Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp

14 01 2021

Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container

Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face. Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe. Read the rest of this entry »

Australia: the world’s unsustainable ‘mine’

16 09 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has finally woken a few people up in this country. The closure of our automotive industry, the volatility of the mining sector, the deteriorating relations with our largest trading partner (China) — all these have seem to have acted like smelling salts for our semi-conscious leaders.

Australia has an abysmal manufacturing capacity, and I know that trying to fix this is very much on the table now at the highest levels. Australia is for the most part a 7.7 million km2 ‘mine’ to the world — we of course dig up our minerals and ship them overseas, and we export shit-tonnes of coal.

But much of our agricultural produce goes overseas too, including the very poorly valued live-export industry that takes the little water and minerals already in Australian soils and turns them inefficiently into livestock that is then sold overseas whole and living. Even putting aside the woeful animal-welfare issues this entails, it’s not much of a value-add and really a poor business model.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LV

4 07 2019

The fourth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Increasing human population density drives environmental degradation in Africa

26 06 2019



Almost a decade ago, I (co-) wrote a paper examining the socio-economic correlates of gross, national-scale indices of environmental performance among the world’s nations. It turned out to be rather popular, and has so far garnered over 180 citations and been cited in three major policy documents.

In addition to the more pedestrian ranking itself, we also tested which of three main socio-economic indicators best explained variation in the environmental rank — a country’s gross ‘wealth’ indicator (gross national income) turned out to explain the most, and there was no evidence to support a non-linear relationship between environmental performance and per capita wealth (the so-called environmental Kuznets curve).

Well, that was then, and this is now. Something that always bothered me about that bit of research was that in some respects, it probably unfairly disadvantaged certain countries that were in more recent phases of the ‘development’ pathway, such that environmental damage long since done in major development pulses many decades or even centuries prior to today (e.g., in much of Europe) probably meant that certain countries got a bit of an unfair advantage. In fact, the more recently developed nations probably copped a lower ranking simply because their damage was fresher

While I defend the overall conclusions of that paper, my intentions have always been since then to improve on the approach. That desire finally got the better of me, and so I (some might say unwisely) decided to focus on a particular region of the planet where some of the biggest biodiversity crunches will happen over the next few decades — Africa.

Africa is an important region to re-examine these national-scale relationships for many reasons. The first is that it’s really the only place left on the planet where there’s a semi-intact megafauna assemblage. Yes, the great Late Pleistocene megafauna extinction event did hit Africa too, but compared to all other continents, it got through that period relatively unscathed. So now we (still) have elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, etc. It’s a pretty bloody special place from that perspective alone.


Elephants in the Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

Then there’s the sheer size of the continent. Unfortunately, most mercator projections of the Earth show a rather quaint continent nuzzled comfortably in the middle of the map, when in reality, it’s a real whopper. If you don’t believe me, go to truesize.com and drag any country of interest over the African continent (it turns out that its can more or less fit all of China, Australia, USA, and India within its greater borders).

Third, most countries in Africa (barring a few rare exceptions), are still in the so-called ‘development’ phase, although some are much farther along the economic road than others. For this reason, an African nation-to-nation comparison is probably a lot fairer than comparing, say, Bolivia to Germany, or Mongolia to Canada.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIV

17 05 2019

The third set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Academics and Indigenous groups unite to stand up for the natural world

26 04 2019


Rain forest gives way to pastures in the Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso. Photo by Thiago Foresti.

More than 600 scientists from every country in the EU and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups have come together for the first time. This is because we see a window of opportunity in the ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Brazil. In a Letter published in Science today, we are asking the EU to stand up for Brazilian Indigenous rights and the natural world. Strong action from the EU is particularly important given Brazil’s recent attempts to dismantle environmental legislation and ‘develop the unproductive Amazon’.

It’s worth clarifying — this isn’t about the EU trying to control Brazil — it’s about making sure our imports aren’t driving violence and deforestation. Foreign white people trying to ‘protect nature’ abroad have a dark and shameful past, where actions done in the name of conservation have led to the eviction of millions of Indigenous people. This has predominantly been to create (what we in the world of conservation would call) ‘protected areas’. The harsh reality is that most protected areas either are or have been ancestral lands of Indigenous people who are closely linked to their land and depend on it for their survival. Clearly, conservationists need to support Indigenous people. This new partnership between European scientists and Brazilian Indigenous groups is doing just that.


Brazil’s forest loss 2001-2013 shown in red. Indigenous lands outlined. By Mike Clark; data from GlobalForestWatch.org

In Brazil, many Indigenous groups still have a right to their land. This land is predominantly found in the Amazon rainforest, where close to a million Indigenous people live and depend on a healthy forest. Indigenous people are some of the best protectors of this vast forest, and are crucial to a future of long-term successful conservation. But Brazilian Indigenous groups and local communities are increasingly under attack. Violence on deforestation frontiers in Brazil has spiked this month, with at least 9 people found dead. The future is particularly scary for Indigenous people when there are quotes such as this from the man who is currently the President It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.

On top of human rights and environmental concerns, there is a strong profit driven case for halting deforestation. For example, ongoing deforestation in the Amazon risks flipping large parts of the rainforest to savanna – posing a serious risk to agricultural productivity, food security, local livelihoods, and the Brazilian economy. Zero-deforestation doesn’t harm agri-business, it allows for its longevity. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIII

25 03 2019

The second set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LII

2 01 2019

The first set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019 to usher in the New Year. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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The European Union just made bioenergy worse for biodiversity

21 08 2018

bioenergy2While some complain that the European Union (EU) is an enormous, cumbersome beast (just ask the self-harming Brexiteers), it generally has some rather laudable legislative checks and balances for nature conservation. While far from perfect, the rules applying to all Member States have arguably improved the state of both European environments, and those from which Europeans source their materials.

But legislation gets updated from time to time, and not always in the ways that benefit biodiversity (and therefore, us) the most. This is exactly what’s just happened with the new EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) released in June this year.

Now, this is the point where most readers’ eyes glaze over. EU policy discussions are exceedingly dry and boring (I’ve dabbled a bit in this arena before, and struggled to stay awake myself). But I’ll try to lighten your required concentration load somewhat by being as brief and explanatory as possible, but please stay with me — this shit is important.

In fact, it’s so important that I joined forces with some German colleagues with particular expertise in greenhouse-gas accounting and EU policy — Klaus Hennenberg and Hannes Böttcher1 of Öko-Institut (Institute of Applied Ecology) in Darmstadt — to publish an article available today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

bioenergy4So back to the RED legislation. The original ‘RED 2009‘ covered reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions and the mitigation of negative impacts on areas of high biodiversity value, such as primary forests, protected areas, and highly biodiverse grasslands, and for areas of high carbon stock like wetlands, forests, and peatlands.

But RED 2009 was far from what we might call ‘ambitious’, because globally mandatory criteria on water, soil and social aspects for agriculture and forestry production were excluded to avoid conflicts with rules of the World Trade Organization.

Nor did RED 2009 apply to all bioenergy types, and only included biofuels used in transport, including gaseous and solid fuels, and bioliquids used for electricity, heating, and cooling. But RED 2009 requirements also applied to all raw materials sourced from agriculture and forestry, especially as forest biomass is explicitly mentioned as a raw material for the production of advanced biofuels in the RED 2009 extension from 2015.

Thus, one could conceivably call RED 2009 criteria ‘minimum safeguards’.

But as of June this year, the EU accepted a 2016 proposal to recast RED 2009 into what is now called ‘RED II’. While the revisions might look good on paper by setting new incentives in transport (advanced biofuels) and in heating and cooling that will likely increase the use of biomass sourced from forests, and by extending the directive on solid and gaseous biomass, the amendments unfortunately take some huge leaps backwards in terms of sustainability requirements.

These include the following stuff-ups: Read the rest of this entry »

Primate woes where the oil palm grows

16 08 2018


A new article just published in PNAS reveals how future expansion of the palm-oil industry could have terrible consequences for African primates.

Researchers from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, CIRAD, Liverpool John Moores University, and ETH Zurich searched for “areas of compromise” combining high oil palm suitability with low primate vulnerability, as possible locations where to accommodate new oil-palm plantations while reducing detrimental effects on primate populations.

Results show that there is small room for compromise. In fact, potential areas of compromise are rare across the whole African continent, covering a total extent of 0.13 Mha of land highly suited to oil palm cultivation where primate vulnerability is low, rising to just 3.3 Mha if all land with at least minimum suitability to grow oil palm is taken into account.

Palm oil production is steadily rising, and expected to accelerate in response to growing world’s population, with future demand driven not only by the food industry, but also by the biofuel market. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss L

3 08 2018

The fifth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2018. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Drivers of protected-area effectiveness in Africa

31 01 2018

Bowker_et_al-2017-Conservation_Biology. Fig. 1

Subtropical and
Tropical Moist Broadleaf Forest of
Africa with 224 parks surrounded
by a 10-km buffer area. ©
2016 Society for Conservation Biology.

I’ve just read an interesting paper published in late 2016 in Conservation Biology that had so far escaped my attention. But given my interest in African conservation recently (and some interesting research results on the determinants of environmental performance for that region should be coming soon out of our lab), the work caught my eye.

The paper by Bowker and colleagues asked a question that has been asked previously regarding the ‘effectiveness’ of protected areas — do they succeed in limiting forest loss? While forest loss itself is not necessarily indicative of biodiversity erosion in any given area (for that, you need measures of species trends, etc.), it is arguably one of the most important drivers of species loss today.

The first set out to differentiate ‘effective’ from ‘ineffective’ protected areas, which was a simple binary variable related to whether there was less deforestation inside the protected area relative to comparable points outside (effective), or greater than or equal to deforestation outside (ineffective). The authors then related this binary response to a series of biophysical and social indicators. 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.

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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.

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Inaugural Environmental Arsehat of the Year

9 01 2017

2016-environmental-arsehat-of-the-yearAs you recall, I asked both for your nominations and your votes for the inaugural Environmental Arsehat of the Year. Nominees could be a person or an entity who stood out in 2016 for his/her/their egregious attacks on environmental integrity. There were many fine nominations, and so now I’m elated to announce the results of the voting. Drumroll …

In 4th place with 13.7% of the votes, Matt Ridley. He is Conservative hereditary peer in the British House of Lords, and a flack for the coal industry who has championed global-warming denialism.

In 3rd place with 14.9% of the votes, Gautam Adani. The multibillionaire is a major coal baron in India and elswhere who has made a lot of splash recently in Australia for trying to build the biggest coal mine in the world that will likely finish off the Great Barrier Reef once and for all. Nice one, Gautam.

In 2nd place with 17.7% of the votes, The Liberal-National Party of Queensland. The (former) State Government ushered Queensland into 2016 by making the state one of the world’s deforestation hotspots, yet again!

And now, for the winner with a whopping 30.3% of the popular vote; please put your virtual hands together for the 2016 Environmental Arsehat of the YearRead the rest of this entry »

Vote for the 2016 Environmental Arsehat of the Year

20 12 2016

arsehat_greenIn March 2016 I requested nominations for the Environmental Arsehat of the Year, and you happily complied by providing many excellent suggestions.

I now request that you vote on these nominations using the polling widget that follows a brief description of each nominee and why they’ve been suggested by the CB.com community. Once the votes are tallied, I’ll post the ‘winner’ (loser) in a new post in early 2017. Happy voting!

The nominations (in no particular order)

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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.

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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.

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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 »