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Sleepwalking into danger

By Graham Harris - posted Thursday, 18 October 2007

All credit to the climate change lobbyists - hardly a day goes by these days without more reports of new scientific results, policy debates and announcements. But I am going to be provocative here and argue that this is just tackling the easy bit.

Easy bit!? Climate change!? I hear incredulous expostulations.

Well, despite all the problems, for climate change at least we have good evidence of anthropogenic impacts. There are incontrovertible data on the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last few thousand years and, furthermore, there are a number of possible technological fixes. We have predictive models based on a good understanding of atmospheric physics and a simple performance measure to track progress.


By focusing on energy use efficiency, demand management, the development of renewable technologies, hydrogen, and even nuclear and clean coal power stations, we can turn the situation around. We can employ cap and trade incentive schemes to encourage greater use efficiency and manage emissions. (The management of the ozone hole through the control of fluorocarbons under the Montreal protocol is a good example: good monitoring data, reasonably well understood mechanisms and a technological fix.)

Similarly, we hear a lot about water because of the current drought and rising temperatures. Again we are focusing on something which is relatively easy to quantify. We can buy and sell it. Like carbon dioxide, water is also something for which we can conceive technological solutions. We can increase water use efficiency and manage demand. We may have significant challenges to overcome but there is no fundamental reason why we cannot account for all the water we have in lakes and rivers, who uses it and where it goes.

But what if we faced a problem which is even more widespread and insidious, but for which we had much less data? What if the predictive tools that we had, like the data, were partial and flawed? What if we kept producing grandiose environmental policy goals that were impossible to achieve and programs that were doomed to failure? What if investment programs designed to fix the problem had misconceived goals and, anyway, produced very few demonstrable outcomes because we have no adequate performance measures? What if, in lieu of outcomes, we merely measured progress by money spent and anecdotal evidence? What if market based instruments were problematical?

Well, yes, we do face such a problem. It is the destruction of the fabric of the global biosphere caused by the impact of the growing human population. Around the world human impacts can be seen in the spread of agriculture and urban development on land and in resource exploitation, even in the deep ocean.

Exploitation of renewable resources - for example, fish, water, food and fibre - continues at unsustainable rates and attempts to solve the energy crisis by widespread planting of biofuels (corn, wheat and oil palms) will only drive further reductions in biodiversity and water quality. We are witnessing widespread deforestation, loss of native vegetation and biodiversity, increased soil erosion and reduced water quality, reduction in the numbers of large predators and loss of coral reefs and coastal ecosystems.

Ecosystem services that we depend on - clean air and water, even pollination by bees - are failing. The impact of our species on global ecosystems is, in fact, quite typical of the damage caused by overpopulation by a dominant herbivore or carnivore: us. The human species alone now uses about a third of all the global plant production.


So what do we do about it? All around the world we have expensive conservation and restoration programs but there is no evidence that we are gaining ground. Indeed there is ample evidence that we are losing: each year more species are listed on endangered species lists, ecosystem services are ever more degraded, more forest is lost, soil erosion rates continue to rise.

From State of the Environment reports there is no evidence of progress and the data is so bad that even focused investments in conservation activities cannot be proven to work. Our efforts at monitoring, evaluation, reporting (MER) and adaptive natural resource management are seriously flawed. If we tried to run the economy on the kinds of data we use to try to run the environment we would be in real strife! If we succeed in significantly wrecking the fabric of the planet and in reducing global biodiversity, all we know from the fossil record is that it will take about 10 million years of evolution to recover: and no recognisable human descendant will be around to witness that event.

It is time to admit how little we know and face the risks of planetary degradation - this goes way beyond climate change. Biodiversity isn’t just birds, primates and whales; it is planetary function and resilience. In fact, in a changing world, we should be finding ways to increase resilience not reducing it.

Under climate change and a growing population we face a crisis of food security and resource management. Instead of “muddling through” we need an urgent program to critically review our conceptual foundations, the data requirements for adequate monitoring, the methods for data analysis and evaluation, and the information needs of communities and institutions for adaptive management. We also should review our resource allocations and institutional responses. Maybe then we can promulgate national policies for natural resource management that are achievable.

Protecting the fabric of the planet is about biology; about biodiversity, society and economics, agriculture and urban development, patterns of land and resource use, culture and beliefs. No technological fixes are available for such irreducibly complex interactions.

Market mechanisms will not suffice - we cannot buy and sell aesthetic and cultural values. We can only manage what we can measure - so far we have stumbled like sleepwalking giants into a morass. The pathway out is far from clear unless we can monitor progress and manage adaptively. It is high time to address the really hard questions.

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First published in ScienceAlert on October 8, 2007.

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About the Author

Graham Harris is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.

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