Home is Where the Life is: The Human Island (Chapter 14)

wish to start this chapter with a short hand version of a story I learn in the first year of my degree which has remained a source of inspiration to me ever since. It’s of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, Ornithoptera richmondia.


The Richmond Birdwing butterfly

While never being quite as abundant as the previously discussed Passenger Pigeon, the Richmond Birdwing was once a prolific species found along the coast regions of south east Queensland. At times of the year, they were a wonder for the locals as this large species took wing in search of a mate. Over the past 100 years however, their numbers have slowly declined until their range was reduced to small fragmented patches.

Urban development provided much of the impact to range and not only through land clearing. Aristolochia elegans, the Dutchman’s pipe vine, was introduced to the region as an ornamental garden plant. Apparently the birdwing is unable to tell the difference between the Dutchman’s pipe and the two native vines, Pararistolochia praevenosa and P. laheyana, as it would lay its eggs on which ever it came upon. Unfortunately the Dutchman’s pipe is poisonous to the larvae.


“Aristolochia elegans” By jennyhsu47

Of course, we simply can’t ask people to move so we can again provide habitat for the birdwing (as discussed in Chapter 8, there are some who would shrug at the potential loss of a species anyway), but there is a compromise. The Richmond Conservation Network has been working to remove the Dutchman’s pipe in favour of the two native vines. By doing so, they promote corridors of suitable habitat within urban environments to allow this species to move across the region. So far, the sightings have been increasing (2008 was a bumper year for sightings), but it is a slow ongoing process to re-establish the range of a species (learn more at The Richmond Conservation Network’s website).

The story stands as an example of the exact opposite to islandising our species. Where the Andrew Bolt’s of the world would smugly laugh at the lost Dodo and look on proudly as the slabs are poured down for a new suburb or shopping complex (see Chapter 8), here with the Richard birdwing, we have a suggestive glimpse of urban environments that support greater biodiversity as well as our species.

In turn, urban agriculture and pest control are improved by the greater biodiversity. As climate zones shift, species are no longer trapped in fragmented regions, but can move with suitable regions. As discussed in chapters 9 and 10, the sense of identity and of community are enriched by a thriving unique biodiversity identity and in chapter 11 we saw some indicators of genuine financial gain from various ecosystems.

It’s simply not an issue that sits on either traditional political leaning, but an overwhelming obvious fact that we just benefit from a biologically diverse planet. Every last item that we eat grew somewhere at some time. Whilst growing, each of them required other species for their own health, and they in turn required others. Vegetated areas play an important role in climate – water vapour, CO2 and energy accounting – and also assist in storm surge protection.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter if it’s the shades of amber through autumn, the near magic of a white winter, the sudden rush of colour from wild flowers in spring or the crashing waves by the white sands in summer; we all associate strong memories – in fact, a strong connection – with the places we know as home. Without the local biota, such places would be barren, regardless of the other climatic factors. Teaching you children to fish (I have many cherished memories fishing with my father and sister) is simply the pointless act of throwing a hook and line into a body of water, without the teasing nibbles, the thrill of a hooked fish and the occasional unfamiliar bird soaring overhead.

We would be kidding ourselves to think we could make do on a world without the treasures of biodiversity.

We could also throw a peaking oil supply into the equation. Sure both coal and natural gas have a while longer before they hit their peaks and we could make liquid fuel from coal (which would only be viable when oil prices starts to place significant pressures on living expenses already), but think about the previous couple chapters not only as an islandised species, but also without the fossil fuel work horse.

Current large scale monoculture agriculture only works because we have machines near the size of a house chugging down the diesel as they work the plot and masses of fossil fuel derived fertilisers spread over otherwise depleted landscapes. Irrigation too results from fossil fuel – even more so the more we look into desalination plants. We can’t exactly move on from agricultural lands when fuel becomes too expensive (we’ll have even more mouths to feed that we currently have) but we also cannot hope to continue current practices into the foreseeable future.

We will need more farm hands (human as well as nonhuman) as well as clever new distribution and farming methods – all of which will require infrastructure and energy – something that is still relatively cheap. I’ve also discussed some of the social problems peaking oil in Innovation is Key, that I will not cover here.

Home isn’t just where your house is found, it is of course where life as you know it makes sense. Increasingly we’re unattached to the four walls and the neighbourhood around us and I would suggest that this is because of the monotony; endless streets of brick, concrete, asphalt and barren patches of grass. They don’t have the acorn trees to climb or the shaded babbling creeks. Even the constructed wetlands appearing around suburbia have a “look but don’t touch” menace about them – and why would you let your children near that green sludge of standing water anyway?

Diversity is key as much as innovation. We need other species more than they need us. If we are to maintain a standard of living even remotely to that we’ve been powering on fossil fuels for more than a century, we’ll need to face up to these facts and the sooner we do so, the easier the transition will be.

This is chapter fourteen of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.


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