Tree drawing


Indian ink


Object lessons

The BBC is celebrating David Attenborough’s 90th birthday and last night he/they presented two films from Attenborough’s oeuvre. The first was from 1971 and called ‘Blank on the Map‘, about an expedition into ‘unexplored’ parts of Papua New Guinea (where hundreds of languages are or were spoken) hoping to find the unknown people whose settlements had been spotted from the air. While DA gave off the enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge we know him for, the context was full of colonialism and Western arrogance. They tramped through the jungle with 160 porters (the white men in their khaki didn’t do carrying, it seems), and when they found a house, empty but with warm ashes in the fire, they thought nothing of going in through a sturdily closed door and having a nose about – even in his commentary today DA did not comment on this except to say they were taking a risk of being shot at.

In 1971 he spoke of the expedition hoping to introduce these people gently to the outside world, so that if/when the outside world came in to exploit any mineral resources that might be discovered, these indigenous people would fare less badly than others in similar circumstances. The outsiders offered them glass beads, salt and newspaper (for rolling tobacco) in exchange for food (which the visitors didn’t really need), so that they would establish a more equal trading relationship, he said. Of course there was no question of equality and the idea that there might be something the outside world could learn from them, other than ethnography, didn’t occur to anyone, it seems…

This was followed by a more recent film, about a carving Attenborough had bought at auction. It turned out to be, as he hoped, an authentic Easter Island piece, with a provenance deriving from Captain Cook’s visit in 1774. In the course of the film, he told the story of the Easter Island people, who had come from Polynesia, thrived, multiplied, created the famous stone statues, but then evidently gone into decline, having cut down all the trees on the island, leaving themselves stranded and impoverished by the time Cook’s ships arrived.

Some people think the Easter Island statues were made by aliens visiting us long ago. But the unstated moral of these two films might be expressed in a variation on that image: one day little green explorers will arrive on earth to wander through the relics of its ancient inhabitants, wondering what became of them and how they could have been so short-sighted as to destroy the foundations of their ecosystem, when they had the skills to build such monuments.



This morning’s reading, delivered to me via various facets of the internet, included among other things a report on the heatwave in India that is killing people,

this commemoration of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring:

and this article about a project involving authors writing books not to be read by anyone until 100 years have passed, to be printed on paper made from trees planted last summer:

I wondered what one might find to write for those possible future people.

All I could think of was: ‘Sorry’.


The unbearable persistence of plastic

crisp packet Photo1756

My neighbours have recently been archaeologising on their smallholding, finding ancient worked flints, iron age pottery, old horse shoes, a beautiful embossed lead spindle whorl and now this crisp packet, buried in a field.

The packet can be dated to around 1971 (when the UK introduced decimal currency) because the price is given in both old pence (7d) and new pence (3p). It is in remarkably good condition, showing little sign of its 43 years of existence, just one example of the uncountable similar items we have been filling the world up with for the last few decades.

It also exemplifies the perfidiousness of the marketing industry – ‘now with added protein!’ If you look closely at the back of the packet, it claims that the ‘goodness of protein’ has been added to the flavouring: ‘the flavouring in this packet contains 15% protein’. This smacks of homeopathy. (Though you will be glad to know that they used ‘edible’ vegetable oil as the second ingredient after potatoes.)

No doubt future archaeologists will have tons of these supposed ephemera to sort through when they are studying the great anthropocene extinction event.

False dichotomies

How many times must it be said? The issue is not ‘environment versus economy’. It is long-term thinking versus short-term thinking. If we ‘develop’ a coral island to increase tourism, because we need the income and the jobs, and the development destroys the coral reefs, we lose the tourism as well as the ecosystem that hitherto supported the community. How is that economics winning?

And here‘s some evidence.

And more:

Thanks to a double whammy of disease and bleaching, branched corals have given way to stumpier rivals in most of the Caribbean's reefs (Image: L Alvarez-Filip, N Dulvy, J Gill (UEA), I M Côté and A Watkinson)

(image from New Scientist article linked above)

(This mini-rant was triggered by listening to BBC Radio 4 Costing the Earth – a politician, when asked about the possibility of developing East Caicos (as yet undeveloped and uninhabited by humans and therefore with the most pristine reefs in the Caribbean), said ‘The economy has to win sometimes.’)