Scientists are expected to be objective. After all, we are highly trained sceptics using our curiosity to unpack the problem, ask the right questions, and find evidence for the best possible answer.
This process of enquiry was honed over the generations into the scientific method. Our philosophy colleagues have mulled over and chewed to the point that most of them agree that the deductive method is our best approach to evidence.
So when a scientist gives in to emotions, it’s intriguing, given we are trained not to. Right from the start scientists are told that emotions are rarely objective and our job is to be objective and deal only with evidence..
In a recent essay in response to Australia’s recent Black Summer of unprecedented wildfires, Joëlle Gergis decided to go against this principle. The fires that burnt through an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles) of mostly forest and open woodland were some of the biggest in recorded history. Fire destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. As we all lived through this event it was hard not to be emotionally affected.
Dr Gergis is an award-winning climate scientist and writer based at the Australian National University. She is a lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report and an expert advisor to the Climate Council.
Here is a flavour of her essay
I’ve gained terrifying insight into the true state of the climate crisis and what lies ahead. There is so much heat already baked into the climate system that a certain level of destruction is now inevitable.
And then later…
Australia’s horror summer is the clearest signal yet that our planet’s climate is rapidly destabilising. It breaks my heart to watch the country I love irrevocably wounded because of our government’s denial of the severity of climate change and its refusal to act on the advice of the world’s leading scientists.
And her conclusion…
As a climate scientist at this troubled time in human history, my hope is that the life force of our Earth can hang on. That the personal and collective awakening we need to safeguard our planet arrives before even more is lost. That our hearts will lead us back to our shared humanity, strengthening our resolve to save ourselves and our imperilled world.
It’s an essay, a medium that allows a certain normative tone. What is interesting though is the level of emotion in the piece — the opinion and emotion that went into the writing show the author grieving for nature that she knew well, changing in front of her eyes. A terrifying insight indeed.
No matter that the dance of evolution on the planet has been continuous for three and a half billion years. Or that fire is just part of the choreography, an immediate disruption that is detrimental only to a certain worldview and, of course, open to projection and blame, towards politicians especially, for not preventing it.
Part of me is disappointed in this kind of thinking. And part of me is empathic for her situation and why she would want to write such things. It would make her feel better to have communicated the truth from her soul, rather than what her profession would have her do, that is to present only the facts.
It is unfair to be critical because in these challenging times we all need an outlet to process change that we couldn’t have seen coming.
However, it is impossible to go back to the pre-industrial era and say “no, we won’t use coal and then no we won’t use oil”. At that point in human history those energy sources were a miracle. They fuelled the engine behind what everybody at the time wanted. And if you were living at that time, you’d want those things too.
Industrial development eventually improved food security, job security, the opportunity to grow yourself and your family. The privilege of the wealthy for a long time did trickle down to the masses thanks to the cheap energy from coal and oil.
Saying fossil fuel use was a bad decision is very easy in hindsight. But the counterfactual wouldn’t have happened. People at the time would have found another way and would have ended up with coal and oil anyway. Lamenting or criticizing the current for consequences that no one could have prevented is disingenuous but perhaps necessary in emotional responses.
Maybe this was a good thing for this particular scientist. Express feelings in this way for a reset and then return to objectivity.
But this begs two bigger questions.
Can scientists be objective and ignore their emotional selves?
Unlikely. Arguably an emotional response will kick in at some point no matter how objective we try to be with our day jobs. Scientists are people after all.
Is it a good thing to try and be objective?
Perhaps the emotional response is a requirement to get the message across. If we fail to tap into our normative selves then the messages lack passion. To actually make a difference, people need to believe the message.
For me, it’s more about knowing that these two sides of us exist. The process is I think from the science through my emotions to an objective point of view. Compartments certainly but also to know when to mix them together.
At times objectivity must speak for itself without any emotive words. And at other times emotions must be out for a full account of feelings. And then there are important moments, perhaps the critical ones, when the two come together. When objectivity is fueled by emotion and feelings.
In other words, scientists should use emotive words and let feelings and passions spill over to promote evidence. Embrace emotive capability to engage people with the evidence and then let the evidence speak for itself.
This is a nirvana that many scientists would love to be in. We do feel deeply about many of the issues that we study. Otherwise we wouldn’t be interested in them in the first place. So to arrive at a situation with no emotion. No empathy for this for the consequences is unrealistic.
But in these challenging times, the evidence must also speak for itself.
Please share on all your platforms. It would make me feel good!
Lions, Chobe – Alloporus
There are times when you find yourself reminiscing about the old days.
It is a natural response to age and probably quite a healthy pastime so long as it doesn’t wander off into regret.
I used to remember my time in Africa almost every day.
The smells, sights and sounds of the savanna are indelible, you cannot forget them even when they are in the distant past.
A little musty scent, with a hint of acrid talc in the nostrils.
Chirp, babbles, and, if you are lucky, a morning boom in the ears from a hornbill the size of a turkey.
From these feelings, the memory lands on specific events such as when I laid down on my belly next to a python because I was naive enough to think it would not strike or when I looked up into a leadwood tree to see a Wahlberg’s eagle with a genet dangling from its talons or the idle chit chat on the banks of a shallow pool rudely interrupted buy the hippo that almost leapt from the water with a white water wake worthy of any man-made craft.
Ah yes, those were the days.
Wonderful experiences fondly remembered as privileges, blessings even, that I am happy to have as times in the past that fill my soul with gratitude.
I do not remember these things every day now.
Just occasionally when triggered by an image, a conversation, or when there is the smell of dryness in the morning air.
Recently I was required to go to the bush here in Australia and wander around farmers paddocks to eyeball patches of remnant vegetation. Instead of inspiring, I rather dreaded it. It has been a while since the scruffy jeans, long-sleeved shirts and robust boots have appeared from storage under the house. They needed a wash to remove the smell of underemployment.
There was a time, of course, when an ecologist would be in the field as often as was humanly possible, quadrat and data sheet in hand, compass in the back pocket, and revelling in the rugged look that is only possible after several days without showering.
But not any more. For some reason, not entirely obvious, it doesn’t happen much these days. I don’t get out and about into the wilds at all.
Why is that?
What changed that stopped me from seeking out natures wonder? There are no real obstacles. I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW within spitting distance of some of the best bushwalks in Australia. I still make my living advising on environmental matters that presents any number of opportunities to spend time outside. But I prefer to stay at home. The nearest thing to nature I get is my regular walks down the first fairway.
The recent trip was sanitised of course. Room and board in between the gentle site visits arriving in an air-conditioned vehicle with no time for the fine dust to adhere its protective qualities onto any exposed skin.
There were no clipboards or quadrats or data of any sort. Just some ramblings from local experts. Most of the time I was clicking my heels or wandering off to find some bugs to admire.
My enthusiasm level was chronic.
Was I suffering from shifting baseline syndrome?
Shifting baseline syndrome
In psychology, SBS is where each generation grows up being accustomed to the way their environment looks and feels, and thus, in a system experiencing progressive impoverishment, they do not recognize how degraded it has become over the course of previous generations.
SBS occurs when conditions of the natural environment gradually degrade over time, yet people (e.g., local citizens, natural resource users and policy makers) falsely perceive less change because they do not know, or fail to recall accurately, how the natural environment was in the past.
Now I have limited recollection of a past for Australia as I have been here for 25 years, a short period relative to the rates of environmental change.
But I do recall Africa, often in vivid detail. And I am subtky tempted to make comparisons that shift my baseline.
Causes of shifting baseline syndrome
SBS results from three major causes
- lack of data on the natural environment
- loss of interaction
- loss of familiarity with the natural environment
Well, I am not short of data given that I play with environmental evidence for a living.
I have lost interaction. In Australia, my passion for the bush has been a fraction of what I had in Africa not helped by fires, heat, and floods. Somehow lions, hippos and donkeys on the road seemed far less of a threat.
Mostly, I am not familiar with the environment. I don’t know very much about it.
This sounds strange even as I write for I do know more than average but I don’t feel that I have ever known enough about this strange land.
My baseline is Africa.
Everything is compared to it.
Sights, sounds, smells… presence. It’s all based on what I felt for a decade starting in my mid-20’s.
Physically I moved on and with time I accepted that those heady days would not be repeated but there is a powerful legacy, an incomparable baseline that cannot be restored.
Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from
A century is not that long a time in the grand scheme of things. All we need to do is stay sane, not throw rocks, and grow enough food without using up all the freshwater.
Should be easy enough, we have been around a while after all.
Homo sapiens, modern humans, have survived as a species for a long time. The most quoted scientifically based origin is 300,000 years ago in Africa amongst a number of other Hominid species.
Here is what the Smithsonian says
The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa. Like other early humans that were living at this time, they gathered and hunted food, and evolved behaviours that helped them respond to the challenges of survival in unstable environments.Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
The average ‘lifespan’ of a mammal species – origination to extinction – is estimated from the fossil record, genetic evidence and rates of extinction to be about 1 million years, although some species persist for as long as 10 million years. If H. sapiens are an average mammal species then we have 700,000+ years left in us.
Given our current ‘age’ and these lifespan estimates, the likelihood seems pretty high that we can persist for another 100 years, a minuscule proportion of these timeframes.
However, putting aside the rock-throwing and sanity of the leadership, in order to persist there must be enough food.
Our present complement of 7.7 billion souls each consumes a global average of 2,884 calories per day, give or take, to maintain weight and health assuming that along with the calories comes a balance of nutrients and food types. This is a gigantic amount of food consumed each and every day.
Roughly 22 trillion kcals
Obviously, we have engineered efficient food production systems to meet this demand otherwise there would not be 7.7 billion people and rising in the first place.
Whilst famine and malnutrition are still prevalent, from a production perspective they are unnecessary. Most of the analysis and modelling suggest enough calories are grown. However, food is unevenly distributed, a great deal of production is wasted, and in many western cultures, people consume far more food than is healthy for the average citizen.
Then along comes a quote from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that went around the media. Here is how it was headlined in the sustainability section of the Scientific American, an erudite and respected science journal
Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues
Generating three centimetres of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said
Scientific American December 5, 2014
The warning was harsh. No doubt designed to shock with numbers that should send shivers up the spines of the young. The quote goes on…
Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.
60 harvests left
In other words, to maintain food production per person equivalent to that in 1960 production per hectare would need to quadruple by 2050.
60 harvests left around many parts of the world, a lifetime of harvests, is a great headline. I’m ok then but if there are no harvests after that lifetime, then what are your grandchildren going to eat? Shocking and personal, a copywriters dream.
The degradation is true. Both intensive and shifting agriculture struggle to be gentle on soils. It is easy for farmers to either mine nutrients or slip into input-output production systems. However, food production from soil is not static or uniform. There is innovation everywhere and not all soil is being degraded or eroded at the same rate.
Some systems in regenerative agriculture are able to reverse the degradation trends with soil carbon accumulation and more efficient on-farm nutrient cycling.
Soil degradation is a huge problem but to say we have on 60 harvest left is fodder for the doomscroller, a headline fantasy and has been called as such.
The soil scientists don’t believe it, mostly because such a number is very hard to calculate with any certainty. There are too many factors at play.
It also fails the pub test. A few sips of Theakston’s Old Peculiar and it is clear that not all farms will fail in little Jaden’s lifetime. Many farms are thousands of years old what makes the next 60 years so special?
Alright, we are down from the hyperbole. So will we persist beyond the next 100 years?
Well yes, but we will have to look after soil much better than we do at present. And this was probably the FAO message, they just got a bit carried away.
Fortunately, we already know how to do this. Combinations of the following can slow or reverse soil degradation:
- maintaining groundcover
- minimum tillage
- production diversity
- careful use of livestock
- irrigation practices
- crop rotations
These are a few of the many options.
It is important that degradation does not reach points of no return where rehabilitation or restoration becomes too difficult given the local conditions. The FAO would call this desertification but it can also be salination or other forms of soil degradation.
The FAO were guilty of hyperbole but that’s all.
What is true is this.
Outside the people and the politics, soils hold the answer to whether humanity can persist for another 100 years.
Only this is not a headline in any way and who wants to agree with it anyway.
Humans are all powerful after all.
Go ahead and share this extraordinary missive, you know you want to…
In the 2020 Federal budget the Australian government, in its wisdom, decided that they would shift funding allocated to particular subjects within the university sector. The media have focused on reductions in the amount of money spent on arts degrees and the promotion of STEM subjects, technical and hard science degrees.
Only one of the big losers in that story was environmental science.
The student contribution to environmental studies was cut from $9,698 to $7,700 a year – meaning students will pay less for their degrees. A positive of course.
However, the commonwealth contribution paid to the universities to run these degrees was cut from $24,446 to $16,500 per student per year – meaning that the government will fund each degree less. Unless the university can be remarkably creative, less money received per student means a poorer quality of education.
This is very short-sighted, obviously.
At a time when the youth are turning their minds towards their futures and what kind of environment they’re going to live in; not to mention their children and grandchildren. They are concerned. They think that the current and previous generations have given them a hospital pass. And they’re about to crash into the opponent with very little protection.
Many of them are keen to find out more, to engage with environmental problems, and to search for solutions. Apply their sharp and agile minds to make the world safer and more sustainable.
The environmental sciences, one would have thought, are in the best interests of everyone.
No matter what your value set, not understanding how the environment works is just a massive miss to any economy, society and individual well-being.
Think about it for a moment.
All modern economic systems are founded on feeding the people. There are only two ways to feed the people: grow enough food or buy food from another grower. Either way, you need a strong system of economic organisation in order to be able to achieve the outcome by either method.
Failure to feed your population and strife is never far away.
And here is the thing… whether we like it or not,
The environment is where we grow our food
Until we have created greenhouses on the moon or vertical gardens on every building in every city, the majority of our food supply will come from the land. It will be grown in soil. That’s going to be the case for at least the next hundred years and beyond.
Not recognizing this fact just because we seem to have enough food right now, is morally abhorrent. That senior leaders and advisers are not even contemplating future food security is criminal.
Remember that on any day of the week at least 700 million people are hungry and not all of them live in obscure countries that few know exist.
We have a small window for finding options to grow and distribute food for everyone. A short time to throw alternatives around and have their value debated before landing on the values that take precedent in which locations.
Soon this window for rational discussions will have passed and will be in crisis mode.
And a crisis is what it will come to for hungry people are desperate.
In spending less on environmental science education governments are undermining the capability to even act in crisis mode by making it harder for a youngster to be educated in this area of interest. It is tragic. A small budget item decision that really points to the stupidity of the people in power.
Not just the government
It may be that the environmental scientists themselves must take some of the responsibility.
In my hirsute youth way back in the late 1970’s, I completed a degree in environmental science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. It was a new degree at the time and UEA promoted itself as a place of open-ended learning and student-centred inquiry.
A fascinating subject combined with a novel pedagogy fitted my personality to perfection.
I absolutely loved it.
I spent hours in the library on my open-ended inquiry. And was both fascinated and empowered by the student-centeredness of the whole approach. In one of the courses, I even marked my own assignment, only to be told by the lecturer that I might have undersold myself.
That this type of degree was available at the time was magical to me.
The ability to mix and match a whole range of different subject matter, that would otherwise have not gone together or insufficient on their own to merit undergraduate study, was perfect. Ecology, sedimentology, geochemistry, meteorology, sustainable development… and that was just the first year.
Later it was Environments in time, more Ecology, Ecosystem Management, Land Resource Development, and Toxic Substances in the Environment. In total a thorough grounding in the bio-physicality of the world with and without humanity.
This STEM version of environmental science was not taken up in every program.
In many universities, these topics never really came together and environmental science was hijacked by the human end of it. The value-laden decision making by individuals and the consequences of people being involved in the environment more so than the objectivity of the information that you can get about how the environment works.
In other words, the sociology of the subject risked diluting the objectivity.
These programs are less able to be precise about the science of the environment being absorbed in the social aspects of it.
Consequently, environmental scientists are not winning Nobel Prizes. They’re not at the forefront of the men in white coats that governments are now trotting out to explain the COVID crisis.
The discipline of environmental science does not have the standing needed to attract resources to empower the next generation. I think we have to take some responsibility for that, for not actually putting ourselves forward well enough.
But if I was a climate actions youngster skipping school in order to protest about my future, then I would be looking closely at that cheaper degree and hoping that the quality of the program was up to scratch.
Then I would enrol in environmental science.
Society will need what I learn.
I’m currently in a bit of a quandary.
I’m on a roll and my words per day have been through the roof.
As a writer such bouts of productivity are to be cherished because they dry up as fast as they flood, the block kicks in, and suddenly you’ve got nothing to say.
My problem is that this particular spurt of enthusiasm has lasted the best part of a year. There is a lot of material that needs to be tidied up.
The writing gig is a long process. Only the first part, maybe 20%, is origination. The inspiration strikes and the first splurge of vomit makes a splatter on the page. The next phase is to tidy up the mess.
Making sense of the first draft takes numerous waves of editing and rejigging in order to shape a narrative that is, at least in the writer’s mind, comprehensible.
After that, the process involves third parties engaged with structural and copy editing, as well as preparation of material into the various format to share with the world.
The process of writing is a mechanical one, way more drudge than inspiration and creativity.
My current quandary is, do I stop writing and begin the real work?
Whilst I’m on a roll this seems like a mistake. I must keep going whilst the muse is dancing away in front of me. Only, where will the time come from to clean up the mess?
I really don’t know what to do.
The process of science
Science is the same.
As a student, I was always told that science is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. A quote pilloried from elsewhere no doubt but no less true for lack of originality.
The process of science goes something like this.
An idea worth testing springs to mind, typically on a topic that you find fascinating. Maybe you spot a gap in knowledge that an experiment or a set of observations can fill.
That moment of clarity will set in train several months worth of hard work pulling together the evidence through experiment or observation. More often than not the procedures need development and fine-tuning, it can take a week to calibrate a measurement. Once the set up is done the data collection begins and last as long as the test requires. A while if the subject is the gestation period of an elephant. Then comes the collation, analysis and interpretation of the data into evidence. This in itself can take months with the prospect that the hypotheses will need clarification and another experiment or two completed before the evidence is clear. All this must then be condensed into a short communication that peers will tear apart before an editor maybe gives the green light to publication.
All up, an equally long and laborious process as writing. More a slog than an inspiration.
Few research scientists have the luxury of hanging about in the fun of speculation and hypothesis generation. In science, there is no substitute for the effort needed to generate evidence. There is no evidence without the hard yards in the laboratory or the field.
Even if you are the theorist who looks to the mathematics of it all, there is drudgery in the proof.
Evidence takes hard work.
Now for an apparent non sequitur
The process of sustainability
The conundrum of ideas versus hard work applies to a whole range of our sustainability problems.
We know that ideas are inspirational and they can come together in a flash. They are fun and full of promise and there are lots of sustainability ideas around. Google delivers 290 million results for the search term ‘sustainability ideas’.
The conversion of ideas into practical solutions is the hard part. Actions that are actually going to make a difference to human use of natural resources on the ground and at scale. Most of this is just a lot of hard work.
Check any list of ideas for sustainability like these
- 20 ways to be more sustainable in 2020
- 50 ways to be more sustainable at work
- 21 sustainability innovations that might just change the world
They are all fantastic options. Societies everywhere should be onto them and thousands of others like them.
All these ideas have one thing in common. They take effort to implement.
The wondrous inspirations need hard work to achieve their desired outcomes.
Sometimes there is more work required all the time, sometimes just in the transition, but the core message is that sustainability is not an easy task. It’s particularly difficult against the current technological advances that generate cheaper unsustainable products and services.
Being sustainable is not really about the sustainability concept itself, it’s more about the fact that society exists in this process of inspiration and hard work.
We can’t just make a call on the inspiration. There’s a lot of hard work involved in making sustainability solutions stick.
Worth remembering when the next idea to save the planet comes along.
Now I have some editing to do.
Scientists are the quintessential fence-sitters.
We love the maybe, could be, might possibly be, and the equivocal. This comes about from our training, for we are sceptics.
The idea is that nothing should be taken on face value. There must be evidence in order to understand whether or not there is sufficient information to make a decision. And if a decision is not possible, then to form an opinion one way or the other. Only most scientists are afraid to state opinions in any strong sense when they are wearing their mortarboards. Usually, they will hedge in case they’re wrong. Along with the scepticism, there are the egoic responses of not wanting to get anything wrong at any time. Just normal human behaviour.
The problem with all this is that it gives scepticism a bad name.
It’s as though sceptics are always humming and aahing and never coming up with an answer. But this is not the true meaning of scepticism.
What it really means is to be questioning, review the facts, and run with what the evidence suggests.
This does not mean splinters in the butt from the fence or outright denial. As long as key questions are asked and enough evidence is available to reliably answer them, it’s okay for a sceptic to give that yes or no answer.
The everyday sceptic
Most people in everyday life find evidence gathering disconcerting. It is much easier to just give the yes and no answer without evidence and call it an opinion if questioned about the facts. Our politicians have taken to this with glee.
This puts scientists in a very difficult position in society.
Less and less evidence is in play. Plus the science that generates evidence is delivered by people who are letting their scepticism run away with them, making any advice they give feel as equivocal as the delivery. When we need them to stand up and be forceful, the pressure forces more wallflower behaviour.
Interestingly in the health story, particularly with the current COVID-19 crisis, everyone has been happy to listen to the white-coated ones and governments have taken that advice and run with it. It’s as though they’ve resorted to the science and even though those scientists can be sceptical and never truly sure of themselves or their predictions.
Luckily for the health officials, epidemiology theory is reasonably tight and well understood. The fundamentals are accepted around the world by most of the experts. So the patterns of infection and what to do about them are both well known and quite likely to happen, but even then they can’t make predictions about whether or not infection rates will change in a particular way on particular days or particular weeks.
So they still remain somewhat ‘maybe, could be’ about their statements.
The politicians on the other hand are more than happy to let the decisions on the hard calls on matters of public health be made by scientists standing next to them on the podium. Particularly because it needs to be there to justify some of the actions that otherwise people would not accept.
Being locked down, essentially under a form of house arrest, is a hugely draconian measure. And no politician would be able to get away with that in modern democracies without the strongest justification.
So we have this enigma going on where specific evidence is used and accepted and the politicians in particular leverage it to their advantage. And then we also have the majority of science, which is not considered or adhered to and, typically, ignored.
Ecologists are in a particularly difficult position.
These are the scientists who try to understand nature and how nature works. They have trouble with their experiments as we’ve previously noted. The evidence that they gather is often equivocal itself thanks to weak inference so that hedging and being unsure about the specifics become the norm.
Only we need the ecological scientists to stand up now.
Issues left behind because of that scepticism and nervousness are critical to our survival. We can’t sit on the fence when it comes to soils, to food production, to the ecology that drives that connection, and the diets that we are consuming. It’s time to deliver serious calls about these things. Equivalent if you like to people in lockdown. The level of impact that ecological science needs to have is as strong as that.
Please browse around for a while on Alloporus | ideas for healthy thinking there are over 400 posts to choose from
“The general public are identifying with these entities they call species and they think they’re real biological, natural units rather than being a slice in time that is a human construct,”Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Australia
This is a quote from the lead author of a project to create a universal species list. The idea is for a single classification system to end centuries of disagreement and improve global efforts to tackle biodiversity loss.
There is no definitive list of species!
Yes, staggeringly this is true. There are competing lists for some of the colourful creatures such as birds and no list at all for some of the more obscure or less charismatic groups of organisms. And this has been the case ever since humans decided to classify organisms using a particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1735). Yep, we agreed on the system close to 300 years ago but still do not have a definitive list.
There is a lot of diversity in nature. This means a complete catalogue is huge and requires a great deal of cooperation among scholars and jurisdictions. Remember a lot of collecting went on in colonial times meaning that much of the biological source material (specimens) are not in the countries where they were collected.
Then there are groups of organisms that not too many folk are interested in — nematodes, biting flies, dung beetles, slime moulds, viruses — and those that are inaccessible to all but the very brave — gut parasites of elephants, deep-sea fish, cave-dwelling insects.
And then there are few experts with the skills to make formal identifications and describe new species, especially for the obscure groups of organisms.
These are just a few of the reasons why what we used to call an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory or ATBI does not exist at the global level.
Back in the day, over 25 years ago, I used the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory concept as a practical class for undergraduate biodiversity students.
We designated a parcel of land, lined up some sampling equipment and told the students to go measure biodiversity.
They looked at me blankly. Many were quite frightened.
‘You are kidding right” was usually the response.
“No, not kidding. Get your heads together and figure it out.”
“But what do we measure?” they said.
“Everything, it’s not called all taxa for nothing”
“What? Microbes as well??
“But we don’t even know what a taxa is?”
“Ah-ha. Perhaps that is the first problem to solve. What level of taxonomic resolution should be used to catalogue biodiversity”
“Species obviously,” they said.
“Very well, then, off you go, go measure an all species biodiversity inventory.”
That a generation on from these confused undergraduates we still do not have a global list of described species let alone the details of what taxa might occur in any one location is an indictment.
That we are still arguing over the definition of species when, ever since the term was invented, everyone realised it was only a loose description that applied mostly to sexual heterotrophs.
“You have a species or you don’t, you have a subspecies or you don’t. And you impose this discrete binary system on a continuous process of evolution. There’s bound to be trouble.”Frank Zachos, Professor and Head of the Mammal Collection, Natural History Museum of Vienna
This just shows how good we are at fiddling while Rome burns — to be busy doing unimportant things when you should be dealing with an important problem — noting of course that Emperor Nero could not have fiddled at all in as the instrument had yet to be invented although he played the cithara (a type of lyre). Close enough.
What’s the important problem we should be dealing with?
And not for the reasons that usually come to mind. It is not the loss of the rare, the endangered, or the iconic that natters. What matters is the loss of what biodiversity does in landscapes. The contribution organisms, and explicitly the diversity of organisms, make to the services we need for human existence — clean air, clean water, nutrient exchange, decomposition, pollination, feel good, etc.
It is a long list.
We are losing what biodiversity does when we oversimplify landscapes to channel production into the food and fibre we need. Only the gains in efficiency are temporary when the resource base changes, the climate shifts and nature’s services are stretched.
They are only maintained for the long haul by diversity.
The ATBI for the students was a way to help them understand, as is a global inventory of species; a way to understand how much diversity there is and how much of it we need to keep.
Nature does not care a jot about this but we should.
She will bounce back but it might be after we are gone.
I was born in 1961.
That means I am moving ever closer to retirement and I can’t wait.
It also means that I’ve been around long enough for a fair few things to have happened to the world in my lifetime.
Here is one.
Back in 1961, the average adult consumed 2,194 calories per day and around 6% of this intake came from meat. Fifty years later caloric intake has risen to 2,870 per day and 9% comes from meat.
In less than a lifetime, the average global Joe had gone from eating 93 grams of meat per day to 173 grams per day. Nearly double by weight.
Ok, so we eat more burgers and chicken drumettes than we did back in the day. We also eat more than we did back then. So we are better fed overall. It goes along with the falling rates of famine and fewer people going to sleep hungry.
Back in 1961, global demand of 93 grams per day per person required the supply of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year given there were 3.07 billion people around at the time.
In 2011 global demand was from 7.04 billion people chomping on 173 grams per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.
Multiply these numbers and you get 445 million tonnes per year of meat demand.
All good too for the meat producers, supply chain jockeys, retailers and consumers. More product, more revenue. Supply meeting demand is what makes the wheels of commerce turn.
And yes, of course, not everyone is lucky enough to secure the 173 g per day. There are still a billion or more who go to bed hungry and another billion or so who only eat meat occasionally so the straight multiplication is an overestimate — production was around 320 million tonnes in 2013.
The exact numbers on these volumes are not the issue. The point is that the rangelands, pastures and feedlots of the world now produce more than four times the quantity of meat that they did fifty years ago.
This is a huge change in a very short time.
In absolute volume terms, the supply that took care of the demand for the whole of 1961 only kept us going to the end of April in 2013. Supply for the other eight months of the year was not produced.
Again, it is not the absolute amounts but the proportional change that matters.
What about HANPP?
HANPP is the acronym for ‘human appropriation of net primary production’ an indicator of the amount of land used by humans and the intensity of that land use, specifically HANPP measures…
to what extent land conversion and biomass harvest alter the availability of trophic (biomass) energy in ecosystems.
It has grown from 6 to 16 Gt carbon per year in a century.
Global HANPP throughout the last century. (A) Development of global HANPP by major land use type and human induced fires from 1910 to 2005. (B) Sensitivity of global HANPP trends to data uncertainty and different model assumptions. The standard estimate of HANPP (black line) is compared with a low and a high estimate and to an estimate excluding changes in NPPpot due to CO2 fertilization (constant NPPpot of 1990). HANPP is measured in GtC/y (1 Gt = 1 Pg = 1015 g or 109 t). See SI Appendix for details. (C) Biomass harvest (HANPPharv) and final consumption of biomass products (plant and animal based food, food, timber, fuel wood, and other industrial biomass use; tC/cap per y) grew largely in parallel with population. (D) HANPP intensity measured as HANPP per capita (tC/cap per y), HANPP per unit of GDP (kgC/1990 constant international dollars $ per y) and total HANPP per unit of biomass harvest (HANPPharv) (gC/gC) declined, indicating increasing land use efficiency.
Source: Krausmann, F., Erb, K. H., Gingrich, S., Haberl, H., Bondeau, A., Gaube, V., … & Searchinger, T. D. (2013). Global human appropriation of net primary production doubled in the 20th century. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 110(25), 10324-10329.
These numbers show that humans have appropriated NPP primarily through the expansion of cropland and grassland, and that the rate of appropriation parallels population growth.
NPP Net primary production
Net primary production (NPP) is
the amount of carbon and energy that enters ecosystems. It provides the energy that drives all biotic processes, including the trophic webs that sustain animal populations and the activity of decomposer organisms that recycle the nutrients required to support primary production.
Gross primary production (GPP) is the amount of chemical energy, typically expressed as carbon biomass, that primary producers create in a given length of time. A proportion of this fixed energy is used by primary producers for cellular respiration and maintenance of existing tissues, what is left of the fixed energy is NPP.
NPP = GPP – respiration [by plants]
This means that NPP is the rate at which all the autotrophs (mostly plants) in an ecosystem produce net useful chemical energy that is available for consumption by herbivores.
Both gross and net primary production are typically expressed in units of mass per unit area per unit time interval.
For example, mass of carbon per unit area per year (g C m−2 yr−1) is most often used as the unit of measurement in terrestrial ecosystems. There is a distinction between “production” the quantity of material produced (g C m−2) and “productivity” the rate at which material is produced (g C m−2 yr−1).
There is some projected levelling off of HANPP in the future but not before further substantial increases
Global HANPPharv rises to between 8.5 and 10.1 Pg C/yr in 2050 in the four scenarios, 14−35% above its value in 2010, and some 50% of HANPPharv is calculated to be crop residues, wood residues, and food losses in the future. HANPPharv in developing regions (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) increases faster than that in more-developed regions (North America and Europe), due to urbanization, population growth, and increasing incomeZhou, C., Elshkaki, A., & Graedel, T. E. (2018). Global human appropriation of net primary production and associated resource decoupling: 2010–2050. Environmental science & technology, 52(3), 1208-1215
Note also that appropriation does not mean use. It means that waste and residues account for 50% of the appropriation making a huge efficiency opportunity a prospect.
Under the current systems of production and the rate of increase in demand, humans look like maxing out HANPP within a few generations hence.
Now we will not do this of course. There will be constraints, such as the need for reserves, land-use choices and inevitable fluctuations in NPP from soil nutrient mining and changes to climate. There will also be innovation and intensification so that food production will somewhat decouple from NPP, perhaps it will completely and this post is just fear-mongering.
But I don’t think so, at least not before some substantive changes to the global capacity for NPP have occurred.
The reason is that we always pick the low hanging fruit. All organisms do. We have an inbuilt requirement to take the easiest route to resources. Just like the lioness who walks down the roads through the reserve to avoid getting her paws wet, humans always walk the path to the easiest money. So we’ll mine the soil, grow food through the simplest methods and externalise as much cost as we possibly can. And because this is innate it takes a lot to overcome.
As it has since 1961, this slows the transition to smarter use.
Just a reminder.
We are eating 4x more meat than we did in 1961.
The average person eats 80 grams per day more and, given there are close to 4 billion more people, the tonnage is now over 350 million t per annum.
I know, I know, I crap on about this sort of thing all the time. It’s just that I don’t hear anyone else talking about these numbers in this way. This simple math with profound implications
The implications of food consumption
We can do very little about global demand. People have to eat and the more resources they have the more they want to eat well. This means nutrient-dense food, especially meat.
Will we all starve? No.
Will we all become vegans? No.
Are we increasing the risk of catastrophe? Yes, all the time.
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Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) was a product of his times
Mr Wallace was truly remarkable, a gentleman in the time when such a description meant something, and a traveller when getting from one town to another in England was a feat of endurance.
In the mid-1800s he covered the length of the Malay Archipelago on limited means. Which actually meant he was wealthy beyond belief to most of the indigenous peoples he met but had limited old money when compared to his peers back home.
Wallace was a naturalist and collector of exotic animal specimens caught or shot in the jungles and mountainsides at dozens of locations on remote islands. He made what money he could from the sale of preserved bird skins, mammal skeletons and pinned insects to museums and his less adventurous fellow gentlemen collectors back in Europe.
He was also an extraordinary observer able to recall almost at once if a butterfly or beetle was new to his collection. Anyone who has dabbled in natural history collections will recognize this skill. A good naturalist needs to be proficient at it and Wallace was, by all accounts, exceptional.
But what made Wallace truly remarkable was that he didn’t just observe nature, he observed people too. He saw the forms, behaviors and habits of all the locals he met on his travels. Indigenous peoples and colonists alike, they all fascinated him. And then he tried to explain the patterns and behaviours in the people with the same logic he applied to nature.
No doubt he also carried with him the prejudices of his peers. His times were of colonial rule, the greatness of empire and knowing one’s place in the pile. It is unlikely his observations were not clouded by at least some prejudice.
His seminal work “The Malay Archipelago” is well worth its 500+ pages. At once a primer on natural history, a window into thinking on the theory of evolution, a catalogue of the biology and peoples of the region, a gentleman’s travelogue, a commentary on economics and an insight into how the Victorians saw the world. Often the prose carries all these things in the space of a few pages.
By Unknown author – Marchant, James (1916) Alfred Russel Wallace — Letters and Reminiscences, Vol. 1, London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, pp. Plate between p. 36–37 Retrieved on 16 October 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372562
Famously Wallace figured out what Charles Darwin, his contemporary, himself became famous for, the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Crossing the deep and treacherous straits between Bali and Lombok in 1859 he landed and began collecting no doubt with an expectation of what he would find. Only there was a large number of species that to the west were organisms related to Asiatic species and to the east a mixture of species of Asian and Australian origin.
Wallace saw in that line, later named the Wallace Line after him by Thomas Huxley, a disruption to the pattern that he expected to see. The continuous variation that he followed in the myriad diversity of animals that fell into his traps should not have such an abrupt disjunct.
The genius of Wallace, that he shared with Darwin, was not only to recognise the disjunct but to realise it meant something profound.
Gathering his observations together he figured out what Darwin had also discovered, the concept of evolution by natural selection.
His views diverged from Darwin’s but the two through both private correspondence and published works exchanged knowledge and stimulated each other’s ideas and theories over an extended period and they both agreed on the importance of natural selection, and some of the factors responsible for it: competition between species and geographical isolation. They diverged on why. Wallace gave evolution a purpose in maintaining species’ fitness to their environment, whereas Darwin hesitated to attribute any purpose to a random natural process.
Although we now agree with Darwin on the randomness part, Wallace remained an ardent defender of natural selection all his life. And remember this was highly contentious stuff at the time. In 1889, Wallace published the book Darwinism as a response to the scientific critics of natural selection.
It was what a gentleman would do.
This gushing account of Alfred Wallace was written a year or so ago after I had read the Malay Archipelago.
I was and still am amazed what some of the old-timers managed to get done and more, to figure out what a bunch of it meant. They are inspirations.
As I finally got around to editing the post, I am struck by how little the gentlemen and women of today inspire me. Where are they? I have to assume that they exist.
They do not seem to be among the celebrities or the internet influencers who are driven only by narcissism.
Heaven help you if you try to find them in seats of government.
They are not in the business community that continues to promote the economic model that is both precarious and gives not a jot about the resource base — much of the biology that Wallace saw is gone forever.
They are not among the clergy. I cannot even bring myself to go there.
Perhaps, and here is a left-field assertion that I never thought was possible. Perhaps they are hiding among the scientists.
I know, crazy suggestion right.
We are talking about the fence-sitting nerds who have bamboozled us for decades and failed miserably to get their messages across.
Well, there is an idea going around promoted by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is to cause science to be done differently with collaboration, speed and efficient up there as the biggest changes.
That in this time of crisis it is the scientists who are working together to us get through it all as fast as possible while their fellow technical specialists doctors, nurses and support staff on the front line provide the heroic bravery.
That sounds like what gentlemen would do.
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