Should we bring back the thylacine? We asked 5 experts

17 08 2022
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Signe Dean, The Conversation

In a newly announced partnership with Texas biotech company Colossal Biosciences, Australian researchers are hoping their dream to bring back the extinct thylacine is a “giant leap” closer to fruition.

Scientists at University of Melbourne’s TIGRR Lab (Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research) believe the new partnership, which brings Colossal’s expertise in CRISPR gene editing on board, could result in the first baby thylacine within a decade.

The genetic engineering firm made headlines in 2021 with the announcement of an ambitious plan to bring back something akin to the woolly mammoth, by producing elephant-mammoth hybrids or “mammophants”.

But de-extinction, as this type of research is known, is a highly controversial field. It’s often criticised for attempts at “playing God” or drawing attention away from the conservation of living species. So, should we bring back the thylacine? We asked five experts.

Read the rest of this entry »




Can we resurrect the thylacine? Maybe, but it won’t help the global extinction crisis

9 03 2022

NFSA

(published first on The Conversation)

Last week, researchers at the University of Melbourne announced that thylacines or Tasmanian tigers, the Australian marsupial predators extinct since the 1930s, could one day be ushered back to life.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ (it was neither Tasmanian, because it was once common in mainland Australia, nor was it related to the tiger), went extinct in Tasmania in the 1930s from persecution by farmers and habitat loss. Art by Eleanor (Nellie) Pease, University of Queensland.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

The main reason for the optimism was the receipt of a A$5 million philanthropic donation to the research team behind the endeavour.

Advances in mapping the genome of the thylacine and its living relative the numbat have made the prospect of re-animating the species seem real. As an ecologist, I would personally relish the opportunity to see a living specimen.

The announcement led to some overhyped headlines about the imminent resurrection of the species. But the idea of “de-extinction” faces a variety of technical, ethical and ecological challenges. Critics (like myself) argue it diverts attention and resources from the urgent and achievable task of preventing still-living species from becoming extinct.

The rebirth of the bucardo

The idea of de-extinction goes back at least to the the creation of the San Diego Frozen Zoo in the early 1970s. This project aimed to freeze blood, DNA, tissue, cells, eggs and sperm from exotic and endangered species in the hope of one day recreating them.

The notion gained broad public attention with the first of the Jurassic Park films in 1993. The famous cloning of Dolly the sheep reported in 1996 created a sense that the necessary know-how wasn’t too far off.

The next technological leap came in 2008, with the cloning of a dead mouse that had been frozen at –20℃ for 16 years. If frozen individuals could be cloned, re-animation of a whole species seemed possible.

After this achievement, de-extinction began to look like a potential way to tackle the modern global extinction crisis.

Read the rest of this entry »




The integrity battlefield: where science meets policy

4 03 2022

Professor Ross Thompson, University of Canberra


On the whole, I am inclined to conclude that my experience of academia and publishing my work has been largely benign. Despite having published 120-odd peer-reviewed papers, I can count the number of major disputes on one hand. Where there have been disagreements, they have centred on issues of content, and despite the odd grumble, things have rarely escalated to the ad hominem. I have certainly never experienced concerted attacks on my work.

But that changed recently. I work in water science, participating in and leading multi-disciplinary teams that do research directly relevant to water policy and management. My colleagues and I work closely with state and federal governments and are often funded by them through a variety of mechanisms. Our teams are a complex blend of scientists from universities, state and federal research agencies, and private-sector consultancies. Water is big business in Australia, and its management is particularly pertinent as the world’s driest inhabited continent struggles to come to terms with the impacts of climate change.

In the last 10 years, Australia has undergone a AU$16 billion program of water reform that has highlighted the extreme pressure on ecosystems, rural communities, and water-dependent industries. In 2019, two documentaries (Cash Splash and Pumped) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were highly critical of the  outcomes of water reform. A group of scientists involved in working on the Murray-Darling Basin were concerned enough about the accuracy of aspects of those stories to support Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne in drafting an Open Letter in response. I was a co-author on that letter, and something into which I did not enter lightly. We were very concerned about being seen to advocate for any particular policy position, but were simultaneously committed to contributing to an informed public debate. A later investigation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority also highlighted concerns with the Cash Splash documentary.

Fast forward to 2021 and the publication of a paper by Colloff et al. (2021) in the Australasian Journal of Water Resources. In that paper, the authors were critical of the scientists that had contributed to the Open Letter and claimed they had been subject to “administrative capture” and “issue advocacy”. Administrative capture is defined here as:

Read the rest of this entry »




Extinct megafauna prone to ancient hunger games

14 12 2021

I’m very chuffed today to signal the publication of what I think is one of the most important contributions to the persistent conundrum surrounding the downfall of Australia’s megafauna many tens of millennia ago.

Diprotodon optimum. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

Sure, I’m obviously biased in that assessment because it’s a paper from our lab and I’m a co-author, but if readers had any inkling of the work that went into this paper, I think they might consider adopting my position. In addition, the injection of some actual ecology into the polemic should be viewed as fresh and exciting.

Having waded into the murky waters of the ‘megafauna debate’ for about a decade now, I’ve become a little sensitive to even a whiff of binary polemic surrounding their disappearance in Australia. Acolytes of the climate-change prophet still beat their drums, screaming for the smoking gun of a spear sticking out of a Diprotodon‘s skull before they even entertain the notion that people might have had something to do with it — but we’ll probably never find one given the antiquity of the event (> 40,000 years ago). On the other side are the blitzkriegers who declaim that human hunting single-handedly wiped out the lot.

Well, as it is for nearly all extinctions, it’s actually much more complicated than that. In the case of Sahul’s megafauna disappearances, both drivers likely contributed, but the degree to which both components played a part depends on where and when you look — Fred Saltré demonstrated that elegantly a few years ago.

Palorchestes. Artwork by palaeontologist and artist Eleanor (Nellie) Pease (commissioned by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage)

So, why does the polemic persist? In my view, it’s because we have largely depended on the crude comparison of relative dates to draw our conclusions. That is, we look to see if some climate-change proxy shifted in any notable way either before or after an inferred extinction date. If a particular study claims evidence that a shift happened before, then it concludes climate change was the sole driver. If a study presents evidence that a shift happened after, then humans did it. Biases in geochronological inference (e.g., spatial, contamination), incorrect application of climate proxies, poor taxonomic resolution, and not accounting for the Signor-Lipps effect all contribute unnecessarily to the debate because small errors or biases can flip relative chronologies on their head and push conclusions toward uncritical binary outcomes. The ‘debate’ has been almost entirely grounded on this simplistically silly notion.

This all means that the actual ecology has been either ignored or merely made up based on whichever pet notion of the day is being proffered. Sure, there are a few good ecological inferences out there from some damn good modellers and ecologists, but these have all been greatly simplified themselves. This is where our new paper finally takes the ecology part of the problem to the next level.

Led by Global Ecology and CABAH postdoctoral fellow, John Llewelyn, and guided by modelling guru Giovanni Strona at University of Helsinki, the paper Sahul’s megafauna were vulnerable to plant-community changes due to their position in the trophic network has just been published online in Ecography. Co-authors include Kathi Peters, Fred Saltré, and me from Flinders Global Ecology, Matt McDowell and Chris Johnson from UTAS, Daniel Stouffer from University of Canterbury (NZ), and Sara de Visser from University of Groningen (Netherlands).

Read the rest of this entry »




And this little piggy went extinct

24 11 2021

Back in June of this year I wrote (whinged) about the disappointment of writing a lot of ecological models that were rarely used to assist real-world wildlife management. However, I did hint that another model I wrote had assistance one government agency with pig management on Kangaroo Island.

Well, now that report has been published online and I’m permitted to talk about it. I’m also very happy to report that, in the words of the Government of South Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA),

Modelling by the Flinders University Global Ecology Laboratory shows the likelihood and feasibility of feral pig eradication under different funding and eradication scenarios. With enough funding, feral pigs could be eradicated from Kangaroo Island in 2 years.

This basically means that because of the model, PIRSA was successful in obtaining enough funding to pretty much ensure that the eradication of feral pigs from Kangaroo Island will be feasible!

Why is this important to get rid of feral pigs? They are a major pest on the Island, causing severe economic and environmental impacts both to farms and native ecosystems. On the agricultural side of things, they prey on newborn lambs, eat crops, and compete with livestock for pasture. Feral pigs damage natural habitats by up-rooting vegetation and fouling waterholes. They can also spread weeds and damage infrastructure, as well as act as hosts of parasites and diseases (e.g., leptospirosis, tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease) that pose serious threats to industry, wildlife, and even humans.

Read the rest of this entry »




Killing (feral) cats quickly (and efficiently)

20 05 2021

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a paper led by Kathryn Venning (KV) that was derived from her Honours work in the lab. Although she’s well into her PhD on an entirely different topic, I’m overjoyed that she persevered and saw this work to publication.

Here, killa, killa, killa, killa …

As you probably already know, feral cats are a huge problem in Australia. The are probably the primary reason Australia leads the world in mammal extinctions in particular, and largely the reason so many re-introduction attempts of threatened marsupials fail miserably only after a few years.

Feral cats occupy every habitat in the country, from the high tropics to the deserts, and from the mountains to the sea. They adapt to the cold just as easily as they adapt to the extreme heat, and they can eat just about anything that moves, from invertebrates to the carcases of much larger animals that they scavenge.

Cats are Australia’s bane, but you can’t help but be at least a little impressed with their resilience.

Still, we have to try our best to get rid of them where we can, or at least reduce their densities to the point where their ecological damage is limited.

Typically, the only efficient and cost-effective way to do that is via lethal control, but by using various means. These can include direct shooting, trapping, aerial poison-baiting, and a new ‘smart’ method of targeted poison delivery via a prototype device known as a Felixer™️. The latter are particularly useful for passive control in areas where ground-shooting access is difficult.

A live Felixer™️ deployed on Kangaroo Island (photo: CJA Bradshaw 2020)

A few years back the federal government committed what might seem like a sizeable amount of money to ‘eradicate’ cats from Australia. Yeah, good luck with that, although the money has been allocated to several places where cat reduction and perhaps even eradication is feasible. Namely, on islands.

Read the rest of this entry »




Population of First Australians grew to millions, much more than previous estimates

30 04 2021

Shutterstock/Jason Benz Bennee


We know it is more than 60,000 years since the first people entered the continent of Sahul — the giant landmass that connected New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania when sea levels were lower than today.

But where the earliest people moved across the landscape, how fast they moved, and how many were involved, have been shrouded in mystery.

Our latest research, published today shows the establishment of populations in every part of this giant continent could have occurred in as little as 5,000 years. And the entire population of Sahul could have been as high as 6.4 million people.

This translates to more than 3 million people in the area that is now modern-day Australia, far more than any previous estimate.


Read more: We mapped the ‘super-highways’ the First Australians used to cross the ancient land


The first people could have entered through what is now western New Guinea or from the now-submerged Sahul Shelf off the modern-day Kimberley (or both).

But whichever the route, entire communities of people arrived, adapted to and established deep cultural connections with Country over 11 million square kilometres of land, from northwestern Sahul to Tasmania.

A map showing a much larger landmass as Australia is joined to both Tasmania and New Guinea due to lower sea levels

Map of what Australia looked like for most of the human history of the continent when sea levels were lower than today. Author provided


This equals a rate of population establishment of about 1km per year (based on a maximum straight-line distance of about 5,000km from the introduction point to the farthest point).

That’s doubly impressive when you consider the harshness of the Australian landscape in which people both survived and thrived.

Previous estimates of Indigenous population

Various attempts have been made to calculate the number of people living in Australia before European invasion. Estimates vary from 300,000 to more than 1,200,000 people. Read the rest of this entry »





Job: Research Associate in Mammalian Morphology-Environment Interactions

15 02 2021

This might be a little outside the realms of ‘conservation’ per se, but put has a lot of ecology-evolution components, with spin-off applications to modern conservation. Please spread the word.



The Research Associate will investigate how the skull of extant mammal populations varies according to their environment, with a focus on the interaction between mega-herbivores and vegetation change.

The project aims to understand the relationship between evolved morphological adaptation and phenotypic plasticity in changing local environments. The Research Associate will extrapolate this knowledge to the iconic extinct Australian megafauna, with the aim of establishing how changing conditions of the past might have contributed to the demise of the Australian megafauna.

The candidate will be expected to work within a large group of collaborators at Flinders University and interstate, and supervise postgraduate students. The collaboration environment includes teams of national and international researchers, and will particularly integrate research in Global Ecology Lab led by Corey Bradshaw, and Chris Johnson‘s lab at the University of Tasmania. The candidate will be expected to liaise with academic, administrative and technical staff according to the University’s policies, practices and standards.

Key position responsibilities

The Research Associate will be responsible for:

Read the rest of this entry »




The only constant is change

27 07 2020

I just wrote a piece for the Flinders University alumnus magazine — Encounter — and I thought I’d share it here.

encounter-2020_Page_01

As an ecologist concerned with how life changes and adapts to the vagaries of climate and pervasive biological shuffling, ‘constant change’ is more than just a mantra — it is, in fact, the mathematical foundation of our entire discipline.

But if change is inevitable, how can we ensure it is in the right direction?

Take climate change for example. Since the Earth first formed it has experienced abrupt climate shifts many times, both to the detriment of most species in existence at any given time, and to the advantage of those species evolving from the ashes.

For more than 3.5 billion years, species have evolved and gone extinct, such that more than 99% of all species that have ever existed are now confined, permanently, to the vaults of the past.

Read the rest of this entry »





Climate change and humans together pushed Australia’s biggest beasts to extinction

25 11 2019

people-megafaunaOver the last 60,000 years, many of the world’s largest species disappeared forever. Some of the largest that we generally call ‘megafauna’ were first lost in Sahul — the super-continent formed by the connection of Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level. The causes of these extinctions have been heavily debated for decades within the scientific community.

Three potential drivers of these extinctions have been suggested. The first is climate change that assumes an increase in arid conditions that eventually became lethal to megafauna. The second proposed mechanism is that the early ancestors of Aboriginal people who either hunted megafauna species to extinction, or modified ecosystems to put the largest species at a disadvantage. The third and most nuanced proposed driver of extinction is the combination of the first two.

The primary scientific tools we scientists use to determine which of these proposed causes of extinction have the most support are dated fossil records from the extinct species themselves, as well as archaeological evidence from early Aboriginal people. Traditionally, the main way we use these data is to construct a timeline of when the last fossil of a species was preserved, and compare this to evidence indicating when people arrived. We can also reconstruct climate patterns back tens of thousands of years using models similar to the ones used today to predict future climates. Based on the comparison of all of these different timelines, we conclude that abrupt climate changes in the past were influential if they occurred at or immediately before a recorded extinction event. On the other hand, if megafauna extinctions occur immediately after humans are thought to have arrived, we attribute more weight to human arrival as a driver.

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Logbook of Australia’s ancient megafauna

20 11 2019

FosSahul_transparent_larger

Australia is home to some of the most unique species worldwide, including egg-laying mammals, tree-climbing, desert-bouncing and and burrow-digging marsupials, and huge flightless birds. While these animals are fascinating, the creatures that used to roam Australia’s landscape thousands of years ago were even more remarkable — these included wombat-like beasts as big as rhinos, birds more than two metres tall, lizards more than seven metres long, and a marsupial lion as big as a leopard.

Just how and why these animals went extinct has been challenging scientists for decades. But examining dated fossil records is one of the primary ways we can look into the past. The ever-increasing number of fossils and the advances in dating techniques have produced a wealth of material we can use to reconstruct the long-lost past.

DiprotodonEven with these data, it has been a struggle to gather enough fossils for large-scale analyses because reports of these records are usually scattered across the scientific literature, with no standardised quality control to make them comparable to each other. Designing a way to standardise these records is therefore important to avoid misleading conclusions.

The FosSahul database was first established in 2016 to try to alleviate these problems — it gathered all the fossil specimens for large animals (excluding humans) from the Late Quaternary (up to ~ 1 million years before present) across the region known as ‘Sahul’, the combined super-continent that included New Guinea and Australia when sea levels were much lower than they are today.

While FosSahul was an important step, the database needed to be updated. First, the quality rating of the fossil dates in the original version was a little subjective and lacked transparency in some cases. This is because the database did not capture enough detail to be able to reproduce all the steps leading to a particular quality rating. Second, given that new fossils are discovered regularly, updates are necessary to include the latest research. Read the rest of this entry »





Fancy a job in biosecurity controlling pest species?

13 12 2018

Rabbits-Western-NSW

My mate Dr Brad Page — Principal Biosecurity Officer (Pest Animals) at Biosecurity SA — asked me to post the following jobs he’s advertising for pest-animal control. Now, I’m near-completely opposed to ‘wild dog’ (i.e., dingo) control in Australia, but I’ve agreed to post the third position as well, despite my ecological misgivings. Brad has a different perspective.

We have exciting opportunities for three new pest animal control coordinators, who will be working to support and reinvigorate control of deer, rabbits, and ‘wild dogs’.

All three coordinators will be part of our Biosecurity SA Division within PIRSA. These new positions will report to our Principal Biosecurity Officer, Pest Animals.

cnt-deer

Deer and Rabbit Control Coordinators (two positions)

The Deer Control Coordinator and the Rabbit Control Coordinator will provide tailored professional support to natural resource management (NRM) staff and community groups doing control programs. These coordinators will aim to increase the impact of deer and rabbit control programs to support primary producers and biodiversity managers. The position will connect and empower existing community and industry groups, maximising impacts of their efforts to control feral deer and rabbits in agricultural landscapes. Read the rest of this entry »





Minister, why is the dingo no longer ‘fauna’?

7 09 2018

dead dingoSo, a few of us have just submitted a letter contesting the Western Australia Government’s recent decision to delist dingoes as ‘fauna’ (I know — what the hell else could they be?). The letter was organised brilliantly by Dr Kylie Cairns (University of New South Wales), and she and the rest of the signatories have agreed to reproduce the letter in full here on ConservationBytes.com. If you feel so compelled, please voice your distaste of this decision officially by contacting the Minister (details below).

CJA Bradshaw

Honourable Stephen Dawson MLC
Minister for Environment; Disability Services
Address: 12th Floor, Dumas House
2 Havelock Street, WEST PERTH WA 6005
(minister.dawson@dpc.wa.gov.au)

cc: Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (biodiversity@dbca.wa.gov.au)
cc: Brendan Dooley (brendan.dooley@dpc.wa.gov.au)

Dear Minister,

The undersigned welcome the opportunity to comment on and recommend alteration of the proposed section (9)(2) order of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (BC Act) that changes the listing of the dingo from “fauna” to “non-fauna” in Western Australia. Removing the “fauna” status from dingoes has serious consequences for the management and conservation of this species and other native biota it benefits. Currently, dingoes are classed as A7, or fauna that requires a management policy. The proposed section (9)(2) order will move dingoes (as “non-fauna”) to the A5 class, meaning that dingoes must be (lethally) controlled and there will be no obligation for the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions to have an appropriate management policy (or approval).

Currently, under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (WC Act) the dingo is considered “unprotected” fauna allowing management under a Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions management policy. A section (9)(2) order demoting dingoes to “non-fauna” will remove the need for Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions management policy and instead mandate the lethal control of dingoes throughout Western Australia.

As prominent researchers in top predator ecology, biology, cultural value and genetics, we emphasise the importance of dingoes within Australian, and particularly Western Australia’s ecosystems. Dingoes are indisputably native based on the legislative definition of “any animal present in Australia prior to 1400 AD” from the BC Act. Dingoes have been present in Australia for at least 5000 years. On the Australian mainland they are now the sole non-human land-based top predator. Their importance to the ecological health and resilience of Australian ecosystems cannot be overstated. Read the rest of this entry »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XLV

6 12 2017

The last set of biodiversity cartoons for 2017. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XLIV

9 10 2017

Here’s another set of biodiversity cartoons to make you giggle, groan, and contemplate the Anthropocene extinction crisis. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »





Protecting one of the world’s marine wonders

17 06 2017

IMG_6789

© CJA Bradshaw

While I’m in transit (yet a-bloody-gain) to Helsinki, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on one of the most inspiring eco-tourism experiences I recently had in South Australia.

If you are South Australian and have even the slightest interest in wildlife, you will have of course at least heard of the awe-inspiring mass breeding aggregation of giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) that occur in May-July every year in upper Spencer Gulf near the small town of Whyalla. If you have been lucky enough to go there and see these amazing creatures themselves, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t yet been there, take it from me that it is so very much worth it to attempt the voyage.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0121.

Father-daughter giant-cuttlefish-snorkelling selfie. © CJA Bradshaw

Despite having lived in South Australia for nearly a decade now, I only got my chance to see these wonderful creatures when a father at my daughter’s school organised a school trip. After driving for five hours from Adelaide to Whyalla, we hired our snorkelling gear and got into the water the very next morning. 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 »





More things stay the same, more we retrogress

20 07 2016

obrazek_1idiommmmsmmWithin six months of Abbott and the Coalition seizing power in the 2013 Australian election, decades—if not centuries—of environmental damage and retrograde policies unfolded. But this was no run-of-the-mill incompetence and neglect by government—this was an all-out attack on anything with the merest whiff of environmental protection. The travesty is well-documented, from infamously axing both the carbon-pricing scheme and climate commission, eradicating Labor’s 80% emissions-reduction target by 2050, diluting the Renewable Energy Target, refusing to commit to enforcing the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act (fortunately, this is now law), defunding the only independent legal entity available to limit environmentally destructive development (Environmental Defenders Office), to even attempting to remove the rights of environmental groups to challenge development proposals (thankfully, that failed).

The Coalition’s backward and ineffectual climate change-mitigation policies alone are evidence enough for long-term damage, but their war on the environment in general means that even the future election of a more environmentally responsible government will not undo the damage quickly, if at all. As a result of these and other nearsighted policies, Australia remains one of the highest per-capita greenhouse-gas emitters on the planet, has one of the highest per-capita water uses of any nation, leads the world in mammal extinctions, continues to deforest its already forest-poor landscape, and is a society utterly unprepared to deal with the future challenges of a degraded planet.
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George Hubert Wilkins — Australia’s first whitefella conservationist?

6 07 2016

As many of you know, I have held the ‘Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change’ at the University of Adelaide since January 2015. My colleague and friend, Barry Brook, was the foundation Chair-holder from 2006-2014.

Initially set up by Government of South Australia to “… advise government, industry, and the community on how to tackle climate change …”, it now is only a titular position based at the University. While I certainly try to live up to the aims of the Chair, it’s even more difficult to live up to the namesake himself — Sir George Hubert Wilkins.

Given I’ve held the position now for over a year and half, I’ve had plenty of time to read about this legendary South Australian (I do choose my words carefully here). Despite most Australians having never heard of the man, it is my opinion that he should be as well known in this country as other whitefella explorers such as Douglas Mawson, Matthew Flinders, Robert Burke, William Wills, and Charles Sturt.

Sadly, he is not well-known, for a litany of possible reasons ranging from spending so much time out of Australia, never having a formal qualification in many of the skills in which he excelled (e.g., geography, meteorology, aviation, engineering, cinematography, biology, etc.), disrespect from other contemporary Australian explorers, and some rather bizarre behaviour later in his career. The list of this man’s achievements is staggering, as was his ability to thumb his nose at death (who, I might add, tried her hardest to escort him off this mortal coil many times well before a heart attack claimed him at the age of 70).

Many books have been written about Wilkins, but as I slowly make my way through some of the better-written tomes, one unsung aspect of his career has struck a deep chord within me — it turns out that Wilkins was also a extremely concerned biodiversity conservationist. Read the rest of this entry »





What immigration means for Australia’s climate-change policies

12 06 2016

After dipping my foot into the murky waters of human population demography a few years ago, I’m a little surprised that I find myself here again. But this time I’m not examining what the future of the global human population might be and what it could mean for our environment; instead, I’m focussing on Australia’s population future and its implications for our greenhouse-gas emissions trajectories.

Just published in Asia and the Pacific Policy Forum1, my paper with long-time co-author Barry Brook is entitled Implications of Australia’s population policy for future greenhouse gas emissions targets. It deals with the sticky question of just how many people Australia can ‘afford’ to house. By ‘afford’ I mean several things, but most specifically in the context of this paper is by how much we need to reduce our per capita emissions to achieve future reduction targets under various immigration-rate scenarios.

In many ways Australia’s population is typical of other developed nations in that its intrinsic fertility (1.78 children/woman) is below replacement (which is itself ~ 2.1 children/female). Yet Australia’s population grew nearly twice (1.88×) as large from 1971 to 2014. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most of our population growth is due to net immigration.

In fact, between 2006 and 2014, Australia welcomed a net of 215,000 new people per year (this means that of all the permanent immigrants and emigrants, a ‘net’ of approximately 215,000 stayed each year), which represents about 1% of our total population size (that latter most likely just ticked over 24 million). Read the rest of this entry »








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