Values again

Values again

What do you value most?

Your loved ones, your health, Sheba the cat, your favourite cashmere jumper or even, perhaps, your screen time.

If you think about it, even for a moment, lots of things are likely to be on your list of valuables.

Alloporus has discussed this kind of thing before. And in thinking about how we perceive value, concluded that value is always relative and personal.

The question here is how far down the list of things we value is nature?

You know, all the plants, animals, hills and streams, the flowers that bloom and bees that buzz, the cute and the cuddly, and even the icky bugs and slugs, together with all the vitality that they bring.

I side with’ is a website aimed at increasing voter engagement in issues of the day. It’s ‘popular issues’ page lists 100 most popular issues filtered from, they claim, a million unique survey answers per day.

When I had a look at the site a few months ago, just 8% of the issues listed were nominally about the environment and none were directly about nature (note that this is an active polling site, so the current lists may differ substantively).

‘Environmental regulation’ makes the front page but you have to scroll down to find ‘mining water use’, and further still to ‘foreign land ownership’, ‘plastic product ban’, and ‘nuclear energy’. Way down the list we get ‘whaling’, ‘fracking’, ‘GMO foods’, ‘coal seam gas’, and ‘nuclear waste’.

More popular than environmental regulation when I looked were equal pay, gay marriage, abortion, mandatory vaccinations, terrorist citizenship, LGBT adoption rights, and welfare drug testing.

Let’s just pause a moment for this to sink in.

Nature, the cornucopia of organisms, services and wonder that gives us clean air, fresh water, food, and any number of raw materials that collectively provide us with the opportunity to contemplate values, does not make the list of 100 most popular issues of the day.

This is not an isolated finding.

Nature languishes way down on many lists of environmental issues even though aspects of nature are implicit in so many of our most acute challenges, not least in providing solutions.

Somewhere along the way we have become so disconnected from what nature does for us that we do not even think it is important.

This is quite remarkable.

I’m going to give in to my incredulity and harp on this one.

Our collective term for the very thing that sustains us, the place we evolved into and shaped our characters, beliefs and our psyche, is not even on our intellectual or moral radar.

Let’s just consider one of the things that happens in nature each and every moment of every day and what would happen if it stopped.

Decomposition is the process by which complex organic material is broken down into its constituent parts. These chemicals become available for recycling by plants back into organic matter or, if you like, food for heterotrophs including people. Bacteria, fungi and a host of invertebrates in soil and leaf litter are responsible for this natural process that only keen gardeners and farmers are likely to notice.

What if decomposition stopped? In a short time we would be knee deep in dead things. None of the carcasses would smell of course because the process of decomposition releases the odorous gases of decay. Instead they would just pile up along with the dead plant material.

In dry periods the most likely outcome would be fire. A sobering proposition given the heavy fuel load of dry biomass.

But this is not the half of it.

Without nutrients there are no building blocks for plants. Once the burst from nutrient stored in the seed is over, seedlings would simply stop growing. Deciduous trees would not flush and evergreen plants would become dormant.

Photosynthesis would shut down and oxygen production would slow to a halt. Oxygen deficits would compete with starvation as the means to kill off all the animals.

In just a few months most of nature would be changed forever. Humanity would not survive.

Of course this is not going to happen because it is impossible to stop decomposition. Bacteria and fungi are way too pervasive for that.

And maybe this is it.

We believe that nature is unbreakable. It has so much built in resilience and redundancy we see it as a perpetual motion machine that can never stop.

But human actions can slow nature down by drying out soil, changing vegetation, over-exploiting the soil nutrients, reducing soil organic matter or through pollution.

Our actions also channel nature into delivering the products we need. Nature becomes fields, farms, plantations and reservoirs. Places where we convert nature into commodities. This reduces overall redundancy and resilience because so much of the energy and nutrient flows are directed into things that humans need.

We value these things of course, only not in quite the same way as we value nature. Commodities are literally valuable because we convert them into cash. Land is valuable because it can be used to generate commodities. Soon we are down with the dollar.

The reality is that the economic focus is with us, stuck like araldite to our present and future. There is no credible alternative or, more significantly, no credible way to transition to an alternative, that can give us back a focus on nature without looking through a commercial lens.

So, for now at least, we do not value nature. It’s not on our radar and that is a big problem.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

The global wheat crop is decimated by a fungal disease that is immune to all attempts to control it. After three years of next to no wheat anywhere, there is a food crisis that affects everyone, even those who shop for their food in supermarkets. No bread, no pasta, no cake and no wheat beer. All the gluten free alternatives are consumed by the rich.

In a remote part of Australia, an organic farmer called Bruce is the only producer still growing wheat. His crops remained healthy even after all his neighbours went out of business. Soon he was spending way to much time describing his methods to a succession of scientists and media. The world got into the way Bruce did things, his pasture cropping approach, his decades long attention to building soil carbon and his attention to slowing down runoff all across his landholding.

Bruce became a new kind of celebrity. He was world famous as the saviour of bread but he stayed calm and matter of fact about it all. He kept growing wheat even when there were many other easier and more lucrative options.

What did happen that nobody expected was that his style and his humility touched people. What was happening on his paddocks went viral. Everyone became aware of how important it was to grow food with empathy for nature.

Instead of ignorance and apathy people paid attention to where their food came from. They asked questions about how food was grown. Did the farmer do it like Bruce? They paid realistic prices for produce because it was obvious that cheap meant mining the nutrients and water out of the system just to break even. It was a tsunami of change.

The wheat cropping system recovered but the health benefits of going without wheat meant that most consumers stayed with alternatives.

What happened though was that organic became mainstream because everyone now knew it was about carbon and not yoga and dreadlocks.

Insects

Insects

All around the world there are entomologists, people who study insects. We should be very proud of these fine folk for without their understanding it would be harder to manage many diseases transmitted by insects, resolve many pathogens, figure out how to assist insects pollinate crops and, most importantly, support insects and their invertebrate cousins maintain soil fertility.

Then there are insect people you might know about. The pest control folk who make sure the fly spray kills the flies and not us.

Sounding a bit posh and, dare we say a little ivory tower, ‘entomologist’ usually refers to the researchers who gather the data and sift through it to find evidence for the good, bad and ugly on the insects that share our spaces. So we can listen to them with some confidence. Not only are they spending their days with ‘bugs’, yuck, they are also the right kind of skeptic using the numbers to find inference.

Lately the number of insects observed by entomologists are in decline. This is not because the entomologists are getting lazy, spending more time watching TV than setting malaise traps or peering down microscopes, but because there are fewer insects around to be studied.

A recent publication confirmed from long-term trapping data in 63 German nature reserves, what many have casually observed in many parts of the world. Insect numbers are going down. And not just by a little bit, they are plummeting.

Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., Stenmans W., Müller A., Sumser H., Hörren T., Goulson D., de Kroon H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12(10), eo185809

Three quarters in a generation.

If such a collapse had happened to the Dow Jones the sky would have fallen in. Imagine trying to survive on a quarter of your wages you earned when you started out. Heaven forbid if the defence budget from the 1990s was reduced by all those billions, how scared and vulnerable would we feel?

“Not a problem” the observant reader cries out. “The crawling insects will simply fill the space left by the loss of the flying ones, that’s what you ecology types tell us all the time.”

Perhaps.

Equally a loss in numbers does not necessarily mean a loss of function. Pollination only needs one bee to transfer pollen from stamen to stigma. Fewer mosquitos has to be a good thing and those beetle larvae can’t be doing that much to soil when we have fertilisers.

It is always very easy to play the ostrich. Only they are remarkable and very dumb birds.

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase risk to our already precarious food security.

We need to enable our entomologists to find out why the numbers went down and if the decline is going to affect the key ecosystem services we rely on.

Or, of course, we could ignore them and buy more submarines.

Tuppence a bag

Tuppence a bag

Should you feed the birds?

Well, they are wild animals, more than capable of feeding themselves.

Of course, if they fly around and don’t find food they go hungry. If this foraging fail continues for too long they either starve or are too weak to nest and rear chicks. Those that find enough food pass their genes on into the next generation – bog standard natural selection.

The presence of my house and suburb is, of course, a huge disturbance to the natural habitat. It alters the outcome of natural selection drastically favouring those species that like what houses and gardens offer over the resources available in the bush that was there for millennia before westerners.

Feeding the birds is only a tiny blip in this dramatic habitat change. Trees and shrubs to paved roads and gardens is way more important than a few seeds or apple cores on a bird table. Throw in an Indian or a noisy myna bird that come along with the houses and, well, feed all you like, the aggressive mynas will still be there to chase the passerines away.

Feeding the birds is only ever going to affect wild birds at the margins. In time of extreme heat, cold or drought it might keep a few specimens alive a little longer, enough to get through, but this would be the exception not the rule.

So, the reason to feed them is for my benefit.

I get to see them up close and squabble amongst themselves on the feeder. The pecking order between and amongst the species is a fascination as is their choice of the morsels offered. There can be half a dozen brightly coloured specimens parading at any one time. It is quite a sight.

Then the sulphur crested cockatoos glide in and spoil the party. They are big, brash and more than capable of taking a chunk out of the hardwood balustrade when they get bored. I sometimes chase them off which is bizarre given I got them to come over in the first place.

And if I forget to put out a fresh supply of ‘wild bird seed’ the cheeky buggers line up on the outdoor furniture, peering into the house at any movement with a chirp and a forlorn look.

In a pique I refuse to replenish the supply. After a few days the lineup dwindles to nothing and normality is restored until, in a moment of weakness, I put some seeds out again to repeat the cycle.

Yes, it’s OK to feed wild birds in your garden – so long as it’s the right food

As you probably gathered I live in Australia. There are conservation minded folk here who dislike, even detest, my bird feeding behaviour. That I should feed birds at all is bad enough, that I do so intermittently borders on the criminal. Wild should be wild they say. What right do I have to cause obesity in lorikeets by feeding them the wrong seeds?

Instead all I need to do is plant some wild bird friendly plants in my garden and enjoy the wild birds from a distance.

Only here is the thing.

Those aforementioned noisy mynas arrived in our yard about 5 years ago. They took up residence en mass and now patrol the airspace chasing away everything but the butcherbird, the kookaburras and the cockatoos. All the smaller species, the treecreepers, whistlers, wagtails, scrubwrens, and the like that I used to marvel at from my office window are nowhere to be seen or heard. They have retreated to safer habitat.

If I planted, it would be like trying to win a battle on the ground without first dealing with superiority in the air. Any bird trying for a feed at the bottlebrush blossom would just be hounded away before they took a sip.

It is actually rather sad. There was once a wonderful distraction when I glanced up from my computer screen toward the gum trees. But not any more.

The only hope is that we have a drought. For then the garden might be attractive enough for more species to brave the myna harassment long enough for me to view them again.

Meantime I will make do with feeding the bigger birds and not feel guilty because the damage is already done by me. Not because I feed the birds, but because I chose to live in a suburb carved out of the bush.

Incredulous

Incredulous

Here is a recent headline from an ABC online article, a reputable publicly funded media source

Bush stone-curlews popping up in suburbs as bird once extinct in ACT makes a comeback

Nice you might think given that headlines containing good news are like threatened species themselves, rare and at risk of being lost forever.

Here is the problem.

The IUCN lists the conservation status of the Bush stone-curlew as “least concern”. In other words, its not under any immediate threat of extinction in the wild.

In fact, the species has a broad habitat preference throughout Australia pitching up in open forest, eucalyptus woodland, rainforest edges, grassy plains, arid scrubland and along inland watercourses across much of the vast continent. It is a common species in the cities of Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and is abundant in the tropical and subtropical north. In other words, it’s not a rare species at all.

I’m told there are pubs up north where you can sup on a stubbie alongside a foraging stone-curlew.

To use the word extinction, the termination of a lineage, where the moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, is a lie.

This bird is not extinct.

Placing a geographic limit so as to use the term is disingenuous. Strippers are extinct in the Vatican is about as crazy a statement.

So is this fake news?

I think it is. The bird species is not actually extinct. It’s not even at risk unless you specify a discrete subset of its natural range. And when we learn that the Canberra specimens were almost certainly taking a wander from a nearby reserve artificially stocked with a few pairs to “reintroduce” them to the local scene, then the implicit hope in the story takes a huge dive.

I know that there are feeds to feed in this modern age of lightning fast news cycles. And I also know that there are good reasons for at least trying to be upbeat when, for the conservation minded, the world appears to be crashing down. But, like cricketers crossing the line, there are consequences for cheating on the truth. In the end people do not respect you, they dismiss everything you say even when you are actually being honest.

So my call to myself, and everyone who is in the business of information, let’s be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can and leave the spin alone when it comes to the facts.

This is easy to say and not at all easy to do but we all have to try.

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”.

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.