We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

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Tropical forest resilience depends on past disturbance frequency

16 07 2014

I’ve recently come across an interesting study that perfectly marries palaeo-ecological data with modern conservation philosophy. It’s not often that such a prehistorical perspective dating at least to the Last Glacial Maximum has been used so effectively to inform future conservation outlooks. I’m particularly interested in this sort of approach considering my own palaeo dabblings of late.

Published in Nature Communications this May, Lydia Cole and colleagues’ paper Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance is a meta-analysis of 71 studies covering nearly 300 disturbance events in tropical forests over the last 20,000 years or so. Using fossil pollen records as an index of vegetation change, they demonstrated the (somewhat intuitive) main result that the time to recovery following a disturbance generally decreases as the past disturbance frequency increased.

This appears to be a vindication of the idea that a system’s adaptive strategies evolve as a product of the local disturbance regime. More importantly, they found that recovery was faster following ‘large infrequent events’, which are natural perturbations such as cyclones and major fires. While most past disturbances were caused by humans clearing forest, the fact that tropical forest systems were most resilient to ‘natural’ events means that if we can’t stop human disturbances, at least we can attempt to emulate natural processes to maximise the rebound potential. Much like many modern forestry operations try to emulate natural disturbances to limit their damage, we should at least manage our impacts by understanding so-called ‘natural’ regimes as much as possible. Read the rest of this entry »





A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation

19 05 2014

Eucalyptus viminalis (Manna Gum) - leaf, adultI’ve just written an article for the Australian River Restoration Centre‘s RipRap magazine, and they have given me permission to reproduce it here.

The brave, new green world of the carbon economy hasn’t exactly taken off as desired. Perhaps it’s because it wasn’t really planned from the outset, or maybe it is still too abstract for most people to accept, digest and incorporate into their daily lives. An emergent property of society’s generally slow awakening to the challenge of climate disruption, is that it will be a long time before we accept its full suite of incarnations.

The infant carbon economy is, however, well and truly alive and kicking, so it is important to try and plan for its growing influence on our decision making. Bumps in the road aside, the carbon economy has mostly been a blessing (actual and potential) for biodiversity conservation projects the world over.

In principle, the aim of the carbon economy is rather straight-forward: charge people a certain amount for each unit of carbon dioxide equivalents they release, and then use that money to develop approaches that further increase carbon sequestration or limit emissions. It’s a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ framework, where increasing financial impetus to restrict emissions is enhanced by society’s evolution towards better approaches and technology.

The operational side of the carbon economy is unfortunately much more muddled, with vested interests and political gaming weakening its implementation. Nonetheless, we persevere. Read the rest of this entry »





If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing?

17 03 2014

collapseI don’t often respond to many comments on this blog unless they are really, really good questions (and if I think I have the answers). Even rarer is devoting an entire post to answering a question. The other day, I received a real cracker, and so I think it deserves a highlighted response.

Two days ago, a certain ‘P. Basu’ asked this in response to my last blog post (Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick):

I am an Indian who lived in Germany for quite a long period. Now, if I am not grossly mistaken, once upon a time Germany and other west european countries had large tracts of “real” forests with bears, wolves, foxes and other animals (both carnivore and herbivore). Bear has completely disappeared from these countries with the advent of industrialization. A few wolves have been kept in more or less artificially created forests. Foxes, deer and hares, fortunately, do still exist. My question is, how come these countries are still so well off – not only from the point of view of economy but also from the angle of public health despite the loss of large tracts of natural forests? Or is it that modern science and a health conscious society can compensate the loss of biodiversity.

“Well”, I thought to myself, “Bloody good question”.

I have come across this genre of question before, but usually under more hostile circumstances when an overtly right-wing respondent (hell, let’s call a spade a spade – a ‘completely selfish arsehole’) has challenged me on the ‘value of nature’ logic (I’m not for a moment suggesting that P. Basu is this sort of person; on the contrary, he politely asked an extremely important question that requires an answer). The comeback generally goes something like this: “If biodiversity is so important, why aren’t super-developed countries wallowing in economic and social ruin because they’ve degraded their own life-support systems? Clearly you must be wrong, Sir.”

There have been discussions in the ecological and sustainability literature that have attempted to answer this, but I’ll give it a shot here for the benefit of CB.com readers. Read the rest of this entry »





Lose biodiversity and you’ll get sick

14 03 2014

dengueHere’s a (paraphrased) recommendation I did recently for F1000 about a cool avenue of research I’ve been following for a few years now. Very interesting, but much, much more to do.

The core concepts of conservation ecology are well-established: we know that habitat lossfragmentation, invasive species, over-exploitation and of course, climate change, are bad for biodiversity. This well-quantified scientific baseline has led the discipline recently to embark on questions pertaining more to the (a) implications of biodiversity loss for humanity and (b) what we can do to offset these. A recent paper by Morand and colleagues addresses perhaps one of the most compelling reasons that human society should appreciate biodiversity beyond its intrinsic value; as biodiversity degrades, so too does human health.

Some argue that the only way to convince society in general that biodiversity is worth protecting is that we link its loss directly to degrading human health, wealth and well-being. Confirmation of such relationships at a variety of spatial and temporal scales is therefore essential. Morand and colleagues used data from a variety of sources to test two predictions: (1) that the number of infectious disease should increase as overall biodiversity increases and (2) that biodiversity loss, inferred from species threat and deforestation data, should increase the number of infectious disease outbreaks in humans. Using data from 28 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, they confirmed both predictions. Read the rest of this entry »





Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation

24 01 2014

farming forestsToday I was shocked, stunned and pleasantly (for a change) surprised. Australia has its first ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon farming project.

It is understandable that this sort of news doesn’t make the Jane & Joe Bloggs of the world stand up and cheer, but it should make conservation biologists jump for bloody joy.

So why exactly am I so excited about the setting aside of a mere 9000 ha (90 km2, or 10 × 9 km) of semi-arid scrub in western New South Wales? It’s simple – nothing can replace the biodiversity or carbon value of primary forest. In other words, forest restoration – while laudable and needed – can never achieve what existing forest already does. We know now from various parts of the world that biodiversity is nearly always much higher in primary forest, and that the carbon structure of the forest (especially below-ground carbon) can take centuries to recover.

Another problem with restoration – and if you’ve ever been involved in any tree planting yourself, you’ll know what I mean – is that it’s incredibly expensive, time-consuming and slow. Wouldn’t it make more financial sense just to save forests instead of trying to rebuild them?

Of course it is, so the logical conclusion from a conservation perspective is to save primary forest first, then worry about restoration next. The problem is, there are few, if any, financial incentives for keeping forests standing in the private sector. The stumbling rise of the carbon economy is a potential resolution to this problem, although neither the Kyoto Protocol nor most national carbon-trading schemes adequately account for the carbon value of existing forests.

Up until today, even Australia didn’t have any examples.

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Biowealth: all creatures great and small

4 12 2013

Curious Country flyer“So consider the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, the small and the squirmy, the smelly, slimy and scaly. Consider the fanged and the hairy, the ugly and the cute alike. The more we degrade this astonishing diversity of evolved life and all its interactions on our only home, the more we expose ourselves to the ravages of a universe that is inherently hostile to life.”

excerpt from ‘Biowealth: all creatures great and small’ The Curious Country (C.J.A. Bradshaw 2013).

I’ve spent the last few days on the east coast with my science partner-in-crime, Barry Brook, and one of our newest research associates (Marta Rodrigues-Rey Gomez). We first flew into Sydney at sparrow’s on Monday, then drove a hire car down to The ‘Gong to follow up on some Australian megafauna databasing & writing with Bert Roberts & Zenobia Jacobs. On Tuesday morning we then flitted over to Canberra where we had the opportunity to attend the official launch of a new book that Barry and I had co-authored.

The book, The Curious Country, is an interesting experiment in science communication and teaching dreamed up by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Realising that the average Aussie has quite a few questions about ‘how stuff works’, but has little idea how to answer those questions, Ian engaged former Quantum star and science editor, Leigh Dayton, to put together a short, punchy, topical and easily understood book about why science is good for the country.

Yes, intuitive for most of you out there reading this, but science appreciation isn’t always as high as it should be amongst the so-called ‘general public’. Ian thought this might be one way to get more people engaged.

When honoured with the request to write an interesting chapter on biodiversity for the book, I naturally accepted. It turns out Barry was asked to do one on energy provision at the same time (but we didn’t know we had both been asked at the time). Our former lab head, Professor David Bowman, was also asked to write a chapter about fire risk, so it was like a mini-reunion yesterday for the three of us.

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