History and future (of Australian ecology and society)

11 12 2010

I’ve just returned from a week-long conference in Canberra where the Ecological Society of Australia (of which I am a relatively new member) has just completed its impressive 50th anniversary conference. It was a long, but good week.

It’s almost a bit embarrassing that I’ve never attended an ESA1 conference before, but I think I waited for the right one. However, the main reason I attended was that I was fortunate to have received the ESA’s 3rd Australian Ecology Research Award (AERA), and the kick-back was a fully funded trip. My only reciprocation was to give a 40-minute plenary lecture – a small price to pay.

I entitled my talk ‘Heads in the desert sand: why Australians should wake up to the biodiversity crisis’, and I received a lot of good feedback. I talked about the global and Australian trends of biodiversity loss and associated ecosystem services, focussing the middle section on some of our work on feral animal ecology (see example). I then gave my views on the seriousness of our current situation and why some of the fastest losses of sensitive ecosystem services are happening right here, right now. I finished off with a section on how I think Australian ecologists could get more relevant and active in terms of research uptake by policy makers. I hope that the talk will be podcastable soon, so stay tuned.

But that was just ‘my’ bit. This post is more about a quick summary of the highlights and my overall impressions.

The conference was ESA’s largest ever, with over 800 registrants – truly an Australian ecology record. There were some stunning (and not-so-stunning) plenaries, and a good selection of quality student research. Despite now being a member of 3 ecological societies (ESA, British Ecological Society and the Ecological Society of America), I’ve only ever been to one meeting for each. That doesn’t give me any huge insight into relative quality or usefulness, but I can say this meeting impressed me as much as the BES meeting in Glasgow in 2007 because it had a great mix of high fliers and students. The only ESA (America) meeting I’ve ever attended was too overwhelmingly large for me to see the point (but that was a long time ago).

Highlights (and dimlights) for me last week certainly include the following:

  • A great combined insider-outsider perspective on the history of Australian ecology in particular, and the discipline in general, by the venerable and always entertaining Charles Krebs of the University of British Columbia. Charley was probably more subdued than I’ve seen him be in the past, but it was a well-crafted and inspiring talk.
  • Bill Sutherland of the University of Cambridge had an excellent new take on his ‘horizon-scanning‘ perspective, and the talk itself was peppered with brilliant humour and positive notions (i.e., what we can do, and how we can make ourselves relevant).
  • The Australian economist, Ross Garnaut, famous for his reports on the economics of climate change in Australia, gave a rather disappointing plenary. It might be more common for social scientists to read their talks during lectures, but really, if I wanted to read a synopsis of his analysis, I’ll just go to the website, thanks. I almost fell asleep despite the immense importance of his message.
  • Stanford University scientist, Hal Mooney, gave a very entertaining, but sobering talk about how his generation of ecologists has failed to make any dent on the current crisis.
  • I admit I missed Peter Bridgewater‘s talk, but ANU’s Lorrae van Kerkhoff‘s talk eluded me completely. I really didn’t understand her message, and found it loaded with motherhood statements rather than anything particularly practical. But maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have.
  • Julian Cribb gave perhaps the most frightening talk I’ve ever seen – the looming worldwide famine. He’s written a book about it, and I intend to buy a copy. If the stats he was citing are even half-true, we’re doomed (and people tell me I’m gloomy!).
  • Richard Hobbs gave a brilliant talk for the Gold Medal lecture – a true conservation biologist hero that I’ve been meaning to interview for ages in Conservation Scholars. I’ll get one soon.
  • Perhaps the best non-plenary talk I saw was by Don Driscoll. He spoke eloquently about the problems of redundant terminology in ecology and the lack of real application of ecological theory in conservation actions. One of my students is currently working on polysemous ecological concepts in density dependence theory, so I took a lot away from this. Don and I sat down afterwards and decided that we really do need to move forward with an Ecological Terminology Coda within the discipline. Watch this space.

The other talks I saw were generally of a relatively high quality, and many were by students presenting for the first time. Overall, it was one of the better conferences I have attended in a while. Well done, organising committee.

As I’ve mentioned in previous conference overview posts, the social events are some of the most important aspects of any conference. Where else can you really unwind and get to know a potential collaborator/student/employer? It’s over a beer (or [insert favourite drink]), my friend. I can happily report that the wine & cheese poster sessions, the swanky dinner at Old Parliament House, and the mass exodus to the pubs post-events were all top-notch in that regard. My only real whinge is that Canberra is absolutely dead from Sun-Wed after 22.00. A few pubs at least should consider staying open later.

I will gladly attend ESA conferences in the future – next one will be in Hobart, Tasmania.

CJA Bradshaw

1It’s an unfortunate alphabetical coincidence that the Ecological Society of America shares the same initialism. When I write ‘ESA’, I will always refer to the Australian organisation unless otherwise stipulated.


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2 responses

13 12 2010
Julian Cribb

Not doomed, Corey – but we’ve got some hard brainwork ahead in the next 40 years if we don’t want to plough up what is left of earth’s ecosystems. As I said, test of the tag H.sapiens. Or maybe we get to reclassify as H. cretinus if we don’t quite succeed… in fact, if you wanted to make the point, maybe EAS should write a combined letter to nature proposing reclassification, to genearte some fresh talk around this, climate and the biodiversity holocaust. I’d be in it.
Julian

13 12 2010
CJAB

Hi Julian – very honoured you are commenting on the blog – thanks. Agreed – the biggest test of our capacity of our so-called rational thought1 is whether we will be able to read, understand and take action from the proverbial writing on the wall. I think the impetus will be unfortunately much suffering before any real progress is made.

As for the letter – I’m in. Let’s draft an outline.

1Even if humanity is defined as the capacity to reason, it really should be the capacity to reason and then act accordingly. ‘Reason’ is only half the equation.

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