Get serious about divestment

21 11 2014

dh-logo1We are a sensitive and conflict-avoiding lot, aren’t we? Most scientists I know absolutely dread reprisals of any form, whether they are from a colleague commenting on their work, a sensationalism-seeking journalist posing nasty questions, or a half-wit troll commenting on a blog feed. For all our swagger and intellectual superiority complexes, most of us would rather lock ourselves in a room and do our work without anyone bothering us.

Fortunately for the taxpayer, we should not and cannot be this way. As I’ve stated before, we have at the very least a moral obligation to divulge our results to as many people as possible because for the most part, they pay us. If you work in any applied form of science (most of us do) – such as conservation, for example – then your moral obligation to make your work public extends to the entirety of humanity and the planet. That’s a staggering responsibility, and one of the reasons I’ve embraced many other forms of communication beyond the bog-standard scientific publication outlets.

There are many great examples of impressive science advocates out there – a few that come to mind are people like inter alia Lesley Hughes, James Hansen, Michael Mann, Paul Ehrlich, Bill Laurance, Barry BrookOve Hoegh-Guldberg, Tony Barnosky, Gretchen Daily, Emma Johnston, Stuart Pimm, and Hugh Possingham. There are even others willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make an evidence-based protest against society’s more inane actions. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – evidence-based advocacy can work.

To the topic at hand – I’ve been a little disappointed – to say the least – with the near-total silence emanating from my colleagues about the fossil-fuel divestment wave sweeping the world. While gaining traction worldwide, it wasn’t until The Australian National University took the bold move to divest (at least partially) from many of its fossil-fuel financial interests that it became a reality in Australia. Let’s face it – of all the types of institutions in our world, universities should be at the forefront of good, morally grounded and socially responsible investment strategies. They are, after all, meant to be filled with the most erudite, informed and cutting-edge people in the world, most of whom should have the best information at their fingertips regarding the precarious state of our environment. Read the rest of this entry »

InvaCost – estimating the economic damage of invasive insects

7 11 2014

insectinvasionThis is a blosh (rehash of someone else’s blog post) of Franck Courchamp‘s posts on an exciting new initiative of which I am excited to be a part. Incidentally, Franck’s spending the week here in Adelaide.

Don’t forgot to vote for the project to receive 50 000 € public-communication grant!

Climate change will make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, but there are many questions remaining regarding whether such insects will be able to invade other regions as the climate shifts. There are many nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. I hope that we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators:

If bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years.

(we all should remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that most of us understood). The highly invasive red fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion is spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. Tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. We could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonise northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where, when and which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

We’ve proposed to study these and others from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide, and we got selected (i.e., financed!) by the Fondation BNP Paribas. In addition, the Fondation BNP Paribas has selected five scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50,000 € (that’s US$62,000) to the one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost. 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, 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 »

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 »

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 »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. 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 readers. Read the rest of this entry »


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