Could we colonise another planet to save this one?

27 10 2015

© Auston Habershaw

Let’s do a little thought experiment, shall we? The late, great Douglas Adams wrote about a planet (Golgafrincham) that decided to ship all its undesirables (it was not made clear to them that they were in fact considered ‘undesirable’) to another planet to cut their population by a third. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a great idea.

This idea — shipping people to another planet — is a common theme in the sci-fi genre when there is an impending disaster, such as the planet becoming unsustainable, too many humans over-consuming, or because some great natural calamity is about to occur. Many think Mars is the most likely possible place to get the first sustainable human colony going, but it’s going to be a logistical nightmare to put together even a small colony.

Could moving to a planet like Mars stem the inexorable increase in the human population and save planet Earth? Not likely, and here’s why.

Let’s throw caution to the wind and make some outlandish assumptions just to make this point even stronger.

Read the rest of this entry »





Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie

19 10 2015

Cover-Bradshaw&Ehrlich-final

Man and the environment are meant for each other” — Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister of Australia (2014)

I know the human being and the fish can co-exist peacefully” — George W. Bush, former President of the USA (2000)

It. Has. Finally. Been. Published.

Yes, my new book with Paul Ehrlich, published by University of Chicago Press, is now available to purchase in book shops and online distributors around the world. The blog post today is a little explanatory synopsis of why we wrote the book and what it contains, but of course the real ‘meat’ is in the book. I hope you enjoy it.

In Australia, you can purchase the hard copy through Footprint Books, and the Kindle version at Amazon Australia. I also suggest that Australians might find the best deals through Booko. Electronic versions are also available through Kobo and Google Play. In the US you can order directly from University of Chicago Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other book sellers. In the UK and Europe, the book is available from your country’s Amazon distributor. I imagine many chain and independent book sellers will be carrying the book by now, or will be soon.

My deepest thanks to all those who made it possible.

Our chance meeting in 2009 at Stanford University turned out to be auspicious, not least of which because of the publication this week of our co-authored book, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie. Australia, America and the Environment by University of Chicago Press. As a mid-career ecologist (Bradshaw) based at the University of Adelaide, it was indeed an honour to meet one of the most famous scientists (Ehrlich) in my field. With a list of books and hundreds of scientific papers under his belt, Ehrlich has been tackling major environmental issues since the 1960s. Ehrlich also has a long-time interest in Australia, having visited nearly every year during the last four decades and experienced more of the country than most Australians. Together we have observed firsthand the similarities and differences of Australia and the US, and the eyes we see through are trained as those of environmental scientists and evolutionary biologists.

So why write a book about the environmental tragedies currently unfolding in two completely different countries at opposite ends of the Earth? As it turns out, Australia and the US have much more in common environmentally than one might think, and not necessarily in a good way. Despite our vastly different floras and faunas, population densities, histories of human colonisation and soil productivities, there is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both our countries are now experiencing. As such, we have a lot to learn about avoiding each other’s mistakes.

Ausmerica

Australia and the contiguous US are roughly equivalent in land area, both cultures are derived originally and principally from what is now the United Kingdom, and both are examples of super-consuming, super-wasting, wealthy, literate countries. Both countries also have environmental footprints that exceed most other countries on Earth, with some of the world’s highest per capita rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, water consumption, species extinctions and deforestation.  Read the rest of this entry »





Only thing worse than being labelled ‘deadly’, is not being called anything at all

13 10 2015

11034-Snake-BiteI had an interesting exchange on Twitter today that deserves some discussion, not because the brief internet argument that ensued offers some insightful wisdom (internet debates rarely do anything more than identify all those involved as fuckwits), but because it raises an interesting issue in conservation.

The abbreviated (and slightly expurgated) main message of the exchange was whether drawing attention to the potential for a species to cause harm to humans is good or bad (for the species in question).

The elasmobranchologists in particular usually become apoplectic whenever anyone calls a shark ‘deadly’, or some such similar adjective. As it turns out, the ophidiologists appear to be equally sensitive. I admit that they do have a point — it’s probably fair to assume that films like Jaws and Anaconda (or, Darwin-forbid, Sharknado) haven’t done much to make most people appreciate the amazing diversity, evolutionary adaptations and wonderful life histories of these subclasses & clades (respectively).

In fact, most marine biologists assume that Jaws in particular was responsible for decades of overt prosecution of sharks that has led to the massive population declines. However, I sincerely wonder whether the bad media was in the real culprit and over-fishing was instead the principal cause of today’s observed shark declines (the questionable nature of the numbers often cited notwithstanding).  Read the rest of this entry »





To spare or to share, that is a muddled question

9 10 2015
Unfortunately, it ain't this simple (from doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.008)

Unfortunately, it ain’t this simple (from doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.008)

Certain research trends in any field are inevitable, because once a seductive can of research-question worms is opened, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to start hooking in. Of course, I’m not against popular trends in research per se if they lead to a productive, empirical evaluation of the complexities involved, but it can sometimes result in a lot of wasted time. For example, in conservation ecology we’ve had to suffer 15 years of wasted effort on disproving neutral theory, we’ve bashed heads unnecessarily regarding the infamous SLOSS (‘Single Large Or Several Small’ reserves) debates of the 1970s and 1980s, and we’ve pilfered precious years arguing about whether density feedback actually exists (answer: it does).

The latest populist research trend in conservation seems to be the ‘land sparing versus land sharing’ debate, which, I (and others) argue, is largely an overly simplistic waste of time, money and intellectual advancement to the detriment of both biodiversity and human well-being.

Land sparing is generally used in reference to agricultural practices (although in theory, it could apply to any human endeavour where native vegetation cover is required to be removed or degraded, such as for electricity production) that are purposely made to be high-yielding so that they require the smallest amount of land. At the other extreme (and the ‘two extremes’ of a continuum concept is half the bloody problem here), land sharing requires a larger land footprint because it relies on lower-yielding, biodiversity-friendly (agricultural) practices. Proponents of land sparing argue that only by amalgamating patches of remnant native vegetation can we avoid massive fragmentation and the pursuant loss of biodiversity, whereas those pushing for land sparing argue that the matrix between the big undeveloped bits must be exploited in a more biodiversity-friendly way to allow species to persist.

As it turns out, they’re both right (but their single-minded, extremist positions are not). Read the rest of this entry »





The sticky subject of article authorship

2 10 2015

CriticVs.Shakespeare-copyI have a few ‘rules’ (a.k.a. ‘guidelines’) in my lab about the authorship of articles, but I’ve come to realise that each article requires its own finessing each time authorship is in question. After a lengthy discussion yesterday with the members of Franck Courchamp‘s lab, I decided I should probably write down my thoughts on this, one of the stickiest of subjects in the business of science.

The following discussion can be divided into to two main categories: (1) who to include as a co-author, and once the list of co-authors has been determined, (2) in what order should they be listed?

Before launching into discussing the issues related to Category 1, it is prudent to declare that there are as probably as many conventions as there are publishing scientists, and each discipline’s most general conventions differ across the scientific spectrum. I’m sure if you asked 10 people about what they considered appropriate, you could conceivably receive 10 different answers.

That said, I do still think there are some good-behaviour guidelines on authorship that one should strive to follow, all of which are based on my own experiences (both good and awful).

So who to include? It seems like a simple question superficially because clearly if someone contributed to writing a peer-reviewed article, he/she should be listed as a co-author. The problem really doesn’t concern the main author (the person who did most of the actual composition) because it’s clear here who that will be in almost every case. In most circumstances, this also happens to be the lead author (but more on that below). The question should really apply then to those individuals whose effort was more modest in the production of the final paper.

Strictly speaking, an ‘author’ should write words; but how many words do they need to write before being included? Would 10 suffice, or at least 10%? You can see why this is in itself a sticky subject because there are no established or accepted thresholds. Of course, science generally requires much more than just writing words: there are for most papers experiments to design, grants to obtain to fund them, data to collect, analysis and modelling to be done, figures and tables to prepare and finally, words to write. I’ll admit that I’ve co-authored many papers where I’ve done mainly one of those things (analysis, data collection, etc.), but I can also hold my hand over my heart and state that I’ve contributed more than a good deal to the actual writing of the paper in all circumstances where I’ve been listed as a co-author (the amount of which depends entirely on the lead author’s writing capacity). Read the rest of this entry »