News from the Field, Press Release

To the future: An ecology of love, hope, and action

26 Dec. 2023
W Lawler/AWC

This essay was written by Australian Wildlife Conservancy Board Director, Professor John C. Z. Woinarski and was originally published in the journal Austral Ecology. It is republished here under Creative Commons. 

 

Living in a time of loss

This essay is personal and about emotion. My premise is that we need to feel, express and be guided by emotion far more in our lives, including in the way we do ecology and communicate our knowledge, because doing so makes a difference.

Ecology is a charmed science. It provides us with the capability, the acuity, to see beyond the simple veneer of a place or environment and instead perceive another dimension: the convoluted interplay of its components, the depth of its connections, its patterns and processes. To do ecology is exhilarating; it is transformative; it is about becoming something else, about shedding the skin and perspectives that clutter and distort our human-centric myopia; to do ecology is about pricking the delusion of being apart from and above nature. It is the wonder of seeing the world from the perspective of different species. It is about understanding the endless and enduring shifts of time and place, the infinitely variable patterning inherent in the natural world, in the world into which we must fit.

But to do ecology – and especially conservation biology – in this age is also devastating. Our science, our understanding, uniquely sharpen our perspectives, give us a cursed privilege of seeing the cracks, about watching them widen, about feeling grief at the casualties, about knowing that the future will likely be characterized by increasing loss.

Studying any Australian species or environment almost always leads to a crystallization, a deciphering, of the destabilizing manner in which we have contorted the ecology of this place. Purposefully, incompetently or haphazardly, we have rearranged the ecology of this land to suit our needs, and in doing so, have rubbed away much that was integral to the existence of many other species. We are corroding our nature and will pass on to our descendants a tarnished world.

This recognition of bearing witness to environmental loss is not new. H.H. Finlayson wrote of it nearly 100years ago: ‘The old Australia is passing. The environment which moulded the most remarkable fauna in the world is beset on all sides by influences which are reducing it to a medley of semi-artificial environments, in which the original plan is lost and the final outcome of which no man may predict’ (Finlayson, 1935). It is an existential failing in our responsibility for the nature of this country.

Across my lifetime, I have witnessed much loss of biodiversity. Recognizing such a loss; feeling despair about it, needing to try to prevent it is what motivates me. My first-hand experience with extinction began with the Christmas Island pipistrelle, Pipistrellus tenuis, made extinct in 2009. Deeply troubled by its loss, I wrote an obituary for it, a whodunit, an inquest into the management failings, and also an appreciation for those too few people who loved it and tried to save it (Woinarski, 2018). At around the same date, I knew the last individual Christmas Island forest skink, Emoia nativitatis, and marked the death of that individual and, with it, the species’ extinction (Woinarski et al., 2014).

Looking for clues, commonalities and lessons, we reviewed the extinc- tion of the three Australian vertebrates lost over the last 15 or so years (Woinarski et al., 2017). We found that these extinctions were predictable and preventable. Although this review found there were some shortcomings in knowledge, and hence more research may have helped prevent the extinctions, this was not the fundamental problem. We concluded instead that all were victims of too few people caring, of too little resourcing, and of policy and law that were too weak.

Lister’s gecko, Lepidodactylus listeri, another Christmas Island endemic, still survives. Since the loss of the last individual in the wild around 2010, its entire population now lives only in a set of cages and other small enclosures on Christmas Island and at Taronga Zoo. It was made extinct in the wild because inadequate biosecurity allowed for the introduction of the wolf snake Lycodon capucinus, and it cannot return to the wild because there is no known method to control wolf snakes. The fate of this species haunts me: what does it mean for the sole survivors of a species to live now only in small cages, with a plastic shrub substituting for their rainforest home?

Almost all indicators tell of the ongoing loss of biodiversity, both globally and in Australia. Notwithstanding increases in conservation efforts over time, the rate of Australian extinctions continues unabated (Woinarski et al., 2019) and is likely to increase. The number of threatened species continues to rise, and the populations of those threatened species mostly continue to decline (Bayraktarov et al., 2021). These trends are likely to show pulses of rapid worsening, associated with global tipping points and with episodes of severe events.

One such catastrophic event was the Australian Black Summer wildfires of 2019–2020. These caused detrimental impacts on at least 650 of Australia’s threatened species (Legge et al., 2023) and the extinction of at least one invertebrate species, the sadly uncharismatic Banksia montana mealybug Pseudococcus markharveyi (Moir, 2021). The entire known range of nearly 400 invertebrate species was burnt (Marsh et al., 2022). Subsequent post-fire sampling has corroborated severe population losses for many short-range endemic invertebrate species (Gibb et al., 2023).

Those Black Summer wildfires were notable for burning into environments that are largely intolerant of disturbance, of a long history with little or no fire. In many cases, these habitats have long been refuges for spe- cies representing ancient evolutionary lineages, the vestiges of a former age. Disproportionately, such fires are likely to winnow out some of the most distinctive components of our biota.

The Black Summer wildfires were also notable for their myriad off-site and indirect impacts, including to downstream freshwater and marine systems. Smoke from the fires caused algal blooms about 10000km away in the south Pacific Ocean, and led to decreases in sea surface temperature that then triggered the record flooding in eastern Australia over the following months (Fasullo et al., 2023). Ecological systems have complicated linkages, and impacts of any event may have distant and unexpected repercussions.

But it is not the catastrophic impacts of this single set of wildfires that are of most concern. Rather, it is the likelihood of their recurrence, the diminishingly short intervals between successive fires, with this rapid return subverting the possibility of recovery, thereby transforming and homogenizing environments into an altered, simpler disturbance-tolerant state with few of the distinctive characteristics of old growth vegetation, the habitat of a high proportion of Australian threatened species.

How do we value biodiversity? Public appeal and interest matters as the values we place on biodiversity influence what it is that we protect and conserve, and such choice (and its consequences) is accentuated in disasters such as bushfires. In the aftermath of the Black Summer wildfires, government inquiries reinforced a long-established convention of a hierarchy of protection that prioritizes saving people first, then infrastructure, and last biodiversity. This hierarchy pervades our dealings with any crisis; indeed, it is an implicit assumption of how we are governed. Such an ingrained hierarchy will inevitably lead to severe, compounding and unrecoverable losses of biodiversity (Woinarski et al. 2023b).

Subsequently, we have sought to test whether the policy and practice of saving people first, then property, and only thereafter biodiversity actually reflected public attitudes. To a random sample of >2000 Australians, we gave a menu of 11 possible items, including a single human life, infrastruc- ture, and a range of biodiversity items, within a scenario where only one could be saved in a bushfire emergency. The choices included options that would nominally lead to the extinction of a snail or shrub species. I find the results of this survey fascinating and disturbing. One welcome aspect of these results is that our society largely recognizes the replaceability of infrastructure and hence its dispensability, and as such, social values do not support the existing policy and practice of inevitably preferencing the protection of property ahead of biodiversity. But, less good, our survey respondents were overwhelmingly prepared to countenance extinction if the alternative was to save just one irresponsible human. Think about what that tells us about how our society really values biodiversity and what it means for its future.

Of course, these fires are part of the curse of climate change. Climate change will permeate Australian ecology, subvert much of our conservation efforts, and drive the loss of many components of our biodiversity. Climate change is leading to more devastating droughts, the decline of climate-determined ecosystems (such as alpine areas), the bleaching of coral reefs, mass fish kills, and more incidences of days of extreme heat. One acute example is the death of about one-third of the Australian population of the threatened spectacled flying-fox, Pteropus conspicillatus, over 2days of extreme heat in 2018. Another gradational example is the distributional retreat of montane rainforest bird species in the Australian wet tropics, with their average abundance decreasing by more than 40% since 2000 (de la Fuente et al., 2023).

All around us are signs of the loss of nature and of the rapidly increas- ing magnitude of that loss (Bergstrom et al., 2021). COVID-19 has made us recognize the frailty of our existence and the potential impacts of dis- ease. Comparably, we are seeing outbreaks of many novel diseases and pathogens that are causing catastrophic impacts on plant and animal species. The arrival of myrtle rust Puccinia psidii in Australia in 2010 imperilled many Australian plants, including foundational species, in many ecosys- tems (Fensham et al., 2020). In 2015, a previously unknown nidovirus killed almost the entire population of the Bellinger River snapping turtle, Myuchelys georgesi (Zhang et al., 2018). Since 2021, a virulent strain of avian influenza has killed more than 100 000 wild birds globally, wiping out entire colonies of breeding seabirds.

If that is not concerning enough, our world is not in safe hands; many of the world’s most powerful leaders are terrifying. And we can predict reliably that climate change will lead to an increasingly severe famine, many more refugees and conflict, and nature will be a loser in such a chaotic world. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres recently warned, ‘We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open’ (https://press.un.org/en/2023/sgsm21840.doc.htm).

How should and can we respond to such current and looming loss of nature? To despair is understandable. But it is not helpful.

 

Love and ecology

Here, I highlight the role of love in ecology and in what we do. Although we may seldom admit it explicitly, I suspect most of us study ecology because it provides a key to the wonder, the beauty and mystery of nature. Nature moves us, shapes us, welcomes us, rewards us and embraces us. We do ecology for love of nature, for love. And our voices are more powerful if we can convey that love. Although love is not a term widely used by ecologists or in ecological journals, the explicit and potent connection between conservation and love, between extinction and grief, is recognized as of existential importance in some recent, less fettered, humanities studies (Rose et al., 2017; Rose & Van Dooren, 2011); see, for example, Deborah Bird Rose’s Wild dog dreaming: love and extinction (Rose, 2011). Our training as ecologists renders us too dispassionate, too reductionist: we have become the over-regulated ‘clocks’ at the deterministic end of thinking, too far removed from the anarchic, unregulated ‘clouds’ of the other extreme in Popper’s dissection of the construct of science (Popper, 1965).

Also, it is one of the few universal virtues of humanity that we strive to give our children a better world. Such selfless love is the most potent and constructive driving force we have in shaping the future. What we do to try to conserve, repair and restore nature is motivated in part by recognizing that we have a responsibility to pass to future generations a world that is as beautiful, as diverse, as wonderful as the one we inherited; a commitment to intergenerational equity.

 

Cherishing hope

As well as love, I want also to focus on hope, as a counterweight to despair. It is a tremulous, fragile thing, sorely needed. There is hope for nature, for us, for our descendants. We need to nourish it and let it nourish us.

There is hope in the expansion of Indigenous protected areas and the increasing recognition and application of Indigenous ways of managing country, of the fit of people in this landscape, and for Indigenous connec- tions to and responsibility for country to be a model we should all respect.

There is hope in our communities and their increasing commitment and contribution to conservation, of the recognition that the world we live in matters and that our connections with nature are critical.

There is hope in increasing commitments at global, national and local levels to trying to prevent extinctions (CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity], 2022; Commonwealth of Australia, 2022).

There is hope that the rapid pace of technological development – such as e-DNA, gene drive, satellite tracking and acoustic monitoring – can bring us tools and capabilities to better learn the secret lives of species, to understand ecological systems and manage some threats that have so far proven intractable.

There is hope in havens, a network of islands and exclosures, in bringing back many Australian mammals threatened by cats and foxes as a pathway to recovery (Legge et al., 2018). Returning these animals back to the coun- try is also helping to restore important components of First Nations culture and helping to restore ecological functionality. There is hope for improve- ments in the status of other threatened species, where there is appropriate management capability and commitment (Woinarski, Garnett, et al., 2023).

Of course, there is hope also in watching some recovery in areas burnt in the Black Summer fires, and recognizing that there is some degree of resilience in all natural systems.

I also hope in such conservation wins as the recent government commitment to the cessation of logging in native forests in Victoria. And this is a good example, where the victory was won in part through evidence accrued through dedicated ecological research and by ecologists acting as advocates and helping to engender community support (Lindenmayer et al., 2016). We need to be bouyed and inspired by such success.

 

Taking responsibility

And this example (of the cessation of harvesting native forest) illustrates that our role as ecologists should be contextualized within a moral purpose and should extend beyond simply doing research. The poet Judith Wright recognized that ‘the real problem is not just that of achieving a whole new attitude of responsibility, but of seeing this as possible, or even desirable’ (Wright, 1968). We should accept that burden of responsibility. Hope and love are not enough. We need to advocate for the things we love. It comes down also to the age-old question: what it is to have a life well-lived? I think it is not riches and status, travel and possessions, but rather to love and be loved, to care for the world around you, and to try to make a difference. Our capability and training as ecologists – that is, understanding complex systems and the relationships among components – give us unique insight into the value of nature, the signs, consequences and causes of its decay, and what needs to be done to protect and restore the natural world. It al- lows us to foresee the future world and how readily it can be subverted.

My call for love, hope and advocacy may be unnerving for some ecologists; may bristle against our deeply ingrained training as objective, reductionist and dispassionate observers; and may be viewed balefully by editors who guard against any expression of feeling in their journals, any hint of doubt about scientific respectability. I accept that we need to be grounded in our science, and we must respect evidence. Knowledge gives us credibility, it makes us more powerful advocates. But we are living in a world besieged by increasing crisis; we need the courage to act: the time for us to act only as honest brokers (Pielke, 2007) has passed.

The talk on which this essay is based was to an audience of ecologists. But I recognize that we are few and our influence is limited. Happily, many non-scientists also care deeply about nature, and may often be more capable advocates: we must take opportunities to collaborate. Furthermore, we cannot fight everything; we must be strategic and influential. We need to help drive the transformative changes that must be made to secure the future of the natural world. We all need to take more responsibility for the care of nature, for otherwise much that we love will be lost; and the fate of Lister’s gecko, alive only in cages, may foretell the future of nature.

 

Acknowledgements

I thank Libby Rumpff, Alan Andersen, and Perpetua Turner for their helpful comments, and Alan Andersen for inviting the talk on which this essay is based. No funding was provided for this. Open access publishing facilitated by Charles Darwin University, as part of the Wiley – Charles Darwin Univer- sity agreement via the Council of Australian University Librarians.

 

References

View references cited in the online version of this essay in Austral Ecology, available here:
Woinarski, J Z (2023) To the future: An ecology of love, hope, and action. Austral Ecology 48: 1705–1712.

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