Legalise It

A letter to bob ainsworth, former defence and home office minister, who called for a review of drug legalisation.

Mr. Ainsworth

I nearly chocked on my Crunchy Nut reading of an MP stating the obvious truth about the failure of drug policy and the need for legalisation.

Drug addiction is a public health problem not a criminal justice matter.

People like to get loaded - visit ANY UK town centre on a Saturday night - and alcohol, more than any other drug, fuels violence, accidents and health problems. Alcohol is more toxic than heroin. Fact. You go cold turkey on heroin, it won't kill you. Cold turkey on alcohol, the increase in brain activity can cause a seizure that will kill you.

Should alcohol be banned? No.

Do healthy people want to kill themselves with drugs? No. They want to be healthy.

Damn you Bob Ainsworth for being defence secretary and presiding over needless murder and bloodshed - as Dylan said of the Masters of War "even Jesus could never forgive what you do." Come out against the war and maybe I'll take a more charitable view. You gotta admit its as pointless as the war on drugs - be honest with me as well as with yourself!

History will certainly judge you, and maybe karma/god/whatever will judge you too. You feel happy about that, given your complicity?

Damn you too for saying nothing when you were at the Home Office (I appreciate it would have been career suicide but Prof Nutt had the balls and you didn't).

BUT thank you for having the courage to say something and add your voice, and bring some publicity, to ending this stupid and pointless 'war on drugs' - a war which people on drugs appear to be winning (cf. Bill Hicks).

Luke 15:7

"Don't give up (coz you have friends)" Kate Bush

In solidarity

P.S. Change your Twitter pic - it makes you look like Hitler. Either your staffers (hello) are incompetent or are taking the piss.


Pooh Behr

i didn't think much of an article by raphael behr so i wrote and told him why. judge for yourself.

Mr. Behr

Please find below an email I sent to two of my friends, a teacher and an academic (an educational theorist), critical of your piece (linked at top).

I would be interested to hear you respond to these criticisms.

You expect this sort of thing in the Daily Mail but not in The Guardian surely?

Perhaps you were ill that day/struggling to meet the deadline/some other excuse but it really is a shockingly bad piece of work (in my opinion at least).

Mr. Behr's article can be found here.

"One history teacher explained to me how she had met her citizenship obligations by placing al-Qaida terrorism in the context of CIA support for Afghan mujahideen during the cold war. A 14-year-old pupil proved he had internalised this long view by explaining that, while the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks were bad, they were also, in a sense, "payback". A statutory duty to inculcate civic mindedness had somehow equipped British teenagers with a pseudo-jihadi notion of terrorist murder as historical quid pro quo."

This is hardly a controversial viewpoint. See here and here for instance.

The American helicopters that get shot down are being shot down with US manufactured missiles, given them by the CIA in order to to shoot down Soviet choppers during the Soviet occupation. The Afghan's don't have the capability to make such missiles!

Afghan resistance to US occupation is "terrorist murder" apparently, whilst drone attacks on wedding parties etc is "collateral damage" - based on "pseudo-imperialist notions", to borrow the author's idiom.

Both instances are "terrorist murder" or neither are - our author is, it appears, as ideological blinkered and idiotic (and fundamentalist) as the jihadis.

"our classrooms have become inadvertent laboratories in queasy liberal social engineering. Teachers are also supposed to instil such useful attributes as environmental consciousness, emotional candour and respect for racial and cultural diversity. Some of these goals are made explicit in the curriculum for children as young as two."

would be more accurately rendered as "our classrooms have become [actually remain] sterile laboratories involved in class reproduction, drilling students in passivity and quiescence in an effort to maintain the status quo, with a one-size-fits all curriculum - as if pupils were merely empty vessels into which 'facts' can be poured or drilled into bored students, in an effort to halt the fecundity of original thought, creativity and the pupils' natural curiousity that should make learning a joy for pupil and teacher."

He mocks the notions that "environmental consciousness, emotional candour and respect for racial and cultural diversity" are "useful attributes". Would he therefore prefer their opposites, "environmental contempt, the stiff upper lip and to consider darkies from the perspective of the 'white man's burden'"?

Nor can our over opinionated, intellectually flabby edu-kash-un correspondent spell "instill".

"Obesity epidemic? Teach children about healthy eating. Too much teenage pregnancy? More sex education." Encouraging the Billy Bunter generation to eat better (I can hear Jamie Oliver's sobbing anguish!) and perhaps exercise is clearly an insane Trotskyist proposal! Keeping children ignorant of sexual health matters, contraception etc IS the reason we have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the EU. Unlike the less prudish Dutch and Swedes for instance. It is a well documented fact that female education in the third world is THE most significant factor in reducing fertility rates - educated women have less children. This is also true in the UK (the number of births per mother in social-economic group A is lower than that in D and E).

"equipping children with "skills to learn" - what a ridiculous idea!

Reminds me of Gradgrind in Hard Times, "“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”"

"Whatever adults know is old-fashioned, prejudiced and a barrier to learning instead of a precious commodity to be passed on." he says, setting up yet another absurd caricature - a straw man - that he can then knock down with a flourish of his vacuous erudition.

As Freire said -

"language is never neutral" - even the language of facts (a point particle physics agrees on - their are facts observation, no observation without an observer, no observer without a subjective factor. In this vein, Freire also talks about the importance of "naming the world" for oneself - since we cannot name the world (i.e. voice the facts as we see them) without saying something about how we wish and feel that the world should be.

Or, as the Bard put it, "Tis nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so."

Also note that he regards knowledge as a "commodity" (precious or otherwise). A fetishistic attitude. If I were to be charitable in my interpretation of that last quote of his (allow me to try), I would guess that he is trying to say that "the thoughts and experiences of previous generations are surely of value to the next generation" - a statement that despite its transparent obviousness he is incapable of expressing clearly. "Commodity"! As if knowledge were to be bought or sold, merely water to be poured into an empty vessel.

Pot kettle black (what chutzpah!) -

"Frustratingly, he tends to give credence to anecdote and sensational news stories that support his account, but not to data"

There is not one piece of data in this article.

From the same author's review of Bush's new autobiography "Short-sighted and lacking any real depth or analysis [...] Bush portrays his decision-making as studiously pragmatic." Physician heal thyself!

It is a miracle that this man is able to find employment of any kind, let alone have a position as a critic whose flaccid opinion is distributed to some half a million of our better educated compatriots everyday.

Strangely his name is an anagram of "far abler he" - a piece of data I think we can dismiss.

As to whether Furedi's book consists of (anagram) "rare duff ink", in fairness to Furedi, it would be virtually impossible (and certainly unfair) to judge his book on the basis of this thoughtless drivel.

Our education system may well be, in the opinion of Furedi, Behr and myself (to use that foul phrase that is the parlance of our age) "not fit for purpose" (as does the OECD - despite ten years of increased spending) but this analysis takes us not one nano-step closer to understanding why or what might be done about it.

Unlike Senor Freire, who I think is nearer the mark with -

"Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

That's better! I've limbered up the writing muscle and got that off my chest. I just thought the link would be of interest to you but when I examined it closely, the sheer horror it induced needed to be exorcised.

I think I'll send this to him actually - an act of friendship, the giving of the truth. I want to hear him defend himself against these charges. It's not the man that offends me, simply what he says.

I think this is probably the most thoughtless article I've ever read in the Guardian. How he had the temerity (presumably) to accept payment for it I'll never know.


Mordechai Vanunu

Vanunu revealed details of his detention by writing on his hand: "Vanunu M was hijacked in Rome. ITL. 30.9.86, 21:00. Came to Rome by fly BA504."

Below is a letter I sent to the ever helpful Mike Fitzpatrick, the best constituency MP I've ever had:-

In summary, the man's detention was not via formal extradition (putting it more politely than the facts merit). He acted consciously and not for personal gain. He has served 18 years in prison, including 11 in solitary confinement. The court did not allow even censored extracts from the transcript of proceedings to be issued until 11 years after his 1988 conviction. The then head of Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, told ABC Australia's AM program that his murder had been actively contemplated.

Israel is not a signatory of the NPT but has nevertheless not been honest about its nuclear arsenal; despite Vanunu's revelations and former Prime Minister Olmert's tactit TV admission. This admission should be a bar to US financial assistance, as there is a Congressional bar on supporting countries who possess weapons of mass destruction (according to the bbc article linked above). This is of course not a matter for HMG itself but is nonetheless significant.

There is also evidence of Israel's involvement of WMD proliferation - an American academic claims to have classified documents showing that Israel tried to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa and may have been involved in that country's eventual production of nuclear weapons.

Ironically, in the same week Vanunu was jailed again, israel had the audacity to question Judge Goldstone's (of UN Gaza War report fame) apartheid record, despite their own complicity with the racist republic.

Vanunu's selflessness in speaking out, and the dogged determination he has shown in refusing to be silenced or to repent (as surely would you or I, if we are honest, simply to save our skins), make him one of the most outstanding men of conscious ever to have walked this earth. And like all other outstanding men of conscious (Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela etc) the temporal community has persecuted him but since it has not yet killed him, there is the chance for us to redeem ourselves by showing him some mercy, having already ruined his life.

Considering Israel's contempt for the international community, given both in its failure to sign the NPT and its possession of nuclear weapons nonetheless, as well as its forging of UK passports for its assassins in Dubai; it seems that HMG should not restrain itself in its criticism of the conditions under which Vanunu is restrained (upon his forthcoming release for breaching those same illegitimate release conditions). I note that the Scottish Government of Alex Salmond supports the lifting of his restrictions.

Like Mandela, Vanunu could have a lot to offer Israel and the world in promoting nuclear disarmament (South Africa remained the only country to have unilaterally disarmed - an example to Israel, the UK and all nuclear states - the NPT signatories amongst which have already agreed to Article VI's "good faith" efforts to this end).

This is clearly an unambiguously, common sense desirable situation for the world to be in. I don't want to see Israel or anywhere else threatening to use or being threatened by the use of nuclear weapons. Vanunu is not only an exemplary citizen of the world he is a loyal and patriotic Israeli; since Israel's interests, like those of all nations whatever they may think realpolitik dictates, lie not in war but in peace.

Mr. Fitzpatrick, I have been following your activities in Parliament and you are to be commended for your work on council housing and housing benefit (of particular interest to most of my fellow constituents) and also on TN (I was sorry to read of your condition) and the Ian Tomlinson debacle.

I hope you will also be able to assist with this matter. In an ideal world the FCO would grant him asylum and a passport, although I understand there are often legal issues with granting asylum to claimants outside the UK. There is good reason to believe that, were the travel restrictions on Vanunu lifted, a number of countries would grant him asylum on arrival.

Fraternal regards


"no connection between having a gun and shooting someone and not having a gun and not shooting someone"

thank you letter to tony benn

I just wanted to drop you an email and thank you for changing my life.

You gave a talk in 1997/8 in Westminster Hall to a group of A-level economics students, alongside Kenneth Clarke (the current Lord Chancellor) and some other less glamorous speakers.

You spoke last. The others all stood up and repeated the standard economic pieties about growth and deregulation etc and, coming from a public school and a conservative (and Conservative) background, at the age of 17 I was a dyed-in-the-wool monetarist - very much on the libertarian right. As was pretty much everyone I knew, who taught me or who up til that point I had met.

Then you spoke and eloquently proceeded to contradict everything the others had said and talked about the history of the labour movement (the fight for the vote, for trade unions) and about a kind of politics that put people first, rather than simply being concerned with the Market and its demands, the price it inflicts on its victims and about class issues. I was barely aware at that point that there was even a debate. The facts appeared to be plain to me and since my milieu was intellectually and socially Thatcherite, I was quite shocked to hear these pieties questioned and in a manner that demanded further thinking, I could follow your reasoning and it was clear that what you were saying made sense - it made me question everything I had up to that point been raised to believe was simply the fact of the matter.

I was so astonished I sought you out as you left the stage - as did a small coterie of perhaps six or seven of us. You sat yourself down on in an alcove and filled your pipe (in those days of course one could still smoke inside!) as we youngsters surrounded you and questioned you. The other members of the group, apart from me, would probably have called themselves left wing and there focus was the fear that there was No Alternative (as Thatcher said 'There Is No Alternative') and that your kind of thinking was in retreat - what hope was there for the left was the theme.

I stood there and listened, fascinated as you pointed out that what seemed to us concrete, was in fact, in flux. The reality of American power and hegemony and the dominance of the market were, you pointed out, simply things that seemed concrete. You deftly explained how the world had looked in your grandfathers time and your fathers time - how the world had looked before the first world war and after, how the USSR had risen and fallen and that at any given point in history certain elements of society seemed to be concrete and unassailable facts and yet the reality was in constant flux. Political change was constant and that as we grew older we would appreciate this and understand that we were part of that reality and could participate in shaping it in a new and better way. The only mistake would be to accept defeat by failing to appreciate that change was the only certainty, the only constant, and that the world we would find ourselves in as old men would be a different world than the world as it was that day and that we had a responsibility to be involved in changing it as we saw fit, to have the courage not to to be disheartened to but to strive to make it better.

I never looked back. The impact that meeting had on me, the implications of there being all kinds of alternatives to be thought about explored and implemented, has never ever left me - "The land, the land, the land on which we stand, why should we be paupers with the ballot in our hand?" you said I recall.

I went on to learn more about economics, to study politics, economics and philosophy - from Smith to Marx and from Aristotle to Nietzsche and to undertake a journey that took me from classic bourgeoisie to to at least a critically thinking bourgeoisie! The bombshell of discovering Chomsky was something I would probably never had appreciated had it not been for that chance encounter. I realised that my drive for liberty put me in fact more on the libertarian left than right, because it was people I cared about and not metaphysical phantasies such as 'money' and the 'market' I have since heard you talk many times and it is always a joy to hear your wisdom, charm and enthusiasm ring out from your speaking or your writing - the constant challenge to "dare to be a Daniel".

So, please accept my gratitude and my best wishes for your continued health and work - long may it continue!

The valuable moments you have already shared with me will never be forgotten and the impact of what you said, as much as anything else the moral force, has shaped me.

jesus "jihad" christ

I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword
Matthew 10:34


phil woolas don't geddit

i got a reply today to a letter i wrote last august - only nine months late. and the reply basically says "since letter is so late, do you still want an answer"! woolas no longer minister so i sent it to him for him to reply to in a personal capacity, i'll post the response when i get it -

In The Guardian edition of 3rd August, I read, regarding comments made
by Immigration Minister Mr. Woolas;

"However, those who fail to integrate into "the British way of life" by
engaging in criminal or antisocial behaviour could face having points
deducted or other penalties. The paper says this includes
"circumstances where an active disregard for UK values is

The Home Office would not rule out the possibility that this would
include protesting at the return of British soldiers from Afghanistan
or Iraq.

Woolas said: "As a point of principle ... if you don't break the law
and you are a citizen, that's fine. But if someone is applying to be a
citizen to our country we do think that you should not only obey the
law but show you are committed to our country. This is what America
does, it is what France does it's what other countries do and we think
we should do the same."

Extract from -

I apologise for the length of the extract but I want you to be clear
about the matter at hand.

Mr. Woolas appears to be suggesting that utilising the lawful right of
protest is somehow unpatriotic and symptomatic of a lack of
"commit[ment] to our country".

Would you be kind enough to ask him if this is the case? And ask him
also to further clarify his remarks as he sees fit, in the light of my
further remarks?

Mr. Woolas does not, of course, have a monopoly on what he describes as
"UK values", anymore than you or I, or anyone else.

In these circumstances, our fellow citizens' right to protest is not,
and should not, be open to censure or punishment by anyone - and
particularly not by the Government; who might be thought responsible
for protecting our rights rather than eroding them by seeking to impose
a prejudicial view of what "commitment" to this country might entail.

If protesting illustrates such "disregard", does he therefore regard
the actions of the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Suffragettes,
the Levellers and so on as a contradiction of our values?

I might add that I am not at all in sympathy with protests regarding
the return of British soldiers. This makes no difference to my view of
their right to protest and neither should it affect Mr. Woolas's.

I should be as quick to stand up for Mr. Woolas right to protest, were
anyone to attempt to deny it him, regardless of what I thought of the
substance of that protest.

It is a shame that he appears not to feel the same way about opinions
that differ from his own, illustrating to my mind an awkward
understanding of "UK values" - that or an attempt to re-interpret them.

I naturally agree with him as regards the criminal behaviour of
immigrants, it does not seem unreasonable this should count to their
detriment. I suspect it would not be lawful to suspend or remove
someone's asylum status in the event that their return would endanger
their lives however.

Yours sincerely,

finkelstein on gaza ships business

Giving North Korea a Run for its Money

Who is the madder state? Its getting hard to tell. Both seem desperate to bring the roof down on their heads through their own stupidity.

Below are two letters I have just written, one to the UK ambassador and one to my MP, en route to the FCO.

To my MP, for the attention of the Foreign Office/Police -


I attach a letter I have sent to HR Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador, this morning. I will also post the text of the letter below because I know some organisations are reluctant to open attachments because of concerns about viruses.

I will let you have sight of any reply I may receive.

I would ask you to raise with the appropriate government department (presumably the FCO, although it may be a police matter as regards any potential visits of senior Israeli officials to the UK, I will leave this later consideration to your discretion) the following matters.

1. Whether the UK regards Israel's actions yesterday as lawful and if so under which provision of international law.

2. If they are nor lawful, how the UK proposes to respond to Israel in light of an act that is being described elsewhere as 'piracy'.

3. To comment on the apparent incongruity of the UK having fought a war without explicit UN sanction (a war the then UNSG described as "illegal") to uphold UNSCR 660, using force on the grounds of UNSCR 678 whilst simultaneously tolerating Israel's breach of UNSCR 242 ("(i) Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict") without any kind of sanction for more than 32 years.

I would suggest that a reasonable response to point 3 above and Israel's actions yesterday would be to immediately consider trade sanctions, suspending trade or favoured trade status with Israel, pending further discussions and investigations, and/or banning El Al flights from UK airspace, withdrawing our ambassador etc.

4. Are we to expect a continuation of the staggering FCO cowardice, the complete silence, a failure to condemn those atrocities which border on complicity with Israel's crimes,as happened during the Gaza conflict?

I do not use the words 'crimes' likely. I refer you to the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (aka the Goldstone Report) and such quotes as;

"1890. The Mission recognizes that some of those killed were combatants directly engaged
in hostilities against Israel, but many were not. The outcome and the modalities of the
operations indicate, in the Mission’s view, that they were only partially aimed at killing
leaders and members of Hamas, al-Qassam Brigades and other armed groups. They were
also to a large degree aimed at destroying or incapacitating civilian property and the
means of subsistence of the civilian population."


"1895. Whatever violations of international humanitarian and human rights law may have
been committed, the systematic and deliberate nature of the activities described in this
report leave the Mission in no doubt that responsibility lies in the first place with those who
designed, planned, ordered and oversaw the operations."

The reason I raise the Gaza War is because of Goldstone's conclusions viz

"1879. An analysis of the modalities and impact of the December-January military
operations also sets them, in the Mission’s view, in a continuum with a number of other
pre-existing Israeli policies with regard to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The
progressive isolation and separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, a policy that
began much earlier and which was consolidated in particular with the imposition of tight
closures, restrictions on movement and eventually the blockade, are among the most
apparent. Several measures adopted by Israel in the West Bank during and following the
military operations in Gaza also further deepen Israel’s control over the West Bank,
including East Jerusalem, and point to a convergence of objectives with the Gaza military
operations. Such measures include increased land expropriation, house demolitions,
demolition orders and permits to build homes in settlements, greater and more formalized
access and movement restrictions on Palestinians, new and stricter procedures for
residents of the Gaza Strip to change their residency to the West Bank. Systematic efforts
to hinder and control Palestinian self-determined democratic processes, not least through
the detention of elected political representatives and members of Government and the
punishment of the Gaza population for its perceived support for Hamas, culminated in the
attacks on government buildings during the Gaza offensive, most prominently the
Palestinian Legislative Council. The cumulative impact of these policies and actions make
prospects for political and economic integration between Gaza and the West Bank more

So, the Israeli approach, in Judge Goldsone's view and that of the UN, is part of a sustained and deliberate policy and therefore it is reasonable to understand yesterday's violence (an attack by Israeli commando's against civilians, who then killed a number of the civilians in "self defence" - one wonders who on God's earth is brave enough to attack a trained, highly armed commando with an iron bar? I have never encountered anyone so brave so the chances of the Israeli's encountering a boat load of such fearless types is prima facie implausible, I am sure you will agree) as part of this sustained and continuing policy.

I hope that the new team at the FCO will take a different approach to Israel and I look forward to hearing from you on these matters.

I would also like to take the opportunity to emphasise that there are two sides in this, and in any conflict, those sides are not Israelis and Palestinians, they are those who wish to work for war and those who wish to work for peace.

I hope that HMG is in the later camp!

Yours sincerely

To HE Ron Prosor -

Shalom Your Excellency

I have just listened with interest to your appearance on the Today programme on Radio 4.

You sound like a reasonable man and, although you are naturally duty bound to defend your country's actions whether right or wrong (which, in fairness, is what I would do were I in your shoes), you were even handed enough to comment that the operation yesterday did not go entirely as planned.

I would ask you politely to please identify what, if any, provision of international law, renders legal the operation you conducted yesterday? If you can or will not, presumably this means Israel acknowledges that its actions were illegal. Either these actions can be legally justified or they can't, therefore either they are legal or they are not.

Leaving aside the question of proportionality, it seems to me that the argument that invading Israeli commandos were defending themselves cannot hold water if there was no legal basis for their presence on the vessel in question.

I hosted a discussion at a festival last summer at which both Palestinians and Israelis were in attendance (participants in the Olive Tree scholarship program) to discuss their experiences and the possibilities for peace. I will never forgets the words of a former Israeli settler who told me "there are only two sides in this war, not Israeli or Palestinian, but simply those who work for peace and those who work for war." I agree with her entirely and count her as a friend.

It was a delight, and a testament to the success of the Olive Tree program scholarships, to see those Israelis and Palestinians in the program clearly have forged lasting friendships. The group also included Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians as well as North London Jews and the spirit throughout was one of laughter and fraternity - united by a spirit of forgiveness for the sins of our fathers and a collective desire for peace in the future, for ourselves and own children

I am afraid that yesterday's actions worked for war and not for peace and as such are reprehensible as well as regrettable.

As the UK approaches, finally, the release of Lord Savile's inquiry into 'Bloody Sunday', it is fresh in my countrymen's minds the obvious injustice of civilian deaths at the hands of soldiers. If I am honest, the very idea of attacking a highly trained soldier with an iron bar (which I do not deny happening, I simply do not know) seems highly implausible to me - certainly I would not attempt it!

I hope you will find the time to answer my question above regarding the legal basis of yesterday's operations.

I write simply because I am afraid an injustice has taken place and I am morally bound to take a stand against it, however minor. I write many letters to Her Majesty's Government, whose behaviour is frequently abhorrent. In fact, I think Israel probably gets a disproportionate amount of criticism, given the level of atrocities regularly committed by my own government and that of the US.

Of course there are any many, often worse, atrocities committed by really foul regimes, such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran but I do not wish to put Israel, the UK and US in the same category as those countries. Therefore, I must accordingly demand a different standard of conduct, both legally and morally from these later states.

Yours sincerely


Virus with Shoes

Science News
Week of Oct. 13, 2007; Vol. 172, No. 15

Invasive, Indeed

One species-Homo sapiens-consumes nearly a quarter of Earth’s natural

Sid Perkins

Some people live lightly on the land: Bedouin clans roam the deserts
of the Middle East and North Africa; small groups of indigenous
people follow reindeer herds across frigid Arctic terrain; and tribes
of hunter-gatherers forage the plains of southern Africa and the
forests of Amazonia and Papua New Guinea.

Then there’s the other 6.6 billion of us.

When we farm, clear forests, and build cities, dams, and roads, we
dramatically alter the landscape. In some places, we increase the
land’s productivity-measured as the amount of plant life at the base
of the food chain-by adding immense amounts of water and fertilizer.
New research indicates that on the whole, however, human presence
significantly decreases Earth’s biological productivity. For
instance, many of today’s cities occupy large patches of what had
been some of the world’s most fertile land.

Of the biological productivity that remains, people are gathering an
ever-increasing share, sometimes by boosting their quality of life,
but often merely by dint of their burgeoning numbers. In some
regions, each spanning millions of square kilometers, human activity
consumes almost two-thirds of the biological productivity that would
otherwise be available.

“We were surprised how intensively these regions were being affected”
by human presence, says K. Heinz Erb, an ecologist at Klagenfurt
University in Vienna. “Only one-third of the natural productivity is
left for all the other species

Overall, nearly one-quarter of Earth’s land-based biological
productivity ends up in people’s hands and bellies, Erb and his
colleagues estimate. Other research suggests that people appropriate
a comparable, but slightly smaller, share of the ocean’s
productivity-defined as the mass of photosynthetic organisms at the
base of the sea’s food chain.

A projected 25 percent increase in the world’s population by 2030 is
bound to strain ecosystems even further. Increasing agricultural
efficiency by irrigating and fertilizing the land can add to the
strain by boosting erosion and the nutrient runoff that creates toxic
algal blooms and large anoxic zones in oceans. Adding insult to
injury, proposals to transition from fossil fuels to renewable
biofuels would place yet more of Earth’s productivity in people’s

Some scientists now wonder: At what point do the world’s ecosystems
begin to break down? Or, more frighteningly, has that process already

Reaping, sowing

Before people invented agriculture, they roamed the landscape in
search of sustenance. When resources became too scarce to nourish the
group, it was time to move on. When people began to farm the land,
however, their habits changed considerably, to the detriment of many
ecosystems. Settlers built year-round shelters and often cleared
acreage for their crops.

“The rise of modern agriculture and forestry has been one of the most
transformative events in human history,” says Jonathan A. Foley, an
environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Practices vary somewhat, but typically, people heavily farm the most
fertile land, use marginal lands for grazing domestic animals, and
plant single-species tree farms in areas where forests once stood.
Whatever the use, the production of forest or agricultural goods
comes at the expense of natural ecosystems, observes Foley.

Today, croplands and pastures are among the largest ecosystems on the
planet. People farm about 12 percent of the land outside of
Antarctica and Greenland and use about 23 percent for grazing, says
Foley. Together, land devoted to these uses equals the 35 percent of
Earth’s surface that natural forests occupy, he notes.

To estimate the effect that humans wreak on the world’s land-based
ecosystems, Erb and his colleagues used agricultural and forestry
statistics compiled for 161 nations that account for 97.4 percent of
Earth’s icefree land. Most of the remaining area is located on small,
uninhabited islands, Erb notes. In their computer model, the
researchers divided the planet’s land surface into grid squares no
larger than 10 kilometers per side.

The team estimates that if people weren’t around to alter the
landscape, the world’s natural vegetation would absorb enough carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere to lock away about 65.5 billion metric
tons of carbon each year. However, in 2000, the year for which the
data were compiled, Earth’s vegetation locked away only about 59.2
billion metric tons of carbon, or 9.6 percent less than it should
have, says Erb. Of that smaller carbon total, human activities
removed about 15.6 billion metric tons-a whopping 23.8 percent-from
the world’s ecosystems. A little more than half of the carbon that
people appropriated was harvested and used as food, forage, and wood,
Erb and his colleagues note in the July 31 Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences. Most of the rest was lost to
inefficiencies of agriculture, including the inability of crops to
store as much carbon as natural vegetation would have stored. A small
amount, about 7 percent of the carbon that people take out of the
system, went up in smoke produced primarily by slash-and-burn
agriculture, says Erb. All of this human-appropriated carbon became
unavailable to other species.

Human harvests don’t stop at the shoreline, either. The world’s most
productive fisheries typically lie in and near the shallow waters
that fringe the coasts of large islands and continents, says Daniel
Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia in
Vancouver. Scientists have divided such coastal waters into 64 large
marine ecosystems. These areas can vary in character and inhabitants
as much as arctic tundra differs from an Amazonian rain forest.

About 95 percent of the world’s fish catch comes from large marine
ecosystems, says Pauly. For the past decade or so, that haul has
represented about 20 percent of the natural productivity of those
regions, as measured by the amount of carbon locked away by organisms
at the base of the ocean’s food chain.

Efficiency matters

While wilderness areas remain relatively unaffected by people, other
parts of the world are packed cheek by jowl with cities, farms, and
other human imprints.

Southern Asia, a 6.7-million-square-kilometer region that includes
India, is one of the most densely populated and heavily irrigated
regions on the planet, says Erb. There, human activity co-opts about
63 percent of the area’s natural productivity each year, he and his
colleagues estimate. In eastern and southeastern Europe, people
appropriate about 52 percent of the land’s productivity.

At the other extreme, in Australia, central Asia, and Latin America,
the percentage of productivity that ends up in human hands ranges
between 11 and 16 percent. Increasing the use of fertilizers and
irrigation could boost those percentages and help meet the needs of a
growing world population. However, long-term irrigation sometimes
renders the soil too salty for crops, and fertilizer, if used
unsparingly, runs off into rivers and streams and ends up in the
ocean, where it overfertilizes algae and thus creates huge zones
devoid of other life. “There’s no free biomass,” Erb cautions.

In the stampede to replace fossil fuels, some scientists have
proposed the large-scale cultivation of crops that can be transformed
into supposedly eco-friendly biofuels. That, too, might be
ecologically unwise.

“If the whole world begins to look like Iowa cornfields, we’ll have
to take an even larger share of global biological production into
human hands, and that leaves a lot less for other things,” says
Foley. “And those other things won’t be just pretty butterflies and
tigers and charismatic animals, they’ll be things that matter to us,
like the things that clean our water, preserve our soils, clean our
atmosphere, and pollinate our crops.”

“At what point does human activity begin to compromise a lot of our
environmental systems?” Foley continues. “At what point does this get
to be scary?”

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Foley, J.A., et al. 2007. Our share of the planetary pie. Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences 104(July 31):12585-12586. Extract
available at http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/extract/104/31/12585.

Haberl, H., K.H. Erb, et al. 2007. Quantifying and mapping the human
appropriation of net primary production in earth’s terrestrial
ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(July
31):12942-12947. Available at

Further Readings:

Harder, B. 2003. Catch zero. Science News 164(July 26):59-61.
Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20030726/bob10.asp.

Perkins, S. 2004. Paved paradise? Science News 166(Sept. 4):152-153.
Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040904/bob8.asp>

Raloff, J. 2000. Sprawling over croplands. Science News 157(March
4):155. Available to subscribers at


K. Heinz Erb
Institute of Social Ecology
Klagenfurt University
Schottenfeldgasse 29
1070, Vienna

Jonathan A. Foley
Center for Sustainablility and the Global Environment
University of Wisconsin, Madison
1710 University Avenue, Room 202A
Madison, WI 53726

Daniel Pauly
Fisheries Centre
Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory (AERL), Room 333
2202 Main Mall
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4