Some numbers you should know

Some numbers you should know

In May 2019 the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a report with this headline for the media release

Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’.

No doubt this is designed to be scary.

Any sentence that includes ‘dangerous’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘accelerating’ strategically placed among the eight words is not a feel-good aphorism.

I could be glib here, but for once I will not.

Cooked or not, the numbers are bad. And despite the hyperbole, the UN technocrats didn’t put ecosystem services in the title of their organisation for nothing.

It is true.

We are eroding natural capital that includes biodiversity at a rate that will hurt us through declining ecosystem services that include everything from food production to clean air. This is happening just when the demand for these services is greater than ever before and grows by the day along with an expectant population.

The loss of turtles, koalas and pandas will dominate the media comment and fuel the angst but there are a couple of summary numbers that you should also know about.

300% increase in food crop production since 1970

This is a remarkable gain.

Even the stingiest financier would take annual growth of 6% over 50 years. It is more remarkable considering that by 1970 the Green Revolution had peaked thanks to extensive adoption of fossil fuel inputs via tractors, fertilizers and pesticides.

The implication of the 300% for ‘nature’s dangerous decline’ is that along with technologies for production efficiency land has been appropriated for crops. This worries the IPBES because land converted to agriculture not only reduces the land available for wildlife, it also increases habitat fragmentation, water pollution from nutrient and pesticide runoff, encourages weeds, and creates additional greenhouse gas emissions.

So the biodiversity losses from the growth in agriculture will be the headline.

Pause for a moment though and remember that since 1970 more than 4 billion people have joined in the global fun and games, more than double the number around when Barry White was gonna love you just a little more baby.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here but we would be lost without all that additional food.

Here is another number to ponder.

23% of land area that have seen a reduction in productivity due to land degradation

This is a remarkable number alongside the 300%. All that food production gain came in spite of nearly a quarter of agricultural land becoming degraded.

At the core of this contradiction is that we clear land for production all the time. This helps keep the production curve going up even as we mine and degrade the soil in one in four of the fields and paddocks where the food is grown.

This will have to stop at some point when there is no more land to clear.

This land shortage will happen. It already has in some parts of the world. Then we have to get smarter in how we use the agricultural land we have so that it is restored or, better, does not degrade in the first place.

We can do this. We know how to do it. There is even a simple premise to cover all the specifics — restore soil carbon. Do this across all landscapes and many of the biodiversity and climate issues are eased. It is not a silver bullet but it is darned close.

“Soil,” you say. “What does dirt have to do with anything?”

Well, this is the foundation of all things – our food, clean water and pure air. Soil is the foundation because it is where the plants grow.

Whilst we learn to replace the soil with hydroponic and aquaponic food systems and proteins from bacteria, the bulk of our food for the next 100 years or more will need soil.

The IPBES report does mention soil several times. But, as is usual, soil is not in the headlines.

It really should be.

Biodiversity and conservation are not the same thing

Biodiversity and conservation are not the same thing

Surprising as it may seem, biodiversity and conservation are not the same things. Most importantly biodiversity does not mean biological conservation.

Biodiversity does not mean rare or endangered either and it is not a synonym for an environmental value of your choice.

As the original international Biodiversity Convention agreed way back in 1992, the formal definition of biodiversity is

the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Rather than be so cumbersome, most biologists define biodiversity as the

totality of genes, species and ecosystems of a region

or more simply still, from the title of Ed Wilson’s 1992 book…

The Diversity of Life

though these definitions are very clear – biodiversity is about variety – the term has morphed in the eyes of the public and the media to mean conservation of rare things or just conservation, period.

This shameless hijacking of one technical term to mean something else in order to promote a specific agenda is all too common and I have lamented on this general topic many times before…

I even went on about it in Awkward News for Greenies and Missing Something

Lack of objectivity has become the bane of modern society that grows as each day of staring down at our devices passes, but I digress.

Not satisfied with pinching the term biodiversity for nefarious purposes, it would seem that another appropriation is afoot.

The technical term ‘natural resource management’, or more commonly the acronym NRM, is not familiar outside the cadre of land and environmental managers who work with the way nature can support a wide range of values that humans find useful, from production of food and fibre to clean water and a myriad of other ecosystem services.

There is no settled definition of NRM but this one would pass muster with most specialists…

the management of natural resources such as land, water, soil, plants and animals, with a particular focus on how management affects the quality of life for both present and future generations

NRM is about people and how they interact with landscape, the complex interplay between nature, production and values. Technically this makes it about land use and land use planning, land management, water management, biodiversity and biodiversity conservation, but also the many industries that are based on the production of food and fibre from fisheries to forestry. It is about understanding how the many complex values that people need landscapes to deliver can be realised, even maximised, now and into the future.

In short, NRM is applied ecology.

Lately I have noticed a lot of definition creep with this term. More and more it is being used to mean the environmental value of conservation, especially the protection of remnant native vegetation.

In many landscapes developed for agriculture, remnants of native vegetation are small, isolated and infrequent, often increasingly so as production takes precedence. Remnants are perceived to be where the rare and endangered hang out, the last places where conservation values can be found. Through this association remnants of native vegetation have, for many people, grown in value and importance. Many NRM decisions have become about how to protect these patches and control the drivers, especially  weeds and pests, that degrade them.

In a few short steps, this focus on native vegetation as being NRM, makes it a simple surrogate for saving species.

NRM = conservation.

Some people feel good about this appropriation. After all they are in the minority and need all the tools at their disposal to protect the conservation values that they hold dear. In a way it is important that they do this for the majority of people are staring down at their phones blissfully unaware and unconcerned that biodiversity is crashing down around us. Somebody has to hold the torch.

The problem I have is that NRM is supposed to be a holistic concept, one that considers all values at the same time and tries to understand the consequences of resource use decisions for all of them. This requires great technical breadth, a moderate mindset, and a pragmatic view of the human landscape interaction.

Almost by definition, this is not how the conservation-minded think.

If this trend for ‘NRM = conservation’ continues it would be a great shame. NRM should be about the challenging decisions needed to balance resource use for multiple outcomes. We have to grow food and fibre but it makes so much more sense if we do this without destroying other environmental values.

But if NRM becomes yet another synonym for conservation, then immediately there is a bias away from achieving a balance of values at sites and across the landscape in favour of conservation.

 

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

Natural resource management becomes the dominant paradigm in rural landscapes.

Every land management decision is made with knowledge of the implications from resource use trade-offs, with the overall objective of achieving long-term balance in all values – utility and preservation.

Native vegetation is cleared only when it enhances production values and as a last resort after all other options for production efficiency on existing agricultural land are exhausted or where there is likely to be excess of environmental value that is easily recovered through restoration or rehabilitation. Even then any clearing is compensated with an increase in management actions that enhance either production efficiency or landscape health.

Resource conversion becomes governed by understanding value trade-offs and the implications for current and future ecosystem performance. There is no need for heavy regulation because everyone understands that to follow smart NRM decisions is the only way to maintain and enhance all values.

There is also no need to hijack the term NRM because everyone knows what it means.


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The Kardashian Index

Take a look at this graphic. It records the number of two somewhat related terms — climate change and food security — appear in Google searches.

GoggleTrends-climatechange+biodiversity

The data is for the number of searches over time presented as relative to the peak number of searches that in this case was for climate change in December 2009, the Copenhagen COP [out].

Now we have talked about these trends before [Climate change | Google trends #1 and Biodiversity | Google trends #2 ] and concluded that either everyone now knows all they need to about these terms and so has no further need for the Google Gods, or nobody cares.

What we need is something more positive, something trending in the right direction. All we have to do is add another term to climate change and food security.

GoggleTrends-climatechage+biodiversity+KimKardashian

Now the numbers are relative to a new peak for Kim Kardashian in June 2013, presumably because we wanted to know about her new beau.

The averages are meaningful here of course. Relative to that heady peak, the proportional averages mean that we need to know 30x more about Kim than the other two boring terms.

And we still want to know more. None of this ‘we know already’ about Kim for there is always something new to find out. People are still interested.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best source of information on how the world is travelling is to follow this Kardashian Index. It is, after all, going in the right direction — none of this decline or flat lining nonsense.

Governments, market analysts, even environmentalists need go no further than keep their eye on Kim’s search rankings to have a reliable, predictable and highly informative measure of the state of the planet.

And respect to Google for providing this index for free.

Ah, the depths to which we fall.

Postscript | I guarantee that with Kardashian as a keyword tag this post will receive orders of magnitude more views than any other on this blog… Thanks Kim.