Category Archives: Opinions

The Challenges Facing Community Ecology

Community ecology, as a relatively new discipline, is fraught with challenges. Here, we look at why an hour spent talking about those challenges may make you feel like the PhD student pictured above (Image Credit: Lau Svensson, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Anyone who has forayed any small distance into academia will probably understand the following quote by Aristotle.

“The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

According to Stewart Lee, participating in further education means embarking on a “quest to enlarge the global storehouse of all human understanding”. This might be true, yet venturing into academia also means that the more answers you learn to challenging scientific questions, the more questions get opened up. It’s the circle of academic life.

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The Why and How of Genetic Diversity

Whilst cichlid fish might look incredibly diverse, they are actually all relatively genetically similar. So how do we define genetic diversity, and how do we conserve it? (Image Credit: Emir Kaan Okutan, Pexels Licence, Image Cropped)

Biodiversity has become an immensely popular buzzword over the last few decades. Yet the concept of genetic diversity has been less present in everyday ecological conversations. So today I want to go through why genetic diversity is important, how we define it, and why there is often controversy about its application in conservation science. Read more

5 Stages of Grief and the Australian Wildfires

Image Credit: Bert Knottenbeld, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

In case you’ve been living under a rock (in which case, stay there, there’s probably less smoke), you’ll know by now that Australia has experienced wildfires over the last couple of months that dwarf what California and the Amazon went through last year.

The Australian bush fires have been widely covered in the media, but let’s do a quick summary of the stats^. Earlier this week, approximately 73,000 square kilometres – around the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined – have been burnt and over a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have likely been killed. Tragically, 24 people have died as of Monday, three of whom were volunteer firefighters.

So how has the nation – and the world – reacted? The spectrum has been vast, making analysing the reaction no easy task. So today I wanted to have a look at Australia’s (and in a sense the world’s) ongoing reaction to the Australian bushfires as per the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.

^Alternatively, check out this link for a more comprehensive overview.

1. Denial

Ok, this one’s obvious. Climate denial is omnipresent in our world, and although Australia’s current government doesn’t exactly deny the effects of climate change outright, they have massively downplayed the role that climate change has played in exacerbating the bushfires. Australia has experienced nine of its hottest 10 years since 2005, and December 18th last year saw a record daily average temperature of 40.9 degrees across the nation. Yes, climate, like any other aspect of the natural world, will have random spikes and troughs, but this goes well beyond that. You can read a pretty comprehensive timeline of our current government’s stance on climate change and bushfires below:

Morrison’s government on the bushfires: from attacking climate ‘lunatics’ to calling in the troops

We’ve had some incredible levels of denial lately though, with the fires being blamed on arsonists to the Australian Greens. Whilst arsonists have probably started a small proportion of the fires (in 2018/19 they started around 1.3% of the blazes), the accusation that the Greens contributed to the fires has been labelled ‘simply conspiracy stuff’ by fire experts and former commissioners alike.

2. Bargaining

In the context of the Kubler-Ross model, bargaining often refers to the need to regain control as a reaction to helplessness. In the case of the bushfires, the efforts of Australians to regain control and have some sort of impact on their fate make a very real difference. Volunteer firefighters have been using crowdsourcing to gain access to better equipment, as the states’ equipment hasn’t been good enough. Australians have been frantically donating anything they can, to the extent that many charities have begged people to stop donating material goods, since it’s taking them too long to sort through. And whilst this sort of response is beyond encouraging, as this anonymous NSW firefighter puts it, it shouldn’t be necessary:

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be up to the public to be providing funds and equipment for the state’s firefighting services. You wouldn’t expect nurses to start buying their own nitrile gloves or disinfectant if the hospital ran out and this is no different.

Constant pressure from the Australian public has recently led to the deployment of the Army Reserves and other army specialists to help affected areas. The public’s pleas for more assistance seem to be getting heard, but whether the response will be adequate we’re yet to see.

3. Anger

Far from being a progression from denial, the anger sweeping the nation has in this case been a rather natural response to it. Some of it has been misdirected (see the attacks on the Greens). Yet some of it is warranted. Images of Australia’s Prime Minister lounging in Hawaii while the nation burned can’t be forgiven easily, nor can the reluctance to deploy the military reserves until a week ago. The anger shown by locals affected by the fires has been searing, and there’s no better example than the below video, which shows Morrison feeling the wrath of a group of people he’s visited.

The anger hasn’t just been a product of the government’s immediate reaction to the fires, but to the long-term inaction on the part of Australian governments (again, see the article linked in ‘Denial’), especially seeing as scientists have warned that this would happen for years.

Luke Skinner, Secretary of the Climate Justice Union WA articulates how is organisation feels that Australians should channeling this frustration in the link below.

In the face of despair, grief, anxiety.. We bring action, planning and implementation.

4. Depression

It must be hard for the victims of a bushfire to not feel depressed. Australia has been wracked by drought, heatwaves, and now bushfires this summer, and its only early January, with the worst likely yet to come*. People can lose not only their homes in these blazes, but their livelihoods, and at worst, their loved ones.

Early last year the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Black Saturday Fires took place, in which entire families were lost, and I’d advise reading the retrospective below on some of the emotional impact they caused.

‘We can all recover’: bereaved families remember victims of Black Saturday

Whilst the number of people lost to the blazes is at this point much lower than in 2009, knowing that it could get worse must be draining the mental health of all those involved. That constant threat can lead to anxiety, depression, and general distress. Anyone suffering mental health issues can read more at Australian Psychological Society website (link below).

Australian bushfires 2020: Psychological preparation and recovery

5. Acceptance

Our concept of normal shifts all the time, so it’s important that we remind our kids that we did not grow up with bushfires of this intensity, and we should not accept that there’s nothing we can do about them. Species, habitat and community loss cannot be normalised. The government has already tried to sell events like these bushfires and mass coral bleaching as a regular part of living in Australia.

This is what really terrifies me. The possibility that people will soon accept this as normal.

We need to be not only helping out the victims of these fires, but focusing our energy on the cause of their increased intensity. To quote Professor Nancy Knowlton:

“Social scientists have known for a really long time that if you give people large problems, but don’t present them with ways of coping with them or addressing them then they tend to not care.”

We can’t fall into apathy here and accept that this is how life has to be. This is a Port Arthur moment for Australia’s climate, where we can step up and make immediate changes that will ensure our long-term safety. We used to be told that combatting climate change would ensure a better world for our children. But now it’s obvious that we should be acting for ourselves as well.

*Previous catastrophic bushfire events like Ash Wednesday I and II and Black Saturday all took place in mid February.

If you’d like to help out the affected parts of Australia, please consider donating to victims of the wildfires at either of the following links.

Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities

Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Extending Ecology – 10 Tips for Interdisciplinary Research

As in nature, its often beneficial for researchers with very different perspectives to bring their distinct backgrounds together (Image Credit: Rickard Zerpe, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Guest post by Rachel Kelly of the Centre for Marine Socioecology, Tasmania.

Collaboration with other disciplines and knowledges is central to ecology’s capacity to contribute to addressing sustainability challenges in our world today. Interdisciplinary research involves different disciplines working together to integrate their knowledges and methods to meet shared research goals and achieve a real synthesis of approaches. It connects previously disconnected ideas, concepts and resources, and can be a rewarding experience to share collective interest in learning and understanding new perspectives.

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Focus on Brexit at BES2019: Resigned But Resolute

Image Credit: Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

I’m in Belfast this week for the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting. Whilst I’ll write a more comprehensive summary of the event next week, for now I want to talk (again) about the looming fragmentation that Brexit represents, its impact upon British ecology, and the ecological community in general.

I took a tour of the city on my first day here which focussed on Belfast’s history of violence, and I don’t believe this conference could have had a darker backdrop with regards to Brexit. Fears of a no-deal exit from the EU are sparking worries of the return of a border wall with southern Ireland, which could lead to local redeployment of the British army. Public opinion is starting to sway towards reunification with southern Ireland.

But complex local politics aside, the feelings inside the conference halls seem mixed. From my short time here, there seems to be a glimmer of possibility at the opportunity that Brexit could present, but it’s overshadowed by a layer of resignation, perhaps brought on by polls that suggest the conservative government will sweep tomorrow’s election.

Career Prospects

“It makes me not want to come back. It’s sad and frustrating, because I’d rather be back in the UK, but I don’t think the opportunities will be as good.”

Lucy Kirkpatrick currently works in Belgium as a wildlife disease ecologist. She’s been overseas long enough at this point to qualify for Belgian residency, and with the UK seemingly determined on shutting themselves off from the rest of Europe, remaining in Europe seems the better option.

Lucy’s colleague Emily Simmonds feels much the same. She and her fiancee work jointly in Britain and Norway.

“We go back and forth a lot, which means Brexit will impact my personal life quite dramatically. Even though I’m a British citizen, if I keep working across two countries I won’t be able to get the benefits of British life, like free health care.”

They’re far from alone. The frustration with a government seemingly determined to isolate themselves from the European community among younger scientists here is palpable. Many of the projects that the attendees work on are pan-European, and it’s unclear what effect a hard Brexit will have on their funding, let alone their ability to effectively work with colleagues in other nations.

Yet in light of this frustration, there does seem to be a determined mindset to maintain international partnerships. Whilst there have been rumblings that forming projects with British partners would potentially be more tiresome going forward, the attitude here seems to be that people will ensure that collaborative science doesn’t fall by the wayside.

The Loss of Independent Oversight

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop mentioned this in our recent interview, and it’s a view that’s been echoed here. Brexit means that the European Court of Justice no longer has the right to punish Britain for environmental negligence or destruction, with that responsibility falling to Britain. A new Office of Environmental Protection has been proposed, but it essentially means that one branch of the government will have to fine another branch. As Abigail put it,

“That is a dangerous road to go down. Having independent oversight of how we manage our environmental resources is important for holding the government to account.”

More Bad News for Insects

One of the more enjoyable poster presentations here was by Amy Arnott, who works with insect communities in farmland in Northern Ireland. Many smaller farmers in the region are supported by subsidies from the EU, and without them are in danger of losing their land to larger corporations.

“If the subsidies don’t come through, we lose these small farms, which support massive amounts of insect biodiversity. The landscape gets homogenised and we lose that biodiversity. People always talk about how Ireland’s green, and that’s because we have so few forests, so these smaller farms are really important.”

As with many other instances, the current government has said that the subsidies will be replaced, but it’s unclear where the funding is coming from.

Northern Ireland's farms support a wide range of insect biodiversity, which could disappear if smaller farms are forced to sell as their subsidies disappear (Image Credit: Eric Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Northern Ireland’s farms support a wide range of insect biodiversity, which could disappear if smaller farms are forced to sell as their subsidies disappear (Image Credit: Eric Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Glimmer of Optimism

This is the thing that seems to be keeping people hopeful. That this could be a real opportunity for the UK to improve on the current environmental framework, and that they could end up doing more for their ecosystems than what the EU has laid out.

Unfortunately, that glimmer of optimism is tempered by the harsh reality that Boris Johnson’s conservatives seem likely to have their position of power solidified tomorrow. Environmental interests and conservative interests often don’t align, and the UK is no exception. The feeling if that while there could have been a valuable opportunity here, it won’t be taken.

And the rest…

There are other significant losses that Brexit could entail. The UK’s Natural History Museum receives a significant amount of funding from tourist dollars, and making travel to the UK more restricted could lower resources for one of the country’s key scientific institutions. The sending of biological samples between samples could become a lot more difficult. And as we’ve spoken about before, funding from European Research Grants would no longer be a possibility, which would remove access to around 3.4 billion euros in research money.

To echo that glimmer of optimism, I hope that when Brexit goes ahead, the UK maintains their vibrant community of ecologists, and creates an improved environmental framework. I guess we’ll have a better idea of how difficult that will be by Friday morning.

Ecotourism: What to Consider

Image Credit: Artem Beliaikin, CC0 1.0, Image Cropped

The concept of ecotourism has seen a massive surge in popularity over the last decade. It is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” In other words, when you’re participating in ecotourism, you should be enjoying some sort of ecological marvel, and learning something, ideally whilst not damaging local people or ecosystems. Yet this can be a lot more complicated than it sounds.

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What Being Functionally Extinct Means, Why Koalas Aren’t, and Why Things Are Still Pretty Dire

Image Credit: Swallowtail Grass Seeds, Public Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped

There has been a lot of recent (and well deserved) press surrounding the bush fires in Australia. Because of these fires countless animal and plant life has been lost, and the most visible example of that are the koalas. You probably saw the video of a woman running into a burning area to save a koala from the fire*. Unfortunately, most of the koalas didn’t have people around to save them and over 1,000 are estimated to have died. Because of this a group has claimed that koalas are now “functionally extinct”, and the press has run with this claim. While it is unfortunate that this misinformation spread so quickly and so widely, the good news is that koalas are in fact NOT functionally extinct. Great! But what does being “functionally extinct” mean? 

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