When human society breaks down, wildlife suffers

22 01 2015

bearGlobal human society is a massive, consumptive beast that on average degrades its life-support system. As we’ve recently reported, this will only continue to get worse in the decades to centuries to come. Some have argued that as long as we can develop our societies enough, the impact of this massive demographic force can be lessened – a concept described by the environmental Kuznets curve. However, there is little evidence that negative societal impact on the environment is lessened as per capita wealth exceeds some threshold; unfortunately environmental damage tends to, on average, increase as a nation’s net wealth increases. That’s not to say that short-term improvements cannot be achieved through technological innovation – in fact, they will be essential to offset the inexorable growth of the global human population.

So poor nations as well as the wealthy ones are responsible for environmental damage. Poorer nations often have ineffective governance systems so they fail to enforce compliance in environmental regulations, but wealthier nations often exploit a high proportion of their natural resources, with the inevitable environmental damage this entails. In some cases however, biodiversity can temporarily escape some of the ravages of society because humans either perceive the area to be too dangerous, or otherwise have no incentive to go there. There are some good examples of the latter, such as the vicinity around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, or the Korean demilitarised zone.

In this vein, I just stumbled across an extremely interesting paper today published online early in Conservation Biology that describes trends in charismatic wildlife (i.e., big mammals) as the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and societal breakdown ensued. The authors had access to an amazing dataset that spanned the decade prior to the collapse, the decade immediately following, and a subsequent decade of societal renewal. What they found was fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »

Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Human population size: speeding cars can’t stop quickly

28 10 2014

Stop breeding cartoon-Steve Bell 1994Here at ConservationBytes.com, I write about pretty much anything that has anything remotely to do with biodiversity’s prospects. Whether it is something to do with ancient processes, community dynamics or the wider effects of human endeavour, anything is fair game. It’s a little strange then that despite cutting my teeth in population biology, I have never before tackled human demography. Well as of today, I have.

The press embargo has just lifted on our (Barry Brook and my) new paper in PNAS where we examine various future scenarios of the human population trajectory over the coming century. Why is this important? Simple – I’ve argued before that we could essentially stop all conservation research tomorrow and still know enough to deal with most biodiversity problems. If we could only get a handle on the socio-economic components of the threats, then we might be able to make some real progress. In other words, we need to find out how to manage humans much more than we need to know about the particulars of subtle and complex ecological processes to do the most benefit for biodiversity. Ecologists tend to navel-gaze in this arena far too much.

So I called my own bluff and turned my attention to humans. Our question was simple – how quickly could the human population be reduced to a more ‘sustainable’ size (i.e., something substantially smaller than now)? The main reason we posed that simple, yet deceptively loaded question was that both of us have at various times been faced with the question by someone in the audience that we were “ignoring the elephant in the room” of human over-population.

Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not all about cats

20 10 2014

Snake+OilIf you follow any of the environment news in Australia, you will most certainly have seen a lot about feral cats in the last few weeks. I’ve come across dozens of articles in the last week alone talking about the horrendous toll feral cats have had on Australian wildlife since European arrival. In principle, this is a good thing because finally Australians are groggily waking to the fact that our house moggies and their descendants have royally buggered our biodiversity. As a result, we have the highest mammal extinction rate of any country.

But I argue that the newfound enthusiasm for killing anything feline is being peddled mainly as a distraction from bigger environmental issues and to camouflage the complete incompetence of the current government and their all-out war on the environment.

Call me cynical, but when I read headlines like “Australia aims to end extinction of native wildlife by 2020” and Environment Minister Hunt’s recent speech that he has “… set a goal of ending the loss of mammal species by 2020“, I get more than just a little sick to the stomach.

What a preposterous load of shite. Moreover, what a blatant wool-pulling-over-the-eyes public stunt. Read the rest of this entry »

Farewell to an environmental hero: Tony McMichael

26 09 2014

120927: ANU Reporter Magazine Portraits. PIcture by Belinda PrattenI had some sad news today – a visionary in human health and environmental integrity, Professor Tony McMichael, passed away last night from advanced influenza complications. Many people in the conservation field might not have heard of Tony, but rest assured he was one of the foremost thinkers and visionaries in the relationship between environment and human health.

I first met Tony on a World Health Organization-sponsored trip to China in 2008, where I was the ‘token’ ecologist on a panel of experts examining the nexus between environment, agriculture and the infectious diseases of poverty. Tony’s intellect and experience were daunting, to say the least, but a man who had served on several IPCC panels and countless international specialist committees was approachable and always listened. I was impressed and humbled from the outset.

A powerhouse in the general and multidisciplinary approach to the drivers of declining human health, Tony researched everything from classic human epidemiology to the sociological aspects of declining human health in the face of climate disruption. A little home-grown pride was present too in the fact that Tony did his medical degree at the University of Adelaide where I am now based.

If you are not familiar with Tony’s work and have even the slightest interest in the human-environment relationship, I encourage you to read his classic and innovative works. Read the rest of this entry »

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?

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 »


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