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Third book review of Klaus Rohde ed., The Balance of Nature and Human Impact, Cambridge University Press 2013.

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

The third review of the book edited by me has just been published in Conservation Biology 182, 281-283 (February 2015)
Reviewer is Brian Drayton, TERC Cambridge, MA, USA.

For earlier reviews see here:
http://blog.une.edu.au/klausrohde/2013/11/10/review-of-klaus-rohde-ed-the-balance-of-nature-and-human-impact-cambridge-university-press-2013/

http://blog.une.edu.au/klausrohde/2013/12/17/2nd-book-review-of-klaus-rohde-ed-the-balance-of-nature-and-human-impact-cambridge-university-press-2013/

This latest review covers two books:

Green Equilibrium: The Vital Balance of Humans and Nature, Christopher Wills. Oxford University Press (2013). xxviii+280 pp.,
and The Balance of Nature and Human Impact, Klaus Rohde (Ed.) Cambridge University Press (2013). xvi+413 pp.

Excerpts dealing with the book edited by me follow:

“These two books make good companions, and it is instructive to read them side by side. In doing so, the reader can reflect upon a central challenge to conservation science, and to the societies within which it carries out its business.”

……………..

“Klaus Rohde’s fascinating edited volume The Balance of Nature and Human Impact offers a snapshot of current research, exploring
evidence for or against equilibrium processes from an array of systems, interspersed with reviews of literature on selected topics. A brief gallop through the table of contents can only suggest its wealth of provocative entries.
Part I: ‘‘Nonequilibrium and equilibrium in populations and metapopulations’’ examines reef fishes ……..
ectoparasites on terrestrial hosts …….. and marine parasites. Part II: “Nonequilibrium and equilibrium in communities’’ examines plankton communities ……, community stability in relation to fire ……., marine and freshwater ectoparasite communities ….. and small mammal ectoparasites …. , and bird populations and communities. Part III addresses ‘‘Nonequilibrium and equilibrium on geographical scales’’ in the context of island flora and fauna …… and arctic vascular plant diversity and spatial variation ……… Part IV: ‘‘Latitudinal gradients’’ focuses on diversity gradients…..reviews the literature providing evidence for and against equilibrium and nonequilibrium explanations,” and ‘‘effective evolutionary time.’’
Part V: ‘‘Effects due to invasive species, habitat loss and climate change’’ is by far the largest section. …….. the section marks a transition, as all the rest of the book looks at ‘‘biocomplex’’ (coupled humannonhuman)systems—where the nonhuman component may include insects … coral reefs ….. , emerging infectious diseases ……., human impacts on biodiversity …… , amphibians …….. , and reptiles ……. Part VI: ‘‘Autecological studies’’ comprises two articles: ‘‘Autecology and the balance of nature—ecological laws and human-induced invasions’’ …… and ‘‘The intricacy of structural and ecological adaptations: micromorphology and ecology of some Aspidogastrea’’.
Part VII: ‘‘An overall view’’ sets much of the foregoing into a larger theoretical and practical context, coming back to the
challenges faced by conservation biology in a world in at least one kind of chronic disequilibrium: anthropogenic climate change. Rohde discusses interspecific competition as a regulator of communities, and the status of evolutionarily stable strategies. Finally, Rohde and co-authors discuss ‘‘How to conserve biodiversity in a nonequilibrium world.’’ Here we come to the crux of the matter. As Wallington et al. (2005) argue, much conservation strategy betrays an underlying ‘‘balance’’ orientation, which often takes the form of creating reserves and assuming that they will ‘‘do the job’’(not a safe assumption, see e.g. Drayton and Primack, 1996); or of reintroducing species or otherwise restoring a system, and then assuming that short-term success will last (also not a safe assumption, see e.g. Godefroid et al., 2011). Rohde et al. argue cogently that in the world we now inhabit, equilibrium assumptions will result in deep design weaknesses in many conservation strategies, and the kind of reflective research represented by this volume as a whole must result in substantial innovation.”

……………

“Both books under review make the case ……. that the unexamined assumption of ‘‘balance’’ has contributed to many of our current ecological crises, and inhibits proper responses to them. In some cases, a naive reading of ‘‘balance’’ contributes to the assumption that in time, any disturbance caused by human activities will be remedied by Nature as it comes back into balance. In other cases, the ‘‘balance of nature’’ is reified without sufficient understanding of ecological systems and their dynamics, so that intended remedies result in further, different disturbance or even system transformation. Our challenge as scientist-communicators is to convey a much richer, but perhaps just as satisfying, understanding of the way things work, and the implications of that understanding for what conservation must become. As Donald Worster (1994) wrote in his seminal treatment: ‘‘It is a pattern of behavior based on the idea that preserving a diversity of change ought to stand high in our system of values, that promoting the coexistence of many beings and many kinds of change is a rational thing to do. . . .Such a strategy of trying to conserve a diversity of changes may seem paradoxical, but it is founded on a crucial and reasonable insight. We may have to live with change, may even be the products of change, but we do not always know—indeed, we cannot always know—which changes are vital and which are deadly.’’

Australian universities: cracks open up in the ivory towers. Neoliberal economics at its ugliest

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

A number of years ago I was sitting in the breakfast room of a hotel in Münster/Westphalia next to a German professor, we were talking about the university system in Germany. He dropped some remarks about universities in Australia: “yes, and in Australia degrees are for sale, at least that is what I was told by an Australian colleague.” I was sceptical about that remark, because during my active days at an Australian university I did not encounter cases of degrees for cash. But the situation has changed. Governments have cut funding for universities, funding is based on student numbers, and a large proportion of universities’ funding is supplied by fee-paying foreign students. Foreign students represent one of the largest sources of income for the Australian government. Students expect something (a degree, not necessarily quality) for their money, and so standards have continually been watered down, even at the most prestigious universities. Students have even employed agencies to have their essays written for them and employed people to sit in for them at examinations. And these are not exceptions, such cases are widespread. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22.4.2015 gives a brief and concise overview of what is happening. See here:

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/gaping-cracks-open-up-in-the-ivory-towers-20150421-1mq4do.html

Extracts:
” Fifty per cent of all work submitted now is plagiarised, according to one source – a huge increase on what was happening only five years ago. Students who can barely speak English are initially failed, and then, when their work is re-marked, are given a pass, allowed to register as professionals, and enter the workforce.”
Lecturers “know which students are cheating, and which are plagiarising the work of others; they know whose English is too poor to pass, and who lacks the knowledge or intelligence to graduate. It is when they attempt to act on what they know in an intellectually honest manner, however, that they find obstructions in their way.”
“Decades of government policies in higher education which have destroyed the traditional university as an independent community of scholars and turned it into a degree factory serving the ephemeral interests of the economy are the real cause.”
“The expectation that all courses in all faculties must have some vocational end in view; the destruction of student life with the end of compulsory unionism; the insistence that all research must have immediate practical application – these different trends, all of them market-based, all of them philistine, have all transformed our universities for the worse.”

The government has plans to make the situation even worse by deregulating university fees, i.e. allowing universities to set their own fees in order to get their hands on more cash. These plans have so far been blocked by the Senate, but the government has not given up. Neoliberal economics at its ugliest!

Don’t support science but obscurantism!

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

If you don’t know the meaning of obscurantism, here it is (from the source of all wisdom, Wikipedia): “Obscurantism (/ɵbˈskjʊərəntɪsm/) is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known.”

This is what the Australian government is doing, in this case represented by the Minister of Education Christopher Pyne. See here:

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/call-for-pynes-resignation-over-4-million-funding-to-climate-contrarian-20150417-1mnp51.html

It cut many millions of Dollars in funding from the budget of CSIRO, the foremost research organisation in Australia which has done much work on the science of climate change, and many other science projects, but is quite happy to invest four million in a centre to be located at the Business School of the University of Western Australia and devoted to misleading the public (officially “The new centre will focus on applying an economic lens to proposals to achieve good for Australia, the region and the world,” said a statement from UWA).

An extract from the article:
“The government would cover roughly a third of the cost for an Australian iteration of Dr Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre at the University of Western Australia (UWA), confirmed Mr Pyne’s office following an investigation by The Guardian Australia.

The news comes on the heels of the Danish economist’s move to the UWA’s school of business and his appointed as Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s advisors on foreign aid.

Labor and environmental activists heavily criticised the appointment, questioning why someone who played down the effects of global warming should be advising on policy concerning developing countries in the Pacific that were exceptionally vulnerable to climate change.”

Dr.Lomborg is not an environmental, but a political scientist and is highly sceptical of the importance of climate change. He has lectured on statistics and the new centre at UWA is in the business and not the science school. He does not deny that climate change is real and human-induced, but thinks it is “not the end of the world”. Climate scientists do not claim that climate change is necessarily “the end of the world”, but Dr.Lomborg’s views differ sharply from those of the vast majority of climate scientists who take the risks much more seriously and want to do something about it. The establishment of the Consensus Centre and the appointment of Dr.Lomborg can only mean that the Liberal-National Government will continue its politics based on the denial of the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change, and shown by the reduction in the clean energy target, the abolishment of the carbon tax, etc.

More about the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the Danish equivalent of the Australan version and run by Dr.Lomborg, and the donors supporting it here:
http://desmogblog.com/2014/06/25/millions-behind-bjorn-lomborg-copenhagen-consensus-center

Australia’s climate change policy all talk and no action

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

See here:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/10/australias-climate-change-debate-all-talk-and-no-action

Extracts:
“The government is refusing to accept a political compromise on the renewable energy target (backed by Labor, the renewables industry and big business) because it thinks the industry won’t be able to reach the target, but the only reason industry wouldn’t reach the target is the absence of a political compromise.”

The government will set a post-2020 emissions reduction target without a policy to get there.

“The government is not including climate change in long-term planning exercises that really should be planning for climate change.”

And not to forget: even the term “climate change” appears to be taboo in government papers. It has been replaced by a term which puts much less urgency on the problem: “climate variability”. All in line with the views of Tony Abbott and some of his ministers, who do not take climate change seriously (in Abbott’s word: “crap”).

Who believes in evolution? Who believes in human-induced climate change?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

What do leading figures of the political Right, i.e. the Republicans in the U.S. and the Liberals in Australia, think about important scientific theories? Here are some answers.

EVOLUTION, views of possible Republican candidates for President of the U.S. (a quote from The New Yorker, February 19, 2015: The Evolution Catechism, by Adam Gopnik):

“none of the likely Republican candidates for 2016 seem to be convinced. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said it should not be taught in schools. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is an outright skeptic. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will not talk about it. When asked, in 2001, what he thought of the theory, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said, ‘None of your business.’ ”

http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/evolution-catechism

HUMAN-INDUCED CLIMATE CHANGE, views of the then opposition leader and now Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, and the then leader of the Liberals in the Australian Parliament, Nick Minchin (a quote from Klaus Rohde: The Balance of Nature and Human Impact, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013, page 403):
“According to Malcolm Turnbull, a prominent Liberal, the leader of the Australian Liberal party……., Tony Abbott, has publicly declared that man-induced climate change is “crap” (ABC, 2009). Also according to Turnbull, Nick Minchin, the former leader of the Liberals in the Senate, has declared that all the fuss about global warming is nothing but a left-wing conspiracy (ABC, 2009). Lefties who lost their cherished Communist cause now need a new one, and they found it: global warming”.

Compassion and cooperation, not selfishness is at the basis of human evolution, unfortunately missing in neoliberal economics as often practised

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Lynn Margulis proposed a long time ago that cooperation is at the root of evolution even at the cellular level. That is, evolution is more than a selfish struggle between entities (the survival of the fittest). Indeed, cells of which we are composed, consist of components that were originally separate organisms but found it advantageous to live together supporting each other (in symbiosis). Her idea has been supported by much empirical evidence. Other authors have found evidence for the same principle at the levels of individuals and groups of individuals. Now P. A. Spikins and collaborators have found evidence that compassion with other individuals, cooperation between them, has evolved very early in human evolution, indeed – according to her – a sense of aesthetics and cooperation evolved before higher (human) intelligence and selfish behaviour had evolved. Neanderthal men which lived many thousands, and Australopithecines which lived millions of years ago and are our direct ancestors, apparently (indicated by fossil evidence) showed acts of kindness and cooperation.

See here for evidence:

https://www.york.ac.uk/media/archaeology/documents/staff/staffpersonalfiles/Compassion7.pdf

A summary of the research is given in a recent book:

http://www.amazon.com/How-Compassion-Made-Human-Archaeology/dp/1781593108

One should ask: what is the basis of the widespread assumption in neoliberal economics that if we all live and work with our selfish interest foremost in our minds, an “invisible hand” will lead to the best for everybody? The idea that selfishness is our main characteristic is simply foolish and contradicts evolutionary evidence. We are primarily social beings and our survival depends on compassion and cooperation with others.

Climate change sets stage for droughts of unprecedented proportions

Friday, February 13th, 2015

An article in Science Advances published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (link below) predicts that large parts of the United States will this century experience droughts much stronger than previously predicted, unprecedented in American history during the last millenium.

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400082

“Abstract

In the Southwest and Central Plains of Western North America, climate change is expected to increase drought severity in the coming decades. These regions nevertheless experienced extended Medieval-era droughts that were more persistent than any historical event, providing crucial targets in the paleoclimate record for benchmarking the severity of future drought risks. We use an empirical drought reconstruction and three soil moisture metrics from 17 state-of-the-art general circulation models to show that these models project significantly drier conditions in the later half of the 21st century compared to the 20th century and earlier paleoclimatic intervals. This desiccation is consistent across most of the models and moisture balance variables, indicating a coherent and robust drying response to warming despite the diversity of models and metrics analyzed. Notably, future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE) in both moderate (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) future emissions scenarios, leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium.”

For a brief summary see also here:

http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/02/12/climate-change-sets-stage-droughts-unprecedented-proportions

A quote from the latter: “The coming drought age—caused by higher temperatures under climate change—will make it nearly impossible to carry on with current life-as-normal conditions across a vast swath of the country,….”

Similar studies have not been made for Australia, but – considering the generally drier and more extreme conditions in Australia than the US – it seems likely that effects of climate change on drought conditions here will be at least as severe.

The State of the Earth and the Reaction of France and the Western World to Terrorist Attacks

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (about 2.2million cu.km, 10% of the total ice mass of Antarctica) has begun to collapse and may already have passed the point of no return. If all the ice in it will melt, sea levels will rise by about 4.6 m, and this may happen within the next few hundred years if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, flooding large coastal areas, coastal cities and even some cities far inland, such as Washington D.C. For details see here:

http://time.com/96173/antarctic-glacier-loss-is-unstoppable-study-says/

Overfishing, effects of climate change such as acidification, pollution particularly by plastics, etc., threaten the health of our oceans. Effects will be on the world’s food supply, air quality, climate stability, etc. The Global Oceans Commission has outlined a “rescue package” including a limit to gas and oil exploration, capping subsidies for commercial fishing, and creating MPAs, marine protected areas. For details see here:

http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2014/06/24-2

What is largely responsible for all the mess? Our present economic system, in other words neoliberal capitalism with its overexploitation and little consideration of environmental impacts. See here:

“That Was Easy: In Just 60 Years, Neoliberal Capitalism Has Nearly Broken Planet Earth”

http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/01/16/was-easy-just-60-years-neoliberal-capitalism-has-nearly-broken-planet-earth

However, why worry about all this, humans apparently cannot wait and are trying to speed things up even more.

Consider the recent attacks by some Muslim fanatics on the French satirical magazine Charlie and the reaction of Western governments to it. It seems that the proper reaction of the French government would have been to play things down and not up. But it did exactly the opposite, it played things up thus demonstrating “strength” to the electorate (President Hollande’s ratings went up by about 15%!!) and demonstrated to potential terrorists how to successfully challenge the west. It seems that the reaction was exactly what the terrorists wanted. Things were made even worse by millions of copies of the magazine with a cartoon of Mohammed on the front page distributed in various languages, causing uproar among muslims in many if not all countries (see attacks in Niger, planned attacks in Belgium, and the reaction of governments of various Muslim countries). Even the Pope, in strong terms, objected to the obvious insults against the Prophet and indeed any religion. – We are seeing, it seems to me, an ever increasing disregard for the rights of others, of the future of mankind, all in the name of short-term gains for the few who own the riches, and the political class which is trying to hold on to power whatever the long-term costs.

Hundreds of Professors of Stanford University sign an open letter urging the University to fully divest fossil fuels

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

About 300 professors of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, including two Noble prize winners (physics and chemistry) and a winner of the Field medal (mathematics) signed an open letter to the President and Board of their University urging them to fully divest fossil fuels. “The letter notes that in order to stay beneath the scientifically designated 2-degree warming threshold, beyond which we face cataclysmic climate disruption, scientific consensus says we must cap fossil fuel emissions at 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Current fossil fuel companies claim holdings sufficient to produce 2795 gigatons.” Similar letters were earlier signed by 226 members of Harvard University, and members of the University of California, Berkeley.

http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/01/12/something-momentous-happening-hundreds-stanford-professors-call-full-fossil-fuel

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/interactive/2015/jan/11/stanford-fossil-fuel-divestment-letterHundreds of professors of Stanford University sign letter to urge

The end of the university?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

This is what Terry Eagleton, the noted Catholic-Marxist literary critic, has to say about the university today in an interview in Times Higher Education http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/interview-terry-eagleton/2017733.fullarticle

“What I would say about the university today,” he says, “is that we’re living through an absolutely historic moment – namely the effective end of universities as centres of humane critique, an almost complete capitulation to the philistine and sometimes barbaric values of neo-capitalism.”

He sums it up in a nutshell!