Getting Real About the Environment, Pt.1

Reposted from GenA

When Mike and I first discussed the creation of GenA, I had envisioned that the process would be one of simply leading the way with case studies and other examples – that is, show people what we can personally do to make radical moves forward towards an increasingly sustainable future – and the results would follow.

It seemed to me, counter-intuitive that people would argue against such ideas if the proof was so obvious. However, discussions I have been involved in over recent months and an example raised early on in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, which I am currently reading, has left me a little miffed.

Taking Diamond’s example first of all, he discusses how bushfire severity has increased over recent decades in Montana. This he puts down to a whole host of factors, which climate change is only a minor one. What has most dramatically impacted on bushfire severity has been the result of poor forest management.

Natural bushfires in the region had been controlled for close to a century and the public had opposed thinning of material, fearing that it was the logging wolf in sheep’s clothing. The result has been an altered environment, with far more fuel available for a summertime spark.

Of course, I don’t for a second think it’s the result of a certain community. It’s exactly the same problem I’ve been aware of locally, indeed it is akin to an initial post that started me off as a blogger, where I criticised a “farmer” for being on a hunger strike because legal classifications of his land deemed it unfit for grazing stock. The media largely seemed to take the side of the “farmer” – the same media that would eventually use the desolate landscape a decade from now for some dramatic piece.

I think we, as a whole, do endeavour to do the right thing. I don’t think we mean to lead to such problems. I’ve heard this used to explain why there is such an age discrepancy with AGW denial in that the baby-boomers saw a major increase to the standard of living and worked through such an industrially prosperous era for the good of their country and the generations that follow; it’s a rude shock (and contrary to one’s expectations) to find out that what we thought was relatively harmless – basically the respiration of prosperity – is likely to be an insidious problem, effecting life for centuries to come.

Before we can really make head ways on becoming an adaptive generation, the biggest hurdle facing us lucky ones will be a re-education about ourselves, our place in the environment and what are realistic objectives. It makes no sense in “protecting” a natural environment if the result is dramatically altering the ecosystem function through our management principles as does it make no sense to talk about adaptation if we have conflicting ideas about nature and human societies.

Continuing population growth is not a first world problem.

That is to say, the difference between birth and death rates (excluding immigration and emigration) shows that natural population values are three to six times greater in countries with the lower end of per-capita wealth. If we in first world countries decide on sacrificing the choice in having a family, because of the population crisis, our actions will be in vain.

Children are – especially for poorer people – an investment. They are your retirement plan. More healthy children that make it to adulthood mean more working and able to take care of you in your later years. With higher childhood mortality in such regions, it also makes sense to place your eggs in many baskets. So the question for such people is about finding the maximum amount of children they can support.

If we truly wish to improve the situation of population growth, we will not do so through reducing our own population in first world nations, or by “bringing down capitalism” (ie. some accuse the growth model of capitalism on growing populations, when in truth the biggest consumers are those with the most disposable income) but by addressing the problems that lead to higher population growth where it occurs.

Reducing childhood mortality and improving the basic infrastructure in developing nations will reduce the need for producing as much offspring as a family can support and the best way to do this is through a transfer of knowledge (ie. increasing education) and aid support to developing countries.

If we really want to make a difference to population growth, we have a voice and democratic societies; we need to insist on greater investment in the development of third world nations.

Environmental Purism has no future.

I’ve written on this many times, however it will probably remain an ongoing problem.

The purist would insist that we need to leave environments alone and pristine. Unfortunately there are no environments remaining that are pristine or could return to such a state if left alone.

The example I brushed over above from Diamond’s book is a classic example. Forest management is inherently absurd to a purist, yet fundamental in conservation efforts.

The raw end of the stick is that before human activity, most environments were not a patchwork mosaic, but blended from one to the next without a definitely boarder (expect were geological factors distinctively change within a short distance), thus a conservation park is effectively an island and not as it was before human impact. Water (both ground water and rainfall) amount and chemistry has been altered. Fertilisation / pollution / salinity of soils are wide spread. AGW is redefining climate regions. Selective logging / poaching of fauna has altered the assemblage of species present.

However you look at it, no environment is pristine or worth the massive expense in conserving at a desired state.

But that isn’t to say conservation is pointless, or that I am condoning extinction. One of the most paralysing factors in true stewardship of our environments is this battle between the purist and the more practical. Purism leads to the Montana forest understorey that is densely vegetated – it looks wonderful and green but isn’t something that represents the natural state.

It’s a great case study. The purist should want fairly regular small bushfires, yet they are dangerous. Leaving the understory to grow only makes the problem worse and changes the ecosystem.

I have no doubt that we will continue to spread out across the landscape and so how we interact with the environment is without a doubt one field of research and development that we should be investing much money and effort in. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from environments, we should see ourselves for what we are; an introduced species.

There is no reason why we cannot develop societies that interact with the surrounding environment, both taking valuable resources for our own activities and returning waste (from the view of our activities) materials that are useful to niches in the connected ecosystem.

The first step of course, will be to accept that the pristine world is gone, species introduction, chemical and environmental changes are (in many cases) beyond repair; how can we turn a sad state of affairs into one that benefits our species as well as surrounding ecosystems? The second step again, will be to use our voices and the benefits of our democratic societies to pursue a course of true environmental integration and stewardship.

To be continued.


3 thoughts on “Getting Real About the Environment, Pt.1

  1. You made good points about addressing population growth, Moth. What also should be added is that educating and thus empowering women has been shown to be far and away the most effective way to lower birth rates (as well as improve the condition of society overall). Once women have other options open to them, they exercise that choice.


    1. Exactly.. It’s an excellent point raised in Dick Smith’s “Population Crisis” that decreasing the disparity of education between the genders in developing countries will have a dramatic effect on increasing gender equality (where, in many places, women are still terribly suppressed) and ultimately lowering population growth. I glossed over it in this post as it would be fundamental in health and education support from developed to developing nations.

      I’ve been drawn to writing this (and the following parts) because I’ve found that many people seem to have unrealistic expectations of what is possible as well as a poor understanding of the problems we face. We really need to get real on these issues before we can make meaningful change.


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