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.


Progress in the battle against illegal logging

Illegal logging is a scourge for many developing nations, imperiling forests and biodiversity and robbing the government of direly needed revenues.  So it's heartening to hear that the battle against illegal logging is gaining some traction.

Ill-gotten timber?  (photo by William Laurance)

Ill-gotten timber? (photo by William Laurance)

A key development has been the growing impact of laws or regulations designed to reduce illegal trade in timber-consuming nations.  These include the European Union's FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) measures, the Lacey Act in the U.S., and Australia's Illegal-Logging Prohibition Act.

All of these measures put teeth into rules that regulate timber imports.  In essence, they require companies importing timber to use 'due diligence' to ensure that the wood or paper products they import are legal. 

Heavy penalties can apply for those who knowingly or negligently flaunt the law.

According to recent reports by Chatham House, a leading U.K. think tank, high-risk timber imports are falling for most timber-importing nations, including the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, and the Netherlands.  Australia's legislation is only beginning to be enforced now.

The Chatham House reports suggest that Japan is lagging somewhat, because it imports lots of wood and paper products from China, Russia, and Malaysia, all of which are thought to deal frequently in illegal timber.

This progress is definitely good news, and it illustrates the importance and impact of legislation that tightens the rules for timber importers. 

Notably, opponents of such laws -- including the notorious timber lobbyist Alan Oxley -- have long argued that these measures were unnecessary and would be ineffective.  The Chatham House reports clearly show such arguments are wrong.

 

Last chance to save the world's primary forests

ALERT member James Watson tells us about important new research on the world's last surviving primary forests.

The Congo’s primary forests as seen from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda  (Photo © Liana Joseph)

The Congo’s primary forests as seen from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda (Photo © Liana Joseph)

Primary forests -- those largely free from industrial-scale land uses, and where natural processes still dominate -- provide maximum ecosystem benefits to humans and nature. 

Primary forests are essential for biodiversity conservation, and in the face of a rapidly changing climate they will provide critical refugia for many vulnerable species and sustain the maximum natural adaptive capacity.

However, new research by my colleagues and I -- which you can download free here -- has shown how threatened the world's primary forests are.  Just one-quarter of all primary forests still survive on Earth, with a mere 5 percent of these found in protected areas.

Despite increasing global awareness, annual rates of primary-forest loss remain as high as 2 percent in some countries.

Importantly, our study found that half of the world's primary forests occur in five developed nations -- the USA, Canada, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand -- and the time is ripe for these nations to show leadership and promote the conservation of remaining primary forests as an urgent matter of global concern.

This is critically important in international negotiations -- such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- as all fail to distinguish primary forests from industrial production forests, degraded forests, or even plantations.

Now is the time to underscore the vital importance of vanishing primary forests and their crucial benefits for nature and human welfare.

 

When it comes to climate change, there are two USAs

Of all the world's industrial nations, the USA ranks lowest overall in terms of the percentage of citizens who think climate change is a serious problem.  But that simple statistic disguises a deeper reality: there actually are two Americas.

This one looks like a Democrat...

This one looks like a Democrat...

One USA might be called the Democratic America.  Among US Democrats, 65% think climate change is a major concern.  That's on par with Spain and a higher percentage than that in Germany, Canada, and the UK.

But the other USA--the Republican America--is far different.  Among US Republicans, just 25% think climate change is a serious worry.  That's well below the figure for China and only marginally better than Egypt and Pakistan.

So, Democrats behave more like those from other industrial nations, where climate change is perceived as a serious global problem.  Republicans, however, behave more like those from developing nations, where climate change is presumably seen as a lesser concern than economic development and day-to-day survival.

Keeping this distinction is mind is fairly important.  When it comes to attitudes and action on the environment, there are really two USAs.  The country certainly deserves censure at times, but we should focus our criticisms on the recalcitrant half.

 

Crisis underground: We're overharvesting water

Question: Since the year 1900, how many liters of water have been sucked from the world's underground aquifers

No water, no food... (photo by William Laurance)

No water, no food... (photo by William Laurance)

Answer: 4500 trillion.  That's 4500 cubic kilometers.  And we're currently draining away another 1000 cubic kilometers every year.

Why is this important?  Because in many parts of the world, agriculture and other human uses rely crucially on underground water supplies.

And in much of the world, we're exhausting those supplies.  This is becoming a crisis in many arid and semi-arid regions, where centuries of accumulated water are being quickly used up.

China, India, and the U.S. are the biggest over-consumers.  The worst-affected areas include the western U.S., Mexico, the northwestern Sahara, the Indus Basin, and the North China Plain.

What are the implications?  Among other things, higher food prices

As the human populace continues to climb, that will have an impact on us all. 

Water is a big concern today.  It'll be an even bigger worry tomorrow.