as the Henry Royce Institute, the UK’s national institute for materials science research and innovation, Cambridge researchers are also developing next-generation materials for energy storage and use.

“Cambridge is already one of the UK’s leading universities in battery science and a major contributor to the Faraday Institution’s battery programme for electric vehicles,” says Professor Manish Chhowalla, the Cambridge Royce Champion. “The Royce facilities help us supplement the chemistry and physics research we’re already doing with engineering approaches that will help bring our research to market faster.”

Friend adds that working in collaboration with industry is the only way to enable the energy transition. Although Cambridge has the research and knowledge base to identify new solutions, it does not have the capabilities to produce those solutions on an industrial scale: “It’s important to understand what industry actually wants, rather than what we presume it wants.”

CLIMATE CHANGE POLICY

Even if a scientist or engineer develops a new technology that solves a problem associated with the energy transition, how do policy changes make the most of innovation?

This question lies at the heart of the work of Laura Diaz Anadon, Professor of Climate Change Policy in Cambridge’s Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, and a lead author on the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report.

“When I first moved into policy and economics work after my PhD in chemical engineering, I was focused on solutions as if they were things that people could and would start using tomorrow. I realised quickly that I wasn’t thinking about cost-effectiveness and the role of policy, regulation, business models, political support and their impacts. That was really eye-opening for me,” says Diaz Anadon.

“Climate change policy is particularly challenging as it cuts across so many sectors and demands engagement with many different stakeholders,” says Dr David Reiner, from the Energy Policy Research Group at Cambridge Judge Business School, and one of the co-editors of the recent book In Search of Good Energy Policy with Professor Michael Pollitt. “Good policy isn’t just about getting the numbers right, because even the numbers are controversial,” says Reiner. “Different groups have different priorities, so how do we determine which numbers to put stock in and which things are actually important?”

Shuckburgh is echoing this broad approach in Cambridge Zero. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to make an impact, which is why it’s vital we bring in multiple perspectives to ensure that we’re translating scientific knowledge into innovations that are rapidly deployed in the real world – and robust, evidence-based policy that works for everyone,” she says.

“It’s great to see climate change finally breaking through as a priority with the public,” says Pollitt. “But the challenge has always been when you start asking about specifics. Lifestyle changes are cheap, but they’re intrusive. And if you aren’t willing to become a vegetarian, turn the heating down or stop flying, then you’re going to need serious decarbonisation policies to reach where we need to get to.”

A major energy policy – such as decarbonising the electricity grid or banning petrol cars – generally requires a decade of planning, and another two decades to implement. It also requires public engagement, says Pollitt: “If the public feel they haven’t been consulted on a new policy, they’re less likely to support it, and they need to see that these policies have benefits that minimise the negative effects. A carbon neutral economy isn’t unachievable, but there are massive challenges associated with it, and we have to face those challenges with eyes wide open.”

SUSTAINABLE FINANCE

Beyond policy, the transition to a zero carbon future will also require unprecedented levels of government, private and institutional investment in green and low carbon technologies, services and infrastructure. And financial institutions themselves will need to move to a sustainable finance model, pricing environmental and social risks correctly.

These are areas that interest Dr Nina Seega at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which bridges the worlds of business, policymaking and finance. “Since the attention called to the issue by the G20 Green Finance Study Group in 2016, we’ve seen lots of discussion about sustainable finance in the financial world but more action is needed to thread sustainable finance into the day-to-day work of financial firms.

“When we have conversations with financial firms, what we get is a conversation about the costs and risks of transition to a zero carbon future. However, it is refreshing to see the focus turning to opportunities of sustainable finance and the cost of not transitioning. Simply put, it is more expensive to do nothing.”

This point is illustrated by the recent Green Finance Strategy, in which the UK government predicts that the population health impacts of not delivering on emissions reductions could be around £1.7 billion per year by 2020 and £5.3 billion per year by 2030.

“Unfortunately, there is still a persistent perception that sustainable investment means sacrificing profitability, but that’s not the case,” Seega says. “A 2015 review of 2,200 studies found that sustainability has at least a non-negative, and in most cases a positive, relationship to profitability. Prioritising sustainability does not mean sacrificing profitability.”

REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC

One of the major successes of global efforts in energy and climate policy has been advances in developing low carbon solutions, which is beginning to pay off. Just since 2010, the average cost of producing electricity globally from solar PV panels has decreased by 77%, and from wind turbines by 34%, and the cost of storing energy in lithium-ion batteries has decreased by 89%, in turn making electric vehicles less expensive.

“Nobody really predicted that costs would come down so fast,” says Diaz Anadon, who analysed these figures as part of INNOPATHS, a project funded by the European Union. “Governments around the world have been key drivers of these cost reductions, both through investments in R&D, and policies to incentivise their commercialisation, such as feed-in tariffs, carbon prices and other regulations.”

Even so, considering the scale and urgency of the climate change problem, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But Shuckburgh is optimistic that a zero carbon world is achievable.

“Cambridge has the power to bring together industry, finance, policymakers, NGOs and other partners to jointly propose ambitious solutions. But we all need to work together to make this happen,” she says.

“The human race has achieved incredible things: lifted billions of people out of poverty, cured diseases, travelled to the moon. The biggest challenge now is how we preserve our only home for future generations, and we need to respond to the challenge with all of our efforts. We cannot fail.” 

SNAPSHOT: THE INVESTMENT RESEARCHER

Understanding what society must do to decarbonise is the most complex and important puzzle we have ever had to solve, says Dr Ellen Quigley, a researcher at Cambridge Judge Business School and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

“We need electrification of our energy systems, decarbonisation of supply chains, new technologies that will help us cut emissions by at least half by 2030 – or sooner – and all of this needs a financial ecosystem that is up to the task. Plus, we are the last generation who can do something about catastrophic climate change.”

Appointed earlier this year as the Advisor to the Chief Financial Officer of the University, Quigley is establishing a research programme to understand how shifting the focus of investment – at institutional, national and global levels – can achieve system-wide changes that “will help us move rapidly and justly” towards decarbonisation.

“I’m one of many who are worrying about whether the financial system is fit for purpose in an era of climate crisis. My research is looking at everything an institution like the University can do in terms of responsible investment – from encouraging financing of decarbonisation spin-outs, to adopting soil management techniques to sequester carbon, to supporting government policies like carbon pricing.

“Everything we do here in Cambridge could be a useful template for other institutions. We are picking the things that are most effective and moving as quickly as possible in this very brief period we have to make the difference we need to make.”

Top Summary: 

If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today. Cambridge Zero, the University's ambitious new climate initiative, will generate ideas and innovations to help shape a sustainable future - and equip future generations of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades. 

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of Computer Science and TechnologyCambridge Institute for Sustainability LeadershipCavendish LaboratoryDepartment of PhysicsCambridge Judge Business SchoolDepartment of Land EconomyCambridge ZeroSchool of TechnologySchool of the Physical SciencesSchool of the Humanities and Social SciencesPeople (our academics and staff): Emily ShuckburghRichard FriendLaura Diaz AnadonManish ChhowallaDavid ReinerMichael PollittNina SeegaEllen QuigleySubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): Climate changecarbon emissionsSolar cellsrenewableEnergypolicyfinanceSustainable EarthSection: Research

‘Trickster god’ used fake news in Babylonian Noah story

Tue, 26/11/2019 - 00:17

Dr Martin Worthington’s new research analysing the word play in the story has uncovered the duplicitous language of a Babylonian god called Ea, who was motivated by self-interest.

Dr Worthington, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, said: “Ea tricks humanity by spreading fake news. He tells the Babylonian Noah, known as Uta–napishti, to promise his people that food will rain from the sky if they help him build the ark. What the people don’t realise is that Ea’s nine-line message is a trick: it is a sequence of sounds that can be understood in radically different ways, like English ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’. 

“While Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood.  Once the ark is built, Uta–napishti and his family clamber aboard and survive with a menagerie of animals. Everyone else drowns.  With this early episode, set in mythological time, the manipulation of information and language has begun. It may be the earliest ever example of fake news.”

The Gilgamesh Flood story is known from clay tablets that date back around three thousand years. 

Dr Worthington is an Assyriologist who specialises in Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian grammar, literature and medicine. In his new book launched today (November 26) titled Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood story, he explores the tricks of ‘wily Ea’, who is also known as the ‘crafty god’ and the ‘trickster god’. This research focuses on nine lines in the 3000-year-old story which can be interpreted in contradictory ways.

Dr Worthington explains:  “Ea’s lines are a verbal trick which can be understood in different ways which are phonetically identical. Besides the obvious positive reading promising food, I found multiple negative ones which warn of the impending catastrophe. Ea is clearly a master wordsmith who is able to compress multiple simultaneous meanings into one duplicitous utterance.”

The Flood Tablet in the British Museum, which bears part of the Gilgamesh Flood story, is probably the world’s most famous clay tablet, and caused a global sensation when its significance was first discovered by Assyriologist George Smith in 1872.

Smith realised this tablet told the same story as Noah and the Ark in the Biblical book of Genesis. Although there were more gods involved than in Genesis, and the Babylonian hero had a different name, the two stories were recognisably the same, with animals taken aboard the ark before the flood and birds sent out at the end once the rain stopped.

Since Smith’s discovery many more clay tablets of the Babylonian flood story have come to light and academics are still analysing the meaning of stories in the ancient language that has not been spoken for 2000 years.

But why would a god lie in the Gilgamesh Flood story?

Dr Worthington explained: “Babylonian gods only survive because people feed them. If humanity had been wiped out, the gods would have starved.  The god Ea manipulates language and misleads people into doing his will because it serves his self-interest. Modern parallels are legion!”

Ea’s Duplicity in the Gilgamesh Flood story, published by Routledge, will be launched tonight (November 26) in London.

An early example of fake news has been found in the 3000-year-old Babylonian story of Noah and the Ark, which is widely believed to have inspired the Biblical tale. Nine lines etched on ancient clay tablets that tell the Gilgamesh Flood story can now be understood in very different ways – according to a Cambridge academic.

Ea’s message seems to promise a rain of food, its hidden meaning warns of the Flood... It may be the earliest ever example of fake newsMartin WorthingtonThe Trustees of the British MuseumThe Adda Seal featuring the god Ea second from the rightAt dawn there will be cakes

Two of the nine lines from the flood story in Babylonian are:

ina šēr(-)kukkī

ina lilâti ušaznanakkunūši šamūt kibāti

The positive sounding interpretation:

At dawn there will be kukku-cakes,

in the evening he will rain down upon you a shower of wheat.

A negative interpretation:

By means of incantations,

by means of wind-demons, he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.

Another negative interpretation:

At dawn, he will rain down upon you darkness,

(then) in (this) pre-nocturnal twilight he will rain down upon you rain as thick as (grains of) wheat.


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Yes

Sir David Attenborough: "Our planet hangs in the balance"

Mon, 18/11/2019 - 10:00

“It might seem like an obvious thing to say but we need to keep saying it: our planet is precious.

It provides the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. You have only to take a walk through a forest and look up at its canopy to see the outstanding beauty and complexity of ecosystems. Pause in the stillness among the trees and contemplate what is surrounding you: it’s mind-blowing.

But, rather than cherish this planet – our home – we have too often treated it with contempt. Today, as a consequence, we face disaster on a global scale.

Everywhere we look, we see how ecosystems are threatened. The most striking illustration of climate change that I have seen is seared on my memory: the first time I saw a dead coral reef. It had actually bleached. Where once it had been full of hundreds of species, it was like a cemetery.

A few decades ago, the idea that humans could change the climate of our planet was unthinkable. Now this is incontrovertible and we are talking about the risk of irreparable damage. Rising temperatures mean parts of the planet are becoming uninhabitable. Species less able to adapt to rapid changes will be wiped out. Famine will lead to forced migrations. There will be major upsets in natural boundaries, leading to social unrest.

Fortunately, we are now better informed about the state of the world than ever before. We’ve seen a worldwide protest movement grow, led by young people afraid for their future and the future of their planet. We must listen to them. We must respond. We must act – and act now.

We’ve seen before what can be done. When scientists identified the cause of a catastrophic hole in the ozone layer, the world acted. We saw global leaders listening to scientific evidence and taking action.

The climate crisis is a much larger problem, but if we can all pull together, I believe we can solve it. What each one of us does in the next few years will determine what happens in the next few thousand years. There is hope if we all – every single one of us – take our share of responsibility for life on Earth.

Those in power can influence change. And those with knowledge and the ability to innovate can provide solutions to a great number of problems. 

I have had the honour of being part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative from its inception 12 years ago. I’ve seen what can be achieved when great talent is combined with great ambition: bringing together leaders in research, practice, policy and teaching gives us the greatest chance of developing the solutions required to save our planet.

In the same way, the new initiative Cambridge Zero will be vital. Combining expertise, from science and technology to law and policy to artificial intelligence and engineering, Cambridge Zero will help drive a vision for a carbon neutral future.

It’s a source of comfort to me that people are recognising that their world is at stake, that the ocean is not infinitely full of food, that the ground is not infinitely full of minerals, that life on Earth is not impervious to the damage we cause.

Our planet hangs in the balance. The only way to operate is to believe we can do something about it, and I truly believe we can.”

Broadcaster Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries have brought the wonders of the natural world to our screens – from the splendours of terrestrial life, to the otherworldly underwater kingdoms and the frozen ends of the Earth – but they also increasingly show our planet’s fragility in the face of habitat destruction and climate change. He is an alumnus of Clare College and has given his name to the campus of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – the largest cluster of biodiversity conservation organisations on the planet.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

Forests burn, glaciers melt and one million species face extinction. Can we humans save the planet from ourselves? Here, Sir David Attenborough speaks to us about the climate crisis and his hopes for the future. His words begin our new focus on Sustainable Earth, looking at how we transition to a carbon zero future, protect the planet's resources, reduce waste and build resilience.

Those in power can influence change. And those with knowledge and the ability to innovate can provide solutions to a great number of problems. Sir David Attenborough John Phillips/Getty ImagesSir David Attenborough


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Opinion: Climate change, pandemics, biodiversity loss – no country is sufficiently prepared

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 14:53

There’s little that the left and the right agree on these days. But surely one thing is beyond question: that national governments must protect citizens from the gravest threats and risks they face. Although our government, wherever we are in the world, may not be able to save everyone from a pandemic or protect people and infrastructure from a devastating cyberattack, surely they have thought through these risks in advance and have well-funded, adequately practiced plans?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is an emphatic no.

Not all policy areas are subject to this challenge. National defence establishments, for example, often have the frameworks and processes that facilitate policy decisions for extreme risks. But more often than not, and on more issues than not, governments fail to imagine how worst-case scenarios can come about – much less plan for them. Governments have never been able to divert significant attention from the here and happening to the future and uncertain.

A recent report published by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk argues that this needs to change. If even only one catastrophic risk manifests – whether through nature, accident or intention – it would harm human security, prosperity and potential on a scale never before seen in human history. There are concrete steps governments can take to address this, but they are currently being neglected.

The risks that we face today are many and varied. They include:

Each of these global catastrophic risks could cause unprecedented harm. A pandemic, for example, could speed around our hyper-connected world, threatening hundreds of millions – potentially billions – of people. In this globalised world of just-in-time delivery and global supply chains, we are more vulnerable to disruption than ever before. And the secondary effects of instability, mass migration and unrest may be comparably destructive. If any of these events occurred, we would pass on a diminished, fearful and wounded world to our descendants.

So how did we come to be so woefully unprepared, and what, if anything, can our governments do to make us safer?

A modern problem

Dealing with catastrophic risks on a global scale is a particularly modern problem. The risks themselves are a result of modern trends in population, information, politics, warfare, technology, climate and environmental damage.

These risks are a problem for governments that are set up around traditional threats. Defence forces were built to protect from external menaces, mostly foreign invading forces. Domestic security agencies became increasingly significant in the 20th century, as threats to sovereignty and security – such as organised crime, domestic terrorism, extreme political ideologies and sophisticated espionage – increasingly came from inside national borders.

Unfortunately, these traditional threats are no longer the greatest concern today. Risks arising from the domains of technology, environment, biology and warfare don’t fall neatly into government’s view of the world. Instead, they are varied, global, complex and catastrophic.

As a result, these risks are currently not a priority for governments. Individually, they are quite unlikely. And such low-probability high-impact events are difficult to mobilise a response to. In addition, their unprecedented nature means we haven’t yet been taught a sharp lesson in the need to prepare for them. Many of the risks could take decades to arise, which conflicts with typical political time scales.

Governments, and the bureaucracies that support them, are not positioned to handle what’s coming. They don’t have the right incentives or skill sets to manage extreme risks, at least beyond natural disasters and military attacks. They are often stuck on old problems, and struggle to be agile to what’s new or emerging. Risk management as a practice is not a government’s strength. And technical expertise, especially on these challenging problem sets, tends to reside outside government.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that any attempt to tackle these risks is not nationally confined: it would benefit everyone in the world – and indeed future generations. When the benefits are dispersed and the costs immediate, it is tempting to coast and hope others will pick up the slack.

Time to act

Despite these daunting challenges, governments have the capability and responsibility to increase national readiness for extreme events.

The first step is for governments to improve their own understanding of the risks. Developing a better understanding of extreme risks is not as simple as conducting better analysis or more research. It requires a whole-of-government framework with explicit strategies for understanding the types of risks we face, as well as their causes, impacts, probabilities and time scales.

With this plan, governments can chart more secure and prosperous futures for their citizens, even if the most catastrophic possibilities never come to pass.

Governments around the world are already working towards improving their understanding of risk. For example, the United Kingdom is a world leader in applying an all-hazard national risk assessment process. This assessment ensures governments understand all the hazards – natural disasters, pandemics, cyber attacks, space weather, infrastructure collapse – that their country faces. It helps local first responders to prepare for the most damaging scenarios.

Finland’s Committee for the Future, meanwhile, is an example of a parliamentary select committee that injects a dose of much-needed long-term thinking into domestic policy. It acts as a think tank for futures, science and technology policy and provides advice on legislation coming forward that has an impact on Finland’s long-range future.

And Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures is leading in “horizon scanning”, a set of methods that helps people think about the future and potential scenarios. This is not prediction. It’s thinking about what might be coming around the corner, and using that knowledge to inform policy.

But these actions are few and far between.

We need all governments to put more energy towards understanding the risks, and acting on that knowledge. Some countries may even need grand changes to their political and economic systems, a level of change that typically only occurs after a catastrophe. We cannot – and do not have to – wait for these structural changes or for a global crisis. Forward-leaning leaders must act now to better understand the risks that their countries face.

Gabriel Recchia, Research Associate, Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, and Haydn Belfield, Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Two Cambridge risk researchers discuss how national governments are still stuck on "old problems", and run through the things that should be keeping our leaders awake at night. 

Risks arising from the domains of technology, environment, biology and warfare don’t fall neatly into government’s view of the worldGabriel Recchia and Haydn BelfieldMarkus SpiskeBanner from a climate strike in Erlangen, Germany


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Yes