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 »

Australia’s (latest) war on the environment

3 03 2014

monkYes, the signs were there, but they weren’t clandestine messages written in the stars or in the chaos of tea-leaf dregs. We saw this one coming, but Australians chose to ignore the warning signs and opt for the American political model of extremism, religiosity, plutocracy and science denial.

Enter the ‘Tea Party’ of Australia – the ‘new’ Coalition where reigning Rex perditor Prime Minister Tony The Monk Abbott1 has, in just a few short months, turned back the clock on Australian environmental protection some 40 years.

Yes, we saw it coming, but it wasn’t a tautological fait accompli just because it concerned a ‘conservative’ government. It’s difficult to remember, I know, that conservative governments of yesteryear implemented some strikingly powerful and effective environmental legislation. Indeed, it was the former incarnation of the Coalition government that implemented the once-formidable Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act under the direction of then Environment Minister, Robert Hill. A colossus of sorts, the EPBC suffers from many ailments. While it’s the only really bitey environmental legislation we’ve got, that colossus is a lumbering, limping giant missing more than a few teeth – it needs a complete overhaul.

As most Australians are unfortunately aware, The Monk repeatedly and defiantly promised to repeal the Labor-government carbon price implemented in July 2012, despite the absolute necessity to tax the heaviest pollutersWhile somewhat sheepish about his recent climate disruption denialism following his election in 2013, a denialist he remains:

Let us re-familiarise ourselves with some of his historical pearlers: Read the rest of this entry »

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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Medieval Canada threatens global biodiversity

25 11 2013

harper_scienceArtists, poets and musicians make us feel, viscerally, how people destroy what they do not understand. Logic and observation led E. O. Wilson to conclude: ‘If people don’t know, they don’t care. If they don’t care, they don’t act.’

Whether you feel it in one of Drew Dillinger’s poems1 or visualise it from the sinuous beauty of mathematical equations, the song remains the same. Scientists are critical to the present and future of the biosphere and humanity, but if — and only if — we are free to communicate our findings to the voting public.

Galileo did not have that right. Scientists in totalitarian regimes of today still lack it. And now, incredibly, some of Canada’s top scientists have lost that right2,3,4.

That is not the Canada I immigrated into. Rewind the tape to 1983. I am a young immigrant, ecstatic that my family has gained entry into the country. We all have mixed feelings; we love our home country of Mexico and are sad to leave it, yet we look forward to being part of Canada’s open-minded and science-loving spirit. The tape runs forward and not all turns out to be as advertised. Still, for the next 23 years Canada remains a damn good place, ruled by governments that, imperfect as they might have been, were not obsessed with burying science.

Fast forward the tape to 2006. Stephen Harper’s newly elected and still ruling Conservative Government hits the ground pounding punches in all directions. Almost immediately, the Conservatives begin to implement one of their many Machiavellian tactics that aim to turn Canada into a petro-state6,7: downgrade science as irrelevant to evidence-based decision making. Ever since, Canadian federal scientists have seen their programs slashed or buried. Those who manage to hang on to their jobs are strictly forbidden to speak about their findings to the media or the public8,9,10,11.

Read the rest of this entry »

Seven signs your country has an environmental problem

29 04 2013

1. It’s almost always hazy – and not just in the cities. The particulate matter pollution makes even sunny days appear like it’s about to rain. To add insult to injury, almost every advertisement with anything to do with ‘outside’ pictures a pristinely blue sky and copious sunshine, without the hint of grey. When stepping off the aeroplane, the distinct taste of tar hits the back of your throat.

2. You can’t drink the water from the tap – not anywhere. In fact, you can’t even brush your teeth with it or risk getting some nasty intestinal parasite.

3. You can’t plant trees fast enough because the frequency of landslips kills hundreds of people yearly.

4. While catching a taxi from the airport, the driver plays a continuous loop of birds singing, because most residents never hear those sounds.

5. You have an economy in over-drive, and yet you still think of yourself as ‘developing’.

6. Emerging infectious disease jumping from livestock to humans is now a near-regular occurrence, with new and weird diseases that threaten to become human pandemics and mutating with alarming speed popping up everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Crying ‘wolf’ overlooks the foxes: challenging ‘planetary tipping points’

28 02 2013

tipping pointToday, a paper by my colleague, Barry Brook, appeared online in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. It’s bound to turn a few heads.

Let’s not get distracted by the title of the post, or the potential for a false controversy. It’s important to be clear that the planet is indeed ill, and it’s largely due to us. Species are going extinct faster than the would have otherwise. The planet’s climate system is being severely disrupted, so is the carbon cycle. Ecosystem services are on the decline.

But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – we have to be wary of claiming the end of the world as we know it or people will shut down and continue blindly with their growth and consumption obsession. We as scientists also have to be extremely careful not to pull concepts and numbers out of our bums without empirical support.

Specifically, I’m referring to the latest ‘craze’ in environmental science writing – the idea of ‘planetary tipping points‘ and the related ‘planetary boundaries‘. It’s really the stuff of Hollywood disaster blockbusters – the world suddenly shifts into a new ‘state’ where some major aspect of how the world functions does an immediate about-face. Read the rest of this entry »


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