Some scary stats about agriculture and biodiversity

20 07 2018

84438Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming the eminent sustainability scientist, Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, to our humble Ecology and Evolution Seminar Series here at Flinders University. While we couldn’t record the seminar he gave because of some of the unpublished and non-proprietary nature of some of his slides, I thought it would be interesting, useful, and thought-provoking to summarise some of the information he gave.

Andrew started off by telling us some of the environmental implications of farming worldwide. Today, existing agriculture covers more than half of ‘useable’ land (i.e., excluding unproductive deserts, etc.), and it has doubled nitrogen fixation rates from a pre-industrial baseline. Globally, agriculture is responsible for between 19 and 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and it has caused approximately 40% increase in observed sea-level rise (1961-2003). Not surprisingly, agriculture already occupies the regions of highest biodiversity globally, and is subsequently the greatest source of threat to species.

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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.

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Mucking around the edges

8 11 2011

Barry Brook over at beat me to the punch regarding our latest paper, so I better get off my arse and write my take on things.

This post is about a paper we’ve just had accepted and has come out online in Biological Conservation called Strange bedfellows? Techno-fixes to solve the big conservation issues in southern Asia – and it’s likely to piss off a few people, and hopefully motivate others.

We wrote the paper for a special issue of essays dedicated to the memory of our mate and colleague, Navjot Sodhi, who died earlier this year. The issue hasn’t been released yet, but we have managed to get our paper out well before.

Like Navjot, the paper is controversial. Also like Navjot, we hope it challenges a few minds and pushes a few boundaries. We, as conservation biologists, must accept the fact that we have largely failed – biodiversity is still being lost at an alarming rate despite decades and decades of good science, sound evidence-based policy recommendations and even some rescues of species on the ‘brink’. Huge consumption rates, a population of 7 billion humans and counting, carbon emissions exceeding all worst-case scenarios, and greater disparity of wealth distribution have all contributed to this poor performance.

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History and future (of Australian ecology and society)

11 12 2010

I’ve just returned from a week-long conference in Canberra where the Ecological Society of Australia (of which I am a relatively new member) has just completed its impressive 50th anniversary conference. It was a long, but good week.

It’s almost a bit embarrassing that I’ve never attended an ESA1 conference before, but I think I waited for the right one. However, the main reason I attended was that I was fortunate to have received the ESA’s 3rd Australian Ecology Research Award (AERA), and the kick-back was a fully funded trip. My only reciprocation was to give a 40-minute plenary lecture – a small price to pay.

I entitled my talk ‘Heads in the desert sand: why Australians should wake up to the biodiversity crisis’, and I received a lot of good feedback. I talked about the global and Australian trends of biodiversity loss and associated ecosystem services, focussing the middle section on some of our work on feral animal ecology (see example). I then gave my views on the seriousness of our current situation and why some of the fastest losses of sensitive ecosystem services are happening right here, right now. I finished off with a section on how I think Australian ecologists could get more relevant and active in terms of research uptake by policy makers. I hope that the talk will be podcastable soon, so stay tuned.

But that was just ‘my’ bit. This post is more about a quick summary of the highlights and my overall impressions.

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