Category Archives: Conservation

Saving the Great Barrier Reef: is it in our own self interest?

The GBT seen from space (source: NASA)

The GBR seen from space (source: NASA)

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the true wonders of the planet, however thanks to climate change and development it is as risk.

The United Nations has let the Australian Federal and Queensland State government know that they plan to list it as an endangered world heritage site:

The United Nations has put the Queensland and federal governments on notice that the Great Barrier Reef could be added to a list of endangered world heritage sites. 

In a draft decision released Friday night, expected to be adopted when UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meets in Cambodia next month, it will be recommended the Great Barrier Reef be included in the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2014 ‘‘in the absence of a firm and demonstrable commitment’’ from the state and federal governments to take action…

Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said it was worrying that Australia was on the brink of joining the ‘‘list of shame’’ as a country that could not manage its world heritage sites.

‘‘Australia would be the only developed country in the world to have a world heritage site on endangered list. It would be a huge international embarrassment and it would be a big blow to our tourism industry,’’ she said.

‘‘We’ve got 54,000 people who rely on a healthy reef and a thriving tourism industry and those jobs would be at risk if international tourists think, ‘Oh, the reef’s on the endangered list, gee it must be completely trashed, we won’t bother coming to visit’.‘‘It would be a massive blow to the tourism industry, which is about $5 billion a year in revenue and that’s revenue we could have for years to come – it’s not just a one-off mining boom.’’

I’ve only visited the reef once but count it as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is a place of extraordinary beauty. It also provides many Australians with a livelihood, supporting a $5 billion a year industry.

But is that only way we should we value the reef? Should we consider its own intrinsic value – and those of the myriad of species that live among it – or do we value it in purely economic terms and the aesthetic value it provides to us?

Do we simply sweep aside any concerns about environmental degradation and species loss and place the interests of humanity – and the economy – first?

Should we save the Great Barrier Reef?

The interests of humanity, other species and ecosystems  are not mutually exclusive: there is a relatedness between all species and environments. This includes not only natural environments, but urban ones as well.

Humanity is not separate to nature: our civilisation has become a geologic force of nature by ushering in the Anthropocene.  No part of the planet has escaped the impact of our footfall.

So, let us think of the planet as a continuum of environments: from the great cities of the world to the frozen wilds of Antarctica. At risk environments such as the GBR demand our attention because they are at risk: they are fragile, and the loss of the reef would impact both species and the people whose livelihood depend upon it.

Thus – put crudely – in protecting the GBR the interests of humanity, the reef and the many species it hosts converge.

In preserving the reef we save a place of extraordinary natural beauty, maintain a $5 billion a year industry and – just as importantly – help sustain an ecosystem that supports countless species.

The continuum of urban, natural and at risk environments: managing the planet

[Warning: speculation ahead!]

Now extend this kind of thinking to the continuum of both urban and natural environments. Every part of the planet is inter-related: from the atmosphere, to the oceans, farmlands, cities, the suburbs and remaining wild spaces.

The Earth is now a system of both anthropogenic and natural systems – each impacting the other. The system we call the economy is embedded within and impacts systems such as the carbon cycle. A warming planet will impact our economic system in the form of increased weather extremes and the destruction of property. Likewise there will be increased economic opportunities driven by a warming planet – investment in alternative energy and the redistribution of agricultural production to more benign parts of the globe.

This kind of systems approach does not distinguish between natural and man-made systems – such distinctions are now meaningless.

What defines humanity: our intelligence as a species or our impact on the planet? 

Planetary boundaries: how we impact the planet

We presently view the Anthropocene as a tragedy: the sixth great extinction and a period of immanent environmental collapse.

At the same time we are continually urged to “save the planet”, however I don’t see it that way: calls to save abstract notions as “the environment” fall in deaf ears. And for good reason.

I take an exception to those environmentalists who believe we can return the world to a pristine state: there is no going back to some romanticized pre-civilisational Eden. There are billions who still live in poverty who need to be lifted from the conditions that prevent their flourishing. We cannot overlook the need to redress such inequality.

And yet, to return to my original point, the interests of humanity and other species converge.

Climate sceptics deny we’re having such an impact on the planet. And yet many environmentalists deny the end of nature. Ironically both sceptics and environmentalists deny the role our species has to play in actively managing the planet.

Our environmental policies, governance arrangements and crucially how we view ourselves need to change: what defines us as a species is not our intelligence, societal structure, economic system or even the constitution of our genes.

What defines humanity is the act of geoengineering. 

So its good-bye homo sapiens and hello homo ingeniare. 

I say this somewhat facetiously – but to make a point. How we see ourselves and the world matters.

For thousands of years we have been accidental geoengineers: at this point in history the future of our species and all others depends on us accepting the role of self conscious planetary engineers.  

After all, it is in our own self-interest.

Sunday morning musings

….hopefully the above makes some sense. Treat this post as my Sunday morning musings over coffee.

My thinking has been shaped by environmental philosopher Bryan Norton and his “convergence hypothesis” outlined in his 1991 book Towards unity among environmentalists. I’m also interested in the writings of Anthony Weston who has written on environmental pragmatism. Also consider Eaarth by Bill McKibbon; The God Species by Mark Lynas; The New Nature by Tim Low; Here on Earth by Tim Flannery; Earth Masters by Clive Hamilton; and Al Gore’s The Future. In addition concepts such as planetary boundaries.

There is a great deal of literature on this subject, and I appreciate I’m not doing it justice – or my own thoughts.

Being somewhat overwhelmed at work I have little time to write – thus the sparsity of posts. So feel free to agree, argue or pass over these musings.

Cheers

Mike @ WtD

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