Alloporus has been posting away about koalas for some time now…
At Alloporus we are not that fond of koalas. Well, more strictly we don’t like people’s responses to them from the ‘ah they are so cute’ to the ‘OMG they are about to go extinct’.
In our view, they are neither cute nor about to shuffle off into oblivion.
The main problem for the sceptic with a fascination for pragmatology is that these responses are normative. They are emotional which in the objectivity hierarchy is a step down from opinion and a long way short of evidence.
We should expect people to get their heart involved in things, it makes the world go around, so I am told.
More difficult to handle is the lack of objectivity. The reality is that the koala is not going to go extinct any time soon and certainly not in the next five minutes.
Here is what the fossil evidence tells us
Fossil evidence identifies as many as 15–20 species, following the divergence of koalas (Phascolarctidae) from terrestrial wombats (Vombatidae) 30–40 million years ago. The modern koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, which first appeared in the fossil record ~350,000 years ago, is the only extant species of the Phascolarctidae.Johnson, R. N., O’Meally, D., Chen, Z., Etherington, G. J., Ho, S. Y., Nash, W. J., … & Peel, E. (2018). Adaptation and conservation insights from the koala genome. Nature genetics, 50(8), 1102-1111
Alright, so we also know that this species is a specialised feeder, prone to certain diseases and has been squeezed by genetic bottlenecks, especially with small founder population in the southern parts of Australia.
However, as Johnson et al (2018) also point out
Current estimates put the number of koalas in Australia at only 329,000 (range 144,000–605,000), and a continuing decline is predicted.
Again ‘only’ is a classic normative word, it is an opinion. And as Alloporus has noted way too many times before, an error range of plus or minus 300,000 is simply too coarse to make any claims of disaster valid. The first task must be to tighten the estimates to something closer to the real numbers and the real rates of change.
All this is a rehash of what we have droned on about before. But then I heard a chat on the radio today.
Some journalists were commenting on the devastating consequences of COVID-19 for the $60 billion Australian tourism industry.
What they said was that Australians are unlikely to take up the slack created by the loss of the Chinese market by tourism from the locals. They thought that Australians are just not excited by the wildlife they grew up with, unlike the overseas tourists who are fascinated, often enough to travel thousands of kilometres to see them.
Now, this is interesting.
It suggests that the real reason for all the koala bruhaha from both state and Federal governments is nothing to do with its extinction at all.
It is all to do with attracting foreign tourists back to a market designed for them and not for the locals.
That $60 billion represents a lot of jobs including in regional areas. It is the same logic that brings offers of largess to Hong Kong citizens who want to come to Australia and bring their businesses and investment with them.
It is money that matters. Evidence of extinction, not so much.
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Regular readers will know that a long time ago now I wrote a book with Ashley Bland entitled Awkward News for Greenies. It sold a handful of copies but failed to go viral. This could be because we had zero marketing budget or it was a poor book or luck would have it thus. Either way, few read it in 2009 and fewer in the decade since.
Recall this was the time that Al Gore produced ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and we played on that sentiment in our title. Perhaps it was a poor choice.
Not one of us is fond of being told truths that we don’t want to hear, especially things that we will feel bad about. Indeed humans are expert in avoiding the awkward. This sentiment has taken hold now to the extent that we even elect presidents and prime ministers who are olympian in the skills needed to avoid and deflect awkward truths.
The main argument in Awkward News was that this avoidance behaviour stems from a lack of awareness. We no longer feel or understand the very basis of our existence, now or into the future. Humans in modern societies do not realise that we are here because of nature and the resources it shares with us and we will only stay here in one piece if the natural forces that create clean air, filter water, generate food and moderate climate run at rates to support our burgeoning numbers.
Implicit in this explanation was that environmentalists focus on the wrong things. This is best summarised by what Ursula Heise in her book ‘Imagining extinction’ calls ‘elegies and tragedies for loss of species’. Worry for the fate of cute, furry or feathery species is what we obsess over when we should be most concerned about the ability of nature to keep supplying all those goods and services that keep us alive and well.
When in 2012 I followed up Awkward News with Missing Something, a book that was read by even fewer people, the message was similar.
Humanity has an awareness deficit that science has confirmed and our guts are agonising over. Again the distraction of elegy and tragedy can be overlooked for a pragmatic approach. If we think about our environment and the well-being it delivers, then the evidence we need to convince ourselves of the importance of nature is everywhere we care to look. The truth about nature will speak to us and all will be well.
Well, this nirvana of enlightenment with nature seems less likely by the day.
As we near the end of another decade it feels as though the drift is away from awareness rather than towards it, especially in the formal worlds of bureaucracy and academia. Indeed, drift is a generous adjective.
In the land of policymakers, huge blunders continue along with ostrich behaviours of the sand type. In the ivory towers, a stream of evidence flows on how troubling it all is. Unfortunately, it is easier to generate evidence of loss and degradation than it is to use that evidence to find ways to slow, stop or reverse any undesirable trends. Even a casual glance at the climate change literature confirms this conundrum.
Anyway, here I am, a few years on from my last non-fiction least seller, wondering about the merits of another book on this theme of scaring the horses.
On the downside, should I be spending time on more of the same?
Surely the first two epistles did the job. Anything more is just repetition. And if nobody read the first two, why would a third suddenly shatter the ebook sales records? I am not selling the sure-fire best way to become an overnight squillionaire online.
On the upside, nobody read the first two meaning that very few were scared.
Any messages would be fresh, at least from my peculiar voice, and maybe the passage of time has warmed a few to the general topic of impending doom and how to avoid it. There is also the personal benefit of writing that is cathartic enough for me to feel purged of my personal environmental guilt. That is worth it on its own.
On balance, I have to think that yes I should write it out all over again.
At some point, ideally quite soon, humans will need a realignment with nature that is less about obsessions with the koala and polar bears taking a rest on a tiny iceberg and more about what nature does. If everyone understands that it is the services that nature provides for human well-being that we need to obsess about because the processes matter more than the products.
This message of concern for process over products, especially the rare ones, still needs to be said and heard.
If humanity is to get through its demographic transition without obliterating nature, without creating a future world where even the air is manufactured, then nature and its services must be in our everyday thoughts. We will need to get over our obsession with endangered species with all its misplaced effort into just a handful of nature’s charismatic actors because all that really does is salve a collective conscience.
The neat irony being that the best chance for the koalas, elephants and macaws is if the processes that support them are retained and enhanced. Meaning that a focus on the processes will not always be about exploitation.
It will be a tough gig.
These critters — the endangered species that we truly care about are almost always animals with backbones — are held tight and deep. They represent our guilt even as we continue with wine, dine, waste and flights to Bali.
If you find that waiting for this new work that will only make you feel more guilty and helpless in the face of doom is too much, that you have to know now, then there is always Missing Something to tie you over.
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…
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…
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.
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 current loss of biological diversity is a problem that calls for a collective characterization of what we want to protect and conserve and of what biodiversity we value. Should the focus be on local or global biodiversity? Should alien species be eradicated to protect ecosystem integrity and endemism? Should mammals be favored over plants? Should priority be given to useful species over useless ones? Should natural diversity be valued per se, or should it be valued on the basis of the goods and services it ensures? It is likely there is no one answer to any of these questions; rather, different contexts will give rise to different outcomes. Conservationists should tackle this kind of uncertainty and attempt to bring to light and discuss the moral values at stake. Maris & Bechet (2010)
What an extraordinary set of questions. Ask any one of them in the pub late on a Friday and you will start a ruckus. There will always be a least two individuals with diametrically opposite answers and any number of weird and wonderful interpretations given half the revellers will not understand what on earth you are on about.
Ask the same questions at an ecology conference of learned academics and you will get equally passionate answers. The lecture hall will buzz with erudite responses argued from one or other theoretical position with responses debunking each one as simplistic or impractical. And just like in the pub the answers will be interpretations rather than definitive inference because each question is contentious in its own way.
Here are a few examples.
Local or global becomes… I really want to see the sea eagle when I go to my favourite beach and have no trouble with it being on the list of threatened species. Only this species is distributed widely from Mumbai to Melbourne and is often locally common and the IUCN list it under the ‘least concern’ category.
Aliens becomes… We really should remove willows from creeks across the Australian countryside as they are a nasty invasive alien species. Only when they are removed and not replaced habitat and water quality declines and erosion can accelerate to the point where multiple values are degraded.
Mammals obviously… If the koala goes then it’s just not the same to have its food trees around the place. Plus if you keep the koala you also keep the trees and the umbrella works to protect more than just the animal.
Useless species… No species is completely useless because they all have existence value and a moral right to be, except in the minds of those people who believe that human beings are the apex of evolution and the moral right to lord over nature.
Services take precedence… Given there are so many people and with people coming first it is impossible not to value services over natural diversity. Unless we can use species somehow, directly or indirectly, there is no point in keeping them in a crowded world where every single patch of land and water has to do something for mankind. After all what is nature if it is not in the service of humanity. Only without nature there would be no humanity.
Questions of value
There is contention everywhere because whilst the questions appear scientific, the answers are all about values. Even in a room full of experts loaded opinions flash from every corner with no obvious way to separate them or decide which has the most to offer.
I doubt that conservationists have any idea about how to tackle this value conundrum any more than the average Joe. My experience is that they jump onto values and run with them without even realising there was any uncertainty in them. They also seem intent on the dichotomy as the wrong that only their opinion puts right.
Inevitably they will be up against those who see nature as a resource for humans to exploit, the gift that was given to mankind that no other creature ever has or will possess.
Context will favour one or other view as more logical or moral, consequently, as Maris & Bechet (2010) conclude “there is no one answer to any of these questions”. In other words each question has an uncertain answer.
Recognition of uncertainty would be a major advance but I doubt that holders of strong opinions, especially when claimed as the moral high ground, easily conceded their answers in a values argument.
Perhaps the best we can hope for in values debates is some objectivity.
This begins with recognition of all answers to the various questions and of the plurality of values. Objectivity would also recognise that if we land on one or other side, then the other side has compromised, often massively. Same for plurality. If you want to keep koalas, then the objective arguments says that this cannot happen everywhere, choices must be made on where effort is put to keep them alive. In other words morals are compromised to let some of them go.
Objective answers should let everyone one win, some of the time, in some places.
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.
A sailor in the 1600’s was the last human ever to see a dodo, the bird species from Mauritius that filled the bellies of sailors so effectively they were collected to extinction.
The sailor, a ship’s cook perhaps, was blissfully unaware of what he had just done when he dispatched the last dodo ever seen. He was just doing his job. Indeed it was only with considerable hindsight that we can even imagine who he was even though his name will never be known. At the time nobody knew that the last dodo had just been broiled.
On a hot afternoon in the Zambezi valley in 1988, a male black rhino was so frightened and angry with the sides of a mopane pole boma erected to hold him that he bloodied his nose trying to bash them down. Zimbabwe National Parks officers watched at a safe distance doing their job assisting the capture and removal of the animal to a reserve in South Africa as part of a rescue mission to save his kind.
As I felt the brute force of a metric ton of herbivore trying to escape no thought came to me that this could be it. I didn’t think that a greenhorn academic might be one of the last to see such a magnificent creature born, raised and surviving in the wilderness. After all, it looked like it was, captured and caged as though it were already in a zoo. Except that I could have something in common with the ship’s cook of centuries past. I could be the last human to see the last wild black rhinoceros not otherwise manipulated somehow by a human hand, fence or tranquillizer dart. For history will not record it in any more detail than it could for the dodo.
The thing is that on a planet so dominated by one species there is always going to be the last. And lasts will not herald themselves for our attention. They will happen quietly.
During the time it takes you to travel to work there will be at least one last or even two. The global rate of biodiversity loss is estimated at 0.3% per annum means that species are going extinct all the time. A rainforest tree is felled and the last habitat of an unnamed elaterid beetle is gone. The handful of specimens that lived in it is a last that no human noticed.
Taxonomists are not sure but best estimates are that there are 8.7 million species on Earth although most of them have not been described.
The 0.3% rate of loss comes from global analyses of multiple studies that catalogue habitat loss and degradation across all continents and in estimates of change in the world’s oceans.
At this rate and estimated totals the loss is 72 species per day or 3 per hour or roughly one every 20 minutes.
An obvious reaction to a precession of lasts is to prevent them. It should not have to be this way for surely the rhino could be saved from extinction in the wild and the beetle too. Noble thoughts certainly and those worthy individuals taking on the translocations were an embodiment of them. And for a while, it seemed to work. Black rhino numbers increased steadily through to the millennium and for a while afterwards. Even today during a resurgent poaching crisis in Africa black rhino numbers are increasing at around 3% per annum on a global population of 5,000 individuals.
The beetle was not so fortunate. It did not have a rescue plan and became part of the 0.3% of annual biodiversity loss for that year, unrecorded and unseen.
It is nearly 30 years since that rhino bloodied its nose on the sides of the boma. A lot has gone on. There are over 2 billion more people to feed and economically support. Everywhere there is development or poverty with people running around like ants making either happen.
And all the time there are lasts, most of them unseen.
Check out this glossy video from Conservation International
Interesting message isn’t it.
Nature doesn’t need us folks, but we really need her. In fact we will die unless we pay attention. Nature will persist whatever we throw at her for she can adapt and evolve.
Even a nuclear holocaust would see some microbes survive and allow nature to resume her business of converting energy and nutrients into biology.
Now this is quite a shift for most conservationists. Their usual message is preservation and protection. Save the rhino, that specific one right there on the savanna, and not just rhinos in general. The admission that nature doesn’t care if there is a rhino or not is heresy.
When I mention similar things to conservationists I usually get my head bitten off — Awkward News for Greenies was not a best seller.
Just recently I pointed out to a gentleman that whilst I could agree that we are in a mass extinction event, nature sees these all the time — at least six big ones in geological history — and yet she manages to come back with more diversity than before. The current mass extinction began with more species on the planet than ever.
More significantly, nature really does not care about how many species are lost. She will meander along providing a space for evolution to work its magic and create new species to replace those that go extinct. Admittedly that takes time, but it will happen.
He was not happy at all with that.
So why would Conservation International get in some famous voices and throw a bunch of money at slick presentations of this message?
The message is similar in all of them. We can do what we like and nature couldn’t care less. But rape and pillage her and we are the ones in trouble.
Clearly Conservation International are trying to say it is all about us. About people and the choices we make. Watch all these pieces in sequence and you will start to feel just a little guilty, maybe a lot guilty.
That is an interesting tack. Hone in on emotions and personal integrity. Imply that it is personal responsibility, or our lack of it, that will determine our collective future.
And they are right.
Ultimately patterns of resource use, levels of pollution, biodiversity loss, and a host of specific environmental issues are the collective effect of individual decisions people make.
Only they are forgetting one crucial thing. Do we actually have a choice?
In the economic system that we live under it is very hard to choose integrity and live in the system. Go off grid and grow your own might work for some, but there is nowhere near enough space for us all to do it. Use less, buy less and only what you need is possible but again it is hard not to leave a hefty footprint even from modest consumption — take one plane ride and you have just about shot your embedded energy quotient.
And what of the billion or so people who live in poverty, they actually need more resources not less. The billion rich folk could give up a lot but the net resource use wouldn’t go down that much.
Pause for a moment and think greenwash — the talking up of an activity to claim environmental or green credentials when in reality there is none.
This message could just be the ultimate greenwash, a brilliant ruse by corporations to externalize their impacts by shifting their responsibility onto individuals. It is the customer’s fault.
Sorry Ms Roberts, I don’t buy it.
I can’t get this image out of my head.
A road in the outback and a young aboriginal kid in western clothes bashes the long grass on the verge with a big stick. He is trying, along with his mates, to flush a goanna all under the watchful eye of an elder. The hunted creature remains hidden and may or may not have avoided the blows.
The elder has his own stick, a baseball bat in metallic blue. After a fruitless search he calls time and the hunting party climb back into a late model land cruiser station wagon.
The sound bite captured by the media crew before the elder drives away is that this country is sacred to his people and should not be exploited for shale gas.
I know it is unholy to drawn attention to the truth of this scene. An ancient culture lost but still pretending to exist whilst embracing with both arms the trappings of a new one. I am afraid that even with a few baseball batted visits to the bush those youngsters will not have a feel for country. They will know mobile phones, internet porn, Call of Duty and soggy chips.
This is sad. The generations of indigenous kids that went before had a wholesome life that was connected to the earth. The kids that climbed into the air-conditioned land cruiser will live longer than their ancestors but maybe not with the same wellbeing.
It’s just that whilst fracking probably will contaminate groundwater, clutter the landscape with drilling rigs and mess up all the local roads with traffic, resource use is a requirement for a western lifestyle. We cannot fly, drive and cavort around with technology trappings by chasing goannas. We have to exploit natural capital and subsidize our own energies from external sources. And that is a truth.
Of course it would be nice to do this with the least externalities and with care to restore any damage that is done. But let us at least acknowledge the truth that we cannot make mobile phones with a goanna.
Nor can everyone who owns a car go out and hit one with a stick.