Hidden connections: how whales affect the climate

One of the most interesting concepts touched upon by JB MacKinnon in his book The Once and Future World was that the role of animals in regulating planetary systems. George Monbiot has also recently written a fantastic piece on this – the following being a quote from Monbiot’s article Why whale poo matters:

Large carnivores can transform both the populations and the behaviour of large herbivores. In turn this can change the nature and structure of the plant community, which in turn affects processes such as soil erosion, river movements and carbon storage. The availability of nutrients, the physical geography of the land, even the composition of the atmosphere: all now turn out to be affected by animals. Living systems exert far more powerful impacts on the planet and its processes than we suspected.

The example used by both MacKinnon and Monbiot is how the presence of whales, a top-order predator, effects both the abundance of fish and other marine species as well as regulating the climate. The following clip developed by Monbiot and Sustainable Human gives a good overview of this this:

Basically the presence of whales actually increases the number of fish and plankton. Plankton has the ability to capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere and is hence of interest to scientists looking at ways to mitigate effects of global warming.

In fact a number of geo-engineering “solutions” are being now looked at to mitigate the effects of global warming. These include ideas to spraying sulphates at high altitude to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes or to use iron fertilisation of oceans to promote plankton growth and thus increase carbon removal from the atmosphere. Yet modelling of a number of these geo-engineering proposals have raised a number of concerns including the fact that all proposals will negatively affect large numbers of people. In contrast as stated in the video above, restoring whales to previous levels of abundance could act as a form of benign geo-engineering which will help reduce levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

Restoring ecosytems is one of the important steps that must be taken if we are to avoid destruction of a human habitable planet. Of course this will not solve the entire problem we face of a civlisation living beyond the means of our home.  Yet working with our planet seems a saner way to try and solve our problems, rather than blindly pumping chemicals into the oceans and atmosphere in the hopes that it will stave off effects of global warming.

Nor should we imagine that wolves and whales and wildebeest and plant plankton and sea otters alone can prevent the climate breakdown that the unchecked consumption of fossil fuels will cause. Annual plant growth cannot match the burning of fossil fuels, which mobilises the stored remains of many centuries of accumulated plant carbon every year. But these first inklings of the unexpected impacts of our destruction should provide yet another reason for treating the living planet gently. Everything is connected. – George Monbiot (Why whale poo matters)



Planetary Boundaries: defining the safe operating space for humanity

Planetary_boundaries.svgEarlier this year I posted a blog about planetary boundaries – the framework that scientists have drawn to define the “safe operating space for humanity”. More recently I read  a great article, Planetary Boundaries: A Framework for Staying Cool, Calm and Connected, on this in the Shift Magazine. Its give a good run down of the 9 categories that have been identified and is well worth a read for anyone working to create a sustainable future for humanity. Below is an excerpt from the article. You can read the full article on the Shift Magazine website.

“There’s a time and a place for thinking outside the box, as they say. However, when it comes to sustainability, the finite nature of planet earth ought to strictly limit our thinking and subsequent actions to stay within certain boundaries.

If you didn’t pay too much attention in school, especially in science and geography classes, you may find some of the discourse on sustainability flying straight over the top of your head. Even if you do fancy yourself as bit of a nerd, the bullshit, selective filtering, furphy-throwing and the politico-economic agenda of much of the media can confuse and dumb down even the hardiest students of life. The ‘planetary boundaries framework’, a joint initiative between the University of Copenhagen and the Australian National University, provides a solid home base to return to when your bullshit meter is redlining off the dial.

The framework has identified 9 ‘planetary boundaries’ that define the ‘safe operating space for humanity’. The complex systems that make Earth so comfy – for both us and all that other stuff with DNA – have been self-regulating in a very stable manner for the last 10,000 years or so. That is why when you wake up in the morning you pretty well know that even in the middle of summer you aren’t likely to just spontaneously burst into flames, and similarly in the middle of winter your blood won’t snap freeze like the peas in the frozen food section of the local supermarket. Some recent weather events, though, should be scaring the pants off even the most fervent growth-at-all-costs addicts.

The overview of the nine boundaries below is designed, at the least, to save you from bamboozlement, and, at best, to help you to liquidate the know-it-alls who want to keep trashing our one and only home, aka Earth.” Read full article here.

Bush foods workshop at the Unley Community Centre

by Steven Hoepfner (www.earthright.com.au)

Pigface (Kakalla)

Pigface (Kakalla)

Having never presented a workshop on Bushfoods before (a subject dear to my heart), I decided it was best to put native foods into context. Inspired by Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu, Black Seeds I explained to the audience which was in excess of 30 people (not bad for a stormy afternoon), that Australia at the time of our early European explorers was “not a land peopled by wanderers, but a landscape created by the enormous labour of a people intent on creating the best possible conditions for food production.” This point is ever more powerful when one realises that after 40,000 plus years of habitation, the only evidence of Aboriginal occupation on this land is some large piles of seashells along the coast and some intricate, enduring culturally significant art. A stunning example of ‘sustainability’ if you ask me.

During my talk, I mentioned my favourite bushtucker plants that are best suited to the Adelaide area, those being:-

  • Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia)
  • Pig face (Carpobrotus rossii)
  • Bower Spinach (Tetragonia implexicoma) New Zealand Spinach/Warrigal greens
  • Muntries (Kunzea pomiferra)
  • Desert Raisin (Solanum centrale)
  • Sea Celery (Apium prostratum)
  • Yam Daisies (Microseris lanceolata)
  • Quandongs (Santalum acuminatum) which has a semi-parasitic nature (hosts include native grasses, groundcovers, Acacia victoriae)


All of these beside the Desert Raisin are naturally found occurring within 50km of the Adelaide CBD, and are well suited to growing here. These are the sort of plants that, once established, would do well in a unkempt corner of the garden, the verge or even a park down the road. As they have been growing here for millennia, they are well suited to our dry summers and out perform many introduced plants that aren’t edible.

I wont go into detail for all of the plants listed, but two of note are Muntries and Yam Daisies. Muntries love a sunny, dry position and thrive in a sandy soil. Trellis them to keep some of the fruit away from Lizards and you’ll be eating these pea-sized Apple/Cinnamon flavoured fruits in 3-5 years. Much quicker than an actual Apple tree.


Yam Daisy

The Yam Daisy, well, I could talk about this wondrous little daisy relative for hours on end. From it’s nodding habit as it sets its seeds, to the way it single handedly sustained families for generations and generations all across the south west corner of this beautiful continent. Most importantly though, the flavour. Raw, it taste a little like a cross between a carrot and a Coconut but once baked, the sweet Coconut flavour is undeniable! The best thing is, if you plant it in your veggie garden, it will thrive as it seems to have encountered cultivation somewhere in it’s history! Explorers recount seeing literally piles of the tubers of this plant around indigenous cooking areas upon first contact. There are anecdotes that refer to women being able to collect enough of these tubers to feed their entire family for the whole day, within an hour and a half! Sure beats my 9-5 workday! Sadly, with the introduction of hard hooved animals and widespread and soil depleting farming practices, this extremely beneficial plant has all but disappeared. All the more reason to set up a population in your own garden!

Bush foods is an addictive subject once you scratch the surface. I have focused on our local plants but there are many others from all of this vast and complex country. The fact that many are under extreme pressure from our expanding population is reason enough to try to preserve them in our backyards, let alone the tastiness of including them in a meal. I’m always thrilled when I offer a new flavour to a guest and watch them as they try to guess what it is.

With much gratitude to the organizers of the event, I closed my presentation by reading a simple, yet extremely poignant quote by poet and environmental activist, Gary Snyder. It reads, “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.”

Grow well!

Minimalism & sustainability

On Saturday I, along with over 500 other people, attended a talk on Minimalism or Simple Living. We are constantly being sold the idea that endless consumption and economic growth are the only way to attain ‘the good life’. So it is refreshing to attend a talk aimed at getting people to really look at what it is that adds value to our life – more and more stuff or is it good health, better relationships, and a chance to make a meaningful contribution to your community while doing something you are passionate about?

If you didn’t have a chance to attend the following TED talk is worth watching:

Given the fact that we live on a finite world, the minimalist movement has a lot to offer as a way to creating strategies, policies and actions that will enable us to live within the limits of our planet. Also something that world leaders at G20 summit could take heed of!

More information: