Telling tales of many Ps

I wrote this piece for Blog and Log – the blog site that records outreach activities of the Institute of Integrative Biology and the School of Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool, to which I currently belong (for two & a bit more months).

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity* to talk, twice, about a topic related (slightly tenuously) to my research and very close to my heart.  On the evening of Wednesday 19th September I stood on the stage at Leaf, facing the Ignite Liverpool crowd, to present on “The Three Ps”; and on Saturday 22nd September I stood on a soapbox in Sheffield’s busy shopping district, to shout about “Peanut butter, palm oil and peat; getting un-stuck in the mud” to a bunch of slightly bemused passers-by.  They were quite different forums with which to share my knowledge and passion, but I learnt a good deal from preparing for and presenting at each.  Here’s a quick low-down of each event, which might hopefully inspire you to get involved in the future.

Ignite Liverpool is the brainchild of a community organisation that runs quarterly events, providing a platform on which anyone can talk for a whistle-stop five minutes about a subject they are passionate about.  The challenge is to convey a coherent story in five minutes, in synchrony with the visuals on your 20 slides which flash up for five seconds in a continuous reel.  I managed to mumble in time to the slides until the penultimate one, where my dialogue turned to dust!  It was a fun experience though, and useful in considering how to design succinct propaganda.  If you’d like to know more about the tale of The Three Ps, you can watch my performance here.  I would recommend giving Ignite a go if you live in Liverpool, or any of the other cities where it’s held (e.g. Sheffield); it’s a great opportunity to practice your public speaking and communication skills on any topic of your choice, in front of a very supportive, slightly tipsy crowd.  The most hilarious talk at the last event was entitled Any Colour you like, where all of the slides where shades of black!

Ignite_screen

Reeling off about peat at Ignite Liverpool. (Note the ‘1 view’ – that was me!)

Soapbox Science proved a less well-polished, more chilled-out and slightly chillier event!  The initiative was started eight years ago by two female Biologists, with the goal of creating a public outreach platform on which female scientists could promote their science, whilst simultaneously increasing the profile of women in the STEM sector.

I chose to talk about the same issues on the soapbox as I did on the stage: a narrative around the prolific commodity, palm oil, which links our consumption behaviour in the UK to the draining and deforestation of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia.  Orang-utans, the people of the forest, were the protagonists, of course.  As part of my PhD research (a few years ago now!), I explored the long-term ecology and contemporary management of the coastal peat swamp forests of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, and have since been monitoring their declining condition and the ever-expanding state of industrial oil palm plantations across the region.  Though my Soapbox performance was not as succinct as I’d hoped (more prep required next time to catch the attention of a transient audience), I managed to have an interesting discussion with several members of the general public on topics of environmental sustainability and the RSPO.  The conversation with one chap, as engaged as he was disillusioned, only concluded when we decided that capitalism needed to be scrapped.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel qualified to propose an alternative solution.

Ignite_slide

Illustrating the link between peatlands, palm oil and peanut butter

I found both experiences hugely valuable, primarily because I gained some idea of the level of knowledge amongst the general public on some everyday consumer issues.  People were less aware than I’d realised.  To place your science into a ‘real world’ context, to understand how it might fit into the lives of your neighbours, and to learn how you can inspire people to care as you do, I would recommend standing up on as many platforms as you can.

 

*The opportunity was created by me through signing up to two events without realising they were in the same week!  I questioned my life choices many times when preparing for them into the wee hours of the morning …. though as per usual have no regrets, in retrospect.

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The Three Ps in Parliament

Before I turn off David Dimbleby (and his tie) and go to bed, and momentarily lie in peace before the reality of our next government unravels, I thought I would post this video of an event I attended to prior to our last general election, back in March 2015.  The British Ecological Society gathered a pomp of politicians in one room to debate on the topic of People, Politics and the Planet.

It was an interested few hours, obviously.  Planet did feature, but further down the list to where I, and my fellow ecologist friends in the audience would have liked.  Since then though, people have become a much more significant part of UK politics.  And if we don’t respect people, how can we expect them to respect the environment?  At least until our own back yards collapse that is (if we’re lucky enough to have a back yard).  But that’s another blog/dinner party discussion.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in the debate: at 50 mins in Part 2, the great Jonathan Dimbleby (what brothers, eh!) invited me to ask the following question:

“If you were all 20 again, and knew that you would be in politics for 40 years without the pressure of being elected out, what bold decision would you make that would actually make a sustainable contribution to the future of the planet?”

I wasn’t hugely inspired by the responses.  But I enjoyed being thought of as a millenial!

Part 1 can be viewed here.  Overall, it was a very interesting discussion that gave us plenty of fodder to last a couple of post-event pints.  Unfortunately I don’t think there was time to organise a similar debate before today’s election.  Or possibly any political interest?  But the issues are still there, and even more so.  Can we continue to push for ‘growth’?  What are the alternatives?  When will environment feature more centrally in manifesto chat (except, of course, amongst the great Greens)?  Will it just be the United(?) States that pulls out of the Paris Agreement?

Hmmm….. Bed time for bozoes.

Thank you, David.

“His voice is more important to this world than ever before.”

(A quote from a short video from the BBC.)

Legend doesn’t even come close….nor Leo (though he’s doing an excellent job at trying).

As the final episode of Planet Earth II airs to a truly captivated nation, I felt inspired to write a quick post to thank Sir David for all of the wonderful work he has done in his last 90 years.  He, and Jane, have shown unmatched passion, respect and love for the natural world.  It is hugely humbling to share the Planet with them and all that they’ve dedicated their lives to showing us and to protecting.

I’d also like to spare a thought tonight for the couragious penguins of Zavodovsk Island.

Still time….Before the Flood?

This time last week I was feeling a strange mixture of distraught, angry and empowered.  The latter emotion primarily because nothing else seemed to be very important anymore, compared to the task in hand, i.e. sorting out the mess we’re rapidly making of our planet.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch Before the Flood.  It is an honest, hugely powerful portrayal of the challenges we’re facing with living “sustainably” on Earth, conveyed through the eyes of a very talented and passionate environmentalist*.  As UN Messenger of Peace for the Climate, Leonardo DiCaprio travels around the world for two years, observing the impact we are having on it, from the melting of the Arctic ice sheets to the burning of the peatlands of Southeast Asia.  It’s as beautiful as it is harrowing.

There are so many different ways we’re doing damage to the natural and semi-natural environments of this world; in some circumstances with a (dwindling) level of ignorance of the impacts and in some cases with full knowledge (and abandon) of them.  Hypocracy Money rules.  Trump got in.  The burning continues.

If we don’t all consider what’s going on out there, how we’re contributing to it, how we’re implicated in it (it is in our back yard) and tell the people above us that we care, the ecosystems on which we completely depend will continue to go to s**t.

Please watch it.

*As much as a multi-billionnaire (I presume, since millionnaires are old hat) can be an environmentalist….but he doesn’t shy away from the incongruities/inevitable hypocricy.  (If only a few more of the celebrity billionaires out there were as useful as this great chap.)

My name is PEAT!

(Thank you, RSPB website.)

I stumbled/googled upon this a few days ago, and thought it was too good to go unreported.  Led by the rap artist, Ed Holden, a bunch of superstars from Pentrefoelas and Ysbyty Ifan Schools (had to copy and paste those names) have joined forces to show us all how important looking after our peatlands is.  It is half in Welsh.  And it is wholly inspired.

Of a slightly different tone,  The Importance of Scotland’s Peatlands also hit the big (YouTube) screen at the start of the month.  Another informative watch if you feel your knowledge of peat is wanting.

And whilst I’m posting about creative projects that can spread information and inspire interest for these precious ecosystems, here is the winner of the World Wetlands Day Poetry Prize: In My Other Life, by Virginia Creer.