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 »





Guilty until proven innocent

18 07 2013

precautionary principleThe precautionary principle – the idea that one should adopt an approach that minimises risk – is so ingrained in the mind of the conservation scientist that we often forget what it really means, or the reality of its implementation in management and policy. Indeed, it has been written about extensively in the peer-reviewed conservation literature for over 20 years at least (some examples here, here, here and here).

From a purely probabilistic viewpoint, the concept is flawlessly logical in most conservation questions. For example, if a particular by-catch of a threatened species is predicted [from a model] to result in a long-term rate of instantaneous population change (r) of -0.02 to 0.01 [uniform distribution], then even though that interval envelops r = 0, one can see that reducing the harvest rate a little more until the lower bound is greater than zero is a good idea to avoid potentially pushing down the population even more. In this way, our modelling results would recommend a policy that formally incorporates the uncertainty of our predictions without actually trying to make our classically black-and-white laws try to legislate uncertainty directly. Read the rest of this entry »





The economy worse off since 1978

3 07 2013
eat money

Can’t eat money

I was only a little tacker in 1978, and as any little tacker, I was blissfully unaware that I had just lived through a world-changing event. Just like that blissfully ignorant child, most people have no idea how important that year was.

It was around that year that humanity exceeded the planet’s capacity to sustain itself in perpetuity1. As I’ve just discovered today, it was also the same year that the per-capita Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) peaked.

Now for a little detour and disclaimer before I explain all that. I’m not an economist, but I have a dabbled with the odd economic concept and bolted-on economic sub-routine in a few models I’ve written. Some would argue that conservation (i.e., the quest and methods needed to conserve biowealth) is almost entirely an economic pursuit, for economics is the discipline that attempts to explain (and modify) human behaviour. I tend to agree insofar as we now know enough on the biological side regarding how species become threatened and go extinct, and what kind of things we need to do to avoid losing more of the life-support system provided by biodiversity. Being completely practical about it, one could even argue that the biology part of conservation biology is complete – we should all now re-train as economists. While that notion probably represents a little hyperbole, it does demonstrate that economics is an essential endeavour in the fight to conserve our home.

Almost everyone has heard of ‘GDP’ – the Gross Domestic Product – as an indicator of economic ‘performance’, although most people have little idea what it actually measures (I’m including businesspeople and politicians here). GDP is merely the sum of marketed economic activity, which is only one small facet of the economy. For example, growing a tomato and preparing a salad for your family with it is not included, yet buying a frozen meal in the supermarket is. Even an oil spill increases GDP via increased expenditures associated with clean-up and remediation, when clearly it is not a ‘good’ thing for the economy on the whole because of the lost opportunities it causes in other sectors. Read the rest of this entry »





Brave new green world: biodiversity’s response to Australia’s carbon economy

12 03 2013

carbon farming 2I’ve had a busy weekend entertaining visiting colleagues and participating in WOMADelaide‘s first-ever ‘The Planet Talks‘. If you haven’t heard of WOMADelaide, you’re truly missing out in one of the best music festivals going (and this is from a decidedly non-festival-going sort). Planet Talks this year was a bit of an experiment after the only partially successful Earth Station festival held last year (it was well-attended, but apparently wasn’t as financially successful as they had hoped). So this year they mixed a bit of science with a bit of music – hence ‘Planet Talks’. Paul Ehrlich was one of the star attractions, and I had the honour of going onstage with him yesterday to discuss a little bit about human population growth and sustainability. It was also great to see Robyn Williams again. All the Talks were packed out – indeed, I was surprised they were so popular, especially in the 39-degree heat. Rob Brookman, WOMADelaide’s founder and principal organiser, told me afterward that they’d definitely be doing it again.

But my post really isn’t about WOMADelaide or The Planet Talks (even though I got the bonus of meeting one of my favourite latin bands, Novalima, creators of one of my favourite songs). It’s instead about a paper I heralded last year that’s finally been accepted.

In early 2012 at the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) symposium in Adelaide, the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) put on what they called the ‘Grand Challenges’ workshop. I really didn’t get the joke at the time, but apparently the ‘grand challenge’ was locking 30 scientists with completely different backgrounds in a room for two days to see if they could do anything other than argue and bullshit. Well, we rose to that challenge and produced something that I think is rather useful.

I therefore proudly introduce the paper entitled Brave new green world: consequences of a carbon economy for the conservation of Australian biodiversity just accepted in Biological Conservation. The online version isn’t quite ready yet (should be in the next few weeks), but you are welcome to request a preprint from me now. If you attended (the surprisingly excellent) TERN symposium in Canberra last month, you might have seen me give a brief synopsis of our results.

The paper is a rather  in-depth review of how we, 30 fire, animal, plant, soil, landscape, agricultural and freshwater biologists, believe Australia’s new carbon-influenced economy (i.e., carbon price) will impact the country’s biodiversity. Read the rest of this entry »





Advice for getting your dream job in conservation science

4 12 2012

people management

A few weeks ago I heard from an early-career researcher in the U.S. who had some intelligent things to say about getting jobs in conservation science based on a recent Conservation Biology paper she co-wrote. Of course, for all the PhDs universities are pumping out into the workforce, there will never be enough positions in academia for them all. Thus, many find their way into non-academic positions. But – does a PhD in science prepare you well enough for the non-academic world? Apparently not.

Many post-graduate students don’t start looking at job advertisements until we are actually ready to apply for a job. How often do we gleam the list of required skills and say, “If only I had done something to acquire project management skills or fundraising skills, then I could apply for this position…”? Many of us start post-graduate degrees assuming that our disciplinary training for that higher degree will prepare us appropriately for the job market. In conservation science, however, many non-disciplinary skills (i.e., beyond those needed to be a good scientist) are required to compete successfully for non-academic positions. What are these skills?

Our recent paper in Conservation Biology (Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers) sifted through U.S. job advertisements and quantified how often different skills are required across three job sectors: nonprofit, government and private. Our analysis revealed that several non-disciplinary skills are particularly critical for job applicants in conservation science. The top five non-disciplinary skills were project management, interpersonal, written communication, program leadership and networking. Approximately 75% of the average job advertisement focused on disciplinary training and these five skills. In addition, the importance of certain skills differed across the different job sectors.

Below, we outline the paper’s major findings with regard to the top five skills, differences among sectors, and advice for how to achieve appropriate training while still in university. Read the rest of this entry »





Degraded States of Ausmerica

20 08 2012

You might remember that I’ve been in California for several weeks now. The principal reason for my visit was to finish a book that Paul Ehrlich and I started last year. So, without the major distractions of everyday university life, I’ve spent much of my time lately at Stanford University in a little office next to Paul’s trying to finish (I also attended a conference in Portland, Oregon).

Yesterday, we wrote the last few paragraphs. A giant gorilla has now lumbered its way off my back.

So. What is the book about, you might ask? I can’t give away too many details, but I will give a few teasers. The book is called, at least for now, ‘Oz & US’, which is a bit of a play of words. In the book we contrast the environmental histories, current state of affairs, and likely futures of our respective nations. It’s written in a popular style so that non-specialists can learn a little something about how bad the environment has become in our two countries.

At first glance, one might wonder why we chose to contrast the U.S. and Australia – they are quite different beasts, indeed. Their histories are immensely different, from the aboriginal populations, through to European colonisation (timing and drivers), biological (including agricultural) productivities, carrying capacities, population sizes and politics. But these differences belie too many convergences in the environmental states of each nation – we now both have increasingly degraded environments, we have both pushed the boundaries of our carrying capacities, and our environmental politics are in a shambles. In other words, despite having started with completely different conditions, our toll on nature’s life-support systems is now remarkably similar.

And anyone who knows Paul and me will appreciate that the book is completely irreverent. We have taken off the gloves in preparation for a bare-knuckle fight with the plutocrats and theocrats now threatening the lives of our grandchildren. We pull no punches here. Read the rest of this entry »





The invisible hand of ecosystem services

4 08 2012

I’ve just spent nearly an entire week trying to get my head around ecosystem services (ES).

You’d think that would have been a given based on my experience, my research, my writings and the fact that I’ve just spent the last week with 400 ES specialists from around the world at the 5th international Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP) Conference in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Well, prior to this week I thought I knew what ES were, but now I think I’m just a little more confused.

Of course, I’m not talking about the concept of ES or what they are (hell, I’ve written enough about them on this blog and in my papers); my problem is understanding how we as society end up valuing them in a practical, sensible and feasible way.

So I’m going to describe the ESP Conference as I saw it, and not necessarily in chronological order.

First up is the term ‘ecosystem services’ itself – horrible name, and something rammed home again after attending the conference. Most people on the planet that are not scientists (that would be nearly everyone) just might have the most tenuous and ethereal of grasps of ‘ecosystem’ in the first place, and I’d bet that 99 % of most undergraduate students couldn’t provide a comprehensive description. This is because ecosystems are mind-bogglingly, chaotically and awesomely complex. Just ask any ecosystem ecologist.

The second part of the term – services – is particularly offensive in its presumption and arrogance. It’s not like you ring up an ecosystem and get it to clean your carpets, or fill your water tank or gas cylinder. No, the natural world did not evolve to pamper humanity; we are merely part of it (and bloody efficient at modifying it, I might add).

So try to sell this ‘incredibly complex thingy’ that is ‘there to do some (intangible) shit for us’ to the public, policy makers and politicians, and you mostly get a dog’s regurgitated breakfast and some blank, slack-jawed stares. Read the rest of this entry »








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