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.


Mind Blowing Science! Part 1

I’ve spent so much time talking about anti-science that I’ve forgotten to mention why I do it. Of course, I can give the grandiose reply; that science is the route to every improvement to human life to date. However while this is true, in reality I find science absolutely amazing! Nothing in any work of fiction compares to the strangeness that is reality.

Science blows my mind!

So, to remind myself of this fact, I plan to create an ongoing series where I briefly mention the latest studies that I’ve come across that I thought were pretty amazing.

Moths vs bats: fighting fire with fire!

In the July 2013 Biological Letters, there is an article by Barber and Kawahara (doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0161) where they took three different species of hawkmoths and tested them with touch and playback of ultrasonic bat calls (used by for echolocation).

Each of these species responded to these actions by producing a completely ultrasonic call in return!

They found that the mechanism for this with the males were diamond-shaped scales that they would rub against their abdomen. As these scales were part of the reproductive structure, the mechanism would be different in the females of these species, as they too were able to produce ultrasonic sounds, although how females did this was not discovered.

While the function of this response is not yet know, the authors suggest that it might play a similar role to the ultrasonic sounds produced by the tiger moth; that is, to startle, warn or, coolest yet, jam the bat’s own sonar!

Who would have thought Galactic Sci-fi was actually being played out for real in our own back yards?

Social Learning in Fairy-wrens

This one is closer to my undergrad days, where I did a few studies on assemblage and more directly, animal behaviour; in my case it was a small allodapine bee species and their parasitic counterpart, both native to the Dandenong Ranges.

In Feeney and Langmore (2013), the researchers explored the ability of fairy-wrens to learn about a threat, in this case the a cuckoo species, via social learning.

The method they used was to expose naive members of a social group to a dummy cuckoo when they were by themselves, then again when with their group – with members aware of the potential threat cuckoos present – and then a final time when the previously naive member was alone and record the response.

They carried out the same test with a dummy honey eat, which poses no threat to the fairy-wrens, as a control.

The researchers found that naive members would learn about the threat through the behaviour of the group and would respond in kind with later appearances of the cuckoo!

We’ve all heard about how clever various parrots, ravens and crow species can be – even the currawong is also known for using tools (although less people have heard of this genus) – but I think it’s pretty cool that such a little bird (in my humble opinion, comparable in shape and size to a golf ball with a tail, but of course, more striking with its flashes of vivid blue within black and white) can learn from its peers!

It just goes to show that the minds of other species are more complex than we tend to give them credit for.

Reading beauty

Beauty may indeed be in the eyes of the beholder, however the beholder is the result of evolutionary pressures. Facial beauty seems to be universal and beyond cultural preferences.

So why do we find one face more attractive than another?

Previous work has found a relationship between the attractiveness of a male face and the strength of his immune response to hepatitis B. Rantala et al (2013) explored whether the same would be found for females.

The researchers took photos of young Latvian females and collected data on their immune response to hep B, cortisol level (the hormone released due to stress) and percentage of body fat. They then had Latvian men rate the attractiveness of these faces for analysis.

Unlike when the test was was carried out on male faces, they found that a strong immune response did not predict how attractive a female face was. Instead, both cortisol levels and body fat better predicted female face attractiveness.

Stress, that is the amount of cortisol present, was negatively related to attractiveness; a finding that matches previous male tests. Faces that were were either ends of the body fat measure – either too thin or too fat – were also negatively associated with facial attractiveness.

Both stress and over/under weight can impact on fertility as well as susceptibility to disease and other health issues, which the author suggest provide the evolutionary motive.

Most importantly, the authors demonstrate something many people have been saying for years; the unrealistically thin woman that magazines splash before young woman – telling their readers what they ought to aspire to – is simply NOT attractive. Attractiveness is found in a healthy size, a happy smile and positive mindfulness.

Boom and Bust: The Bigger the Boom, the bigger the BOOM

I’ve been saying this for some time now. Australia, as well known, is a boom and bust cycle country. It isn’t alone with this cycle either.

As we venture further into an unmanaged Anthropocene (as I truly believe we will need to shift from the illusion of stewards to outright engineers) these cycles are likely to become more pronounced. That is, bigger wets and harder dries.

The wets however provide the biggest threats for our more dangerous periods.

We have just had two exceptionally wet years and not only has our primary food industry enjoyed it, so too has our native and invasive flora… and then the next dry period came alone. Like all well adapted species, this wild flora did what it could only do; cut its overheads and downsize, that is, die back. This leads to fuel.

I’m unconvinced that the future will be unliveable; we will acknowledge our role to date already as geo-engineers and will take corrective or at the very least “band-aid” measures to persist. A large part of this will be the need to recognise the full meaning of the “boom” period.

It spells fuel for the next dry period. It also spells mass carbon movement from locked biological banks to happy go lucky free agents out to blanket our atmosphere just that little bit more.

Carbon is plant food, as Lord Monckton and his fellows may say, but they ignored the other side of the story and right now, south eastern Australia is feeling it first hand.

ABC has a link to an up-to-date map of fires across NSW for anyone who may be interest or could make use of it.

The Road to Business as Usual! Are we Doomed to Watch?

In the recent article, CO2 emissions rises mean dangerous climate change now almost certain, the Guardian highlights the growing scientific concern that business as usual is being business as usual, leading us down that cliché nightmarish fork in the road; the higher estimates in the climate models, which will present future generations with a world as different from today as today is from the previous Ice Age.

To me, it points out nothing more than a turning point; where human physical capacity supersedes the natural range of the human mental capacity. That is to say, we can create more damage in space and time than we are able to comprehend. We can reasonably perceive the turn of events from smacking someone else in the face, but (as I know firsthand) we cannot perceive adequately the results of pouring PVC into the backyard of our operations, over-fertilising our agricultural land or, more close at hand, the long reaching impact from desiring a standard of living intimately entwined to greenhouse gas emissions.

There is some truth in the old saying, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” however, this is not a good analogy for the situation at hand, where one could say, “an fruit in hand is not worth five on the bush.”

It’s a concept that requires no deep powers of reasoning. It requires no philosophy. Even caterpillars and ants have worked it out.

Many caterpillar and ant species developed a mutualistic symbiosis where the caterpillar provides sugary syrup in exchange for ant security. The relationship is an ongoing one that provides new avenues for food access to the ants and reduced mortality for the caterpillar.

If the ants were like us, they would first attempt to farm the caterpillars to produce more syrup. Over time, the holding capacity for the caterpillars would have been reached and to continue this growth, the ant would need to turn to the protein provided by the caterpillars themselves, thereby reducing the overall return; degrading the wealth creator.

As always is the case, these additional resources went to increasing the population of ants; thus they are locked into such a high level of resource pressure – even as they watch it degrade.

However, it is absurd to think of ants in this way. Equally, it ought to be as absurd that our species would fashion wealth creating models on such methodologies. We tend to favour wealth we have at hand –the bird for instance – over wealth we have less security over – the birds in the bush, ready to fly away.

There is evolutionary justification for this bias, just as there is for many human behaviours nowadays deemed immoral (such as many base emotions).

Yet, where on Earth is a bird going to escape from our species? Even if it could escape to space, would it be free from us? The answer should be obvious; as long as the resource exists, it is either in our current capacity to obtain it or our reasoning to develop future methodologies to obtain it. Resource insecurity thus now only exists where resource degradation occurs.

Further, there is something in the first part of the hypothetical story I created for the ants. We are capable of cultivating the entire globe (yes, even the poles and harshest deserts). We can maximise productivity, just as long as we start and end with biophilia – that is, with resource exchange with ecosystems (current or engineered). Just as stated in the previous paragraph; our ingenuity removes resource insecurity where resource management is appropriate.

With high greenhouse gas emissions something that we are locked into for perhaps decades or more (even if we made aggressive measures to reduce them, which, it should be clear, we won’t), we must seriously contemplate harvesting atmospheric carbon instead. The most practical (and cheapest) option to achieve this is; let the plants do it. Photosynthesis stores carbon as energy. Without a doubt, this is the most logical method through which we can sink carbon and provide useful by-products. GM may even help us improve the rate of conversion if we are game enough to answer this pressing question of how we can realistically avoid 4 °C of warming.

However, the second problem of the hypothetical ant story is our reality; we are at a point where human activity has, firstly, encouraged us to secure more resources and secondly grow more numerous; so much so, we seem to be idly watching the slow decline of real wealth – the fruit on the bush.

This pressure of growing size and per capita consumption leaves us with my opening observation; our physical capacity is larger than our ability to comprehend it.

Whether it is climate change, as the Guardian article comments, biodiversity loss (and others), as noted by Rockström et al. (2009) or our inability to efficiently manage precious fresh water resources as I’ve mentioned previously, we demonstrate this fact with resounding monotony.

We are not capable of fair (or even realistic) judgement of risk on a scale that covers environmental governance. Economic discounting the future is philosophy of this principle.

For this reason, we cannot rely on our internal capacities, such as common sense. The human experience breaks down on such matters as it does geological time and in the realms of quantum physics. Global negotiations are inherently flawed and doomed to fail.

That does not mean that we must venture down this fork of business as usual. I have hinted throughout of the alternative; innovation. We must concisely outline universal objectives (such as a floor above which all members of a species must be maintained), how much resources are required for such objectives and methodologies to ensure such resources exist into the indefinite future.

To achieve the latter, I suspect we will need to change our minds and finally develop ethics that can incorporate geological and biological engineering. There should not be a problem with such techniques if they result in maximising prosperity of the flourishing of life – not simply our species. We would prefer an energetic thriving globe over a wasteland, but our current attitude to wealth paralyses us into disbelief as wealth slips away through our fingers.



Why “Growth” Makes Fools of Us all

It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly people tend to reject a blatantly obvious observation such as the hopeless naivety that spawns from growth economics. One would assume that it should be a no-brainer to say that growing resource demand from a limited resource pool will ultimately lead to a collapse of that resource and if the resource is vital, so to the population.

Yet, surprisingly, people scoff such conclusions away as the result of some lunatic dooms-day theorist.

So here I will present a basic version of the problem to illustrate it as basically as one can.

Let’s say you start with a population value “ɲ” (here, 10 people) and starting quote of a resource “ß” (here, 1000000 units) with each unit supporting 1 person for one year. Effectively, that is a huge number of a resource. Using the numbers pre-selected, at the very least, such a resource should last the population for 100,000 years (if non-renewable).

We often hear of a favoured growth of 2% per year, so we will add a population growth of 2% per year.

If the resource is non-renewable, now it runs collapses in 0.004% of the time, when the population has increased 2000 fold (fig. 1). For example, if our consumption for fossil fuels, for example, had remained stable, rather than driven purely by growth, it would have lasted us many centuries longer, place providing environments that extra time to absorb these emissions, saving us all this trouble.

Figure 1. Population growth impact on non-renewable resources

Of course, some vital resources also grow with time. If we start with the same initial conditions and this time match the 2% growth for resources as well, we find that they continue to grow regardless of population and only collapse if the growth rate is dropped to 1.7%. Collapse with this reduced growth rate occurs in about 0.019% of the time of the original conditions (ie. stable population with ß units of non-renewable resource, fig. 2).

Figure 2. Population growth (2%) and renewable resource growth (1.7%) without restrictions

However, even this scenario is not very realistic. Resources and population are spatially limited to suitable areas for life on the globe. Therefore, we can assume the original value of ß for resources is the natural limit of the resource as it is likely to reached equilibrium prior to the coming of the population.

This time, we can match growth rates for population and resource renewal of 2%, with the upper limit of resource amount being ß. This time, the resource remains stable at ß until population increases by 2000 fold (again!) and then it rapidly collapses (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Population growth (2%) and renewable resource (2%) with starting amount as upper limit

It seems no matter how you shift the values, collapse is inevitable. In fact, noting the 2000 fold value, we only reach an ongoing access to such a renewable resource if ɲ is kept beneath this magnitude, in other words, growth in resource extraction has an upper limit or, a stable economic model.

I admit, I have grossly simplified the situation. However the basic principles stand regardless of how much one desires to add complexity. This is why I continually stress the virtue of efficiency. We must acknowledge that there is a maximum limit to how much of a renewable resource that we can exploit indefinitely and also that growth dramatically reduces the time in which a non-renewable can serve a role, however such points have no say in how well we use the resource!

The difference between when we reach peak coal or gas and how much of it changes the chemistry of the atmosphere depends on how much energy we can extract per unit (recognising too that population size must also be limited). It is nothing but account keeping and growth puts us more in debt.

Another point worth raising is yet another one of my favourite points that goes alongside efficiency – it is investment. How much we change the atmosphere or how many units of fresh water we have access to depends upon how much we shore up natural processes that provide the ecological and geological functions for these processes. Spending money on biodiversity and biophilic design to human landscapes is an investment that is highly profitable (in a real world sense) without the same volatility of our markets.

In short, our favoured approach is a bad bet. The bookies are making a stack of cash by convincing us to bet on that dead horse – growth markets. Overlooking the simple story is making fools of us all.



PETA: When Ideological Myopia Undoes ‘the Cause’

I spend a lot of time attacking the ideologies of what could be loosely termed strongly conservatives. Far less of my posts have targeted another group which too deserves as much criticism.

I, for one, thank Greenpeace for their activities in pursuing whaling operations. Not so much from an emotional view point, but from the view of preserving genetic diversity. Harvesting of the oceans is almost entirely unsustainable and until we can appropriately farm sea life sustainably (if it will ever be possible) I will not support fisheries on any level.

That said, their destruction of a CSIRO GM crop was a pathetic, emotionally fuelled gesture that will have no positive effect to their cause (unless they are simply attention seekers). Likewise, Nature recently published a news article about PETA activities to pressure the transporters of research animals.

Firstly, I do not support animal testing of cosmetic materials, but that said, this too is an emotionally fuelled gesture based more on an extreme ideology which contradicts the benefits such people have been able to enjoy in the modern age.

Animal testing is fundamental for safe medicines. It’s not enough to test the effects on living tissue (as psychological effects cannot be tested on non-conscious material), nor is it ethical to test directly on people*. Likewise, many such tests require certain genes to be present (or absent) to understand the relevant effects. This again requires fully formed animals of some sort.

Without such testing, it would have taken far longer for there to be conclusive evidence (at least, within the public arena) of the detrimental effects of cigarettes on our species; indeed the carcinogenic and otherwise poisonous properties of many materials that have (and still do) surround us.

The resulting data we have obtained for such testing has greatly improved the quality of human life and our understanding of ecology and animal behaviour (essential for conservation). Further testing will only increase our understanding of the brain, toxins, improved medicines, genetics, ecology and animal behaviour.

If any one of the PETA characters behind this movement have ever taken medicine (as opposed to the untested or tested-and-proven-not-to-work “alternative remedies”) to overcome an ailment (or to save their life), well, they are thus a hypocrite. They would expect such medicine to work and the only reason we have confidence of the abilities of such chemicals to do a certain job as well as knowing the side-effects is due to this process.

The same could be said about species conservation; behavioural ecology sometimes requires a sample group to be taken into the lab for behavioural as well as physiological studies. It’s also our work in genetics and population dynamics as well as animal testing which leads us to conclusions about gene pool and outbreeding coefficients. Saving the animals indeed means studying them.

It’s unlikely such actions will even do as PETA would like them to. Instead, other less favourable methods of transport will have to be considered – at the expense of the very animals PETA are trying to save.

From the Nature article;

In India, for example, the government’s National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), in Hyderabad, relies on Air India to ship specialized mouse strains to researchers and companies throughout the country. “From Hyderabad to Delhi by train would take more than 30 hours” and require an attendant, says Madan Chaturvedi, dean of life-sciences research at the University of Delhi. Without Air India transporting the animals, research at his institution “would definitely suffer”, he says.

Admittedly, it does serve as an ethical dilemma. If PETA genuinely stand for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they would have more positive impact by working with researchers to set up a best practice policy. It would start with trying to eliminate needless animal testing where possible and then steps to ensure animals are handled appropriately. I wouldn’t be surprised if PETA learnt, through such an endeavour, that many researchers already act as ethically as possible.

Scientists are not the villains, riding on the back of some mutated rodent, out to take over the world that cartoons tend to portray. Believe it or not, they’re your average human, in a given profession, and like your average human they tend to be empathetic. They are not in the game to inflict cruelty for the sake of it.

Only through working with researcher can such groups truly understand what work is actually being done (rather than what the read in their pamphlets and understand from hear-say within their group) and work to ensure that important work is done to the highest ethical standards possible. Bullying others into a certain ideological framework will only lead to worsening the conditions of such animals and isolating such extreme ideologies even further… It’s counterproductive to mantra of PETA and hypocritical to the benefits its members enjoy in the modern world.


* There isn’t a version of the reality that I’ve heard that would not exploit the vulnerable and unnecessarily threaten human life.

As another foot note; I suspect many fans of PETA and alike, whom reject any animal testing / food supply, would have rejoiced at the recent study, by Séralini et al. 2012 that suggested a link between tumours and GM foods. Of course, this conclusion could have only been drawn by animal testing (whether or not the implications indeed turn out to have the impact, or meaning, those now trumpeting its message – without reading the paper or relevant material surrounding it, some of which is summarised by Butler here as well as an illuminating editorial here – would hope it to have).

It’s not so black and white.

Imposing Meaning: The Conflict Between Ideologies Masked as Reasoned Debate

Light in the absence of eyes, illuminates nothing. Visible forms are not inherent in the world, but are granted by the act of seeing. Events contain no meaning in themselves, only the meaning the mind imposes on them. Yet, the world endures…

As a teenager, I was obsessed with the animated series Æon Flux. The above is part of a quote that opened episode 5 of season 3, where Trevor Goodchild was having a ‘Hamlet moment’. It has been changed in a more recent release of the series.

It has stuck with me for close to twenty years now. Memorised. Hardwired.

Musing over it today, I see it differently than I did as a teenager. Perhaps less moved, but still as thought provoking.

While meaningful to the state of mind of the character, it is at once an illustration of the human ego and also desperately fatalistic.

Visible light is but a small region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some species, take for instance certain bee species, can see wavelengths outside this range. Perhaps on a much grander scale, infrared plays more influence over the universe…

More importantly, in reflecting the meaning of events, we hit the fatalistic note. It’s the mind that imposes meaning. Well, of course it is.

Meaning is, after all, the way a self-aware entity makes sense of the information it receives about the known universe surrounding it. Meaning is as important to the self-aware entity as is itself. It has to be. One cannot be self-aware without assigning meaning to the information that bombards for it is that information which leads to the persistence of the self-awareness (ie. staying alive).

This is an important note to my recent posts on values and science. The separation of personal values and scientific certainty is clearly an illusion, based on an impersonal (and functionally impractical) philosophy. All information that reaches each one of us must contain both objective and subjective meaning or else it would be rejected as meaningless. This seems a no-brainer, but in practice, we do separate meaning into pigeon holes as though there were functionally different categories, which in practice, there clearly are not.

I’d like to thank the author of Climate and Stuff for the post, Good God! This is realy scary stuff. In the post, the author highlights some of the points of the declaration on global warming from the Cornwall Alliance. While no surprises are to be found, they deserve reflection by anyone interested in the communication of increasing scientific certainty.

Here are a couple worth pointing out;

What we believe

1) We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.

What we deny

1) We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

Points 2 – 5 are also worthy of reflection and debate, however as they are hinged on these two points of belief and denial (I thank them for using that word) and are points rebutted elsewhere, at great length, I won’t bother here.

The first thing to note here is that the points quoted are clearly wrong. A casual look into species abundance over the industrial era demonstrates ecosystems are not robust, suited for human flourishing, they are self-evidently fragile to outside impacts, such as human induced degradation. So much so that Rockström et al (2009) places biodiversity loss as significantly more impacted by human activity than climate change, ocean acidity and a host of other variables. Left to their own devices, with ample range and resources, it has been demonstrated that ecosystems can be resilient (Fischer et al 2006), but this remains contradictory to the rest of the statements being made.

The core value being address in this declaration is that the earth and ecosystems are “created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence”. This is the meaning that many minds have imposed on the information they received.

Directly, it has nothing to do with climate change or biodiversity loss, but simply that the world is our divine playground in which we can do no wrong. Thus, errors such as those I’ve pointed out above miss the point of the declaration entirely. To say as much or to point out that “minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry” relates to more than 10 gigatonnes additional CO2 per year and can only be considered “miniscule” if unfairly balanced against Nitrogen and Oxygen (both of which play no role in the greenhouse effect) is translated to, “you are wrong about your core value; that is, your god”.

I am not certain about my reader, but I’m not here to challenge the religious faiths of other people. They can choose to believe any ancient mythology of their choosing. However, I don’t want their beliefs to be shoved onto me. Here is a clear example of faith based values doing just that; through the continuing paralysis on both biodiversity loss and climate change I am party to ideologies that amount to, “she’ll be right – God’s looking after us.”

I find such apparent dependency (assuming there is a god looking after us) infantile and degrading, especially when it is obvious the Raphus cucullatus (Dodo), the Thylacinus cynocephalus (Thylacine) and Rheobatrachus silus (Gastric-brooding frog) among others as well as the difference in ambient conditions between the earth and her satellite all stand as evidence to the contrary.

Hence such musings have not only exposed the core values of people such as those of the Cornwell Alliance, but also my own. At the root, I cannot help but feel I am being asked to relinquish a sense of control – thus meaning – to my life. I’m being asked to take a leap of faith that common-sense tells me is a bad move.

It’s easy to see how quickly such discussions can go astray.

While we may be addressing the science, in reality, we’ve walked into a debate over ideologies; in the meaning the mind imposes on events. How we avoid this, when such groups as the Cornwell Alliance explicitly thread their theology to certain views of the world (such as climate change and biodiversity loss), remains to be seen.

Personally, I won’t hold my breath on a superpower saving us from ourselves. I just can’t do it. History is too full of plague, famine, extinction and hardship that I can’t take solace in a higher force whom, we are told, sides with the victors. Likewise, in weaving their core values to a certain way of seeing the world,* it seems clear that such people are equally unlikely to budge.

So what remains? My suggestion would be to question. “What real world evidence do you have that ecosystems are robust and self-correcting?” or “How does extinction fit into this?” or “Climate has indeed changed over the millennia – but it has been too cold and too hot to support human life in a way that “flourishes” today, what if this occurs again?” for instance.

You would be unlikely to change their minds, true, but maybe, just maybe, the cracks might start forming between the evidence available and the contradictory meaning already imposed. Hopefully, at the very least, the poor marriage between the evidence and certain ideologies may lead groups such as the Cornwell Alliance to unpick the threads they’ve sowed between the two.  Maybe they will find a better match with governance – good stewardship of a wonderful world – as a divine practice over unquestioning dependence.

Who knows? It couldn’t hurt to try.


*The Cornwell Alliance lists a number of signers with a scientific background. I have to admit, I feel the science teachers of these signers failed them. The most important lesson one should be taught in science is to be plastic with the evidence. We all have pet hypotheses, but all too often they eventually crash and burn. Even Newtonian physics can only go so far – falling to pieces on the very small or very fast scales. For a scientist to sign a declaration stating that the universe is set in one way, perfectly definable today, represents a lapse of understanding, that will look as silly in retrospect as a similar historical document would regarding the flatness of the earth or pivotal (and unchanging) position of the earth in space.

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.

Warmth of the World

Seeing as many are now getting tired of the old argument of, “you can’t attribute an extreme weather event to climate change,” now that we have experienced year after year of extreme heat waves, wildfires, unprecedented floods, cyclones and monsoons, I figured it was worth sharing again the parody I did some time ago, adapted from the first page of War of the Worlds:

Few would have believed in the last decades of the twentieth century that this world was being ever increasingly warmed, slowly but surely by forces greater than man’s and yet more subtle than his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were assisting and fuelling change, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a drainpipe might pollute the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a body of water, that in turn feed the fish that support his very existence.

With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over this environment. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same with limited resources. Few gave a thought to the invisible, presumably harmless CO2 emissions as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of human induced climate change as impossible or improbable.

It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men with larger cars and factories, perhaps superior to their own and readily welcomed the chance for larger industrial enterprise. Yet across the passage of time, molecules that are to our minds the result of a healthy, industrious society, trapped heat and warmed atmosphere, with no regarded for this earth with it’s ecological equilibrium, and slowly and surely shifted the climate against us. And early in the twenty first century came the great disillusionment.

Perhaps the disillusionment has hit us. Continual weather of this nature is not longer “freak”, “unprecedented” or “extreme” but rather the new norm.

Fair well sweet Holocene whom carried us from fringing bands of wanderers scraping out a hard existence from a harsh cool landscape and cared for us with mild stability while we learnt how to domesticate species for improved food security and production. Hello, with certainty, the Anthropocene, whom we are unfamiliar with and will likely demand we start again to develop a package of skills and tools to define a population like that we already tend to take for granted.

If anything, it would be great if we could be a little more proactive as communities…