Sunday environmental round up

Jan 23, 2022
wind farm
(Image: Unsplash)

Four laws of ecology still relevant 50 years on but obscuring the truth more prevalent. Global warming continues and invasive species threaten Australian wildlife.

I read four books over the holiday period: two novels, one old and one new, neither of which I would recommend even though both came highly recommended, and two non-fiction, again one old and one new, both of which I can strongly recommend. First, the old one.

Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle was published in 1971 but I’d never heard of him or his book until about five years ago, which is a shame as both are in the ground-breaking tradition of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. In 290 pages, Commoner, a biologist and ecologist, explicitly names and illustrates the urgent environmental crisis facing the world. He attributes the environmental degradation of land, air and water to the “introduction of new industrial and agricultural production technologies” during and after World War II. Ecological systems are complex and holistic, dependent on cycles and everything being reused. But the new technologies are reductionist, linear, and designed to solve singular, separate problems without any consideration of the inevitable side effects (externalities in economic terms). Commoner provides four laws of ecology:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else — through relationships, systems and cycles;
  2. Everything must go somewhere — there is no such thing as waste, everything gets reused;
  3. Nature knows best — if it doesn’t exist it’s probably because over 4 billion years nature has tried and rejected it as harmful to life;
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch — every gain comes at some cost to something somewhere.

Clearly, the evidence about environmental destruction has increased in the last 50 years but nothing has emerged to change Commoner’s incredibly perceptive analysis and recommendations, principally that productive technologies must be redesigned to meet ecological requirements, that production should be for social good not private profit, and that investments should be directed to harmony with the environment and peace among peoples, not arms that threaten them.

Commoner, who secured 230,000 votes in the US presidential election of 1980, died in 2012. If he were alive in the age of social media and fake news, it would be interesting to ask him if he still places as much faith in the ability of facts to change people’s minds and government policies as he did in 1971.

Ten years ago, John Bellamy Foster took Commoner’s four laws of ecology and formulated four anti-ecological laws of capitalism:

  1. The only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus;
  2. If it doesn’t re-enter the circuit of capital, it doesn’t matter where something goes;
  3. The self-regulating market knows best;
  4. Nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner.

My second book of non-fiction is Richard Denniss’s second edition of Econobabble. How to decode political spin and economic nonsense. By examining public discussions about climate change, unemployment, budget deficits, the free market, free trade and economic modelling, Denniss, in his inimitable style, dissects the language politicians, bureaucrats and powerful people use to obscure the true facts, conceal the full range of policy options, convince people that there is “no choice”, and suppress debate about the nation’s real priorities and values. Denniss calls this language “econobabble” – it conceals simple truths from the public by using on the one hand incomprehensible economic jargon and on the other simple words that have been stripped of their normal meaning. “Econobabble” is a very easy, enjoyable and informative 190-page read. I’ll let you discover for yourselves Denniss’s 5 Dos and 5 Don’ts to win debates with econobabblers.

And talking of obscuring the true facts, a century ago, even 50 years, it was possible to argue that extreme weather events and the human catastrophes that sometimes accompany them are “Natural” or, literally or metaphorically, “Acts of God”. If ever that was the case, it certainly isn’t now when we have ample evidence that human activity is a major influence on Earth Systems, the global climate and the frequency, severity and location of cyclones, floods, bushfires, heatwaves, droughts, etc. “Stop blaming the climate for disasters” is both the title and the takeaway message of a short commentary in one of a’s specialist journals. According to the authors, “Disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerability. We must acknowledge the human-made components of both vulnerability and hazard and emphasize human agency in order to proactively reduce disaster impact”. It is largely human influence that produces vulnerability. Human agency is manifest, for example, in the social and political processes and decisions that produce un- or badly planned urban structures, systems and environments; in unfair and exploitative legal, employment, trade and allocative processes; and in the marginalisation of groups based on class, ethnicity, gender, age or religion. Blaming nature, or suppressing discussion of the underlying problems, when a disaster occurs deflects responsibility. The authors argue that “We must stop blaming Nature or the Climate for disasters, and put vulnerability and equity at the centre of proactive and engaging disaster laws and policies. Such a basic conceptual re-orientation is a necessary starting point to identify and leverage structural, systemic and enabling solutions that transform societies to be more equitable and resilient in the long term.”

The mainstream media has covered the reports of various scientific organisations that have provided the latest evidence from 2021 of the continued warming of Earth. The two graphics below provide a very clear visual summary of the increasing global surface temperature between 1970 and 2021, and the location of six of the most noteworthy heat events during last year. Not a single year between 1970 and 2021 was below the average for 1850-1900 (the baseline) and since 2005 only two of the years were below the more recent average for 1991-2020 (the blue line).

Surfing, the bronzed Aussie on a board, is so quintessentially Australian – up there with Indigenous art, the platypus, koala and kangaroo, and climate denial. But surfing isn’t just an exhilarating recreation with important benefits for physical and mental health. There are about 2.5 million recreational surfers in Australia and surfing tourism is a US$50 billion a year industry globally. Yet surfing is threatened by global warming: for instance by sea level rise, by changing wind and wave patterns, by lower rainfall levels reducing the amount of sediment that rivers deposit in the ocean, and even by shifting the seasons and changing coastal swells. In addition, coastal developments – car parks, residential areas, shopping strips, etc. – remove vegetation and destroy beaches, dune systems and coastal ecosystems; effects that are already being experienced around Australia (and here). The traditional opportunities for future generations of Aussie kids to wax their boards and ride the waves may be limited.

Each year the World Economic Forum (best known for its annual get-together in Davos) releases The Global Risks Report based on a survey of about a thousand of the Forum’s network of “academic, business, government, civil society and thought leaders”. I don’t think the risk perceptions of the privileged, middle aged, European businessmen who dominate the survey sample have any great strategic or prognostic significance but I suppose they are an indicator of what was foremost in their minds on the day they completed the survey. With that caveat, I offer the three figures below from the 2022 report. The dominance of environmental and social risks in the first two figures is striking.

In Australia, invasive species have been a bigger cause of native animal and plant extinctions than loss of habitat or climate change. Feral cats and foxes have killed off at least 25 native mammals. Seventy-three introduced vertebrates call Australia home but three (pigs, cats and rabbits, the biggest single threat to our native species) cause the most problems. There are also over 2,700 introduced plants (weeds) and a new one gets established every three weeks. And then there are the microbes, fungi and invertebrates. The cost of invasive species is about $25 billion per year and growing. Several issues are exacerbating the feral problem: global trade, climate change, fires, floods and droughts, tourism and increasing urbanisation.

The good news is that Australia is already a world leader in biosecurity but prevention, eradication and control practices could be further improved with use of new genetic and digital technologies by the responsible government agencies. Individuals can also make a significant contribution to keeping our native flora and fauna safe:

  • Don’t bring restricted items into the country or take them across state and territory borders
  • Keep your pets healthy. Have them de-sexed. Walk dogs on leads (if only!). Keep cats indoors (I wish!). Don’t dump unwanted pets
  • Grow natives in your garden. Remove and dispose of weeds properly
  • Report invasive animals (FeralScan)
  • Maintain the health of farm animals (and beehives)
  • Join a local land care group
  • Listen to ‘Towards a Feral Free Future’.

According to the CSIRO, Australia is at a sliding doors moment. Complacency and business as usual will lead to a radically different and not very welcome Australia in 2050 to the one we have today. A strategic, innovative and coordinated approach, however, will create a much brighter future. The report illustrates these two contrasting possible futures for farms (see below), kitchens, outdoor recreation, and travel and trade.

I’ve told you about my holiday reading. Here’s a holiday snap from Tasmania of two pairs of native horehound bugs playing boomps-a-daisy on a white horehound plant, regrettably an introduced invasive. Although the bug does feed on the weed, it doesn’t provide any effective biological control. (Don’t miss the recording.)

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