Lasts

Lasts

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.

Greenwash or not…

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?

There are similar Conservation International pieces on oceans, water, soil and Robert Redford as a redwood

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.

Goanna

 

goanna

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.

Protecting Mother Nature

“We must protect mother nature from our worst excesses” is the headline of an article in the Enquirer section of The Weekend Australian this week.

The tagline “We can raise our living standards without destroying the natural world” introduces an opinion piece about growing human numbers and our deepening psychological motivation to keep up with the Joneses. Two things that are leaving us with stress and putting strain on the environment. And yet the ”wonderland of nature” is still there to us inspire the spirit. Natural glories abound that should garner our respect and “a determination to protect Mother Earth from our worst excesses.”

All good stuff you would think.

There are posts a plenty on this blog and by many thousands of other bloggers saying pretty much the same thing. Hey, it is even the main tenet of my latest book Missing Something.

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So why mention this piece from the sunday paper? Well, the curious thing is that the article is attributed to Craig Emerson, the federal Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in the struggling Labour government.

Now if the juxtaposition of topic and source doesn’t make you smile, then it is worth remembering that the newspaper is as brown as it gets [being owned by News Limited is a bit of a give away] and is always sticking the knife into anything with a green hue.

Clearly the editor was having a laugh and providing a great gotcha opportunity to catch the hapless minister sometime later in the election year.

It is shameful that the sordid media cycle and political agendas do this to such important ideas. We do need to be more mindful of nature, more concerned about our exploitation of natural resources, and even to take time out to feel the wonder for ourselves.

What the Minister did, apart from being suckered, was miss the opportunity. It is not enough to say that there are now very many of us putting the environment under pressure, we have to confess to our dysfunctional desire to exploit and find the emotional fortitude to think before we act.

Maybe my lesson was to enjoy the chuckle I had at reading a green rant from a trade minister and leave it at that.

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Dangerously quiet

King Parrot, NSWIt has been 23 months since the NSW Labour government left office after more than 16 years in power.

Normally when a left leaning administration is replaced by a right leaning one the inevitable shift in attitude to nature and natural resources would galvanize the environmental movement.

When hard won conservation legislation, planning rules and funding for environmental management are chipped away there might be an objection, some resistance, or at least some verbal argument. Only there has been very little noise.

No great shouts against the inching away from protection — not even allowing shooting in national parks seemed to get a reaction.

Only the nationally significant issue of coal seam gas, particularly how it will be extracted and the possible impact on farmers, seems to have stirred the pot.

Regular readers will know that alloporus is not overtly green — a regular guy who owns a car, takes plane rides, watches a plasma TV and wrote a book called “Awkward news for Greenies” has little moral ground to claim great environmental advocacy. Yet this quiet is eerie — makes you wonder.

Is it the calm before the storm, the tirade that must hit when the environment is no longer considered?

Or is it something else? Perhaps there is no energy left. It could be that the era of loud advocacy has passed. Maybe the malaise of personal entitlement has swept across us all, even the card-carrying activists.

If it has then we have a problem. Whilst screaming from greenies is about as welcome as a crying baby in the quiet carriage of the commuter train, it performs a vital function.

It keeps the b—-ds honest

And when all that goes quiet it is dangerous for us all.

Biodiversity | Google Trends #2

Ever since the heady days of the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when we came up with the Convention on Biological Diversity I have had this feeling that we had invented a fad.

For a while though I could push that niggle aside as the new term biodiversity entered our lexicon and the sound bites of politicians.

Books on biodiversity were written for the populace and texts for students. I even got hired to develop an undergraduate course in this new subject. That it was just a logical amalgam of ecology, evolution and conservation biology was no matter — this was a great new hook to catch the awareness and maybe persuade people to do something about what was happening to the natural world under the increasing weight of human numbers.

Not too many politicians talk about it anymore, at least not to the press. There are a few stalwarts, notably in the conservation NGOs, who still hold a candle for it and a residual trickle of public funding goes toward environmental interventions with a biodiversity theme. Mostly though we seem to be back where we started talking about conservation and preservation of endangered species.

So am I correct in this hunch? Have we really forgotten about biodiversity?

Here is what Google Trends has to say about the popularity of the word in searches from 2004 to present relative to the peak search volume that happened in October 2004.

GTBiodiversityJan2013

Well it would appear I was at least partially right.

Peak search volume was at the start of the data run in 2004 to be followed by a steady and consistent decline through the rest of the noughties.

In the current decade we are running at an average of 47% of that 2004 peak.

It is a pity that we don’t know how much search activity the 1992 Rio Earth Summit might have generated [1998 was Google’s first official year]. In fact the steady increase in overall search volume makes that 47% more measly given that todays daily total search volume is more than 7x that of 2004.

Biodiversity may not have disappeared as a search term but it has waned.

As usual Google trends tells us that we can easily put aside any challenging or technical issues in order to enjoy Christmas and New Year celebrations and we are also not too worried about them when school is out for the northern summer.

The Rio+20 Earth Summit came and went without much fanfare last year. It prompted a bit of a spike in searches but not enough to catch up with those 2004 scores. It does not seem that biodiversity got a fillip from Rio+20 as any pickup was short-lived — maybe because they called it the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.