Wildlife Game Over?

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was adopted on 3 March 1973. The date has been designated as World Wildlife Day to raise awareness about the importance of wild fauna and flora not only for their economic value but also for their ecological, cultural and recreational qualities as well as for their intrinsic value. World Wildlife Day is celebrated in Cairo at the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek.

CITES regulates the trade of more than 35 000 species of animals and plants, whether traded as live specimens, such as monkeys, or products such as fur coats or mahogany wood. Its role is to ensure that international trade does not threaten species’ survival. There are presently 180 member countries to the Convention, which was signed by Egypt in 1978.

As the global population has grown both in wealth and numbers, so has the demand for wildlife. The most important categories of wildlife traded both in volume and value are timber and seafood. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than $100 billion worth of fish and nearly $200 billion worth of timber were traded in 2009. Meanwhile wildlife traffic generates an estimated US $20 to US $40 billion a year ranking close to the top of the list of the most lucrative global illegal activities behind drugs and arms.  Its effects are disastrous as it wrecks conservation efforts.

Other than fish and timber, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) whose mandate is the care and protection of wildlife populations as well as individual animals gives a snapshot of wildlife trade through a six-week survey carried out in 2014 on 280 online marketplaces in 16 countries. Researchers found around 33 000 advertisements for wildlife and wildlife parts and products for species protected under CITES. The top category was ivory followed by reptiles and birds.

In the 42 years between the adoption of CITES and today, the world has witnessed a decline of 52% in wildlife. The causes are summarized by the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population increase and overharvesting by hunting and fishing, and last but not least climate change, a form of habitat destruction. Many scientists are now describing this accelerating drop in biodiversity as the sixth mass extinction.

Extinction is a natural phenomenon as life forms adapt or not to changing conditions on Earth. For instance Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales, in the Fayoum was under the sea level 35 to 40 million years ago as the fossil remains of a now extinct whale ancestor, the basilosaurus, testify.

Palaeontologists agree that there have been five mass extinctions over the 3.6 billion year history of life on Earth. The last one put an end to the reign of the dinosaurs. Whereas a meteorite likely caused the dinosaur extinction, it is humankind’s activities that are clearly provoking the sixth great extinction.

As those who enjoy watching wildlife documentaries know, humans are not unique in destroying the lives of other beings to feed themselves and thrive. The difference lies in the speed and scale at which increasingly powerful and invasive technologies interfere with the Earth’s ecosystems. One concern today is that this may backfire on humanity.

Although the drift away from nature started with ancient civilisations, the mainstream contemporary attitude toward nature arose in 16th and 17th century Europe with the Enlightenment. This movement fostered individual freedom, scientific curiosity and technical development. Scientific discoveries opened the door to new technologies and large-scale industries.

Some 17th century thinkers like Thomas Hobbes developed a mechanistic view of nature, and René Descartes compared animals to automatons or even clocks. Their ideas have spread to the whole world and underlie today’s general lack of sympathy for wildlife and other non-human life forms.

However contemporary science is revealing how wrong Descartes and Hobbes were in reducing nature to the level of simple human artefacts. In the field of ethology, for example, research is blurring the frontier between the minds and emotions of animals and ours. This new knowledge should lead to a more reverential attitude toward all life forms, beyond humankind.

This issue was already brought up in the 10th century, in the tale The Case of the Animals against Man before the King of the Jinn, written collectively by the “Brethren of Purity” who lived in Basra, Iraq. In this story, the animals complain about the cruelty of humans and the way they misuse their superiority. Humans, they claim, are the only creatures that do not assume their proper role nor stay in their proper place.

In his introduction to a new rendering of the story, philosopher Seyyed Hussein Nasr asks us to reflect on what our role vis-à-vis the rest of creation is at a time when we have adopted lifestyles that are totally out of harmony with nature and based on a complete disregard for other life forms.

Surprisingly, reconnecting with nature is possible even without leaving Cairo whose sky, buildings and tree-lined streets have been adopted as a habitat by a number of wildlife species. Among the most familiar are the House Sparrow, the Hooded Crow and the Cattle Egret, as well as the much-maligned Gecko.

Activities out in the field are proposed by Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) and the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), the two major NGOs dealing with the preservation of nature in Egypt.

Books on Egyptian wildlife include Sherif Baha ElDin’s Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt and Common Birds of Egypt (with Bertell Bruun); Richard Hoath’s Mammals of Egypt, Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat’s Butterflies of Egypt; and Loutfy Boulos’s Weed Flora of Egypt. Information on Egypt’s biodiversity and protected areas is also available at the EEAA.


Branding Earth

 “Carthago delenda est”. The Roman Cato the Elder is said to have pronounced this phrase in every one of his speeches. It means, in translation, that Rome’s rival, Carthage, must be destroyed. Replace “Carthage” by “nature”, and you have the implicit mantra of modernization.

For the economy that underpins this civilisation, as the current theory goes, it is “grow or die”, unlike natural systems such as the parts of a healthy human body that reach a certain size then stabilize. This means that the economy in its fight for survival is on track to smother Earth ecosystems.

But what is being destroyed has little reality for us because much of our mind space is occupied by the world devised by the branding industry.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our collective intelligence is subject to the art of branding professionals working for transnational corporations. This translates natural needs like drinking into 1.9 billion Cokes sold a day, and creates a ceaseless stream of new socio-cultural needs like smart phones and computers. Branding evokes images of a certain type of utopia and a sense of entitlement to it.   

This lifestyle looks very much like the way of life as packaged in American films that are beamed across the world. Several planet Earths would be required for us all to take up this lifestyle today, and many more if as predicted the population grows in sync with the global economy. Yet the model continues to inspire as it is replicated and amplified in China, the Gulf States or Singapore for example.

Historically, strategies to promote mass consumption were developed in Western countries at the end of the 19th century. Excess production had resulted from the use of new technologies harnessing concentrated forms of energy. The growth machine had been set into motion.  That is where advertising and the more sophisticated branding techniques came into play to help absorb overproduction. 

The need to push consumption is, surprisingly, still as great as it was in the early days of mass industrialism when consumerism had not yet become mainstream, and branding is big business today. It employs over a million people and reaps in half a billion US dollars a year in worldwide revenue. 

It doesn’t hesitate to take on board different trends, even anti-growth ones—if they promote growth. For instance “Collectively”, a global digital platform was launched to boost TNC brands through the promotion of “sustainable lifestyles”. Thanks to this type of campaign Unilever expects to double revenues, defying the laws of physics, as it says it will at the same time halve its environmental impact. 

This strategy is not new. Propaganda  published in 1928 by Edward Bernays, one of the founders of the public relations industry, exposes how products can be associated with ethical principles to increase sales.

But couldn’t these methods be used to spread paradigms that are outside the world of consumerism? 

Already today, the branding toolkit is serving to broadcast the values of non-profit organizations such as WWF or Oxfam. Branding is also being used by cities, regions, and countries to promote their own agendas. Utility companies that supply tap water, treat wastewater, or provide electricity use branding to make the public aware of the services they provide.   

How much greater should awareness of the Earth as the underlying support system be. One attempt to enhance Earth awareness came in the film series, “Nature is Speaking”, where viewers are reminded of the power and essentiality of nature, the ocean, rainforest and soil through the voices of Hollywood film stars.

Just as advertising and branding have instigated a collective desire for the consumer goods society, could they in turn inflect desire towards a new society with a variety of global cultures adapted to the reality of local ecosystems on a changing Earth? 


Baudrillard, Jean, La Société de consommation, 1970.                            

Elks, Jennifer, Unilever, Coke, M&S, BT Launch Digital Platform to Engage Millenials on Our Power to Create Change, ‘Collectively‘, October 6, 2014.

Future Learn, The Secret Power of Brands, 2015, https://www.futurelearn.com/…/the-secret-power-of-brands/

Voight, Joan, Adweek, For Unilever’s CMO, Global Growth and Social Responsibility Are Now Inseparable Goals, CPG empire has learned doing good is good business, March 23, 2015. www.adweek.com/contributor/joanvoight


Water, Water, Everywhere

In the early 20th century, the Colorado River formed a verdant delta community with deer, bobcat, jaguar, quail, raccoon, waterfowl and other creatures. Today the land is parched. The Colorado has been pumped to dryness before it reaches the sea. On the way it has been intercepted by many dams; it has provided water to the desert city of Las Vegas; it has been diverted on hundreds of kilometres to large cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix; and it has irrigated vast areas of cropland in the USA and Mexico.

Most of the Nile Delta’s natural wetlands were replaced by agriculture already since Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom. But if the ten upstream countries of the Nile Basin were to develop the river’s water resources with the intensity of their American counterparts, Egypt’s Nile Valley would end up as just another desert wadi of the Sahara, receiving only an occasional trickle of polluted runoff. Getting little rainfall, Egypt owes its existence to Nile waters which originate beyond its south border.

But now, Ethiopia, in its effort to modernize, is building the largest dam in Africa on the Blue Nile. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is one of a series of dams which will produce electricity for its planned industrial takeoff and for export. Ethiopia’s hope spells Egypt’s nightmare since the Blue Nile provides a big proportion of the Nile water Egypt gets, the rest coming from the White Nile.

However, with the Renaissance Dam, the Ethiopian government is simply fulfilling the obligation to provide its citizens with an “adequate standard of living” as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So what does the required standard of living correspond to? Is it the standard of living of an average American? This would require forty times the amount of water presently used by an average Ethiopian. Or is it the European standard of living, requiring half that amount? And what happens when Ethiopia’s population doubles as it is expected to do so by 2050? And what happens as the other countries of the Nile Basin, including Egypt, do the same?

Even the modest lifestyles of the vast majority of the people of the Nile Basin countries who (with the exception of the Egyptians) are subsistence farmers or pastoralists are detrimental to Nile ecosystems. Traditional adaptive resource management declined and disappeared in most local communities during the colonial period. The development decades that followed saw a rapid increase in population pushing people to claim ever more land. As they cut the vegetation that conserves water catchment areas, they destabilize the very ecosystems on which they depend, also affecting water supplies for regions downstream.

The greater volumes of water required for development have led the Nile countries to establish the Cooperative Framework Agreement for the River Nile Basin. Previously only Egypt benefitted from a treaty to guarantee its supply of Nile water.

The River Nile Basin comprises rivers and waterfalls, floodplains, lakes, wetlands, tropical forests and savannahs, which host the Serengeti and Masaai Mara National Parks with their world-famous Big Five animals and annual migrations of buffalo, wildebeest and zebra.

From a contemporary economic perspective, these are all “natural resources”. Valueless in themselves, they acquire worth when they are exploited for profit. A water lawyer illustrates this view when he observes that upper Nile countries with wildlife “gain a huge amount of revenues from (…) safari tours”. He then registers “the water consumed by the plants and animals of this region” in the debit column of the Nile water ledger.

The debate over Nile waters shows the limits of the conceptual framework that underpins the present economic system. It highlights the impossibility of guaranteeing human rights for individuals, communities and regions if we do not at the same time recognise and defend the right to exist of those “resources” we depend on: the Earth and nature.

A shift toward a jurisprudence that does recognize this right is taking place. It is spearheaded by an alliance of environmental lawyers, nature advocates and indigenous peoples.

Indigenous cultures have traditionally respected what we today call Earth rights. Upper Nile wildlife thrived side by side with humans since they originated there hundreds of thousands of years ago. When the first Europeans reached this region in the mid 19th century, they were awed by the abundant wildlife. In spite of their poverty according to current monetary criteria, the local people had chosen to coexist with wild plants and animals. All that changed with the arrival of the European colonizer.

Some countries like Bolivia and Ecuador already have clauses in their constitutions that attribute rights to nature, and over two dozen local governments in the United States have adopted rights of nature laws. India and New Zealand have recently given legal rights to some rivers and related ecosystems. In Africa, organizations such as Porini in Kenya and the Ethiopian lawyer and biologist, Melesse Damtie, are exploring nature rights in the customary laws of their countries to integrate them into national legislation.

Lawsuits have been won based on Earth jurisprudence. In the USA, the town of Nottingham prevented a company from withdrawing local water for bottling and export overseas, and the city of Pittsburgh stopped a fracking project.  Thanks to those laws that recognize the rights of ecosytems to flourish in the place and form where they occur naturally as wetlands, streams, rivers, and aquifers, they were able to bar corporations from privatising or polluting their water supply.

On an international level, the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth responds to the dangers faced by people worldwide because of the destruction of nature. If it was applied, Egypt could be confident that it would continue getting its natural share of Nile water as it has since people first settled there.

According to the Declaration, measures should be taken “to prevent human activities from causing (…) the destruction of ecosystems or the disruption of ecological cycles,” and “(e)very human being is responsible for respecting and living in harmony with Mother Earth”.  The term “Mother Earth” or Pachamama, still used by Andean people today, describes the relationship we should establish with Earth, instead of our current dismissive view of her as a mere “resource” to exploit and manage.

The most critical provision of the Declaration to act upon at this stage is the promotion of “economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth”. Globalization, which externalizes ecological and social costs, and economic growth, which presupposes infinitely expanding resources, are certainly not part of them.

However no country or region – except the biggest and the most powerful ones – can move alone in working towards an alternative economic system. Hopefully, this transition will inspire global participation too.




Abdul Hamid,  Hesham Hamza,  A Study on the Concept of International River in International Water Law and Its Applications in Nile Basin Agreements, Nile Perspectives, Studies & Articles, 41-45, Volume 11, Issue 39, 2013.

Burdon, Peter ed., Exploring Wild Law, Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia, 2011.

Cullinan, Cormac, The Call of the Wild, IUCN Academy of Environmental Law, e-Journal, Issue 2011 (1). http://www.iucnael.org/en/documents/664-the-call-of-the-wild/file

‎Postel, Sandra, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Where+have+all+the+rivers+gone%3F-a016937725

The Gaia Foundation, http://www.gaiafoundation.org/earth-centred-law

The Nile Basin Initiative, State of the Nile Basin Report, 2012, http://nileis.nilebasin.org/content/state-river-nile-basin-report

Waithaka, John, The Kenya Wildlife Service in the 21st Century: Protecting Globally Significant Areas and Resources, The George Wright Forum, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 21–29, 2012. http://www.georgewright.org/291waithaka.pdf

Rewild, Civilize

Without Earth, we would not exist. Without Earth Law, it is hard to see how other-than-human beings can continue to exist − apart from domestic animals and commensals that is.

We humans are driving wild species to extinction at a rate a thousand times above normal and we are threatening even the more common ones. In the last forty years, the world population of non-human vertebrates has halved, the human population has nearly doubled. 

Earth Law says that we have a moral responsibility toward the Earth and its web of life where − we forget most of the time − our bodily existence takes place.

The step we must immediately take is to halt the destruction. Nature reserves have not been up to the task: they are too fragmented and encroached upon.

Nature activists and conservationists believe that we should set aside vastly larger tracts of the Earth for wildlife. Naturalist E.O. Wilson is exploring the practicalities in his new book, Half-Earth, expected to come out early 2016. The general public would support such a scheme according to a survey conducted in Brazil, China, India, the USA and the UK by the Zoological Society of London.

When this happens, wildlife will know how to recreate its natural communities in its half of the Earth as it did in Mexico at Cabo Pulmo after 15 years as a no-take marine zone. A large, multi-species fish population now occupies the area. In Chernobyl, elk, wild boar, wolves and ermines have made a comeback in the no-go zone around the exploded nuclear plant.

 But what about humanity? How will we organize ourselves in our half of the world?  First of all, we will have to learn the virtue of restraint. Other societies have practised it. Two Pacific island civilisations, Tikopia and Tonga, managed to sustain themselves for over three millennia, each on an area smaller than Singapore. As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed environmental success came from information feedback loops between central authorities and people living across the land.

In our globalized world, we get feedback on the out-of-sight impacts of our way of life through the media. We know about the ecological and social ills embedded in many of the products we need to subsist and function as social beings in our type of society: pesticides for food production; the burning of tropical forests and their replacement by plantation trees for palm oil, timber and paper; child slavery and wars for the metals in our electronic devices; fracking and off-shore drilling for oil to run the whole system. The list is much longer of course. Up to now awareness has not led to real change.

Living within the island-like boundaries of city-states like those of Sumer, ancient Greece or medieval Europe would allow us to have more control over the implications of our lifestyles. Already today city-states such as Singapore and Dubai show this type of government’s potential. However what we need, to abide by Earth Law, are self-sufficient, ecologically neutral, socially adequate versions of these cities.

Like the gated communities of today, but for very different purposes, an essential structure of the city-state of tomorrow and its agricultural hinterland will be its enclosure wall. It will give citizens a concrete feel for boundaries and at the same time prevent the conflicts with wildlife experienced today by farmers, pastoralists and, more generally, by people living in isolated rural settings. One can imagine that buildings forming the wall will be highly prized by those who enjoy the spectacle of wildlife.  

Economic activity will aim at meeting essential human needs including the need for meaningful work. Technologies will be judged on their social and environmental merits rather than novelty.

The number one economic need (with water) is food, so many people will work in agriculture. Working on farms, they will supply food for the city and get direct access to it for themselves − today one in seven people in the world is undernourished because of distribution failure. Food will be produced on the agricultural land around the city as well as on roofs and other available areas in the city using high-yield organic farming methods. Urban wastewater will provide irrigation, and organic waste will serve as compost. Green areas will double for leisure time.

Travel will be limited. Economic self-sufficiency, the rich and diverse cultural life in these big cities and the possibility of going out in the wilderness just beyond the walls on minimum-impact holiday will have removed much of this need. No permanent transport infrastructure will cut through the wilderness. Any city to city travel will be on foot, on horse, by ship, or maybe, resources permitting, with environmentally friendly zeppelin type airships.

Urbanization, although it presents its own challenges, offers the prospect of leaving more Earth to nature. A large majority of the world’s population are already heading to the cities in search of employment, better healthcare and education, social and cultural activities, but also, importantly, they are attracted by the urban way of life.

When business as usual fails, Earth Law principles will provide us with a unifying alternative to consumerism. And, with its surrounding wall, the city-state will remind us of planetary boundaries.

Trois contes évolutionnaires

150522 Startull, histoire d’une étoile jaune moyenne (Startull)

150522 La petite algue chanceuse (The Lucky Little Seaweed)

150520 Quête pour un chien (Tree Talks)

Le premier, Startull, histoire d’une étoile jaune moyenne, met en scène notre Soleil, une étoile jaune plus ancienne et des étoiles bleues géantes.

Le deuxième, La petite algue chanceuse, imagine la rencontre d’une algue et d’un champignon au paléozoïque qui aurait permis aux plantes de s’établir sur la terre ferme. 

Enfin Quête pour un chien explique avec poésie et humour pourquoi la mort si triste soit-elle n’est pas une erreur de l’Univers.

L’auteur des textes originaux en américain, Connie Barlow, se consacre à des projets éducatifs sur l’histoire de l’Univers. Biologiste de formation, elle a écrit plusieurs livres sur la biologie de l’évolution, publiés à MIT Press. Elle est aussi active dans la lutte contre le changement climatique.

Pour en savoir plus sur son travail, consulter