New species

New species

It is a hugely exciting day today for against all odds and logic, completely out of the blue, and to my total surprise, given that I am not even a taxonomist, I have discovered a new species of ape… me.

I have a slightly bigger head than average, a wider girth, less hair, and some vaguely different genetics to my closest relatives. This, apparently, is more than enough to establish a new species.

So I am now declaring myself Homo spuriensis.

Of course, I am instantly critically endangered, as there is only one of me known to science. A specimen that is well past breeding age. This rarity status is both a challenge and a badge of honour. Being critically endangered means that some specimens of another species, Homo sapiens, will do their utmost to protect me. They will set up reserves and recovery plans and lament the loss of my previous habitat that they appropriated. This will make me famous but do very little to prolong my own existence or that of my unique genome.

All the other species sharing the planet, including the vast majority of the aforementioned H sapiens, will not give a rats. They will carry on minding their own business of gathering resources to promote their own genes. Nature will not even notice this new addition to the biodiversity lexicon.

It is possible that a few species of bacteria, virus, parasite or symbiont will take a liking to me but, again, this is not personal. They would have done this before my nomenclatural change.

The tragic prognosis is that Homo spuriensis will be extinct within a generation. Another sad, lamentable piece of evidence that spaceship earth is doomed.

I am sorry to bring you this initially exciting but ultimately depressing news but luckily there is another new species of ape just discovered in Sumatra.

Keep it real everyone.

Ideas that persist

Ideas that persist

Nor, considered aright, does it seem any argument in favor of the gradual extinction of the Sperm Whale, for example, that in former years (the latter part of the last century, say) these Leviathans, in small pods, were encountered much oftener than at present, and, in consequence, the voyages were not so prolonged, and were also much more remunerative. Because, as has been elsewhere noticed, those whales, influenced by some views to safety, now swim the seas in immense caravans, so that to a large degree the scattered solitaries, yokes, and pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies. That is all. And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This quote is from a fictional account published in 1851. I get that.

Except that I can’t help feeling that this passage reflects how Melville thought about this issue. He had been to sea of course, as a merchantman and on a whaling voyage, so he had first-hand experience with months of time to talk and explore what other mariners knew about the sea and its fish. Somewhat cutely, whales were fish back then.

Melville chose to ignore the evidence as many a purveyor of fiction is want to do, and refashion it. He used spin in a novel.

Or did he?

The ideas that actions of hunting could deplete such animals on unfathomably large oceans defied logic to the Victorian generation. It just could not be possible. The evidence of obvious depletion, reduced distribution, lower contact rates and changed behaviours, just did not fit the worldview.

In ‘Awkward News’ there is a passage reflecting a similar thought in the minds of early settlers to Australia. Here so vast an expanse of country lay before the first, second, third and even subsequent generations of rural folk that no amount of vegetation clearing could ever deplete it.

It is a though there is something in our DNA that programs us to ignore the possibility that resources could ever be in short supply. We seem to have to believe that resources are infinite.

This helps us in two ways.

A belief in every renewable resource buffers us from the fear of lack. This is a powerful base fear, for starvation is a slow and emotionally painful death.

It also allows us moral latitude for actions that deplete resources, especially pertinent in the case of whaling that was a brutal culling of wild sentient creatures for commercial gain. If the belief is that taking a few whales does little or nothing to their long-term survival as a species it mollifies the obvious brutality of killing individual animals slowly with harpoons and lances.

Same idea with bulldozers and chains. Removal of native vegetation is justified because there is plenty more of it across the horizon.

Jump forward 160 years and the demand for natural resources has increased beyond what could have been imagined in the 1800’s. We don’t need whale oil anymore and, for the most part, whales are back in the stomping grounds of their ancestors if not quite in the same numbers as before.

We do need land though. Water too. And space to live and recreate in. The world has shrunk perceptibly with technology able to whisk us over the ocean at speeds and distances that the old whalers would have defiled as some evil magic.

Yet that DNA is still expressed.

Many of us continue to believe that resources are either infinite or if, for some bizarre reason, a resource is used up, our technological ingenuity will conjure up a replacement that is better and more profitable.

Whatever we do those base fears of lack are still there. They persist and our emotional response remains to ignore them or refuse to believe that their realities will ever be realised.

It should be a sobering thought. Only our response is to thrust our heads in the metaphorical sand and hope that that nagging feeling will go away.

When we look up again all is well because, for sure, “some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle”.

Optimism

Optimism

I see the glass as half empty far more often than I would like.

It’s the cynic in me that does this, a nimble imp that jumps around incessantly to skilfully sneak up and strike when I’m not looking.

And I am not alone.

Many of us are pestered by negativity fed incessantly by the imp and his allies in the mainstream media with their constant peddling of bad news as something we just have to know. It is enough to depress the most ardent of us.

The psychology is simple enough. We are shown bleak accounts of impending and real doom to make us feel hopeless and in this stupefied state we don’t need to try to fix anything, we can just keep on consuming our way to distant happiness.

The imp just loves it.

He gets to play silly buggers with us and there it is, a glass half empty.

Diogo Verissimo, a conservation scientist and social marketer, believes that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties and much more on positives. He’d like us to see the full half of the glass.

In April 2017 the Smithsonian Institute organised the Earth Optimism Summit to shift the global conservation movement’s focus away from problems and toward solutions. Verissiomo’s own Lost and Found project tells the stories of 13 species once thought extinct but now rediscovered by intrepid and dedicated humans.

The hope is that the good news with the help of storytelling will generate a “more positive vision for the Earth’s future”.

It is hard to be optimistic though. The numbers of people and their needs are scary and our psychology held deep in our reptilian brainstem is not in our favour. Too many posts on this blog have explored this dilemma.

Population clocks

Post revisited – Washing machines

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

The biggest global challenges revisited

It seems unlikely that some good news stories will create much more than a temporary salve.

Now I believe we are on the path that Thomas Malthus warned of back in 1798 when he talked intelligently about per capita production and mankind using the abundance of resources for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living.

Sure we slow down population growth rates when affluence is high, counter to the Malthusian trap, but we are doing it after our absolute numbers have reached 7.5 billion. A full order of magnitude more than the 700 million alive when Malthus wrote his famous essay.

These billions are resource hungry and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.

In fact, if I hadn’t been lucky (and resource hungry) enough to visit over 20 countries in my lifetime I’m not even sure I would believe that 7.5 billion people was even possible. But it is here, a miracle that Malthus would have imputed to the almighty.

What the imp knows is that despite the occasional good news story, Malthus was actually right. He got the numbers a bit askew, an understandable error given the knowledge of his day, but the theory is sound.

Resources will become limiting and the consequences will not be pretty or good.

The glass half full may be the view we need but it is a hard one to see.

Overshoot day

Overshoot day

Overshoot day is the day in the year when human activities have used up the amount of the Earth’s natural resources that can be renewed within one year.

Ideally this is sometime in very late December or better still, January, February or later in the in the subsequent year. Overshoot day celebrated then would mean we are either in balance or slightly ahead using less resources than are renewed each year. This was pretty much true up to the late 1960’s.

In 2017 overshoot day was 2nd August.

This leaves another 151 days left in the year to keep everyone going on resources not renewed within the year. We are using up credit, reserves of resources that sit in the renewable pool.

There is more bad news if you are Australian. Our Aussie lifestyle chews up more resources than most. If everyone lived like us then overshoot day arrives on 12th March, almost half a year earlier.

Put another way, if everyone lived the Aussie lifestyle, we would need 5.2 Earths worth of renewable natural resources per year. And if we all had the British stiff upper lip or Italian suits, then it would be 3.0 Earths.

This is a serious problem folks. I mean it. We are overextended taking up at least a third more than is renewed. It is like having a salary of $100 a week and spending $130 a week. It is only sustainable for as long as your savings or credit card allows.

Aussies should be ashamed that they are the most profligate being ahead even of the Americans (5.0 Earth’s in their case); not that finger pointing helps. All the wealthy people in the world are collectively living on credit. We are borrowing from the pool of reserves without an ability to pay back in. The risk in this transaction is not secured against any collateral other than the technology mantra.

In natural resources terms, buy now, pay later, becomes use now, worry about shortages later. And it could become use now, deal with collapse later.

If laboratory rats run out of food they get hungry, then they fight each other, and then they eat each other.

It is ugly.

Our system of credit, supply chains, and technology applied to renewable resources will buffer us for a while. It is why we don’t feel shortages or, indeed, hunger for those of us living on $100 plus a day (a little under $50,000 a year before tax).

It is also why we buffered this system after the GFC even though we knew it was built on sand and so much of the extra credit promised ended up in just a few pockets. We should pay much more attention to all this. But I digress, here is the key message.

Overshoot day is the most important day of the year. If we are smart, less greedy and less fearful we could even make it a biannual celebration.

So when you are pondering your New Year’s resolutions and reflecting on another year lodged into history, with full stomachs and the lingering indigestion of Christmas cheer, spare a thought for the day in 2018 when we overshoot our renewable resources for another year.

Eating your pet

Eating your pet

A while ago I was on the road in rural NSW looking at the conservation value of native vegetation patches. A fascinating tale of dual consent, blinkered minds and koalas. These stories will come later for I have another I must tell first.

On my travels, I chatted with a government vegetation officer who is also a farmer. For many years Dave has legally hunted on his property to remove feral animals and reduce the number of kangaroos and wallabies that eat his crops. This is standard practice in the Australian bush and a necessary function.

Although all native animals are protected under NSW law the balance between kangaroo numbers and the interests of landholders means there are commercial licenses to supply meat and skin products and non-commercial licenses for the purpose of damage mitigation and public safety. The commercial harvest is regulated through a quota and every step in the kangaroo supply chain is licensed and monitored. Around 1,800 professional roo shooters ply their trade across Australia.

So when David shoots animals on his land it is all above board. What he does with the meat was what we chatted about.

He makes biltong, a better kind of jerky if you will. And by all accounts it is delicious. I am a big fan of biltong from my time in southern Africa so we had a fascinating yarn about his techniques, recipes, the best animals, and the best cuts. Loin from smaller wallabies, dried in a dehydrator with a good hit of chilli, in case you were wondering.

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Excited on my return I began to tell my wife about this kangaroo biltong when she yelled ‘yuk’ and demanded that I stop.

“You can’t eat a pet,” she screamed.

Now I should explain that we have a swamp wallaby that visits our backyard during wet periods, usually with her joey in tow or pouch. Wallabies have a certain cuteness but are as wild as a ferret and definitely not pets. They are responsible for the loss of many an edible garden plant.

I should also say that my wife is by no means a nature lover. Movies, shopping and a good yarn with her friends are more her thing. She is also a keen carnivore who has been known to berate vegans for not feeding animal products to their kids. But clearly, she connected with this emblem of the nation.

Somehow she has acquired a visceral response to eating it.

I was taken aback. My biltong story remained untold and my own curiosity over why we have not made more of this protein source for sale to eager Asian markets was not aired. I had to be quiet misreading badly the depth of feeling for wild animals that I saw as a resource, David too presumably.

So you can’t eat your pet, even if it is not actually your pet.

This is a more severe dampener on a market for kangaroo meat than I had imagined. Pragmatologists beware, we have a long way to go.

Teaching ecology

Teaching ecology

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J.M., Boar, R.R. & Montgomery, P., 1987. Teaching ecology to undergraduates: a practical course using projects. Journal of Biological Education, 21(4), 251–258.


“In these practicals students learned how to derive facts through experimentation.”

This is a quote from my first ever peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the Journal of Biological Education, exactly 30 years ago. The irony that it wasn’t strictly research but some pedagogy gleaned from an undergraduate practical course I designed and delivered with my colleague Ros Boar that we thought would get students familiar with the process of research by experimentation. We were young and idealistic at the time but had a passion for education that was, and still is, a good thing.

The course began with some facts about three species of woodlice. One was common everywhere in the UK and the other two, whilst closely related (classified in the same genus) were rare. We presented the students with vast numbers of live specimens of each species from laboratory cultures along with some instructions on how to look after them responsibly, then asked students to test the hypothesis that it was the behaviours of these species affected their recorded distributions.

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Next we said, ‘Well, there you have it folks. Form small groups and go conduct some experiments.”

It was a bold plan even for the University of East Anglia that, at the time, had a reputation for innovation in teaching. We were trying to put the ‘open needed learning’ paradigm that we believed in, to the test and, almost without realising it, I have followed this approach throughout my time as an educator.

Open-ended explorations of carbon budgets, all taxa biodiversity inventories, the spatial distribution of plants and animals, and even millipede mating behaviours found their way into subsequent teaching efforts. I am not sure that all students benefit from being thrown in at the deep end of the scientific method without any flotation devices. In later years I became convinced that the approach exposed secondary school education that no longer teaches “thinking” to any useful purpose. But in those heady days, we just knew it was worthwhile.

Between them, the UEA students interpreted behaviours with experiments on habitat preference, vertical distribution, survivorship, feeding and growth, and palatability. All the likely suspects for the global hypothesis you would have to agree. Only this was a learning exercise and so we did not expect much light on what makes Porcellio scaber so ubiquitous. That said, it almost certainly has to do with the weaker physiologies of its congeners, and out students were on that track.

We did ask the students how they went and from what they said we concluded

The majority of students (80 per cent) initially expected their conclusions to support the ecological theory that they had explored during their lecture course. Interestingly, only 25 per cent subsequently claimed that they would expect this if they were to begin another piece of work. All of the students who replied to our questionnaire that they would now be less accepting of theory.

So we created sceptics.

An inspired outcome, even if I do say so myself.

Nice one

Nice one

I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see

Scott Pruitt, Head US Environmental Protection Agency

This is an awesome quote on so many levels.

Like all good quotes, there are truths. Measuring with precision is indeed challenging and the impact of human activity on climate is, without doubt, a source of disagreement.

Then there is an opinion. And you would expect the Head of the EPA to have one, just maybe not one that is opposite to the official view of the agency he leads.

There is also a subtle admission; “the global warming that we see”. Lucky he put that in before some of the biggest storms on record. It’s also an admission somewhat at odds with the rest of the quote. Presumably, you are supposed to look past that inconsistency.

So here is a question to think about.

At what point should a public servant talk up his personal view or that of his immediate political masters over the official policy setting?

Perhaps never.

If public servants simply disregarded the current policy it makes a mockery of the democratic process. Those elected to create policy rely on the system to implement whatever they decide in good faith. And those who elect their representatives expect the system to work too.

This means public servants tasked with designing and delivering workable policy should get on with it even as the politics dances around them. They should stand firm and deliver the flavour of the day.

So to be fair to Mr Pruitt his frame is a new policy and not that of the previous administration.

And then there is the reality.


Here are some Alloporus thoughts on climate change

If this is leadership, heaven help us

Post revisited — the missing link

Can you answer these four easy questions?

Soil carbon — what we think