Killing Koalas and Poisoning Prairies

ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, editor of the popular blog ConservationBytes, has just published a high-profile book on the environment, in concert with Stanford University luminary Paul Ehrlich.  He tells us about what sounds like a galvanizing, no-holds-barred read:

My chance meeting with Paul Ehrlich in 2009 at Stanford turned out to be auspicious, and has culminated this week with the publication of our book, "Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie. Australia, America and the Environment".

Prairie dogs: Persecuted to the edge of extinction

Prairie dogs: Persecuted to the edge of extinction

With scores of books and hundreds of scientific papers under his belt, Ehrlich has been tackling major environmental issues since the 1960s.  Perhaps best known for "The Population Bomb," a global best-seller, Ehrlich also has a long-time interest in Australia, having visited nearly every year over the last four decades. 

Together we have observed at first hand the similarities and differences of Australia and the US, through the eyes of environmental and evolutionary scientists.

So, why write a book about the environmental tragedies currently unfolding in two completely different countries at opposite ends of the Earth?  As it turns out, Australia and the US have much more in common environmentally than one might think, and not necessarily in a good way. 

Despite our vastly different floras and faunas, population densities, and histories of human colonization, there is an almost spooky similarity in the environmental and political problems both countries are now experiencing.  As such, we have a lot to learn about avoiding each other's mistakes.

Drowning for oil

Drowning for oil

Our new book highlights the history of rapid and continent-wide environmental degradation in both countries -- starting with the first arrival of humans and continuing to this day.

We inventory the cumulative ecological damage in both countries, and weave a sad story of rapid colonization by Europeans resulting in species extinctions, massive deforestation, and industrial toxification.

Environmentalism began to awake in the mid-20th Century, first in the US and later in Australia.  Today, both countries’ precarious environmental foundations are being eroded with the rise and growth of anti-science and anti-environment plutocracies and theocracies.

We are two scientists who are sufficiently furious at the state of our global environment and society to forget about political correctness.  We are willing, even eager, to recruit you into the growing mass of determined people striving to divert society from its “business as usual” path toward disaster. 

Koalas struggle to survive as Australian forests are razed and felled

Koalas struggle to survive as Australian forests are razed and felled

Frankly, we are disgusted with the way that politicians and the press ignore the realities that civilization is sliding toward irreversible environmental damage, and that most universities are failing to provide leadership to change our course. 

We tire of the erosion of public education in both nations, overlooked or encouraged by politicians who would never be elected by a public that had a basic understanding of environmental science.

For too long, Australians and Americans have been biting the hand that feeds their great successes.  It is high time to make sweeping changes to fix the damage already done, and to avoid the ensuing catastrophes that are increasingly imminent.

Australia and America are great nations, but we are both highly susceptible to our own greed and stupidity.  In Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie, we argue, it is high time to change that.


The debate about forest conservation

In conservation practice, as in just about everything else, the pendulum of opinion swings back and forth. 

Right now, many ecologists are emphasizing the importance of conserving or rehabilitating forests that have been altered in various ways--such as selectively logged forests or secondary forests that are regenerating on formerly cleared land. 

Still valuable...  tiger footprint in a regenerating forest in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance).

Still valuable...  tiger footprint in a regenerating forest in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance).

One reason for this is that such modified habitats are so prevalent, and sometimes intensely vulnerable, across the planet.  For instance, around 400 million hectares of tropical forest globally is in some kind of logging estate.  Indonesia alone has at least 35 million hectares of selectively logged forest--an area larger than Germany--and much of this logged forest is unprotected and being cleared for agriculture. 

But there are also those who emphasize the values of old-growth forest.  One example is ALERT member Corey Bradshaw, who explains his views in this recent interview on Mongabay.

Bradshaw's views echo an analysis we published in Nature in 2011.  In that study, we found old-growth tropical forests had higher biodiversity-conservation values than all other modified forests or lands.  Nonetheless, native forest that had been selectively logged came in a close second, underscoring the importance of conserving these vulnerable forests.

In the end, no single conservation strategy always wins out.  All forests have value, and in many parts of the world, modified forests are just about all that remains.  That doesn't diminish the vital need to conserve old-growth forests wherever they still survive.

-Bill Laurance