Using functional traits - walking rewilding and wolves straight into the criticism of Goldilocks Standards
There is one more step to go before the insanity of the killing fields of the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) is upended, now that the Dutch agriculture minister has cleared the way for the Province of Flevoland to approve and implement the recommendations of the van Geel commission on reducing herbivore numbers there, a dose of much needed ecological common sense (1,2). I have described this maniacal experiment in Dutch nature development – that has sacrificed the life of well over 10,000 grazing animals – as a zombie idea in ecology, an idea that should be dead but isn’t, although the deliberate trophic imbalance created there and the devastating consequences it has had for landscape vegetation, pretty much bars it from being recognised as ecology (3). It’s no wonder that Frans Vera, the egomaniacal perpetrator of this regime of starvation, is said to be under police protection, so angry are people that this experiment led to over 3,000 animals dying of starvation (89% of total) just this winter alone (4,5).
It has been astonishing to see various academics in the Netherlands come to the support of its existence as an experiment, such as Han Olff, Martin Drenthen and Patrick Jansen, then to be followed by the ubiquitous logorrhoea of Paul Jepson, an apologist for all things of ordurologicial origin due to his connection with REFARMING Europe (6). Jepson, like many others, doesn’t realise that the OVP is not an example of rewilding, since it was born out of the Dutch concept of creating new nature – “Another crucial point is to remember that to his Dutch public, Frans Vera does not label his projects as rewilding or dedomesticating, but natuurontwikkelings— a Dutch term that is best translated as “Nature Development” (7). We have to blame Jamie Lorimer, another British academic, for fostering this misconception about rewilding and the OVP so that he could construct a tower of candyfloss about "bovine biopolitics" and "Nazi cows" (8,9). Nevertheless, Jepson gave his view as a means to promote his own useless solutions for the OVP, but also promote his own agenda (10). The latter for Jepson was to ensure that the ordure of failure of the OVP doesn’t stick to what he calls “second generation” rewilding projects in the Netherlands, all of which are also predicated on herbivore grazing, the one-club approach of REFARMING Europe.
The myopia of the uninformed
I make it my business to troll Jepson’s mind flatus, to point out his ecological illiteracy, observing this time that Jepson’s understanding of the issues at OVP was underwhelming, and that his article was just adding to the panchreston that rewilding has become, as it is further detached from its origins in conservation biology (11). There was a crusty reply to my comment from Oliver Tickell, erstwhile editor of The Ecologist, who facilely dismissed the starvation deaths of so many animals, and who saw no alternative to what he described as “a large area of recreated wilderness” being able to survive, in the context of a densely populated and intensively farmed country like the Netherlands, unless it was behind fences (10). It is the myopia of the uninformed, or those who cannot join the dots, that the reality of trophic processes is happening out in the wider countryside where wolves are voluntary reinstating themselves westward across Europe, including now into the Netherlands and Belgium, countries with much higher affluence than from where the wolves originated (12-17). Thus could these puerile, fenced off areas with domestic animals ever stack up in any way to the reality of that ongoing trophic re-occupation - and which is definitely no experiment?
It is perhaps a jolt to realise that the Netherlands and Belgium are the last two countries in Western Europe to regain a population of wolves, thus completing a continent-wide distribution (12). Germany was one of the earlier countries to have seen this expansion, with wolves migrating over from Poland (15). There are now at least 300 wolves living in Germany, and there is every evidence that the population may reach 1,000 although hunters believe it has already reached that number (18,19). Wolves bring out the worst in human nature, or at least in those who feel threatened by them through a feared loss of livelihood, or the hunter associations who think there will be less game species that they can kill themselves. Tensions and intolerance abound within these people to the point whereby objects of barbarity, the mutilated corpse of wolves, are displayed prominently in protest (20). More surreptitious, a hunter shot a wolf from the confines of his car recently in Denmark, unaware that two other people were videoing the wolf’s movements in this open field – the video makes for unpleasant watching in the undramatic but callous snuffing out of a life (21).This prejudice in the face of national opinion and laws - the wolf is a strictly protected species in Denmark - is what we will face in the UK when we reinstate large carnivores. There is no way to talk these evil people around, as experience has shown that they are unwilling to compromise, or that they feel that they can actually win outright if they keep to their veto position (22).
You always get someone, though, who wants to be seen as the bridge-builder, like Danish writer Dorthe Nors suggesting that the future of the wolf in Denmark relies on some compromise - “There are pragmatic and reflective voices in the wolf debate. People and animals should be able to co-exist. It requires solutions. But the debate’s loudest voices speak of a Denmark that is too small for the wolf. They say it’s the European Union’s fault that the wolf even arrived – and also the EU that says we can’t shoot it” (23) As a gauge of the small-mindedness of these awful people, they believe that if the wolf that had been shot was from Germany, then it ought to have been transported to Berlin. The nonsense of this is that the wolves didn't know they were crossing the German border when voluntarily returning to Denmark, and their forebears didn't know they were crossing the Polish border into Germany. So to the wolves, Denmark is part of a continent, not a small country. Moreover, it’s no good blaming it on the European Union that they have no choice but to let the wolf return, because Denmark signed up to the Bern Convention in 1979 and thus years before the Habitats Directive came out in 1992, and that Convention was the forerunner in giving strict protection to the wolf (Appendix II in (24)).
Getting the meaning of rewilding back on track
Towards the end of May, while the IUCN Rewilding
Task Force was grappling with strongly interactive species at ecologically
effective densities (11) up popped an article by Patrick Barkham in the
Guardian on rewilding your garden (25). It just felt like every day, the
meaning of rewilding is being devalued by its use in this way, but then
Barkham hasn’t been the first to bend the word to such trivial use, two other
such articles preceded his (26,27) and there is even encouragement to use the
symbolic sign of a blue heart to signify areas of grass undergoing
rewilding by being left unmown in gardens, parks, schools, and along road
verges (28). I am reminded of the words of Patrick Sinclair in his talk on
rebuilding trophic structure in Africa through the return of large carnivores
(at 1:05:30 in (29)):
It’s against one of many unsatisfactory backdrops like this, that the Rewilding Task Force see a priority of getting the meaning of rewilding back on track. This is especially needed in Britain where we have to break out of the island mentality that conveniently isolates us from continental Europe, and show people that bringing back trophic diversity is possible, that it is already occurring on a continental scale through the return of the wolf and, by appealing to the better nature of the less bigoted, give people the courage to do the right thing. But it goes further than just wolves in Europe when you see the multiple distributions of large carnivores, the Scandinavian, Carpathian and Dinaric Mountain countries having the three-species guild typical of Europe (gray wolves, Eurasian lynx, and brown bear) whereas other world areas have a varying co-location of up to the eight large predators in the mountain ranges of China (see Fig. 5 – but it needs updating for Europe (30)). This indicates that people in Europe, do live alongside large carnivores, even to the extent of altering the human practices that cause human–wildlife conflict by abandoning contemporary approaches for the old way of doing things, the old measures known to protect livestock from predation, to develop a culture of coexistence (31). What that world-wide distribution shows, even though there is still persecution that restricts their numbers (20, 30) is that at least there is a capability, an existing presence of the world’s varying carnivore populations from which to recover in the same way that the wolf has in Europe.
Given that knowledge on the spatial distribution of native large carnivores, it becomes a decision as to what would be the current trophic structure that works for wild nature. In a changing scene, you have to work with what you’ve got, getting rid of a backward looking and fruitless baseline debate that pitches the Pleistocene against the Holocene (32). Thus, as long as there is one or two of the extant or former native large carnivores living freely, then you have the potential for some measure of poise in wild nature by way of the trophic interaction that I have previously described (11,33). It may be an incomplete but semi-wild balance between carnivore and herbivore if there is only one or two large carnivores, but at least the occasional changes in the direction of flux from biological variation will not lead to any catastrophic change in landscape vegetation, as there has been from the massive trophic imbalance at the Oostvaardersplassen (33). You may also consider that an aspiration for reintroduction of mammalian carnivores is a prerequisite to acknowledging a presence on the rewilding continuum, and that an upgrading in the wildness of that area will come from additional carnivore introductions that will move it up the continuum (34,35).
Seeking the bigger picture
In seeking the bigger picture, the Task Force looked at another world-wide mapping, this one based on an assessment of the feasibility of an ambitious goal set by an advocacy of Nature Needs Half (NNH) an aim to protect 50% of the planet by 2050 (36,37). NNH is posited on the four objectives of conservation biology that must be achieved to ensure the long term viability of an ecosystem: all native ecosystem types must be represented in protected areas; populations of all native species must be maintained in natural patterns of abundance and distribution; ecological processes such as hydrological processes must be maintained; and the resilience to short-term and long-term environmental change must be maintained (38). This would allow all living beings and ecosystems to flourish and continue to evolve. It is thus based on conservation ecology and an ecocentric ethics, with clear support of ecological justice and intra-species democracy, and not just on anthropocentric ideology (39). As with any regional or continental conservation approach, achieving these objectives requires an extensive interconnected network of protected areas as well as sustainable management of the surrounding areas. With this background, a world-wide mapping of the protected statuses of natural habitats surviving in ecoregions was carried out to address the spatial dimensions of these objectives of conservation biology (40). It shows areas in four classes: where more than half is protected; where less than 50% of the total ecoregion area is protected, but which could reach half protected if the unprotected natural habitat remaining could be designated; where sufficient habitat would need to recover first before it could be designated; and areas where nature is imperilled because there is less than 20% left of natural habitat remaining, protected or otherwise (see Fig. 2 in (40)).
Two things struck us about this mapping: it is a search area for priorities not only of where undesignated surviving natural habitat needs protection (the second class) but more crucially where there are opportunity areas for the recovery of natural habitat so that the ecoregion may reach half-protected (the third class). If you like, it provides a world-wide road map for rewilding priorities. The fourth class is the most problematic – the UK for instance overwhelmingly sits in that category of imperilled nature, along with substantial areas of eastern North and South America, parts of Africa, and a large part of the Asian subcontinent. The second thing that struck us is that there is some correlation between these imperilled areas and the absence of any or few of the large carnivore guild that could exist in the ecoregion. There is particularly good correlation for this in eastern North America, some parts of South America and Africa, Northern Eurasia and eastern Australia. However, the correlation breaks down in some areas that are imperilled but which also have the presence of three or four species of their large carnivore guild, such as the West African countries that border the Gulf of Guinea, and the eastern states of India. We intend to overlay this map with the large carnivore distribution map, accepting the limits there are with such coarse, bulky data, and that presence and absence tells us nothing about the density or effectiveness of the trophic interaction of the large carnivores.
It may anyway be that there are other factors at play, one of the obvious is population density. I was hoping that another mapping exercise had addressed this within a global analysis of potential reintroduction areas for large carnivores (41). The analysis identified 130 protected areas where one or more large carnivore species had been extirpated and that may be most suitable for reintroduction. These protected areas included sites in every major world region. Surprisingly, a dramatic variation in human footprint was found across the lost ranges of the large carnivore species about which the authors had little to say other than the non-sequitur of observing the sensitivity of large carnivores to excessive human activity, direct hunting and to loss of prey base. That doesn’t really clear up the anomaly we observed with the variation in correlation between imperilled areas and absence of predators (see above). Indeed, the authors then used a last of the wild approach to identify contiguous regions of low human footprint within the former ranges of carnivore species, and through that identified a further 150 areas that could be the focus of conservation efforts to create conditions conducive to reintroductions of large carnivores. America, Russia, Canada, China and America featured in these areas. Finally, they used the 25 largest protected areas in the lost range of each carnivore species in order to gain a picture of connectivity (see Fig. 5 in (41)). Some interesting large scale patterns of connections were revealed in Canada, Brazil, two in Africa, and a large one in Russia, and which may encourage passive (voluntary) expansions of large carnivores in returning to parts of their former range.
It is in analyses like these that we can build a
picture of our world, and give an impetus to conservation of its wild nature.
That the UK has no large carnivores and overwhelmingly sits in that category
of imperilled nature, should not surprise anyone, but it does mean that our
aspirations for our own wild nature have to be pitched at a much higher level
than most. I hope I supply encouragement for that, based on scientific
principles, as well as in satisfying an instinctual appreciation of the
intrinsic value of wild nature, rather than it just be seen as a resource for
human enterprise, or eliminated because it as threat to that enterprise (42).
However, that aspiration can quickly come tumbling down when you see the
pathetic compromises that are sought in an effort to “mainstream”
rewilding. I wrote last time about Alastair Driver of REFARMING Britain and
his peripatetic journeys around Britain where he glad hands and pleases
everybody – “winning hearts and minds” - by unfurling an unthreatening
vision of rewilding that just redefines it away from its origins (43). Drivers
biggest mistake, which he obviously thought was his winning point, was to
dissociate large carnivores from rewilding – “My main myth-busting message is
that it’s not about wolves and bears”. When challenged, Driver sought to
wriggle out of this by swervingly changing his
message from “not about” to “all about”, but the damage was done
since it leaves REFARMING Europe open to ridicule in taking this stance
towards large carnivores when it should be advocating their return and paving
the way for their reinstatement, as others also commented. Perhaps the most
cogent comment was from Jo Lepine from Bristol (43):
Using species as tools behind fences
Another nonsense rewilding doesn’t need is the current obsession with the functional traits of species, using them as tools behind fences, rather than reinstating to free-living as part of an overall restructuring of trophic occupancy. This is most evidently the case with the captive beaver in Cornwall and the Forest of Dean where the beaver are treated as a tool, as enforced slave labour, to provide ecosystem services that are primarily of anthropocentric benefit (44). There will be more captive beaver coming as their presence in this way in farmed landscapes is being mainstreamed by applicants being able to receive feasibility study funds under the Higher Tier of the Countryside Stewardship scheme (45,46). As another example of using functional traits, bison, as intermediate feeders, are being used as a tool behind fencing to clear woody vegetation from dunes in the Netherlands – “Three bison were first introduced into the Kraansvlak, in the municipality of Bloemendaal, in April 2007, and a further three in 2008, at the start of a 10-year attempt to fight back against encroaching grasses and shrubbery… there was a pressing need for grazers to eat back the vegetation”(47). The continuing claim is that this utilitarian use of bison in the Kraansvlak provides evidence of a preference for an open landscape habitat selection rather than forest (48) but how can it when these animals are fenced in, and thus denied the opportunity to freely migrate to other locations?
The most exasperating example of this trend on utilising functional traits came in a recent paper that advocated “trophic rewilding” through enlisting the predatory behaviour of wolves in reducing the number of Red deer, but this would take place within a fenced enclosure to avoid contention “within a hostile human-dominated landscape”(49). The paper is not freely available, but you can get its drift from reading a couple of puff pieces about it (50,51). Essentially, it’s just a desk study that rehashes a number of the co-authors previous publications, as well as re-using a simulation model on wolf and prey density (52) in a hypothetical reserve in Scotland. The claim, though, is that the “novelty of our approach was to subject dispersing wolves to different constraints, exploring the importance of wolf and red deer density thresholds in this regard”(49). Unwrapping this within the text reveals a new phrase for fencing - “A boundary barrier could help the reintroduction of a viable predator population with the potential to reach densities that instigate strong top-down forcing, but at the expense of dispersal in and out of the protected area”. Well, sticking different values for permeability of the reserve (through it having a leaky fence?) into the simulation for out migration of wolves is not the same as the dynamics of the real dispersal of free-living wolves, nor is it necessarily a pointer in how wild nature achieves an ecologically effective density of a strongly interactive species (11). Is the leaky fence to be a new tool of the conservation industry? Does it make “the rewilding process more effective…. A fenced reserve in Scotland could be a fantastic opportunity to return large predators to Britain, ecologically restore a large part of the Scottish Highlands, and promote tourism" as one of the co-authors is reported as saying on one of the puff pieces? (51). Won’t a few wolves getting through this barrier defeat the object of containment to avoid conflict with people? Can the Red deer inside the enclosure jump to freedom over the fence? Can you call it a reintroduction of wolves if they are captive and not free living?
It just seems to be an over-egging of what is basically a justification for sticking wolves in fenced enclosures –“not only is a viable wolf population possible in a fenced reserve, but that such a population could result in the restoration of density-dependent trophic interactions, with likely positive biodiversity effects”(49). I had this ghastly vision of the reaction people would have when they saw a wolf pack chase and manoeuvre a Red deer into the fence so that its further escape is blocked, it becomes trapped and its fate inescapable. This is why the Standards of Modern Zoo Practice do not allow predator and prey to be in the same enclosure (see Sec. 5.4 in (53)) nor do they allow, if sanctioned, live feeding in front of the public, which is why this is a daft idea that adds nothing to rewilding. It is thus unlikely to be adopted in Scotland in spite of what another of the co-authors is reported as saying - “Scotland can lead Europe in thinking about how conservation, large fenced reserves and tourism can reframe rural economies. The role of fencing in the conservation of big predators is globally a hot topic. So far our results are just simulations made from the safety of a desk, but they offer a highly original way of thinking about restoring nature and natural processes”(50). You would have thought a Professor of Wildlife Conservation would have known about the zoo standards, because this is a zoo they are proposing. Moreover, it distracts from the real task in Scotland, as it may do elsewhere in Britain, of debating the return of the wolf to free-living rather than captive enslavement.
Zoo standards aside, what really angers me about this is its demeaning of wolves in expecting them to conform to the modelling and perform a function, when this is really dewilding through constraining the freedom of their lives by the fencing removing their autonomy. It stupidly walks rewilding and wolves straight into the criticism of the Goldilocks Standards - “wild but not too wild” for human purposes, the wolf becoming a “services provider and a land manager” through assigning it “the tasks of restoring nature ravaged through our agency” (54). Is it the fate of wolves “acting as our proxies and agents, fulfilling our duty to rehabilitate ecosystem” to live out their complete life in captivity, when presumably in the first instance they were captured from free-living in the wild? If and when they outlive their usefulness, will they ever be able to adapt back to that condition? Will there be a market in supplying the demand for wolves in these captive systems, or maybe even a captive breeding program? Think about that other nonsense of captive breeding in fulfilling a demand for enfenced plastic aurochs as large grazers, the fake aurochs re-created by scientifically dubious cross-breeding programs for cattle (48). Aren’t they trapping us into the same old conservation industry dogma when the authors say – “Our results highlight that in spatially restricted rewilding projects in human-dominated landscapes, boundary effects have important implications for the functioning of ecological processes and so ecosystem outcomes. As a result, some management of rewilding projects might be needed to replicate ecological processes that cannot be restored”(49) What management does that mean? What else is there that can degrade this animal any further when it will only be granted a conditional life?
There is so much at present that devalues the meaning of rewilding - its association with wildlife gardening, its dissociation from the reinstatement of large carnivores, its association with enfenced large carnivores, and I hesitate to mention Jepson’s latest effusion on rewilding as a new environmental “narrative”, but which is really him telling stories at the outer margins of truth (55) - that I have taken to suggesting that these people stop using the word, and to use a different word - as it’s not rewilding. At least the peripatetic mainstreamer has taken note, but only by executing one of his usual swerves (56).
Mark Fisher 28 June 2018
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(2) Minister: provincie mag beleid Oostvaardersplassen veranderen, omroep flevoland 21 June 2018
(3) More zombie ideas in ecology, Self-willed land March 2018
(4) Maandrapportage april grote grazers Oostvaardersplassen, Staatsbosbeheer 7 mei 2018
(5) Oostvaardersplassen, Netherlands 2018, Stichting Cynthia en Annemieke, 24 Jun 2018
(6) Paul Jepson, Supervisory Board, Rewilding Europe
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(9) Lorimer, J., & Driessen, C. (2016). From “Nazi cows” to cosmopolitan “ecological engineers”: Specifying rewilding through a history of Heck cattle. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(3), 631-652.
(10) Jepson, P. Rewilding’s next generation will mean no more reserves full of starving animals. The Conversation 11 May 2018
(11) Conservation biology and the repair of our damaged and degraded ecosystems, Self-willed land April 2018
(12) Wolf found in northern Belgium, first time in over 100 years, PHYS.ORG January 13, 2018
(13) Wolf spotted walking around Gelderland, third sighting this year, DutchNews February 21, 2018
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(18) Wie viele Wölfe verträgt das Land? Holger Dambeck und Anna van Hove, Speigel Online 1 June 2018
(19) Jagdverband geht von mehr als tausend Wölfen aus, Speigel Online 22.06.2018
(20) The greatest challenge for living with wolves rests within the human mind, Self-willed land November 2017
(21) Wild wolf shot and killed in Denmark, Matthew Taylor, Guardian 1 May 2018
(22) From conflict to coexistence? Insights from multidisciplinary research into the relationships between people, large carnivores and institutions. John D. C. Linnell for the European Commission February 2013
(23) They want a wolf-free Denmark. Will migrants be next? Dorthe Nors, Guardian 16 May 2018
(24) Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, Council of Europe
(25) How to rewild your garden: ditch chemicals and decorate the concrete, Patrick Barkham 30 May 2018
(26) 10 ways to rewild your garden, Independent.ie March 5 2017
(27) 13 ways to rewild your garden to attract bees, bats, birds and hedgehogs, Kate Bradbury, Daily Telegraph 18 FEBRUARY 2017
(28) BLUE Campaign: Re-wilding Britain, garden by garden
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(31) Large Carnivore Management Plans of Protection: Best Practices in EU Member States. Committee on Petitions, European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs February 2018
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(33) Moving past process to outcome – the manifestation of wild land, Self-willed land September 2017
(34) Rewilding, Rewilding Task Force, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management
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(36) Noss, R.F., Dobson, A.P., Baldwin, R.,
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(37) Nature Needs Half
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(39) Kopnina, H., Washington, H., Gray, J., & Taylor, B. (2018). The ‘future of conservation’ debate: Defending ecocentrism and the Nature Needs Half movement. Biological Conservation, 217, 140-148
(40) Dinerstein, E., Olson, D., Joshi, A., Vynne, C., Burgess, N.D., Wikramanayake, E., Hahn, N., Palminteri, S., Hedao, P., Noss, R. and Hansen, M., 2017. An ecoregion-based approach to protecting half the terrestrial realm. BioScience, 67(6), pp.534-545.
(41) Wolf, C., & Ripple, W. J. (2018). Rewilding the world's large carnivores. Royal Society open science, 5(3), 172235.
(42) Batavia, C., & Nelson, M. P. (2017). For goodness sake! What is intrinsic value and why should we care? Biological Conservation, 209, 366-376
(43) On a mission to mainstream rewilding, Alastair Driver, Rewilding Britain 17 May 2018
(44) The continuing destruction of our native trophic pyramid, Self-willed land February 2018
(45) PA2: Feasibility study, Countryside Stewardship grants, Natural England
(46) Countryside Stewardship: Higher Tier Options, Supplements and Capital Items Revised January 2018
(47) Return of the bison: herd makes surprising comeback on Dutch coast, Daniel Boffey, Guardian 28 May 2018
(48) Bison habitat preference becomes a pawn in the disputed natural vegetation cover of Europe, Self-willed land November 2015
(49) Bull, J. W., Ejrnæs, R., Macdonald, D. W., Svenning, J. C., & Sandom, C. J. (2018). Fences can support restoration of human-dominated ecosystems when rewilding with large predators. Restoration Ecology.
(50) Large fenced reserves an effective way to bring wolves back to Scotland, WildCru June 14, 2018
(51) Large fenced reserves an effective way to bring wolves back to Scotland, Science Daily June 13, 2018
(52) Nilsen EB, Milner-Gulland EJ, Schofield L, Mysterud A, Stenseth NC, Coulson T (2007) Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274:995–1003
(53) Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, Defra 2012. PB Number PB13806
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(55) Jepson, P. (2018). Recoverable Earth: a twenty-first century environmental narrative. Ambio, 1-8.
(56) Prof Alastair Driver @AliDriverUK Jun 19