Here Kitty, Kitty – Big Cats or Just Slightly-Bigger-Than-Average Cats?

It’s silly season again, with another report of a massive mystery moggy making the news the other week in France (yes, I’m a little late to the party). This story seems to have gone a little quiet now, so one can only assume that it was an oversized tabby rather than a misplaced Tiger after all. Was it another instance of a Dougal-esque mistaken sense of perspective?

There seems to be another sighting of a Big Cat around the British Isles every few months. Just what is going on? Monbiot, in Feral and recently on his blog, has put this down to some sort of collective yearning for a connection with something wilder, something atavistic to bring some excitement to mundane lives bereft of any really cool wildlife of the ‘can disembowel you’ variety. Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is some sort of subconscious wish fulfillment going on here. Or maybe this is a case of people falling victim to some kind of primal pre-programming to seek out the sinister and deadly amongst the commonplace and routine, analogue hard-wiring of the brain in a digital age. Maybe our remaining fauna have become so readily visible, such as with our expanding urban fox population, that we have had to invent our own, more interesting charismatic carnivores.

And my, it does generate a lot of media interest. Just take the Epping Forest puma; after numerous attempts at generating publicity about fly-tipping, a cuddly toy stuck up a tree generated more press interest than any amount of builders rubble ever could:


Monstrous and horrifying beast captured on a trail cam round my way

We do seem to love the novel, the out of place the aberrant, the anomalous in our wildlife. I should know. By far the most interesting thing I’ve ever done is counting Wallabies on the Isle of Man (I’m pretty dull). It’s all anyone I talk to ever wants to hear about, I take measures to ensure I can bring it up in any conversation. I’m a riot at dinner parties.

Big Cats seem to spring up from nowhere from time to time, arriving fully formed and with little prior incidence or evidence that might have tipped off even your most unobservant of ecologist (I think even I’d notice 5 foot high scratching posts and an abundance of half-eaten deer about the place). Take the debacle in St Osyth a couple of years ago which saw the tabloid favourite mythical Big Cat get a fresh chance to stretch its legs. This time it was supposedly a Lion (are we upgrading? Are pumas and panthers no longer exciting enough that we have begun to see Lions and Tigers lurking in the undergrowth?). This was a modern play on an old theme, with Twitter aliases, bad photo-shopping and rolling 24-hour news coverage of intrepid reporters standing in fields completely bereft of anything even vaguely feline. Much as the Paris Tiger has, the Essex Lion also seemed to vanish without a trace.

Mysterious Black Cats - They could be hiding anywhere

Mysterious Big Cats – They could be hiding anywhere

But what I have found peculiar about both instances is the reaction of the local police forces, and the similar reactions from police forces around the country after other sightings. I think this might be something worth considering all in itself. Yes, they have a duty to ensure public safety, but where the rest of us see a grainy image and think ‘someone really needs to cut back on their kitty treats’, the local rozzers decide to scramble their ‘copters and mobilize SWAT with more alacrity than even their Ferguson counterparts might. Do they take the whole thing more seriously than the rest of us? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they just waiting for any excuse to break out their shiny toys? Either way, they are clearly taking the whole issue much more seriously than most of us. Why might this be?

Well, one possible reason might be that there really is actual concrete proof of at least one Big Cat turning up in the UK. In 1991 a Big Cat was shot in Norfolk, prompting the excellent answer of ‘Oh, only some pigeons and a Lynx’ to the question ‘what’s in the freezer?’ As usual, I will give a warning that this lynx link is to the Daily Mail. But just as one swallow does not a summer make, one Lynx does not a…erm…bugger…anyone know the collective noun for Big Cats? Beyond this incident there are slim pickings for solid evidence of Big Cats, but as I’ve said before, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, which does rather neatly make it pretty difficult to definitively disprove the whole thing.

There are many angles and interpretations of the Big Cat phenomena, and a lot of interesting articles, websites and blogs on the subject that can run the whole gamut from logical to lunatic. The Paris Tiger will not be the last time that the (possibly) mythical Anomalous Big Cat makes a (grainy and obscured) appearance. And once again it will force us to ask the question, ‘are there Big Cats abroad?’ On consideration, it’s probably the best place for them.

Fox Week Part 2 – Urban Foxes: The Intersection Between the Wild and the Mundane

Urban foxes.  Whether it’s erroneous calls for culling in the media or a blogger getting overly worked up about it, you just can’t get away from them. I’ve tried to avoid it, every year Springwatch do another feature covering the same ground, and every year I turn off. Pariah or persecuted, it can get incredibly subjective. Discussions on foxes elicit fierce passions, as anyone who has waded in on either side of the argument will know. There have been some calls for culling of urban foxes, and this is no doubt an over the top knee-jerk reaction to a few incidents. But due consideration should be given to both sides of the argument.

Now free comment sections on newspaper websites are not perhaps the most logical places, but the blinkered thinking can often be quite staggering. So much so that you have to question the posters motives. It is probably no stretch at all to imagine that a self-professed Tory posting ill thought out pro-hunting arguments on the Guardian website may not be all he seems, and visa-versa. So lets look at some stats:

Well, that was my intention with this paragraph, but it seems it isn’t quite that straightforward. The last estimate, from the 1980s, put the total urban fox population at 33,000. – There may not be, and, according to the Guardian, there is a consensus that there is not likely to have been an increase since then. This is the pro-urban fox position. However as any good scientist will tell you, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. No evidence does not necessarily mean something is not happening, it generally depends how hard someone has looked for that evidence, and with no population estimates available since the 80’s it would seem no one has looked too hard. Anecdotal evidence, overly subjective though it is, should be given due consideration and the majority of these suggest that if not an increase in population, then urban foxes are at the very least becoming more visible. Either way, this is extremely pertinent. Population pressures and social behaviour are potential contributory factors in fox-human interactions.

Ask someone on the pro-urban fox side of the fence why they think they should not be controlled and you may elicit the response ‘they help to control the rat population’. This is a double standard I have come across frequently, and one that both sides of the argument are guilty of. You can’t have it both ways. Again, there is no quantifiable evidence for this and if you dismiss something because you have not found any evidence for it, you cannot then use anecdotal evidence to provide a positive slant on your argument. Yes, foxes do kill rats (and mice) and other small mammals, but do they exert any population control? Rats are tricky to catch, can bolt down small holes and can defend themselves if needs be. There are most definitely much easier pickings out there in the urban supermarket for the average fox. – And again, this argument does segue into an interesting tangential example of double standards; rat control is presumably a good thing. Why is this? Despite their reputation, rats can be incredibly clean animals and they carry no greater threat from transmitted pathogens than foxes (presuming no new plague outbreak, and yes I know that’s black rats). Perhaps it is the proximity that is an issue? Perhaps they are less appealing to look at?

Pointless Remake - Even with Skarsgaard in it

Pointless Remake – Even with Skarsgaard in it

Dogs attack many, many more people than foxes do – This is not an argument. I cannot reiterate this enough, and yet still frequently have to. This has absolutely no relevance to the issue of urban foxes. None whatsoever. It is a clear example of ‘whataboutary’. It is a Straw Man (or Straw Dog?) argument that dogs are more dangerous. No one on the anti-urban fox side of the argument has ever suggested anything otherwise. They may both be canine, but they are completely different species. Put briefly, consider the relationship of the two to humans and how often dogs come into contact with humans as opposed to foxes. How often in the last year have you been within jaws grasp of a dog? A fox?

Taking a look from the other side of the fence, an often-proposed anti- argument is that foxes kill pets – This is again an issue with little evidence, relying solely on anecdote. It seems everyone has seen or can point to footage on youtube of cats and foxes chasing each other around the garden, usually with the cat coming out on top. Foxes don’t kill cats, that’s the perceived wisdom amongst many. But dogs kill cats. I came home once to find my very harmless dogs had killed my cat. Foxes are wild animals. It’s no great leap to believe that with the increased overlap between the two that is occurring in urban environments that such incidence will happen. Not often, again, as with rats, there is not a huge deal of benefit in it for them, but the huge number of ‘Missing Cat’ posters may attest to a hidden conflict (again, that is a hugely speculative presumption).

Much of this is playing devils advocate, but there are blinkered arguments on either side. I would hate to see a cull of urban foxes sparked by a single incident of human attack, but it is likely there will be further incidence. With increased population



pressures and loss of the few suitable green spaces in urban areas, interaction with humans will become more and more unavoidable. Foxes must not be given special treatment, and must be considered in the same context as rats, mice, pigeons, geese, with scientific evidence backing up any decision. Not just because there seems to be a lot of them about.

Really though, the whole argument is rather facile. In these situations, what must a citizen of rural India, or places with real wilderness, real threats from nature, think? We frown, rightly, on the destruction of the rainforest, shooting of tigers, elephants, animals that can quite easily leave your average farmer as a small damp patch in the dirt and are a legitimate danger. And yet, a fox snaps at us and we are advocating a cull. The economy takes a downturn and we want to carve up ancient woodlands, our equivalent of rainforests, for a needless vanity project. To those we berate for planting more palm oil, trapping tigers or selling rhino horn, we must look ridiculous.

Fox Week – Part 1: How to Create a Story Out of Nothing

It seems this week is going to be fox-heavy week. I had a post all set up and ready to go today (and it will appear here later) about the ‘scourge’ of urban foxes, the whys and wherefores. It is such an emotive subject and (for frankly irrelevant reasons) foxes cannot now be discussed without being laced with political context (in other words – if you want to control fox populations in any way, if you say anything negative about foxes at all, you’re a Tory). For an ecologist, this is a little annoying as it can be a legitimate area of concern.

This isn’t really a fox article. Urban foxes are (sorry to burst your bubble) dull, abundant, mid-level generalists that have limited value from a biodiversity perspective (barring that, of course, all nature has its own inherent value, etc and so forth). But at the weekend, a story I was keeping tabs on in a local paper has gone national in the Telegraph. It concerns a larger issue of scientific illiteracy in our media that Monbiot has previously addressed, but also a willingness to misrepresent a subject which incites high passions to push copy.

The story first appeared last week in the Wandsworth Guardian, which picked up on a seemingly innocuous press release on Urban Foxes by Wandsworth Borough Council. The press release, quite sensibly, advises securing your food waste to deter Urban Foxes. From this, Wandsworth Guardian have produced the heading ‘Starving urban foxes would drive numbers down in London’ says Wandsworth Council. Now I challenge you to search that press release and find where any such thing has been said. The truth is it doesn’t. The not unreasonable précis of the advice is that if there is less food available for foxes, then they will go elsewhere. Yet the title is phrased in such a way that it appears as though it is a direct quote. The piece also makes reference to baiting, trapping and shooting (not raised in the press release but discussed in a 2007 committee paper) and phrases it in such a way that it appears as though it is an actual possibility. This is the main entry on the subject:

 16. There are a number of methods of fox control that may be legally used. These include baited cage trapping, shooting and snaring, however fox control is not generally recommended in urban areas. Killing or relocating foxes usually provides only transient relief from the problems they cause, as vacant territories are rapidly reoccupied once the control measures cease.foxes 1

A hoo-ha is being generated here where none exists. Various control measures are discussed, as is only correct in a discussion about issues with urban foxes. The Council is merely undertaking the minimal due diligence on the issue. If it were discussing any other contentious issue (drugs, knife crime etc.) you would expect, demand even, that the council take the time to discuss any potential measures, the most severe and the most sensitive. If it were a rat problem, would we expect the council to fail to discuss such measures? (But then rats don’t appear on Springwatch every bloody year)

The story has now appeared in the Telegraph with a similarly misleading title, and not too subtle mention that the Wandsoworth Council is Conservative. The sub-header runs ‘Wandsworth Council tells residents if a ‘vixen is shot during breeding season, the den has to be traced and the whole family of cubs humanely killed’. This refers to a throwaway line in the original press release (that has since, sensibly, been removed) that attempts only to highlight the many reasons why any such undertaking would not be practical or desirable, and yet the phrasing has again been used to infer otherwise.

This, of course, all links in to previous concerns I have raised about ecological and scientific issues being discussed in political and social context. The main point I have is that this kind of misrepresentation genuinely can have negative repercussions for environmental professionals, for whom culling is often a legitimate and necessary tool. A lot of our work can seem destructive to the layman, and when a council press release stating that shooting urban foxes is absolutely not a practical measure gets twisted to suggest otherwise, it risks creating public aversion to potential measures ecologists may discuss to legitimate environmental problems. This is just one example amongst many, and if you want another, more nefarious, example of this, then check out the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ fiasco, where the RSPB’s refusal to back an unworkable government Hen Harrier action plan now, by some twisted logic, means that the RSPB hate Hen Harriers.

And I know, I’m using an emotive subject to get more people to view my blog. My rank hypocrisy knows no bounds. I’ve already made a point about the idiocy of having a cake and not eating it.

Hurrah for Trees! (Trees are Ace)

There was a tree of the year competition (sorry, #treeoftheyear)? I missed that one. Was it on Saturday night TV? (Actually, that would probably have made a half decent program. Better than Springwatch, certainly). Anyway, this reminds me that a couple of years ago I started to compile my ‘Top 10 Trees of Epping Forest’. What the original purpose of this was, I don’t now remember. I can’t quite imagine how I would have managed to convince anyone that it was work related. I’ve dug out the photos from my inept computer filing system (pathway: pictures > pictures > Spike > pictures > 2012 > trees) and it looks like I only got to 5. So to continue this months theme of being positive (yay nature), getting excited about things (this hurts my face) and only writing shiny, happy posts, here they are (next month, if winter ever starts, I will return to being a dedicated miserabilist):

5 – (In fact, imagine this soundtracked by the Thunderbirds countdown to lend it the necessary gravitas)

Grimston’s OakGrimston Oak - Bury WoodBig oak in a clearing in Bury Wood. I haven’t noted whether it is English or Sessile. Found at a junction of 3 paths. I can’t find any details about who Grimston was and don’t remember any anecdotes from my time at the Forest (and they do love an anecdote!). Those with a more sinister bent of mind might like to imagine that those horizontal branches on the right hand side once served an ominous purpose. Not me though. And if you did, you’re clearly wrong-headed and should be sectioned forthwith.

4 – Massive Bugger of a Veteran Hornbeam Pollard in FairmeadVeteran Hornbeam Pollard

(That’s it’s official name amongst those in the know, in case you were wondering. Honest it is) I don’t think the photo really does the scale of this tree justice. Worth bearing in mind that the bole is at head height, though. It’s a lapsed pollard, of which there are many in Epping Forest, so there’s a danger the limbs will snap. Pollarding is…you know what, I’ve given that talk so many times I can’t be bothered to type it out here. If you don’t already know, go read a book or something (sorry, that was unnecessarily rude. Here’s a link). I have also definitely not tried to climb this tree. Never. How dare you even suggest such a thing!

3 – The Fairmead OakFairmead Oak

Ok, what’s left of the Fairmead Oak, anyway. Such an awesome tree (and so artistically shot in black and white by myself (I had just worked out how to use that function)), you might have noticed that it is the background image for this very blog. It is Phoenixing quite wonderfully and you can probably just make out the regrowth coming from the snap point. Who knows, might even survive.

2 – The Lost Pond CoppardLost Pond Coppard

Huge diameter, about 20-30 feet maybe? It’s been coppiced then pollarded. Pretty Cool. Just look at the base of that thing. If you were a child (or of a childish frame of mind), it makes an excellent hide-and-seek apparatus. I, of course, being a grown adult man have done no such thing. Don’t be foolish! And I certainly wasn’t on my own when I didn’t do it.

I think this was actually Epping Forest‘s official entry for the ‘competition’, but it’s not the best, oh no (and that is FACT, not merely my subjective aesthetic opinion). The best tree is…drumroll…                .                                                                                                                               .                                                                                                                                                                                        .

Honey Lane Quarter Oak1 – Honey Lane Quarter Oak

My, the tension was palpable there, wasn’t it? This English Oak is awesome, gnarled and just all-round pretty damn cool. Obviously this rather arty photo was taken by somebody with a little more camera-type skills than my point and click efforts (in fact, if you look closely you will see me in the shot, leaning thoughtfully against the trunk, like some kind of enigmatic troubled soul). It is found just off the road at Honey Lane Quarter past High Beach, and as far as I am aware it does not currently have a name. Although now it does, because right this second I have named it Spike’s Oak. And who says I can’t?

Veteran trees are undoubtedly cool, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool (and I like to make up a tree-based rhyme pretty much all of the time). Seriously, this ‘Tree of the Year’ thing is all I ever hear about from the ‘kids’ when I hang out on the ‘street’. And why the heck not? This is the point where I remark that at least they have more personality than your standard X-factor contestant etc and so forth. But I wouldn’t do that. Trees are made of wood, they don’t have a personality. They are awesome though. Except for Sycamores, they’re a bit crap.

The Value of Urban Green Space – Greater London National Park and What Wildlife is Where in Walthamstow?

I’m leaving Walthamstow next week and it’ll be a sad day. Not only will I miss the rows and rows of Patisseries along the top end of Hoe Street and the strange characters and misfits that frequent the place, but I’ll also miss the easy access to some of the best wildlife sites in London. Admittedly, wildlife might not be what you first think of when you finally emerge from the end of the Victoria line like a bad simile at the end of a poorly worded sentence. But there’s plenty to get to grips with, even smack bang in the heart of the ‘Stow. Away from the assault course of the High Street (6 bookies and 5 pawn shops over 1.5km last time I counted, but that’s a different story), the majority of housing around has garden space and all this adds up to some serious greenery that’s not to be underestimated. Yesterday morning (it was very early, and I’ll admit I may have been still mostly asleep) I saw an adolescent Peregrine Falcon sat on top of a TV aerial, surveying the gardens below. Earlier in the summer, I saw a Banded Demoiselle damselfly just minding it’s own business mooching about outside the International Supermarket. And almost every time I visit the High Street I see a rabbit (OK, so that one of the more curious residents of Walthamstow may not be truly wild).

But that’s just the start. Walthamstow is surrounded by a great variation of habitats and sites. To the East and North, the huge sprawling Epping Forest sits like a green wedge piercing almost to the heart of central London (urgh, sometimes I make myself ill with this stuff). Epping Forest is famous for many, many things. Most of them nefarious in some way. But I worked there for two years and was never once propositioned inappropriately (maybe my sex appeal is waning), nor did I trip over a single dead gangster or get attacked by a feral Staffie. I did once stumble on a filming for TOWIE though, which is enough to scare anyone off the place for life. By far the most irritating problem I faced were the incessant queries about the health of the local swans though. I digress…(it seems to be habit forming)

Out west you have the Lea Valley, the marshes and the new, about to open London Wildlife Trust site at the Walthamstow Wetlands (which I will be watching with special interest). You even have Lloyd Park, which, amenity grassland and dachshund-frolic-spot though it may at first appear, actually has some small areas of interest for the truly nerdy ecologist.

I have often considered (when I took a wrong turn on to Oxford Street last Friday for example) just how much I have come to appreciate the green spaces of London in my eight years here, something I never thought would happen. But for a jumped-up country boy and seasoned misanthrope, and for anyone surrounded by so much concrete and so many bloody people, they’re pretty vital for the maintenance of a semblance of my sanity.


A great info-graphic with no smart arse comment attached

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the Greater London National Park project thingy. Of course, I’ve got my concerns (I always do). Does the labelling of the clichéd sprawling behemoth as a National Park (even notional as it may be) devalue the more obvious aesthetic and ecological appeals of our other, more legitimate, National Parks? Would it then set a precedent when areas of said National Park of London are inevitably developed? And yes, I understand it’s just a PR thing again and that London would never actually be listed as a National Park, but I’m a chronic worrier.

I’ve decided to get positive about this one though (to add a little variety to the blog if nothing else); if I’ve learned one thing from my time in London it’s the value of urban green space. Indeed, perhaps green spaces in our cities are so much more worthy of protection simply because they are not in far-flung, remote corners of the uplands. Maybe it is the threats from development, the population pressures, their very nature as islands of green in a sea of grey (and generator of purple prose) but most of all the accessibility to so many people who truly need it that make them so much more valuable.

Quagga Mussels and Dealing With Rejection

Ok, let’s get the technical stuff out of the way so I can get to the real point of this post.

Quagga Mussels are bad news for water bodies in this country. They’ve only just started to turn up here in any significant numbers in the last few months. They’ve caused significant problems in the Great Lakes in the US and have the potential to be pretty destructive to native ecosystems. They originate from south-east Europe (the rather wonderfully named Ponto-Caspian region). No one knows precisely how they got here, perhaps in ships ballast, an inevitable and unavoidable consequence. I blame the EU*.

Quagga Mussels - What did they ever do to me?

Quagga Mussels – What did they ever do to me?

How can we get rid of them? (My god, I’ve turned into one of those people who ask then answer their own questions). The University of Cambridge have come up with a ‘BioBullet’ that may dissolve their shells. I await to see the progress of this. It’s better than introducing a predator at least (I’m always reminded of the old lady who swallowed a spider when I think of this approach. And I don’t like being reminded of it; that story always unnerved me when I was a child).

Anyway, what was I here for? It was when I was doing a bit of reading on the internet for a previous piece about invasive species that I blundered over a few examples of yet more confusion over just what we mean when we talk about invasives (I say blundered, I had set out to find examples of it, and they were there in abundance). It was when reading this piece that I got into one of my periodical fugs about the misapplication of social and political principles to ecological issues. Aliens (ecological ones, that is) usually get cast as either evil interlopers ‘coming over here, killing our native species’ (bad) or as poor, victimised travelers, just trying to carve out a life for themselves in the world (even worse). It’s not hard to spot the subtext in either opinion. This article fell into the latter (spot the authors revealing comment about himself towards the end) and I couldn’t really let its lake of scientific rigor and disregard of a real ecological problem stand. So I posted a response.

I think I was particularly narked about the use of quotations marks around the word conservationists, but also took the time to point out the error in confusing social issues with scientific ones and why his admiral defence of the Quagga Mussel was misguided.

There was a counter-post, of which I could not really get my head around the first sentence (feel free to explain this one to me if you understand it)

‘To say that a species is “out of place” is a value judgement and not a scientific (logical) conclusion. It could be a logical conclusion if you start with the assumption that a species may not out-compete another species to extinction even if it is the best suited to survive in the environment it finds itself.’

But which also went on to generalise that all ‘conservationists’ believed in survival of the fittest until it suited them, disregarding it when they wanted to get out and kill something.

The author has much in common with Joaquin Phoenix, including a stupid first name

The author has much in common with Joaquin Phoenix, including a stupid first name

Again, I couldn’t let such fresh nonsense stand and submitted a further counter-counter-post clearly analysing and dissembling each of his misplaced points. I talked with great flair, élan and cutting knowledge using big words such as ‘monoculture’ and mentioning that if any ‘conservationists’ they had met still held to survival of the fittest, then they probably deserved the quotation marks. But clearly my rebuttal was too thorough, too complete in its glorious refutation of the misplaced sentiment of their blog and my comment never appeared – deleted or not approved by the blogger or just vanished into the ether under the weight of its own awesomeness. And that vexes me. I am terribly vexed

So, in essence I suspect this page is more about my own feelings of rejection and fears of being ignored than it is the Quagga Mussel. Sorry for misleading you.

*I don’t blame the EU

How Earth Song Set Environmentalism Back 10 Years

A reader (Hi Mum!) asked me to, y’know,  cheer up a bit and stop ranting about the industry after my recent run of posts criticising environmental charities and movements.  So I’ve tried to work through my various issues by isolating the original source of my anger and dissolution. Not surprisingly, I’ve come up with someone else to complain about. But he won’t mind, he’s dead.

Cast your mind back to 1995. Little Spike may still be trying to get pub landlords to take him seriously, but the environmental movement is finally getting some recognition. Environmentalism has just been described as “one of the most successful contemporary movements in the US and Western Europe,” by the International Journal of Public Opinion Research; the IPCC has just published, on this new fangled thing called the internet, a draft of a final report claiming for the first time to have detected a clear sign of global warming unlikely to be entirely due to natural causes (OK, so it seems not much has changed in that regard). The environmental movement is coming into the mainstream, it’s becoming evidence-based and science-led. Organisations working in different areas of the sector are proliferating, decision makers are paying attention, and lip service is turning into real action. People are looking beyond the activities of Greenpeace and starting to understand the underlying issues. The movement is gaining credence as a political and social force. We are no longer plucky underdogs in tiny gay-friendly ships going up against huge whalers or oil platforms. We have summits! We have commissions and panels!

A still from the Earth Song video in which a wind machine is used to demonstrate the immobility of Jackson's face.

A still from the Earth Song video in which a wind machine is used to demonstrate the immobility of Jackson’s face.

Into this arena of growing acceptance landed the pompous, overblown egotistical turd that was ‘Earth Song’. Environmentalism had worked hard to move away from the hippy sensibilities and peacenik aura it had inadvertently cultivated during the 60’s and 70’s, becoming more hard-nosed. Hirsute protest singers and acoustic guitars had been excised in favour of graphs and data. Reasoned and informed Carlton had supplanted radical counterculture reactionism. Emotion still had a place, but it was relegated to an afterthought. Scientific research led and outbursts of passion were anathema. ‘Earth Song’ was a move straight back to the overwrought peans for worldwide handholding of yesteryear, the video in particular casting environmentalism as a form of pseudo-religious experience, with Jackson as Christ and saviour. It was ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ turned up to 11.

Can Earth Song really have had that much of an affect? This was the biggest selling hit for the biggest recording artist on the planet. It undoubtedly influenced the publics’ opinion and for a movement like environmentalism, public opinion is paramount. But did it not bring the issue to a much larger audience? Did it not reach a key youth audience with a message of overly bombastic, gospel choir sound tracked environmental collapse? Maybe it did, but the message it spread was one of helplessness as Jackson reels off catastrophe and cataclysm before collapsing under the weight of his own distress into unintelligible wailing.

Nirvana - half Pixies half Velvet Underground, not as good as either.  Cronut - half croissant, half donut, not as good as either

Nirvana – half Pixies half Velvet Underground, not as good as either.
Cronut – half croissant, half donut, not as good as either

Imagine you are a child (or perhaps, like me,  a teenager realising that Nirvana were the most overrated thing until Cronuts), it’s 95 and you’re listening to Earth Song for the first time. What would you think? ‘The world is a pretty grim place, we’re all going to die, and even Michael Jackson says so.’ It’s a message that environmentalists, particularly with regards to climate change, have been trying to move away from ever since. You only have to look at the ‘progress’ made since Earth Song to realise that doom and gloom is not a key motivator to reduce emissions/pollution/habitat loss etc. If you are an adult and rational human being hearing this for the first time, it is a ridiculous, cringe-worthy piece of grandiose self-glorification and environmentalists everywhere are tainted by association. To those with little prior interest in environmentalism, it confirms their suspicions that we are a bunch of cry-babies, incapable of stopping their emotions getting the run of them.

Lets look at the video first: (The below link his here for illustrative purposes only, I will not be held responsible if you press play)

It boils the whole environmental movement down to dead elephants and Amazononian deforestation, pretty much the poster issues of the previous 10 years anyway, throwing in some vague Balkan strife and embarrassing indigenous stereotypes for good measure. There’s a lot of wailing and Jacko strolls through a blasted and mildly smouldering landscape looking as sad as what was left of his facial muscles by this point would allow. Finally, by sheer force of his own grief, Jackson cures all the worlds’ ills through a self-righteous uber-storm of ecology, raising the dead and repelling armies to boot. The message is clear; if you are sad enough, wring your hands enough, then something or someone (magic? God? The awesome power of a Michael Jackson song?) will save the whole for you. It really does promote the most laissez faire approach to environmentalism imaginable.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Elephants: Look at that dignified face and think about what you’ve done.

There is much to hate about ‘Earth Song’. Well, OK, there is everything to hate about Earth Song. But undoubtedly my ‘favourite’ lyric is the masterful ‘What about elephants, have we lost their trust?’ Ah, Good old noble, intelligent and forgiving elephants. If we’ve lost the trust of such gentle, sincere beasts then what possible hope for us? Environmentalists had been attempting to move away from this sort of cloying anthropomorphism for years, a Disney-fication of wild animals frequently casting different species as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or holding specific human characteristics. With Wolves at the time recently reintroduced to Yellowstone, this is the kind of thinking environmentalists might not have wanted to revisit.

But it is the constant refrains of ‘what about us?’ that I find really grating. Possibly this is because it moves the discussion into anthropocentricism, reasserting the primacy of man above nature. But for me it is probably the characterisation by Jackson  as one of ‘us’, a scary thought if ever there was one. If Jackson is one of ‘us’, what does that really say about ‘us’? Cautioning about ‘them’ was not new either, but it feeds a conspiracy theorist image of environmentalists that climate change deniers to this day are happy to perpetuate while they fall back on their own bizarre conspiracies.

But it does raise an interesting question: Are any environmental-themed songs ever anything less than embarrassing? My only suggestion would be ‘Mercy, Mercy Me’ by Marvin Gaye, are there any others (comments and suggestions below welcome)? There have been no further mainstream attempts at setting environmental issues to histrionic gospel-blues since, so I guess there is something to be thankful to Earth Song for.
(I realise I’m asking for a shoe-ing here, just read the comments under this piece. I can only assume they are serious.)