There is no way such transportation would pass, in its current state, the OH & S standards typical in Australia. Yet, I’m not at all concerned by this as we bounce around the back of a converted Ute on unsealed roads.
As we head home, following a day in what the tour guide referred to as “a jungle”, I feel a little weird. Something about the whole venture just didn’t feel right.
I’ve been throughout the best of Australia’s tropical and temperate rainforests. Without a doubt, these deep, shaded and humid places are among my favourite places on earth. I had been so excited about visiting my first such place abroad and yet was disappointed.
It was beautiful, that much is true. With thin giants of trees reaching up to the sun, tangled in vines and separated by creeks that cut through the vegetation to fall over small waterfalls into shallow pools; I cannot deny the place would provide photographs worthy of a postcard or the odd poster.
I look over at the trainee tour guide travelling with us in the back of the vehicle and hesitate to say what’s on my mind, in fear I might offend her. They are obviously proud of the work done to preserve this place. Eventually, my thoughts get the better of me.
“Where are all the animals?” I ask her.
To me, the “jungle” was little more than a green desert. In fact, for the most part of my whole time visiting southern Thailand I saw fewer animals than I’d see in a general day at home: one bird species, a few butterflies, a species of camera-shy gecko and a few frogs marked the bulk of my trip. Sure, there were plenty of domesticates and tame monkeys and elephants and the occasional sea bird silhouette off in the distance, but the experience in all was odd – especially in comparing what they refer to as protected areas to similar places in Australia.
Similar tropical rainforests in far north Queensland are noisy, active places. You can’t help but be on guard because you’re certain spiders, cassowaries and snakes are present – you would have to be unlucky not to have seen one*. Apart from these, you also have an amazing assortment of brightly coloured birds and butterflies. There also seems an endless competition of song between the cicada and various birds.
In contrast, a local insisted that a cobra lived in a hollow of a tree we passed. Not only was his willingness to place his hand in the hollow a dead giveaway to the practical joke, so too was the lack of food obviously around. A cobra, unlike Homo sapiens, isn’t interested in beautiful scenery within driving distance to the local supermarket.
Later into the return trip I learn that the story is a common one for the park. Poor locals stripped the region back for plantation and then emptied out the remnants areas for bush meat. I don’t blame them however; it’s simply a tragedy of circumstance.
* * *
The encounter taught me a valuable lesson. Maybe the value of biodiversity rich environments is less obvious abroad, in regions more weathered by a deeper history of human pressure. Even with the appalling rate of species loss within Australia, maybe it’s still the “lucky country” in that it has a wealth of biodiversity left (to lose). “The human island” is perhaps the norm internationally, especially in the old world.
The phrase that echoed in my head for the remainder of my time abroad was, “you can’t build a car with a toolbox full of identical Philips-head screwdrivers”.
Sure, it’s a great tool and, being as creative as I try to be, I’ve even found a few unintended applications (fyi, it doesn’t make a great hammer or lever, but can make do), but it cannot replace a set of spanners, a quality hammer, a hacksaw or even a flathead screwdriver / Philips-head screwdrivers of different sizes.
To have a useful toolbox, you need all of these things. To have a truly great toolbox you’ll have plenty more.
Biodiversity is very much like a toolbox. Think of any chemical cycle (ie. carbon, nitrogen, phosphor, water etc) and very quickly you need many different biological “tools”, that is, species services, to turn what we would deem to be useless / waste into something useful.
Taking the nitrogen cycle for instance; more than half the world’s population is entirely fed on synthetic nitrogen sources. There is no way we could possibly produce enough nitrogen fertiliser through “organic” methodologies (ie. species services, such as compost and legumes) to make a significant impact to this fact. It’s a costly, fossil fuel rich fact that we’re stuck with. What does that mean for the future, especially at the business end of depleted fossil fuels, potentially less than a century from now (ignoring the call for converting coal, which in itself is very inefficient)?
What about the growing human population, coupled with the growing intake of animal protein and growing demand for biofuels?
How about potable water security under such conditions with also the addition of pollution resulting from urban landscape runoff?
These conversion processes all require work. If we do not have the necessary biological tools for the work, we’ll need to do it ourselves (as is already the case for nitrogen fertilisation), which comes at greater cost and effort (and often detrimental impacts – such as pollution, typical of nitrogen fertiliser run-off), increasing over time with expanding human pressures.
It’s no different to leaving your toolbox out to the elements to rust and degrade. Eventually you will end up with a haphazard assortment of brittle tools, the endless need to compromise on what’s possible and the mantra, “we could do it if only we still had…”
In our personal lives we’re not often so silly as to act like this, but on such a large scale (both in time and distance) we seem largely blind to the difficulties we’re already bringing upon ourselves and setting up for those who follow (in many cases we were born with such problems already the norm). I, for one, don’t like working harder than I should have to, nor want that for my decedents and our species in general.
The answer of course is to look after the biological services we have. This is not, however, species conservation (as I do not believe this is practical or even sensible) but rather the conservation of diversity.
Species conservation wastes energy keeping select species afloat for whatever purpose and, just as with plantations inaccessible to most species, tends to lead us towards a toolbox with only a few well maintained objects. Yet, by conserving diversity, we ensure a wide range of services are available to us and a greater genetic pool for service potential into the future.
By sheer necessity, we will also have greater engagement with such services.
What do I mean by this? The answer to this question has been the prevailing point of my writing over the past two years.
You simply cannot exclude ecosystems from the urban landscape. Some reasons being;
- With our urban and agricultural needs as global population expands, we will continue to encroach on ecosystems,
- Many species require wide geographical ranges that are not generally compatible with council regions, for purposes such as; breeding (and keeping up an interbreeding population with a large enough genetic pool to avoid extinction) and feeding range,
- Services that species provide are useful in urban landscapes (eg. water capture and purification / storm protection) or necessary to those species that provide us useful services, and,
- Their sheer presence makes us happier. I don’t need to rely on research as evidence of this; the continual market for housing in suburbs that have a “touch of the countryside” is enough to say that people like real trees (as opposed to those sickly shrubs common in streetscape garden beds), the call of birds and fresh air.
We are no longer at war with nature. We have to give up the idea of taming it also. We need to live with it instead.
The challenge for our species over the coming century, in my opinion, isn’t really tackling rising CO2 levels, food and potable water security, energy demands or conservation. It’s instead about firstly changing our perception of the natural world (and of what we expect the urban landscape to look like) so that we can then reshape our landscapes to be compatible with ecosystems so that they can in turn promote biodiversity abundance. In doing so, we will go a long way into answering the other problems mentioned above, through the application of species services.
I’ve long called the modern, sprawling urban landscape a “waste land”. On foot, you appreciate the isolation from services they create. Between your house and outlets of goods and services, you could have several kilometres of landscape that is meaningless to you personally. The few parks that are dotted around such places are generally barren places that provide no sense of anything natural, but instead grass and a park bench. If you’re lucky enough to have a creek locally, it’s always disheartening when you actually pay attention to just how much rubbish is dumped in it.
Still, it’s far worse to venture into what at first glance appears to be a real forest, but just can’t back it up with the normal sights and sounds from a rich biota. It doesn’t matter how green the place is, it can still be just as barren as the sprawling urban landscape.
We might be increasingly used to construction by Allen-key, but you really can’t build much with just one tool. Such items themselves got to that point by work of a myriad of other tools. It’s no more helpful having endless copies of that one tool either.
Likewise, we’re running the dangerous risk of needlessly making more work for ourselves by removing services (and the potential development of other services in a larger genetic pool), whether or not our local region is capable of reminding us of that fact. If we are to avoid such difficulties, we’ll require a new wave of creativity based on answering just how we can overcome our existing perceptions of the natural world and create new ecosystems within our landscapes.* I know “unlucky” might not be the first term that comes to mind to many international readers and the odd local. However, for the most part these animals keep to themselves if left alone and the vivid splashes of colour found on such animals, especially the cassowary, leaves you too much in awe to be too worried (especially, in the case of the cassowary, if you’ve have the safety of a vehicle). I should also note that I only saw a small region of the country and am under no illusions that this is necessarily representative of the entire country or region. My thoughts here reflect only what I saw in my visit, mostly focused around one park which is now protected.