Stats and Musings: Behind the Scenes of New Anthro

As most bloggers would naturally do, I keep an eye on my stats over time. This allows me to better understand my readership and tailor my work so that it both achieves the purposes of my own goals while merging with what my readers prefer to read.

This only goes so far, obviously. For, if I wanted a higher readership, I’d probably forgo my natural writing style for short, bombastic pop articles, with a couple cute kittens and “memebase” references to boot…

A couple persistent features have stood out to me over the near four years of my writing.

The first of which is that my readership is twice as likely to be from the US than Australia. Unlike many of my counterparts, I don’t actually spend a great deal of energy following the goings-on across the Pacific. My writing is largely about environmental governance and Australian politics. I’m intrigued that, no matter how I break down my stats, it always returns two US hits for every Aussie one.

The second interesting feature – and one that intrigues me more – is that good ol’ Donna Laframboise without fail draws in the crowd. For committed sceptics, she is fairly obscure. Unlike the batty Monckton, Andrew Bolt, Jo Nova and Anthony Watts, she appears (at least to me) nowhere near as prominent. Her arguments are even fairly pathetic – even for denialists.

I mean;

  • Climate scepticism is free speech: Yes, however opinion is no substitute for critical evidence derived by experts. You’re opinion does not deserve equal consideration because it is not equally explored via critical methodology.
  • We can’t predict weather in a month, but we think we can predict climate a century from now:  No we don’t. Apart from the fact that weather isn’t climate (ie. weather is the physically observable noise overlaying a climate signature visible only through statistical analysis) no-one pretends to predict weather or climate accurately. If she had read the IPCC reports as she claims to have done, she would have noted the effort gone to within them to explain certainty. The could also be said about understanding the genuine science behind meteorology rather than just listening to the local news weather presenter.
    Certainty is the point most exploited by the committed sceptic because they don’t understand it. It’s like odds in betting on a sporting event BUT not the result of one blokes guess against the punter, rather the result of a community of highly skilled experts teasing out reality. Rather than a spread, like you have with sports betting, the odds tend to be very close to 1:1 for one idea and the rest 1:1000+. That climate change cannot result from our greenhouse contribution fits into the latter. No punter, who actually read and understood the methodology and uncertainties – or even understood the physical chemistry of greenhouse gases – would make such a stupid bet. Yet, this is exactly the bet the commit sceptic wants us to make.
  • The authors to the IPCC reports had a lot of internal kafuffle and political and advocacy involvement: So…? This is disingenuous. What does it say about the quality of the peer-reviewed literature on which the conclusions are drawn? Not a lot. What about the independent reviews by independent experts who have provided another tier of review, which find it sound? Why are the only people who seriously question the validity of the reports they type who hang out, present and/or a funded by deeply conservative think tanks, like the Heartland Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs and create straw-men, such as Donna’s criticism?
  • Greenpeace are funded by the fossil fuel industry: Um… okay. lol

Donna’s arguments are pretty weak at best and she certainly doesn’t attract the mainstream media like Nova, Bolt, Monckton and Watts so it is intriguing that she rates higher in the New Anthro than her more noisy peers. Hopefully she reads this and her head inflates just a little.

Of course no-one rates as high – no topic at all rates as high – as another person; Gina Rinehart. However, that’s not so interesting really. She is an oddball with oodles of cash – she is entertaining.

Media Can be Held Accountable on Misinformation

Here’s a couple interesting events of late…

Australia’s channel 7 network has recently been found guilty of violating the broadcasting code for racist vilification. A little persistent and dedicated pressure lead to this corrective outcome.

On the other hand, little to zilch is done to correct what the Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrates to be a deliberate act of distorting public perception of what has grave potential to undermine the prosperity and well-being of future generations by News Corp. (see the report here). Finding that over 90% of the media for the first half of this this year from Fox News Channel which addresses climate change is misleading should set some alarm bells off. Instead we have business as usual, fuelling ignorance and political paralysis against sound risk management.

Media is supposed to be where sound bipartisan information is presented fairly to the mass audience. This is fundamental for democratic societies in which the lay audience depends almost exclusively on such media to inform their involvement in governance of their state (ie. through voting). Wilful undermining this process to misinform, confuse and warp public opinion to deliberately favour a political ideology (in lieu of compelling contrary evidence) should be seen as one of the greatest disgraces to “free” states.

This is not in contradiction to my previous post on free speech. Let the droning Bolts and old wind bag Jones’s speak on whatever topics such grumpy men wish to – just put it in context. It’s not informed. It’s often not sensible. But it’s opinion and that’s fine. Fair media would allow whoever to say whatever (within context of the various codes of conduct), but credit the authority of such on the empirical evidence that supplies the underlying reasoning.

A Vague Attempt to Review Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”

I’ve just finished reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

Unlike many of my peers, I’ve long avoided many authors, such as Diamond, Dawkins etc. Instead I focused on the classics, like Wells, Orwell, Fitzgerald etc. In truth, I fell prey to the misinformation about such writers engineered by those whom dislike their fantasies being thoroughly discredited.

Of course, I should have read their work for myself before buying into such assumptions or concerning myself about judgement by association. Both men are far from the stigma created around them and both passionate, honest and interesting writers.

In the final chapter of Collapse, I found myself thinking, “Andrew Bolt should be made to read this.”

Ever since I stumbled upon one of Bolt’s more moronic writes, excusing species extinction, even the role of Hathos has been killed for me; I simply cannot read his dribble anymore. I spent a fair amount of effort attempting to retort with various arguments as to why not only biodiversity, but also genetic diversity within a species is fundamental to the success of our species as well. Diamond puts it even better;

“[B]iodiversity losses of small inedible species often provoke the response, “Who cares? Do you really care less for humans than for some lousy useless little fish or weed, like the the snail darter or Furbish lousewort?” This response misses the point that the entire natural world is made up of wild species providing us for free with services that can be very expensive, and in many cases impossible, for us to supply ourselves. Elimination of lots of lousy little species regularly causes big harmful consequences for humans, just as does randomly knocking out many of the lousy little rivets holding together an airplane.”

Throughout the book, Diamond provides many compelling examples of successes and failures in the survival of societies. In that respect I really should have read his work earlier, even more so than Dawkins as it’s the same perspective that first drew me to the blogosphere with MothIncarnate.

Unlike many environmentally inclined that actively engage on the subject (generally outside of academia) I’m very much pro-industrialisation, in the respect that I believe it will be through innovation (ie. social and technological) that we stand the best possibility of discovering solutions to the myriad of problems facing our future. I’m also in favour of a form of free-market, however based on a stable state economy. We require innovative and inventive market enterprise within thriving societies based on technologically advances and a strong sense of capped resources and waste management (ideally leading to zero waste; in other words, cyclic processes).

The way forward is not the way back to the humble peasant and some illusion of egalitarianism. Like Diamond, I prefer to rely on historical evidence and all the evidence I’m aware of leads me to the conclusion that sophisticated societies are never egalitarian – we should instead ask how to avoid gaping disparity through other means within societal structures that foster good environmental management; that is, societies that have a core understanding that real societal wealth starts with a thriving surrounding environment.

This line of thinking has often lead me to pointless circular debates, where I ask for evidence to the contrary and instead am continually supplied with the response that the other just doesn’t like my argument.

In the same way, another loud point made in Collapse is not very popular (and has led to much of the stigma around Diamond). He doesn’t see business as the big greedy monster that many people probably inclined to pick up his book do. Rather than labelling business as a shameless profiteer at the expense of people and the environment he accurately defines is as… well, a business. He goes on the provide examples of free-market entities whom we would consider to be doing the right thing as well as providing societies that collectively do the wrong thing. It’s not so black and white as the humble peasants of yesteryear and the greedy capitalistic machine of today.

It equally seems too easy to forget that in many democratic countries, not only can we vote out a bad leadership, but we can also ruin the profits of many industry leaders if we’re significantly motivated to do so. Business only works on what they can get away with in chasing money. A fast food joint will only add a salad option (often smothered in dressing as oily as their deep fried chips) if it’s enough to satisfy their customers. Providers of wood products will create some pleasant green logo of a tree with the word “sustainable” if it’s what we want to hear and are gullible enough to fall for it. White or green washing only happens because of the society that supports it.

If it ends up being more profitable to take measures to ensure environments are sustained or that waste and pollution are minimised (ie. it’s what the consumers demand and will only buy) then that is what business will do. It is of course more expensive to do so, but how often do you trust the quality of the cheapest item on the shelf anyway? Doing things right sometimes incur additional costs (although taking Diamond’s examples of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council, additional costs are small to the consumer and can ensure indefinite resource supply in return).

Personally, I feel we should all claim ownership of blame rather than seek out scapegoats, such as poor leadership or corporate governance. If we truly are stewards of the Earth, then none of us are blameless. In owning a share of the mess, we feel more obliged to do something about it, sparking a much needed cultural change – probably the most important innovation required.

Another important point made in Collapse is that part of the reason for the more modern successes mentioned in the book have occurred due to displacement. When one area exhausts its local resources, it has been easy to source these from other (often poorer and more corrupt) regions. In this way, we have a strong sense of immunity from collapse in wealthier western societies that is undeserved and makes such essential cultural changes even more difficult to catch on.

For this reason, even though I still feel that the Andrew Bolt’s of the world should read this book, I’m not convinced it would make the required impact to their reasoning.

That all said, it’s a great book, beautifully constructed and compelling with its evidence. I agree with Diamond that the story shouldn’t be seen as a depressing one, but rather an amazing collection of survivors. Not only have many societies survived, but progressed to the point that highly sophisticated machines now allow us to converse to one another regardless of distance. The range for ideas is limitless. It’s not intuitive to comprehend just how powerful and revolutionary that truly is. In this way, I am remain hopeful in innovation regardless of the tireless juggernauts leading us along the road of degradation.

Diamond’s book sits among the best of these ideas and has something for any reader as it does for every society whom wishes to avoid collapse.

Wrapped in Flags and Bolt on ‘Free Speech’

Although this is simple another example of the same type of hypocrisy that seems forever in the news, I wish to comment on two events I’ve been made aware of recently (in both cases, I’ve not seen the direct source, but only read the subsequent media).

Firstly, there has been a wave of complaints over the use of the Australian flag as bedding (or simply that the flag was placed on the ground) in the new series “At Home with Julia” [1]. At the same time, Andrew Bolt has begun to bark “free speech” over the courts ruling in relation to his singling out of a small group of fair-skinned Aboriginal Australians or, as he called them, “political aborigines” [2].

How is it that a satirical piece can be taken so seriously and cause such offence on one hand whilst Bolt’s coining “White fellas in the black” is supposed to be fair game?

Personally, I find Bolt’s writing repugnant and devoid of genuine intellect. After reading and responding to the post regarding the Golden Sun Moth [3], I made a personal vow never to read his rubbish again.

But so what? Who cares what I do and don’t do. That is my own choice. We all have that same choice.

I do agree with Greg Barns, in that free speech isn’t an absolute right [4] and especially with the following excerpt;

Commentators like Bolt and Mark Steyn, a Canadian commentator who has used freedom of speech arguments to attack elements of Islam over the years, love to dress up their political agenda with the claim that they are simply exercising freedom of speech, and therefore how could anyone possibly object to such a fundamental tenet of democratic life.

But as Justice Bromberg rightly found that this ‘defence’ falls away when you get things wrong as he found Bolt did in his characterisation of how a small group of ‘fair-skinned’ Aboriginal Australians conducted themselves, and when you attack a person’s use of their racial identity because “people should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying”.

However, free speech comes back to choice. If, as the courts decided on the case of Bolt’s articles, he had used “errors in fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language” in relation to a persons  racial identification, well that should be addressed. If Bolt was man enough, he’d own up to pushing unsubstantiated claims too far and unfairly characterising a group of people. He could go one better and then possibly apologise for it before moving on. If history has taught us anything, it’s that this is unlikely to occur.

More importantly (and why I bring it up for the third time), we much remember that free speech comes back to our choice to hear it. Greta Christina says it best [5];

[T]he right to the free expression of political ideas, is one of most crucial cornerstones of our democracy. Without it, democracy collapses. Without the freedom to express political opinions, we can’t participate fully in the political process. Without the freedom to hear political opinions, we can’t make informed decisions about what we think. And without the freedom to hear and express opinions that dissent from the mainstream, there is no way that mainstream opinion can change. The right to free speech is an essential part of democracy. And it is, in and of itself, a basic human right, a value that is worth treasuring and protecting for its own sake.

So our default assumption should always, always, always be that speech should be free, unless there is a tremendously compelling reason to limit it…

…I’m saying that, as a society, we can’t move forward and accept new ideas if we don’t let people express ideas that we find shocking and upsetting. And I’m saying that, as a purely practical matter, if we want the right to express our opinions when most people find them revolting, we need to protect other peoples right to express their own revolting opinions.

Bolt makes a living off of a game of Hathos, there’s simply no doubt about that [6]. That said, except for when  he, or others like him, actually break the law, he should be allowed to say whatever he wishes, regardless of how vile you or I may find it. The same should be said of other media – including the use of the flag as a sheet in “At Home with Julia”.

If you have a problem with them, rather than applying Hathos, simply don’t expose yourself to such opinions. Don’t read Bolt’s work and don’t tune into the show (or, alternatively, you could reply to it as I have done in the past to Bolt [3]).

We need to protect the right of free speech (where the law hasn’t been broken) to protect democracy and we also don’t want people like Bolt playing the trump card of being suppressed, thereby inflating his ego further. So don’t be fooled by his retort to losing the court case. He, just as with the rest of us, still has the right to free speech, but, rightly not to make racist remarks, targeted at certain individuals.

If you agree with me, don’t read his work. If you disagree with me, then continue to read his work and stop reading mine. It’s that simple.

[1] At Home with Julia’s sex scene in Australian flag a ratings flop for ABC show

[2] Andrew Bolt says free speech lost as court finds he breached racial discrimination act

[3] Boltus ineptus leaps out from the office desk to pounce on the dodo

[4] Even Bolt’s freedom of speech isn’t an absolute right

[5] The Fred Phelps Supreme Court Decision and Why We Shouldn’t Look for Loopholes in the First Amendment

[6] Hathos: Fuel for the Climate Debate and Bolt’s Pay Cheque?

Drowning out the truth about the Great Barrier Reef


Mass bleaching at the Keppel Islands in 2006. Our greatest natural asset is under threat, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Andrew Bolt.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY – Ove Hoegh-Guldberg dives into the media’s coverage of an Australian icon’s future.

One of the most straightforward climate change storylines is the link between global warming and coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef.

When our reef waters get too warm, corals sicken (bleach), often causing disease and death. And when the corals go, many of the other organisms go with them. At the current rate of ocean warming, we will soon exceed the critical temperature at which this happens every year, causing the Great Barrier Reef to rapidly degrade.

The greater the amount of human-driven climate change, the less will be left of the Great Barrier Reef as we know it today. And the less fishing, tourism and other benefits we will derive from it as a country.

The science tells us that exceeding 2°C in average global temperature will largely exceed the thermal tolerance of corals today. It is already happening. Rolling mass bleaching events, unknown to science before 1979, are increasing in frequency and severity.

This simple set of linkages demonstrates the risk that climate change generally places on natural ecosystems.

It is supported by hundreds of papers and highly experienced and published experts from oceanography, climate science and marine biology.

Why is it then that commentators in the media such as Andrew Bolt and Jamie Walker consistently take a different view and posit, either directly or indirectly, that all those leading experts are fraudulent, dishonest or at best shoddy scientists?

Is it a genuine lack of understanding of the facts, or is it a deliberate strategy to confuse people about what is otherwise a very clear message about climate change and coral reefs?

Could it be that confusing Australians about the risk to our reef is highly prized by the people that fund their operations?

Let’s take Andrew Bolt. Andrew has been vociferous in his claim that scientists like me are alarmists, even deliberately deceptive.

He wraps us all up in the same blanket: me, Flannery and Garnaut. Quite an honour really, given the eminence of my co-accused.

Apparently, we do it because we are mad, we do it because we are on the take, and we do it because we are zealots!

Bolt has repeatedly claimed, for example, that I warned in 1998 “that the Great Barrier Reef was under pressure from global warming, and much of it had turned white. In fact, [I] later admitted the reef had made a “surprising” recovery.”

This implies that I got the events of 1998 wrong. Let’s examine his claim.

In 1998, more than half of the Great Barrier Reef experienced bleaching and about 5 to 10% of the corals that make up the reef died (about 4000 km²).

This was the largest mass coral bleaching event in Australian recorded history.

All of this has been reported in the scientific literature.

Other coral reefs did not get off so easily. In the Western Indian Ocean, 46% of corals were eliminated by the underwater heatwave that swept through the region in 1998. An estimated 16% of the corals were eliminated worldwide.

While 1998 was an extraordinarily hot year, it will be commonplace in a few decades time at the current rate of global temperature increase. As if to emphasize this point, 2010 was a shade hotter then 1998 and saw record bleaching in many regions.

If conditions had been as hot on the Great Barrier Reef as in the Western Indian Ocean, similar events would have transpired.

We did fear the worst, but we got lucky, hence the reference to “surprising recovery” when the heat stress was abbreviated by storm activity.

It is hard to see what I got wrong.

Despite my having responded to these issues, Andrew Bolt has not removed the misinformation and continues to this day to chant its content on a regular basis. I find it hard to believe that Andrew cannot understand this critical issue. Perhaps he doesn’t.

It is hard to practice as a humble scientist when powerful columnists like Bolt run amok. Drawing attention to their fundamental scientific errors and distortions only brings more insult and abuse.

Hardly what I signed up for when I began training in science over 30 years ago.

Is this simply bad journalism or an attempt to deliberately mislead the Australian public on this issue? It’s an interesting question, given the fact that Bolt receives direct support from Australia’s richest mining magnate and climate denialist, Gina Rinehart. Cash for comment?

Bolt is not alone.

The Australian has also been ahead of the charge with commentators such as Jamie Walker either not understanding or deliberately distorting the information on the risks of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef.

Jamie has published a number of incorrect statements about the Great Barrier Reef, rarely, withdrawing statements when they were proved wrong.

Jamie published the following opening statement to an article in February last year:

“Kevin Rudd’s insistence that the Great Barrier Reef could be “destroyed beyond recognition” by global warming grates with new science suggesting it will again escape temperature-related coral bleaching.”

The truth couldn’t be further from Jamie’s clumsy spin.

First, there was no “new” science or report, given the story was based on a single year of data from a survey program that the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences has been running for 19 years. It’s literally published every year.

Second, AIMS responded by saying “The latest AIMS monitoring observations of the Great Barrier Reef do not contradict projections of potential harm caused by rising sea surface temperature or any other consequences from increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

According to AIMS CEO, Dr Ian Poiner, “One or two seasons of no bleaching do not mean that the GBR is not threatened. It is over-generalisation to the point of unreality to extrapolate from one set of observations to what is going to happen to the GBR in the long term.”

As you can see, Dr Poiner statement is pretty unambiguous. Hardly grating up against Kevin Rudd’s statements!

These statements are also relevant to Andrew Bolt’s misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) of statements relevant to what will happen within a single year, versus what will happen in the long term.

But this is what happens over and over again in the Australian media.

By misreporting “facts” and smearing scientists’ personal reputations, journalists are willfully misleading the public about the nature of the threat to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and one of our most valuable tourism assets.

And ultimately to our world.

This article is part of the Media & Democracy series. Read the rest of the series here.

This article is about the media’s representation of climate change – we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Nothing to See Here: Idle Nonsense at the Expense of Genuine Concern

“[T]he most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted…”

– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (more than two centuries ago, which was quoted in Lockwood 2010).

A great example could be Chris Monckton’s reference to Pinker, among many other fine moments. It is probably one of the easier ways to undermine understanding; to tweak it barely enough to jump to entirely the wrong conclusions. Almost anyone with a fully functional brain would be highly sceptical if they hear claims that “X” 100% disproves the greenhouse effect, but it’s not an all too uncommon claim on the blogosphere.

Yet, the conservatives seem to want to test just how much crap their fans are willing to chew.

The first I heard of this was Peter Sinclair’s post Ann Coulter: Radiation is Good for You, which Andrew Bolt has mindlessly parroted off. I’d like to see these character show some balls and back up their statements by camping out within the 20km region of the Fukushima plant. Thousands are already confirmed dead, many more thousands are still missing (thus the death toll is likely to dramatically increase) and the state of the crippled plant so bad that great efforts are being employed to keep the waste safely cooled and in the safe offices of Fox in the US and HUN in Melbourne, these bozos casually talk about the possibility that the victims of this tragedy may have been benefited by protection from cancer!

Mike’s provided an excellent post to explain what a melt down looks like – far from a a cancer-free utopia!

Tim Lambert puts it well, “Bolt might like to ask himself why, if low doses of radiation can greatly reduce your risk of cancer, can’t you buy Radium elixirs at the chemist?”

I’m not anti-nuclear. It certainly should, and will, play a role beyond fossil fuel addiction. However we have to be honest about the risks involved – it’s the only way to effectively address them and improve safety. Entertaining such selective and flimsy evidence base against overwhelming contrary evidence is foolish – but they seem to get away with it – behaviour Lichtenberg noticed more than 200 years ago!

“Reason has built the modern world. It is a precious, but also a fragile thing which can be corroded by apparently harmless irrationality. We must favour verifiable evidence over private feeling. Otherwise we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would obscure the truth.”

– Dawkins, Slaves to Superstition, 2007

Just as with addressing climate change, food, water and energy security and biodiversity (Bolt’s also all in favour of extinction as well as completely ignorant on climate change); we must defend reason and the evidence available or else, as Dawkins states, we leave ourselves vulnerable. All the while this foolishness overlooks the genuine concerns and devastation shadowing the region. We should expect better from our communicators.

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.

When it’s Gone: The Human Island (Chapter 8)

“Oh, and spare me your huffing about biodiversity, sustainability and my children’s children’s children.

“You see, I’ve seen the dodo…

“… looking at the goofy thing, I felt serenely confident that there was not the slightest gap left in my life by its passing, just as I have no reason at all to regret never being able to see a herd of tyrannosaurus rex in my front garden.”

“Shouldn’t we just harden up about this whole “endangered” racket?”

Andrew Bolt, July 14th 2010, Why save an animal just begging for extinction?

Few others could better sum up the nonsensically extrinsic and apathetically self-serving attitude that I wish to address in this series better than this journalist. Such an attitude would sell out long term prosperity, for a quick dollar on the premise that both the Dodo and the T-rex were unessential for local environments. It is an openly flawed and terribly weak rhetorical argument, but is widespread and something I too often hear.

By such logic, we could condone the eradication of all known pollinators of foreign continents as we would be unlikely to be affected, at least in the short term, by their absence. As discussed in the previous chapter, pollinators are important field-hands in agriculture, however, if we were to lose them elsewhere, we may feel confident that the worst that could happen to us personally is the loss of some exotic imported fresh produce.

In chapter 3, Biological Diversity, I compared an ecosystem to the crew and workings of a submarine. In chapter 5, Nothing is Wasted, I made the point that any subtraction from an ecosystem is a trade off. It is not always a clear and easy decision to decide what species is important and which isn’t, or to what degree of abundance is required to fulfil the effort required for a certain service. Likewise, diverting resources and ecological services may have ramifications that take a long time to be noticeable or may occur many hundreds of kilometres away.

To firstly use Andrew’s example species; tyrannosaurus rex and the Dodo, we have two very different situations.

T-rex is undoubtedly one of the best known species of dinosaurs to have been alive to witness the end of the era of reptilian giants. This occurred of course, around 65 and a half million years ago. In the wake of a mass extinction event, ending the Cretaceous period, the world was a far less biologically diverse place. There was room to move, so to speak – new niches where opening and with it, new species began to emerge. With the large animals no longer around to utilise much of the available resources, new types of ecosystems were able to form; the rules of the playground had changed. To reintroduce T-rex (they were unlike to move in herds by the way), would cause a dramatic pressure to ecosystems that simply had not developed to support it. Being a top-predator, they would be very unlikely find enough meat to persist. If we were talking about an herbivorous giant of the Cretaceous, we may see it literally eat itself out of house and home. In essence, what we’re talking about here is something that we’re all too familiar with (especially in Australia) – introduced species, but on a massive scale. Clearly, foxes, rabbits and cats have been good for Australian ecology, right?

The poor Dodo, being Andrew’s main target for mudslinging, has been the endless ecological joke, which quite obviously undermines this unique species.

As with the chef of chapter 3, the absence of the Dodo didn’t really have a noticeable effect on the ecosystem of Mauritius until the mid twentieth century, when it was realised that only 13 Tambalacoque Trees (Sideroxylon grandiforum) remained; all of which were over 300 years old, although these trees seem to produce fertile fruit [13]. Temple (1997) suggested that it was essential for the fruit to pass through the dodo’s gizzard to remove the thick protective seed coat. Since Temple’s paper, there has been some debate as to whether the relationship between the Tambalacoque tree and the dodo was really significant, as there remains insufficient evidence – for instance, numerous other species on the island became extinct around the same time who may have also treated the seeds – however, such relationships are not rare (whether it’s digestive treatment or simply pulp removal or seed transfer) [3].

Less ambiguity remains in the wake of the lost Passenger pigeon, which overharvest and landscape use change successfully irradiated by 1914. Flocks of this species numbered in the many millions, meaning that their presence and ecological perturbation was immense. There is little question that these flocks were able to alter environments, both through seed dispersal and urea fertilisation [3].

It has been suggested, for instance, that both the Sand cherry (Prunus pumila) and American Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) at least partially owe their previous distribution to the Passenger pigeon, which has been on the decline in range for both species in recent decades [3].

Understandably, the loss of the Passenger pigeon, regardless of its importance to the historical ecosystem of eastern North America, is yet another species the Andrew Bolts’ of the world would simply shrug their shoulders at. However, what if the declining or absent species was an important regional pollinator or pest controlling species on agricultural land?

Current agricultural methodology is leading to a slow decline in remnant tree abundance which in turn is likely to reduce the abundance of numerous animal species, such as birds and bats, that rely on them to move among fragmented woodland patches that remain [9].

Clearly, when species become locally extinct, so do the services that they previously provided. As these services tend to make other processes possible, or assist in recruitment of other species, ultimately the entire function of the local ecosystem is changed. Once an ecosystem is significantly degraded it will be defined by different processes and thus will no longer provide the same benefits as previously. For example, without suitable habitats for pest controlling species, such as birds, bats and certain invertebrates, pesticide is the only option. Pesticide is likely to reduce soil ecology as well, meaning that the effort of soil treatment is also included work for the farmer (raising costs, lowing quality). It’s a negative feedback process of poor agricultural practices and increasingly evidence in large scale monoculture. This is likely to be the future of agriculture where woodlands are eventually lost, due to current land management [9].

Far from being an “endangered racket”, species conservation is quite literally conserving an easier life. You don’t feed more people by creating a genetic waste land, but by stimulating life and opportunity – increasing activity. You don’t make your work easier by removing all the species able to provide effort and thus work, but by making the environment more suitable for more hands, that is to say, increasing biodiversity.

The Andrew Bolts’ of the world might feel serenely confident as they watch yet another species move down the one-way road of extinction. However I’m not confident that a biological wasteland can adequately provide the standard of living that we are currently able to enjoy.

[13] Temple, S. A. (1977) Plant-Animal Mutualism: Coevolution with Dodo Leads to Near Extinction of Plant. Science. 197(4306): 885-886.
[3] Catling, P. M. (2001) Extinction and the importance of history and dependence in conservation. Biodiversity. 2(3): 2-13
[9] Fischer, J., Zerger, A., Gibbons, P., Scott, J., and, Law, B. S. (2010) Tree decline and he future of Australia farmland biodiversity. PNAS. 107(45): 19597-19602. doi:1008476107.

This is chapter seven 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.

Hathos: Fuel for the Climate Debate and Bolt’s Pay Cheque?

I just noticed this morning that someone wrote the following on the whiteboard in the tearoom (I won’t use a photograph so as not to identify the writer):

As inextricable fascination with something you hate.
eg. Andrew Bolt’s writing.

It’s the kind of thing that I sometimes come by that makes me wish that I had more interesting in languages as a child. More importantly, it struck up two thoughts that have since brewed away in my head, until the lunch break opportunity to pen them down.

Firstly, maybe this is part of the problem we face discussing the science within the public debate over climate and sustainability. I’ve heard a number of people make sport analogues, even some of the more childish deniers refer to, “my side” / “your side”, yet this strikes me as even closer to the mark to such nonsense.

Is it that we are naturally drawn to hathos or is it’s existence a sign of a weaken culture, susceptible to such a virus? Either way, hathos runs wild within the public climate debate, to the point that it seems the drug that many of the contributors are hooked on.

Many of the more trolling characters, that time and time again write the same debunked denial arguments appear to be employing this technique simply because they realise that it will gain them attention. For instance, if any of us were to venture to any given science related blog and write, “Climate change is a myth developed to create a one world government! You all need to grow up!” and link to either Jo Nova or Anthony Watts bag of hot-air, we can be assured to get a response.

It doesn’t take a genius (as I’m sure none of the deniers are) to work out that employing hathos can be a useful tool for gaining attention if you’re feeling isolated.

Likewise, if you have a distaste for any form of establishment, you’re very likely going to dislike discussions over how we must alter our activity to simply endure (behavioural change required for prosperity is so great that it’s not even worth mentioning to such people). Hathos will be the root as to why you just cannot leave the science blogs alone… damn those warmists! …I wander what they’re up to today…

The emotionally fuelled noise, in many respects devoid of intelligent debate (that is to say, it takes two for a debate, so even if one provides the science, the other is in most cases deaf to reason) that energises this public debate is, as I’ve long said, a sideshow form of entertainment, that I now believe is the result of hathos.

Secondly, clearly the distaste for the hack writing of Andrew Bolt goes far and wide among the academic community!