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 »





Damned by nature; damned by man

26 10 2012

I am a forest officer from India. I want to narrate a story. No, my story is not about elephants or tigers or snakes. Those stories about India are commonplace. I wish to narrate a simple story about people, the least-known part of the marathon Indian fable.

Humans are said to have arrived in India very early in world civilisation. Some were raised here from the seed of their ancestors; others migrated here from all over the world. Over the centuries these people occupied every inch of soil that could support life. The population of India today is 1.2 billion. Each year, India’s population increases by a number nearly equal to the complete population of Australia. Such a prolific growth of numbers is easy to explain; the fertile soil, ample water and tropical warmth of India support the growth of all life forms.

Not all numbers are great, however, and big numbers sometimes exact the price from the wrong persons.

This is my story.

I went to work in the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Pestilence, floods and dense vegetation have made north-eastern India a most inhospitable place. Population is scanty by Indian standards. Life does not extend much beyond the basic chores of finding food and hearth. In the hills, far away from the bustle of modern civilisation, primitive tribal families practice agriculture in its most basic form. Fertilisers are unknown to them, so they cultivate a parcel of land until it loses its fertility, ultimately abandoning it to find other arable land. When the original parcel has finally recovered its fertility after a few years, they move back. It is a ceaseless cycle of migrating back and forth – the so-called practice known as ‘shifting cultivation’.  Ginger, peas, pumpkin, brinjal and sweet potato can be seen growing on numerous slopes in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya beside the huts of the farmers built on stilts, with chickens roosting below.

When I reached Meghalaya and looked about at the kind of world I had never seen before, I admit that I found the tribal folk a little strange. They lived in a way that would have appeared bizarre to a modern community. The people did not seem to know how many centuries had passed them by. For me as a forest officer, what looked worst was that that these people appeared to have no comprehension of the value of forests for the planet. They built their huts with wood. They cooked on firewood. Most of their implements were made of wood. A whole tree would be cut and thrown across the banks to make a bridge over a stream. Above all, their crazy practice of shifting cultivation would ultimately remove all the remaining forest.

I decided my main job in this place was to save the forest from its own people, and we enforced Indian laws to preserve the forests.

On one occasion my staff saw a young local man running with an illegally obtained log of wood and started to chase him, waving their guns in the air to scare him. He ran barefoot amid dense bushes a long distance before we managed to apprehend him. I had bruises on my arms and a leech hanging from my armpit drinking my blood by the time the race was over. I admit that in my anger at the time, I wanted to impale the man to the earth at the spot where he had cut down the tree. It was not the leeches and the bruises that angered me. The tree he was carrying was (until quite recently) in perfect condition.

But Meghalaya isn’t populated solely by subsistence-farming villagers – there are also a few successful traders originally from big cities who have settled in this economically depressed region. They dress smartly and speak impeccable English. At the time, I remembered wondering how these more sophisticated types could be maintaining their relatively lavish lifestyles among the poor villagers who walked barefoot in the dense forests. On a couple of occasions I dropped in at the home of a prominent trader.  He hosted me graciously in his beautiful home. I admit that I enjoyed these visits because they were my only link to the civilisation I had become used to prior to moving to Meghalaya. But I never visited the home of any tribal villager, for what could I talk to them about anyway?

Read the rest of this entry »





You’re not even remotely concerned enough

31 08 2012

I’ve just returned from a 6-week trip to the United States and I am now dealing with the intensity of things left undone for so long [sigh]. But that trip was interesting for many reasons. First, and as I’ve already posted, I finished a book with Paul Ehrlich that will be out sometime early in 2013 (but I won’t deal with that here). I also attended an interesting, if slightly confusing, conference on ecosystem services. And finally, I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Barnosky in person, and we decided that we should definitely collaborate on a few things.

Another thing that struck me – and this happens no matter how often I visit the U.S., is just how completely insane that country’s politics are. The extremist, libertarian, plutotheocratic bullshit spewed by the far right to the detriment of the very people who support them is enough to make you vomit. And this startling and thoroughly backward world-view is now starting to penetrate more and more into Australian society and politics. From an environmental perspective, it’s a continuation of a downhill slide that started with Reagan’s destruction of environmentalism in the U.S., and Joh Bjelke-Petersen‘s war on the environment in Australia, and will only continue to get worse.

Of course, the main victim of reason in all these polemic politics is that we are doing next to nothing to mitigate horrendous climate disruption. Only yesterday, George Monbiot was lamenting (nay, pleading) that our governments are doing practically nil to avoid what can only be described as the greatest threat to our way of life since the World War II – in fact, the War and its associated holocaust is small bikkies compared to what awaits us.

And this is the most stressing part – even people who choose to use their brains and accept that we have an immense, global problem on our hands generally are not even remotely concerned enough. 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 »





A very pissed-off New Guinean versus the Destroyer of Forests

31 03 2011

I really don’t know where this came from (weird e-mail trail), but it was too good not to share.

For those of you who follow ConservationBytes.com, you might remember a fairly recent post where a group of leading conservation biologists exposed one of the most dangerous men in the world – Alan Oxley, the (very embarrassing to admit) Australian destroyer of tropical biodiversity and future welfare of hundreds of millions of people.

It seems he and his commercial interests (and my, do those fellas lay it on thick) have turned their attention to destroying the last tracts of intact South-East Asian forests (and associated biodiversity) in Papua New Guinea. Kiss some of the most endemic, biodiverse and biowealthy areas on the planet good-bye.

So it was interesting to receive this email that had been sent to Oxley’s front-company, International Trade Strategies (ITS) Global, by one very pissed off Papua New Guinean. I have no idea who ‘Bush Kanaka Mangi’ is, but he sounds the real deal and I wouldn’t want to be Oxley if he ever came across him. I cite verbatim1:

Mr Alan Oxley,

HONESTLY : I am sick of getting this bloody rubbish, bullshit from you and your company ITS Global about palm oil is good for PNG, logging is good for PNG. Who the hell do you think you are ????, you seem in all your articles and consultancy reports as the expert about our country and more knowledgeable about the Melanesian society very well. My assessment of all your electronic newsletter which you circulate widely, your reflections and recommendations all are in no way closer or nearer to the way we Papua New Guineans think and want to do things and develop our nation, all of what you say are totally and purely and absolutely RUBBISH and yet you claim to know everything and know the problems of PNG and our people and on ways to solve our problems and continue your bullshit campaign in support of R&H and all its doing here destroying our forests, our society, manipulating our systems and creating confusion and hell is loose here. Read the rest of this entry »





One billion people still hungry

12 11 2010

A few days ago, that printed mouthpiece of Murdoch’s News Corporation in Australia – The Australiani, attacked Paul Ehrlich with a spectacular piece of uninformed gibberish (‘Population bomb still a fizzer 40 years on‘) that we both feel compelled to contest.

The Australian, well-known for its ‘War on Science’, refused to give us the opportunity to respond officially in an Opinion Editorial, so we are compelled to fight back using the blogosphere and our collective networks (which, we might add, probably exceed the distribution of said newspaper). Frankly, it was no surprise that The Australian chose to ignore us.

The article in question was written by Oliver Marc Hartwich of the so-called ‘Centre for Independent Studies’, the hyper-conservative Australian propaganda machine reminiscent of the ultra-right wing American Enterprise Institute, made up of some of Australia’s most powerful business magnates and with no academic affiliation whatsoever. Anything vaguely left-of-centre and even remotely promoting environmental responsibility is considered a viable target.

Recently, we blew the whistle on an equally dangerous man and the institutes he represents – climate-denier Alan Oxley; he and the business interests he represents are responsible for more deforestation, biodiversity loss and financial inequity in South East Asia over the last few decades than almost any single group.

Now we turn our attention to expose the true colours of the Centre for Independent Studies and Mr. Hartwich. Read the rest of this entry »





Wolves masquerading as sheep: the fallout

29 10 2010

 


© New Zealand Films

 

Well, we’ve managed to stimulate quite a lively conversation after dropping the Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests regarding the questionable tactics employed by Alan Oxley and his industrial lobbyist organisations.

Mr. Oxley has responded with vitriol, hand-waving, red herrings and straw men, and failed to address even a single one of our accusations. I am particularly amused by his insinuation that we, the proven scientists, don’t know what science is – but that he does.

Below I reproduce Mr. Oxley’s reaction to our original letter, followed by our response.

I’ll let you, the reader, decide who is most reasonable.

REACTION FROM ALAN OXLEY

There is too much pseudo-scientific hype today about environmentalism and forestry and not enough fact.

I put this double-barrelled question to the Group of 12 scientists who have rather laboriously wandered over the work of World Growth: What biodiversity is expressly protected by a global cessation of conversion of forest land to other purposes and how is that biodiversity scientifically measured? And let’s have some technical response, not political blather. Read the rest of this entry »








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