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Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Today’s book review is The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover.

I’ve known, fairly well, for years, that we are overfishing the seas. Reading Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was the first book that brought it home to me, as it covered the complete collapse of the Cod fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Canada. But this book was a much more concentrated taste of much that is wrong with the way in which we fish the seas. Depressingly, because it is written by a European (Charles Clover is the environment editor of the Telegraph in the UK), it doesn’t cover all of the issues that I’m aware of with the fisheries in our part of the world (most notably the dynamite fishing of South East Asia).

The book starts with a series chapters of set around the world – outlining the different ways in which fish stocks are being overfished in all parts of the world, and taking us to the world famous fishing markets in many traditional fishing areas. One of the first fish described is the bluefin tuna, once one of the most important fish in the Mediterranean, and still a key fish for sushi. In October last year was listed as an endangered species under CITES, five years after this book was written, and seventeen years after Sweden first tried to list it in 1992.

The markets he goes to are also fascinating. Lowestoft, where he starts, which was once a key fishing port for the east of England, is now just a market. Hardly any fish are landed there in boats any more. The fish traded there come from all over the world – Sri Lanka, Oman, New Zealand and Australia. But the key merchants, who built up their trade buying from the boat, have diversified into supplying their British customers from the whole world.

Many of the European fleets, which have run out of fish at home, have moved on to Africa, where the poorer countries are willing to sell fishing rights to huge factory ships in return for cash. Clover spends some time describing the negotations between the Senegalese and the EU – fishing rights gave the Senegalese £42m in 2002, which doesn’t seem much for what was a hugely productive fishery.

There was much to be indignant about, after reading this polemic, extraordinarily well researched book. The way in which fishing quotas completely ignore the “by catch” – fish which are caught and killed and don’t even make to port, even as fish oil. The subject is rarely researched, but when it has been, most fishing methods end up with at least 50% “bycatch” which often includes quite endangered species (loggerhead turtles, for example) and also kill many other animals as a byproduct (long baited lines, for example, kill manta rays and even whales, at times).  And the way in which food companies have made a credit out of selling “dolphin friendly” tuna, and ignoring all of the other ways in which fishing for tuna harms the ocean environment, most notably by killing species of tuna (such as the bluefin) which are seriously endangered.

In the end, in Clover’s view there are three dimensions to a fishery – the ecological, the economic, and the social (the life of the fishermen). He outlines three options in managing a fishery:

A. You can have a fishery that is healthy ecologically and economically, but you have to forget about supporting fishing as a cultural (i.e. subsidised activity all the way round the Scottish, Iberian or Newfoundland coast).

B. You can have a fishery that works economically and socially but not ecologically (but presumably not for very long because the resource will be gone in a few years once you have mined it).

C. You can have a fishery that works ecologically and socially but not economically (conceivably by making its money out of something else, such as tourism or nature conservation grants, like paid graziers on a nature reserve).

The world has been taking option B for the last 50 years, and is getting to the end of the line. But moving to either option A or option C creates enormous political pain in any society where fisherman have a serious voice, which is most societies with a long fishing tradition. Newfoundland, where the cod fishery has already collapsed, has move to a combination of option C and B – they’ve moved on down the foodchain to lobster and prawns, and paid unemployment benefits to many fisherman who can’t fish any more, so that the villages and towns still have people in case the fish ever come back.

So the political will is not there, until the collapse of Option B takes A and C off the table. Option C could conceivably still be implemented at that point, but will make fish an occasional treat for the rich, rather than a key food of many different cultures.

Clover has a plan.  His key steps (for all major fishing countries are):

  • Cut the fleet – preferably by setting up a system of individual transferable quotas for fishing off-shore, allocated to existing fishermen, vessel owners and processors. Contravening the rules would mean losing the quota forever, with the vessel seized and scrapped.
  • Set up a serious proportion of the key fisheries (he suggests 25% of the North Sea, for example) as marine reserves with no fishing vessels even allowed to pass through them
  • Provide transparent information on fishing vessels movements to the public, so that anyone can see what they are doing, and ordinary citizens can help in the policing of the rules

But he freely acknowledges the political difficulty of implementation:

The chances of all this happening, of course, are zero…. Until then, I’m afraid, Europe will go on backing towards a cliff in a fog.

He suggests way in which that might change – if public opinion changes in a serious way, or there is a cod crash in the North Sea, or if (for British fish at least) Britain leaves the EU (although given his evidence of how much cheating there is on the current rules in the Scottish fishery, I’m sceptical of this last one).

Clover gives quite a good review of the Australian and (particularly) New Zealand fisheries management. I fear that is because he hasn’t spent as much time digging for problems as he has in the UK, rather than because our fisheries are superbly well managed. But we don’t have quite the same cultural expectations of our fisheries management, at least in Australia, which helps. Fishing has  never had quite the same mystique here, as the Trawlermen in Scotland, which makes Option A an easier management option. We still have orange roughy in the fish shops, though – a slow growing fish which has collapsed to 10% of its initial biomass after 20 years of fishing.

I myself love eating fish, particularly (I’m afraid) sushi’d tuna, but tonight when we went out for fish and chips for dinner, I did make sure I had hoki, which has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an organisation that gets a fairly good review in the book) as a sustainable fish.

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Wildfire

Wildfire scarcely seems an adequate term for what happened over the weekend in Victoria.  To give a sense of the intensity, many cars are unidentifiable, because the numbers on the engine blocks have melted. This article compares the temperature in the worst of the fires to the Dresden firestorms.

John Quiggin has done his usual wonderful job in coordinating blogosphere donations – he’s well over $1,000 now.

Several others have urged blood donations if you’re local – burns victims need lots of blood products.

Anything I can do from Sydney seems woefully inadequate, but this is one of those times that I’m glad I work for an insurance company. The stories from our claims teams for the last few days have been tragic, and worse, but I’m glad to be part of a process that pays money to people when they need it most.

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There are some spectacular buildings in Sydney’s CBD – many of them heritage listed. My favourites are the sandstone public service buildings along Bridge St, but there some other pretty good ones scattered about the city. I was in one of them, today, and it struck me, again, how intrusive a heritage listing can be. This particular building has been listed, like most, because of its outside appearance. But many of the meeting rooms inside are also of the same period (possibly even original), and so the current occupants are very constrained as to what they can do inside the building, because of the heritage listing. Heritage listing ends up meaning that development of the internal building is constrained, depending on exactly what is listed (very occasionally it is just the streetscape).

The City of Sydney, for example, requires that

Development to a heritage item is to:

  • be consistent with an appropriate Heritage Impact Statement, Conservation Management Plan or Conservation Management Strategy ;
  • be consistent with the Heritage Inventory Assessment Report;
  • protect the setting of the heritage item;
  • retain significant internal and external fabric and building elements;
  • retain significant internal and external spaces;
  • remove unsympathetic alterations and additions;
  • reinstate missing details and building elements;
  • use materials, finishes and colours that are appropriate to the significant periods of development or architectural character of the item; and
  • respect the pattern, style and dimensions of original windows and doors.

This list clearly deals with interiors as well as exteriors. As a worker, I do quite enjoy occasionally visiting some of the spectactular meeting rooms that can be found in this town. Sadly, though, few of them are the heritage listed ones. The heritage listed ones tend to be full of wood panelling, have few, if any, windows, let alone views, be quite small (unless they were once senior executive offices, in which case they can be spectacularly enormous) and have no room for whiteboards, presentation equipment, internet connections, and any of the requirements of the modern business meeting.

I do wonder just whose interests are served by heritage listing the private internal spaces (not the public areas, such as a banking chamber or shopfront) of major buildings. Although it can sometimes be sad to see the back of the wood panelling, it’s hard to see how, as a ratepayer, or normal public citizen, I have any interest in the preservation of a part of a building I have absolutely no access to.

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Cycle Lanes

In a front page story in the SMH today, the NRMA (NSW’s peak motorist lobby group) accused the government of wasting money on cycle lanes.

“The Iemma Government is building a cycleway alongside choked Epping Road, despite as few as 25 cyclists using that corridor each day. At $7.6 million for the Epping Road cycleway, the NRMA says that would amount to spending $300,000 per cyclist on a lane that is unlikely to attract many more riders, based on the experiences of the M2 motorway. The NRMA wants the Epping Road cycleway to be scrapped to allow lanes to be widened for trucks and cars.”

The SMH goes on to comment that

“The Westlink M7 cycleway added $60 million to the cost of that project, a legacy of the former roads minister Carl Scully.”

As a cyclist, my first reaction was anger, that one of the few places in Sydney that might get to effective cycle access is being targeted. But then I wondered why it is that the cyclist lobby seems to have so much success with getting a lot of money spent on long distance cycling solutions. Most people agree that the trips most likely to be replaced by cycle trips (going by what happens in cities where cycling is prevalent) are short trips of 1-5 km or so (here’s a typical example from an inner city Council website).

To improve the chances of people taking short trips, councils need to think imaginatively about marking out quiet, relatively flat streets as cycle safe places, with footpaths marked out as appropriate for cycling in places where the roads are just too dangerous. I’ve ridden on this path a few times, which is a good example (although not especially useful for transport compared with recreation).

But in Sydney as it is today, with a cycle route almost always involving some serious traffic at some point, the people who are most likely to cycle on the roads are the ones who really want to. They are also the cyclists who would really love a long distance ride, that lets them get up a good speed, without having to give way to pedestrians every 20 metres or so. And until we get cycle paths that less brave cyclists can use, they are going to be the main people putting the real effort into campaigning for better access.

In my ideal Sydney, there would be good cycle routes that I could happily take my children on all over Sydney. But the situation today is nowhere near that. It really annoys me that the NRMA is campaigning to stop spending money on cycle transport. The NRMA is implicitly saying that if you stop spending money on cycle paths, it would instead be spent on roads. And they may be right, the budgeting processes of any large organisation are rarely logical.  But if we as taxpayers have a set amount of money to spend on cycling, I wonder if we’re spending it in the most effective way. Would it be more effective if it was spent on smaller projects dotted around the whole of Sydney?

Edited to add that the main point made in the considerable reaction to this story in the last two days has been more that bike lanes never join up to anything else. Cyclists are expected to live at the beginning or end of the cycleway, but if they want to go anywhere else, they take their chances on the roads like everyone else.

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The City of Sydney recently engaged “international urban design expert Jan Gehl” to perform a “public spaces public life” study on Sydney with the aim of reviewing how people use the city of Sydney, living, working, playing, and make some recommendations as to how to improve it. He reported to Council this week.

Much of the media coverage has been of the big ticket items – put the Cahill Expressway and the Western Distributor underground – and while I agree they would vastly improve Sydney as a city, the prohibitive cost involved may not be worth it.

I found the full report a fascinating read. The most insightful part was about Sydney as a pedestrian city. Sydney has the number of pedestrians of a much smaller city (Pitt St Mall is around the same as Rundle Mall in Adelaide, and George St is much lower), and on weekdays, has half as many pedestrians in the underground pathways as it does above ground. An average walk  in Sydney involves waiting at pedestrian lights between 20% and 50% of the time of the walk. So walking underground makes sense. Quite a few pedestrian accidents happen at the worst intersections where it takes a couple of minutes for the lights to change for pedestrians.

I’m an inveterate jaywalker myself, but I’ve watched enough close calls that I don’t cross Elizabeth St at Martin Place without lights, and I know to leave at least 2 minutes to get across the Grosvenor St/George St intersection.

I’ve found it frustrating that a lot of the commentary has come from people who don’t actually use the city day to day. I’ve worked in various parts of Sydney CBD for most of the last 20 years. For 11 of those years I had a job that often involved walking all over the city to visit clients. And I visit often on weekends. So those people who say that piazzas don’t work in the Australian sun have clearly never visited Martin Place at lunchtime (or Spain in summer, but that’s another post). Sure, the shade is popular, but most people will grasp at the chance to be outside except on the worst days of the Australian summer. And the reason that people don’t walk is rarely that it’s too much like hard work – it’s that it takes too long, and it’s too unpredictable with the traffic lights.

There are lots of good ideas in the report, and it’s a fascinating way to analyse a city. Having just read Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities it’s interesting to see her ideas being interpreted and used. I hope that the City of Sydney manages to implement some of the smaller, less headline grabbing  suggestions, so that we can gradually move towards the pedestrianised city that I’d love to work and play in. There is hope, with today quite a few business leaders supporting the need to gradually move towards a pedestrianised city.

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The Institute of Actuaries of Australia does a quick (36 seconds is the promise) survey of its members once a month, reported in its imaginatively titled magazine Actuary Australia. Of the 345 respondents (self selected, but a good proportion of all the actuaries in Australia) 35% don’t believe that global warming is happening at all.

I find that a bit depressing, that at a time when even the small number of climate change sceptical scientists still remaining are starting to believe that global warming is happening, but just that it is not caused by human kind, actuaries are still sceptics in such numbers. It’s our training to be sceptical, but our training is also to respond to evidence without emotion.

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Today’s review is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a book I never would have read without my blogging habit. When she died last year, several of my favourite bloggers wrote about her.

The book is an indictment of pretty much everything about American cities (particularly New York) in the late 50s and early 60s, with a special rant on the side about the Garden City movement and Le Corboisieur.

I imagine that at the time, when she was railing against the received town planning wisdom, it would have seemed an iconoclastic, controversial, somewhat anarchic book. Now, when much (but not all) of what she said has become, in its turn, received wisdom, it didn’t have the same shock value. So given everything I had read about Jacobs from the obituaries, I expected to agree with much of the book.

But, probably because it was written nearly 50 years ago, and from an unapologetically US perspective, it seemed surprisingly old fashioned and narrow. I read it while staying in Rome – not a perfect city, by any means, but probably closer to the ideal city Jane Jacobs had in mind when writing the book than anything that has existed then or now in the US. Yet, except for a description of 19th century London, she doesn’t really mention any non US cities.

Her major theses were that for a city to work:

  • A street or district must serve several primary functions.
  • Blocks must be short.
  • Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals.
  • Population must be dense

A this point I found myself wondering whether Jacobs thought that all suburbs (without adequate population density) were failed aspects of cities; I grew up in a suburb, and while it wasn’t that exciting, it worked perfectly adequately as a place to live.  But suburbs without amenities work less well for poorer people with little capacity to escape them; my suburb had adequate (not great) public transport, and pretty much everyone had a car.

But when I stopped taking issue with the detail, and thought about her argument as a whole, the thesis hit home for me. Just an example of an important point –  her description of how important diversity of time use is, in any street or neighbourhood, for many reasons. Diversity of time use means that the neighbourhood is used all the time by different people. The neighbourhood I stayed in Rome was a classic example.

First thing in the morning were the fruit and fish markets. Then during the late morning the shoppers came out (it was the fashion district). Then in the afternoon and early evening it was time for the tourists to congregate and eat. And later at night the local Roman youth hung out as a place to rest between night clubs. Diversity of time use means:

  • there are always people around, which makes the streets cleaner and safer
  • economically businesses (such as cafes and restaurants) work better if they have clientele from a bunch of different sources during the day, rather than at defined peak times
  • the district itself becomes a magnet drawing people who don’t live there for the diverse entertainments available

For this reason, Jacobs was scathing about the cultural precincts that many second tier cities build to prove their cultural credentials – which are only in use while a show is on, and hence become quite unsafe deserts for much of the day – the South Bank Centre in London was a good example when I lived there (even if London has never been a second tier city!).

Anyone with even a passing interest in town planning should read this book. It is polemic, for its time, and should be read with that in mind, but there are nuggets of truth in every chapter, which must be part of the thinking of anyone with any responsibility for planning in a modern city.

In the end, the great insight is that the diversity and sometimes anarchy that characterises all great cities is what makes them great; diversity shouldn’t be tidied away with zoning regulations without very careful consideration of the consequences, but should be emphatically encouraged.

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