‘Urban Australia; not built for the 21st century’

Here are two real world experiences from my own life.

Firstly, four years ago, a friend and I visited Melbourne for a short holiday. After a night out, we caught a cab back to our hotel on the fringe of the inner city.

I am notoriously bad with names, but entirely opposite with directions. One of my favourite warnings to others is, “I never get lost, but I can’t tell you where I am”.

With that in mind, I had to apologise to the driver for not being able to give him an address, but I could easily direct him.

Without a detour, we quickly made it the short distance back to our hotel. The driver was by far the worst driver I have ever come across, rude and unpleasant for the entire trip, with a few snide remarks when we reached the hotel. My friend can be a little hot-headed and the two of them nearly ended up in a physical incident.

I later learned that the driver’s attitude most likely reflected being caught into taking a small fare. They apparently have the reputation for rejecting fares under a certain amount and, by not giving him the address, he might have felt that it was a deliberate attempt to avoid this.

The second experience occurred with the same friend, however this time in his home province of Sichuan, China, this previous April.

We were there for his wedding and on one of the days he wanted his Aussie friends to experience a typical Chinese weekend recreation. This in basic detail is a lazy day in the countryside, playing Mahjong, perhaps doing a little fishing, all while drinking copious cups of tea and enjoying the delicious food of the region.

Again my friend found himself in a war of words with a cab driver. The driver was annoyed by how far we went out into the country, thinking that we would stop at one of the closer country tea houses. It ended with the driver demanding twice as much as he outlined at the start of the trip.

Yet, the drive out from the centre of Dujiangyan to the tea house was less than 15 minutes in total.

While on holiday there, at any hour of the day or night, if my family required something, it was a short walk from our hotel room to all sorts of goods and services. By comparison, in suburban Australia, for most people, without a vehicle, there is a significant separation from even essential goods and services.

More than this, the attitude of the taxi drivers in both cities speaks volumes of the contrast in urban design.

Australians largely are subjected to poor quality, inefficient urban design and yet, when you speak to them about this, the defensive response illustrates just how ingrained into the cultural identity this phenomena actually is.

We Australians have been sold the urban sprawling landscape for so long that anything else seems foreign. However, it’s not the image of suburbia that we really buy into, but rather the semi-rural feel; the escape from the “rat-race”… our little oasis, overlooking parks and golf courses by sunset.

Of course, when we all move there together, value of land increases, driving further development and soon we find ourselves again stuck in peak traffic, far from any open spaces.

How different would it be to live and work within a short commute from one another, with all goods and services within a walking distance? How about having the countryside a relatively short drive out of town, for the weekend getaway?

Throughout Asia and Europe, this is normal for most people, where urban design still reflects times without widespread fast vehicles, yet in the sun scorched Great Southern Land, we are fixated in converting sun-buffering green space into concrete and bitumen, where we waste a lot of our life in commute.

With the cost of petrol and electricity on the rise, this lifestyle already hurts Australians and will increasingly in the coming decades, ultimately devaluing the urban landscape and local economies. It is unsustainable and will, sooner or later, be rejected, either by choice or by necessity.

I have a feeling that, if provided an alternative, innovative urban designers could set the scene for a new urban landscape for future Australians that would be adopted by many and over time, most. This would not be like Asia or Europe, nor would be what most Australians are currently used to, but a combination of both to develop something new, distinctive and unique.

With a changing climate and increasing costs in traditional energy, to act sooner would be timely.

I have a few ideas myself on this and would love to see an increase in this dialogue in an urban landscape already stretched too thin.


Hot 2013; adaptation to climate change is no longer trivial

Firstly, thank you to all followers of NewAnthro. I hope you have enjoyed my work here over the past year and will continue to do so into 2014.

My only hope for the coming year is that, with the heat waves over the past autumn, the warmest winter on record, incredible bush fires of this past spring and the first day of the new year threatening to break records for maximum Australian temperatures, the dialogue will shift away from trivialities in certainty of expected climatic change and to what matters; making Australian communities more resilient in any case.

Energy companies were once telling us that price rises were likely if Abbott removed the carbon price and now they’re telling us the opposite. The only thing I think Australian families can bank on is ever increasing prices for electricity, gas and fuel. For this reason too, the dialogue needs to shift towards making the Australian economy more resilient (which starts with those who do the work – the wage earners).

Looking at heat stress, losses in primary production, human respiratory health (air quality in relation to dust, smoke and smog), economic stress on families and direct damage to communities due to bush fire and flooding should be enough to change the tone of the conversation in Australia towards activities that would otherwise be considered to both mitigate from and adapt to future climate change. It’s a niche market that is only likely to grow and we can prosper from leading the way or pay through the nose if we lag.

Apart from this, my silence over the past few weeks is due to a few factors.

Firstly, I have been writing. I’ve produced a number of articles that I’ve provided to various outlets and been undertaking some revisions to suit their platforms. This is in the hope of increasing my audience (I’ve produced more than 600 posts now on this blog – I know it is of value from the feedback I receive, so I’m hoping to maximise the impact of my work).

I’ve also started a few projects, more or less as a hobby. I’m interested in learning more about a lot of technology. This has led to building an 115W, 12V solar panel thus far which I’m very happy with. All up, I managed to build it for under AU$100.

I have a lot of experience with off-grid systems, so I’ll make good use of it and have since moved onto other projects.

This recent activity has been spurred by the common point that a lot of climate aware commentators make; we currently have much of the technology required to decarbonise human activity.

I want to know more about what this technology actually is, how practical it is, how we can adopt, adapt and improve and what potential setbacks actually exist. I started with solar because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I hope that all of this experimentation will both help my writing and eventually shift my career into something I’m highly motivated about.

On that note, I must admit that reading and writing are among my greatest passions, which makes me feel a little disappointed with myself for leaving NewAnthro idle for so long. Hopefully, I can find a new groove into the new year and return to a better pace of writing.

As NSW burns, we refuse to learn

I know I’m largely repeating what I wrote back in January. However repetition is required until the message sinks in.

The tragedy currently unfolding across NSW shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, the only surprise would be if it doesn’t eventually spread to cover areas of SA and Vic.

The reason being the recent so-called “break” in the drought. In reality, the weather turned on the Aussie sprinklers for a couple years before returning to normal. In turn we had above average flora growth across the Great Dividing Range and arterial waterways of Eastern the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee.

This is now returning to normal, leading to die-back, hence fuel loading.

Expect some serious fire threats into the coming hot and dry El Nino period.

We celebrate the breaking of a drought, but looking over great periods than election cycles and waterway plans, we should be concerned about the wets; how we manage the water and the landscape beyond that period.

We are a fickle species with a tendency for the short term and will continue to feel the pain wild fires (not to mention the carbon loss) until we can move beyond our tendencies and plan for the longer term.

How Not to ‘Save the World’

Some months ago, a senior academic and I talked as we drove the many hours to the project site. He was informing me on his views regarding invasive species, some of which I thought were questionable.

To clarify, I bluntly asked, “What do you think we should do with weeds?”

He replied, with all the authority that he could muster, “Get rid of them.”

I didn’t pursue the conversation any further at that point. I knew from experience that the tone was one baiting me into a debate. I’m usually all for a debate, where I see value. In this case however, the individual is one who likes the fight more than a resolution and I’m not really one for that.

It’s a nice idea to remove weeds and certainly not impossible… as long as you throw enough money at the problem. This is where the environmental debate fails all the time.

It could be in discussions regarding invasive species management, limiting the impact of pollution or even climate change. Whatever the subject, for the most part, we can eventually achieve the currently unthinkable if only we wish to drain enough resources into it.

Those who fall prey to sci-fi resolution to problems, starting the discussion not unlike an Arthur C. Clark story, imagining the problem is soon to be resolve and the discussion should be about what this means for us, just like the environmental romantic, are victims to the results, without object rational on how to reach them.

An excellent example in Australia is the olive. How much money should we spend on managing olives in natural landscapes when the recruitment of these comes from dedicated plantation? I once refused to buy Australian olives for this reason, but is such a protest of any value?

Am I giving up?

This isn’t to be confused with environmental defeatism that Bjørn Lomborg tries to pass off as realism.

Let’s put it this way; it’s not impossible to rebuild your house to correct all the problems, but can you really afford to do so, or does it make more sense to allocate some of your money to repair what you have?

The olive is an assimilated immigrant to Australia. It has its place now in the local culture and environment (is that cringing I hear?).

To this realisation we have two general options that have their relative expenses; we could “get rid of it”, which would close down the industry and outlaw all trees in backyards and public parks as well; or, we give it a citizenship, acknowledging it as a productive food source well suited to Australia in a warming climate.

The former would require a major PR campaign and many years of eradication and monitoring. The latter would likely see us not managing it as a weed, but rather as new competition to endemic species with the aim of promoting biodiversity which would include this new “local”. This would require effort and research.

Paved in good intentions

Environmental discourse has been plagued with romanticism or an unrealistic impression of “indestructibility” ever since the notion that it was a topic worth discussing became established.

The worst part is not that those who discuss environmental management most passionately are the most likely to fall into such a trap while those least likely will typically reject concern altogether, but rather that there is this line drawn in the sand between both extremes.

Either your hopelessly infatuated with a resilient (or fragile) Earth or concede that such musings are little more than a “liberal conspiracy”.

Where is the possibility to even start to discuss the place of the “Australian olive” for instance, in such an absurd and naïve situation?

To Get rid of it?

Over the last century, the Australian government and landholders has spent countless hours and dollars in management of the rabbit. This has included a 1700km rabbit-proof fence (build between 1901-07), two different viruses, warren destruction, chemical control and even explosives (read more here). Even while the most recent virus was having its greatest impact (1998-2003) the management cost for feral rabbits was estimated to be around $1 million (more here).

Yet, I see bunnies throughout Melbourne and right up to central NSW on a daily basis.

Yes, something must be done and our efforts have had an impact, but how much really? We can’t rebuild the house, but equally, electrical tape over the tap isn’t going to stop the leak.

Out with the old

The olive and the rabbit are not good comparisons. Olives will forever spread while they are being farmed where ol’ bugs just has a thing for breeding prolifically.

The point is that the current attitudes and strategies do not reflect the realistic capacities of management options and beneficial outcomes. I’m tired of the blanket eradication message where the reality continually fails to meet the target. I’m just as tired of the dismissal scoffs of the other side of the discussion.

We need approach species management with fresh eyes and very likely, different goals. The promotion of biodiversity would be an excellent target. The promotion of productive ecosystems which thrive while providing services to urban landscapes would be another one.

In short, there is nothing ignoble in rethinking our relationship with other life and in designing ecosystems with which our landscapes actively interact. To be absolutely frank, there is no other multi-cellular organism as invasive as ourselves, but at least we have the capacity to promote ecosystems, rather than out compete all else until we are the last one standing should we choose to.

We need a new dialogue willing to step back, compromise or actively engage where it is needed, without unrealistic ideation or denial. This will start with an internal look on ourselves and our place within ecosystems.

About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

Coffs Harbour City Councillors: tilling the soil for northern anti-science propaganda

Cr Nan Cowling

Reviewing the recent fluoride media in Australia, I’ve found that Coffs Harbour city councillors, noted in the article, Nan Cowling, have decided to raise the question of whether to continue water fluoridation to be discussed at the 2013 Local Government Association annual conference in October.

The three noted justifications for this were; cost; “Well, Queensland are doing it”; and a large population of elderly people.


It’s $65,000 a year, or $1.43 per person per year (with a population of 45,580 according to the 2011 Census for Coffes Harbour, Code UCL112004). Councillor Nan Cowling believes that tooth decay had more to do with access to dentistry, but can we access dentistry for less than $2 a year?

Even if you looked at Code SSC10553 (SSC) instead, the population is only 24,581 and yet the cost is still only $2.64 per person a year.

As I don’t know how much of the Coffs Harbour community is provided the water in question, we have a cost somewhere between $1.43 and and $2.64… Hardly bank busting.

Good in Queensland

In the words of mothers everywhere; “now, if Queensland were to jump of a cliff, would you jump as well?”

Firstly, Queensland has a problem of a very invasive memebase, more commonly known as “The Queenslanders for Safe Water, Air and Food” (QAWF), which has enjoyed success largely because Queenslanders have not had much exposure to fluoride – something new in their waters is scary… especially for their hydrangeas.

Most people in capital cities outside of Queensland don’t give fluoride much thought. They’ve lived with it for decades – including Sydney and Coffs Harbour – without concern.

QAWF is an anti-science movement that repeats debunked claims with complete disregard for counter-arguments and strong scientific evidence to the contrary. You really don’t want to encourage such thinking to propagate or else, before you know it, the Earth is 6000 years old and flat.

How Old is the Coffs Harbour Community?

The point that Coffs Harbour community is mainly elderly is utterly untrue. Again turning to the same 2011 Census data we find the following (very similar regardless of which of the two codes used);

coffs harbour pop

You get a fairly even distribution across the ages, admittedly, but would you expect a far higher group for what is only the first quarter of an expected life span? Nan Cowling herself is on the aging end of the spectrum, which may do better to explain why she disregards more than 25% of the Coffs Harbour community (0-19 yo).

Moreover, fluoride assists with the remineralisation of teeth – a process which is not age discriminant. The entire Coffs Harbour community benefit from drinking water fluoridation – a process that costs them less than $3 each a year!

In essence, the Coffs Harbour city councillors have fallen prey to fear mongering propaganda, with no cost benefits and complete disregard not only for their younger community, but everyone within their region.

A Playground for Social Improvement Under-tapped

I have been a student or employee of a few universities now and one thing I noticed they all share is a proliferation of proud posters, website “ads” and statements of their successes in progressive work.

As far as I can tell, this ought to be their primary position. Anything else would be squandering their unique assortment of resources.

Universities and colleges can be places comprising thousands of staff and students focused on enhancing our understanding of the natural world, human health and social justice. They often take up large plots of land and require large quantities of resources (especially water and electricity). They can also be large sources of pollution and chemical use (eg. waste, various gases, radiation, etc).

If they are not asking themselves, ‘How could we be more efficient in the use of X?’ or ‘How could we reduce the waste of Y?’ well they are not making use of the cluster of thinkers and doers at their disposal. Likewise, if they are not asking themselves, ‘How can we improve well-being within a community?’ and applying various social experiments within their (often vast) community (or subsets within their community), well, again they are missing a unique opportunity.

Too often we cry that the government should do something about problem B, however – and this touches on the point I was making in my previous article – most often there isn’t an acceptable example of the contrary locally. Take, for instance, old growth forest loss or the recent noise around the carbon tax in Australia.

In the former, what are the alternatives? White Australia is heavily culturally coupled to logging as it is the sheep industry (which too is unsustainable). Examples of countries that do otherwise are countries that live different with different cultural values. Look at Japan for instance. The protection of their woodlands does relate strongly to other cultural options – such as limited (if at all) land meat production and much higher urban density to that “expected” within white Australian culture. Germany is another country with a strong focus woodland protection and even though it is, like white Australian culture, western European, it is still a different way of life to ours and the two hundred years of ‘a sunburnt country’ mentality.

Likewise the carbon tax plays on a fear that our politicians are relentlessly screaming wolf about; it’ll ruin the economy. This is very much a cultural value. Most people in Australia hold the right to free enterprise as one of the highest virtues. We’re probably not unlike our counterparts in the US in that we praise the success of others who were able to secure a large chunk of wealth for themselves. Look at Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart. Both are, in general, viewed as “go-getters” (although, this is far from universal).

The carbon tax is seen as an attack on this cultural value (as is the mining tax, and the goods and services tax etc). A “big fat tax on everyone”, as Abbott drilled into the public is an affront to a prime cultural value held by most Australians. So foreign is the contrary position, it may feel that it’s not unlikely one would hear comparisons to socialism or communism. Fears of an Orwellian state run rampant.

Yet, within our own communities, we have large sub-communities, with a large amount of assorted resources and a drive for knowledge. From these communities, we could (or should) have a playground for testing local cultural values, under the guise of resource management and social well-being (that is to say, improvement in these fields would be the quest). The medical schools already do this – so why is it too much to expect third year or post-grad students to be asking questions like, ‘How can we make the campus more biophilic?’ or ‘How can we lead to lower stress and improved learning rates within the students?’ or ‘What can be done to manage X resource more efficiently within the campus?’

Such answers could be profound as it would not be restricted simply to factual answers, but also within a cultural context. It could be thus more easily applied within the wider community than, say, expecting Australians to adopt practices from abroad simply because they are more efficient.

The one thing to be wary of however, is the potential grounds for xenophobia that is created if we put too much emphasis in culture. Again, I feel that tertiary education provides a good tool. They are, in Australia, multicultural communities. Posing questions and developing answers within this sub-group could reflect Australia, as a whole, and thus present answers to a wide range of problems – within that cultural context discussed above.

I started this article by saying that, from what I’ve witnessed, universities are doing this and proudly sharing this fact via various media. I would like to see more of it – especially aimed at student project development and across a wider scope than I am aware of occurring so far.

It would also be useful for the students of natural science as it would give their studies a social aspect that is sometimes lacking (not always, as I am aware with the natural resource management components of my own degree) and hopefully an awareness of the impacts their future careers could have on politics and their local communities. It could also provide an avenue for learning science communication to such students. Most importantly, it would help to couple facts, or at least greater certainty, to cultural values that could be more readily applied to the greater community beyond the campus boundary.

A Master’s Degree in Taking Responsibility

By Meika Jensen

The infamous Heisenberg Uncertainty principle concludes that we cannot observe an event without influencing it. Once primarily true on the quantum level, the latest broad views on science and sociology suspect it holds true for the greater world, too. With our climate-changing habits and environment-altering progress, the “event” of the world has been changed by our very presence. Of late the mark of humankind on the globe has become so extreme that some scientists suggest a new age has begun, the Anthropocene Era, where change is not geological in origin but – from irrigation to forest-stripping – mostly man-made.

Sound like undergraduate philosophy? Maybe something from a top masters degree program? Well, it is, actually. Environmental Science degrees have become a common option for American universities, teaching students about the effect people have on the environment and how to mitigate the damage. Graduate level programs take the concept one step further, encouraging students to create their ecological solutions or employ green tech to save money and energy at the same time.

Making a Difference

This evolution in education shows a promising trend toward environmental awareness. If humans really are creating the next age of the earth, such graduate programs are the forefront of our development. Changing the world for the better means seizing our new opportunities and taking care of the world, not just for our children but also for the world itself. Awareness is a sizable piece of the puzzle, as seen in the rush of government regulation over energy efficiency and carbon footprints. But true inspiration often starts in the classroom.

Master’s degrees in environmental studies are just the beginning. After all, only a small portion of students is aiming for jobs in ecology or scientific research. Of greater influence are the MBA programs in sustainable development. These teach students to use recycling, low environmental impact, and energy efficiency to their benefit when managing businesses. Not only can companies tap into government benefits by becoming more environmentally friendly, they can also save money, increase profits, and sponsor new, lucrative innovations.

Benefits are similar in the tech sphere, where degrees support the development of low-energy technologies and the use of new materials, which result in less waste, fewer toxins, and lower energy use. Specialties focus on energy design, city planning, and even electrical engineering.

Of course, as the degrees become more common the need for talented educators also increases, which creates a new market niche for environmentally skilled teachers. If humanity plays its cards right, this new environmental control could end up benefiting – well, everyone.

Individualism Ultimately Undermines Environmental Management.

Reposted from here.

Originally, this was intended to be one of the points I would brush over in “Getting Real about the Environment”, however, I felt it deserve a more detailed discussion and so decided to set it aside on its own.

While many environmentally engaged people would proudly state that they are not so individualistic – indeed desire more equal, sharing communities – I fear individualism hides within many of their ideologies. At the same time there is also another side to environmentalism which is openly individualistic in that they enjoy the open spaces and dislike regulation on such resources.

The most obvious example to begin with comes from the less environmentally engaged, who desire these new estates with a nice sized plot, overlooking open fields and gold courses – all within a short drive of CBD’s. It is a desire heavily coupled with abundant personal vehicles.

Of course, only so many people can settle in these estates before the remaining agricultural land is worth more as development space, leading to ever more houses and the new region ultimately looks just like any other. The once quick commute is now frustratingly clogged with peak hour travellers.

The general energy hungry house design, the congested road ways, the once fertile food producing land now under housing slabs and soaked by runoff from washing SUV’s on the front lawn all represent a ticking time bomb for food and potable water security and climate and environmental management.

It is this same desire for connectivity with open spaces in the more environmentally engaged that I believe undermines their premise. They wish to have great connection to open spaces, but they cannot expect to be alone with this desire.

You cannot blame development. It’s simply a thoughtless process based on public demand. That slabs stretch as far as the eye can see over what was once green, quaint (often agricultural) landscape is only because it’s what we wanted. We were willing to pay to chew up these spaces. Whether it’s because we yearned for the quiet semi-rural lifestyle for environmental or other reasons means little. It’s not some hidden, evil conspirators making big bucks out of environmental destruction, but only a provider and the eager consumer paying for environmental changes.

It’s not fair for anyone of us to want such a lifestyle at the exclusion of others and thus sprawl is inevitable. That’s the problem. That’s the inherent individualism that undoes good environmental management (which couples the discussion in the previous posts mentioned above).

We require a rethink, as a large and somewhat expanding group, of what we want from the human designed landscapes rather than continue to pursue this illusion of escape that feeds sprawl. If we want to escape urban landscapes we should be asking ourselves where we went wrong in their design in the first place.

If we design more functional urban landscapes that don’t continue to degrade the surrounding environments and demonstrate, with our “pockets” that the market is there for such a change (and the public demand it also through voting policy changes), change will in turn occur. After all, it’s a terrible business plan (and political suicide) to ignore public demand.

Here are a few points that I believe most people want from the environment in which they live, to get the ball rolling;

  • Easy access to essential goods and services,
  • Easy access to open spaces (ie. manicured parks, recreational parks and nature reserves),
  • Good air quality,
  • Ease of movement throughout the urban landscape,
  • Reduced noise pollution,
  • A high sense of safety,
  • Highly aesthetic,

They also tend to want from their actual homes;

  • Comfortable climate,
  • Low maintenance and upkeep effort and cost

Inherent to the urban environments, people also expect;

  • Reliable, good quality water and energy supply

These goals can be mutually supportive, rather than ultimately self-destructive as we witness within sprawl and the yearn to escape, however it would require separating some of the individualistic principles that have come to be cornerstones of the modern era.

The biggest of which is a reduction in personal vehicles.

They are wonderful machines that belong to a less congested age. There are massive benefits in urban design based instead around mass transit, such as;

  • A massive reduction in pollution from noise, exhaust, runoff and hard waste in worn tyres,
  • A reduction in commuting times,
  • A large amount of space freed up for residential, industrial and open space use,
  • Generally significant personal savings,

That isn’t to say that personal vehicles should be scraped entirely, but rather that the need for their use in urban environments is greatly reduced through infrastructural changes. They should instead service a more communal / temporary use between and around highly populated areas.

Streetscapes are already great arteries which could be retrofitted for mass transit and pedestrian travel while providing space for revegetation, which in turn assists with limiting noise pollution, improving air quality, water management, climate control (ie. less exposed concrete) and improving the aesthetic appearance of the region. If cleverly done, it would also allow greater species movement through urban environments and resource availability, increasing the biophilic nature of the urban environment for species protection.

Of course, there would need to be a re-localisation of services, thereby encouraging mixed-use developments (rather than the current separation of essential goods and services from residential areas). In turn, it is likely that the density of such places would increase, simply because the lifestyle itself now fits many of the goals addressed above, leading to new, low-to-medium density housing.

Here, smart design, such as that outlined in Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. (Kutscher et al. 2007) could address the goals discussed above for the home.

That the surrounding environment is more inviting and meaningful to the householder also leads to less of a need for personal yards – again changing the shape and function of such urban environments.

The urban environment is our home and so should look and feel how we want it. Clearly it’s not and even though the above is in reality, my own suggestions, I know it’s not for everyone. I’m not trying to say that my ideas are the best, but rather throw one person’s argument out into what is pretty much a void, hoping to stir a much broader discussion.

It’s clear that current urban design is unsustainable, largely unattractive and expensive, yet we’re willing to buy that! It’s not good enough and unless we expect better – based on sensible ideas – we will continue to be provided the same package time and time again until all high quality agricultural land is lost beneath our feet as we spread out to avoid suburbia.

As with a number of the points I make in “Getting Real about the Environment” it all comes down to community actions. We should be voting and spending our money based on good judgement and sustainable development if we truly want change. We’re not the passive victims in this situation.

Getting Real About the Environment, Pt.2

Originally posted here.

“Invasive Species” is a strange concept

This is a bitter point for me, as it was a dislike for olives and fennel throughout the remnant vegetation of South Australia which drew me to time at university. In many ways I’ve since been brought around by 180o.

Firstly, as far as I can tell, the difference between natural and artificial selection is one base entirely on the human ego. Life persists only when it can adapt to the environmental pressures being placed on it. We are a force of nature! Our species reasons something and pressures to make it so. Those species that get in the way of this pressure either adapt or die out.

It’s a gut-wrenching truth, but a truth nonetheless. The ancestor of domestic cattle, for instance, is no more but the evolved form of it thrives in the human made environment.

Likewise, species now have a distribution potential that they would never have had prior to us. Sure some migratory birds distributed seed and small aquatic species, but it was us who placed the camel in the outback and the horse through the New World.

Whether it was some new adaptive trait within a population or climatic pressures, the range and niche exploited by a species have always been fluid (well, at least in those whom persist in passing on their genes). If something about them gave them the edge against competitors within the new range, they took the resources at the expense of the losers. However, it could just as easily go in favour of the original niche exploiters or possible that some “equilibrium” is achieved (again, populations of interacting species are not stable).

For many species now considered “invasive” eradication, while a nice idea, is probably an impossibility. Feral cats, rabbits and dogs in Australia could never be removed – regardless how many billions of dollars are thrown at the problem – especially while we decide we like to keep them as pets in our yards! The same goes for any number of the nationally recognised weeds which have additional recruitment from agricultural and ornamental garden stocks. Furthermore, it takes only one avid hiker to scuff their foot in the soil seed bank or one flock of parrots to enjoy the fruit of a feral olive tree or one windswept roadway or babbling brook or…

It doesn’t matter which example you select, human activity has provided a new window, no; has opened a new floodgate – for species distribution (whilst, at the same time, destroyed many of the “natural” pathways through landscape fragmentation) far beyond that would have otherwise have been and species have replied in the way they are built to; by attempting to adapt and carry on their genes to subsequent generations.

Management is, of course essential to our movements forward, but eradication and control are largely beyond our capacity. Rather than waste huge amounts of money fighting “plagues” of “feral” species, we need to address the question of what we want from our environments (ie. “artificial selection”) and what would provide the greatest benefit to our activities and in maintaining the greatest diversity in the gene pool of an ecosystem.

As previously stated, the pristine world is gone, however, there is no reason why an environment that we helped to develop cannot be diverse, productive and beautiful.

We will not power down

A common idea that persists within the more environmentally engaged community consists of a utopian ideal of low energy consumption. A return to basics.

This is self-evidentially not going to happen. It is increasingly becoming essential, for instance, for a successful member of affluent countries to keep smart phones on themselves. We are communicating like never before and the wireless age of mass information sharing is upon us.

Even in developing nations, mobile phone ownership is becoming common place and to expect them, within their development to forgo the energy dependant technologies that have made our standard of living possible is simply selfish. The way forward is one based on technological advancements and not a move backwards into de-industrialism. To place this argument even further from debate one needs only to mention medical science – in what it has achieved over the course of the industrial era and how dependant it is on electricity (so much so back-up generators are a fundamental component of care).

Rather than obsess over a world less technological, we should hope to support research and development that allows for technological revolutions in efficiency of technology and of low emission electricity sources. This pathway offers greater potential for reducing carbon emissions in the shortest time frames (see Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. for example).

I am not saying to give up!

I know that in review, it looks as though I asking the reader to throw their arms up in surrender in this and the previous section. Here, I’ve attacked a number of environmental ideologies and have in my time criticised many others. I don’t do this because I’m an industrial wolf under the environmental sheep’s clothing, but because environmental management is so important to me!

We spend far too much time looking into the far future of possibilities or otherwise ask far too great a leap from our current position to reach an ideal conclusion. However, nice this may be, it doesn’t help our purpose. Asking people to give up a standard of living they have come to expect or asking people never to reach the comfortable heights they’ve seen in the developed world will only turn people away – they will ignore you until collapse undoes our progress.

We often ask others to make sacrifices, but we too need to make sacrifices. For us, the greatest sacrifice will need to be to get real about environmental management and to let go of many ideals. Another will be the luxury of complaining and blaming others.

I’ve tried to leave each point with some suggestions; many of which demand action. Rather than blaming “evil” industry, car ownership, lazy politicians, corporate greed or whatever else, we are the many – both the voter and the consumer. By voting (or not voting), by buying (or not buying) we create the communities in which we live.

We cannot expect an idealistic result and will drive away many potential supporters in the process. If we instead allow for compromise and directly our activities for “best possible” scenarios, we can affect development and societal behaviour changes for the better. It is more likely to begin with a change in our perspective and not by demanding change in others.

Romantic Naturalism is a daydream that threatens sustainability

Isn’t life incredible?

To sit and watch the busy life move to and from the sprinkle of light drifting in through the canopy, all with purpose, all in balance.

The amazing mutualism relationships between certain ants and Lycaenidae and Riodinidae caterpillars, where the larvae provide payment in food secretion in exchange in exchange for protection.

Exposed to expose danger!

The selfless acts of altruism displayed by some bird species and meerkats who risk their own lives to watch and defend the group from predators, leaves a warm feeling within the observer.

Oh and the vast colonies of ants, termites, naked mole-rats or bees who work as a team, side by side, for the good of all, is societal perfection in action.

The natural is obviously the grand expression of how our species, were it wise enough, ought to live in perfect harmony.

Unfortunately, this is complete nonsense. Well, not that life is incredible, which of course it is, but rather this notion of how life works.

I mentioned in my previous article the “romantic naturalist”, which would be able to, with tear in either eye, produce heartfelt sentiments far more poetic as the few above. It’s an outdated notion of the natural world, restricted to groups effectively divorced from critical review of what we know of ecology and from the personal experience restricted nowadays to a few people still deeply reliant on ecosystems.

That’s no to say that there is something wrong with a love of the natural world. Anyone who has read my work over the past two years knows well enough my own emotional connection with biodiversity and the cause for protection.

Equally, it’s not to suggest that we have nothing to learn from the natural models being played out around us for application to our own societies.

I’m merely suggesting that that the romantic ideals are fundamentally flawed and like ideologies of utopian ages ahead, do us more damage than good in that they lead us to think, incorrectly, that the grass is somehow greener on the other side. We need to get real on the problems, critically review the options available and thoroughly apply ourselves to those goals. Firstly, I’d like to clear up a few of the misconceptions in the romantic ideals I waxed on about above.

Nature is not stable, balanced and unchanging. If it were, then the creationists may have a point, but more likely, life would lack the adaptive potential that is essential for persistence and ultimately, this earth would be as barren as Mars.

Nature is also apathetic. If the larvae did not provide the reward, and it was itself, edible, it would be the reward. The caterpillar is unable to survive without the assistance of the ants, now so specialised in its way of life that without the ants, mortality rates would be far greater. Some of the relationships between Lycaenidae and Riodinidae caterpillars and ants are even parasitic, entirely at the expense of the ant hosts!

Sure, altruism is a special thing, but anyone who has watched Meerkat Manor, for instance, would know it’s not a friendly life and can be unfair to the unlucky family member. Like all such communities and colonies, genetics is a big player into why individuals live like this. Together, they stand a better chance of survival and working in closely related family groups means that the family lineage has a greater rate of persistence.

Worker bees, ants and termites don’t forgo producing their own offspring and being slaughtered on the frontline due to some patriotic love for the queen and colony, but simply because they are programmed to within a species that has evolved this survival technique.

We are the only species to have such details philosophies and what we tend to do is poetically personify the natural world. No other species are people. There are some very sophisticated species out there, don’t get me wrong. The great apes, many oceanic mammals, cephalopods and bird species have demonstrated brilliant problem solving skills and indeed communication abilities, but we still don’t know their thoughts and philosophies (whether or not they actually have any).

As an undergraduate, I completed a detailed behavioural study on two allodapine bee species native to the Dandenong ranges in Victoria; Inquilina excavata and the host species Exoneura angophorae.

Host species?

Female E. angophorae seen through a dissecting microscope... Yeah, they're that small!

Yes. It is common for allopadine bees to live in simple nests of a few sisters, sharing the work of tending to their young (all together; awwww). These species typically have a specific parasitic species that somehow muscles its way into the nest and demands food. It’s the “somehow” that is an interesting and ongoing research topic, which I assisted in with my study.

What I observed with I. excavata and E. angophorae is that I. excavata would utilise its stinger as an anchor and “inchworm” its way down the long slender nest, threatening to crush and host who stood in its way. Once it found itself between the host and their young, it would set up home, becoming a permanent barrier to the hosts and their young. If they wished to feed their young, they would have to give the food to the parasite who would then feed some of this to the young.

Effectively, they had established themselves as a “middleman” (something, the romantic thinks is only a parasitic career within our societies, go figure).

No matter where you look, each niche is wonderful and all too often disturbing to our over-thinking minds. The romantic notion of the perfect society in nature is washes away when you’re not all misty eyed.

Ecology (rather than naturalism) is a fascinating field, which we are only beginning to learn about at the eleventh hour. The Gastric brooding frog is a classic example, who showed up to science, provided some tantalising observations and then… gone. So many questions that can never be answered. This is the real tragedy.

On the other hand, nature sets up an excellent model for long term sustainability. The two keys here are adaptive work potential and cyclic resource use.

In nature, no species persists forever, but those who spread their genes down the ages do so through having the adaptive potential for niche exploration. To utilise something like this within the human society model would be referred to as “innovation”. Wherever there is waste, there is potential for an unexploited niche. Wherever there is a process that is slow and tedious, there is potential for an unexploited niche. Wherever you have unemployment, you have the potential for new work.

It’s laziness to produce genuine waste (very little can really be called waste in nature as it’s generally another species treasure) and detrimental to ignore the potential for work. Sure, I know this stirs up a lot of criticism, that I may not understand the economy etc, but I return to that wonderful word, “innovation”.

We don’t have the best answers possible. Environmental factors are always changing. To think we can ignore the desperate and ongoing need for innovation just doesn’t cut it (and, as I said in the previous article, going backwards isn’t the option either).

Part of that will include stopping waste production. No ecosystem has a tip, which is buried over and left (in some parts, unchanged) for millennia. Likewise, this is a perfect example of how we can reflect natural processes in our own activities. In this way, items don’t depreciate in social value over its lifespan, but remain valuable in a following process (that is a real example of equality). Keeping materials within the system will require greater work, will produce extra wealth (or maintain wealth in the removal of depreciating goods – again stable state economy) and improve our sustainability.

Innovation yet again!

Innovation is our adaptive potential and is our best expression of the real natural world.

We don’t need lofty impressions of a make-believe garden to inspire us towards some utopia. It will not happen and we will not find greener pastures. We need to be sensible, practical and accepting that work is fundamental to any system. No ecosystem is exempt from this nor any human system. Of course, it’s difficult to see how neo-liberal capitalism could play a role in such a system. It is akin to cancer or species with high invasive potential in the new range. Innovation again must answer this question and not dreamy ideals.