Monthly Archives: August 2014

Identifying the Most Critical Problems in Environmental Science

A common perception of government policy makers is that ecologists fritter around doing interesting tidbits that produce nice 7 second sound-bites for radio or TV, but they never address the most serious environmental problems that the government faces in environmental science. So the question we need to address for any developed nation is this – what are the most critical environmental problems that ecologists could help to address? Since most critical environmental problems are long-term, one constraint would be that goals have to be achieved in the short term so that people could see progress. There would be funding constraints but let us assume that if we hit the right buttons, funding would be plentiful (think military).

There is no question that not all countries would have the same detailed list of critical environmental problems. But there ought to be communalities so we ought to cast a wide, general net to define problems. Start with some clear ecological principles: there is only one Earth and we ought to take care of it with a time frame that follows the First Nations principle of ‘seven generations’, about 300 years, as our time horizon. We know the solution to some environmental problems but new ones are continually a challenge. We need in every country the equivalent of an Environmental Army monitoring environmental problems.

1. Food security. All populations need food yet modern agriculture violates many simple ecological rules. Is the system sustainable in the long term? Probably not so the first major problem is how might we move modern agriculture toward sustainability. Subheadings here abound – pest control and alternatives to poisons, biological control of insect pests, cultural pest control, soil fertility decline, quarantine control, the list goes on. Implicit in all this is a regulatory framework that prevents the introduction of new miracle agricultural practices without adequate ecological background checks. The neonicotinoids-and-bees problem immediately comes to mind. We must get away from the attitude of ‘do it now’ and ‘clean up the mess later’ when we find problems.

2. Pollution effects. This is the hard one because it is climate change in the long term which must be emphasized. But in the shorter term detailed measurements of air quality and harmful effects of smoke and diesel fumes among other things on human and animal health could give an immediacy to such a detailed research program. The same principle applies here – do not put something new out in the environment and ask questions later. Fracking for natural gas and oil comes to mind, as well as the whole recycling system. Electricity generation is a key driver and mining for carbon-based energy ought to be eliminated gradually.

3. Conservation. Could our country be the first on Earth to have a complete inventory of species in all the taxonomic groups? It is a scandal that we do not have a list of life on Earth, and we need to get this message across with clever advertising. Taxonomists ought to be more important than bankers and be paid accordingly. Again many subheadings here – endangered species problems, pest management interactions with agriculture, disease ecology (always a hot button), monitoring, monitoring interacting with citizen science where possible.

4. The Oceans. We ought to be responsible for the health of at least our near-shore ecosystems, and monitoring protocols should be established so that we have ecosystem health scores presented as frequently as stock market reports. As global citizens we should be contributing to studying global problems of the high seas, the Antarctic Continent, and acting together with other nations to solve global issues.

The advantage of all these 4 topics with respect to convincing a politician to fund them is that they are interdisciplinary and consequently can be addressed only by carefully selected teams of ecologists, physicians, molecular biologists, geologists, chemists, and social scientists. A call for research proposals in these areas would soon build teams of scientists to address the major issues of our time. Money can help glue together scientific teams.

All of this will cost a lot of money and our current political philosophy seems to be that environmental costs are the lowest priority, and taxes for protecting the environment should be as near zero as possible. This must change soon lest the Earth become a garbage can unfit for human habitation.

Dicks, L. et al. (2013). What do we need to know to enhance the environmental sustainability of agricultural production? A prioritisation of knowledge needs for the UK food system. Sustainability 5, 3095-3115.

Sutherland, W.J.,et al. (2010) The identification of priority policy options for UK nature conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 47(5): 955-965.

Are We Destroying the Planet?

My question for everyone to ask themselves today is this: are we humans destroying Planet Earth? This is perhaps a strange question to ask and one would expect most people to say, ‘no, of course not’. So perhaps we should put a constraint on this question that this pertains to the next 100-200 years. So it is not an immediate question, something that will happen in the coming six months, but a long-term question about what will happen in the next centuries.

So the immediate response is, ‘how could we be destroying the whole of planet Earth?’ The answer might be to look at the newspaper this week, and ask yourself what will possibly happen when we run out of resources. Like food and water. As a simple paradigm of our problems we might use the sewage disposal problem of Victoria, BC. Victoria for years has simply dumped its untreated sewage out into the ocean in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The ocean, as we seem to believe, is a very large garbage dump. But might we think that a useful assumption of a civilized society is that you should not dump your garbage across the fence into your neighbour’s back yard? So then we say, we need to spend the money to construct a proper treatment plant. But the Victoria-area municipalities cannot even agree on a location for the sewage plant, and there are loud protests that we cannot possibly afford a modern treatment plant. What can we say about humans who think it is acceptable to dump their garbage over the fence into the ocean? One interpretation is that they have made the correct decision, and this will not affect them during their lifetime since it has been going on now for more than 100 years, so carry on. Yet this is a perfect mimic of the problems of the world today.

Climate change is all about what we dump into the atmosphere, in particular greenhouse gases and perhaps most obviously CO2. But we take no responsibility for this because it will not affect us in our lifetime and surely some clever engineer will solve this problem in the next century. Preferably at no cost to the taxpayers.

So yes, you might argue that we are indeed destroying the planet. But since Victoria, BC, and indeed all of Canada are only a small part of the global problem because of a low population base, why should we have to do anything? Well, many people think we should be doing something, but yet the majority continue to elect politicians who ignore the three major problems of the world today – climate change, population growth, and food security or at best say they will do something about it by 2020 or 2050. Most of the political parties of the developed world today subscribe to three propositions – growth is good and more growth is better, climate change is a minor problem, and implicitly we do not care one bit about what kind of a world we leave to our children and grandchildren. Spend now, they can pay later.

Now you will be hard pressed to find any business person or politician of any stripe saying any of these things, and all will protest loudly that they are doing all the right things. In their minds the main problems of our day are that taxes are too high and must be reduced, and that the 1% must be let free to improve the world as they choose.

None of this of course is ecological science or even sustainability science. The argument rests on only one simple principle – that the environment is not a garbage can. And what we do now impinges on what kind of Earth we wish to leave to the coming generations. So it might help to ask your favourite politician if he or she thinks we are destroying the Earth, and if not, why they do not read the newspapers. And why they do nothing about the major problems of our day?

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. (2013). Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, 20122845. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2845.

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. (2013). Future collapse: how optimistic should we be? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, 20131373. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1373.

Kelly, Michael J. (2013). Why a collapse of global civilization will be avoided: a comment on Ehrlich & Ehrlich. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1193.