Shifting from prevention to damage control

5 05 2020

timeBack in March this year before much of the world morphed into the weirdness that now dictates all facets of life, I wrote an update for the Is This How You Feel project led by Joe Duggan.

It was an exercise in emotional expression not necessarily grounded in empiricism. But in that particular piece, I had written the following line:

Few scientists in my field are still seriously considering avoidance of environmental collapse; instead, the dominant discourse is centred on damage control.

But is this correct? Is this how most scientists in conservation feel today? In a way, this post serves both as a rationale for my expectation, and as a question for the wider community.

My rationale for that contention is that it is undeniable that biodiversity is going down the toilet faster than even some of the most pessimistic of us could have predicted. We are without doubt within the sixth mass extinction event every experienced on the Earth for at least the last 600 million years.

Yet, there have never been more conservation biologists and practitioners. There have never been more international treaties and accords that expressly aim to protect biodiversity.

To assert that we have failed is unhelpful fatalism, yet it cannot be ignored that biodiversity’s predicament and those charged with turning around its fate are not exactly replete with successes. Read the rest of this entry »





In pursuit of an ecological resilience in the Anthropocene

3 03 2020

Changing TidesAn excerpt from Alejandro Frid‘s new book, Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene (published first in Sierra, with photos courtesy of New Society Publishers)

The birth of my daughter, in 2004, thrust upon me a dual task: to be scientifically realistic about all the difficult changes that are here to stay, while staying humanly optimistic about the better things that we still have.

By the time my daughter turned eleven, I had jettisoned my nos­talgia for the Earth I was born into in the mid-196os—a planet that, of course, was an ecological shadow of Earth 100 years before, which in turn was an ecological shadow of an earlier Earth. The pragmatist in me had embraced the Anthropocene, in which humans dominate all biophysical processes, and I ended up feeling genuinely good about some of the possible futures in which my daughter’s generation might grow old.

It was a choice to engage in a tough situation. An acknowledgement of rapid and uninvited change. A reaffirmed commitment to everything I have learned, and continue to learn, as an ecologist working with Indigenous people on marine conservation. Fundamental to this perspective is the notion of resilience: the ability of someone or something—a culture, an ecosystem, an economy, a person—to absorb shocks yet still maintain their essence.

But what is essence? Read the rest of this entry »





Unlikely the biodiversity crisis will improve any time soon

6 02 2020

hopelessAround a fortnight ago I wrote a hastily penned post about the precarious state of biodiversity — it turned out to be one of the most-read posts in ConservationBytes‘ history (nearly 22,000 views in less than two weeks).

Now, let’s examine whether this dreadful history is likely to get any better any time soon.

Even if extinction rates decline substantially over the next century, I argue that we are committed to an intensifying biodiversity extinction crisis. The aggregate footprint from the growing human population notwithstanding, we can expect decades, if not centuries, of continued extinctions from lag effects alone (extinction debts arising from previous environmental damage engendering extinctions in the future)1.

Global vegetation cover and production are also likely to decline even in the absence of continued habitat clearing — the potential benefit of higher CO2 concentrations for plant photosynthesis is more than offset by lower availability of water in the soil, heat stress, and the frequency of disturbances such as droughts2. Higher frequencies and intensities of disturbance events like catastrophic bushfire will also exacerbate extinction rates3.

However, perhaps the least-appreciated element of potential extinctions arising from climate change is that they are vastly underestimated when only considering a species’ thermal tolerance4. In fact, climate disruption-driven extinction rates could be up to ten times higher than currently predicted4 when extinction cascades are taken into account5. Read the rest of this entry »





The state of global biodiversity — it’s worse than you probably think

24 01 2020

Chefurka biomass slide

I often find myself in a position explaining to non-professionals just how bad the state of global biodiversity really is. It turns out too that even quite a few ecologists seem to lack an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of damage we’ve done to the planet.

The loss of biodiversity that has occurred over the course of our species’ time on Earth is staggering. This loss is now truly planetary in scale and caused by human actions, albeit the severity of which is unequally distributed across the globe1. While Sandra Díaz and company recently summarised the the extent of the biodiversity crisis unfolding1 well in their recent synopsis of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)2 report, I’m going to repeat some of the salient summary statements here, and add a few others. Read the rest of this entry »





What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?

13 11 2019

(reproduced from The Conversation)

For more than 3.5 billion years, living organisms have thrived, multiplied and diversified to occupy every ecosystem on Earth. The flip side to this explosion of new species is that species extinctions have also always been part of the evolutionary life cycle.

But these two processes are not always in step. When the loss of species rapidly outpaces the formation of new species, this balance can be tipped enough to elicit what are known as “mass extinction” events.


Read more: Climate change is killing off Earth’s little creatures


A mass extinction is usually defined as a loss of about three quarters of all species in existence across the entire Earth over a “short” geological period of time. Given the vast amount of time since life first evolved on the planet, “short” is defined as anything less than 2.8 million years.

Since at least the Cambrian period that began around 540 million years ago when the diversity of life first exploded into a vast array of forms, only five extinction events have definitively met these mass-extinction criteria.

These so-called “Big Five” have become part of the scientific benchmark to determine whether human beings have today created the conditions for a sixth mass extinction.

An ammonite fossil found on the Jurassic Coast in Devon. The fossil record can help us estimate prehistoric extinction rates. Corey Bradshaw, Author provided

Read the rest of this entry »





The politics of environmental destruction

22 10 2019

C_SE 409521698 Paul Ehrlich Lecture Event - Eventbrite2

You’d think I’d get tired of this, wouldn’t you? Alas, the fight does wear me down, but I must persist.

My good friend and colleague, the legendary Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, as well as his equally legendary wife, Anne, will be joining us in Adelaide for a brief visit during their annual southern migration.

Apart from just catching up over a few good bottles of wine (oh, do those two enjoy fine wines!), we have the immense privilege of having Paul appear at two events while he’s in town.

I’m really only going to be talking about the second of the two events (the first is a Science Meets Parliament gig with me and many others at the South Australia Parliament on 12 November): a grand, public lecture and Q&A session held at Flinders University on Wednesday, 13 November.

Haven’t heard of Paul? Where have you been hiding? If by some miracle you haven’t, here’s a brief bio:

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University and Adjunct Professor, University of Technology, Sydney. He does research in population biology (includes ecology, evolutionary biology, behavior, and human ecology and cultural evolution). Ehrlich has carried out field, laboratory and theoretical research on a wide array of problems ranging from the dynamics and genetics of insect populations, studies of the ecological and evolutionary interactions of plants and herbivores, and the behavioral ecology of birds and reef fishes, to experimental studies of the effects of crowding on human beings and studies of cultural evolution, especially the evolution of norms. He is President of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere and is author and coauthor of more than 1100 scientific papers and articles in the popular press and over 40 books. He is best known to his efforts to alert the public to the many intertwined drivers that are pushing humanity toward a collapse of civilization – especially overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and lack of economic, racial, and gender equity. Ehrlich is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Entomological Society and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  Among his many other honours are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity (an explicit replacement for the Nobel Prize); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship; the Volvo Environment Prize; UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the Heinz Award for the Environment; the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences; the Blue Planet Prize;  the Eminent Ecologist award of the Ecological Society of America, the Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Prof Ehrlich has appeared as a guest on more than 1000 TV and radio programs; he also was a correspondent for NBC News. He has given many hundreds of public lectures in the past 50 years.

I hope your jaw just dropped.

Read the rest of this entry »





The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

Read the rest of this entry »





Our global system-of-systems

28 02 2018

Complex-systems

I’ve just read an excellent paper that succinctly, eloquently, and wisely summarised the current predicament of our highly interconnected, global, complex adaptive system (i.e., our environment).

If you are new to the discussions around state shifts, hysteresis, tipping points, and system collapse, there might be a lot in the new paper by Philip Garnett of the University of York that you could find intimidating (and not just because of the complexity of the concepts he discusses). If you are more up-to-date on these discussions, I highly recommend reading this paper for distilling some of the more pertinent questions.

The essence of the paper is that our global environment (Earth) is one giant, complex system made up of interacting sub-systems. We can think of these as a giant, interconnected network of nodes and connections (often called ‘edges’) between them. If you do ecological network theory, then you know what I’m talking about.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is that Philip Garnett is not an environmental scientist; in fact, he’s a a lecturer in Operations Management and Business Analytics (although he does have a background in genetics and biology) who specialises in complex systems theory. In fact, much of his paper uses socio-economic examples of system complexity and collapse, yet the applications to environmentalism in general, and to ecological integrity in particular, are spot on.

Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XLII

25 05 2017

My travel is finishing for now, but while in transit I’m obliged to do another instalment of biodiversity cartoons (and the second for 2017). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XLI

26 04 2017

Number 41 of my semi-regular instalment of biodiversity cartoons, and the first for 2017. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »





Where do citizens stand on climate change?

2 01 2017
Talk to the hand

Talk to the hand

Climate change caused by industrialisation is modifying the structure and function of the Biosphere. As we uncork 2017, our team launches a monthly section on plant and animal responses to modern climate change in the Spanish magazine Quercus – with an English version in Conservation Bytes. The initiative is the outreach component of a research project on the expression and evolution of heat-shock proteins at the thermal limits of Iberian lizards (papers in progress), supported by the British Ecological Society and the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness. The series will feature key papers (linking climate change and biodiversity) that have been published in the primary literature throughout the last decade. To set the scene, we start off putting the emphasis on how people perceive climate change.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez, David R. Vieites & Miguel B. Araújo

“I would like to mention a cousin of mine, who is a Professor in Physics at the University of Seville – and asked about this matter [climate change], he stated: listen, I have gathered ten of the top scientists worldwide, and none has guaranteed what the weather will be like tomorrow in Seville, so how could anyone predict what is going to occur in the world 300 years ahead?”

Mariano Rajoy (Spanish President from 2011 to date) in a public speech on 22 October 2007

Weather (studied by meteorology) behaves like a chaotic system, so a little variation in the atmosphere can trigger large meteorological changes in the short term that are hard to predict. On the contrary, climate (studied by climatology) is a measure of average conditions in the long term and thus far more predictable than weather. There is less uncertainty in a climate prediction for the next century than in a weather prediction for the next month. The incorrect statement made by the Spanish President reflects harsh misinformation and/or lack of environment-related knowledge among our politicians.

Climate has changed consistently from the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The IPCC’s latest report stablishes with 95 to 100% certainty (solid evidence and high consensus given published research) that greenhouse gases from human activities are the main drivers of global warming since the second half of the 20th Century (1,2). The IPCC also flags that current concentrations of those gases have no parallel in the last 800,000 years, and that climate predictions for the 21st Century vary mostly according to how we manage our greenhouse emissions (1,3). Read the rest of this entry »





Influential conservation ecology papers of 2016

16 12 2016

cheetah_shutterstock_37268149As I have done for the last three years (2015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2016 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XL

7 12 2016

That’s ’40’, of course. Six more biodiversity cartoons, and the last for 2016. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »





In conversation with Current Conservation

30 11 2016

bradshaw-tinkering-with-warIn August I had the pleasure of visiting the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, India, and while there I was interviewed by Hari Sridhar of Current Conservation. I admit that I haven’t always fully appreciated the excellent conservation reporting done by Current Conservation, and now after having been interviewed by them, I’m becoming more aware of their value (and not just because I appear in their latest issue). I really encourage CB.com readers to check it out.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2014, Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook argued that, given the current momentum of human population growth, no demographic “quick fixes” will be enough to change its trajectory in the near future. Therefore, environmental policy will be served better by prioritising measures such as technological and social innovation and reductions in consumption, while treating population reduction as a long-term goal. On his recent visit to Bengaluru, I spoke to Corey Bradshaw about the genesis of this study and its implications.

Hari Sridhar: You say “our models clearly demonstrate that the current momentum of the global human population precludes any demographic “quick fixes.” If that is the case, what do you suggest should be done instead?

Corey Bradshaw: I’ll back up a little bit and give you some of the context for writing the paper, which will sort of explain the title and that particular conclusion. Often when I gave public seminars, where I would talk about some environmental problem and future predictions of its worsening, some member of the audience would stand up at the end and say: “Well, the problem is humans. There are just too many of us. So all we need to do is focus on reducing the human population and we will fix all of these other problems.” That came up so often that I began to think: “Well, how quickly could we fix the overpopulation problem?”

Being, among other things, a population dynamics modeller, I decided I could model the human population just as well to look at that question. What would it take and how long for human population to start to decline, either from interventions or catastrophes? Human demographers don’t typically consider catastrophe scenarios when they project human populations. It’s instead done under very strict policy criteria, typically under the expected status quo, with some slight variation in things like family planning and structural change, you know, things like age structure. But we decided to try out more extreme scenarios as well to address that question. So first we said “let’s just see what happens when we only adjust fertility”. We did that and the population trajectory was more or less insensitive.

Then we said “let’s see what happens if we impose mass mortality events of various types — a third world war, pandemics, nuclear warfare” — and still the population was fairly resistant, even to these big changes. What we took away from these results was this: yes, population size must be addressed and we should have started looking into this seriously, probably post World War 2 when we were just under two billion people. We need to address overpopulation, but it’s not going to be something that can be fixed suddenly or be reduced anytime in the next few decades. It’s a century-scale issue. Should we be aiming to reduce the total human population? Yes. Should we be encouraging fertility reduction and family planning? Yes. It’s just that these will have positive outcomes at the century scale. Now most of our environmental problems are not things that we can ignore for a century. They have to be dealt with now. So our argument basically was that if we can’t address the human population problem, in the sense of reducing its size quickly, then we need to turn our attention to more immediate fixes, such as addressing consumption and various environmental mitigation policies. That was our main message. But in so doing we managed to anger both sides of the ideological position on the human population debate. In saying that something must be done but it can’t be done quickly, we upset the low-growth proponents. And by saying that we should nevertheless aim for long-term population reduction, we upset the people who are utterly opposed to any sort of fertility reduction or any action on human population growth.

HS: That’s something I want to ask you about — tell us about the attention this paper got within academia and in the media.

CB: Yeah, in the academic setting it was interesting. There were only a few critiques written about the paper and they were fairly weak. As the saying goes “All models are wrong but some are useful”, but what our model said was defensible. I suppose some of the terminology and the interpretation were points of contention with some people, but by and large the scientific community was satisfied with the result. But in the media it was completely different. Almost every single journalist I talked to put a particular slant on the results. Because of those two diametrically opposite opinions, people appeared to read anything they wanted to into it. Most people in the media didn’t of course read the paper. They read the title and maybe the abstract and the odd sentence here and there, and took from that whatever their ideological position dictated. There was right-wing media, there was left-wing media, and each had its own bias. I think only a handful of interviewers seemed to grasp the concept, which I didn’t think was that difficult. It also got a lot of responses on these comment streams. I don’t read those most of the time, but there are a lot of crazy people on the internet now. I got all sorts of hate mail, and even indirect death threats. Not serious ones. Just some random person telling me I should be removed from the face of the planet, and things like that. That happens from time to time when you deal with controversial topics.

HS: In the paper, you come up with some figures for what the population will be in 2100, under different scenarios. Could you tell us how much uncertainty there was around these figures?

CB: There was probably much less uncertainty than for most other species that are modelled. Humans tend to census themselves fairly well and we have a reasonable understanding of how many of us there are right now. While demographic data like age-specific survival rates are missing from some parts of the world, generally speaking at the scale of regions it’s well-known. So in terms of measurement error, the current and even the trends in those demographic rates are robust. Some of the assumptions, such as how much longer we’ll live given future medical innovations, are somewhat uncertain. But as it turns out, we are living so long now that even slight adjustments to longevity don’t make much difference in the long-term to total population size. And even large assumptions about, say, juvenile mortality, don’t make a huge difference because for a long-lived mammal the most important parameter that modifies population growth generally is the survival of breeding females. And breeding-age woman around the world tend to have the highest survival rates, so all the other parameters have smaller effects on population size. So while environmental variability has a large effect on small populations, it has a comparatively small effect on large populations. And we are a very large population. Incorporating a lot of uncertainty didn’t really make much of a difference. But the future scenarios were uncertain – will there be a war, will there be climate change reductions in food availability that will lead to higher juvenile mortality, etc.? We know little about the probability these things will occur and how important they’ll be. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXIX

20 10 2016

Six more biodiversity cartoons coming to you all the way from Sweden (where I’ve been all week). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Transition from the Anthropocene to the Minicene

24 09 2016
Going, going ...

Going, going … © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve just returned from a life-changing trip to South Africa, not just because it was my first time to the continent, but also because it has redefined my perspective on the megafauna extinctions of the late Quaternary. I was there primarily to attend the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50thAnniversary Celebration conference.

As I reported in my last post, the poaching rates in one of the larger, best-funded national parks in southern Africa (the Kruger) are inconceivably high, such that for at least the two species of rhino there (black and white), their future persistence probability is dwindling with each passing week. African elephants are probably not far behind.

As one who has studied the megafauna extinctions in the Holarctic, Australia and South America over the last 50,000 years, the trip to Kruger was like stepping back into the Pleistocene. I’ve always dreamed of walking up to a grazing herd of mammoths, woolly rhinos or Diprotodon, but of course, that’s impossible. What is entirely possible though is driving up to a herd of 6-tonne elephants and watching them behave naturally. In the Kruger anyway, you become almost blasé about seeing yet another group of these impressive beasts as you try to get that rare glimpse of a leopard, wild dogs or sable antelope (missed the two former, but saw the latter). Read the rest of this entry »





Biowealth

24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »





Influential conservation papers of 2015

25 12 2015

most popularAs I did last year and the year before, here’s another arbitrary, retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2015 as assessed via F1000 Prime.

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Scariest part of climate change isn’t what we know, but what we don’t

7 08 2015
image-20150731-18728-1ntffbr

© Nick Kim

My good friend and tropical conservation rockstar, Bill Laurancejust emailed me and asked if I could repost his recent The Conversation article here on ConservationBytes.com.

He said:

It’s going completely viral (26,000 reads so far) in just three days. It’s been republished in The Ecologist, I Fucking Love Science, and several other big media outlets.

Several non-scientists have said it really helped them to understand what’s known versus unknown in climate-change research—which was helpful because they feel pummelled by all the research and draconian stuff that gets reported and have problems parsing out what’s likely versus speculative.

With an introduction like that, you’ll just have to read it!

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”: so goes a Danish proverb attributed variously to baseball coach Yogi Berra and physicist Niels Bohr. Yet some things are so important — such as projecting the future impacts of climate change on the environment — that we obviously must try.

An Australian study published last week predicts that some rainforest plants could see their ranges reduced 95% by 2080. How can we make sense of that given the plethora of climate predictions?

In a 2002 press briefing, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence, distinguished among different kinds of uncertainty: things we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. Though derided at the time for playing word games, Rumsfeld was actually making a good point: it’s vital to be clear about what we’re unclear about.

So here’s my attempt to summarise what we think we know, don’t know, and things that could surprise us about climate change and the environment.

Things we think we know

We know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen markedly in the last two centuries, especially in recent decades, and the Earth is getting warmer. Furthermore, 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. That’s consistent with what we’d expect from the greenhouse effect. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIX

9 04 2015

Second batch of six biodiversity cartoons for 2015 (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

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